The program started with Take Your Kid to Work Day. We were pioneers in the field of crime scene investigation. Everything went smoothly as long as the kids didn’t touch anything. They’ve got eyes like owls in these places. Or, more like scared little prey, since the “adventure” of the whole thing has their senses heightened. Most of them treat it like a game of search-and-find—circle what doesn’t belong in this picture. I spy, with my little eye, a murder weapon.
In the beginning, we only involved teenagers. Under the same guidelines as the movie industry rating system, anyone thirteen and up could enter the premises with their guardian’s permission. Of course we ran it by the precinct attorneys, and they drew up the forms. We publicized it as a vocational course, a prerequisite for the criminal justice program down at the community college. With that endorsement, it took off. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that zombie killing video games are wildly popular these days. Some of the youngsters look at it like they’re doing their part to keep crime off the streets. Others are fascinated with death and bodies, the blood and gore. A few are too fascinated. We thin those kids out. Let them play their shoot-em-up games while the mentally stable kids help us solve murders.
At some point, though, we realized using younger kids made sense. Their ability to spot something that we professionals missed is incredible. We have a stricter set of regulations for the under-thirteens, the first of which is no visible bodies. Of course, we discovered that an opaque body sheet does the trick. To me, I’m okay with them seeing everything but the face. But the rules dictate that the victim must be concealed to the point that all anatomical features are rendered unidentifiable. If a hand just happens to peek out from under the sheet, well, that’s something we can’t control. Amazing, the fibers and specks of skin these kids detect under the nails of most corpses.
I don’t see the point in sugarcoating it for them. My granddad was the county coroner. When I was about six, he took me along to the Shrockmorton farm, out in Amish country. Old Shrockmorton had hung himself in the hog barn, and his widow had walked to a neighbor to call for help. When we got there, Pop went in to console her and left me to guard the swinger from the pigs. They snorted around and I’d whop them when they looked close to taking a chunk of the farmer. Nothing to it. It was just a job, a chore my granddad had assigned me.
These kids—the better of them, anyway—look at it the same way. We start in preschool, go in and talk to them about crime and summarize what we do. Make it sound clean, noble. We still use McGruff. The kids like people in animal costumes. They’re mascots. Smokey the Bear got his point across in his time. Course, kids don’t know who he is anymore. Their families don’t go camping in our national forests. Probably because there’ve been too many wildfires these past few years. On second thought, maybe we should bring Ol’ Smokey out of retirement.
So, when we go into the schools, we take coloring books, suckers, stickers, a bunch of stuff they can take home and show their parents. They can see how much this helps the community. And what parent doesn’t want a safe place for their little shits to run around?
Early elementary, we bus them down to the station, take them through all the steps of in-processing—fingerprinting, face shots, filing reports. We show them old crime scene Polaroids from closed cases, and let them thumb through the binders of perps. Sometimes we get lucky. A couple years ago, this boy said a guy looked like his sister’s boyfriend. Sure enough, come to find out the guy’d been living under an alias and shacking up with this hot college drop-out. Hot, but brainless. We had him on a lesser charge, intent to manufacture, but his prints matched some found at a B&E and we wanted to question him. When we picked him up, he was in possession of an unregistered handgun. Like I said, sometimes we get lucky.
About three years ago, we came up against opposition. Some small town lawyer and her social worker girlfriend tried to bring a case against us through Child Protective Services. They claimed we were desensitizing kids to the atrocities of homicide, thereby fostering a need for “increasingly graphic violent stimulation.” To make matters worse, we were also suffering from funding issues at the time. This little lawsuit drew urgency to the matter of program justification. A nephew of the Honorable Mike Collier, state senator, had come up missing. Three weeks, the kid had been gone. He’d had some run-ins with the law and it was no surprise to any of us on the force that the kid had skipped town. We got a call about a suspicious looking package under a Class B bridge outside the city. It was the senator’s naked nephew curled up fetal-style in the early stages of decomposition.
Being a high profile case, the news crews showed up shortly after us. Luckily, the ME had already hauled the body out before the cameras could set up camp behind the tape. Detective Larson brought out the group of our brightest, you know, really A+ kids to help us out. We were all pretty much scratching our heads, playing like we knew what to look for because of the reporters. The passing weeks and a few thundershowers had washed away any evidence, as far as we could tell. All of a sudden this red-headed boy, a genuine Opie Taylor, started calling for everyone to come look.
We collectively shuffled over to the hillside and climbed the ditch up to the road. There it was. A nicely preserved footprint under some Indian Paintbrush, a weed protected by the law so you can’t mow it. Size-twelve Wolverine, the favored boot of our local druggies. As for the case, it turned out to be nothing more than a botched drug-deal, with a side of chemically-induced rage.
The footage of Opie shrieking I found it! I found it! went viral—1.2 million hits on YouTube the first week. We suddenly had a windfall of justification and funding. And Ms. Lesbian Lawyer and the PETA-for-Kids group dropped the case. No one’d ever seen a kid so happy to be a part of something so important.
Each new group of kids hoped to have the same experience as Opie. They all wanted to crack the case, to become famous in our little berg. The young ones filed in, all ready to roll, high on lofty aspirations. I’d tell them to treat it like a scavenger hunt, but they took it more seriously. It wasn’t a game anymore. They’d toughened up, and the fear that’d kept them in check before had grown into pride. At times, they seemed driven by a force bordering on hubris.
In the middle of a routine introduction down at the station, we got a call of a 10-54. Possible dead body. The location—some greasy trailer park—had been secured. Larson looked at me and I shrugged. Might as well take them out there. As soon as the school bus parked, the kids hopped off. They ran to various spots, most likely hunting for footprints like their hero. Most were nowhere near the probable vicinity of real evidence. That was okay, though, as long as they kept busy.
A few stayed locked to me and Larson’s sides. With the teachers standing by the buses like shaking statues, the kids that wanted any action had to follow us into the venue. This little girl, too clean-looking for me to think she’d be interested, held onto my hand as we passed under the tape. I remember thinking how her hand felt cool, like a sheet of paper in mine.
Dispatch said the body was most likely in one of the back rooms. The layout of this trailer led me to believe we’d find it in a bedroom, possibly the bathroom. I tried to detach from the girl and leave her in the living room, but she peered around at the stained furniture and windows layered with grime. She reached up and wedged her other hand into the crook of my arm.
I assumed they’d covered the body. That’s what the first officer at the scene is supposed to do now. Always bring in a sheet. But you know what they say about assuming something—it makes an ass out of you and me.
So we entered the back bedroom. This kid who’d said nothing and seemed indifferent released her deadbolt grasp and shot across the room. I barely had a second to think as she threw herself onto the aged woman laid out on the floor. The girl screamed, starting loud and climbing in volume and pitch until everyone was charging into the place to see what happened.
A teacher pulled her off the corpse. The girl’s combed ringlets stuck to the strings of snot sliding down her lips. She clawed at the air, working to get away from her teacher. It took all of that little woman and the other teacher, too, to get her outside. They huddled around her, and cooed at her like a baby until her wails turned to wet hiccups. After a while, they had her talking. Eyes glassy and distant, she spat words out between shivers. Nana, she said. That’s… my… Nana.
Apparently, the kid’s grandmother had stopped by her ex son-in-law’s place, checking to see how he was doing. We found a Bible a few feet from her, Proverbs 20:1 marked with a Post-It. She’d shown up at the wrong time, said the wrong things and he’d taken his frustrations—with addiction and her daughter—out on her.
It had started with Take Your Kid to Work Day, and it ended the day a little girl soaked herself in her Nana’s leakage, contaminating the scene and ending a program that—until then—had always left kids feeling good about their part in something bigger than themselves.