The child, Johnny, is based on someone I know who is autistic. If I can't "hear" my real life Johnny say the line, then this Johnny doesn't say it.
Autism is a World
Eric Delko steeled himself as he pulled the Hummer up in front of the school building. It was a neat three story structure in blonde brick with a well manicured front lawn surrounded by a black iron fence. Atop the flagpole fluttered the American flag. Nothing about this scene gave any indication as to what had transpired within the building less than an hour prior. To any casual observer Thomas Jefferson Elementary snoozed in the late spring morning sun. Eric looked toward his partner.
"Ready to go?" he asked.
Calleigh Duquesne's jaw clenched and a hard look entered her usually sparkling bright green eyes turning them to the color of lake ice. Her voice was its usual soft tone, but a hard core of anger lay beneath. "Some bastard just waltzed into an elementary school and opened fire in a kindergarten class full of children. I'm ready to go in, get the evidence and nail his punk ass. Is that enough of an affirmative for you, Delko?"
Eric raised his eyebrow at his partner's colorful choice of language and the exclusive use of his surname. She was royally pissed and he knew exactly why this crime scene evoked such a response from her. If anything pissed Calleigh off, it was innocent children being put in harm's way. He opened his door. "Then let's go."
They crossed the empty street and entered the building through a long bank of clear glass doors, being met just inside by Detective Frank Tripp and a very distraught middle aged woman. She was tallking animatedly with him as they approached.
"Frank," Calleigh greeted.
"Dr. Abigail Howard, this is CSI's Eric Delko and Calleigh Duquesne. Dr. Howard is the Principal here," Frank introduced.
"Ma'am, we're here to process the crime scene. I know our Medical Examiner has already arrived," Calleigh said in her most public friendly voice. "Could you please direct us to the classroom?"
"Room 115 is down the hallway, just past the Office," Dr. Howard directed.
Calleigh hefted her kit a little higher. "Thank you."
Together, she and Eric walked down the teal and tan tiled corridor, past the glass walled School Office, past the teachers' lounge, now buzzing with staff members giving their statements to the police, past both the boys' and girls' bathrooms. They gazed at the brightly colored bulletin boards proudly announcing awards that the school had won and displaying the childrens' own work. As they neared 115, they could hear Alexx's compassionate voice drift out to them.
Eric gestured a little "ladies first" and allowed Calleigh to precede him into the classroom. She only got four good sized steps in when she was finally able to look up from the floor and take in the scene. What she saw sickened her to her core. The victims had been a classroom full of small children, Kindergardeners, from what it said on the door, and their teacher. Bodies laid where they had fallen, bright blood pooling under them. Blood from arterial strikes had sprayed the walls and toys.
Calleigh's gaze fell on a teddy bear still clutched in the dead girl's arms. All of a sudden, Calleigh felt sick to her stomach. Perspiration broke out all over her and a bead ran cold down her back; she began to shake uncontrollably. There was no air in the room and she fought to breathe. She set, or rather dropped, her kit on the floor and took a shaky step back. She needed to get out of there.
At the sharp sound, Eric looked over at her. He didn't like the way she looked. The color had drained from her face and she was trembling so violently that he could see it from across the room. She had never once looked that way at a crime scene before. "Calleigh?"
"I'm sorry, Eric, I can't do this." She took another step back and then bolted from the room. Calleigh tore down the corridor and out the front entrance, nearly knocking Tripp over in the process. He started after her, knowing something was seriously wrong when he caught Eric running out of the classroom in pursuit.
Calleigh stopped at the far edge of the fence, gripped it so hard that her knuckles went white and promptly lost the entire contents of her stomach. She leaned heavily of the fence to keep her knees from buckling.
"Calleigh,' Eric said, suddenly beside her.
"I'm sorry; I don't even know what happened," she said, beginning to shake again. "I've never done that before. I just suddenly couldn't be in there any longer. Sorry if I worried you.' She hung her head in embarrassment.
Eric regarded her for a moment. He reached out and gently stroked her hair. "Don't worry about me. I can call Wolfe if you want to sit this one out."
Her head snapped up and she forced herself to stop shaking. "No. That is a crime scene and I am a CSI. I've never shirked my duties before and I'm not about to start now. Those families deserve answers and I'm going to do my best to give them some. I just need to suck it up and process the scene."
You sure?" Eric asked, unconvinced. He had known Calleigh a long time and this behavior was something new. Something was clearly wrong but she was being too stubborn and strong to confess to him what it was.
"I'll deal with it later." She straightened up and moved away from him.
They walked back into the building and were about to head back into the classroom when Tripp stopped them.
"There's a development," he said. "It seems we got us a witness."
"I thought that all of the teachers and children were in the classrooms at the time," Calleigh said, her tone completely level and professional.
"Hey, are you okay?" he asked her.
"I'm fine. Who's the witness?"
"He's a ten year old boy. He was coming out of the bathroom at the time and saw the whole thing," Frank said.
Eric brightened. "Great. We need to question him as soon as his parents arrive."
"Well, that might be a bit of a problem. His dad is out of the country on business and his mom is about 45 minutes away," Frank drawled in his broad Texas accent. "There's something else; the kid is autistic and has issues communicating clearly."
Calleigh raised an eyebrow. "Autistic?"
"Yeah. Apparently he's really bright despite the autism," Frank explained.
"Well that's something, at least," Eric said. "Do either of you know anything about autism?"
"Sorry, 'Rainman' is it for me," Frank admitted sheepishly, shrugging his block-like shoulders.
"I think I might know a little. They just had something on one of the news shows about it last week. Apparently April is Autism Awareness Month." She closed her eyes, thinking back. "It's a neuorlogical disorder that has varying degrees from profound to nearly untraceable. It's a popular buzz word diagnosis when nothing else seems to fit. Uhm....I'm out."
"Well that's more than I knew two minutes ago," Eric stated. "Let's meet this boy."
Frank lead them to the School Office where a petite red-head, glasses hiding her bright green eyes, was sitting with a very agitated little boy. She was dressed in a more or less professional manner in black jeans and a red polo. The child was wandering around the lobby in a very restless manner, touching things and then putting them down. In his left hand he carried a blue magic marker.
Frank stopped in front of the woman, who stood. "Ms. Carson, these are CSI's Calleigh Duquesne and Eric Delko from the Crime Lab."
She extended her hand. "I'm Elizabeth Carson. I'm Johnny's one-on-one."
Shaking hands with her, Eric asked, "One-on-one?"
"One on one aide. I'm sort of part behavioral psychologist, teacher and therapist and in school mom as well as his personal assistant and Jiminy Cricket," Elizabeth said cheerfully.
"You're his conscience," Calleigh said.
"Very good. You get a gold star," Elizabeth replied with a grin. She quickly sobered. "I'm sorry, but I can't let you interview him until his mother arrives."
"We understand," Eric said, watching the child with interest. "Detective Trip saiys that Johnny is autistic."
"Yes, he is," Elizabeth replied.
Eric pushed it further. "And that he has communication issues."
"Don't let Johnny's lack of verbal prowess fool you. He's actually gifted," his aide said proudly.
"Autistic and gifted,' Calleigh mused, watching the child move restlessly around the office. He was a handsome child, in her opinion. Curly, close cropped black hair, almost black almond shaped eyes and a full-lipped mouth that parted to show off brilliant white teeth.
Elizabeth held out her hand to him. "Johnny, come here, please." The child stopped wandering and went to his aide. He held her hand and leaned into her for comfort. "Johnny, this is Detective Delko and Detective Duquesne of the police department. They're the good guys. Can you say hi?"
"Hi," he said gruffy. He pointed to Calleigh's firearm. "Gun."
Calleigh's eyes flicked to his aide, who nodded encouragement. "That's right. But I only use it on the bad guys."
After gazing at it for a short while, he apparently lost all interest in them and looked away, bouncing on his toes.
"Ms. Carson," Eric began, "neither of us has had any experience with mentally disabled children."
Elizabeth's green eyes flashed. "Johnny is not mentally disabled in any way, Detective. He's more intelligent than a good deal of adults I know. You've been told he's gifted. Don't underestimate him."
"My apologies," Eric said quickly. "What I tried to say is that his disability is outside our realm of knowledge."
That seemed to content the petite educator. "Fine, that's why I'm here. I'll help you in any way I can."
The biy had ceased to bounce on his toes and had wandered behind Calleigh. He reached out and touched her long blonde hair.
Calleigh remained completely still. "Uhm."
"Johnny, please be polite. You need to ask before you touch. You know that," Elizabeth scolded gently.
"Can I touch pretty hair?" he asked politely.
"That's up to Detective Duquesne," Elizabeth said. She looked at Calleigh. "He's really a very gentle child and very curious about the world around him. He learns fully through all his senses and his sense of touched is highly developed."
"He's a tactile learner?" Calleigh asked. She looked over her shoulder and smiled at the boy. "It's okay." The gentle hands returned to her hair. "I have to admit, this is a real learning experience."
Elizabeth smiled at her. "I can see that it is. Johnny is a nice first experience."
Eric regarded Elizabeth for a moment. "You care about him a lot, don't you?"
"I do. He's well worth getting to know."
"Ms. Carson, will you be available once his mother gets here?" Calleigh asked.
"I'll be here. I'm sure you have work to do. Johnny and I won't keep you," she replied.
"Thank you for your time, Ms. Carson," Eric said. "Bye, Johnny."
Johnny seemingly ignored Eric as he relinquished a handful of Calleigh's hair. "Bye, Duquesne."
"Bye, Johnny," Calleigh fought not to smile. "I'm sorry, Eric, but you seem to be chopped liver.
They exited the Office and returned to Room 115. Calleigh hesitated for a brief second.
"You okay?" Eric asked, becoming concerned again.
She looked back at Johnny in the Office lobby and squared her shoulders. "More determined than ever, Eric," she replied and then strode into the room. She crouched down by her kit and snapped her gloves on.
Eric followed. "What do you have for us, Alexx?"
The M.E. looked up from the five year old she was processing, her eyes haunted by so many dead so young. "One very concerned friend. Calleigh, I've never seen you react like that at a crime scene. Are you okay, honey?"
"A momentary lapse. It won't happen again.. I'm over it," she said briskly, rising and beginning to process the nearest point of trauma.
Alexx lowered her voice. "Is she really alright, Eric? She ran from here like a spooked rabbit."
Eric squatted down next to her and lowered his voice as well. "Probably not, Alexx, but she'll deal with it in her own way. She always does.
Calleigh swabbed at the blood and willed her hand not to shake. She swallowed hard and concentrated on the mechanics of her job. It was hard going at first since the crime scene had already started to emanate it's own unique smell, but she shut down that part of herself and continued the task at hand. She dug a bullet out of the concrete wall and dropped it into the evidence bag. The talk of the police and other CSI's drifted off into the background so she was slightly startled when Eric tapped her shoulder.
"Johnny's mother is here. We'd better both go."
"I'll bring my kit. Just let me get this little rascal out of here," she said, tugging on an inbedded bullet with a pair of tweezers. She wiggled it a little more and it popped free. She dropped it in her evidence bag, grabbed her kit and followed Eric back to the Office.
They walked into the Office lobby and saw a tall, slender Asian woman speaking animatedly with Ms. Carson. Johnny was holding the woman's hand.
Elizabeth looked over at them. Detectives Delko and Duquesne, this is Yukari Sato, Johnny's mother."
"Ma'am, your son is the only witness to the crime that was committed here this morning. It would be extremely helpful if we could interview him," Calleigh said, shaking the woman's hand.
"I don't know if my son can help you much," Ms. Sato said. "Sometimes he's just not all that observant and he has limited language."
"We need to try, Ms. Sato," Calleigh said in her soft Southern voice. "Anything that he can tell us can be important in catching the killer."
"Where can we conduct the interview?" Eric asked.
"He's most comfortable in his classroom, but that's down there," Elizabeth said, indicating a classroom past the crime scene.
Calleigh glanced at Eric, who nodded. "We can get him past the crime scene and help shield him from view."
Ms. Sato held onto her son's hand as they all carefully passed the crime scene and entered a largish classroom with colorful posters on the walls. The desks were in a horseshoe on one side of the room. Under the windows sat a short bank of computers, each already on and ready for work. At the far end of the room sat a low, round table in a cheerful yellow. They headed toward it and sat down.
"Johnny, the detectives are goint to ask you some questions about what you saw outside Room 115 this morning. You need to listen and focus," Ms. Carson said. "Can you do that?"
Johnny got up from where he was sitting and sat down in the empty chair between his mother and Calleigh. "Yes." His hand strayed close to Calleigh's hair and stopped in mid-air. "Can I touch Duquesne hair?" he asked politely.
"Okay, but you still need to listen and focus and answer the questions," Elizabeth said after getting a nod from Calleigh. "Sometimes he needs a tactile stimulus to help him focus his thoughts. During tests he usually holds my hand or rubs my arm.
"That's fine," Calleigh said as Johnny stroked and petted her hair. "Whatever works. The information he may have is too important for me to mind a tangle or two."
"You're very kind," said Ms. Sato.
"I was a bit of an unusual child, myself," Calleigh replied. "Sometimes showing a little understanding at the right moment helps."
Eric eyed Calleigh cautiously. The crime scene must have rattled her far worse than she was letting on. Calleigh rarely talked about her childhood to anyone she knew well, let alone a complete stranger.
"Alright, Johnny, what did you see this morning?" Eric asked.
"Spongebob!" Johnny exclaimed. "I'm sorry."
Eric let out a sigh of frustration.
"He's not being difficult, Detective Delko. He just needs the right kinds of questions in the right increments," Elizabeth explained. "Johnny, I'm sure you did see Spongebob this morning, but we need to hear about what you saw after you came out of the boys' bathroom this morning."
"That's right. What did you see outside of 115?" she asked, demonstrating the kind of questions her student needed.
"Bad man. Shoot gun. He push me and I almost fall," Johnny said. He grabbed a double handful of Calleigh's hair and rubbed it on his face. It seemed to have a calming effect on him.
Eric could relate. The smell of Calleigh's hair did something to him, too. She also seemed to be weathering being manhandled by a ten year old boy quite well."That's great, Johnny. Did the bad man wear a mask?"
"Yes. Black mask. Cover whole face."
"Johnny, since this bad man pushed you, it means he touched you. We need to catch this bad man," Eric said. "Part of catching this bad man is called "getting trace". See when bad people do things, they leave a part of themselves behind. Since he pushed you, he might have left something behind on your clothes. What I need to do is take this tape and stick it to your shirt and see if we can find anything he might have left behind." Eric approached Johnny with the tape lift.
"NO!" Johnny aid forcefully. "Duquesne."
"You want me to get trace from you?" Calleigh asked. Kids were usually Horatio's department and if Horatio wasn't around, Eric usually was the kid magnet.
"Yes," he said, presenting his chest to her.
Snapping on gloves, she took the tap from Eric. "This won't hurt at all. I'm going to stick this tape to your shirt and then pull it off. It'll take the little things that are stuck to your shirt with it. Is that okay?"
Calleigh gently placed the tape onto his shirt, rubbed it flat and pulled it away. She repeated the process with a couple of more pieces. "Thank you. This really might help."
"Johnny, did the bad man say anything?" Eric asked.
"Yes. Bad words. Mommy say no say bad words," Johnny aid solemnly.
"I need you to tell me what he said. You won't get into trouble," Eric promised.
Johnny began to play with Calleigh's hair again. "He say 'bitch' and shoot gun. He shoot more and little kids cry. Then he run and push me."
"Johnny, you were a big help," Calleigh said. She rose from her seat. "Thank you for your co-operation. We'll be in touch."
"Could you help us get past the room again?" Ms. Sato asked.
"Of course," Eric replied.
As they were about to exit the classroom, Johnny grabbed Calleigh's hand. "Can I hold my hand?"
A smile played across Calleigh's lips. "Sure you can."
Summary: A mass murder at a Miami elementary school leaves only one witness....and he's autistic.