An hour later, Baker sat in an interrogation room at Dallas Police Department headquarters in the Cedars.

“You have the right to remain silent,” Slade began, reciting the Miranda warning. “Do you understand your rights? Do you want to talk to me about your son?”

“Yes, sir,” Baker said. “I have nothing to hide.”

A small video camera in the wall sent images to a bank of television screens in a dark room around the corner. Nichols and Vann sat in metal chairs, drinking coffee and watching.

Slade sat in a rolling chair facing Baker, his hands clasped, their knees almost touching. Getting a confession is always a challenge, but it can be especially difficult in child abuse cases. To most anyone, hurting a child is shameful.

Slade began with a routine strategy, trying to give the suspect an out. He would introduce a variety of story lines in which the abuse became, if not justifiable, then at least easier to understand. He began with their most effective narrative: kids are frustrating, and sometimes anger gets the best of you.

“I’m a parent,” Slade said. “I know what it’s like when they’re fussy, and no matter what you do, nothing seems to help. For just one moment you just lose it, just for seconds, and then you realize what you did and you really, really feel bad about it.” Slade leaned forward, speaking quietly. “Your love, your emotions, they’re so strong and so full for that child, and it eats you up inside that you can’t take care of whatever it is that’s bothering them. If that’s what it is, we can understand that. We need you to come clean and tell us the truth.”

“I understand what you’re saying,” Baker said.

“Somebody had to do something to him,” Slade said.

“We didn’t do anything out of the ordinary,” Baker said.

And on it went. Slade suggested, Baker rejected. Slade lobbed an accusation, Baker volleyed it back. Through it all, Baker maintained that he had not hurt his son in any purposeful way.

In the monitoring room, Nichols alternated between sips of Diet Dr Pepper and coffee, her semiautomatic pistol resting on the table. Vann closed his eyes for a minute, then jerked awake.

“You know who has stamina?” Nichols said. “Juries. If I was on the jury and had to listen to this shit, I would tell the bailiff to give me his gun and just let me end it now.” Vann looked over and laughed.

After a while, Slade took a harder approach.

“I’ve had babies fall out of third-story windows on their heads with witnesses around, with zero injuries,” he said. “Children don’t get hurt from falling off beds. It never, ever happens. Children are made to fall like that.”

“I didn’t shake him,” Baker said.

“Falling off the bed did not cause his brain injuries, so get off that!” Slade said, nearly shouting.

“I didn’t shake him,” Baker said.

“Then what did you do?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“What did you do to cause the injuries?”

“This is my first son.”

“It happens most of the time with first children,” Slade said. “So you’re saying his brain swelled up all by itself, and he got all these injuries all by himself.”

“I’m not saying that.”

“You know what happened to him, and you’re not sharing it. I’m going to take this case to the grand jury, and I’m going to explain to them what a monster you are. Your whole body is telling me you did it, and the camera can see it, too.”

The bravado reflected Slade’s frustration. He wasn’t going to get a confession tonight.

At 5:23 am, the detectives cuffed Baker, drove him to the Dallas County jail, and booked him on one count of injury to a child, with $100,000 bail.


•••


Nichols returned to the old Victorian house on Swiss and climbed the stairs to her office. A fax machine clicked to life, rolling out a new case referral from CPS. The sound infused the room with a sense of urgency, as if something were happening at that very moment that needed attention.

Nichols gathered a fresh batch of reports and sat down at her desk. The office reflected her personality, an ever-shifting mix of empathy and anger. One sign beside her computer read, “I bring you the gift of these four words: I believe in you.” Another said: “Stupid Should Hurt.”

She put on her reading glasses and popped a Pepto-Bismol tablet, her 12th in the past 24 hours. Her body ached, and her stomach growled. She realized she hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s lunch at Humperdinks. Now, as the first rays of sunlight pushed through her blinds, she wondered how quickly she could get through the reports and get breakfast.

In moments like this, when she was exhausted and sleep was still hours away, Nichols sometimes dreamed about the other lives she might have led. What if she had majored in oceanography instead of criminal justice? She could have spent her days working with dolphins instead of injured children. Some days, she walked around the squad room, saying, “I hate people.”

When she could, on her way home from work, Nichols would pull into the Pecan Trails Golf Course in Midlothian. She liked coasting along the fairways alone, feeling the wind and the sun. She could quiet her mind by focusing on the mechanics of her swing. Golf was a gentleman’s game, governed by etiquette. People followed the rules.

Most days, Nichols felt as if she were fighting a war that could never be won. No matter how hard the squad worked, they couldn’t lighten the caseload. She spent hours traveling around the city, talking to teachers and neighborhood groups and police cadets, telling them what she and her detectives were up against, teaching them how to recognize children who needed help. She brought along a PowerPoint presentation filled with disturbing photographs of injured children. People cried and turned away, but Nichols kept flashing pictures.

She ended every talk with a parable, words she kept framed in her office. It was the story of a man walking on a beach. He saw a boy tossing starfish into the sea. “What are you doing?” the man asked. The boy explained he was saving them. “Son,” the man replied, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” The boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and tossed it into the tide. Smiling, he told the man, “I made a difference for that one.”

Nichols focused on the final batch of reports that needed investigating that morning: a baby who had tested positive for marijuana at birth, a grandfather rubbing up against a 5-year-old girl, a 16-year-old strangled by her mother.

Nichols looked down at her notebook, where she kept track of how many cases she assigned to each detective. They all had more cases than they could handle. She tapped her pen against the paper and sighed. Who can I give these to?