Book 4 in the Goosey Larsen series
by James Vachowski
Copyright © 2019 by James Vachowski All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Cover design provided by German Creative, LLC.
E-book formatting provided by Nick Caya.
Duke Regan chose a booth in the back of the restaurant, raising a casual finger to signal the waitress for a cup of coffee. The laminated menu lay on the tabletop, ignored, as Duke lingered over his drink. He took it black, the dark liquid still several degrees too hot, the first sip burning his throat. The businessman gamely managed a second swallow before contenting himself with warming his hands on the enamel mug. After a particularly long, hot Southern summer, the fall had finally arrived in earnest, and the early morning air carried a thick November chill. As he waited for his guest, Duke Regan passed the time by allowing his gaze to wander about the restaurant, surveying his fellow customers with the eye of a seasoned appraiser. Remarkably few people bothered to hold his stare before looking away, a reaction he rightly attributed to lack of interest.
The other early-morning diners seemed a blue-collar crowd, more concerned with their cheese grits, scrambled eggs and hashbrowns than with real estate or local politics, and Regan nodded with satisfaction at his decision to leave the blazer in his Lexus. Here in the Waffle House there was absolutely no need to dress for success, and only a remote chance of being spotted. He allowed himself a slight smile, taking one more sip of coffee despite the beverage’s acidic flavor. He’d harbored some doubts when Antoine had suggested the meeting place earlier that week, North Charleston’s blighted Rivers; Avenue being a far cry from his downtown Broad Street office, but in retrospect, the location now seemed perfect.
Just a few short minutes later, at six o’clock exactly, the jingle bell attached to the front door let out a ring. His partner Antoine Brown walked in, right on time and smartly dressed in pressed khakis and a crisp polo shirt. The young man took a certain pride in his punctuality, a rare trait among his peers, and Duke Regan often suspected this was a behavior Antoine had developed to cope with his underprivileged childhood. He stayed seated, watching Antoine as he slid into the opposite seat. The chilly reception might have come across as rude during any other business meeting, but the decision was a calculated one. Such a formal gesture would have seemed out of place here, and even a simple handshake wouldn’t have passed unnoticed by the other clientele. Antoine, to his credit, ignored the slight. He smiled and reached for the menu, the glossy plastic reflecting against his dark brown hands. “Mr. Regan, good morning sir. It’s so great to finally see you in person again.”
“Antoine, my friend! I feel the same. It’s been, what? Six months now? Seven?”
“Almost eight, sir.”
“Too long, too long.” Duke Regan clucked his tongue softly, signaling for the waitress and making a study of her drab brown apron while she bustled over. “Whatever he wants, please. I’m buying.”
The heavy-set woman shifted her weight on her heels. The plastic nametag labeled her as a ‘Betsy’, and she stood silent, facing Antoine with her pen poised over a shopworn notepad.
After one last, cursory glance at the listings, he looked back up with confidence. “Make it two eggs, scrambled with cheese, and a side order of bacon and toast. The hash browns, I’ll take them scattered and chunked, please.” He tucked the menu back behind the stainless steel napkin dispenser, then reached across the table to claim a coffee cup. “Thanks for that” he said as the waitress retreated, “but you sure didn’t have to. I’ve got a mint tucked away already, and the interest just keeps compounding. It’s pretty damned easy to save cash when you’re picking up my tuition, know what I mean?”
Regan dismissed the gratitude with a wave of his hand. “Please, don’t mention it—that was the least I could do, particularly after everything your group has done for me. It’s so rare to find a business partner who understands the importance of discretion. Besides, the cost is negligible. Trident Tech is the perfect place for you to launch your career, but the cost of culinary school is a far cry from the Ivy League. With the profit you’ve brought in for me over the years, the two of us probably ought to be establishing a scholarship fund by now.”
Antoine smiled as he took another sip of the house brew. “That’s good to hear. Oh, and by the way, my street team asked me to pass along their appreciation for all these smaller jobs you’ve got them on. Vandalism isn’t nearly as profitable as the dope game, but there’s so much less risk involved. I haven’t had a team member go up the road yet, not even one. It’s almost as if the police aren’t even trying to investigate these break-ins.” He smiled, rotating the cup slowly around in his hands. “I tell you what, man, I’m sleeping so much easier now that my ass is done running them streets. I mean, I never really minded working the block, but the operation is actually running even smoother now that I’m up here in school all day.”
Regan couldn’t hold back a smile at his protege’s observation. “You know what that means, don’t you?”
Antoine shook his head, flashing a single gold tooth.
“You’ve managed to work your way into upper management. Congratulations, son.”
The two shared a laugh as the joke momentarily bridged the wide gap of their disparate upbringings. The waitress returned bearing a chipped enamel plate, setting it down in front of Antoine without speaking a word. Duke slipped her a twenty-dollar bill without bothering to ask for the check, knowing full well that the tip had probably just doubled Betsy’s hourly wage.
Antoine knew his boss wasn’t one to waste time, so he dragged a forkful of eggs through the sticky grits and got to the point. “Look, sir. It’s great to see you again...but what’s on your mind? Something you couldn’t say over the phone?”
Regan gave a nod of agreement, pausing to take another long, slow sip of coffee before going on. “As usual, you hit the nail right on the head. I wanted to give you a heads-up in person, so you had adequate time to notify your team. It’s taken me a few months to raise a sufficient amount of capital, but things are finally lined up for us to increase our operational tempo. I’m prepared to make a few more moves, and your team’s work has been the foundation for that success.”
The unfamiliar terms left Antoine’s face washed with an unmistakable glaze of confusion, but the eye contact was a sure sign that the young man was still earnestly trying to follow along.
“So soon, let’s say within the next ninety days, my goal is to grow the portfolio by closing on at least twenty new properties.” He raised a finger to hold off any potential interruptions. “No fancy homes, and definitely nothing new. Just the usual business model: close the deal at a suitable investment cost, rehab-and-hold, then adjust the rents to reflect current market rents. My only concern is that by branching out West of the Ashley, I’m entering a completely new area. That, of course, carries the potential for completely new problems than the ones we’ve been working through downtown. And that’s why it’s so important to prepare a sufficient margin for profit, something you and your team are so skilled at.”
Antoine twisted up his lip in concentration before a light of understanding flashed in his dark brown eyes. “Man, we just went over this in Business Management 101. ‘Buy low’, right?”
Regan smiled. “That’s it. And when it comes to rental real estate, you make your money at the purchase. Whenever property values drop, no matter the reason, that means more opportunity.” He lifted the heavy enamel mug, taking one more sip of coffee as an excuse to pause and gather his thoughts. “I like to think of myself as a service provider, not just a simple businessman.” He set the cup back down on the table. “I’m offering homeowners a quick, convenient exit from an undesirable living situation, while at the same time working to provide their communities with affordable rental housing. The Lowcountry property market is white-hot right now, and there’s a whole section of the population who’d be locked out of the market if it weren’t for men like us.”
“I feel ya” Antoine said, nodding his understanding. “So how can I help?”
Straight to the bottom line, Duke noted, giving Antoine his own nod of approval in return. “Excellent question. Right now, I simply need to pick up as many houses as I can get my hands on. Give your team the signal that the candy store is open for business, starting right now. I’m also willing to increase their pay in recognition for such exemplary performance. Two hundred dollars for every confirmed break-in or major vandalism occurring now through Monday. Cash payment as always, a lump sum, yours to distribute among the crew.”
Antoine smiled, his gold tooth flashing beneath the florescent overhead lamps. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”
“Good. And please, don’t feel the need to be too thorough. The goal is targeted harassment, not necessarily a lot of structural damage. Anything too serious and I’ll just have more repair work before I can move new tenants in. Break down the doors, shatter the windows, all that’s fine. Maybe some graffiti if you feel up to it, but anything beyond that is going to affect my bottom line.”
“Gotta keep the overhead low, right?”
“Now you’re thinking like an entrepreneur. And, oh, be sure to pass on to your team that I’m only interested in the properties themselves, not the contents within. Like always, they’re free to keep anything they can carry off.”
Antoine nodded once again, committing the instructions to memory. “No problem, sir. So long as there’s cash in hand, my guys are always willing to work.”
Duke allowed himself a smile, then stood. “In the world of business, Antoine, cash is always king. Let’s plan to meet back up here, say, a week from now. Same time.” He paused for the briefest of moments, looking down at his young partner with a feeling of sincere respect. “You know, Antoine, something tells me you’re going to do very well in the hospitality industry. When it comes to building equity, there’s simply no substitute for hard work.”
There I was, fully reclined across the front seat of my patrol car, savoring a late morning daydream about one of those fat submarine sandwiches from Jersey Mike’s. I swear, I could almost taste that thick white bread, slathered with a layer of creamy mayonnaise. Duke’s brand, of course— none of that low-fat Hellmann’s nonsense. The thick slices of spicy salami and deli ham were stacked together in towering layers, each one drizzled with showers of oil, vinegar and seasoning, topped off with a few strands of watery lettuce for color. My mouth practically watered over as I slept, at least until the rude squawk of the police radio shattered my reverie. It sounded suspiciously like the dispatchers were calling my number, which could only mean that there was work out there waiting for me. As the rest of my body fought the urge to roll over and drift back off into slumber, my tongue stretched out of my mouth, searching in vain for the sticky, salty flavors it craved.
Eyes still glued shut, I fumbled blindly for the microphone. As my hands closed around the cool plastic handle, I willed my voice not to sound too sleepy. “This is 414, Control” I yawned. “Whattya got?”
A long pause came across the air, almost as if the operator was pissed at me for making her wait. The familiar sounds of our bustling control room echoed in the background, along with the unmistakable clacking of finely manicured fingernails as they rooted through a greasy bucket of fried chicken. “414... and any other available unit...” she said, spreading the words out between mouthfuls of gizzard and chitlins. “Start en route to the main entrance of Shadowmoss Plantation, off of Highway 61 South, past Bees Ferry Road. Still gathering information at this time, but this is in reference to a 34, possibly in progress, or just occurred. Complainant is irate.”
I groaned and slapped my forehead, disgusted at my colleagues’ complete and utter lack of competence. “Control, don’t you have any team units available?” A simple vandalism call was definitely not worth an investigator’s time, and especially not a fresh case which carried the possibility of having to deal with a suspect. In my experience, during these types of situations it was much safer to simply avoid the area altogether. If I were to let some patrol rookie head out there and take the report in my place, all I’d really have to do is wait a few days for the reports to hit my desk before shitcanning the case entirely.
“414” she finally answered, after one more mouthful of dark meat. “That’s a negative. All of your dayshift Team Four units are already out on calls. I’ve got 423 and 424 out at the Citadel Mall dealing with a 32/39, the shoplifter’s combative. 404 just got flagged down to work a 2-vehicle 40 on Sam Rittenburg, and there’s no Traffic units in service to relieve him. That only leaves 430. He’s closest, so I’ll have him 63 with you at Shadowmoss as soon as he clears from the disturbance at West Ashley High School.”
I grumbled at my bad luck, reaching down and wrenching the lever to pull the driver’s seat back upright. That done, I stomped down hard on the brake pedal and threw the car into gear with my free hand, reluctantly easing my eyes open once the ride was in motion. Of course, the very first thing I saw was this withered old bag standing straight out ahead of me, weighed down by two huge sacks of groceries, unable to move. She just stood there, shaking in fear and listening to my brakes screech, probably thinking I’d been about to mow her down or something. But after a few long, awkward moments, once it was clear that she wasn’t about to get out of my way, I rolled down the window and stuck my neck outside. “Just resting my eyes!” I called, waving an impatient hand to prompt her along. Finally, once her varicose-layered legs resumed motion and my path was clear, I lifted my foot off the brake and eased the car through the busy Winn-Dixie parking lot with an overabundance of caution. “I copy, Control. I’ll be en route from, let’s see here... Highway 61 and Ashley Hall Road.”
Pulling out into traffic, I snuck a glance down at the digital clock on my dashboard. It was nearly two-thirty already, the afternoon damn near over, and jumping a call so late in the day went against every instinct I had. My shift ended at five o’clock sharp, so by all rights should’ve been heading back in the other direction by that point, fleeing towards the comfort and safety of my apartment. But even though I could almost hear my broken-in couch calling to me from James Island, I nevertheless turned to heed the call of duty. Stoically, heroically even, I pointed my car in the direction of work.
Now it wasn’t as if I was some kind of overly-dedicated ‘hero cop’ or something: far from it. When it came to my career, my primary goal was self-preservation. Because of that, I made it a point to do just enough work to keep the bosses off my back. No question, my current gig as the Team Four investigator was the sweetest job I’d ever had, and after I’d grown wise to the hustle, I’d become bound and determined to milk the position as long as possible. My work responsibilities were a little unclear, just the way I liked them, but basically it was exactly like being a Central detective, except for that I only handled minor crimes. And even better, there didn’t really seem to be any kind of accurate barometer to assess my performance. As far as my supervisors were concerned, they were all generally just satisfied if I showed up at morning roll calls more often than not. On top of that, I’d never once been questioned on my whereabouts following one of my trademark long lunches, not even the three-hour “executive” sessions which included a long nap back at my pad. So no, I definitely reasoned that it wouldn’t do one bit of harm to pipe up on the air every so often, if only so I could make it sound like I was being productive. And besides, now that I’d mastered most of the backroad shortcuts through the suburbs, after ditching the call I could easily meander off on the scenic route back home.
Thankfully the afternoon traffic was starting to build, making even this short response a relatively slow trip. I stayed a healthy distance back from the cars ahead, doing my damndest to ensure that any suspects still on scene would be gone by the time I pulled up. I probably had at least a couple dozen incident reports on my desk already, piddling little cases like simple assaults or vehicle break-ins. I’d been so busy that I hadn’t even had the opportunity to look at any of those case files, much less investigate them, and to be fully honest there was only so much you could do with those situations. Most of the time, my personal investigative technique involved sticking all the paperwork down in some file drawer to let the crimes marinate for a few months, then closing them out in small batches by placing the blame on some unknown gang of neighborhood kids. This Shadowmoss call sounded like it would be right along those same lines, so I rehearsed my talking points as I drove. Damn kids today, I swear. No good at all. Me, I blame the parents.
“Unit 1 to Control!” The police radio broke my reverie once again, and my armpits felt the beginning of a cold sweat seeping through my pores. My dress shirt’s thin fabric dampened as rivulets of salt water moistened out across my body. It was never a good sign when our Chief came up on the airwaves— the guy was a confirmed basketcase, afflicted by some particularly severe form of personality disorder. There was no way to be certain whether or not his secretary had persuaded him to take his medication, so on any given shift there was a fair to middling chance that the Chief might break down into a raving mess. Rufus Greene had a well-earned reputation for eccentricity, and that wasn’t just because the dude had somehow become the first black, Jewish, Chief of Police anywhere in the South. No, our dear leader also had a penchant for leading city parades dressed up in holiday costumes, or even roller-skating through the City Market on busy Saturday nights. It seemed to me like people around these parts had simply gotten used to his quirks over time, which I guess is why it seemed as if nobody besides us cops had noticed just how badly the man was losing his marbles.
Our dispatcher didn’t sound nearly as concerned as I felt, though. Judging by the low energy in her voice, she must’ve been one of the older switchboard queens, a veteran who’d grown accustomed to ignoring our Chief’s hysterics. She came back across the air with a loud yawn. “Go ahead, Unit 1.”
“Yeah? Huh? Control, can you hear me?”
The dispatcher paused for a long moment, probably trying to make it seem as if she was adjusting her headset volume. “Unit 1, I read you loud and clear. Go ahead, sir.”
“Control, check me out at Shadowmoss Plantation. I’ll be speaking to the complainant myself, but you can have that Team 4 unit 63 here with me.”
“Unit 1, I copy.”
There was another long moment of silence before Chief Greene piped up. “Control, did you copy? I’m out with the caller.” I swear, it was almost painful to listen to the conversation, knowing that the ravages of old age must have crippled the man’s hearing along with his mind. Either our Chief was a only few small steps away from total deafness, or he’d stepped out of his cruiser without remembering to click on his walkie-talkie.
“Unit 1, that’s affirmative sir. We copy.” The dispatcher exhaled a deep, calming breath, then called my number once again. “414, you read on that 86? Unit 1 is already out with the complainant, he’ll be standing by to 63 with you there.”
Her unspoken message was for me to hustle it up, so I tossed my blue plastic bubble light up in the dashboard and reached down to toggle the siren switch. A long line of cars peeled off in sequence ahead of me, every fifth or sixth driver panicking to the point where they actually crossed over into oncoming traffic. In actuality there was no need to hurry since I was bound and determined not to get stuck writing the incident report, but my pace was still a crisp one, since by that point my mission had shifted into simple damage control. Left to his own devices, there was no telling just how many good, honest citizens our Chief might offend. Countless residents had already endured the man’s unique blend of reverse racism over the past two decades, and as a beat cop, I did feel a certain level of responsibility to shield others from his insanity. Moments later, I spotted Chief Greene’s slick black Mercury coupe parked up on the shoulder, so I cut off my strobe lights and snatched up the radio. “414 copies, Control” I grunted. “Check me out with Unit 1, but keep that other unit en route.”
I eased my own cruiser up on the grass next to his, the beat-up, baby blue Crown Victoria looking even more humble than usual beside the Chief’s late-model ride. I left the blue light spinning as I stepped out, gingerly picking my way around the steep irrigation ditch. On its surface, Shadowmoss Plantation seemed like a decent enough subdivision, this wide patch of forest land which had been reclaimed so that white folks could raise their kids in suburban splendor, but it was obvious that the place was getting on in years. Shadowmoss had been one of the first big blocks of land in West Ashley to get snatched up for development, a move which had kicked off a trend of bland cul-de-sac neighborhoods and their accompanying strip malls. All the subdivisions out on this side of town seemed to feature the same boring, pre-fabricated style of houses, which effectively transformed miles of prime deer hunting land into a sea of anonymity and traffic. Most of the nuclear families who’d pioneered the area during the nineties had aged since then, and I got the impression that all these neighborhoods were feeling some kind of growing pains. As these families had gotten older, their cute little children had grown into teenagers, and Team Four’s crime rate had risen on a strikingly similar curve.
I strolled over and posted up behind the Chief, who was locked in a deep conversation with one of his fellow senior citizens. I pegged the white guy as a retiree, if only because of the fact that he didn’t have anything better to do in the middle of the day then to call the cops and complain. The dude was decked out in a set of bright white orthopedic shoes and a coral pink polo shirt, the latter smartly tucked down into a pair of grey Sansabelt pants. He wore his trousers high, the elastic waistband drawn up just beneath his armpits, and I couldn’t help wondering if the style impacted his breathing. The man carried himself just as officiously as a rookie cop wearing his brand-new uniform, so I strongly suspected that I was looking at the head of the neighborhood watch. I stood there in silence, politely waiting for a break in the conversation before stepping past the Chief with an outstretched arm. “Good afternoon sir, and thank you very much for calling. Mike Larsen, Team Four investigator. How can I be of service?”
The Chief turned on his heels, finally troubling himself to acknowledge my presence. He looked me up and down as if I must have been guilty of something, his dark brown eyes going back and forth between my unshined loafers and the conspicuously large ketchup stain on my collar. The Chief’s show of obvious disapproval amounted to an awkward public shaming, and the sound of his rasping voice only added to the tension.
“Who’s that? Huh? Larken, is that you?” The Chief reached an arm around to the back of his worn blue blazer, coming back up with a two-foot-long black polymer nightstick. He held the weapon up between us, tapping the business end against my sagging chest in a steady, rhythmic beat. “Don’t you think you’re missing something there, young man?” he asked, each of his words punctuated by a thump from the violent metronome.
I held back a groan, mentally kicking myself for not having remembered to loop my trusty old tie back over my head before I’d jumped the call. For some reason CPD’s command staff seemed bound and determined to make their beat cops as uncomfortable as possible, which meant that the neck noose was a strict uniform requirement. I normally suffered the indignity just long enough to make it through morning roll call before ducking out to the parking lot and slipping it delicately back up over my head, preserving the knot. Thanks to a minimalist wardrobe of two dress shirts, one plain white and one light blue, I’d managed to get by wearing the same red-and-blue striped tie every day since being transferred over from Foot Patrol.
Chief Greene, on the other hand, was dressed to the nines in a pair of seasonally appropriate wool pants, a white oxford shirt and a dark blue tie featuring the CPD logo. It was a sharp, professional appearance, one that very effectively concealed the man’s incompetence. There was absolutely no way for me to compete with his crisp appearance, so I did my best to edge a little closer over towards the complainant.
The wrinkled old septuagenarian jumped forward, grasping my hand with a shaky, arthritic one of his own. “Larsen, eh? Well, isn’t that something! Gus Larssen here, pleased to meet you!” He pumped my arm up and down with a vigor that defied his years, those thick veins along his wrist shaking with enthusiasm. “Say, son. You think maybe you and I might be relatives? Who knows what the family trees might have looked like back in the old country, you know? Your people are Scandinavian, right? Mine too. I can tell by the slope of your nose, you see? Birds of a feather, eh?”
I glanced to the side and spotted a flock of Canada geese settling in along the grassy median, effectively taking charge of the small overflow pond near the neighborhood’s entrance. And even though the birds couldn’t have been nesting very long, the water was already visibly suffering their presence, with streams of long, green turds floating in between the spotlight bulbs and the fountain jets. I swear, the main gate had probably been designed to be aesthetically pleasing, meant to create an impression of luxurious comfort within, but years of neglect had left the painted wood ‘Shadowmoss’ sign looking weatherbeaten and worn down. Layers of paint were peeling away from the wood trim, and the small median seemed to be covered more with tall weeds than with actual grass.
Personally, I suspect it was the neighborhood’s run down appearance which was responsible for souring the Chief’s mood. I watched closely as his eyes narrowed, focusing in on the pesky seasonal migrants, his face masked in a stare of pure hatred. He wrinkled his nose in disgust, clearly bothered by all those puddles of bird poop spread across the asphalt. “Birds of a feather? Huh. Say, those geese over there...they remind me of something... but for the life of me, I just can’t remember what.”
My blood ran cold as a sharp shock of fear ran through my body. The Chief’s mumbled words, seemingly incoherent to Gus Larssen, were all it took to shoot me back in time to my days as a rookie patrol officer. I felt a cold bead of sweat forming along my hairline, and I willed myself to resist the urge to wipe it clean. I could tell Chief Greene was only seconds away from recalling the key details of a decades-old prank, so I seized the moment to derail his train of thought. “Uh, Chief? I know you’re an incredibly busy man” I stammered. “Why don’t I take it from here, okay? Free you up off this call. After all, I know you’ve probably got more important matters to attend to back at 75. Right?”
He paused, frozen in confusion, before finally giving me a slow nod, but those beady brown eyes of his were still locked in like laser beams on the avian intruders. “Yeah... yeah. Why don’t you do that, Larken. And hey, be sure to look out for those geese while you’re out here. I mean it, son. Don’t turn your back on them for a second. Nasty things... mean, and vicious too!”
I eagerly nodded my understanding, sending my chin bobbing up and down like a deep-sea fishing bobber riding the waves. “Got it, Chief. Will do.”
But instead of immediately taking to his car, the Chief just stood there rambling. “Filthy creatures, absolutely disgusting” he mumbled. “Leave a trail of crap everywhere they go. It’s a damn slip hazard.” Finally, after an awkwardly long pause, the Chief let out a sigh and wandered off. The man shuffled slowly along, giving the impression that he might have been moving in some kind of a dazed trance. He was still holding the nightstick down low at his waist, with the weapon’s tip dragging along the asphalt. The two of us, Mr. Larssen and I, both watched, stunned, as our city’s top cop lurched his way over to the cruiser, slumped down inside and gave the air horn a few long bursts before pulling away. It was a bold move, peeling out into rush hour traffic without so much as a cursory check of his blind spot, but I figured the Chief probably had heavier matters on his mind than mere traffic safety. We watched him go until the car finally disappeared off in the distance, the rear blinker flashing a steady rhythm of left turn signals as an unfastened seatbelt hung loose outside the driver’s side door. Its stainless steel buckle sent up a thin shower of sparks each time it scraped against the pavement.
Mr. Larssen shook his head in sincere wonder. “That Rufus T. Greene, let me tell you what. He’s his own man, for sure. I remember back when he first took the job down here in Charleston, we all thought that fella was a little touched in the head. Maybe even a little light in the loafers, if you get what I’m saying?”
I was starting to drift off into my own thoughts, and didn’t bother to respond.
“Most folks thought that boy might have had a little sugar in the gas tank.” Mr. Larssen reached out to tap my shoulder with his wrinkled fist. “Sweet, you know? One of them queers.”
I nodded, more because the gesture seemed expected than from any actual interest in continuing the conversation. “Is that right?”
“Sure as shit. Crazy as a loon, we thought.” He paused for a moment before shaking his head. “Truth be told, I’m still not sure the man’s all there. One thing I know for sure, though: that fella’s either a hundred percent crazy, or else he’s just plain fearless.”
I raised a hand to my mouth, doing my best to conceal the snicker that was sneaking its way past my lips. “Yeah, the Chief is definitely... unique, all right. Man’s got no fear of nothing, except birds I mean. Did you see the way he took off running once that mama goose gave him the hairy eyeball?”
The old man snorted. “Can’t say as I blame him, you hear? Them geese are nothing but trouble. Airborne terrorists, leaving bombs everywhere. This time of year the flocks run around this neighborhood like they own the damn place. Tearing up people’s lawns, leaving those disgusting green streaks behind when they’re done. Just last week there was a flock down by the school bus stop, nipping at all the kids and chasing them babies out into the street!” Mr. Larssen glanced down at my chest, searching for the spot where the uniformed officers wore their name tags. The move was a dead giveaway that this man was a frequent caller, one of Team Four’s more prolific complainants.
“Larsen. Mike Larsen. But why don’t you call me Goosey? Everybody else does.” My mind, already hampered by a chronically short attention span, was wandering over twelve years back in time to my training days, that forgettable period when I was nothing more than a lowly boot rookie posted out on James Island. I managed to last until my final day of field training before finally getting pegged with a nickname, but in fairness, that wasn’t entirely my fault. Team Three was the quietest of all the patrol areas, especially back in the day before the city of Charleston went on a growth kick and started annexing all the rural areas. During those twelve weeks of riding shotgun, the only thing I really learned was that a group of bored cops is a recipe for disaster. My Field Training Officer was a mean old crust of bread named Artie Mistle, a skinny beanpole of an officer with only one more year left on the job, and that dude always stressed the importance of avoiding calls for service. Artie’s main priority was to keep his butt safely parked in the driver’s seat, only bothering to leave the car when he needed to eat, smoke, or pee. After working in such close proximity to the guy for so long, I came to the conclusion that Artie’s only redeeming quality was his talent for pulling off such artful pranks. I swear, that guy was an absolute legend when it came to setting hotfoots during roll call, at least on those evenings he bothered to show up.
But on that particular midnight shift, even though the two of us had gone and checked in service like always, I could tell he had something special in mind. I was driving, and normally Artie would have already been passed out asleep on the back bench before I’d even put the car in gear, but that night, for some reason he chose to sit upright in the passenger seat. As I backed out of the parking space behind the station, I caught a glimpse of that evil grin on his face. “Pull it around by the gas pumps, kid” he snarled. “And fill it up.”
I did as he said, despite the fact that the tank was already at three-quarters. And even though our normal midnight shift routine involved nothing more than parking for ten straight hours, by that point in my training I’d learned never to question my FTO’s instructions. I was still one more evaluation form away from being cut loose, free to patrol all by my lonesome, and with each passing shift I could almost taste that independence. I wasn’t about to ruin my chances for anything, not even if Artie told me to be his getaway driver after he’d knocked over a liquor store. My head was off in the clouds as I worked the fuel pump, my mind already plotting out just how much fishing I might accomplish in my first ten hours without proper supervision, so I guess I just didn’t put two and two together when Artie jimmied the lock on the mechanics’ bay. He was only inside the garage for a minute or so, sliding back down in his seat before I’d re-holstered the nozzle.
Once out on the road, Artie landed a sharp punch on my shoulder as we cruised across the Ashley River Bridge. “Hang a right here, kid” he growled, gesturing at the Highway 61 turnoff, rather than our usual Folly Road route. “Gotta hit a quick area check out in West Ashley before we land in our own beat.”
I nodded, signaling for a lane change before coasting across the dotted white lines. I eased my shoulders back and settled in for the ride, knowing that Artie Mistle would only reveal our destination once he was damned good and ready. We drove in silence like that for another ten minutes, me stopping at all the red lights even though the streets were nearly deserted. Finally, once we’d passed the last clear sign of civilization, that Piggly Wiggly grocery store out by Church Creek, Artie came to life once more. He jerked his head to the right and barked, “Turn here! Cut your headlights off, then park it up by that first cross street. See? Right over there.”
I did as he said, pulling our black-and-white Chevy Caprice gently up onto the grass before stomping down on the emergency brake and cutting the engine. In the rearview, I spotted two more sets of headlights as the cars slowed down, rounded the corner and coasted to a stop in line behind us.
Our dome light flashed on as Artie popped the door and stood up, showing a surprising level of energy. “Get out.” His gruff manner left no confusion that this was not a polite request.
I followed Artie’s lead and walked around to the trunk, joining up with the rest of our patrol squad there: Chuck “Slipper” Johnson and our fearless leader, Sergeant Jim Cobb. Big Jim cut a slightly slimmer figure back in those days, but not by much. He was too busy loading carbohydrates to say hello, eating slice after slice of Wonder Bread straight from the bag. A trail of crumbs drifted down from his jaw, powdering the front of his swollen blue uniform shirt. As for Slipper Johnson, he just stood there next to our boss, hands tucked away in his pockets like the dude was far too cool for this late night meet up. Even though old Slipper had only joined CPD a couple of months before I did, you’d have thought by the smug look of seniority on his face that the dude was a salty old vet.
“Here you go, rookie.” Artie flung a keyring my way, and I reached up to snag it. “Big shift for you, huh, kid? Last night of field training. According to my performance evaluations, there’s only one more thing left to do before you get cut loose.”
I shrugged, still trying to play it cool, even though I was really starting to feel the pressure by that point. “Whatever you say, boss.”
Artie grinned, then wrenched the plastic bread sack from Big Jim’s paws. “Here, Mike. You’re going to need this.” He craned his neck to the rear, sneaking a covert peek down the pitch-black marshfront street. “Look, you see that last house down there, all the way at the back of the cul-de-sac? The big white one, got a blackface jockey holding a lantern down at the end of the driveway?”
I squinted out into the darkness. “Yeah, why? Who lives there?”
“That’s Chief Greene’s house.”
It was right about then that I finally realized it was a set up. Still, I tried my best to keep my composure, coolly twirling Artie’s ignition key around my index finger in a series of slow, casual loops. But even without looking up, I just knew the three of those clowns must have been grinning like fools. After one last deep, calming breath, I planted my hands on my gun belt and resumed eye contact. “Is that right? Huh.”
Artie rolled up the top of the bread sack and held it at arm’s length, leaving me with no choice but to take it. Big Jim looked absolutely despondent without his midnight snack, too depressed to to even think about brushing the crumbs off his uniform.
I gave the loaf of bread a long, thoughtful look, rotating the bag around in my hands. “So what the hell am I supposed to do with all this? Make the Chief a damn sandwich?”
Artie chuckled, reaching up to his ear and twisting a small bundle of overgrown hairs in between his thumb and index finger. “Listen up, rookie. Look down there past the house. See where that irrigation culvert runs along the road?”
I turned my neck just far enough to humor my FTO, then nodded.
“Every year about this time, see, these big flocks of Canada geese always fly in from up north. They nest up all over West Ashley for a couple months at a time, especially here in the suburbs where they’ve figured out nobody’s going to shoot at them. Those things wander everywhere, making an absolute mess of wherever they go. Tearing up peoples’ lawns, shitting all over the sidewalk— they’re an absolute curse. And just last week, I spent a couple minutes listening in while the Chief was bitching about them to his secretary.”
I shrugged, trying my best to come across as wholly indifferent to this strange situation I’d found myself in. “Serves him right, you know? Owning a big-ass house like that. Who the hell’s he trying to impress, anyway?”
Slipper jumped in, that weaselly grin still plastered across his lips. “Well, now. It’d be an absolute shame if someone was to give those geese a little more encouragement, you know? Maybe... do something to make them feel more at home? And right there at the Chief’s house, too?”
No matter what sort of random thoughts might have been running through my mind at that very moment, I actually found myself at a complete and utter loss for words. I looked down at the half-eaten loaf of bread, then back up at my squadmates.
“Well, what are you waiting for, rookie?” Artie sneered. “Hurry up, get a move on.”
I bit my tongue, stuffing down my natural urge to snap back with a smart reply. It would’ve taken me several minutes to come up with one anyway, so the simpler option was just to grit my teeth, lower my shoulders and march down the quiet street. All those slimebags, Artie and Slipper and Big Jim, had ducked back out of sight behind their cruisers, but thankfully the job sounded easy enough. Once I’d tiptoed up the driveway and made certain there were no lights on inside the Chief’s place, all I really had to do was walk back and forth spreading breadcrumbs about the lawn. Within seconds I’d attracted a long string of birds, all of them nipping at my heels as I waddled along at the head of the flock, like some sort of polyester-clad pied piper. Eventually, I settled into a comfortable rhythm and took my time about the work, meticulously spreading chunks of white bread across every corner of that half-acre. By the time I’d finished, I must’ve enticed at least fifty of those monstrous birds to come join us from the neighboring lots.
As I stood there admiring my handiwork with a certain amount of pride, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what the yard might look like in the morning. In my mind, at least, the entire area was covered by a colorful blanket of grey goose feathers and pea-green turds, save for a single bare spot in the driveway where the Chief’s cruiser was parked. It seemed a shame to leave the job unfinished, so I kicked a couple birds aside and strode over to correct the shortcoming. And then, in a flash of inspiration, I held my breath, unlocked the driver’s side door and reached up to click off the dome light. A few of the braver geese shot me curious glances as I circled the Caprice, pulling open the doors in sequence, but the entire flock went on the wing when I chucked the remaining bread slices into the backseat. Empty-handed at last, I hightailed it back to my own cruiser where Artie, Jim and Slipper gave me a few hearty pats on the back. The group broke up quickly, and our three cruisers slipped back over to James Island under cover of darkness. Once there, I spent the rest of the evening keeping a watchful eye out while Artie dozed, although I did somehow find time to catch a couple quick winks myself.
It had started raining after midnight, the downpour making it a perfect evening for sleeping on duty, so I didn’t give our prank a second thought. And even the next morning, after dropping Artie off at his house a few hours before our shift ended, I simply turned in the cruiser and headed straight home to the warmth of my own bed. Of course that was back in the day before the Internet and cell phones, so I didn’t catch wind of the aftermath until Slipper called the next afternoon.
To hear that guy tell it, the heavy rains had driven away all the birds and nearly washed the driveway clear, to the point where it almost seemed like all my hard work had been for naught. So when Chief Greene went to head in to the station, the guy didn’t realize anything was up until the moment he climbed into his cruiser, flopping down over a thick, goopy puddle of bird shit. Now while I might have been willing to take responsibility for the cost of his dry cleaning bill, the way I see it, what happened next was nobody’s fault but his own. If the Chief had only stayed quiet instead of squealing like a little girl, he might not’ve woken up the flock sleeping comfortably in his backseat, all warm and dry and happy. But when those birds came to, they were understandably terrified by the squat, dark-skinned intruder. A scary creature had invaded their upholstered nesting ground with high-pitched screams of terror— what else would you expect a wild animal might do? Of course they started in on the Chief, nipping my boss about the ears, and beating at his neck and shoulders with their powerful wings. According to Slipper, the assault went on for nearly a full minute before Chief Greene managed to escape from his car. And even though the responding paramedics said that the injuries were mostly superficial, just cuts and bruises and a dislocated shoulder, in my opinion it was only the Chief’s pride that kept him out of the emergency room. As for the cruiser, it had to be totaled. That foul avian odor simply wasn’t coming out of the upholstery, but even that wasn’t all bad. The city issued old Rufus a slick new unmarked ride, the first in a series of jet black Mercurys he’d come to drive over the years. So the way I saw it, at least, the man really should have been thanking me for giving him the hook-up through such a hilarious prank.
As usual, though, the dicks in Internal Affairs just didn’t see it that way. In the end, I took the high road and kept my mouth shut about the whole thing. A heated investigation kicked off the next day, with Team Four cops being interviewed in secret as whispered rumors flew in the hallways. The gossip lasted for weeks, and of course Artie Mistle was the number-one suspect, but thankfully the rains had washed away any forensic evidence. But the furor died down after about five or six months, and eventually I began to think that I just might’ve gotten away with the perfect crime. Still, Artie made a point to hold that gag over my head right up until the day he retired. That jerk never went so far as to throw me under the bus completely, but he did start dropping carefully veiled hints to the other cops, claiming that I’d gone missing for half an hour on that fateful night. And even though there was absolutely no proof of my involvement, not even any circumstantial evidence save for that empty bread bag stuffed beneath the driver’s seat of my cruiser, that certainly didn’t stop anybody from calling me ‘Goosey’... at least, whenever the command staff officers weren’t around. I actually didn’t mind the nickname all that much— for the most part, it was just friendly teasing. All things considered, it made for a pretty cool story, and it was definitely the greatest accomplishment of my law enforcement career.
Back in the moment, Mr. Larssen steered his attention towards the subdivision’s upper-middle-class signage. I followed his angry glare, automatically resuming my line of inquiry while hoping that our patrol rookies wouldn’t be long in coming. Seeing as how I wasn’t going to be the one who got stuck writing the report, I felt comfortable enough to whip through the usual line of questioning. “But anyway, what can I do you for, sir? Our dispatchers mentioned something about a vandalism? They said it may have just occurred?”
He nodded towards the sign, then hocked up a loogie and spit it down on the grass. “Yup. Just happened, all right. Sometime in the last couple days, I reckon.”
I clenched my teeth and balled up my fists, struggling to keep my rage in check. So much for this being an urgent call.
He went on, seemingly unconcerned by the inconvenience he’d caused me. “Take a look at that right there, would you? Sons of bitches up and went plumb damn crazy on our signage! There’s no telling how this kind of mischief might affect our property values, but let me tell you something, the Shadowmoss Homeowners’ Association is not going to take this lying down! No sir, something has to be done!”
My attention came into focus just long enough for me to discern what he was raving about. When I finally saw it, I had to bite down hard on my lip to keep from laughing. It seemed as if some pack of juvenile vandals had gone out and had a field day in the neighborhood, ripping down the oversized letters which had once spelled out “Shadowmoss Plantation.” A handful of them had been picked out of the pile, rearranged, then hastily re-hung to spell the crude phrase “ass nation.” After managing to hold my tongue for a respectably long moment, I drew a pen from my shirt pocket and held it at the ready. The gesture was purely symbolic: I had absolutely no intention of jotting down any facts, especially not since I’d left my notebook back in the cruiser. “Who do you think could have done such a thing?” I prompted.
“Got me” he shrugged. “Probably some of them good-for-nothing teenagers we’ve got running around here. Half-grown beasts, every last one of them.”
I nodded again, putting the pen to good use as I scratched an itch on my forehead. “Yeah, this sure looks like the work of kids, all right. Got to be. Probably some of the same ones who’ve been running wild around all these subdivisions lately, knocking over mailboxes and stealing out of people’s cars and what not. I can’t tell you how many cases I’ve seen just like this one.” That last statement was actually true— I had absolutely no idea how many new case files might have been laying on top of my desk, unread and untouched.
Mr. Larssen grunted in appreciation of my empathy. “Them’s the ones. Nothing but trouble, all them little bastards. Let me tell you something, when I was their age I’d be home by dark, you can bet on that. Anytime I got caught out after the streetlights came on, my daddy would be standing right there on the front porch waiting for me, belt in hand for a good whupping.”
I laughed. “That was my old man too! Say, with our last names and all, now you’ve got me thinking we really might be long-lost cousins!” I waited patiently for the man’s chuckles to subside, satisfied that I’d finally built up enough rapport to blow him off without any consequences. “Well sir, I certainly don’t intend to hold you up any longer. If we don’t have anything else to go on, then I’ll just ask one of our patrol officers to stop by and file a complete report as soon as possible. That should be all the documentation we need, although I’m sure our crime scene technicians will want to stop by later to take some photographs.”
He put his hands on his waist, apparently satisfied by such a thorough, professional law enforcement response. There was absolutely no way in hell that I’d ever actually put pen to paper over such a piddling little incident, but in all honesty, it was the thought that counted. “Thank you, Michael...” he began, before quickly correcting himself. “I mean, Goosey. I truly appreciate your assistance.” He thought for a moment, then gave his head a quick shake. “I swear, this might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, at least for a few of us old-timers. Lately some of the original residents have been talking more and more about selling out, just packing up and heading off to one of those Florida retirement communities. But you know, I could actually understand all the break-ins we’ve been having... with theft, the criminals actually have something to gain. But this?” He waved an arm back at the sign. “This destruction, it just defies all logic. It all stems from a lack of respect, if you ask me. A complete and utter disregard for the neighborhood as a whole. Absolutely no concern for our property values.”
I shook my own head in a non-committal response, mirroring his gestures as I recited my tried-and-true monologue. “Yup. Damn kids, all right. They must have done it.”
Mr. Larssen exhaled deeply, and it appeared that he was finally coming to terms with the hopelessness of his situation. “Well now, it sounds as if you’ve got this matter well in hand. Let me go on and get out of your hair, then. I’m headed down to to the neighborhood association next, got to report the damage there as well. Bad news doesn’t get better with time, you know?”
I flashed him a grim, yet understanding smile. “Read you loud and clear, sir. Duty calls for both of us, it seems.”
He snapped off a quick salute, then turned sharply on his heel and strode over to a spanking new electric golf cart. A practiced flip of the wrist turned the ignition key, and Mr. Larssen slid the Clubman away from the curb in a silent, dignified departure. As for me, I stood there holding a hand to my chin, striking a pose of fierce investigative concentration. It probably made a strange picture for all the motorists passing by on Highway 61, but I held my ground just long enough for the man to round the corner. Once he was safely out of sight, I drew my new smartphone from its fake leather holster and took a series of snaps from arms’ length, praying that the low-megapixel camera might be able to capture both my face and the vandalized sign.
Back home on James Island, in the relative comfort of my one-bedroom shoebox apartment, all seemed right with the world. After departing Shadowmoss Plantation I’d been able to dodge rush hour traffic by taking the back way home, cutting across Johns Island with a brief stopover to grab groceries from the Piggly Wiggly on Maybank Highway. There, a flirtatious wink at the redneck queen manning the registers convinced her to look the other way as I whisked my groceries down the conveyor belt, using my finely-honed interpersonal skills in place of hard currency. The tune I hummed as I cooked dinner that night was a song of contentment, with a bowl full of tasty Ramen noodles warming in the microwave oven and a handful of bills still left in my wallet. For once in my life, there was an above-average chance that I might actually be able to make ends meet until payday.
The microwave’s peaceful hum was interrupted by a high-pitched ping, so I stepped back into the hallway to grab my phone and scroll through the text messages. The newest was from Slipper Johnson, who’d stayed my closest friend at the Department since our rookie days. He’d somehow managed to claw his way up the ranks to Sergeant, and was currently posted downtown as a shift supervisor in Team One. Slipper had a well-earned reputation for being the man in the know when it came to CPD gossip, although the guy also enjoyed launching baseless rumors just for the sake of entertainment.
Still, whenever that dude called, the news was bound to be juicy. After reading his brief, cryptic message aloud— “Live 5 News @ 6 - tune in!” — I dashed off my own quick, yet equally eloquent reply: “OK.” My fingers still weren’t fully accustomed to the ease of using those slick new smartphones, and the ease of dashing off long-winded messages with just a few quick swipes. It was a huge contrast from my old flip-phone, and the endless button-mashing that model had required. One of the biggest benefits of working a predictable, dayshift routine again was that my alcohol and entertainment bills had both dropped off sharply, so even after shelling out big bucks for an upgrade, I was still able to cover my phone bills more often than not.
The clock on the microwave showed 5:58, so I snatched up the bowl of steaming noodles and headed for the living room, pausing only to lean into the fridge and grab a can of Bud Light and a half-empty bottle of barbecue sauce. I took that first cool swig of brew while using my free hand to pour the sauce over my Ramen, watching in fascination as the dark brown goo worked its way down the sides of the bowl. It was a true test of agility, juggling the hearty and nutritious meal with the beer tucked up in the crook of my elbow, simultaneously twisting a fairly-clean fork around in the bowl to work that magical Sweet Baby Ray’s flavor over every last noodle. Once I’d gotten comfortably situated in my old recliner, kicked back with both feet raised high in the air and that plastic Tupperware serving dish balanced neatly along my midsection, I reached for the remote and began clicking through the channels. I hadn’t caught wind of any brewing crises, but I cranked up the volume on Channel 5 News just the same. The way I saw it, Slipper wouldn’t have bothered to flag the broadcast if it wasn’t going to be good.
Sure enough, the newscast didn’t disappoint. Even before they’d rolled the theme music, the show caught my full attention with their blaring leader: “CHARLESTON POLICE CHIEF INVOLVED IN TRAFFIC ACCIDENT DOWNTOWN! GREENE FOUND AT FAULT?” Let me tell you what, that bowl of tasty noodles lay there on my stomach, ignored and forgotten, as I craned my neck upright and slapped at the armrest in search of the remote control. I boosted the volume up as high as the tiny set could go, not sparing a thought for the thin walls separating me from my geriatric neighbors. The newscasters’ voices echoed throughout the small space, almost as if I was standing right there in the studio with them.
“Good evening everyone, I’m John Bryerson.”
“And I’m Anna Gable. Our top story tonight: Charleston Police Chief Rufus T. Greene has been placed on an administrative leave of absence following a two-car traffic accident, which happened just a few short hours ago. Let’s go live to the corner of Reid and America Streets, where Clyde Sanders is standing by with the very latest on this afternoon’s top story.”
“Thank you John, thank you Anna. As you can see behind me, the state Highway Patrol is still on scene, working a wreck which occurred around four o’clock this afternoon. Now we’ve spoken to several eyewitnesses from here in the East Side community, all of whom claim to have seen Charleston’s own Chief of Police, Rufus T. Greene, driving his unmarked vehicle the wrong way up Reid Street and colliding with another vehicle in a low speed, head-on collision. Now thankfully no injuries were reported, but we’ve also been told that the minor accident quickly escalated into a ‘road rage’ situation! We’re still following up on these claims, but I’ve personally spoken to at least one witness who saw Chief Greene actually climb out the window of his police cruiser in order to confront the other driver! The alleged verbal altercation which followed lasted for several minutes, and at some point the argument even turned physical. The Live 5 Newsroom has already heard from a number of callers who’ve said that Chief Greene stood in front of the other driver’s car and beat on her windshield with his nightstick!”
“Clyde, that’s simply remarkable! Do we know how many people witnessed this accident?”
“Anna, that’s difficult to say, because as we speak, the Live 5 News investigative team is still following up with nearly a dozen onlookers. And to any of our viewers who may also have information on this wreck, please give our newsroom a call as soon as possible. We’re particularly interested in obtaining any video footage of this accident, or of the alleged confrontation which followed.”
“Thanks very much, Clyde, keep up the great work. We’ll let you get back to it, but please keep us updated with any new information from the scene.”
“And folks, we’ve also spoken with Charles Franklin, spokesman for the Charleston Police Department. He responded with a short message which said that the Department could not comment on any ongoing investigations, although he was able to confirm that Mayor O’Reilly had indeed placed Chief Greene on a period of administrative leave.”
“This is a breaking story, so of course we’ll keep you updated on any new developments as they come in. But next, let’s turn to Rob Fulton for our other big story, the very latest on Tropical Storm Tradd. Now our Live 5 Weather team has been keeping their eyes on Tradd since it started building out in the Caribbean last week. Rob, what do you have for us?”
I stifled a yawn as I muted the television, then sat there in silence as I stirred the cooling noodles aimlessly around in the bowl. My smartphone was literally blowing up with excited texts, and as tempted as I was to shoot off quick replies, I chose to spend a few quiet minutes considering this new development. It was looking almost like our Chief might have finally gone overboard this time, and there I was, the only cop at CPD who knew what had caused him to blow his gasket. I thought about firing off a message to Artie Mistle, but quickly thought better of that as well. Artie was busy holding down a sweet retirement gig, working as a security guard out at the sleepy old Kiawah Island resort, so I’d hate to wake the guy up while he was on duty. Besides, if our Chief truly was on the verge of a mental breakdown or a life-threatening stroke, I reasoned that it was better just to keep my fingerprints off the matter entirely. After all, there was no sense in ruining my stellar law enforcement career by catching a manslaughter rap.
My phone began ringing in earnest, a throwback to a simpler time when people actually used to call one another, instead of communicating through silent texts. A small, nostalgic part of my soul actually missed hearing the sound of my friends’ voices sometimes, at least until I remembered how little I cared for being around other people. Just my opinion, but the transition to micro-messaging might someday be considered a major milestone in mankind’s collective evolution. Apart from my parents, there was only one other person who still bothered to dial me direct: my girlfriend, Katie Maslow. I muted the television set with one hand and worked the phone with the other, yawning out an idle “Hello?” as I gazed at the colorful graphic of a massive tropical depression out in the Atlantic.
“Hello yourself, handsome.” Katie was blessed with a uniquely thick tone of voice, a sound which had always reminded me of a fat feline’s contented purr. It had a full, rich timbre, and called to mind life’s simple pleasures, things like laying stretched out across the carpet in the warm light of a sunbeam, whiling away the afternoon with nothing more strenuous to do than digest your lunch. Katie’s outgoing personality was nearly as large as her frame, and as much as I hated to admit it, that girl had grown on me over time. Our relationship had developed slowly and surely over the past year, much the same way her waistline had also grown during that time. Only the politest of grandmothers could ever describe Katie Maslow as a slender woman, and nobody’d ever accused that girl of skipping any meals. As one of Charleston County’s deputy coroners, her biweekly paychecks were substantially bigger than my own, and I’d become awfully fond of the way she always picked up the check when we ate out. On a couple particularly insolvent weeks that girl had literally been my lifeline, and I’d never been one to bite the hand that was quite feeding me. Even better, Katie tended to work a lot of nights and weekends, which meant that we didn’t have to actually see each other too often.
I answered her flirt with another yawn, my usual strategy of playing hard-to-get. It’d paid off big for me in the past, so I saw no reason to adjust my tactics.
“So, Mike. What’s Charleston’s best detective up to tonight?”
I spun the noodles slowly around on the tines of the fork, dragging them through the puddles of barbecue sauce with slow, lingering stirs. “Oh, the usual. Just living the good life over here, enjoying everything that comes with it. Say, babe— did you happen to catch the news just now?”
She sighed. “No, I had to come in early today and work straight through. I’m just now leaving the office, and I haven’t spotted a TV all day. Why, what happened? I didn’t miss anything good, did I?”
I chuckled. “Yeah, you could say that. It’s a long story, though. I don’t want to use up all your minutes.”
“Hmm...well, let me tell you what, then. I’ve got a ton of use-or-lose leave that I still need to burn. I don’t think I can get away with blowing off work entirely, but I could always call in a few hours late tomorrow morning. Why don’t I start heading over to your place, and you can catch me up?”
My defenses shot up, a natural reflex to any short-notice change of plans. I never really minded my girl’s company, but I just wasn’t feeling motivated to tidy up the apartment. I shook my head in frustration as I whined, “I dunno, babe. It’s been such a long day, you know? Plus I’ve got work tomorrow too, and those people hold roll call so damned early. Seven-thirty is seven-thirty, and it seems like it’s coming sooner each day.”
The conversation came to a pause, and I knew she must have been searching for the magic words. “You sure?” I heard the sounds of a busy parking lot in the background, and her car’s seatbelt alert chimed as she jammed a key into the ignition. “I’ve got to run by the Li’l Cricket and fill up the tank, my light’s about to come on. Maybe I could grab a six-pack of Miller Lite from the cooler as long I’m there? And a handful of those egg rolls too, as long as they look fresh. What do you say— are you in the mood for roller food?”
My mouth began watering, and I glanced back down at that bowl of limp noodles with a newfound sense of disdain. The thin strands of glutenous pasta had begun congealing into one another, with the spicy barbecue sauce dripping off into a dark pool. With one last, long sigh, I finally succumbed to my girlfriend’s advances. “Alright, I’m sold. But could you make it five of those egg rolls, though? I’m famished. And you know what, why don’t you grab one of those Italian sausages as long as you’re there, and a sack of Funyons too. I mean, if it’s not too much trouble...”
I could almost hear her chubby-cheeked smile beaming across the phone line. “You got it... sweetie. See you in a few.”
As I clicked off, I noticed that I’d missed another half-dozen incoming texts. Slipper and Big Jim had both sent through a couple of saucy comments, and tempted as I was to reply, I decided it was safer to simply cut my phone off entirely. I was off the clock, after all, and I had a hot date to look forward to.
The rising sun’s rays filtered in through the thick glass window, sending bright light down into the office to signal the start of a new day. Despite the early hour, the man in this office had already been at work for some time. Duke Regan was seated behind his desk, a massive edifice of hardwood mahogany, his focus directed intently down at a small stack of invoices. The man worked steadily, only breaking his concentration to steal an occasional glance at the flat-screen television set across the room. The news coverage had become continual by that point, a replay loop of the incoming weather system interspersed with footage of highway traffic. A stationary aerial camera showed a long line of vehicles queued up along Interstate 26, the cars and trucks packed in bumper to bumper as they inched their way towards Columbia. Even though the Highway Patrol had reversed the eastbound lanes of traffic following the Governor’s evacuation order, the sheer volume of cars was overwhelming.
Regan paused, checking the time with a quick glance at his Rolex before reaching for one of several mobile phones nearby. He dialed a number from memory, then turned his attention back to the television.
On the second ring, a cheerful voice answered. “Good morning, hello?”
Duke Regan smiled, grateful for his dependable young associate, who never failed to carry his pre-paid cell phone. “Good morning” he said crisply, silencing the news broadcast with a wave of the remote control. “It’s me.”
A long moment of silence fell across the line, the quiet stretching out so long that Regan began to wonder if his call might have been dropped. South Carolina perpetually lagged behind when it came to new technology, so it was possible that the increased call volume had overloaded the cellular network. Finally, though, Antoine spoke up. “Yes?”
Regan sat down his pen, leaned back in his chair and stretched his long legs out beneath the desktop. “Just wanted to call and make sure that you’ve keeping current with the news this week. I know how busy you are at the moment, what with all of your studies.”
Antoine spoke slowly, steadily, choosing each of his words with a practiced caution. The manner had become a habit during their business dealings, just one more reason why this young man had earned his seat at Duke’s boardroom table, even if he couldn’t actually occupy it. “Yes, I’ve been watching the broadcasts with interest. Our school’s been shut down until further notice, so I’ve actually got a little free time on my hands right now.” Antoine paused before dropping a subtle hint. “I’ve spoken with a few of my friends, and they’re just as bored as I am.”
Regan’s broad smile grew even larger. “You know what they say, don’t you? Idle hands are the devil’s plaything. But you know, maybe I could help you find something productive to help pass the time. It’s kind of a... well, let’s just say it’s a little community service project that I’ve been working on in my spare time.”
Antoine instantly picked up his boss’ meaning, and returned the silent smile. “Oh yeah? Sounds interesting.”
Mr. Regan went on. “Well, judging by the look of this morning’s weather report, it seems as if we may be coming up on a rather unique window of opportunity. I’m at the office right now, just getting a few things in order before I head out of town, but am I safe in assuming that you and your... friends... will not be evacuating the city?”
“That’s correct. Nearly all my, uh, family will be hanging back here in town, riding the storm out as best we can. You know how business works, you got to be ready when the customers come calling. If there’s going to be anywhere near as much damage as they’re predicting, my cousins will be in the best possible position to get hired on with any construction crews. This economy’s been pretty challenging for all of us, you know? So this storm might actually end up bringing a pretty little silver lining along with it.”
Duke nodded, stealing another glance at the time before stopping to gather his paperwork. “Young man, that sounds like an excellent plan. But I do have to ask: why does it always seem as if the two of us working in sync?”
Antoine laughed. “Your guess is as good as mine. Great minds think alike, I guess.”
“Yes, that must be it. Listen, I really must run, so I’ll be brief. I need your team to sign on for as many of these... construction jobs... as they can possibly manage over the next week. I’m willing to underwrite as many as you think you’ll be able to complete, per our usual arrangement. Now I know realize this must seem like a tall order... do you think you can manage a project of this size?”
This time, there was no hesitation. “As long as you’re funding all of them, at the same rates as before? Absolutely, no question.”
“Good man.” Duke stood and reached for the remote control, cutting off his television before striding purposefully for the door. “Apologies for the short notice, but it’s like you just said: this storm may prove to be rather beneficial... for both of us.”
The next morning, I was positively shocked to find that getting out of bed was actually an easy feat. The strange feeling was a rare occasion in this workaday life of mine, and I marked the sensation for posterity. I’d set the alarm clock more out of habit than from any real desire to be punctual, but when I woke up a few minutes before six o’clock, I was clear-eyed and ready to go. It was a challenge to reach up and over my massive girlfriend, but I slid the alert off so as not to wake her. Once again, Katie had spent the night over at my place, and I just didn’t see the point in both of us having to get up so early. Neither she nor I were what you might call morning people, and the prospect of making conversation before I’d had my coffee was simply unthinkable. I chose to walk a considerate, almost chivalrous path, tiptoeing through my shower routine before slipping quietly out the door. Thanks to the Chief’s reminder, I’d even taken the extraordinary step of grabbing a clean necktie from my closet. This one wasn’t knotted up yet, but I reasoned that should I actually have cause to wear the damned thing, I could simply loop it around my collar and hope the half-dressed look made me seem overworked.
Traffic was light as I made my way downtown, and by some small miracle I found a wide-open parking spot right out in front of the station. I claimed the handicapped space without a second thought, charging up the stairs at a breezy pace and noting with no small amount of pride that the wall clock in the lobby read 7:25. That particular morning marked the third straight day I’d been on time for work, so I paused for a moment to consider the new personal record. It was a momentous occasion and yet, I didn’t dare linger. No cop ever wanted to spend to spend too much time hanging about the station, or else they ran the risk of some wandering command staff officer thinking they needed more work to do. In a sudden burst of inspiration, I snatched up a stray Wanted flier and folded it in half. It’s been my experience that the bosses are much less likely to bother you if you make a token show of looking busy, and there’s very few people who’re willing to step in front of a fast-walking dude clutching a sheet of paper.
Our tiny squad room was packed to capacity, the usual fumes from industrial strength cleaner clashing against the two most pungent smells of beat cops, body odor and spray starch. A pair of over-muscled rookies in spotless uniforms were standing up by the door, nearly blocking the entrance, but I shoved my way past and shuffled towards the row reserved for Team Four. On the way, I glanced over at Lieutenant Mark Hammer, my newest boss, and gave him a quick nod of acknowledgement. The big man held my gaze for an uncomfortably long moment, the veins in his massive neck bulging with intensity, before glancing down at his watch to check the time.
Seated to my right was Sergeant Salvatore Brown, the only other investigator assigned to West Ashley. Sal Brown was a whale of a man, standing six feet four inches tall and nearly as wide, with an awkward habit of speaking his mind in an inappropriately loud voice. His foreign accent was just as thick as his frame, and even after damn near half a year of working side by side with the dude, I still hadn’t managed to pin down its origin. To make matters worse, the guy’s enormous handlebar mustache made any attempt at lip-reading impossible. His was a particularly massive soup-strainer, two bushy handfuls of salt-and-pepper hair jammed up beneath a bulby, spiderwebbed nose.
Sal barely acknowledged my presence as I claimed a chair, casting me a silent, sideways glance before turning his attention back to a stack of paperwork. He slid a fat brown thumb down through the sheets, splitting the reports in half before shoving the bottom pile my way. “Here you go, hero” he growled. “Two more shoplifting cases yesterday, plus a simple assault at one of the dive bars along Savannah Highway. That’s in addition to the usual B+Es, of course.” He shook his head in disgust. “Where the hell was night shift, anyway? Linsky’s squad must’ve been holed up in Alex’s for the entire shift, drinking coffee and screwing off.”
I shook my head from side to side, struggling to summon the expression of concern that Sal clearly expected. It was a challenge, though. I knew full well that if I ever got stuck back behind the wheel of a marked patrol car, I’d probably just park myself right there at the all-night diner alongside Lazy Linsky and his rookies. “You know it, Sal” I lied. “Let me tell you what, back when I was still working in uniform...” When I saw the guy begin nodding along in agreement, I shut up and left the sentence unfinished, hanging there to drift away in the air. My own time wearing a uniform had been little more than a prolonged exercise in avoiding work, but surprisingly, those years turned out to be a pretty solid foundation for the rest of my career. Not to brag, but I’d become somewhat of a master at dodging calls for service.
Sal’s head bobbed along as he chewed on his fat lower lip. “It’s all these damn college kids they’re hiring today, you know?” He sneered. “Wanna-be cops. By the time these rookies wake up and figure out what the hell they’re supposed to be doing out there on the streets, they pack up and bail for the FBI, or for some other goddamned federal job. It’s at the point where I can’t even be bothered to learn their names anymore, this place is such a revolving door!”
I nodded back, only half-listening to the rant as I passed the time by mentally rewriting my resume. I’d had a stretch a while back, when I’d been unexpectedly transferred to our Foot Patrol team, that I’d seriously considered making a clean break and leaving CPD once and for all. After I’d sat down to fill out some applications, though, it was clear that I was seriously lacking in marketable skills. Unless I wanted to go down the dead-end path of becoming a campus cop, or maybe even a mall security guard, I was pretty much unemployable outside of my current gig. Thankfully, I’d come to my senses and found enough fortitude to ride the tides. Over the years I’d managed to develop a toxic yet balanced relationship with my employer, and what’s more, there was no denying the satisfaction that came from scamming a paycheck. The way I saw it, as long as the city of Charleston kept laying a golden egg every two weeks, there was simply no need to rush for the door. “I hear ya, Sal” I finally answered, not because I had any interest in the conversation, but rather because some kind of response seemed appropriate. “Hey, did’ja happen to catch the news last night? What about your boy, ol’ Chief Greene, eh? Man, I was laughing so hard, I had to turn off the television set.”
Sal chuckled, and I spotted a smile starting to peek its way out from underneath his soup-strainer. That guy hated our Chief even more than I did, and he could never pass up an opportunity to take joy in somebody else’s misery. “Yeah, how about that, eh? Looks like old Rufus’ time has finally come! From what I heard, the mayor sent him out on paid leave within an hour of the wreck. Cops are even talking like he might not be coming back this time.” Sal leaned over, lowering his head uncomfortably close to mine. With the gap closed, I caught a distinct odor of bratwurst emanating from the hairs of his mustache... or I don’t know, it could just as easily been chorizo.
“Now all this is on the QT” he growled, “but when I came in this morning, some of the brass were talking openly, right there in the hallway, about how Chief Greene was going to get the axe. What with Lieutenant Colonel Hedleyson in charge of the show, it’s about to be open season around this place.”
I left the stack of incident reports laying untouched as I took a long, slow look around the room. Even though I barely recognized most of the other faces, the assembled cops all wore nearly identical expressions. Broken spirits, every one of them, disheartened souls with downcast eyes, as if their attendance at such a sorry gathering was reason enough to feel ashamed. Turning back to my partner in crime, I dismissed the lurid gossip with a shrug of indifference. “No way, Sal. Listen, man, I’ve heard it all before. If that little tyrant really was getting forced out, then tell me something, huh? Why in the world does every single cop here still look so damned downcast?”
He reached a hairy paw across the desk and snatched the Wanted flier I’d grabbed from the lobby. Licking the tips of his fingers with a swollen, purple tongue, he unfolded the paper and pressed its creases down flat on the tabletop. “I’ll bet you haven’t even read this, am I right? Probably just grabbed it to have something in your hand, make you look busy. Christ, Larsen, no wonder your mailbox is always overflowing. I’m beginning to think the only paperwork you care about are your timesheets and your paystubs.”
Not to be outdone, I reached over into Sal’s personal space and nicked an ink pen from his shirt pocket. Those early morning wakeups always made my dandruff flare up, so I used the implement to dig at my itchy scalp. “Well, what can I say? I guess I’ve just got my priorities in order, which is more than I can say for most of these losers.” A shower of tiny white specks fluttered onto my shoulder, so I reached up and brushed them discreetly down to the floor.
He shook his head in mock disgust, but I knew better. Now in all the time I’d been assigned to Team Four, I’d never been foolish enough to visit our office after five o’clock, but I’d have bet good money that I wouldn’t have caught Sal Brown manning a desk after hours. That dude was a jobber, plain and simple, an eight-to-four man who only worked cases as a way to kill time between his more lucrative off-duty security gigs. Come to think of it, that don’t-give-a-damn attitude of his was probably why the two of us made such a good team.
When the wall clock’s minute hand had finally pushed all the way up to seven-thirty, and not one second before, Chuck “Slipper” Johnson stood up and trudged to the front of the squad room. The man walked with his head down, clearly less than enthused at being the most junior supervisor present, and by default the one expected to brief the troops. Slipper wasn’t normally one to step forward unless he absolutely had to; like the rest of CPD’s leaders, his rightful place was in the rear. “Awright ladies, listen up” he called. The patrol rookies’ conversations petered out, and even the salty old veterans dropped their voices to a respectful whisper. “I’m not about to waste my time or yours by calling the damn roll, okay? Every last one of you should know your damn names by now. If you’re here and you for some damn reason you shouldn’t be, too fucking bad. Not my problem. And if you’re looking around and you happen to notice anybody who’s not here that damn well ought to be, how about you give them a call, tell them to pull their heads out of their damn asses and get with the damn program already.”
The older cops in attendance nodded in appreciation of Slipper’s brisk managerial style. Some of the younger rookies struggled to scribble down his words, but I hoped they also took note of how Slipper hadn’t bothered with taking a seat. He probably would’ve just gone ahead and wrapped up the briefing right then and there, but the squad room door suddenly burst open once again. It swung fast on its hinges, slamming into the concrete wall with a hard, ringing smack that echoed through the room, causing every slouching spine to snap upright. In walked Captain Tommy Russell, the head of CPD’s uniform division, a midget of a man who compensated for his slight stature by walking around on spit-shined tiptoes. At only five-foot-four the man cut a slight profile, although I think that stick shoved up his ass helped tack on at least a couple extra inches. The Captain surveyed the crowd with his narrow, beady eyes, scanning the group for any obvious uniform violations. Feeling unusually proud of myself, I sat up straight and tall, drew my folded-up necktie from my shirt pocket and set it down in plain view on the tabletop.
Slipper glanced up long enough to throw his boss a grudging acknowledgement. “Morning, Cap. We was just wrapping it up over here— got any words of wisdom to pass along to the men?”
Captain Russell had never been one to wait for a second invitation, so he strode purposefully up to the podium. “Yes, indeed I do. Thank you very much, Sergeant Johnson. That will be all.” Slipper shrugged off the dismissal, pivoting sharply on his heel and heading back to his comfort zone at the rear of the squad room. It had been a remarkably efficient briefing, but when I saw the Captain draw himself up to his full height, I knew we weren’t getting off so easily. He planted his tiny hands squarely on the sides of his gun belt, launching another steely gaze out at the assembled cops. The patrol rookies in attendance met the stare full-on, respectfully mirroring the man’s intensity, while all the career cops did our level best to stifle yawns of boredom.
“Morning, men. Now I’m sure that as dedicated law enforcement professionals, you’ve all developed a habit of following the daily news. And because of that, I’m sure you’re already aware of the negative media coverage following Chief Greene’s unfortunate traffic accident. I want you to know that I certainly didn’t come here to pile on to that topic.”
Sal leaned over to whisper in my ear. “Then why the fuck is this old bastard wasting our time, huh? Christ, I’m late for breakfast.” His breath was hot and heavy, and as the spicy odor of that mystery sausage hit my nostrils, I was forced to reclaim my personal space with a rough shove.
Up at the front of the room, the Captain droned on. “As was noted last night, in accordance with the Mayor’s guidance, Chief Greene will be on a leave of absence until further notice. While he’s away, Lieutenant Colonel Hedleyson is serving as the acting Chief of Police.” He paused, rotating his head a full ninety degrees, staring angrily from one side of the room to the other. It was a slow, calculated gesture, one that gave him the opportunity to make eye contact with each of us in turn. I’m proud to say that I didn’t flinch— no, I just smiled back as the two of us locked eyes, patting my folded-up necktie as a show of professionalism.
“I don’t have to remind you all” he continued, “that you represent the Charleston Police Department both on-duty and off. That’s twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Your actions have a direct impact on the public image and the stellar reputation of this fine agency.”
Sal couldn’t hold back a chortle, and the unfortunate reaction earned him an instant, icy stare. I seized the opening to chasten my partner with a sharp shoulder check, earning a quick nod of gratitude from the Captain. Now I’ve never been one for brown-nosing, but hey, a man’s got to take his opportunities whenever they come up.
“But for those of you who happened to stay tuned in for some of the less... shall we say, sensational news yesterday, you also heard that the city of Charleston is facing a much more pressing issue. Based on the latest projections from the National Weather Service, Hurricane Tradd has grown into a Category 2 storm. It’s on track to make landfall within the next forty-eight hours, possibly increasing to Category 3 status between now and then, with sustained winds up to 129 miles per hour. Just an hour ago, the Governor issued a mandatory evacuation order for the Lowcountry. He specifically cited the severe risk of flooding for all low-lying areas.”
The Captain paused for a moment, aiming his laser-sharp glare around the room as the message sank in. I waited until he’d passed me by, then unleashed a powerful yawn once the coast was clear. Edging closer to Sal, I covered my mouth with my hand and whispered, “What the fuck, bro? So like, Russell’s a weatherman now or something? I’m with you, man, I’ve got other places I could be.”
He nodded in empathy. “Seriously, right? Like, hey, if I really cared about the weather, I’d of taken half a second to look out the window before I left the house this morning. Let me tell you something, when it’s sunny outside, I go to work and do my damn job. And when it’s raining, I go to work and do my best to spend the entire shift fucking off in the team office.”
He held out a fist, which I pounded in agreement. “For real, bro. Big storm or not, all this weather nonsense sounds like my favorite kind of problem: somebody else’s.”
Once fully satisfied that all of us had heard him, the Captain rolled right on along with his lecture. He paced back and forth behind the podium as he spoke, hands clasped behind his back as if he was delivering some kind of great oratory, rather than simply wasting our time. “So what might this impending hurricane mean for us, you may be asking yourselves? Quite simply, it means that the Charleston Police Department, along with nearly every other law enforcement agency in the state, will be standing up our emergency operations plan. Effective immediately, all previously approved leave requests are officially rescinded. Officers will start working in twelve-hour shifts from tomorrow morning, and we’ll maintain that rotation until further notice.”
Faced with such horrible news, I came dangerously close to losing my bearing entirely. My head dropped down to the desk, and judging by the muffled thumps I heard echoing around the room, at least a handful of other cops shared my feelings of despair. Even though my arms were wrapped up over my head, I still couldn’t manage to completely drown out the words that followed. It could have been my imagination, I guess, but Captain Russell’s voice seemed to take on a joyous note as he watched us suffer.
“All special units” he went on, “to include our esteemed Central detectives and team investigators, will be temporarily re-assigned to uniform patrol until after the storm has passed. The acting Chief’s most pressing concern is for us to beef up our operations, so it’s all hands on deck for the duration of the storm. Operation Cyclone Fury will kick off at 0400 tomorrow morning, so I’d suggest that all of you spend some time today getting your own households in order. As for your family members, make sure they’re evacuating while they still can. And while you’re preparing your duty gear, be sure to pack a few extra changes of clothing. We’ll be establishing smaller, scaled-down command posts within each of the patrol teams. No officers will be dismissed to return home until we’ve issued the all clear.”
While the room erupted in a fresh chorus of grumbles, Sal laid a big arm across my shoulder. “Damn, bro. I mean, when I heard the rumors last night I shot you a text,” he whispered, “but you never answered back. Looks like all the Team Four officers will be bunking up together at the Citadel Mall.” He squeezed his thick fingers along my collarbone, sending a shockwave of pain up the side of my neck. “So I guess we’ll be roomies, eh? Well, we’ll just have to make the best of it. Sure hope you aren’t bothered by a little bit of snoring.”
I groaned. Enduring Sal’s rank body odor during a normal, eight-hour work day was bad enough, but the thought of having to listen to him wheeze in and out all night long through that deviated septum of his was simply too much to bear. He chuckled at my misery, working to get in another dig while Captain Russell was still distracted by the low rumbling of impending mutiny. “Well, look on the bright side, hero. At least it’ll be a shorter commute, huh? And who knows, maybe you can even use the downtime to close out a couple of your cases. Those folders on your desk are beginning to stack up, you know— all that paper might be a fire hazard.”
No way, I thought to myself, shaking my head in abject denial as the Captain cleared his throat and called the room to order. “Obviously, gentlemen” he droned on, ignoring the small number of petite, ponytailed female officers present. “We recognize the sacrifice that you’ll all be making in order to serve our fair city. We plan to have all the necessary resources in place to support you, including a more than adequate supply of canned food. The alternate command centers in West Ashley, James Island and Daniel Island will also have temporary accommodations for each patrol team, which I’m sure will be quite comfortable. This way, you’ll be able to focus a hundred percent of your efforts on your work, rather than worrying about a dangerous commute back home, or even coming downtown to hand in your reports. Now there’ll be many more details forthcoming as this assignment takes shape, so please keep in touch with your supervisors and stand by for additional information. But for now, I’ve probably kept you long enough. So unless anyone has any questions, let’s get out there and hit the streets!”
I kept my head down on the desk, trying my best to block out the harsh sounds of chairs scraping against the linoleum floor and worn boots shuffling out into the hallway. I only dared to raise my eyes back up once it seemed as if the majority of cops had left for work, and when I finally did risk a sneak peek, I was dismayed to see Mark Hammer, staring right back down at me. His hands were planted on his hips, forearm muscles bulging out of those short uniform sleeves, and for some reason he was shaking his head from side to side with a sour look of disappointment. “Jesus Christ, Larsen” my boss groaned. “What gives? You went the extra mile this morning, actually setting your alarm clock and getting to work on time for once in your miserable damned life, but I guess all that effort left you too exhausted to work your cases, huh? Now I don’t suppose you’ve managed to make any progress yet on all those vandalisms we’ve had out in Shadowmoss? No? How about last week’s B&Es up there in Village Green?”
I sighed, but still pushed my chair back and stood up. Sure, Hammer was a genuine prick, the type of weightlifting meathead cop who made a point of getting all his uniform shirts tailored half a size too small, but to be fair, the guy did have longevity going for him. Lieutenant Hammer was one more member of CPD’s “retired-on-duty” club, those grey-haired cops who’d put in twenty-five years only to come right back to work and pad their pensions. Whenever the older guys hit that mark, though, any motivation they ever had on active duty seemed to disappear once those retirement checks started rolling in. And even though Hammer hadn’t been my boss for very long, it only took him a few days to realize there was simply no point in trying to ride me very hard. It looked as if Hammer had just lost all interest in the job, and as for me, I’d just never been inclined to do much work in the first place. But still, it never hurt to toss out a token display of respect every once in a while. “Working hard, L.T.” I grunted, tucking the still-folded-up necktie back into my shirt pocket before reaching down to give the tall stack of paperwork a quick shuffle. “Sal and I are closing in, and after so many months of this crap, we might finally be near an arrest. I mean, we have to be, right? This crime wave can’t go on forever.”
He snorted with laughter, the sudden influx of oxygen causing the veins along his temples to bulge against his trim grey crewcut. “So what is that supposed to mean? Don’t tell me you guys have found a suspect?”
He’d stumped me with that one. I had absolutely no idea how many incident reports might have been sitting on top of my desk, untouched and unread, so there was literally no way for me to forecast the probability of a collar. “Uh... of course, boss. We’re all over it. But listen, damn it, I left my notebook back in the car. Can I give you the rundown a little later on this morning?”
Jughead twisted his lips up into a mean scowl. “See that you do, huh? Russell’s all over my ass about these cases. Just my damn luck, waiting all those years to get promoted, only to take charge of the patrol team where half of the command staff bought houses. Of course, that was back in the day when the suburbs were affordable, not this goddamned land bubble we’re stuck in right now.”
I did my best to pretend like I cared, nodding along in mock sympathy as I reflected on my own modest apartment. I’d learned very early on in my career that no good could come from taking my work seriously, which is why I’d developed a habit of misplacing my pager every night at five o’clock. I briefly pondered why either Captain Russell or Lieutenant Hammer might be concerned with a few piddling breakins at the same time a natural disaster was heading our way, but in the end my discretion won out, and I responded with a simple “Will do.” Amazingly, the noncommittal answer seemed to satisfy Jughead, and he stomped out of the squad room without another word.
I hung back for another moment, using the tried-and-true guise of browsing all the handouts strewn across the podium. The encounter was a sure sign that I must have been mellowing in my old age, handling that confrontation with such tact, when only a few short years before my smart mouth might have bought me another three-day suspension for insubordination. But of course, nobody’s ever accused Jughead of being a rocket scientist. The way I heard some of the old-timers tell it, the only way Mark Hammer ever crossed The Citadel’s parade ground at graduation was by choosing a seat next to a nerd cadet during final exams, shamelessly copying from the kid’s paper with a complete disregard for the school’s honor code. After joining the ranks of CPD he’d managed to climb the ladder using the exact same strategy, at least until he slipped up and got those Lieutenant bars pinned on. Now policework isn’t exactly the same thing as splitting the atom, so it’s entirely possible that nobody ever noticed what a moron Hammer was, at least not until that guy tried to draw up a duty schedule. Of course his career had reached its peak by that point, and the Team Four beat cops who got stuck working rotating split shifts were the real victims. It seemed as if Lieutenant Hammer, a man who was genuinely incapable of grasping even the most basic mathematical concepts, expended the bulk of his mental muscle trying to keep his patrol squads staffed with warm bodies. The man struggled over the concept that each and every day had twenty-four hours to cover, and it didn’t take long for the overworked uniform cops to stick their leader with the nickname “Jughead.”
“That was pretty slick, young man” a hoarse voice rasped from behind. “What happened that you finally managed to land on Jughead’s good side? Did you two go and become gym buddies or something? I know you’ve been getting all slim and trim since you snagged a steady girlfriend, but I never thought you’d turn into a jock like Hammer.”
I turned around to see Lieutenant Jim Cobb, one of the crustiest old cops in the Central detectives bureau, still comfortably seated at the back of the room. Knowing Big Jim, it was entirely possible that he’d drifted off to sleep during the briefing, though it was much more likely that he just couldn’t manage to lift his huge body out of the chair. I’d spent several years working under Big Jim, and I knew the man well. He’d probably struggled for ten, maybe fifteen seconds, those tiny T-Rex forearms of his shaking with exertion, before throwing in the towel. His calculating mind would have reasoned that it was too much trouble to head upstairs to his office, so the only logical move was to remain seated until the afternoon roll call. Yeah, if that guy was going to move at all during the next eight hours, it would only be to reach for his radio and call some rookie for a coffee and a sandwich.
I flashed him a wicked grin, hitting Big Jim with the same charm that I used on all of my supervisors. “You like the way I played that? Don’t worry about me, Jim, I’ve got this.” I shot my mentor a sly wink. “I’ve handled my share of tough bosses— you of all people should know that.”
Jim let loose with a short chuckle, one which was quickly followed a long series of hacking wheezes. His breaths came in short gasps, the result of a lifetime spent smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes. “I wouldn’t know anything about that, bub. Come to think of it, in all those years you spent hanging out in Central, I can’t remember you ever once closing a case.” He nodded a triple chin down towards the chair, where his scrawny, wrinkled limbs lay impotently atop the armrests. “Hey, give me a hand, whydoncha? Damn back’s gone on the fritz again.”
I reached out to offer a grip, a selfless gesture that Jim gratefully accepted. After a brief struggle, the two of us succeeded in getting the man back upright. “Don’t ever get old, kid” he grunted, reaching around his ample waist to massage his spine. “There’s no future in it.” While my old boss kneaded at his soft flesh, I took a step back to give him some room. Big Jim obviously needed a moment to compose himself, and as much as I hated to admit it, the exertion had left me winded too.
Finally, Jim stood upright with a wide grin across his liver-spotted lips. “See Goosey, there you go! All that iron you’ve been pumping over at the mall? It’s really starting to pay off!”
I felt my face flush with pride, but chose to walk a modest path. “No way, boss. The Planet Fitness might only be a couple doors down from the team office, but you’ll never catch me in that place... not unless there’s some kind of ‘suspicious activity’ call from the ladies’ locker room. But hey, I tell you what: if your back’s so wracked up, then why don’t you just punch out for a few days? Rest up, relax a little. If you push yourself too hard, you might make a small problem even worse. I know an old fox like you has to have a couple sick days on the books.”
Jim laughed again, rounding off the dose of good humor with a couple more hacking coughs. I watched, fascinated, while the dark bags of skin beneath his eyes wiggled up and down in time to each wheeze. “What, and miss out on this shitshow?” he choked. “Ain’t no way, dude! That’s the only reason I came into roll call this morning, and to be frank, it’s the only reason I haven’t popped smoke and retired for real yet. When you’ve got a front-row seat at the CPD circus, why would you ever want to miss all this free entertainment?”
Now it was my turn to laugh, since I suspected that by that late stage in his career, Big Jim Cobb must have been sitting a pretty fat bank account. What with his dual pensions from both CPD and the Navy before that, Jim Cobb was qualified to teach a graduate-level course in sucking off the government tit. The dude was pushing sixty and living in a paid-for condo just across the Ashley River, a perpetual bachelor without even a single kid that he knew about. But even with all that spare loot at his disposal, Jim was so cheap that he