by Kaye George
This story was nominated for Best Short Story Agatha Award of 2009 after it appeared in January in the magazine Crooked, and it was also published in Kaye’s own collection, A Patchwork of Stories.
“If your brother screws up once more…” Cal Arnold’s tirade skittered to a stop at the expression on his wife’s face.
“Yeah? What you gonna do about it?” Marcy’s sneer, as usual, lately, went to Cal’s heart.
The kitchen radio, tuned to Chicago’s super station, WGN, ground out a continuing gloomy winter forecast: flurries, cold, windy.
Marcy turned to the counter, jammed a banana into her lunch tote, zipped it. “So, big cop, you gonna arrest him? For what?” She whirled to face him. Cal wanted to touch her, but he knew better. Not when she was this angry.
“For being an idiot.” Cal slammed the door on his way out, shuffled down the front steps of their bungalow. He blew his nose, wadded the tissue, threw it on the floor of his pickup, and roared out of the driveway.
This wasn’t their first clash over Marcy’s deadbeat brother. The shouting matches always ended the same way. Angry. Unresolved. Cal always wanted to derail the freight train of their rage before the inevitable collision at the end of the fight, but never could. They always ended up mad.
The shift commander gave him the usual glare at his late arrival, but Cal ignored him, coughed into his sleeve as he passed his desk on the way to his locker.
He sat on the bench, Fred Davis towering above him. Davis wasn’t Cal’s favorite fellow cop. Not by a long shot.
“Hey, Arnold. Up late last night?” Cal glanced up into Davis’s smirk. “Those lovely red-rimmed eyes?” Davis tossed his keys between his hands, one of his less annoying habits.
“No, Davis. I have a cold.” Cal looked back at the shoe he was tying.
“A cold, right.” The only reason Davis jangled those keys was so you’d see the garish medallion dangling from the ring, the one that said Mensa Member in bold letters. Davis made sure everyone knew he was so incredibly intelligent he wouldn’t remain a patrol officer for long.
“Right, Davis. I have a cold. What, you think I’m partying without you?”
Cal took another look. “Hey, Davis, what happened to your old medal?” His medal used to actually say Mensa Membe, since Davis had tossed it around so much the R had gotten knocked off. This one was intact. “They award you a new one because you’re so brilliant? Found out you could spell ‘member’?”
Davis stuffed the keys into his pocket, snorted, and walked off. Davis was a guy you did not want watching your back. He’d been known to let more than one fellow cop down. Cal had so far avoided being paired with the jerk.
The shift report was mostly lost on Cal with his plugged and ringing ears. He blew his nose a dozen times, used up all the tissues in his pockets.
“Still got that cold?” asked Ron Barrett, his partner, as they got into their squad car. “I thought it’d be gone by now.”
“What ya takin’?”
“Nothing yet. Stop by the drugstore. I’ll get some cough syrup.”
Barrett swung into Walgreen’s parking lot and waited in the car, motor and heater running. Cal hunched his shoulders against the bitter Chicago wind and zipped his jacket, then trotted into the warm brightness, out of those icy, stinging snowflakes. And stopped.
The checkout clerk at the front counter was shaking, her bangle bracelets setting up a nervous clatter, her eyes so wide the whites showing all the way around. The first customer in line wore a knit cap pulled low on his forehead, a straw poking out in front of his ear. His hands were in his pockets, but one of those pockets appeared to hold more than a hand.
“’Scuse me.” Cal unsnapped his holster and cut into the line, stepped up just behind the punk. When he glanced down he saw that the pocket contained only a hand. The kid was holding up the place with his finger. He dug his own finger into the kid’s spine, just for the hell of it. “Party’s over, kid.”
The boy whirled, saw Cal’s expression–and his gun–and threw his hands up, fear conquering bravado on his soft, fresh face.
Cal shook his head and cuffed the kid. Barrett, having seen the action through the glass doors, appeared behind the aspiring felon, his weapon drawn.
“Read him his rights,” said Cal, overcome by a coughing fit. “I gotta get sub bedicine before we leave.” They patted the kid down and stowed him in the back of the cruiser, but, before Cal could complete his purchase, a nine-one-one came in–possible domestic.
Barrett flipped on the light bar and they sped to the address. With Daniel, the young drugstore robber, still locked up in the caged rear seat, they parked a couple of houses away and walked back. They paused on the stoop and listened. All was quiet. Barrett put his ear to the flimsy door and held up a finger.
“Someone’s crying inside,” he whispered to Cal.
“Hear anything else?” asked Cal.
Barrett listened again. “Just a TV. Let’s go in.”
A woman in her thirties, barefoot and in a bathrobe, opened the door. Her eyes were red, but no bruises were visible.
“We god a nide-wod-wod call ad dis address, baab,” said Cal.
She stared at Cal, then turned to Barrett. “What?”
“We got a nine-one-one call at this address, ma’am?” he interpreted.
“Oh, yes,” she answered, like she just now remembered that little old pesky thing. “It’s okay now.”
“You sure?” said Barrett. She nodded, but Cal asked if they could “cub id.”
She frowned at Cal, then turned to Barrett who said, “Could we come in and look around? You mind?”
She hesitated for a heartbeat, then stepped aside and let them enter. An unshaven man slumping on a sagging couch shot them a surly glare.
Cal raised his eyebrows. “Who’s dis?” he asked the woman, then sneezed.
“Phil,” she said with a flat tone, edging away from Cal. Cal stayed with the man while Barrett took the woman into another room to try and determine if everything was really all right. He returned, shrugged, they took names and left.
The two cops then took Daniel to the jail. When they finished booking him in, it was lunch time. Barrett drove to the station.
“You wanna eat here, Cal?” asked Barrett.
“I gotta,” cough cough, “get some,” cough cough…
“Yeah, yeah, go. I’m stayin’ in here where it’s warm.” Barrett waved him off and headed for the cafeteria downstairs.
Cal jumped out of his pickup and stared through Walgreen’s glass doors.
“I don’t believe this,” he muttered.
The bitter wind had picked up and the heavy clouds created the feeling of impending night at noon. At least the flurries had stopped. The same young clerk was again quaking at the sight of the first customer in line, her bracelets rattling as before. But this time Cal recognized the robber. Cal entered the store, his hand on the pistol under his jacket. The youth kept his gaze on the clerk, hadn’t seen Cal. Cal started to clear his throat to get his attention, but, instead, had a coughing fit. He fumbled in his pocket for a sodden tissue, his eyes streaming from the pain in his throat. When he recovered and looked up, the robber was gone.
“Shit.” Cal ran out in time to see a car spinning out into the traffic. He drew his weapon, ran a few steps, aiming at the rear window. His foot caught on a patch of ice, he skidded, regained his balance. Then he lowered the gun and stuck it into his holster. His shoulders sagged. He had been about to shoot his brother-in-law.
He leaned over, put his hands on his knees, and gave in to seven successive sneezes.
Cal jumped into his pickup and tried to follow, but lost the vehicle within a few blocks. He knew that car, though, that old blue Ford, even thought he knew where it was headed. He was wrong, though. He drove to Nate’s apartment building and the blue Ford wasn’t there. Cal pounded his fist on the steering wheel, cursing Nate, his wife’s younger brother.
“Who the hell does he think he is?” Cal growled to himself. “He’ll make his sister sick from worrying about him.”
The last time Nate had been hauled in–auto theft–he ended up serving a few months. Cal’s heart had broken every time Marcy returned from visiting her brother in jail, she seemed so defeated, so still for hours afterward.
Nate had been born ten years after Marcy, and their parents both died in a car wreck when Nate was sixteen. Marcy tried to be mother and father to Nate, but he had a wild streak as wide as Lake Michigan. And a chip on his shoulder the size of the Sears Tower. Nate thought the world owed him something and he was determined to get it, by God. By any means necessary. All his teachers were out to get him. After he quit school, all his bosses at a succession of low-paying jobs were out to get him. Until he gave up on jobs altogether.
Cal had finally had enough a month ago and told Nate he could no longer live with them unless he got started working. All he’d done for weeks was watch TV and leave piles of dirty dishes and clothing everywhere. Nate had moved out, but left them an astronomical bill for pay-per-view movies. Nate was now, apparently, holding up drug stores for a living.
Cal couldn’t control his curiosity. Before he went to a fast food place for lunch, he swung by his own house. Nate’s Ford was in the driveway. Cal didn’t slow down, just kept driving, a knot the size of Nate’s shoulder chip in his gut. Could he pretend he didn’t see that?
He picked up a double cheeseburger, fries, and Coke at the counter, took them to a tiny plastic table, then perched on a tiny hard seat. The lunch was tasteless, but Cal, figuring he had to “stuff his cold,” chewed and swallowed, wiping his nose between bites.
“Jesus H. Christ in a kettle!” snarled an elderly man a couple of tables over, and threw down the ketchup packet he’d been wrestling with.
“In a kettle?” answered his companion, another wrinkled geezer. Both were wrapped in mufflers and topped with woolen caps, but had taken off their thick gloves to eat. The second man picked up the ketchup packet and pulled on it. It remained intact.
“What’s he supposed to be in?” asked Ketchup Man, snatching the packet and resuming his struggle.
“A handbasket, you idiot.”
“I thought that’s what we went to hell in. Godammit!” The ketchup packet finally burst, dousing the man’s plaid wool scarf.
Cal suppressed a snicker that scraped anew at his raw throat. He got up and pitched the rest of his lunch.
He had no desire to return to the Walgreen’s, the scene of his disgrace, and the next nearest drug store was miles away.
At the station, he begged some cough drops from the dispatcher. She handed him three, cherry menthol, which he detested.
“Arnold,” called his partner from across the room. “We got another hold-up at the same drug store. Do you believe that?”
Cal shook his head. If he said anything, he would start coughing again. The vile throat lozenge wasn’t working.
“Let’s get ‘em,” said Barrett.
Cal tried to suppress a shiver.
“Hey, maybe you’d better go home, Cal. You aren’t getting any better.”
Cal considered his two possibilities. Number One: drive to the drug store with Barrett; have the clerk recognize him as the cop who coughed his guts out while the perp escaped, then fled without taking a statement. Number Two: go home, where he knew the actual perp, his charming brother-in-law, was hanging out. Neither appealed to him.
He tried to answer Barrett, but instead made croaking sounds.
“Dude, you go home. I’ll get Davis to go with me.” He added, under his breath, “Much as I hate to.”
What was going to happen when the clerk told them about him? Cal’s broad shoulders sagged. What could he do about it? Not trusting his raw throat, he nodded and headed out.
After sitting in his truck for a few minutes, a third alternative occurred to him. He would drive around until his shift ended. Nate would be gone by then. Cal was almost certain Nate had about the same desire to encounter his sister’s police officer husband as the husband had to encounter him. But after an hour of aimless driving, the appeal of his third choice was wearing thin. He’d used up the remaining cough drops. Did he dare approach another drug store? They seemed to be jinxed for him today.
He wondered what Barrett was thinking, now that, most likely, he knew Cal had been at the scene and failed to make a report. Oh well, it wasn’t as if he’d never been called onto the carpet before. The truck rolled to a stop in a parking lot for one of the Lake Michigan beach areas. His truck had gotten to North Lake Shore Drive without him thinking about where he was going.
He watched the waves crashing onto the sand for awhile, then switched off the motor to hear their seething roar. The wild, gray, furious water suited his mood. He contemplated not being a cop anymore.
The last time he had seriously considered leaving the force was four years ago, the case of the Howard children. That discovery had been the culmination of a particularly gruesome week. He’d taken a woman to the hospital with a broken jaw, inflicted by the love of her life, whom she refused to charge; had sent a teen-aged girl to the same place with infection throughout her body from the cuts her mother had gashed into her arms with a filthy razor; and he and Barrett had answered over a dozen domestics that week when the call came in.
A neighbor had phoned the station saying a bad odor was coming from the apartment across the hall. And they had discovered the bodies of the children.
Cal had kept his cop face on, as he always did on the job. The other calls that week had gotten shoved into a drawer in the back of his mind so he could carry on, handle the crises, one after another. He filed the incidents away to be dealt with later. But later never came. The drawers stayed shut. More calls came. More atrocities to be shoved into more drawers in his mind. When he and Barrett kicked the apartment door in and found the Howard children, Cal ran out of drawers.
He’d taken a month’s leave and gotten his mind cleared out some, making room for more of the evil that people do to each other. That had been the closest he had ever come to quitting. But, at the end of the month, he’d suited up, squared his shoulders, pasted a grim expression onto his face, and re-entered the fray, sworn to protect and serve.
Now, lulled by the waves and a brief hiatus in his coughing spasms, he recalled the two old guys at the hamburger place.
If I’m in hell–and it sure as hell feels like I am–am I in a kettle or a handbasket?
This line of thought didn’t arrive at a conclusion anymore than the fights with Marcy about Nate ever did. The kettle might be warmer than the handbasket, though. And hot water was what he was in with Marcy, and hot water was what was in the kettle. Except he was freezing.
Oh yeah, getting warm isn’t a problem in hell. I guess this isn’t hell.
The cold had crept into the vehicle without Cal noticing. His hands were numb. He started the engine, dropping the key twice with stiff fingers, cranked the heater to max, shivering at the initial blast of cold air. The watery sun, filtering through the cloudbank to the west, was sinking behind him. Out of options now, Cal aimed the truck toward home. Nate’s car was gone when he got there.
That night Marcy dosed him with a powerful cold remedy, thick and syrupy, and he slept for a few hours straight. On the couch. Neither of them mentioned Nate. In the morning he felt marginally better as he entered the station.
“Anders wants to see you,” Davis greeted him with a lupine smile.
Barrett avoided looking directly at him. Two bad signs, thought Cal.
Captain Anders kept Cal waiting while he called the Lieutenant in. A third, very bad, sign. Cal’s heart beat revved up after the Lieutenant arrived, and he faced his two formidable superiors, standing before the Captain’s desk.
“Do you know what this is about?” asked the Captain.
“Yes, sir. I think so.”
He hesitated while they stared, their faces hard.
“I failed to write up a report on an attempted robbery in progress.” Cal thought fast. “It’s the first thing I was going to do this morning, sir.” He glanced to his side to include the Lieutenant. “I was running a hell of a fever yesterday, sir.” Was that enough ‘sir’s for them?
“Barrett mentioned you weren’t well.”
A long silence.
The Lieutenant took over. “I don’t consider that an excuse, Officer Arnold.”
“No, of course not. Sir.”
More agonizing moments of stony silence.
The Captain finally relented. “Write up your report, Arnold. And don’t think this won’t go into your file.”
“Yes, sir.” He breathed out his relief back at his desk. But, as he wrote the report, not mentioning that he knew the identity of the interrupted robber, he wondered if he would have been all that disappointed at a suspension.
Patrol was relatively uneventful that day. No more drug store robberies. And Cal was armed with handfuls of cough drops. Honey flavored, the good kind. Until the end of the shift. A call came in sending them to the same damn Walgreen’s. Darkness had fallen, the parking lot was almost empty.
They entered, spoke with an ashen-faced stock clerk named Kenny. He walked with an unsteady lurch as he led them to the rear of the store and opened the alley door. The bracelets gleamed in the dim light of the single outside bulb. Her body had been stuffed behind the dumpster. Only her slender arm protruded.
At their desks, writing up the interminable reports, Barrett speculated about whether the recent attempted robberies had anything to do with the clerk’s murder. The young woman had most likely been strangled with the piece of twine found next to her body.
“How do you figure?” asked Cal.
“Well, maybe that second robber, the one that got away, was afraid she’d recognize him and turn him in.”
“Murder’s a pretty severe way to avoid what would probably be a light jail sentence. It was only attempted robbery.” No. Nate did not do this. He believed that. Not this.
“Maybe he’s already got a record. Maybe this would be his third strike.”
“Maybe.” Nate was a perfect suspect. Nate had two strikes: the recent car theft and a purse snatching a couple of years ago. Cal wondered if Marcy could alibi him.
“I haven’t seen him since he moved out, Cal.” Marcy chopped lettuce for salad with more vigor than necessary.
“Cut the crap, Marcy.” He plopped into a chair at the kitchen table, spoke to her stiff back. “I drove by the house yesterday afternoon and his truck was out front. I had just scared him off from robbing a Walgreen’s.”
Marcy’s knife hand faltered in mid-air. “Robbing a…? You’re sure it was Nate?”
“Positive, darlin’. I put my neck on the line by not turning him in. If anyone in that drugstore knows he’s your brother, my job is worth shit.”
Marcy hung her head. “He was here, Cal.” Her voice broke. “He wouldn’t tell me what had upset him, but he was seriously shaken. He promised me he’d get a job. A friend thinks he can get him on at the movie rental place.” She shook with silent sobs for a few moments, her back still turned to him. “I’m tired of it, too, Cal. I told him we were through bailing him out of his messes.”
“Was he here today?”
She spun to face him and raised her head in alarm. “Today?” Tears glistened in her puzzled eyes. “What happened today?”
“Was he here, Marcy?” It came out louder than he had intended.
She cringed, grabbed the kitchen counter. “Why?” Her voice was faint.
“Tell me, Marcy.”
She ran to the bedroom and slammed the door.
“Fuck,” Cal breathed. If only she had been able to say Nate was here all day. He wanted her to be able to say that. Now what was he supposed to do? It was a little late for him to be identifying the subject of the report he’d written.
He slept on the couch again.
As soon as he and Barrett got into the squad car, Barrett spoke, his voice low, like he didn’t want to be overheard, even here in the car. “Cal, Davis is acting weird. Even for Davis. You know, when we went to the drug store to take the girl’s report on that second robbery attempt? Me and Davis? She kept looking at Davis like he was Darth Vader. And Davis was giving her these goofy grins. He winked at her once. I asked him in the car, afterwards, what the hell was going on, if he knew her, but he clammed up tight.
Yesterday he avoided being in the same room with me at the station. He left his desk every time I walked in. Something strange is going on. Maybe you could talk to him.”
“I’ll try, Ron.” And he did. But Davis was avoiding Cal, too.
On his way home, Cal stopped in at the drug store and sought out Kenny, the stocker who had shown them the body.
“Were you here when, uh, what was her name again?”
“Carrie,” said Kenny.
“Right, Carrie. Were you here when Carrie talked to the other two cops about that second robbery?”
“I was in the back, but she told me about it after they left.”
“What did she say?”
“She was freaked out about something. Shaking big time. Could hardly talk. Said she wanted me to come out front and stay by her if the blond one came in here again.”
The blond one would be Davis, since Barrett was African-American.
“But she didn’t say why she was scared of him?”
“Nope.” Kenny studied the ground, his eyes sad with the weight of her death. “But she was. I wasn’t here when she was killed. My shift ended early and it was her night to stay late. You think the cop…?” He brought his head up. “Hey, her roommate might know more about it.”
He gave Cal the name of the woman who shared Carrie’s apartment, then Cal got the address from the store manager and drove there through light, wet flurries.
A tearful twenty-something red-head opened the door.
After Cal stepped into the apartment and refused a Coke, the roommate, Hannah, relaxed a little. She perched on the edge of the couch and Cal took a nearby chair.
“I must be crazy, letting a cop in here after what happened to Carrie.”
“Why is that? What happened to her?” Cal got out a notepad and pen, mostly for show, and poised the pen as if he were eager to take notes.
“About a year ago a cop stopped her for speeding. She was going to lose her license ‘cuz she had so many tickets already. So he said he’d tear it up if she would… like… you know.” Hannah wrung the tissue in her hand until it tore.
Cal remained silent, his pen hovering.
“He had her address. What could she do? He came here one night, drunk, making all kinds of noise pounding on the door, Carrie said. She was afraid she would get in trouble with the neighbors, so she let him in. I wasn’t here. I’ve kicked myself for that a bajillion times. I was at the stupid mall.”
“He attacked her?”
“He raped her.” Hannah reached for a fresh tissue from the box on the end table, and her face crumpled as she buried it in the tissue.
“Would you recognize this cop?”
“I never saw him, but Carrie said he was, like, a big, blond demon.”
“Did she ever mention his name?”
“David, or something.”
She nodded. “I think so. Would this help?” She picked up a magazine from the coffee table. Under it rested a medallion. “I’ve been going through Carrie’s things for her parents and found this. I remember Carrie said he left it here. Fell off his key ring.”
It was like the sun rising. Cal took the metal circle, stamped with the words Mensa Membe,missing the R, and rose with new resolve. “Thanks, Hannah. I might need to talk to you again.”
“I’ll be here.”
He knew Davis had raped Carrie. Then, after the drugstore interview, murdered her, maybe when he returned for more. Maybe she resisted too much. Maybe she threatened to expose him. He didn’t know. And he couldn’t prove anything yet. But he would. He and Barrett would watch Davis. Eventually the big, blond demon would slip. There was no use maintaining a chain of custody for the medallion. The presence of Davis’s medal wouldn’t be proof to a jury after a slick lawyer finished with them. ‘How many thousands of people have this same medal? How do we know it wasn’t stolen from him and this woman found it? Blah, blah, blah.’ But if was proof to Cal. And he would get Davis. He knew he would.
Cal whistled as he drove toward home. The wind had shifted and a light rain fell, washing the snow away. Some drawers had emptied out. So had his sinuses. He pictured Davis in a handbasket.
And himself sleeping in his own bed.
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