I feel guilty most of the time.

            Val tells me that it’s just normal Catholic guilt.  That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?  I mean, Catholic guilt?  When you consider the unfortunate events in the church, the poison at the Bishop’s party, all the dead priests, and my part in the whole mess, nobody should be surprised.  When the obscene facts about what they did to the little kid came out, all the demons were loose.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

            The morning after they found Terri, while I stumbled down the street away from Val’s — my pal, my normal background guilt was running a little high.  I was thinking about Terri.  I was thinking that she was under that tarp because of me.

            Now guilt is a funny thing.  It makes some people change their ways.  It makes some drown themselves in whatever ill-advised behavior that provoked the shame in the first place.  The burden makes others consume mass quantities of sugary carbohydrates.  As for me – I threw up.  Then I stole a bicycle.

            Fact is, I almost threw up on the bicycle.  But God was sending me a message.  “Don’t throw up on the bicycle,” he said.  So I didn’t, though a bit may have splashed on the skinny rear tire.  Then he went on, “Instead, verily I say unto you, take this conveyence that I have provided and go do the right thing.  This is my command to you.”  God talks funny, especially if you’ve got a hangover.

            The bike was secured by a chain to a downspout in an alley.  The device was one of those three-number, turning-cog locks.  Since I knew the universal combination that works on every single one of these “security” devices, I was pedaling down Bonnie Parker Boulevard like a madman within thirty seconds.  God doesn’t like people procrastinating, just ask Jonah.

            I was heading downtown to turn state’s evidence.  I was going to be a snitch, a tattletale, a stool pigeon – worse, I was going to try to be a saint.  I was about to betray my own professional code.  It’s a simple matter of honor with me.  I never give the cops any information, ever.  Unless  there’s something in it for me.  Now I was about to do something altruistic, all because of a dead woman and, of course, the voice of Jehovah in my ear.  That’s what happens when you drink stale beer.

            Spiro Agnew Police Headquarters is right across the Stinky Creek Bridge.  The first settlers in Tirawa gave the stagnant stream that olfactory name because the overgrown ditch was apparently where all the crawdads in the watershed were compelled by some nonsensical instinct to crawl off and die.  The legend is that the noxious odor of five million rotting crayfish even drove off mosquitos.  That’s where the new settlement took hold.  By building the town on that site, the always practical pioneers were able to avoid malaria, yellow fever, and other such blood-sucker born diseases.  Instead, the white invaders were ocassionally culled by cholera, dysentery, and various virulent forms of excema.  Now-a-days the creek just smells like garbage.  America is losing its heritage one stink at a time.  Shame.

            HQ looks like any other police building – in North Korea.  A dirty-gray concrete cliff, punctuated with black glass windows, the place only lacks a five-story tall picture of “Dear Leader” to complete the impression.  If the big steel garage doors sunken under the mausoleum-like entry porch were to open and issue forth a caravan of “firetrucks” off to burn books ala Ray Bradbury, you would not be surprised.  Fact is, when I hopped off the bike and re-locked the chain around a scraggly locust tree in the HQ “Plaza,” I noticed a chubby guy with snow white hair and a red nose sucking on a bottle of dandelion wine.  I didn’t have time to ask his name.

            I hustled straight in the front door and walked quickly to the row of elevators at the far end of the echo-filled lobby.  Security was at a high level.  I could tell because the gap-toothed skinny guy behind the big desk by the metal detectors kept yelling at me, “Hey, you’ve got to sign in.  You’ve got to sign in.  You’ve got to…”  The elevator door closed, so I missed the rest of what he might have added.

            Detective Vandy’s office was on the fifth floor.  It was at the end of a long, green-tiled hall.  I remember that my shoes squeaked all the way to his door — almost all the way.  A very attractive armed woman stopped me about fifteen feet short.

            “Tools, what the hell are you doing here?”

            “Officer Moore, so good to see you.  Think it’ll rain?”

            “Shut the fuck up.”  Sgt. Jasmine Moore had the sexiest voice.

            “Yes, M’am.”  I love strong women.  The way she adjusted her bullet-proof vest under her tight blue uniform blouse made me blush.  Or maybe I was just out of shape.  I’d sprint-pedaled the bike twenty blocks and run through a lobby after all.

            “Well?  Answer me.  What are you doing here?”

            “I took my eyes off her chest, looked into her big brown eyes and smiled.

            “Answer me.”

            “You told me to shut the fuck up.”

            “Smart ass.”

            “I gotta talk to Vandy.”

            “Yeah?”  Jasmine gave me a funny look.  “Gotta’ hot tip?”

            “You still pissed off, Jazz?”

            “Don’t call me Jazz.  And, yes, you bet your pale ass I’m pissed.  You put me on to the punks that were ripping off cars in the north lot at the stadium.”

            “No need to thank me.”

            “Thank you?  I’m bustin’ them and you work the south lot.  You are a piece of work.”

            “Don’t mention it.  Is Vandy in?”

            “Wait your turn.  He’s got a lot of people in line ahead of you.”

            At that point there was a bellow.  It sounded like somebody had the Animal Planet channel on the TV and turned the volume up way too loud.  A rhino collided with a Land Rover full of obese tuba players.

            I turned away from the gorgeous Sgt. Jasmine and looked through the big glass wall that separated the detective’s office from the common room.  Vandy’s feet were sticking straight up in the air.

            Detective Vandy’s day was off to a bad start.  Besides a murder, a headache, and an iffy pancreas, his desk chair was broken again.  His door was half open.  I could hear every scatological word that sputtered out of his mouth.  I moved off to  the side and tried to be unobtrusive.  It’s a talent I have.

            “God dammit, Emilio!”  Vandy had been leaning back when the stem of the chair snapped.  Now he was a polyester pile in the corner of his cramped office.  “Emilio!”

            Valasquez rushed in from his desk and extricated his boss from the tangled wreckage.  “You O.K., sir?”

            Vandy kicked the amputated seat into the file cabinet.  The metallic bass drum sound echoed down the hall.  “Get me a fucking chair that’s made for a normal human being instead of some anorexic teenage intern!”

            Valasquez looked at Vandy’s gut.  I figured that he was using the moment to compute the weight and stresses involved.  He smiled, and then saved his career.  “You’re right Vandy, these chairs are shit.  I’ll get supply to send up a solid wooden one.”

            “Goddamn plastic shit!”  Vandy poked at the upside down broken tripod.  He kicked it, and it spun around and hit him in the shin.  “Motherfuckin’ ….”

            Valasquez looked like he was afraid that more furniture could get hurt.  “Here’s the file on Header, Boss.”

            Now, I know Carl Vandy.  I’ve dealt with Vandy.  He’s arrested me at least four times.  He’s always been fair.  He’s a pro.   I’ve even — and I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I want the record to be complete — run into Vandy at an AA meeting or two.  Don’t panic, I’m not a member.

            Rich or poor, saintly or sleazy, once the deceased became his case, they were family.  Almost all of Vandy’s cases were basically simple.  Most murder is.  Simple, that is.  When you find a dead body, arrest the live body that’s closest.  Ninety-eight percent of the time you’d be right.  Then just lean on ‘em.  Vandy was good at leaning.  The problem here was there was no other breathing body in sight.  That’s when a detective has to be really smart.  Vandy’s necrotic gall bladder was twitching.  I could see the pangs register on his face.  He opened the file folder and spread the crime scene photos out on his desk.

            “What’s your take, Vandy?”  Emilio Valasquez was new.  He was on his second week, his first murder case, and still alive, so he wasn’t family yet.

            “My take?”  Vandy smiled, always a bad sign.  “My take? About thirty-two hundred a month, you friggin’ idiot.”

            Emilio must have known it was an endearment, because he let the insult slide.  Vandy just stared down at the photos.

            I didn’t want to look but I couldn’t help myself.  From my angle the perspective was off, but I could see the pictures.  The one on top of the stack was clinical.  That’s the police photography style.  It still ripped my heart out.

            Terri’s left leg, with the bare foot, was pointed uphill towards the outlook.  Her right leg was bent back.  Her right foot was still wearing a white anklet sock and a generic white tennis shoe.  Her plain black skirt was pushed up. There was a hint of red blood on the inside of her left thigh.  I could see her right breast.  Her simple white blouse was torn.  Because of the slant of the body, the breast sagged up towards the shoulder.  She had that both-eyes-open death stare.

            Emilio broke Vandy’s reverie.  “As to that idea you had, you were right.”

            Vandy leaned on the desk with one hand and rubbed his shin with the other.  “Of course I’m right.  Put a call in to the Palomino.  Five’ll get you a taco somebody knows something over there.”

            Valasquez let the lapse in Political Correctness go right by.  “By the way, Officer Redlands is outside.”

            When Valasquez said the name, I flashed on the rosary and the crazy-eyed cop I’d seen on TV.  I turned and saw James Redlands in person for the first time.  All six-foot forever of him.  Jasmine Moore was giving him her evil eye.  Jasmine was his supervisor.  Shit was about to hit the fan.  I was glad no one was taking any notice of me.  And I was glad I had some thick glass between me and the confrontation I knew was coming.

            Vandy rubbed his shin again.  “I’m in the perfect mood.  Send him in.”  He hunched over the desk, both fists set firmly on the blotter, his linebacker face looking down at the open file in front of him.  The military cadence of James Redland’s shiny black Oxfords announced his presence.

            “Sir, you wanted to see me, sir?” 

            Thank God he didn’t click his heels like a Prussian. Vandy would have buggered him with his own swagger stick.  “Officer Redlands.”  Vandy’s eyes looked up under his brows at the spit and polish irritation in blue standing in front of his desk at attention.

            “Yes, sir!”

            “I notice you polished your shoes today.”

            “Everyday, sir.”  Redlands announced it proudly.

            “Did you get all the piss off?”

            “Pardon, sir?”  This cop was not quick on the pickup.

            “All the piss you got on your shoes by walking through that fucking piss puddle at the crime scene last night.”  Vandy was leaning across the desk now.  All his weight was on his clenched fists.

            “Piss, sir?”  Redlands was still about two beats behind the band.

            “And if I ever see you fucking around with a rosary at one of my crimes again, Redlands, I’ll mail your liver to the Pope so he can enjoy his onions and chianti!” 

            “Sir, I don’t think…”

            “And, while we’re at it.  What in the name of the Bishop’s dick were you doing up on the Albino Farm when you were off-duty last week?  You go up there a lot?”

            Redlands could only sputter.  “The Bishop…?”

            “I know how you bushwhack kids up there, Redlands.  I’ve seen the reports.  I got a pile of reports on you, Redlands.  Preaching to half-naked teenagers is just the top of the stack.  You like beating up winos, Redlands?  You got disputes with other officers?  You got problems?  I’m watching, Officer Redlands.  I’m just waiting for you to crack.”

            “Sir, I only…”

            “You get your rocks off up there catching those wayward youth, don’t you?”  Vandy had him well off-balance at that point.

            Redlands’ face changed at that point.  There was something there.  “I resent your language and your insinuations.”

            “You’re lucky I got another twisted soul down for this little piece of work.”   Vandy  pointed at the photos.

            “Sir, I…”

            “Get the fuck out of here!”  Vandy looked down at the file.

            “She was a whore, sir.”  Redlands had not reacted to Vandy’s gentle suggestion that he leave.

            “She was a whore?”  Vandy’s voice was quiet.

            “She needed my prayers, sir.”  Redlands stepped towards the desk.  He had obviously interpreted Vandy’s quiet tone as an invitation to be evangelized.  He was wrong.

            Emilio Valasquez had saved his own career earlier by ignoring Vandy’s corpulence.  Now he saved Redlands’ life by stepping in the room and between the two men.  “Boss, I made a call.  Got a witness over at the Palomino Club.  That’ll be all, Officer Redlands.”  He half pushed the patrolman out the door.  “Grab your coat, Boss.  I’ll get the car.”

            Vandy was chewing on a thought.  He straightened up and reached for his jacket.  It was crumpled in the corner, still on the back of the broken chair.  I remember thinking that the dead girl in the photos looked crumpled, too.

            I just stepped back further into the corner and watched them leave.  The big detective didn’t notice me as he stalked away down the hall.  His shoes squeaked, too.  Vandy was onto the Palamino connection.  I was suddenly getting the feeling that more was going on here than I’d first thought.  Maybe I didn’t have anything to tell the detective.  Maybe there was another, better cure for my guilt.

            I needed a drink.


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