Issue 172, Winter 2004
No Tahoe in the lot. Which was bullcrap. Because only on-duty officers were supposed to drive the Tahoe, and he was the on-duty officer, so somebody had the Tahoe who wasn’t supposed to have it, as in, namely, Ravel, who moonlighted in it, and was still moonlighting in it even after the chief plainly said, You don’t take the Tahoe moonlighting. Because Ravel thought this was cornpone Mayberry, where any old junior officer could yuk it up with the chief over trifling matters such as insubordination of a commanding officer’s direct order. Well, Chief had better start taking his own orders seriously or he was going to find his department short one officer, as in, namely, him, Piper Doyle. That is, the sole officer on this force with a bachelor’s degree (and two graduate credits) from a major, fully accredited land grant university—and by degree is not meant some flypaper okay-you-passed-now-get-the-hell-out-of-here diploma in “criminal justice” (oxymoron), no, but instead the bona fide cum laude in genuine psychology. Forget it. Done. Over. Out. Pushing thirty, and why the hell stay in Ballson anyway? Looking to make chief? Not anytime soon, not anytime ever, with Ravel around, little junior-officer golden boy, fair-haired wonderchild. Asshole. Taking the Tahoe moonlighting. And probably moonlighting in uniform, which is to say, impersonating an on-duty officer. Officer Ravel at large, padding his salary with henchman work for tort lawyers and bail bondsmen. Taking the Tahoe. And right after the storm of the season blew all hell into this town, snapping limbs and shredding saplings like paper targets all up and down Second Street.
Doyle drove past the courthouse and behind the station.
Nope, no Ravel car in the lot, either. Nice move—so the chief won’t drive by and see it. Probably rode his shiny new bike down to HQ, stole the keys to the Tahoe, threw said bike in back and took off for a night of against-orders moonlighting. Even Ravel’s bike was department issue. The kid was spoiled as a black banana. So he came up with the idea for Bike Cop—big deal! So he personally pitched the plan to the chief and mayor, wrote the proposal, figured up a budget. It was only so he could spend his summers pedaling down Riverfront Drive, mixing with the cruising kids, patrolling the park on weekends, checking for booze and reefer. Talk about cushy—short pants and a Lycra T, flexing his biceps for sixteen-year-old sun goddesses slathered in baby oil. Call that police work? So what if the public likes its “enviro-friendly” Bike Cop. Public approval of a bicycle is not carte blanche. You don’t take the Tahoe off duty. What would the public think of that? Is a Tahoe enviro-friendly? No. You don’t take it. But Ravel had, and now the on-duty officer, he, Doyle, would have to work his shift in one beat-to-hell-ass Caprice prowler, a wreck with so many miles on it, driven so hard by the third-shift Turks that its transmission will practically slam said on-duty officer through the filthy goddamn windshield. Ten bucks nobody filled the tank either.
Parked in his spot beside the impound lot, Doyle took his pressed uniform from the backseat. This evening smelled ominously similar to the previous night, just before the funnel cloud swooped down from nowhere to dance across the river then vanish just as freakishly, as if its sole mission had been to cover Riverfront Drive with the six tons of river wrack it had inhaled over Gavin Slough. The sky again glowed a yellowish green. Air pressure felt low, too. Yes, something definitely was headed this way. The kind of thing you don’t, in particular, want to drive through in a Caprice with ninety thousand whose windshield hadn’t tasted fresh wiper in half of that.
The station door felt almost icy against his hand as he stepped into the air-conditioned chill of the lobby, where Kevin Will worked the operations desk. Will was processing forms and playing along with Jeopardy on the little set next to the watercooler.
“Piper! What’s happening?” Will raised his fist in the Black Power salute that recently had become the greeting of choice of the all-white BPD. “Chief wants you down in South Ballson checking on old man Filcher first chance you get.”
Doyle stood, his uniform on the hanger over his shoulder, his face motionless behind his aviator sunglasses. Their green lenses now hid the fresh swell of hatred his heart dished out in quick and equal portions for Ravel, the chief, and his own judgment, saving a small slice for Kevin Will as well. Probably hurricane-grade T-storms would be kicking this town’s butt any minute, and the chief wanted him to take a prowler to South Ballson, under the viaduct? Idiotic. How could a department survive under so poor a chief? A man ignorant of his officer’s talents and stupid enough to insist on the superiority of the associate’s degree in criminal justice over the bona fide bachelor’s in psychology from a fully accredited land grant school. “This is law enforcement, Doyle. CJ is what’s best.” The ignoramus. And to season the wound, “Now, I know how highly you think of your education, and I know you did an experiment on a rat out in Iowa City. But this is BPD. We don’t handle rats here. You want Animal Control.”
Doyle kept his shades on in the dim of the tinted-glass lobby and stared down at Kevin Will. “It’s going to pour any minute, and I’m supposed to take a prowler under the viaduct into SB? Last night that tunnel had thirty inches of water. Where’s the Tahoe?”
Will’s face pinched as he concentrated on Jeopardy. He raised a finger to let Doyle know he was interrupting. “Ravel. Special Ops.”
Doyle squeezed the tip of the clothes hanger into the flesh of his palm. “Special Ops.”
Rising in his seat, the kid smacked his desk and shouted, “What is psychology!” On-screen, a contestant buzzed in, What is behaviorism? “Sonofabitch!” He snapped a pencil between his fingers.
Doyle leaned over the front desk, tapping the counter with his keys. “Listen, I know you’re relatively new here, Will, but when Officer Ravel tells you he needs the Tahoe for ‘Special Ops’ or ‘Interdiction Unit’ or ‘Commissioner’s Task Force’ or whatever crap he comes up with—Will, you listening to me?—because when he tells you that, he is lying. All right? And he’s making a jackass of you to boot.”
Will leaned forward and adjusted the antennae. “Chief never said anything.”
“Well, I’m saying something. And I’m your senior, right? As in, I will be on your three-year review.”
Will barely nodded. “So will Ravel.” He thrust a finger at the screen. “What is the brain!” A contestant buzzed in, What is the hippocampus? He wet a finger on his tongue and tallied a point in the air. “Close enough!”
An idiot, yes, but Will was only the messenger. This was the chief’s doing, and the second such offense in as many days. Yesterday there’d been the matter of Doyle’s request for airfare to the National Police Shooting Championships in Jackson, Mississippi—a perfectly completed requisition that the chief had denied summarily, as if the whole thing hadn’t been his idea in the first place, as if he’d never suggested the trip himself back when he’d appointed Doyle custodian of the firing range: “Seeing how you’re down there every night anyway,” the chief had said, raising an eyebrow at the log of Doyle’s nightly shooting sprees. He gave Doyle the key to the range and regarded him from below the thick folds of his eyelids. “You ought to take all this training to the National Police Shooting Championships down in Jackson, Mississippi. Make the department proud.” A fairly unambiguous invitation. Until Doyle submitted the travel voucher, and the old man acted as if he’d never heard of the NPSC, as if he’d never in his life spoken the words Jackson, Mississippi. He did tell Doyle to hang onto the range key when Doyle angrily tried to return it. “Oh, I know how you like to shoot, Doyle.” The chief raised his own key ring to indicate it was too full already. “Yes, you’re a regular—” His face struggled to name a great marksman. “Jesse James!”
The best thing now was just to get away from the station, to get out on the beat. Friday night meant domestic disputes and field sobriety tests, the welcome solitude of a solo patrol. Plus, at shift’s end he could retreat to the range and release this stress on the department’s new moving-targets carousel, a small family of revolving steel silhouettes its manufacturer dubbed One Hostile Posse.
The Filcher matter was first on the docket. Doyle turned the muddy Caprice off the lot and headed south on Second Avenue. A routinely disorderly alcoholic, Filcher had left his house after last night’s twister to find his beagle with its leash wound so tightly around the tree he’d chained it to that he needed bolt cutters to free the corpse. Filcher had a lengthy record as both a drinker and what the department called a moderate-to-severe EDP (emotionally disturbed person). The disturbed, that’s who Doyle dealt with while Ravel patrolled picnickers in the park. The station got the call last night after Filcher’s rage drew a mob of rubberneckers to his property. Filcher spat foam, dragging the dead animal by the choke chain, convinced that someone had stolen onto his property and murdered the beast, despite the twister having torn out half the tree.
The prowler groaned up out of the viaduct into South Ballson and the first burst of rain pounded its windshield. Maybe he’d resorted to a cheap shot in handling Filcher last night, invoking the poor man’s dead wife to guilt him into calming down. Ann Filcher had been the only one to ever get between her man and a bottle. She’d have been the one with the sense to come in out of the rain, and to bring the dog with her. “Think of your Annie,” he’d pleaded, reviving a woman only nine months dead of meningitis. “She’d want a nice ceremony for Dodger tomorrow.” To hear such drivel from Ravel’s mouth would have disgusted Doyle. But last night, amid the welter of a storm, it was the heartstrings or the handcuffs, and the prospect of a mud-soaked drunk vomiting Mad Dog 20/20 in the backseat of the squad that had decided the matter.
The cold rain pelted straight through his uniform as Doyle stepped from the prowler onto Filcher’s property. The dead beagle lay swelling in a puddle beside the stoop. Apparently Filcher hadn’t gotten around to that ceremony. Doyle climbed the porch and tapped at the door. Water ran freely through holes in the porch roof, one leak collecting in a dishpan and a dozen more boring into the floorboards with a sound of men urinating onto a deck. He knocked again and, getting no answer, looked across the bare yard. Filcher, a DUI recidivist who never again would take the wheel legally, had long ago sold off the fleet of fixer-uppers that once had made the lawn a junkyard or a used-car lot, depending on your price range. Nowadays, Doyle would sometimes see him rumbling down the sidewalks on a knobby-tired ATV, a Confederate flag rippling from the back as he barreled for the liquor store. Given that the man responded to routine questioning like one of his beloved rebs made to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Doyle most days just paid him the slack and looked the other way.
Behind the filmy Plexiglas the living room looked abandoned, but something lay lengthwise beneath the door. Doyle squinted against the grime and made out Filcher’s muddy bare feet dangling from the end of a mattress on the floor. Cashed out. But was this sunrise or sunset, Filcher-time? Beddy-bye or wakey-wakey? Impossible to say. Doyle came down off the porch and stood over the dog. Dodger had been a noisy but harmless nuisance—a loudmouth but no biter. A pound puppy, he’d dodged the gas, but had a few years of life been worth the humiliation of death by his master’s stupidity? Filcher might have taken comfort in the animal, even loved it, but the truth was, he’d killed it through an irresponsibility bred of grief, laziness, and alcoholism, a combination made lethal by his lack of will to change anything. Now the dog was police business, and given what kids might get up to with a swollen carcass, Doyle needed to do something with the body. Procedure for a dead stray was to radio the station and have the rendering plant send a man with a truck and a shovel. The truck would haul the corpse to National By-Products, which would toss it in a pot with diseased livestock and roadkill from all over the Midwest and render it into oils and bonemeal, a rancid stew whose fumes combined with those of the corn-syrup plant to produce that chokingly unique odor that said Ballson. Blending the scents of a slaughterhouse and a House of Pancakes, this stink had prevented Doyle from ever bringing a girl back to Ballson during his land grant years. And now that Carla had broken their engagement four months back, he might never bring another. Carla’s first and only visit had been just a week before Doyle packed off for the academy. “I’m breathing dead animals!” she’d coughed at him, her eyes moist with fear. He’d laughed, thumping his chest. “I grew up breathing them!” Then he’d driven them north, upwind and along the river, where wealthier Ballsonites never smelled the fumes off the boil vats. Eagle Bend was an oxbow, a limestone brake that hid from view the half-dozen smokestack plumes to the south. Here Doyle would build their waterfront home, complete with two-story deck and boat launch, the kind of solid, beloved abode passed down through generations. In the meantime, he assured her, the air outside his apartment complex often smelled perfectly fine, pleasant even, on days with a stiff southerly wind.
Still, Carla returned to school firm in her decision to stay on for graduate work. She would be away only as long as it took for a master’s in social work. This she promised Doyle as he commenced his climb up the rungs from cadet to officer to sergeant to captain to chief—who knows?—perhaps even to public office. Patient in his love, Doyle even respected Carla’s right to change her mind when, two years later, she announced that upon completing the MSW she would begin a two-year internship with Child Welfare in Des Moines, five hours away. Not a problem. He would miss her, of course, but Doyle swallowed this pill and simply worked all the harder, studying late into the evenings for a sergeant’s exam still two years in the offing.
Carla’s third announcement, delivered a year into that internship, took him by surprise.
“A doctorate?” He put a hand over the phone to curse. She’d lead him to believe the MSW was a terminal degree. “In?”
Carla’s voice was light with anticipation. “Oh, I don’t know. In New York or Massachusetts, I hope. Maybe California.”
“California?” His head swam at the mileage. “I beg your pardon? And you think that’s being realistic?”
Carla had often sounded distracted on the phone, ever since she’d taken to starting important conversations with Doyle while getting the groceries or on her way to case evaluations. But she heard him this time, loud and clear. “Realistic?” And with a relish that suggested she’d kept it cocked it for some time, holding her peace until he’d exposed himself, she squeezed the trigger. “Realistic? I’m not the one getting contractor’s estimates for a house I’m three promotions away from buying. I’m not the one marooned on Fantasy Island playing policeman while—”
Hanging up on her for the first time, Doyle drove out to the range to shoot it off. Things had been strained, obviously, but he had little idea how unacceptable the strains had grown to Carla. It was a devastating surprise the next day to receive by express delivery the small parcel containing both his monogrammed pajamas and the ring he’d placed on her finger when proposing.