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World of Trouble
The Last Policeman Book III
By Ben H. Winters
QUIRK BOOKSCopyright © 2014 Ben H. Winters
All rights reserved.
I'm worried about my dog.
He's limping now, on top of everything else, on top of the dry cough that rattles his small frame as he breathes, on top of the nasty burrs that have tangled themselves irretrievably in his matted fur. I don't know where or how he picked it up, this deep limp in his right forepaw, but here he comes now, moving slow out of the evidence room behind me, slipping through my legs and slouching with a pronounced foot-drag down the hallway. He shuffles away, poor little guy, nosing along the baseboard, his coat smudged but still white.
I watch him with deep unease. It wasn't fair of me to take Houdini along. A mistake I made without even thinking about it, inflicting upon my dog the rigors of a long and uncertain journey, the unhygienic drinking water and sparse food, the hikes along deserted highway shoulders and through fallow fields, the fights with other animals. I should have left him with McConnell and the others, back at the safe house in Massachusetts, left him with McConnell's kids, all the other kids, the other dogs, a safe and comfortable environment. But I took him. I never asked him if he wanted to come, not that a dog in any case could fairly weigh the risks and rewards.
I took him, and we crossed eight hundred fifty complicated miles in five long weeks, and the wear is showing on the dog, no doubt about it.
"I'm really sorry, pal," I whisper, and the dog coughs. I pause in the hallway, breathing in the darkness, staring up at the ceiling.
It was the same in the evidence room as in the rest of the place: thick coatings of dust on the shelves, filing cabinets turned over and emptied out. Odors of must and mildew. In Dispatch, on someone's desk between the blank laptops and the old foot-switch RadioCOMMAND console, there was an ancient sandwich, half eaten and crawling with ants. Nothing good, nothing helpful or hopeful.
We arrived very late last night and began our search immediately, and now it's three hours later and the sun is beginning to rise—dull pale beams filtering in through the glass-paned front door, down at the east end of the hall—and we've worked through most of the building and nothing. Nothing. A small police station, like the one in Concord, New Hampshire, where I used to work. Even smaller. All night I've gone through on my hands and knees with my magnifying glass and fat Eveready flashlight, taking the place room by room: Reception, Dispatch. Administration, Holding Cell, Evidence.
Cold certainty slowly filling me, like dirty water rising in a well: there's nothing.
Officer McConnell knew it. She told me this was a fool's errand. "So you have, what, the name of a town?" is what she said.
"A building," I said. "The police station. In a town. In Ohio."
"Ohio?" Skeptical. Arms crossed. Scowling. "Well, you won't find her. Also, if you do? So what?"
I remember what it felt like, her being angry, justified in her anger. I just nodded. I kept packing.
Now, in the flat dawn light of the empty hallway of the empty police station, I make a fist with my right hand and raise it to a forty-five-degree angle and bring it down like the hammer of a gun, slam it backward into the wall I'm leaning against. Houdini turns around and stares at me, bright black animal eyes glinting like marbles in the dark.
"All right," I tell him. He makes a wet noise in the back of his throat. "Okay. Let's just keep looking."
* * *
A few feet down the hall is a plaque honoring the service of Daniel Arnold Carver, on the occasion of his retirement from the Rotary, Ohio, Police Department at the rank of lieutenant, in the Year of Our Lord 1998. Next to that commemoration is an upside-down horseshoe of construction-paper cards from local children: stick-figure cops waving gaily in bold Crayola colors, with "Thanks for the tour!" written below in the neat handwriting of an elementary school teacher. The cards are dangling from fading twists of Scotch tape; the plaque is slightly misaligned and covered in a half inch of dust.
The next room is on the left, a few feet past the plaque and the kids' drawings. It's marked Detectives, although the first thing I notice on entering is that there was only one detective. One desk, one swivel chair. One landline phone, with the cord cut, the receiver sitting unattached in the cradle like stage furniture. A long-dead flowering plant hangs from the ceiling: wilted stalks and clumps of brown leaves. A plastic water bottle on its side, half crushed.
I can picture the detective who once sat in this room, tilted back in the chair, finalizing the small details of a coming meth-lab bust, say, or cursing with crusty good humor at some ham-fisted directive from the know-nothings over in Admin. I sniff the air and imagine I detect the ancient stale odor of his cigars.
Her cigars, actually. Hers. There's a thick leather log book on the desk with a name neatly stenciled across the top right corner: Detective Irma Russel. "My apologies, Detective Russel," I tell her, wherever she may be, and toss a salute off into the air. "I should know better."
I think of Officer McConnell again. She kissed me at last, up on her tiptoes, at the door. Then she pushed me, a good two-handed shove, to send me off on my adventure. "Go," she said. Fondly, sadly. "Jerk."
The watery daylight is not fully penetrating the one dust-coated window in the detectives room, so I switch back on the beam of the Eveready and hover it over Detective Russel's log book and flip my way through. The first entry is from just seven months ago. February 14. On Valentine's Day, Detective Russel reported in neat cursive handwriting that rolling blackouts had been ordered for all municipal buildings countywide, and henceforth all record keeping would be done with pen and paper.
The entries that follow are a record of decline. On March 10 there was a small riot at a food pantry in neighboring Brown County, which spread quickly, resulting in "general civil unrest of unanticipated levels." It is noted on March 30 that the department's force-readiness levels are significantly depleted, at thirty-five percent of previous year's staffing. ("Jason quit!!!" Detective Russel notes parenthetically, the exclamation points bristling with surprise and disappointment.) On April 12, a "Bucket List rapist" was apprehended and turned out to be "Charlie, from Blake's Feed Supply!!!"
I smile. I like this Detective Russel. I'm not wild about all the exclamation points, but I like her.
I follow the neat handwriting down the run of months. The last entry, dated June 9—sixteen weeks ago—just says "Creekbed," and then "Heavenly Father keep a good eye on us, would ya?"
I linger for a moment, hunched over the notebook. Houdini pads into the room, and I feel his tail brush against my pant leg.
I take out my thin blue notebook from my inside pocket and write down June 9 and Creekbed and Heavenly Father keep a good eye on us, would ya?, trying to write small, keep the words clustered together. It's the last one of these notebooks I've got. My father was a college professor, and when he died he left behind boxes and boxes of these exam-taker's notebooks, but I have used up many since entering law enforcement, and many more were lost in the fire that consumed my house. Every time I write something down I have this small rustle of anxiety, like what will I do when I run out of pages?
I close Detective Russel's desk drawers and return the log book to where it was, flipped open to the same page where I found it.
* * *
Also in my pocket, tucked in a red plastic Concord Public Library card sleeve, is a wallet-size copy of my sister's sophomore-year yearbook picture. Nico as a defiant and hip high-school student, in a ratty black T-shirt and cheap eyeglass frames, far too cool to have combed her hair. Her lower lip is jutted out, her mouth twisted: I'll smile when I want to, not when some mope tells me to say cheese. I wish I was carrying a more recent picture, but I lost them in the fire; the truth is, she's only eight years out of high school, and the photograph remains current, with regard to Nico Palace's appearance and affect. My body is itching to perform the familiar rituals, to flip the picture open to strangers—"Have you see this girl?"—to improvise a set of discerning follow-ups and follow-ups to the follow-ups.
Along with the photograph and the notebook, inside my well-worn tan sport jacket are a few other basic investigative tools: a handheld magnifying glass; a Swiss army knife; a nine-foot retracting tape measure; a second flashlight, smaller and slimmer than the Eveready; a box of .40-caliber rounds. The gun itself, the department-issue SIG Sauer P229 I've been carrying for three years now, is in a holster on my hip.
The door of the evidence room clicks open and closed again, and I raise the flashlight at Cortez.
"Spray paint," he says, holding up an aerosol canister and giving it an enthusiastic shake-shake-shake. "Half full."
"Okay," I say. "Great."
"Oh, but it is great, Policeman," Cortez says, looking with childlike delight at this find, turning it over in his rough hands. "Useful for marking a trail, and easily weaponized. A candle, a paper clip, a match. Voilà: flamethrower. I've seen it done." He winks. "I've done it."
"Okay," I say again.
This is how he talks, Cortez the thief, my unlikely partner: like the world will go on forever, like he with his hobbies and habits will go on forever. He sighs and shakes his head sadly at my indifference, and slides past in the darkness like a phantom, away down the hallway in search of more loot. She's not here, whispers Officer McConnell in my ear. Not judging, not angry. Just noting the obvious. You came all this way for nothing, Detective Palace. She's not here.
The day is advancing. Dull gold sunlight inching closer to me down here at the far end of the dark hall. The dog, somewhere I can't see him, but close enough that I hear him coughing. The planet wobbling beneath my feet.CHAPTER 2
Next to the detectives room is a door marked Muster, and this room too is full of familiar objects, coat hooks hung with windbreakers, a well-broken-in blue ball cap, a pair of sturdy Carhartt boots with stiffened laces. Policeman street clothes. In one corner there's an American flag on a cheap plastic eagle-head stand. An OSHA workplace-safety information sheet is tacked to the lower corner of a billboard, the same sheet we had in Concord that Detective McGully liked to read aloud, dripping with disdain: "Oh, good, some tips on posture. We get frikkin' shot at for a living!"
Along the back wall is a dry-erase board on wobbly wheels with an undated exhortation, all-caps and triple-underlined: "STAY SAFE, ASSHOLES." I smile, half smile, imagining the weary young sergeant writing the message, hiding his own fear behind salty tough-cop cleverness. STAY SAFE, ASSHOLES. Keep a good eye on us, would ya? It hasn't been an easy time for law enforcement, this last set of months, it really hasn't.
I push through a door at the back of the muster room into an even smaller space, a kitchenette slash break room: sink, fridge, microwave, round table and black plastic chairs. I open the fridge and push it closed immediately against a wave of warmth and foul odor: soured food, spoiled food, rot.
I stand in front of the empty vending machine and peer for a moment at my funhouse reflection in the Plexiglass. There are no snacks in there, just the bare coils like empty winter branches. But the glass is not smashed, like all the world's glass seems to be these days. No one assaulted this machine with a bat or a Carhartt boot to rob it of its treasures.
Presumably this machine was emptied out ages ago, maybe by Detective Russel or by her disappointing friend Jason on his way out—except, when I crouch down, take a knee and look closely, I find a plastic fork holding open the black horizontal door at the bottom where the food comes out. I shine my light on it, the fork dramatically bowed, the tensile strength of its hard plastic holding up precariously against the weight of the snack trap.
Holy moly, is what I'm thinking, because this could be exactly what I'm looking for, unless it isn't.
Because theoretically, of course, a plastic fork could remain in that bowed position for a long time, for months even, but on the other hand, one of the many suspensions my sister earned during her rocky career at Concord High School was for performing the same trick: rigging open the vending machine in the teachers' lounge and looting all the candy bars and potato chips, leaving behind just the low-fat yogurt bars and a note: You're welcome, fatties!
When I catch my breath I gingerly remove the fork. I have a dozen sandwich bags in my pocket, and I slip the fork into one of the bags and the bag into my sport-coat pocket and move on.
The kitchenette's two slim cupboards have been rummaged. Plates broken and disarrayed; bowls tossed onto the floor. Only two coffee mugs are still intact, one reading Property of Rotary Police Department, the other I'm Through with Love; Fortunately There's Still Sex. I smile and rub my bleary eyes. I miss cops, I really do.
Was she here? Did Nico take the candy?
The gooseneck spout of the sink is in the on position, angled up sharply to the left, as if someone came in for a glass of water, forgetting that the municipal supplies have stopped. Or perhaps the water went out right in the middle of someone using the sink. Some cop in the break room after a long and treacherous shift, filling up his cup or washing his face, her face, and suddenly, whoops, no more water for you.
The sink is full of blood. It's a deep-walled sink with a basin made of stainless steel like the handle, and when I look down into it the sides and the bottom are covered with a rust-red explosion of blood. The drain is clotted and thick with it. I look again at the gooseneck spout, closer now, shining the light, and find the faint smudged patches: red, bloody palms clutching and jerking the handle.
STAY SAFE, ASSHOLES.
Above and behind the sink, bolted to the wall, is a horizontal rack hung with three knives. All of them are stained with blood, up and down, freckled from hilt and blade. A clot of dread and excitement forms in the base of my gut and floats like a bubble up into my throat. I swing around, moving quickly now, heartbeat thrumming, back through the muster room and out into the hallway, and now the sun is all the way up outside, casting a muted ochre glow through the glass door and I can see the floor clearly, see where the trail of blood runs down the hallway. Discrete spots, leading plain as bread crumbs from the kitchenette sink through the muster room, pass the dry-erase board and the flagpole, all the way down the hall to the front door of the station.
My mentor Detective Culverson, my mentor and my friend, he called it walking the blood. Walking the blood means walking with the escaping suspect or the fleeing victim, it means "you find the trail and see what songs it wants to sing you." I shake my head, remembering him saying that, most of the way joking, purposefully hokey, but Detective Culverson could turn a phrase, he really could.
I walk the blood. I follow the steady line of drops, which appear on the tile at six- to eight-inch intervals all the way down the hallway and out the glass door, where the trail disappears in the thick mud just outside the building. I stand up in the gloomy daylight. It's raining, a sputtering indecisive drizzle. It's been raining for days. When Cortez and I got here late last night it was squalling hard enough that we were biking with our jackets tugged up over our necks and the backs of our heads, like snails, a blue tarp tied tautly over all our stuff in the Red Ryder wagon trailing behind. Wherever the bleeding person went from here, there is no trail left to sing about it.
Excerpted from World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters. Copyright © 2014 Ben H. Winters. Excerpted by permission of QUIRK BOOKS.
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