Rousseau opens the plain-faced gray metal door. I glance over my shoulder at the pallid geometry of the police department. Officer Stoffregen endeavors every week to water the plants. Their leaves are the only garnish that venture somewhere off the office’s taupe color scheme. I follow Rousseau down an unlit staircase, closing the heavy door quietly behind me so not to draw attention. The air turns damp and cool.
“It’s been years since I was down here,” I tell her. I think back to the last time, when Flipse suggested we rummage around for abandoned treasures. They included the mounted head of a ten-point buck, a rolltop desk that could probably fetch something on Antiques Roadshow, and outdated maps of the city: frayed, yellow, peeling in their vascular portrayal of familiar streets and landmarks.
The walls are coarse red brick, the mortar flaking away in between. Any taller and I would have to duck my head below the water pipes. Every light bulb is either exposed or protected by a crude metal cage. The hipsters would love to get their hands on a place like this, hang up some jazz posters, turn it into a gin bar.
“It’s not the most opulent space we’ve been offered,” Rousseau concedes, “but I’ve worked out of a barn before, so you won’t catch me complaining. Priceless equipment arranged on a dirt floor. Climbing over bales of hay, I kid you not. Wind ripping through gaps in the walls. Me just waiting for the whole place to come down. That was memorable, to say the least.”
“Plenty of barns in Judson, if you’d prefer.”
“Oh, this has its own charm,” she grins back at me. “I don’t think I’ll forget the Judson Bottom PD anytime soon.”
“Happy we made an impression.”
Few of the doorways, conjoining innumerable rooms and channels, have doors in them anymore. Rousseau pushes open one that does. Two agents scarcely look up from their work at respective laptops. They are bookish, white-shirted men, the furthest thing from James Bond imaginable. Their fingers fly at such ludicrous speeds across their keyboards that it sounds like a million teeth chattering. Rousseau doesn’t waste any time with introductions. I can sense by the tacit chemistry in the air that these two are her underlings.
Among the computers, a fax machine/printer dominates the long collapsible tabletop. Underneath, at the feet of the two men, blink two auxiliary servers. The heat of all this running equipment charges the room.
Rousseau points to one small table stuck in a corner. Upon further inspection, I realize the table is a Singer sewing machine. Were they mending uniforms down here back in the day? Juxtaposed on top of the dated apparatus sits a chrome-bodied expression of modernity, resplendent with colorful buttons and signal lights like some hulking drone. I half expect a propeller to sprout from its hull and the thing to hover around the room firing lasers, until I see a stack of Styrofoam cups.
“Espresso?” Rousseau invites.
When I am situated with my espresso, Rousseau slides an extra folding chair for me in front of her space-age laptop. From now on, my own cubicle’s desktop will feel like staring into the window of a microwave by comparison. Brought up on the monitor is a satellite image of a town I presume to be Judson Bottom. Yes, I recognize the water tower like a bulbous white onion, due a mile southeast from the cerulean kidney that is Mishicot Lake. A pulldown projection screen blankets one of the walls, ballooning the exact same screenshot. When Rousseau disengages her laptop from the ceiling-mounted projector with a few clicks, the pulldown screen reverts to a standby royal blue.
“I have bad news and I have unsettling news,” Rousseau tells me.
“Start with either one. I’m not sure which of those is worse.”
“Herschel’s alibi checks out. According to the footage, which I can show you later if you like, he arrived at half past eleven and closed the bar that night. He was occupied during the window when Khadija went missing. In other words, that bartender risked herself a prison sentence for nothing.”
“That is unsettling,” I say, glum and hungover.
“No, that’s the bad news.” She pulls up a black encryption box, adding a few esoteric commands to a phalanx of green text. “Did you know Ismael and Khadija were both darknet browsers?”
“You know everything I know, and I know only what you’ve told me. No one else in your little consort here is much of a team player.”
The stiff, typing automatons continue to disregard me.
“Ismael has been at it longer than his sister. That’s why he wasn’t flagged sooner. He knew how to cover his tracks. Khadija, she didn’t download her onion router until the day after Ismael’s letter was found.”
Do I present myself as being more savvy in the field of cybernetic espionage than is even remotely the case? I have a scant understanding that, ever since Ed Snowden leaked about the NSA’s monolithic data collection center out in Utah, fledgling techies have ramped up their game in terms of anonymous web surfing, whether it be to locate dungeon porn, hack government mainframes, index homemade bomb recipes, or simply check their emails. I accept that my façade cannot last if I want to leave this room any more informed than when I entered. “Could you please, Mrs. Former Army Hacker, take a minute to explain what you mean by onion router?”
When she smiles, a dimple divots her right cheek. The green script in her encryption box is undergoing all sorts of shape-shifting permutations, rapid-fire algorithms that bend the mind when I so much as glance at them. “It’s a special router,” she explains, “that allows you to surf the darknet through a barrage of IP addresses. What it does is bounce communications between multiple random servers, literally all over the world, before pulling up the originally requested web page. This makes tracking online activity extremely difficult—except when you’re dealing with a complete novice, such as Khadija, who doesn’t take all the necessary precautions.”
She allows a grave moment for that sink in.
“All that tells me,” I answer in defiance, “is that she was trying to track Ismael the same way you’re tracking her now. I would do the same thing in her position, if I knew where to begin.”
“Don’t worry. That already occurred to me. It’s possible she thought wherever he is, he’s still accessing the darknet. And she may be right about that. The sunny stance to take is she was conducting her own investigation. What unnerves me the most,” she says, “is her being so out of her depth in cyberspace, in the deep web. If the Bureau was able to find her so easily, then you can be sure plenty of others could too.”
My voice comes out hoarse, dry and scorched. I tell myself it’s from the piping hot espresso. “So what you’re saying is, the pool of suspects is essentially bottomless.”
“What I’m saying—” Rousseau starts, before the door flies open.
The man who walks in has been pointed out to me by Wojcik as the director of this little cadre of agents. Manuel Pedroza. He has a round, carrot-colored face, a heavy brow, and a shaved head, but I can tell he is naturally bald around the tonsure. His steam-pressed suit is the oily color of wet charcoal, fitting tight around the shoulders and chest. As he introduces himself, I rise and we shake hands. The titanium Rolex on his wrist is like some kind of battle gauntlet. He pulls up a seat at the head of the table, surveying Rousseau and me and the two finger-clacking drones. They never, under any circumstance, look up, persevering into the digital void like anthropologists casing unlimited tribes, tribes who all speak dialects of the same binary language.
“I’m glad we finally have the chance to speak, Detective,” Pedroza smiles in a pained way, as if his whole face is inflamed by arthritis. He has the squashed nose and chipped front tooth of a boxer. “The Chief warned me on day one that you would put all your endurance into locating Ms. Mubarak. You haven’t made a liar out of him yet. Allow me to say, I admire your ethic.”
I thank him, knowing when I’m being set up for bad news.
“It’s true, isn’t it, that you had a well-established personal relationship with the Mubarak family, before the time of the double incidents?”
“Not so personal,” I say. “Ismael and my son, they grew up together.”
“How old’s your son?” Rousseau interjects, a tender curiosity in her voice counterbalancing Pedroza’s business tone.
“Same as Ismael. Eighteen.”
“There are pros and cons to having an agent so personally invested with the victims, and/or suspects, whichever may be the case,” Pedroza shrugs. “We’re still trying to determine that. After a series of long interviews yesterday with Nadeem and Javaria, I’m inclined to believe their version of events.”
“What would be the alternative?” I ask. “Them shipping their kids off to fight a holy war?” I recall stopping by their place yesterday, finding the house deserted.
“I gather that strikes you as wholly farfetched.” Pedroza poorly conceals his condescension. “These are the pros and cons I’m alluding to. We are able to bring an objective impartiality to the table.” He knocks on the physical table to illustrate the figurative one. “You are able to bring personal experience. There is a time and place for each to be of service.” As if further proof were needed, he goes on demonstrating his mastery of the backhanded compliment. “Because it would feel irresponsible of me to remove you from the case, that’s not what I’m going to do. Your abilities come too highly validated by Agent Rousseau. What I’m opting for instead is to place you on standby. Chief Wojcik and I have decided, mutually, that you are to resume normal police work and apply yourself to other cases, except in specific instances where the Bureau requests your contribution. This can mean me or Rousseau or anyone on the task force. I hope I’m making myself clear, Detective. We value your input tremendously.”
“Perfectly clear.” I give an obeisant nod. This is what Wojcik forecast from day one, that our department would be treated like pawns. Positioned for grunt work and exploited to win trust from the locals.
Pedroza proceeds to explain my very next “official petition” from the FBI. Go bind the Mubaraks’ wounds. Alleviate any resentment sowed by the Bureau’s bone-grinding tactics which they were “forced by protocol” to use yesterday. “Go speak with them,” he says in a purring, diplomatic voice. “Convince them we are on their side, we just need to be tough in order to make any headway. Because as of right now, we are turning up very little concrete evidence . . . You don’t have to mention that last part, of course.”
“Of course,” I echo.
Essentially, a replay of his entrance ensues. Standing, smiling, shaking hands, and a parting pledge that our departments are working in full symbiosis. I take the hint through less-than-subtle cues that he is staying downstairs and I am the one who should leave. Go bind the wounds. Go stare into her parents’ eyes. Try and explain what we’ve been doing to bring her home.
A gleaming black station wagon is parked outside the Mubarak home. I don’t recognize it, but I’m simply relieved it’s not a press van or the private vehicle of some blood-sucking reporter. The lawn is still an unkempt bramble in contrast to the other manicured lots on Buckley, the hillside still smudged with orange lettering. I think of all the occasions I’ve climbed these stairs in the past week, how my dread has been elevated each time. Today, the going is especially rough.
A torpid humidity suffocates the air, adding a gauze of unreality to everything, detaching actions from consequences. As I glance down the street, I see a girl walking away from me who briefly causes my throat to constrict. The next moment I am kicking myself: she is half Khadija’s age and doesn’t resemble her in the slightest. You can’t hallucinate her into existence, Mickey. You have to work at it. I’m so desperate, I’m even starting to hope something turns up that corroborates Pedroza’s, the Bureau’s, and ostensibly the whole town’s opinion: that Nadeem and Javaria play a more insidious role than mere grieving parents.
I ring the bell, imagining her as she was the day I responded to Nadeem’s voicemail. Opening the door. Her bright, caustic eyes. Her long hair flipped over one shoulder. A glimpse of dusky flesh between her shirt and jeans that would’ve rendered the Saudi Arabian crown-prince apoplectic. There are natural-born victims, so meek that few bother to victimize them except in passing, while the more threatening non-victims must endure a lion’s share of brutality.
A dead man opens the door. Nadeem does not look like he was questioned in a basement for ten hours. He looks like he was confined to Guantanamo for ten months. Just throw a dirty trench coat over his shoulders, set him loose on the street, and I might mistake him for a deranged beggar. His eyes are lodged in sleepless pockets, his once-luxuriant hair is ever more wiry and snagged. He has on a loose shirt that I suspect has only gotten looser in the past week, as his face has turned gaunt and anorexic. Even his hands, once imposing things to shake, are now frail and spindly, his collar bones protruding more and more.
Over his shoulder, I notice a long-bearded man seated on the couch wearing a turquoise polo, khaki slacks, and navy dress socks, studying me through patient eyeglasses.
“Sorry.” I’m the first to speak. “Is this a bad time? Am I interrupting?”
Nadeem turns away from me to address the man. “Imam Ahmad, this is Detective Fontanel, whom I mentioned earlier.”
The man on the couch nods his head, perhaps smiling, perhaps not.
Nadeem opens the door wider and steps aside, indicating that I should remove my shoes and enter. The air reeks like stale incense, reminding me of my dream about the butchered panther. The Imam rises, puts out his right hand. He is a well-built man in his fifties, perhaps early sixties, who pays obvious attention to fitness. The only details that give away his age are the papery feel of his skin, the many creases around his eyes and mouth. After we shake, he mentions something to Nadeem in Arabic and Nadeem responds likewise. I try and abstain from feeling discomfort or xenophobia of any sort, but it is off-putting when I am so clearly the subject of their exchange, however brief.
Nadeem invites me to a spot on the couch and goes through the ritual of offering me something to drink. I decline, asking, “Where is Javaria?”
Nadeem and the Imam trade dour looks. “She’s taken quite ill, I’m afraid,” says the former. “She is upstairs in bed. If you’ve come with pressing news, I can go and wake her.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. No, I just wanted to stop in and, well, check up on you, I guess. I heard the Feds grilled you two pretty hard yesterday.”
Nadeem sits down, so the Imam and I follow suit. A clock ticks on the wall. To break the silence, the Imam suggests that perhaps he should return later, once Javaria has risen.
“Please don’t leave on my account,” I say. “I should be the one to come back.”
“Both you gentlemen are welcome to stay,” Nadeem offers lazily. “Imam, your holy presence here is felt.”
The Imam offers an Arabic blessing. I’m left wondering what adjective befits my presence.
“Have you any progress to share in the case, Detective?” the Imam asks me in a stern but civil tone, like an uncle inquiring about my latest report card.
“Please,” Nadeem says, “treat the Imam as an extension of this family. You may be perfectly candid in front of him. He is bound by his role in the mosque to uphold our privacy. Think of him as a priest or a minister.”
“Alright then.” I clear my throat. “Well, from what it looks like—I mean, the Feds have been able to determine—Khadija was apparently making attempts to track her brother online.” I give them a dumbed down paraphrasing of what Rousseau explained to me. Nadeem’s eyes periodically close as I speak, while the Imam persists in watching me closely, giving off his pious odors, sipping his tea in low, mannered slurps. When he speaks, it is with a tenor of final judgment; not belligerent, though clearly drawn from a core of enshrined, incontestable tenets.
“The internet’s role is not to be downplayed in either of these tragedies,” he avows. “Through it, those defective tribes proclaiming to be Islamic were able to reach Ismael and poison his mind. Men whom he should never have come in contact with were able to corrupt him, pander to his insecurities, take his most beautiful characteristic—his faith—and weaponize it in the most unconscionable way.”
Nadeem bobs his head in agreement, massaging each of his temples in a repetitive, circular motion.
“And in Khadija’s case,” the Imam goes on, “I’m afraid she was corrupted as well. There is one road leading to Allah, with no shortage of diversions toward shame and dishonor. The world is riddled with such roads, and what the internet does is consolidate them. This, combined with the influence of her friends, so-called pop culture, manipulative media, all of this drove a wedge between Khadija and her most important tie to God: her family.”
He points at the bereaved father, who seems to be reducing in size before my eyes. “You and Javaria didn’t want to smother her. I understand, I empathize with you on this, but in wanting her to blossom into her own woman you stood by as she shed her Muslim values. This became vehemently clear as new transgressions came to light. Again and again and again. A tattoo. A tattoo of a boy’s name, a boy of whom her parents expressed their disapproval. An unwillingness to attend Friday services, to dress modestly, to celebrate her beauty with the hijab. And now we know that she was not above attending parties against her parents’ will, parties where alcohol and drugs were distributed.”
I stare into the sunlight bleeding through the Venetian blinds, squirming there on my cushion, using all my self-control not to interrupt this man’s tirade—his victim-blaming, as far as I can see it.
“With all due respect and sympathy, Nadeem, Allah has finally intervened where you failed to do so. This may sound heartless to your ears as an outsider, Detective.” The Imam appears to have read my mind. “But believe me, everything I say I say out of love. Love for Khadija. Love for Ismael. May they yet be saved by Allah’s graces.” He offers up another blessing.
Eyes glossy and red, Nadeem answers, “Allahu Akbar.”
I am out of my depth here. I should have turned back and waited until their appointment with the Imam was over. Javaria: has she been forced to endure this drivel? No wonder she is laid up, racked with guilt and remorse.
As my thoughts turn to her, a floorboard creaks overhead. The three of us sit there with our heads cocked. The Imam reaches for his tea, draining the mug before it can cool. Javaria can now be heard taking hesitant steps down the staircase. When she appears, I am surprised to see, for the first time in all the years we’ve known each other, the full extent of her long, wavy hair flowing down past her hips. She so resembles Khadija I almost choke, and her reaction is similar when she lays eyes on me.
“Forgive me.” She is looking at me, but addressing the other two men in the room. “I only heard the Imam’s voice.”
I’ve had about as much religiosity as I can stomach in one Sunday morning. “I was just on my way out,” I tell her, standing too quickly, incurring a flood of illusory silver stars. My hangover flares up, a dagger in the front-right quadrant of my skull. The edges of the room turn fuzzy and black, but the stars keep glimmering ever brighter. I fight to regain my equilibrium. How much confidence would I inspire if I passed out right here in front of them? Javaria is speaking, and as I struggle not to blackout, at the same time I try holding onto whatever she is saying.
“—Bruno was always welcome in our home. Over the years, he’d sometimes bring up the trouble between you and Rhonda, but I tried never to take sides, or let the stray words of a child influence my opinion of anyone. It wasn’t just him though. Friends of mine, acquaintances at parties or in coffee shops . . . I’ve heard more than my share of wicked gossip about you, Mickey. But I would never have anything more to add than, ‘He’s always been a decent man in my presence.’
“We put all our trust and faith in you, didn’t we? We invited you into our home. When the news about Ismael leaked almost immediately, we didn’t cast suspicion on you at all, even though you were the first to know anything about it. Then, Khadija—”
Her voice breaks, the dam behind her eyes finally fails. Nadeem watches her with an expression I can only describe as awestruck. The Imam’s eyes are closed, his head bowed, his fingers interlaced in his lap, as though dispelling himself from matters outside his spiritual realm of concern.
“We haven’t heard from you since the night you came to tell us our daughter was missing, that she wasn’t down the hall from us sleeping in her bed. Since then, we’ve had to deal with a train of hostile, unsympathetic men coming in and out of our home as they like, asking us the most offensive, insinuating questions. Yesterday we spent nearly the entire day confined in some cellar beneath your department. It reminded me of pictures of Abu Ghraib. I kept waiting for the black hoods to come out—”
“Javaria,” Nadeem warns in a stern voice.
But she has elevated to a shout, or something very close, a hysterical light dancing in her eyes. She is like a woman lost without clothes in a forest of shrouded men. “Do I hate America for its involvement in the Middle East? Do I believe in the murder of infidels? Did I feel pride after 9/11? Pride, Mickey. Those are just a fraction of the questions they insulted us with, me and my husband. And when you thought they were finally done, someone new would take over, someone even more crass, and the whole thing started over again—”
“Javaria!” Nadeem’s haunted eyes bug from his skull. I finally catch a glimpse of the man who excoriated Devon at the school dance. Her name whirls through the room like a tomahawk, slamming into her in her chest with enough force that she takes half a step back. No one in the room appears more stunned than Javaria herself. Not by the sound of her husband’s voice, but by the sound of her own.
The traffic light turns red. I ease into the brake pedal, feeling shaken, glazed in a cold layer of sweat. It’s not that I’ve never been bitched out by a civilian, it’s not even necessarily that my feelings are hurt. It’s . . . unimportant. I try not to dwell on it, just like I’ve tried not to dwell on what happened last night between Bruno and me. These are the meandering turns life can sometimes take. Best not to get distracted. Pick a main course, let the rest of it breeze past you like so many hitchhikers.
A car bleats behind me (the gall of honking at a cop!) and I notice the light has turned green, along with the soupy halo of fog around it. I drift ahead through the brick-stacked street on the fringes of downtown. Past the weathered billboards that teenagers like to climb for whatever reason. Past the obelisk commemorating fallen Union soldiers. Yankee scum, they would’ve been called on the other side, while the boys in gray are upheld as rebels to this day, in the most romantic sense of the word.
I think back to my toe-in-the-water race chat with Rousseau. At times the whole discussion can feel like a smokescreen, designed to simplify and divide. Of course we’re still rebounding from the Civil War. In many ways we’re still rebounding from the Revolution, when you think about it. Congress wouldn’t have to squabble every day if the Constitution wasn’t a vague and imperfect road map. And on the topic of the Constitution, I think it’s part of the reason we whites still throw the word “nigger” around now and again, why we wear the Confederate flag on our belt buckles. Because it says we can and everyone else says we can’t. We like to intimidate, antagonize, provoke. That’s the American way. Wearing a swastika is not the same as shooting a Jew in the head. Flying a Confederate flag is not the same as flogging a black person. By the same logic, setting fire to Old Glory, or not standing during the National Anthem, that’s not the same as flying a plane into a skyscraper. But try telling that to the guy with the Confederate belt buckle. (“All units, we have a four car pile-up on 14 just south of the legion hall. EMS has been notified. All units, four car pile-up on 14 just south of legion hall . . .”) It’s funny when you step back. Tribalism. Maybe what allowed society to cohere in the first place will spell destruction for every last one of us.
This fog is really rolling in thick.
When I first spot him crossing the street in his red hoodie—a conspicuous figure, given the summer heat—I’m trying to place in my disjointed memory the first time I ever crossed paths with Khadija Mubarak. I cannot.
The earliest episode I can recall would have to be Bruno’s seventh birthday party. Rhonda made it a UFO theme, a compromise finally reached after much mewling on Bruno’s part for Men In Black. I have to say, I contributed very little to the staging or creative process whatsoever. She showed Bruno how to make tin-foil hats for all the guests to wear, instead of the typical cardboard cones. The cake was a giant green alien head. She was able to hunt down, God only knows where, a piñata shaped like a flying saucer. My main responsibility was to grill a surplus of hot dogs, brats, and hamburgers, meanwhile cultivating a buzz in preparation for the onslaught of shrill children and their bland, despondent parents.
Overall I’d say the party was a success, meaning Bruno was pleased with all the attention and presents. The adults stuffed their faces. The kids stayed preoccupied with hide-and-seek, croquet, and the jungle gym which had been a bitch to set up but which Bruno hardly ever used. The only hiccup was when I stepped into the kitchen for another beer to find Rhonda washing a young girl’s hair in the sink. The child was so small she had to use a step stool. Rhonda massaged the girl’s fine black locks, working up a heavy lather. “What happened?” I asked.
I could tell Rhonda was furious but controlling herself for the little girl’s sake. “Taylor Huenink put bubblegum in her hair on purpose, after she told him she was going to grow it out to her knees.”
“Her knees?” I said stupidly.
The soapy head cocked a little. I saw one tearful eye blink at me, then close itself off again from the stinging suds. From the wrong angle, it could appear that Rhonda was trying to drown or throttle the girl, she was scrubbing so vigorously. I assumed by the child’s complexion that she was Ismael’s younger sister, whose name escaped me then.
“Did his parents take him home?” I grabbed a fresh beer.
“No, they’re not here. They just dropped him off,” Rhonda fumed. “He’s still out there playing. I haven’t had time to deal with him yet. I wanted to get this gum out.”
“I’ll deal with him.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t kill him. Except in self-defense.”
She gave me an appreciative smile. There was still something between us then, maybe not love but affection. That said, in another year Valerie and I would consummate our affair.
I shut the refrigerator and went outside. I was like a baleful boogeyman darkening the sunlit festivities. Rhonda knew full well I relished my new assignment. I had no patience for the Hueninks, big or small. They were evangelists, sober and passive-aggressive androids who had once told me they forbade their kid from watching Captain Planet because it was nothing short of “leftist propaganda.” No wonder he’d grown into such a little cum stain.
He was easy to spot: the red-haired, freckle-faced imp who never cut his fingernails and always had something dangling out of his nose. I caught him by the arm as he was running past, just hard enough to let him imagine for a moment that I was going to rend him to pieces like an eagle on a kitten. I laid into him good, in front of parent and progeny alike, disappointed when he cried prematurely, before I could even get a real tangent going. Adding further insult, I took him to the kitchen where Khadija was still getting her hair washed and had him call up his parents right in front of her, explaining between gasps and sobs what he had done. Next, I grabbed the phone to clarify in my most courteous and regretful tone that little Taylor was getting the boot and they should come pick him up at their earliest convenience. He would be sitting alone in some punitive corner.
With a storybook turn of events, Rhonda was able to get all the gum out. (Peanut butter is what finally did the trick, as suggested by another mom in attendance. If anything, the soapy water just turned it to concrete.) We were heroes that day. When Javaria came to pick up the siblings, Khadija hugged Rhonda’s leg before parting, and she imparted to me a shy smile that would have melted anyone’s heart. Bruno and Ismael, both grinning, expressed that it was “awesome” how I had made Taylor cry. I took solace in imagining him being heckled for it the following Monday. Like I said, overall a successful party.
That was a long time ago.
I glide up next to the curb. Whoever is under the red hoodie stiffens, sensing that he is being trailed. Rusty streaks mar his clothing. His tennis shoes are little more than scraps of leather bursting at the seams. He must hear the hum of me putting down the window, still rolling along with my foot barely on the accelerator. I lean across the passenger seat and call to him in a firm but genial voice. “Hey there. Good afternoon.”
He quickens his pace, ever so slightly, to push ahead of the cruiser and pivot right at the next intersection. I halt there at the stop sign, flicking on my directional, craning my neck to look around the corner. When I do make the turn, I am just in time to see him dart through the open gate of a high wooden fence.
Cursing, I wrench the car over to the side of the road, throw it in park, and hightail it after him. I radio into my shoulder comm that “I’m in pursuit on-foot of a suspicious individual at 19th and Mavis.” Inside the wooden fence is a courtyard belonging to a media design firm with a couple apartments above. I am just in time to see the hooded man scamper onto a lidded rain barrel, the blue type like they wheeled out of Dahmer’s apartment. From there, he easily crawls onto the roof of a garage facing an alleyway on the other side. I backtrack, sprinting down the sidewalk to the same alley. He is already gone by that time, but I can track him using audio cues: a garbage bin being dumped over, a small dog yipping psychotically. I weave around a dilapidated garage and spot him hurtling between two houses.
By that time he is already in the middle of 18th Street. A yellow Mercury squeals to a halt, bleating its horn. I follow when I can, pausing for a flatbed of broken furniture to pass before making a run for it. My hand is jutted out, cautioning traffic to stop. We dip between another set of houses, me lagging too far behind. Now we’re in a residential backyard. Two awestruck little girls are squatted in a sandbox. He tries scaling a chain-link fence, and he would surely evade me again if not for his jeans getting snagged on a metal wire. Pouncing on this good fortune, I reach up and seize his arm. Despite his kicking me hard in the shoulder, I manage to rip him off the top of the fence and slam him face-first on the ground. His outcry is so explosive that I worry he must have broken something. One of the little girls screams, runs inside the house. The other stays put, black barrettes in her hair, blinking at us like we are a TV special.
He resists the best he can, squirming and wresting his arms away. I pin one knee between his shoulder blades, warning him in the technical parlance that if he keeps resisting he’s “gonna get fucking tased.” The threat proves effective enough for me to get cuffs on. My radio is crackling with activity, officers demanding to know my exact location. I give them my best estimate of the address and report that the suspect is detained. Then I roll him over on his back. It takes me a few seconds to ascertain that the boy pinned beneath me is indeed who I suspected him to be at first sight, his face is so trampled with bruises and open sores.
The parents of the little girls file outside, ordering the more taciturn one out of the sandbox. They watch the suspect and me interact but do not speak. The father is trying to shutter his family inside his arms, as though posing for a terrified portrait. I pull the suspect to his feet, exhorting the family to go about their business. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
At the curb, I flag down a cruiser that is prowling down the bike lane, watching for us. Who else but Trossen, trusty Trossen, is behind the wheel, asking me if I’m alright. He is alarmed by the condition of my suspect, probably thinking I made short work of the damage inflicted. I load him into the backseat and join Trossen up front. The little girls are now watching us through a picture window, their nostrils fogging the pane. I shoot them a wave and a friendly smile, trying to import that nothing about this episode should lastingly traumatize them.
“Where’s your cruiser parked?” Trossen asks.
“One block over. Hold on a sec.” I try to hide how out of breath I am. Twisting around in my seat, I study the downturned, mutilated head of my suspect. “Let’s just sit here and get cozy for a minute. I want to ask Hawaii a few questions off the record.”
His body language conveys some shock at my knowing his name. He must not recognize me from that day at the railyard. I suppose us pigs all tend to run together.
“That’s what you like to go by, isn’t it? Hawaii? I can agree to that. Now you’ve got to explain why you took off on me like that. Especially when there’s a rumor going around that you’re balling Katie Mubarak.”
This at least prompts a little bit of eye contact. His gaze is fierce, his face ugly as hell, green in spots, scraggly bangs plastered to his forehead with sweat. A distinct homeless odor consumes Trossen’s vehicle.
“You don’t want to talk?” I say, turning to my partner. “Here’s my theory, Trossen. Fuckin’ Honolulu back here killed our girl. Looks like she put up a good fight though. Almost turned the tables on him. What’d you have to do to finally get the better of her? Smash her head in with a brick? Cut her throat?”
Trossen blanches at my words, facing the windshield. It’s possible that I’ve gone from playing bad cop to actually believing what I’m saying. It feels good to have someone in custody after so many loose ends. What if he broke down right here? What if he led us to a remote grave or a burn pit? Would I actually prefer that outcome to his being wholly ignorant and uninvolved?
Hawaii, the culprit responsible for my aching shoulder, the runner I almost had to tase, looks like he’s about to pull a Devon Maguire and break down crying behind the iron grid. At the last second, he does a powerful inhale that seems to vacuum some of the emotion back inside him, at least for the time being. Even wiping his eyes causes him to wince, his face is that tender. I can understand now why he wailed when I threw him off the fence.
“I was under the overpass,” he says. “Asleep last night in my lean-to.” I’m surprised by his reedy baritone, vulnerable, like a bassoon, cracked through with a long-suffering lineage that adds a certain gravitas. His voice is like an ancient ruin.
“Early in the morning, when it was still dark, someone shone a flashlight in my face. Somebody wakes you up like that and you assume it’s the police. Whoever it was, he was alone, and he immediately started asking me about Katie. I couldn’t see his face, but he was in street clothes and his hands were black. I mean, it was a black guy. I couldn’t remember seeing any black officers on the force, so I clammed up. I didn’t say a word, not until he started bashing me. Then I swore I didn’t know anything about Katie or where she was. He called me a liar, said he would get the truth out of me one way or another. I don’t know how long it went on, him assaulting me like that, but it felt like hours. There was nobody who could hear us.”
Detaching himself from the resurgent fear, he continues, “He told me he was in the military. He told me a bunch of fucked up things about that. I don’t know how much was true and how much was meant to scare me. Anyway, it worked. He was big, and it seemed like he didn’t much give a damn if he killed me. I was just in so much pain that I thought about confessing to whatever he said. Finally, he tired himself out. He said if I went to the cops, he and some Army buddies would come back and finish me off, make me bite down on the curb and stomp the back of my head. Seemed like he loved making threats. He had a knack for it. I went and washed my cuts in a laundromat bathroom. I figured I’d spend the whole day moving around and try not to stay too long in one place. You know, in case he decided to make good . . .”
At this point, I grab Trossen’s radio and contact Dispatch. Nearest unit should be sent to the Maguire residence; Trossen and I are diametrically across town and need to deliver a civilian to the hospital. Devon is wanted on suspicion of assault and battery.