Training For War
The couple is straight out of American Gothic. The man’s potbelly strains his checkered shirt. He wears religious buttons pinned to his wide red suspenders and a mesh trucker hat advertising Menards. The slack of his wife’s pink blouse is tied around her hips, her silvery perm overdue at the dresser’s. She wears horn-rimmed glasses but no jewelry or makeup to conceal the lines she has earned on her sun-browned face. They are third-generation beef and dairy farmers living just inside city limits. Another half a mile up County XX and this would be a matter for the sheriffs, the matter being that last night somebody cut the padlock on their gate. Two Herefords and a Black Angus were stolen, valued somewhere at two grand apiece.
“Rustling,” as cattle theft is colloquially known, has seen a resurgence since the recession. The Polsters are just the latest victims in a string of such incidents. The cruel irony is that it’s always the ma and pop farms getting hit, never the megafarms with their state-of-the-art security. The husband stands there looking wise and forlorn, but not altogether bitter. He lets his wife do most of the talking.
“Were the cows tagged, Mrs. Polster?”
“Sure they were. But you don’t need nothing but a good pair of shears to get ʼem off. Them cows are me and Jim’ s retirement. We don’t work no more. We keep plenty busy on the farm, and we don’t mess around with no fancy stock portfolios like our kids go on about. Them cows is our whole investment, and now some of it’s been stolen. What’s the odds you think you can get ʼem back to us, Detective?”
I keep my answer evasive, not wanting to confess that the odds aren’t too favorable. Cows tend to look alike, after all. “I can tell you the first thing we’ll do is check all the local auction houses. Usually that’s where these cattle end up. You don’t want stolen goods on your hands for too long, and the sooner they’ve been dressed into steaks the better.”
“I suppose that’s right.” She swats absently at a horsefly, begrudging the phone call she’ll have to make to her kids at some point, capitulating to their point that a fancy stock portfolio would have been a nice fallback under the circumstances.
The morning is still dewy and warming fast. The last rags of a bruising twilight evaporate from the segregated pasture. Bulls flex like boulders. Cows nuzzle their heads in the alfalfa furrows, self-content, swollen-uddered. It was still dark when Mr. Polster shuffled out here to tend the livestock. I suppose it’s possible that only two cows were stolen and another just wandered through the open gate, soon to be reported ambling down a country road. I tell them this as meager consolation, promising they will hear from me later on today.
“Have you had breakfast yet, Detective? Why don’t you come in and I’ll scramble you up some eggs? We got a good chunk of ham leftover too, don’t we, Jim?”
My stomach is keen to seize on this hospitality. Somehow, I find the restraint to decline. There are three auction houses located in the state. I’ll call all of them, requesting they be on the lookout for two Herefords and a Black Angus with fresh-cut tags. If the rustlers are smart, the cows won’t be delivered together, maybe not even to the same auction house, and cattle from other farms might be thrown into the mix. If they’re nervous, on the other hand, or junkies, the cows will be dumped all at once, and probably at the nearest auction house, which is in Chilton. Part of what’s so alluring about cattle theft, and also so rectifiable, is that in some states you can literally waltz in without paperwork and deposit your cow, no questions asked, then come back later and pick up the winning bid. Wisconsin is one such state.
The Polster farm shrinks in my rearview mirror. I watch the two sturdy figures retreat inside. My mouth waters for ham and eggs.
On the west end of Judson Bottom lay the rail yards. Beneath the Highway 23 overpass, especially during spring and summer, it’s not unusual to find encampments, forts erected out of cardboard, shredded tarpaulin, or even bald tires. Graffiti on the concrete columns commemorate the passage of this or that transient. Many homeless follow a regular migration pattern via the Canadian National freight lines. Some choose to hop off here. You come to recognize faces from year to year, along with a few new additions who have heard by word of mouth that the cops don’t hassle you much in Judson. Just don’t scare/annoy our citizens and we generally won’t conduct a sweep unless the railroad company itself complains.
I’m taking a short cut down one of the service roads when I happen to spot an untidy court being held within the shade of a great willow tree. What strikes me as unusual is that there are five evidently homeless individuals accompanied by three teenagers, well-groomed in comparison. Getting closer, one of the teens stands out as being none other than Khadija Mubarak.
I pull over slowly, observing them from a distance. She is the exception, with no cigarette dangling from her lips. One of the hobos drinks from a paper bag, but he never passes it to the kids, or anyone else for that matter. I get out of the car and decide to have a word with her—not about her chosen company, though the topic might come up, but about the state of her home life. How is her family coping? Yesterday there were two black Escalades parked outside their house for most of the day, so I steered clear.
Today is the actual Fourth of July (fireworks tonight in Eden, and tomorrow the final batch in Dundee, or so I believe). The powwow stiffens when they see me coming. The one with the paper bag discreetly folds it away inside his tattered rucksack.
“Morning, folks,” I greet them, as bright and chipper as a songbird. “You’re all up early, especially for summer vacation.”
Khadija stares off at the tracks, her two friends give me surly looks, and the hobos are all as genial and polite as can be. It makes you wonder who the real anti-socials are.
“Morning, Officer,” says the one who previously was doing the sipping, a guy with scraggly brown hair and powder blue eyes that pop like moons from the dirt-caked creases of his face. “You know, I never miss a sunrise if I can help it. We was just telling the future leaders of the world here to stay in school and honor thy mother and father.” His cackle has the effect of dislodging a loogie that he hawks into the grass.
“Sound advice,” I say. “You come up with that on your own—it’s Jeff, isn’t it?”
Jeff turns to his compatriots and points a yellow-nailed finger at me. “You see? Here’s a man who never forgets a pretty face.”
I remember him from last summer. I found him perched atop a dumpster out behind the Piggly Wiggly, smearing some lubricant all over his face, arms, and chest from a squirt bottle. When I inquired, in a neighborly way, what he was doing, he said someone had thrown away half a bottle of perfectly good tanning lotion: “I get me a tan whether I like it or not, but I figure with a little help from this here I can convince the ladies I’m Puerto Rican.” Then he unleashed the same devious cackle, which made his blue eyes shine and his gaunt belly shake.
The vagrants are surprised when I go around and name all of them but one. Earl is a husky, quiet, strawberry blonde who wears duct-taped glasses. Nancy is a razor-witted beauty who claims she used to pose on Harley Davidson calendars. Her on/off boyfriend, Jasper, is a slim, shaky black man who will smile at everything you say but probably couldn’t repeat it back to you. He speaks in a ripe Georgia accent. The one I don’t know, seated beside Khadija, is just a kid, though there is no chance of him being mistaken for a student. He wears a backpack bursting at the seams. His clothes, whatever disparate colors they once were, are all soiled to the same shade of dark canvas. It looks like he has indian blood. He never once meets my eye. The sleeves are cut from his T-shirt, flaunting muscular, sunburnt arms. I glance from him to Khadija to her two classmates. These last two are a couple, judging by how they sit together, brooding and black-clad with lots of atypical piercings and splashes of radical hair dye.
“Khadija,” I say. “I was wondering if I might borrow you for a second.”
I can tell she thinks about resisting, or mouthing off to save face in front of her friends. Maybe she would, if not for the fear that I’ll mention Ismael in front of them. She stands, taking with her a red gingham shirt she has been sitting on and tying it around her waist. I guide her back toward the cruiser, though really I’m headed nowhere in particular. The group starts muttering behind us.
“Listen,” she says. “If you’re worried about us running away from home, that’s not on the agenda. These are just the most interesting people we know.”
“I’m not worried about that at all. Tell me what’s going on at home.”
She remains half a step ahead of me, as if I’m the one being led away from my friends. “They’ve torn his whole room apart.”
“They confiscated his computer, his notebooks, his Qu’ran.” A sneer plays on her face. “The whole block decided to water their lawns yesterday, I can tell you that much.”
“What sort of questions did they ask you?”
Her voice has always been too gentle for the amount of caustic energy it contains. Even when she was a child it could be jarring, the contrast between her baby face, her bump of a chin, and the serrated edges on her budding brand of sarcasm, which was never sing-songy or tongue-jutting. “The kind designed to make me feel stupid,” she answers. “And I do feel stupid. It’s so obvious now that he was losing touch with reality.”
I can tell she tries repeating verbatim what she told the Feds, which makes me feel important. “He’s never really voiced his thoughts, but at least he had a sense of humor. That went away. He acted like a boarder, like Mom and Dad were just putting him up for rent. He tried to keep as invisible as possible. But you can’t get away with not eating at the table. Our parents are total Nazis about that, so it became the only time I ever really saw him.”
“And what was he like?”
“Shy, withdrawn, like I said. He’s always been too shy to pick up a girl. I figured that’s what his fitness kick was all about, getting up early and going to the gym every morning. I never… how the hell should I have guessed he was training for war?” Hives are developing in a blotchy red collar around her throat.
“There’s no way,” I assure. “From what I’ve read up on, these conversions happen quickly. It’s not that different from any other kind of cyber predation.” Predation is not a word designed to ever be comforting, so I move on. “How long ago would you say you first noticed a change in his behavior?”
“Now you’re trying to sound like one of them.”
“You’re right. I just want to understand.” I have never in my entire career had to deal with domestic terrorism, or even the threat of it, despite media innuendo that it’s a fairly common occurrence. For that reason I have no playbook on how to address the situation beyond what I’ve seen on primetime TV. It’s humbling, a reminder that I’m a de facto civilian with a badge and a gun. “I liked whenever Ismael came over.” I try to win back her trust, putting things on a personal level. “From what I knew of him then, he was a good kid.”
“Yeah. He was. Somewhere along the line, I guess maybe in his junior year, I got the impression he was looking down on me. Just these comments he’d make about what I was wearing, or how I spoke.”
“How you spoke?”
“He couldn’t stand it when I swore. I mean, it enraged him so much I actually thought it was funny, and I’d drop F bombs in front of him whenever I could. Maybe if I hadn’t been so busy teasing him, I would have seen it for what it was.” Her anger flies into the world like a boomerang, driving home again with no other target. “He used to be teased a lot. I felt very protective of him, even though he was older than me.”
Her adoption of the past tense in just two days is telling.
Instinctively, I almost put a hand on her shoulder. At the last second I turn the gesture into an errant swat at some invisible mosquito. How ridiculous. I can’t see her jerking away or caring in the slightest had I gone through with it, and yet for my part, the simple contact would have felt laced with scandal: the contour of her shoulder fitting into my cupped palm, her warmth beneath a thin cotton shirt.
“Blaming yourself won’t help the investigation.”
“What investigation?” She stops walking and rears at me, but breaks eye contact almost immediately. “Those boys don’t come back. There’s nothing to investigate. He booked a flight to Istanbul, drove to Chicago, and got on a plane. They know all that. Fine, they don’t know who his contact was in Turkey, but they assume it was somebody able to smuggle him into Syria. Either way, it’s irrelevant. He’s out of their grasp now. No one can bring him back. Even if he had a change of heart, or snapped out of his, his delusion … it’s too late. There’s only one way out of ISIS, one way they let you leave, and that’s by strapping a bomb to your chest. Everyone knows that.” She closes her eyes, squares her shoulders, and clenches her fists: the universal pose of someone trying to scrub the world away by sheer force of will.
“Let me take you home,” I offer.
She refuses to make a sound.
“I can drop you off around the corner. Your parents don’t have to know.”
“Thanks anyway,” she finally says. “I’ll be fine.”
“If you ever need to talk—”
She cuts me short by asking, “How’s Bruno? Does he know?”
“No one knows,” I promise. “He’s off in the Cascades camping with some friends. He’ll be home soon.”
“Good for him,” she says, for lack of a better response. As a cop, you experience every coping mechanism known to man. It’s sick, but you get to assess the options at hand for when tragedy strikes your own hearth, watching flesh-and-bone people wrung through unthinkable scenarios. Khadija’s austerity is moving in that it is clearly inherited from her father, one of those uncommon heirlooms that has any qualitative use. “I’m going to head back now,” she says.
“Thank you.” She forms the words as bluntly as good-bye.
“For giving a damn, I guess. For not automatically demonizing him.” I swear that her hives have paled a little, the pressure gauge dropped to a workable level.
“I’m sorry this happened.”
She nods. My words crumble into a meaningless dust between us. I watch her walk away, black hair drifting above her waist. She is reintegrated warmly by the company beneath the willow.
My ex-wife, Rhonda, lives holed up in a trailer park called Sylvan Glen. When she left she was too proud to take anything with her but some clothes, inheritances, and the dog, Boba Fett, whom we unwisely let Bruno name. Very quickly I took to calling him Bob, even though it annoyed our son to no end. He’s a rottweiler-newfoundland mix, i.e. ridiculously oversized for his new trailer park surroundings. But Rhonda wouldn’t budge on the issue and I didn’t push too hard. It was Bruno’s dog, after all. I was the one working erratic hours, so he spent more time at his mother’s.
We kept it out of court for a long time, Rhonda and I, delaying the actual divorce until it seemed palatable. Bruno would stay with me on my infrequent days off, whenever Rhonda was pulling a shift at the machine shop. Oftentimes he brought a backpack containing his PlayStation 2 console. Oftentimes he invited Ismael over. Oftentimes I got the impression that he dreaded being cornered into an adult conversation with his father. And since his father was clueless how to begin said conversation, I allowed every possible roadblock and diversion, telling myself I was just a cool dad.
One spring day, I poked my head in as he and Ismael were squatted on my living room floor, maybe fourteen at the time, playing first-person shooters, drinking all my Pepsi. It was beautiful outside. I told them, “You two aren’t as interesting as you used to be.” They seemed none too offended, though eventually they did migrate into other corners of the house, playing with G.I. Joes or Magic cards, shared interests which neither of them breathed a word about at school to preclude ridicule and beatings.
Hoping to lead by example, I took advantage of the sunshine to work on my bike in the driveway. Just a cleaning. It was only two years old at the time, not in need of any major repairs, but my vanity compelled me to make sure that it sparkled like a showroom model amidst any lineup. When there is grease under my nails, I invariably lose track of time, so I was shocked to see Rhonda pull up, thinking I had at least another hour to spare. Our eyes met through the windshield. I remember how uneasy I felt standing in the path of her Corolla. Wiping my hands on a shop towel, I invited her inside to collect the boys. Because the Mubarak house is right on the way to Sylvan Glen from my place, she normally dropped off Ismael. There are a few invitations I’ve extended in my lifetime which have resulted in complications. This one must rank fourth or fifth. I wish I had let her wait outside, coveting the property she had abandoned without much of a fight, the lilac hedges in full bloom. I wish I had gone and fetched them myself. Instead, I let her in through the kitchen.
Bruno materialized, stretching a studded leather dog choker in his hands, wearing an opioid look on his face. “—Dad, what’s this?” Ismael peered over his shoulder, sleepy-eyed, hair parted down the middle in those days.
“Looks like a collar,” I said. “Where the hell’d you get it?”
“It was under the couch,” he shrugged. “Ismael found it.”
I was so confused I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t believe them. I had never seen that choker in my life, so naturally I saw it as a bizarre prank. I think I even wore an odd grin on my face, which didn’t help my case any.
Rhonda’s voice dropped like a guillotine blade. “Come on,” she snapped at the boys. “Put that thing down and go wait in the car.”
Bruno’s surprise was outmatched only by my own. He obeyed, setting it gingerly on the counter like crime scene evidence. The awkward teens shuffled past, heads lowered, neither bothering to say goodbye. As soon as the door was closed, Rhonda and I turned on each other. Her denunciations were ludicrous. She demanded that if I was going to have my “sluts over for kinky sex” then I at least better clean up before my son arrived. Laughing in her face added salt to the wound. If I were Bruno it would have cost me a slap. Rhonda had picked up a fairly militant parenting style from her own mother. There were episodes I could easily have blown out of proportion to a judge in order to vilify her, but the whole thing was sordid enough, and honestly, me playing the well-intentioned victim was laughable even in my own eyes.
The dog choker incident, however offbeat, however mystifying, helped to finally get the ball rolling. Two weeks later, we went and consulted a lawyer together—Milton Bishop—on the fastest, most painless way to be legally separated.
Filing reports at my cubicle. Among them is a much-delayed 251 on the incursion of a pregnant raccoon into James K. Polk Elementary. The record should show that raccoon cubs are weaned only after two months of nursing, suggesting that long-term residency was imminent if not for human intervention. The record should also indicate that a raccoon can lunge, sprint, or chase at a rate of 15 m.p.h. Knowing this, as the responding officer did via some strange accumulation of wildlife trivia, he took proper steps to quarantine said aggressor, procyon lotor, and requested Animal Control’s expedient assistance in neutralizing the menace with a 3.0 cc syringe dart.
A shadow eclipses the surface of my desk. A meaty hand slaps me on the shoulder. “Come into my office,” Wojcik requests.
I am only too happy to abandon the 251.
Pulled up on his computer is a video file sent to him by the Chilton auction house. While the clunky black Dell hums with a few buffering attempts, the Chief summarizes what it will depict. “It’s a surveillance tape from their loading bay time-stamped at 10:48 this morning. A man and a woman arrive in a silver F-150 pulling a small livestock trailer. Three cows inside.”
“That match our description?”
“You know it.” He stirs a Styrofoam coffee cup. “If only this goddamn fucking toaster oven—” Smacking the monitor a few times seems to help. The video plays out exactly as Wojcik described. The couple, white, appear to be in their thirties. The man’s face is mostly covered by a baseball cap. However, there is a moment when the woman, as she steps around the trailer, looks directly at the camera. Wojcik freezes the footage. We study her for awhile, as if expecting her face to ring a bell from some previous misdemeanor. “I’m going to blow up that image and distribute it to a few relevant sheriff’s departments,” he says. “Maybe someone will recognize her.”
The man in the video does some haggling with an employee working the dock, then the cows are offloaded. Two Herefords and a Black Angus, no question. Unfortunately, at no point is the truck’s license plate legible, but the auction house would have taken their information. Besides, they’ll be back. Back to pick up their earnings.
“Did they say when the next auction is being held?”
“Tomorrow morning, bright and early. Our rustlers must have known that. I spoke with the manager on the phone.” Wojcik snatches a notepad off his desk and struggles to read his own writing. “Nice guy. Bruce Jenkins. Says he told the couple to come by around noon.” He slaps the notepad down victoriously. “Simple recipe for a stakeout. I’ll send Trossen with you for back-up.”
“I’ll call the Polsters and tell them what we got. It should brighten their day.”
“Fine idea.” Wojcik trails off, fixing to change the subject. “Listen, about the other night. If I’d known you were dropping by—”
I stop him right there. “Completely my fault, Chief.”
“Joanne hasn’t stopped gloating about it,” he shudders. “I’m telling you, I may be your best friend in this town, but I’m married to your worst enemy.”
“No, I’m afraid that distinction goes to Rhonda. And the two of them conspiring together could spell the end for me. So for the record, I have no plans to hang myself in the garage anytime soon.”
With that important alibi established, I leave the office, enthused to call the Polsters and apprise them of our development.