That's important. Real important. I read the stories, same as you guys. Mouth-breathing goons who strangle guys in the street. Thugs shooting tear gas at peaceful protesters. Borderline psychos who think they're Dirty Harry when they gun down some poor homeless fucker under a bridge. That's not my bag. Never has been. I mean, don't get me wrong, we had a couple of guys like that. Every department does. And yeah, they'd get a little rough some days, maybe leave a body or two, and the brass would look the other way. But that's the thing, see, I had the opportunity to be one of those guys, and I chose a different path. I was, and this'll sound corny as fuck, I know, but I was theupstanding type. Man of integrity. Defender of the public trust. One of the good guys, y'know?
“Superman,” that's what the captain used to call me. He was serious, too. Fuckers in the department thought it was funny as hell, and the nickname stuck. But I always liked it. Even when they were making fun of me, I took pride in that shit. Truth, justice and the American way, y'know? Scourge of crime, protector of the weak, defender of all that was good in the world.
That's the kind of cop I was. I mean, I wasn't no fucking superhero or anything, but I did the job, and I did it well. I was the guy who'd stop to change your tire when you got a flat in the rain at 2AM. The guy who'd carry an old lady's groceries up six flights of stairs when the elevator was on the fritz. The guy who'd look the other way if you had a little bit of weed on you, and who knew how to calm a situation down rather than use force as a first resort. These fucks, these morons today with goddamn war movie tanks and assault rifles, shooting up a guy just for waving a pocket knife around, it makes me sick. A real cop, he knows how to talk a man down from the edge. He sees a guy flipping out and screaming, and he knows he just needs someone to talk to. That's who I was, I was the guy you could talk to. The “cool cop,” I guess you could say. Hell, I even rescued a kitten from a tree one time. No shit, kitten in a tree like a goddamn cartoon.
Yeah. It was a good job. A damn good job.
But it could get hard.
You work the force, you see things it's hard to shake. Collar a guy for beating his wife and kids, only to watch her defend his ass in court. See a family with three kids burned alive in their minivan, while the drunk in the other car walks away with a headache. Spend months putting a case together to pull some dealer scum off the street, only to see him walk because some dumbass clerk forgot to stamp the date on the warrant.
Real justice ain't like the comic books, that's what I'm getting at. There ain't always a happy ending after Superman catches the bad guy.
In real life, it's a lot more...gray.
A man can only take so much gray before it fucks with his head. You gotta find some way to cope. A lot of guys, they drank. Others went to the strip clubs, bought girls they could cry on. One or two offed themselves.
Me, I stayed clean. I had a reputation to uphold. “Superman'll have a Sprite,” they'd joke when we went to the cop bars. Even when they joked, I liked it. I told you that already.
But the gray was getting to me too.
During the day it was alright. Work my beats, file my paperwork, get home to the wife and kid. But at night...at night it was hard. I'd stare at the ceiling, my heart pounding like a goddamn motorcycle piston, afraid of...I don't know what. When I would sleep, I'd get maybe an hour or two before I woke up, soaked in sweat, scared of something I couldn't even fucking remember. The wife wanted me to see a shrink, but that kind of noise makes its way around the department quick, and when the brass hears that you can't handle your shit like a man, you can kiss your chance at command goodbye.
I guess it's kind of stupid now, talking about command. I was kicked off my beat a couple years ago after an incident that made the papers. It was a whole fucking thing for a little while. Maybe you heard about it. This dealer, Zed Potch, he was involved in an altercation with a buyer and his girlfriend one night. Shit went bad, words were said, Potch took a knife and cut them both up. Partner and I arrived on the scene just as the knife came out, saw the whole thing. Partner took off after Potch, and I stayed to help the victims. The girl died, the guy lived. She was pregnant, it turned out, and the papers picked it up. Sob story at first, your typical “horrors of big city crime” crap. But after it made the news, people started asking questions.
Like “Why did you save the white guy and not the black girl?” kind of questions.
Bullshit. It was all such fucking bullshit. Bunch of guys in the department were black, my goddamn partner was black. That had nothing to do with it. Anyone, anyone will tell you, in all my years on the force, I never treated anyone different on account of their skin color. No matter who you were, what color, where you were from, whatever. If you were a part of my community I swore an oath to protect you, and I did just that.
The fact that she was black had nothing to do with it. I can tell you that much.
But these little dipshits in the press, they don't care. They'd tar and feather their own grandmothers if it would sell a few more papers. They called me a racist and splashed it all over the tabloids until the captain took me aside and said it would be “in the best interest of the department if you were temporarily reassigned.” That's what he said. “In the best interest of the department.” What a fucking joke.
They sent me off to some horse-fucker town in the boonies where the hottest action was old man Sutherland cracking a bottle of Jim Beam and getting naked in the cow pasture again. The wife left. She'd tried to say she couldn't handle the stress of the new life, but when I called bullshit she said that she didn't want to raise our daughter “in an environment of hate.” Can you believe that? Fifteen years of marriage, fifteen years and I never spoke a hateful word. And she took the goddamn newspaper's side over mine.
It's not great. I'm not going to lie to you. It's not great these days. You take a man's life away, then give him a whole lot of time to think about it, that's not a recipe for good days. I think about my old beat, my wife, my kid. Christ, she must be a senior in college by now.
But mostly I think about that night.
Here's the thing you have to understand: Zed Potch was fucking scum. Most guys who go crooked, they're just kids who make a dumb mistake or two. Poor kids growing up in some shithole part of town, no real jobs to get their lives on track. I mean, I'm not making excuses for them or anything. But I understand where they're coming from. Hell, if I had their row to hoe, I'd probably be boosting cars and slanging dope too.
But guys like Potch are something else. Potch, it's hard to imagine him being anything other than a dirtbag no matter kind of life he was born into. He did his first stint in juvie when he was ten years old, for fucking up some older kid in a street fight. And I mean he fucked him up. Kid was twice Potch's size, but Potch broke the kid's arm, shattered his nose, cracked his goddamn ribs. I heard when the responding officers found him, he was sitting on the kid's chest and knocking the kid's teeth back into his throat with a chunk of sidewalk concrete. Had this big fucking smile on his face, like Christmas morning. Think about that.
Anyway, that was the beginning of Potch's long association with the police department. We picked him up on almost a monthly basis for all kinds of shit. Armed robbery, B&E, sexual assault, drugs. But no matter how hard we tried, we could never get anything to stick. I mean, he wasn't some criminal mastermind or anything like that. But he was a slippery fucker, and very, very lucky. A key witness wouldn't testify, or a piece of evidence was deemed inadmissible, or the bleeding hearts in the jury would take his side. Whatever it was, the outcome was always the same. Potch was back on the street, and I slept a little less easy.
Potch was always a low-level thug, but he wasn't without ambition. Around the time of the incident we'd started seeing major drug movement in the city. Hard stuff, scary stuff. Real, cartel-level shit. I guess Potch figured it was finally his moment, because he got in with the pushers in a big way. He started moving product for the cartels, earning their trust. Making coin. Son of a bitch started driving around in a shiny new Escalade. That pissed me off. I could barely keep my little sedan from falling off its wheels, and this fucking parasite was driving an Escalade.
The night it happened, it was raining. I remember that. Raining like a motherfucker. There was a flood advisory in the city, and the streets were pretty much empty. Partner and I were in the car, keeping an eye on the traffic down Jameson street. Fucking lot of good it was doing, when we couldn't see out of the windows on account of the rain. I saw maybe one car in two hours, and that poor bastard was going about ten miles an hour in the storm. But there wasn't jack coming from dispatch either, so we sat.
“Helluva night,” my partner said after a while.
“Tell me about it,” I said. “On the upside, maybe the rain'll keep people indoors.”
“Kinda keep things low-key, for tonight at least.” My head wasn't in a good place. I hadn't slept in a few days. Too many nightmares, running from something and not remembering what it was when I woke up. “I could use a quiet night, y'know what I'm saying?”
Partner shook his head. “Nah, not me. Quiet nights are the worst ones.”
“When shit is crazy, at least you know what you're dealing with,” he said. “We get a call, we roll out, we assess the situation, we respond. Follow the rules and hopefully no one gets hurt. But here, this, the waiting for whatever is going to happen, that's a lot worse than being in the shit. To me, anyway. At least in the shit you don't have this dread of, like, 'what the fuck's gonna go down tonight?' Y'know? The dread, I can't take it.”
I remember that little speech real well. It stuck with me for some reason. Maybe because of what happened next.
Dispatch came over the radio: “Three-fifteen, come in.”
I hopped on. “Three-fifteen here, over.”
“We've got a call about a four-one-five, disturbance in progress at the corner of Washington and Church street. Please respond, over.”
“We're on it,” I said. I flipped on the sirens and turned to my partner. “There, dread's over. We're in the shit now. Happy?”
“Hit it, Superman,” he said.
By the time we got there, I swear to God, it was raining even harder than before, like nothing I ever seen. A real Biblical fucking downpour, that's how bad it was. The place was a used car lot on the south side, this scuzzy, fenced-in dump the pushers like to use for deals sometimes. It was dark as shit, and the car's windows were all fogged to hell. I couldn't see a thing until the lightning struck. This big, bright, purple bolt flashed a few hundred feet away, lit the whole lot like a firework for a few seconds. It was enough. I saw Potch, with that dopey blue Knicks hat he always wore. I saw two other people, flailing in the rain. And I saw the knife.
“Call for backup,” I said, jumping out of the car. I was already across the street and over the fence by the time Potch noticed me, that's how bad the rain was. He took off, hoisting a heavy duffel bag up over his shoulder, and ran his ass across the lot. I stopped to look at the victims. The guy was a skinny little dickbag in stained flannel with trackmarks up his arm. He'd taken a few shots to the face and hand, but nothing major.
The girl, though, she was hurt.
He'd gotten her good in the belly, and the blood was coming hard. I've got some basic first aid under my belt, and I can tell you it looked bad. Right away, I guessed he'd gotten her in an artery, maybe one of the major abdominal ones. The blood was pumping out of her, mixing with the splashes of rain on the pavement.
I got down next to her and put pressure on the wound. The rain was freezing cold, but when I put my hands against her, the blood was hot enough to burn my damn palms. It was a big wound, ragged like he'd twisted the knife, and I had to push hard to get any chance of sealing it.
My partner came up behind me, stopping cold when he saw the victims. “I got this,” I said. “Go after Potch. Don't let the fucker get away.”
He nodded and took off, leaving me alone with them.
The streetlight was dim, but I could see the girl's face. Her eyes were closed, but her face was all twisted and scared-looking. She was just a kid, maybe fifteen years old, all dolled up to look like a goddamn music video dancer or something. Girls like her, they get passed around by the pushers like toys, traded to grease business deals. Fucking disgusting, I'm telling you. Poor kid gets mixed up in the life, thinking some hotshot dealer boyfriend is going to pay her way out. He gets her high, buys her clothes, shows her his guns. She starts to think she's in love. Then she gets used up and tossed back in the gutter when he goes for someone younger.
The shit she was wearing was trying to make her look fancy, sophisticated even. But laying there, unconscious, bleeding in the rain, she looked like such a fucking kid. A baby, practically. I got a daughter of my own, I told you that already. She wasn't much younger than this kid was, and it broke my heart.
I started wondering how things like this can happen to children, how guys like Potch can fuck the world so badly. I looked up. I know, I know, it sounds stupid, but I looked up. To heaven, to God, to whatever the fuck. I looked up.
And I saw the camera.
My heart just about shat its pants. A camera, sitting on a pole just a few feet away, pointed directly at us, little blinking red light like an answer to a prayer. Sons of bitches who owned the lot must have gotten sick of talking to cops every few weeks and put a camera up to scare off any unsavory characters. Potch, that moron, he must have not even seen it with the way the rain was coming down. The deal, the stabbing, the fucking thing saw all of it. We'd got him. Finally, after all this time, we were going to get him good.
But I started thinking. Were we really going to get him? I had no idea how much of the deal was on tape, and if my partner couldn't catch him, we'd probably lose the evidence. The two victims weren't exactly the kind of upstanding citizens who would persuade a jury to convict, if they even bothered to testify. And if the girl pulled through, the best we could get him for would be assault. A few years in the pen, and then he's back out, probably with some new business contacts for the experience.
I don't know what it was. Maybe it was all the goddamn times we'd tried to stick something on him and lost. Maybe it was the way the girl reminded me of my daughter, or the way he drove that Escalade down the street, or that kid with his teeth knocked out all those years ago. Maybe it was because I hadn't slept in I don't know how long. Maybe it was the rain. But whatever it was, I wanted to end this guy's ass, once and for all. It wasn't enough just to put him in for assault.
We needed to get him for murder.
I looked down at my hands, holding tight over the girl's wound. I'd managed to get a decent amount of pressure at the site, and the blood wasn't coming fast anymore. So I...I started to...
Look, I'm not a monster, okay?
I wanted to give her a fighting chance. I did. I'm sworn to protect people like her. But I figured...what good is saving someone's life if, in the end, it leads to a bunch more deaths? I was sure that Potch would kill again, rape again, pump poison into the city's veins again and again and again. But here was a chance to stop him. Take him out of the equation, save others in the city from suffering the same fate as this girl.
So I let up on the pressure.
Just a little bit. I mean, I was pretty sure she was a goner anyway, no matter what I did. You sever a major abdominal artery, doesn't matter how quick the EMTs get to you, you're in the ground. I wasn't killing her, I was just...just letting fate take its course, you know?
I knew the camera was still watching me, so I kept my hands at the site. But I let up. Just sort of rested my hands on her. I felt the blood, felt it start to gout up again, felt it come up between my fingers and coat the backs of my hands. Felt it start to slow as she bled out. But I kept my hands there, like I was comforting her. I decided it was better that way. I was going to be there for her, in her last moments. Sort of this touch of kindness and care. Because I did care about her, really. In that moment, I cared.
“It's okay,” I started saying. “You're going to be all right. Just relax and let it happen. We're going to get the guy who did this to you, I promise you that. Just relax and--”
I looked at her face. Her eyes were wide open.
You're supposed to go unconscious when you bleed out, but she was staring at me, pain and fear and confusion all mixed up in her eyes, her face all twisted and shaking.
I heard a boom of thunder giving way to a high-pitched wail. I became vaguely aware of sirens behind me, red lights flashing against the falling rain.
I took my hands off her as the EMTs got to work. She never took her eyes off me, not even when they got her onto the stretcher and loaded her into the back of the ambulance.
By then, she had a look of rage.
I watched the ambulance drive away, then had a smoke in the car to calm down. I couldn't get that look of hers out of my mind. I could see it when I fucking blinked, I swear. I shot the shit with the backup for a bit to take my mind off it. My partner came back, saying he lost Potch in a back alley somewhere. We tried to get something out of the other victim, but he just kept mumbling, “Gimmie lawyer.”
Word came over the radio that the girl died en route to the hospital. She never said a word.
Partner put his hand on my shoulder when we got the news. "You did everything you could," he said, and for a second I almost decked him. Christ I hate it when people say that.
As we were packing up, I looked down at my hands and saw they were still sticky with blood. I held them in the rain, watched the water go from red, to pink, to nothing. Clean.
I couldn't sleep again that night. Just sort of sat there on the bed, dazed. Seeing her face in my mind every time I closed my eyes. I got to the station a few minutes later than usual the next day and found my partner suiting up in the locker room. I went right over to him, not even stopping to get my shit out of my locker.
“Hey, let's check on the security footage from that camera overlooking the lot,” I said.
“Jessup and Martinez got to it already. Didn't you hear? They were there when the owner showed up at the fucking crack of dawn.”
“Oh, good for them. What was on the tape?”
“It was blank,” he said.
“The tape was blank. Power surge from the lightning strike barbecued the whole system. We got nothing. Too bad the girl didn't make it. Doesn't look like we're gonna get much from the other victim.”
I just stood there. I couldn't move. I couldn't think. I could only see her laying there in the back of the ambulance, her eyes locked on me, huge and wet and full of hate.
“You okay?” my partner asked.
“Yeah, just...I just need to step outside for a sec.”
I went down the street to Harrison's and sat at the bar.
“What'll it be, Superman?” Harrison said. “Sprite before your shift?”
Harrison raised his eyebrows. “Damn, fella, I don't think I ever seen you drink a real drink. Need something to take the pressure off?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Something like that.”
Potch walked. The survivor wouldn't talk to us, and the judge wouldn't even authorize the warrant. A glimpse of a Knicks hat in the rain apparently doesn't constitute a substantive description.
It didn't matter anyway, because he was dead a couple weeks later. OD'd on his own supply. Stupid motherfucker.
A few years after I left, I heard through the grapevine that my old partner ended up becoming captain. I was happy for him. Really, I was. I was going to call him to congratulate him, but fuck it, who needs the memories, right?
But I do remember things. All the time. No matter how hard I try not to.
When I'm not remembering, I drink. A lot.
And when I'm not drinking, I dream. Still the same terror in the night, but at least now I know what I'm running from.
Because it's the same dream every night.
The rain. The pavement. The blood coming up out of the wound, coating my hands. The girl's eyes, wide with fear and rage. Purple lightning striping the sky.
I hold my hands in the rain to wash the blood away.
But in the dream, it doesn't come off.