Manzanita Chief of Police Dwight “Buck” Rogers laughed out loud. He’d just realized the topic of conversation among his underlings in the open workspace occupied by the support staff of MPD’s upper echelon. Not that laughter was unusual for him, but laughter, out loud, while in “Chief of Police” mode was uncommon.
He’d heard a peal of thunder. Then, to help him ignore the underlings’ discussion over the celestial rumblings, he’d tuned out several more. A Detroit native, and having worked in St. Louis before his arrival in Manzanita, thunder was a regular part of summer.
Not so in Southern California. He stood and walked to the open door of the conference room.
“I have it on good authority that those booms and rumblings are not caused by explosives,” pointing both index fingers to his chest as he made the declaration. “It’s called thunder. It’s not uncommon for rain to follow close behind.”
“Thank you, Chief,” echoed in various levels of sarcasm from those who’d turned to look at their boss.
“Let me know if you need the definition for rain.” Rogers flashed the smile that made him a media darling and waved. He turned and went back into the conference room reserved for him each Tuesday morning.
He removed copies of the meeting’s agenda from the manila folder in which they were ensconced. He walked around the conference table placing one agenda on the table where each chair nested.
The five highest-ranking officers in each of the key cadre in the Manzanita Police Department comprised the Chief’s Leadership Team. Captains from Northeast, Central, Western, and the Internal Affairs Divisions, and the Lieutenant of the department-wide Records Divisions had all been hand picked or intentionally promoted to their current positions by Rogers. They were a loyal, hardworking team.
Four of the five were SoCal natives, and the fifth was from the San Luis Obispo area. None was familiar with either thunder or lightning. In fact, except for the Western Division’s Captain, the SLO native, rain itself was a novelty. But, this was monsoon season in Arizona, and sometimes the moisture from the Gulf of California managed to sneak west enough to impact Manzanita.
I’ll have to let them get the weather out of their systems or we’ll never get anywhere close to completing this agenda by ten-thirty, he thought.
“Morning, Chief,” the Captain of Northeastern Division, the perennial first arriver, called his greeting as he entered the conference room, coffee mug and yellow legal pad in hand.
The Chief turned to greet the first of his five confederates.
“Good morning back at you, Captain.”
* * *
“I don’t know if you should wait up, Liz,” Sergeant Franklin Stallings said as he unlocked the door of his g-ride, the nickname for every Crown Victoria assigned to an officer by any division of the Manzanita Police Department. Within limits, he was allowed to use the car now in his driveway as he saw fit.
“You know I will, no matter what you suggest,” Lizbeth said as her husband opened the driver’s door. I wonder if he understands how much I don’t like to be called Liz, she thought. I’m already Lizbeth, which is different enough. Liz sounds like it’s short for lizard. She sighed.
Franklin looked as his wife. She was tall. He was medium. He was athletic, playing soccer as a kid because of the Nigerian refugee contingent in his neighborhood. She was an athlete. She’d played college basketball at Kent State until suffering a career-ending knee injury.
Today, she wore an Afro wig. She was in chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. That process had taken its toll on her. Her hair, normally shoulder length and moderately kinky had fallen out early in the treatment series. She’d shaved her head and “gone ’fro,” as she called it, with the wig. Contrary to her opinion, he thought her flawless ebony skin made everything she wore look spectacular.
“That’s why I love you,” he said. He’d heard the sigh, and he’d been married long enough to know he’d done or said something untoward in her opinion.
“If that’s your only reason . . .” she left the threat hang.
“It’s not,” he assured her. “Given enough time, I’m certain that I could come up with one or two more.”
“Not funny,” she called as he slammed the car door. She reached down, grabbed the newspaper off the porch, and launched it as a projectile towards the now moving car.
“Airball. Ouch!” he chided as the paper fell short of the mark. Then, he grinned, waved, and blew her a kiss.
She grimaced, returned the kiss, sighed again, and trudged after the paper. Five months ago, that paper would’ve smacked his windshield, she thought and shook her head. By the time she returned to the porch, she was breathing heavily. She hated cancer.
She heard a rumble. Thunder? In Manzanita? In summer? That’s not supposed to happen flashed through her mind like the lightning she hadn’t seen.
Big, fat raindrops began to leave their mark on her driveway. Lizbeth ducked back inside the house. She didn’t feel like getting wet this morning.
As is typical in every central to southern California city, rain transformed a normal commute into a giant bumper car ride. Stallings made scores of unscheduled stops, starts, and turns on his route to the division office. All the while, his thoughts drifted back over the past year.
The house they lived in now was significantly smaller than their home in St. Louis. His commute to work was longer because of traffic, not distance, especially today. The weather was glorious compared to the Midwest, except for today.
He was glad he’d accepted the Manzanita PD’s offer. He considered adding except for today but didn’t. He knew the offer was based, at least to some degree, on Manzanita’s need to move toward compliance with Federal Affirmative Action mandates. But, since he’d been on duty, he’d experienced little internal prejudice, neither overt nor covert, because he was an African American.
So, why am I angry so often? He asked himself. As was his habit, he formulated his answer as a list.
My wife has cancer.
The caseload here is huge.
I don’t know who’s real and who’s playing me.
And, there’s the pressure from—
He jammed the brake pedal of his sedan into the floorboard. Tires squealed. Bumpers came to rest mere inches apart. Imprecations flew. Gestures were exchanged.
Stallings drove the rest of the way to work without thinking about anything but his driving. By the time he passed the Desk Sergeant, his mood was bad, and headed to worse.
* * *
After letting the phone at Reed’s only known phone number ring over a dozen times, Hope Mamba moved to Plan B. She sighed and dialed the number for the hangout suggested by her husband for the stealthy Mr. Reed.
“Tug’s Tavern. The tug’s in port. This is the Cap’n.”
“Is Mr. Reed there, please,” Hope asked with as much professional demeanor she could manage after the bartender’s standard telephone greeting. Making phone calls to places like this was an uncomfortable, but necessary part of her job.
“Yes. My, uh, husband, Phil Mamba, asked me to call.”
“Yes, I guess. I know some people call him that.”
“You say you’re his wife?”
“Blow me down!” the Cap’n shouted into the phone. Hope then heard him bellowing in the background. “Ahoy, Mates! Dancer Mamba’s got himself a female first mate.”
She tried to figure out what she could say to reclaim the bartender’s attention. She failed in her deliberations and just held the phone a little way from her ear until the noise in the bar subsided and the Cap’n returned to his end of the connection.
“Little lady, if you’ve managed to hook the Dancer, I’ll try to find a Mr. Reed or Miss America or anyone else you and he want.” The Cap’n’s voice reverberated in the phone’s receiver.
“This man has worked for him before.”
“You mean Reed?” was the bartender’s skeptical offer.
“Yes, Mr. Reed.”
“Well, he’s never been no mister, and he’s not here—” he paused. “Blow me down! He’s comin’ aboard now.”
“Hold on a moment, please, Mr. Mamba wants to talk to him.” She buzzed her husband as she spoke. She didn’t care if anyone heard her or not.
“I think Mr. Reed’s on the phone now.”
“Thanks, Hope,” the detective responded. He wondered how she could think someone was on the phone. Being on the phone is like being pregnant: either you are or you are not. He shrugged and punched the outside line button on his phone.
“Reed?” he asked. There was no immediate answer. The detective could hear the Cap’n instructing someone to, “Take the phone if you know what’s good for you.”
Mamba smiled with understanding at Hope’s previous remark. He asked again, “Reed?”
“Yeah,” was the slurred reply. “Who wants to know?”
“This is Dancer. I want you. Five o’clock this afternoon. Write down this address.” He stopped talking.
“I ain’t got no paper or pen.”
“Put the Cap’n back on.”
“Sure. Sure. Put the Cap’n back on.”
“This you, Dancer?”
“Ahoy, Cap’n,” Mamba greeted the bartender. He rushed to continue before the man could ask any questions. “I want you to write down this address and give it to Reed.”
“Anything you want,” the bartender promised, dropping the sea-going jargon he used to promote the name of his bar. He recognized the tone of Mamba’s voice. He’d heard it before and knew the detective didn’t want any questions about his orders. “Go ahead.”
After Mamba gave his office address to the bartender, he asked, “Is Reed flying?”
“Not on my booze. He just got here.”
“Will twenty dollars keep him that way until five o’clock?”
“Twenty-five would guarantee it.”
“You’re a pirate, you know.”
“That’s a might strong, Mate,” the Cap’n pouted, grateful that Dancer had opened the door back to his nautical slang. “But, maybe a cabin boy on a skull and crossbones.”
“Close enough,” Mamba laughed. “Put him in a cab at four thirty for the extra Lincoln.”
“Drop anchor on that, mate,” the Cap’n agreed. “Say who’s this Mrs. Mamba?”
“Later. Just get Reed in that cab.”
“Like a steamer into port, Mate.”
Mamba sat lost in thought after he hung up the phone. If he met Reed tonight, the possibility of a quick solution to the Anderson case could increase by a significant percentage.
“Honey,” Hope stage-whispered from the office doorway.
“Huh?” Mamba shook his head as he recovered from the brief start his wife/secretary had caused him.
“I’m going to pick up Jimmy and go on home,” she continued. “When can I expect you?”
“Reed’s coming at five,” he mused aloud. “It shouldn’t take long. I should be home by six or six thirty.”
“Why didn’t the bartender know whom I wanted when I asked for Mr. Reed?”
“You asked for Mister Reed?”
“That’s the problem,” Phil smiled as he went to his wife and hugged her. “I don’t know what Reed’s name would be if anyone called him Mister. We call him Reed because he plays a mean tenor sax when he’s sober.”
“I’ll never keep up with all the nicknames your acquaintances use,” Hope complained good-naturedly. Acquaintances was a deliberate choice over some less polite, but more accurate terms she’d considered. She brushed her husband’s cheek with a kiss as she departed. “Call me if you’ll be late. I might wait up, if I’m in the mood.”
She left Phil alone in his office with his thoughts about what kind of mood he hoped Hope would be in when he got home.
* * *
Reed sat in the back seat of a cab. At least that’s what it looked like to him. Of course, this far into a bottle of cheap whiskey, he might not have left Tug’s yet.
He belched. The cabbie shook his head in disgust and prepared to demand a sizeable tip for this fare.
Reed never told anyone his given name. Most assumed the brain cells that had stored that information had drowned in a sea of alcohol years before. As a young man, he’d been considered a rising star in the jazz community in and around Mobile, Alabama. His future looked as bright as is could for any black man in Alabama in the late 1950s.
With success came more gigs. With more gigs came more jazz joints. With more jazz joints came more women—and more booze. He did fine with the extra gigs until the combination of more women and a lot more booze turned him into an unreliable sot who used to be someone who could light up a saxophone.
In recent years, he’d managed to remain sober only long enough to play a couple of sets two nights a week in low-end bars along the Central California coast. Somehow, he managed to hold a ratty apartment in Manzanita through it all.
Reed did know for certain that he would go to Dancer Mamba’s office. As a Manzanita police officer, Mamba had threatened to run Reed in for miscellaneous misdemeanors—mostly D&D or creating a public nuisance. Only on rare occasions did Reed get involved in physical altercations. No matter how drunk he was, he retained an understanding of the importance of intact fingers in his line of work.
Because he never booked Reed, in the past, Mamba squeezed him as a confidential informant, a CI. In exchange for reliable information from Reed, he’d let the man skate on his offenses since they harmed no one but Reed himself.
Deep in Reed’s nearly pickled brain he knew that’s where he was headed this evening. He was going to be squeezed by Dancer Mamba for information.
At 5:02, Mamba paid Reed’s cab fare, including a sizeable tip, and led him into his office.
“I’ve got enough from the Anderson job for the narcs to nail you,” he lied as he waded right in with a frontal assault on the informant. “Either you give me names of the friends you’re working for or you are going to fall. Hard.”
“You got nuthin’!”
“I scraped the office threshold, Reed. It’s at the lab now. When they confirm what I suspect, that’ll do it.”
The sweat trickled down Reed’s face. The color in his gaunt features faded from dark to milk chocolate as the implications of Mamba’s words soaked in. He mustered his final defense.
“That resin could’ve come from anywhere. Not only the floor of The Jazz Machine has sawdust on it. Besides, I just got back in town from up to Oregon.”
“I’ve got witnesses that place you at The Jazz Machine last week,” Mamba lied again. He had only a rumor about Reed’s presence in town, but he needed information quickly. Leaning back in his chair, he studied the shaky figure before him while he contemplated the mention of resin in Reed’s statement. He had suspected fresh asphalt sealer, but resin was a possibility. He pressed harder on the man.
“Face it, Reed, you’re taking the fall if I want you to.”
Reed’s body slumped forward in resignation at Mamba’s pronouncement. He’d thought that only the manager knew of his visits to The Jazz Machine during off-hours. Now it was clear that somebody else had seen him going in or coming out. Dancer still don’t miss a thing. Just like when he was a real cop. I gotta tell him. I’ll never survive prison!
“What do you want to know?” the informant asked in a hoarse whisper.
“You know what: names, dates, places, where the stuff’s going and who’s taking it.”
An hour later, Reed was gone. Mamba sat in shock. Lying on the desk before him were four pages of detailed information on drug deals in Manzanita and two neighboring cities. Twisting Reed hadn’t produced a trickle of information. What he’d wrung out of the man was a flood.
Even if only a few of the names Reed had provided were actually trafficking narcotics, the police could cripple local drug dealers for quite a while with a systematic series of raids. Mamba wondered what was waiting for Reed in prison. It’s got to be bad for him to spill his guts like this to stay out.
He decided to wait until morning to go to the police. His former partner, Mike Mulligan, would be on duty then. Mamba wanted to run the information past his old friend before anyone else knew about the bonanza. Mulligan had earned that.
After slipping the unfolded sheets of notebook paper into a large envelope, Mamba placed them in his briefcase. Hefting the briefcase in one hand, he locked up the office, glad that he would be home for dinner with his family.
In spite of all the good being home for dinner was, and the potential Hope hinted at, he wished that tomorrow had already arrived so he could unload what he had obtained.
As he drove home, he knew he would not sleep that night.