copyright (c) 2012 by Joe McKinney
My call sign. I slid my Diet Coke back into the cup holder and keyed up the mic. “52-40, go ahead.”
“52-40, make 1238 West Mulberry for a ringing 10-58. 1238 West Mulberry.”
A ringing 10-58 is a residential burglar alarm, an easy call.
“10-4,” I said.
The dispatcher again. “I got anybody that can go along with 52-40?”
It was a hot and humid Saturday night in early June, less than a week after the Spurs took their fourth NBA title in less than ten years, and we were getting hammered with calls, all the drunken idiots out celebrating, the crackle of gun fire and car horns echoing over the houses of San Antonio’s west side. I didn’t expect anybody to answer up.
“52-40,” she said. “Sorry, Steve, I got nobody else available. Use caution. Next one to check in, I’ll send him your way.”
“10-4, 52-40, on the way.”
I was smiling as I answered. These dispatchers on deep nights, the overnight shift, they’re something else. A lot of them are trying to land cops for husbands, and since they’re stuck downtown at the 911 dispatch center, and we’re out in our cars, their voices are the only bait they’ve got to put out there. Annabelle, our dispatcher for the West Service Area, had a smoky, backroom voice that could make a call for a dead dog in the road sound sexy.
I hit the KEYCARD button on my patrol car’s laptop computer and got the screen that told me everything dispatch knew about the call. At a glance I had information on who made the call, what time they called, a brief narrative telling me what they’d told the dispatcher, and any special location notes, like if somebody at that address was a known felon, or a mental case, or if they had AIDS, that kind of thing. This keycard, it told me the call originated with the alarm company monitoring the property. The location notes told me a San Antonio Police Officer lived at the house. I took in that piece of information and got out my map book.
I’d been in SAPD for twelve years at the time, but most of that had been spent working the North Service Area on the daylight shift. A rough breakup with a psychopathic Hooters waitress had me itching for an all around life change, and so I transferred to deep nights, working 11 pm to 7 am. I knew it even then that you can’t fix what’s wrong on the inside of you by changing the outside of you, but switching shifts still felt right, like it was just what I needed. Still, I had never worked on the west side, and I didn’t know my way around. The first couple of weeks, just about every call I made I had the map book in one hand, the steering wheel in the other.
The call turned out to be five blocks from where I was sitting. I made it in a little over a minute and stopped two houses down from my call, but on the opposite side of the street. Those are basic patrol tactics. You never stop right in front of where you’re going, just in case there’s something more going on than what the dispatcher knows. Maybe the call’s a hoax and there’s a nutjob with a hunting rifle waiting in the bushes to take out the first responding officer. Who knows? It’s happened before.
The house was a small, wood-framed one story built on a pier and beam foundation. The walls had once been painted white, but the weather had worn them as gray as a field mouse in places. The front yard was a weed patch that needed serious work. The house was surrounded by scraggly chinaberry trees and a lone red oak swayed in the warm night breeze in one corner of the front yard. It was pretty much what I’d expect from a house bought on a cop’s salary.
I got on the radio and said, “52-40, I’m 10-6 at the location.”
“10-4,” Annabelle said, “you want me to hold the air?”
Her question meant, Do you want me tell everybody else to stay off the radio until you tell us everything is okay? That’s standard procedure when you pull up on a burglar alarm and you’ve got an open door or a broken window.
I scanned the house and said, “Negative, 52-40. I’ll let you know.”
“10-4,” she said, “standing by.”
I crossed the street at a trot and got into the shadows. I had my flashlight at my side, but turned off, and the top thumb snap on my holster open so I’d be ready to pull my Glock should I happen to surprise a burglar climbing out a window. The night was warm and humid and the cloying smell of magnolia trees in bloom was heavy on the air. The clouds overhead were backlit by the moon, turning them a milky gray. I kept to the bushes, got up close to the house, and listened.
Using the thumb switch on my flashlight, I lit up the right side of the house with quick bursts. I kept moving the whole time to keep the light from giving away my position. The side of the house looked clear, and so did the front porch. I opened the screen door and jiggled the door knob just enough to see if it was still locked. It was.
Satisfied, I went around back and checked the back door, the windows, and even poked my flashlight beam around the roof.
I relaxed a little. Burglar alarms go off all the time, but rarely because of a burglar. More often times than not it’s the weather, or a faulty wire someplace, or even a cat jumping up on an outside window sill. I was beginning to think that’s what I had here, another tom cat out looking for some tail.
The only part of the house I hadn’t checked was a narrow strip of grass near the fence on the left side of the house. I lit that up with my flashlight, and it was empty too. There was nothing there but the air conditioner chugging away with everything it had, trying to keep up with the heat of a South Texas summer night.
I didn’t bother with quick flashlight bursts. This was another false alarm, and I was hungry, my mind on where I was going to eat. I wiped the sweat from the back of my neck and walked up towards the front. There was a window about two-thirds of the way up the length of the house, so I stopped to check that out. I figured, Hey, it’s a fellow cop’s house. Might as well be thorough, right?
The window was locked, but it looked new. It still had the price written on it in yellow grease pencil - $79.95 - and a little white and green sticker in the bottom right corner promised an energy-saver guarantee.
As I stood there looking at the price, I felt somebody bump against my shoulder.
It scared me so badly I nearly jumped out of my boots. I spun around, fumbling my gun out of the holster, certain I was about to be in for the fight of my life.
But I was all by myself.
“What the...?” I said.
My heart was a wild bird banging against the walls of my body armor, and the sweat that had been running down my back and flooding my armpits turned cold against my skin. I turned the flashlight beam up and down the side of the house, but there was nothing there.
I stood still for a long moment, gun in one hand, flashlight in the other, trying to make my heart slow down. That bump was real. It was the same as some guy in hurry forcing his way past you to get off a crowded elevator. It wasn’t a malicious, knock-you-down kind of bump, but it was real. There was no mistaking that.
I’ve got this inner voice that tries to keep me on the straight and narrow. It started talking to me when I was a kid, right after I watched James Mason play Richard Straker in the film version of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Why that voice should sound like a character that scared the piss out of me I’m sure I don’t know, but whatever the reason, as I was standing there, I heard James Mason say, “Now Steve, let’s not act foolish. Approach this rationally. Do what you have to do to figure this out.”
I obeyed the voice. I always obey the voice, at least most of the time. I climbed up on the bottom rail of the privacy fence and turned my light on the neighbor’s yard. All I saw there was an orange and white cat sleeping on a lawn chair. The cat opened one eye, decided I wasn’t worth the effort, and closed it again.
I stepped down from the fence and turned my light up and down the length of the house one more time.
Still nothing there.
But I had felt something. I was certain of that.
I remember once, working daylight up on North Patrol, I stopped this beat to hell red pickup for rolling through a stop sign. I got up to the driver’s side window and saw this skuzzy looking white guy in his early forties behind the wheel, trash all over the floorboards, the ash tray overflowing with crushed out cigarettes, and a cute looking Hispanic girl just a hair passed eighteen sitting in the passenger seat beside him. The girl was nicely dressed in a tartan skirt and white blouse, expensive-looking jewelry around her neck and on her fingers, well-cared for by somebody. And she looked so nervous, so frightened. I swear to God I could see her shaking. The picture didn’t add up.
I got the guy’s driver’s license, ran it, and he came back as a registered sex offender, out on parole for aggravated sexual assault of a minor. The girl was eighteen, but she didn’t look it.
My first thought was, Oh crap, the girl’s about to get raped and left for dead in a ditch someplace.
I went up to the truck and told the guy to get out.
He said, “What for?”
I said, “Because I fuckin’ told you to. Now get your butt out of the truck before I yank you out by your teeth.”
I searched him, then put him in the backseat of my patrol car. After that, I went up to the girl. I got her out and we stepped around to the front of the truck. I put her so the cab of the truck was blocking the guy’s line of sight, and I asked her the guy’s name. She didn’t know it. I asked her how she knew him. She didn’t answer. I asked her if everything was okay. Is this guy taking you somewhere you don’t want to go?
“If he’s up to something, tell me. I won’t let him hurt you.”
The girl didn’t answer me. She was looking at the shine on the toes of my boots, at the dirt on the ground, anywhere but at my eyes.
“If you need help,” I told her, “this is your chance. Tell me what’s going on, and I’ll help you. I can have another officer come by here. He can take you home, or to a friend’s house. Anywhere you want to go. Just tell me what this guy is up to.”
When the girl answered, her voice was so quiet I had to lean in to hear.
“I just want to leave,” she said.
I said something else, but she turned away and climbed back into the truck. I couldn’t believe it. I just stood there, staring at her profile through the passenger window, the girl wringing her hands in her lap, her black, shampoo commercial hair falling around her face.
But I had no choice in the matter. There was nothing I could use to justify arresting this guy beyond my own James Mason voice yelling inside my head that she was a lamb headed for the slaughter. James Mason said, “Steve, if she’s lucky, all he’s gonna do is rape her. If she isn’t, he’ll rape her, then kill her, then dump her body in a shallow grave someplace. Do something.”
But she was eighteen, free to do as she liked, and I had no probable cause. No leg to stand on.
To this day I think about that traffic stop and I have a sinking, sick feeling in my gut. I missed something important that day. I didn’t something that I might have done. I know it.
And I had that same feeling standing there by the window with the $79.95 written in yellow grease pencil on it. Something was wrong, and I wasn’t seeing what it was.
Annabelle’s voice on my radio brought me back to the moment.
“52-40, everything all right?”
“10-4,” I said. “The house looks secure.”
“10-4. Just checking, Steve. I got a family disturbance holding in your square when you clear from there.”
No dinner break for me, I thought, and grumbled an acknowledgement back at her.
She said, “Don’t be mad at me, Steve. I’m just the messenger.”
That caught me by surprise. You never hear that kind of informal speak on the radio. And it took me several moments after that to digest the hurt in her voice.
I said, “52-40, I’m not mad. I’ll be done here in a minute. Just hold on to the call and I’ll be heading that way.”
I paused, thinking about her voice. I wet my lips and said, “Thanks, Annabelle.”
That did it.
One of the other guys on the shift keyed up his radio and whistled, the universal sign that you’ve just done something over the radio that’s going to earn you a nickname - and that’s almost never good.
I waited for the sergeant to get on the air and tell us to knock off the chatter, but if he was listening, he evidently decided to let it die down on its own. I was grateful for that. Being new to the shift, I didn’t need the aggravation of pissing off the sergeant.
The exchange with Annabelle helped me put some distance on the sinking feeling in my gut, and I made my way back up to the front of the house. I checked behind the chinaberry trees at the front, just in case, then turned and looked toward the street. The only thing that looked out of place was my patrol car parked along the curb. I turned off my flashlight, shook my head, and started towards my car.
I knew an officer about six or seven years ago named Bob Fields. Bob was round and bald and kind of dopey, and he had a tumor a little bigger than golf ball growing in his brain. The tumor made his hands shake something awful, and when he talked to you, he would start off a sentence like normal, but forget what he was saying by the time he got to the period. One time, he parked his patrol car in a convenience store parking lot, went in for a hot dog and a cup of coffee, and when he came out again, couldn’t find his car. He got on the radio and called it in stolen. Luckily, a few of us got there before the sergeant did, found him walking around in a circle less than twenty feet from his where his car was still parked, and set things straight. The sergeant never even had to get out of his car.
It was understood on my shift, Bob Fields did not make calls. If the dispatcher messed up and gave him one anyway, somebody would answer up and take the call for him. It didn’t matter whether you were close or not, whether you were busy or not, Bob Fields did not make calls.
Yes, we covered for him. I make no apologies for that. And don’t bother with any criticism, because I’m not sorry about it. Not even a little.
See, Bob was nine months away from being able to retire at full pension. All he had to do was put in twenty years and six months of service. If he didn’t make the twenty and six, he’d be forced to take a medical retirement, and that only pays fifty percent of your pension. We all knew Bob would be dead less than a year after retirement, but we also knew that, according to our police contract with the city, his widow was guaranteed ten years of payments on his pension, even if Bob was dead, and we wanted her to have that much at least. And so, Bob Fields did not make calls.
One day, during one of his more lucid moments, Bob told me how he found out about the tumor. He said he was driving down the road in his patrol car, and he saw this bus bench floating about three feet off the ground in the middle of the street. Bob admitted that he was hardly the smartest man who ever lived, but even he knew that wasn’t right. He went to the doctor, they did an MRI, and the next the thing you know, the rest of us are taking his calls and he’s praying for twenty and six.
For some reason, Bob’s description of that bus bench floating in the air stuck with me, and as I walked to my patrol car, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a little golf ball-sized demon floating around inside my brain.
“Maybe,” James Mason said. “You do drink an awful lot of Diet Coke. There’s no telling what all that phenylalanine is doing to your gray matter.”
I made it about halfway across the street - then froze in my tracks. There was somebody in the backseat of my patrol car. He was hunched over with his head against the plexiglass prisoner cage, and he wasn’t moving.
I drew my gun again and moved up next to the car.
“Let me see your hands,” I said, using my cop voice.
He didn’t move.
“Hey, look at me.”
Still no reaction.
He was on the passenger side. I was on the driver’s side. With my gun up and ready, I went around the back of the car, inching closer to his door.
He had long, greasy black hair that fell over the sides of his face and I couldn’t tell if he was white or Hispanic. All I could tell for sure was that he looked like something the Underwater Crime Scene Recovery Unit had pulled up from the bottom of the San Antonio River.
Right away I thought, Heroin junkie.
I tapped the window with the barrel of my Glock and said, “Hey guy, look at me.”
By that point my surprise and curiosity had given way to anger at being ignored, and I threw the car door open, stepped back, and pointed my gun at the backseat.
“Get your butt out of my car…” I started to say, but trailed off into silence, the rest of it lost.
The backseat was empty, and I was standing there talking to air.
It was the damnedest thing I’ve seen. One minute he was right there, the next he was gone. I didn’t see any movement, and there was no way he could have squeezed by me. I was blocking the only way out of the car.
He was just gone.
I took another step back and looked around. Then I knelt down and looked under the car. Nothing there either. There was nothing moving but the crickets in the empty field of tall grass off to my right.
I stood there, looking stupid and confused.
James Mason had nothing to say.
Gradually, I started to frown, and a thought formed in my head that maybe this was a practical joke.
“Yes, I think you’re right,” James Mason finally said, though he didn’t sound totally convinced. “That makes sense.”
And it did, kind of.
Nobody in the world knows how to pull practical jokes like policemen, and the best of the best are the clowns who work the deep nights. I started to think that what I had here was somebody messing with the new guy on the shift. I looked around, half expecting to hear two or three of them snickering behind a bush, watching me.
Never get mad with a practical joker. That’s the surest way to become the regular recipient of every silly prank your jokester can think of. What you do is, you acknowledge the joke and laugh at yourself, which is what I did. I holstered my weapon and waved one hand in the air.
“You got me,” I said. “Good one, guys.”
I waited after that, but nobody jumped out and said, “Boo!”
I got back in my car and started it up. As far as practical jokes went, I had to admit that it was better than baby powder in the AC vents, or putting a grass snake down the barrel of my shotgun, or somebody getting on my car’s computer when I wasn’t around and sending an all route message to every policeman in the city saying how proud I was to be coming out of the closet and that I hoped it wouldn’t be awkward for any of them to work with me now that I was openly gay.
This was certainly more original, anyway.
For a moment I thought of ways to retaliate, then decided against it and settled down to write the report.
A burglar alarm report is a one-liner. Saw nothing, did same.
I quickly checked off the appropriate boxes on the front of the incident report and turned it over to write the details.
“52-40, you ready for that family disturbance yet?”
I keyed up the mic and said, “10-4, Annabelle. Sorry about that. Go ahead and give it to me.”
While Annabelle read off the details for my family disturbance call, I saw another police car round the corner at the end of the block, coming my way at top speed. I acknowledged the call and rolled down the window, thinking I was about to meet my practical joker.
He pulled up next to me and rolled down his window. I didn’t recognize him, but then, there was nothing unusual about that. There are 2,500 patrolmen in the SAPD, and I had worked for a long time on daylight. My first night on deep nights at the West Patrol Substation, I hardly recognized anybody.
This guy looked about my age, mid to late thirties, with a sandy brown mustache, closely trimmed brown hair, and a lean, almost gaunt face. He had a Guns and Roses song playing on his car stereo and he was chewing tobacco. I could see the edge of a tattoo poking out from under his shirt sleeve, and I thought, Ex-military, probably Air Force.
He glanced at my backseat, frowned, and then turned to me. He said, “Did you get a call here?”
I could tell from his car number that he was from South Patrol, a long ways away.
“Yeah,” I said, and pointed with my chin at the house. “A ringer over there. I already checked it. Nothing to it.”
“You checked it real good?”
“Yeah,” I said. Under normal circumstances, a question like that would have offended me. But there was a certain air of preoccupation in his voice that made him sound worried, and he probably wasn’t even aware he’d made an indictment of my competence.
Then I reminded myself that this was my practical joker, and it occurred to me that he had to be a pretty good actor to pull off that worried tone. But no matter how good an actor he was, I was determined not to give him the satisfaction of seeing how freaked out his joke had made me. I decided to just play dumb, which, according to a certain psychopathic Hooters waitress who lived with me for three years, is standard operating procedure for me anyway.
But he didn’t follow up on the joke. To my surprise, he relaxed noticeably. His chest looked like a tire going flat.
It made me pause.
Sticking my neck out a little, I said, “Did they send you on this too?”
He looked back at the house, then at me. “No. I work South. That’s my house. I came because the alarm company called me.”
So he was from South. I whistled at that. Where I came from, up on North, if the sergeants caught you doing something like that, not just going out of your assigned sector, but halfway across the city, they’d chew your ass to chowder. It didn’t look like it worried him though. He was more preoccupied with his house than matters of procedure.
“I’m Steve Fisher,” I said.
“What? Oh.” A long pause. He said, “Alan Parker,” and turned back to look at his house.
“I just got assigned this district.”
He was still looking at his house. I thought maybe he hadn’t heard me, and maybe he didn’t, because when he turned back to me he said, “You checked it real good?”
“Everything’s secure,” I said. “You want, we can go back over it again.”
He thought about that, then said, “No, that’s cool.”
I nodded. He went back to studying the house and I went back to writing my one line report.
Out of nowhere he said, “My house got broken in to last month.”
“The guy broke out the window on this side of the house. Made off with my stereo, my laptop, bunch of other stuff. Luckily, I was working that night and I had my gear with me. Can you imagine if he’d got my gun or my radio or my body armor?” He shook his head. “Now every time the alarm company calls, I come running.”
“I can see that,” I said. I was trying to sound friendly, but the truth was I’d be scared to death to do what he was doing now, driving way across the city just to check my house. You can do a lot of stupid stuff and still keep your job as a cop, but there is a line you don’t want to cross.
He took one last look at his house and dropped his car in gear. Before he left he asked, “Hey, you didn’t have anybody with you earlier, did you?”
I looked up from my report. “What?”
“Before I pulled up? I thought I saw somebody sitting in the back.”
I almost smiled. So you are my joker.
I waited for him to land the joke, but he didn’t. He said, “Probably just the reflection off the windshield. Listen, I’m supposed to be making a minor accident way down on Reeves. I just had to come by here first. You cool, brother?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’m cool.”
But as he drove off, I couldn’t help but sneak a peek in my rearview mirror.
Much later in the evening, after the calls died down and the radio grew quiet, I went to an all night taqueria, got a napkin, turned it sideways, and drew a line down the middle of it. On the left I listed the reasons why what had happened to me had to be a prank. On the right, the supernatural. Silly, I know, but that’s the way my mind works. I have to see things side by side like that in order for my mind to weigh them properly. I did the same thing when I was trying to decide whether or not to break up with my psycho ex-girlfriend – mind blowing freaky sex with a girl who looks unbelievably hot in her Hooters outfit on the “keep her” side, everything else about her on the “dump her” side. Great sex can only take you so far, after all.
On the prank side of this list, I came up with this. First off, cops are born jokesters. I’ve said that already, but it bears repeating. It’s the natural way to cope with the stress of working in a bureaucracy run by morons. For example, you go to a particularly nasty scene where a dead body’s been rotting inside an apartment with no air conditioning for a couple of weeks. You got flies everywhere, and the body’s swollen and the skin split open and oozing in places and blackened in others from the bacteria and gases inside. The smell is horrific. If you’ve got a new guy with you, the first thing you do when you leave the scene is take him to the greasiest, nastiest restaurant you can find and watch him turn green over his food.
Yeah, good times.
The thing is most cop practical jokes are admittedly juvenile and simplistic. What had happened to me lacked the usual silliness you get from cop jokes, and it was quite frankly much more elaborate than I would expect from even the best practical jokers.
The other half of that is that nobody but a cop can get in and out of the backseat of a locked police car. The doors don’t open from the inside. I arrested a car burglar one time, a little guy, about five-six, a hundred and thirty pounds, who kept begging me to open the window because he was roasting inside the backseat of my patrol car. I’m a humane guy, so I did. I cracked the window maybe six inches. Next thing I know the guy has got his handcuffed hands in front of him and he’s crawling out the open window. He hit the ground running and I had to chase that little piece of crap for two blocks before I caught up with him again.
But guys like that are the exception rather than the rule. If the windows are up, and I’m blocking the open door, there shouldn’t be any way to get out. Well, it can be done, but you have to know how. We’re trained to get out of the backseat of a patrol car when we go through the Academy. It’s supposed to be in case you’re overpowered by a prisoner and you’re locked inside your backseat, but truth be told, it comes in handy more often when you and your girlfriend happen to get locked in there while...well, you know. More girls are into that kind of thing than you’d think.
But the thing was the guy I saw back there was definitely not a cop. Like I said, I thought heroin junkie from the get go. And besides, it takes a good forty-five seconds to get out of the backseat of a locked patrol car, even for a cop.
The guy I saw disappeared in the blink of an eye.
So I went to the other side of the napkin and listed the reasons for a supernatural explanation. I could come up with only one, actually, but it was a mighty persuasive one. I know what I felt on that little strip of grass by the air conditioner and the $79.95 window with the energy saver guarantee. I felt somebody brush up against me. And I know what I felt when I saw that empty backseat. I know what I saw, too. I was thoroughly freaked out, and when you get that way, you find yourself willing to entertain the idea of the supernatural, even if you think you don’t have a natural predisposition to lean that way. And let me tell you this, the idea that the supernatural really happens, especially when it’s supported by an experience like mine, grows inside your head like weeds in your lawn. You might be able to beat it down for a little while, but it keeps coming back.
Finally, I tossed the napkin in the trash and left the restaurant. I didn’t completely realize it at the time, but my mind was pretty much made up about what I’d experienced at that point.
Later that morning, when I turned the car over to the daylight guy, I took a chance and asked him if he’d ever felt anything weird in the car.
“Like what?” he asked, and looked at me strangely. “Something wrong with it?”
“No, no,” I said quickly. “It drives fine. I was just wondering. Forget I mentioned it.”
The next night, at roll call, as the lieutenant called out our names and read the latest intelligence bulletins, I searched the faces of the other officers in the room. There were maybe seventy-five of us in all in that room, but I didn’t see a trace of a knowing smile or hear any stray, smartass remarks. Nothing to indicate that a joke had been played.
That’s the other thing about cops. They gab and gossip like old women. If someone had gone to the trouble to play that kind of joke on me, then they would have taken credit for it.
And so, I was left with the same nagging question: practical joke or ghost. I just didn’t know for sure. Both sides of the issue seemed equally possible.
I was working traffic around an overturned vehicle when the answer came to me. What I needed to do was approach the problem objectively, like a scientist, like those ghost hunters on the SyFy Channel. What I needed to do was to go back to Alan Parker’s house and try to make it happen again. That was the only way I could be sure of what I was dealing with.
I planned to retrace my steps exactly. If I was dealing with a prankster, then he wouldn’t be around to work the joke a second time. I could walk through the yard and nothing would happen.
On the other hand, if something else was going on...well, I’d be ready for that, too. Maybe.
I went back to Alan Parker’s house, parked in the same place, and made my circuit around the house in exactly the same way as I had the night before, just like I planned. When I got to the narrow strip of grass between the house and the fence, I took a deep breath, lit it up with my flashlight, and started up it. I got all the way to the window, stopped, and waited.
Nothing but crickets singing.
James Mason said, “Now Steve, don’t you feel a little foolish?”
“Shut up,” I said. “We’ll see who’s foolish in a second.”
And then I felt the bump.
A sort of giddy nausea overtook me, and I felt a little sick. I stabbed my light in every direction, looking for whoever had touched me, but just like the night before, I was all alone.
I had planned up to that point. As soon as the bump came, I was going to run out to the street and try to catch the guy from the night before as he was getting into my car. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. I hadn’t counted on being scared out of my socks. I figured that once I accepted the possibility that this was something supernatural I’d be prepared to deal with it. But the truth was I wasn’t prepared. Not even a little.
Eventually, I got my legs to move. I staggered out to the street and saw somebody in the backseat of my patrol car, slumped over, head against the plexiglass, nasty, stringy hair like a curtain over his face.
I got to the car and stood there for a second, chest heaving, and said, “Who are you?”
He didn’t answer, didn’t look up.
I opened the door, the window caught the light from the street lamp above, and for a fraction of a second, all I could see was a starburst of reflected light. In that moment, the man disappeared, and I was standing alone in the street, looking at an empty backseat.
More crickets singing. A hot, damp breeze carried the smell of magnolia and cedar and dust into the street. I stood there for a long time, holding the car door open, trying to make sense of what I was feeling.
The way I look at it, when you experience something of that magnitude, what you need to do is talk about it. And it also seems to me there’s an order for who you turn to. First off is family, I guess. My dad, he’s retired Air Force. He lives about thirty minutes north of San Antonio, only a phone call away. But I couldn’t call him. And not because he’s some sort of ex-military hard ass. He’s nothing like that. He might actually be the most dotting father alive, in fact. My first year on Patrol, I used to have to call him every single afternoon when I got off work. He always wanted to know everything I did, no matter how gory it was. He didn’t mind. But the thing was I just couldn’t picture myself having a conversation about this with him. Dad would probably just say, “Well, that sure sounds like a pickle. How about you come out here and stay with me for a few weeks? Things might seem clearer to you if we get some country air in you.”
Yeah, there was no way I was going to have that conversation with him.
The next step down on the list is a friend. Obviously I couldn’t call my psycho ex-girlfriend. I don’t have a terribly active imagination, but I can sure imagine how she’d gloat over this. She’d think, Oh yeah, he’s ruined without me.
And I hadn’t worked deep nights long enough to have any friends on my shift, so that idea was out too.
Third step would be the Department’s psychologist, and that definitely wasn’t going to happen. I don’t care how important good mental health is, a man’s got to eat, and you can’t do that if you don’t have a job. Crazy I can live with. Hell, if I can live with a psychopathic Hooters girl I can live with anything. That is, except for hunger.
“So,” James Mason said, “where does that leave you? Whatever will you do?”
“I could call Annabelle,” I said. “I spend most of the night talking to her anyway. Why not just step back from this plan of mine and get a day’s worth of perspective on the problem?”
I envisioned how that would go. Me, standing at the doorway of the 911 dispatch center, asking Annabelle to join me for coffee. We’d talk for a while, then I’d tell her what this was all about, and the next thing you know, news of how crazy I am is all over the Department.
James Mason didn’t even have to speak.
What I decided to do was to get the one person I knew would come out with me. I went back to the back of Alan Parker’s house and kicked his backdoor until I heard the alarm go off.
I wandered back out to the street, feeling like I was walking through a fog. And I wasn’t surprised in the least to see the stringy haired heroin junkie sitting in my backseat, slumped over, head against the plexiglass.
I stood next to the door, looking at him through the window, and I was still staring at him when a police car pulled up on me, covering me with its headlights.
Alan Parker ran up to me. “What’s going on?” he demanded. “The alarm company called me again.”
I didn’t say a word. I turned toward him slightly without really bothering to see him, and then back at the man in my backseat.
“Who’s that?” Alan said.
Still in a fog I said, “You see him too?”
“What? Of course I see him. Here, get out of the way.”
He pushed me to one side and opened the car door, but when he reached for the man in the backseat, his hands went right through him.
For the first time, the man in the backseat moved. He lifted his head off the plexiglass and looked at Alan. His face was crushed and battered on one side, the eyeball nothing but a blood-clotted pool of white jelly.
His expression was the most twisted, awful thing I’ve ever seen, somewhere between blind rage and a desperate plea for mercy. He opened his mouth to speak, but it was Alan who screamed.
Alan stumbled out of the backseat and into the street.
Out of nowhere, I saw headlights. I heard brakes squealing and tires screaming across the pavement. I heard the dull thud of Alan Parker’s body colliding with the grill guard of an old pickup, and then Alan was sprawled out on the pavement, staring up at something only he could see, gulping air like a fish out of water.
The man who ran over Alan Parker was blindingly drunk, a roofer on his way home after a late night tailgate party.
The Traffic Investigations detectives came out and did a reconstruction of the accident scene, then booked the roofer for Intoxication Assault.
Alan hung on for four days in the hospital before he finally died of the head injury he took that night. My shift sergeant called me into the office to give me the news. I stared at my hands folded in my lap and nodded when he asked me if I was okay.
Then he told me Internal Affairs wanted to talk to me.
The next morning I was in the conference room at Internal Affairs, where a Police Association lawyer and three IA sergeants offered me a chair, donuts, and hot coffee.
After the introductions, they asked me about Alan Parker.
For the first time since he started talking to me, I heard James Mason use the phrase, “Oh shit.”
“What do you want to know?” I asked. “I already told the Traffic guys everything I knew about the accident.”
“Not that,” they said.
They wanted to know if Alan had ever told me anything about a burglary at his house.
I told them he had. I told them what Alan told me about the stereo and the laptop and the new window with the energy saver guarantee.
They looked at one another uncomfortably.
Finally, the lead sergeant spoke up. “Officer Parker made a dying declaration at the hospital,” she said. “In his confession, he admitted to leaving his assigned area in order to investigate a burglar alarm at his residence.”
I nodded, not certain where this was going.
“While he was there, he surprised a burglar trying to exit the house through that broken side window. He then beat the man to death with his baton. He said he didn’t mean to kill the man, but when he realized what he’d done, he put the body in his patrol car, and drove it down to Watson Road just south of the city limits where he dumped it in a field.”
My mouth fell open.
“That was my reaction too,” she said soberly. “But it’s the truth. Homicide found the body this morning. It was very badly decomposed, but exactly where he said it would be.” She looked to the others and they nodded. She said, “What we need from you, Officer Fisher, is a written statement saying something to the effect that you had no knowledge of the incident with the burglar. That way, we can close out our investigation and put all this unpleasantness behind us.”
I had my hands in my lap, and I’m glad for that. I wonder what they would have said if they’d seen the way my hands were shaking.
It was all I could do to keep from throwing up.
Vacantly, I said, “Sure,” and nodded.
“You’d be willing to make that statement?”
I took a deep breath, looked her right in the eye, and said, “Absolutely. This is the first I’ve heard of it.”