Authors: Jess Walter
Tags: #Fiction, #General
he truth hurts only if you’re comforted by lies. That’s what Caroline has always believed. She doesn’t spend much time deluding herself: believing there is a reason things happen, that Mr. Right will come along, that people will change. She wonders, Is this me—this unleavened cynicism—or is it the job? Could be the job. You have to be a realist to be a cop, otherwise, the shit you see…it blackens your heart.
After Rae-Lynn Pierce died, Caroline forgot that for a few days. She went around re-creating Rae-Lynn’s last six weeks, hoping she’d find some meaning there. Maybe Rae-Lynn had saved some child’s life. Or reconciled with her family. Six weeks. Forty-two days—six of them spent in drug rehab, before she walked away from that; the rest spent on the street, getting high and fucking strangers for money to get high. Her two-year-old daughter was taken away during those six weeks, and a few days later Rae-Lynn was arrested for soliciting. She spent the night in jail, and four days after that she was found dead, curled around a warm-water drainpipe in an alley behind a Thai restaurant.
No, it was better not to know. Otherwise you find yourself staring at people on the street, wondering when you might attend their deaths. She’s tried to joke about it, slough it off, duck behind her old shield of cynicism, but she lacks the strength to hoist that defense, as if the weight of her old self is too much to bear.
Maybe that’s why she’s letting herself be drawn in now, because this Loon’s case is still theoretical and clean, a totally hypothetical crime—the
of homicide, the
of confession, of contrition and punishment. Usually this job begins and ends with the corpse: its rigor and stench, hypostatic pools, smallness of an unanimated body. But with no body…
D-E-C-K-E-R, P-E-T-E. She types the letters into the computer to check against local and national crime databases. It occurred to her that the Loon might be lying as soon as he gave her the name, but she could also see that the
name Pete Decker wasn’t random, that it had meaning, and she could see the Loon was giving her
and that’s all she wanted, she sees now, some excuse to keep listening, to allow the Loon to keep writing. Or maybe to keep from going home. Maybe he could’ve given her any name and she would’ve left satisfied that she wasn’t being taken in by this guy, that she wasn’t being seduced by his line of confession and trust, by the misery in his right eye and the mystery of his left. She wonders for a moment if the Loon’s name might not be Pete Decker, but she doesn’t think so. He didn’t say it that way, not the way you’d say your own name, but like a name that had been in your head for some time, one that you didn’t say aloud very often. Like an incantation or a name chanted at a séance. Like someone you’ve killed.
On her computer screen, Peter Ralph Decker’s Greatest Hits scroll down in front of her: petty theft; auto theft; battery; second robbery; a whole range of assaults—third, second, and first, employing everything from his fists to a roofer’s nail gun; two DUI’s, two possessions—one with intent to deliver; four probation violations; two noncompliance findings, and a couple of protection orders. And that’s just as an adult. He has a nine-count juvenile record that she doesn’t even bother with. By her count, he’s spent fourteen of the last nineteen years in some kind of correctional facility.
She checks to see if Pete Decker is in the can even now. He’s not. In fact, he’s just finished his longest stretch—four years on the possession with intent to deliver. She reads the details. Stupid bastard had only been out of prison for two months when the cops stopped his car and found almost a half-kilo of coke in the backseat. Claimed he “found” the drugs outside his apartment. Hard to imagine how that story didn’t fly.
Caroline writes down the address that Pete has on file with his probation officer. She finds herself hoping that Pete Decker
the victim in this case. A decent lawyer might manage a case for justifiable homicide or self-defense by doing nothing more than presenting Pete Decker’s long record in court. There could even be scenarios in which her Loon was protecting himself, or maybe protecting other people, from the impending violence of this drug dealer Pete Decker.
She jots down Decker’s last known and sends the report to the printer. At her desk she grabs another blank legal pad, and continues on to the interview room. She unlocks the door and sticks her head in. The Loon is still bent over
the legal pad, mouthing words as he writes them. He looks up, already in midapology.
“I’m sorry, Caroline. I know this is taking too long, but I’m really…”
She tosses the new legal pad before he can finish the sentence.
He catches the pad and smiles. “Thanks,” he says. “I’m getting close. Really.”
“It’s almost six,” Caroline tells him. “I’m gonna go out for some breakfast. You want something?”
“Some more coffee would be great. Maybe a cinnamon roll.” He rubs his mouth. “I…uh…I wanted to tell you…”
Caroline steps inside and waits.
He looks embarrassed. “That name I gave you?”
“Right. That’s not it. That’s not the person…”
“So who is he?”
“Nobody,” the Loon says. He’s lying. “I just wanted to give you a name. I need to get through this and then I’ll tell you everything…I promise. You have to believe me.”
“You want black coffee again?”
“Sure. Thank you.”
“I’m going to have someone from patrol check in on you. And…I’m gonna need your belt and your shoes.”
“My belt and my shoes?”
“I can’t leave you in here with anything you might use…”
“Use for what?” She doesn’t answer, and it takes a few seconds to register on his face. “You think I’m going to hang myself.” He makes it sound like a decent idea.
She just holds out her hand. He removes his belt and shoes and slides them across the table. She looks at the shoes but sees no blood on them. When she looks up he is smiling and she sees it again, that nagging familiarity.
“Are you sure we haven’t met?” she asks.
“You just…seem familiar.”
“Trust me,” he says. “I would remember meeting you.”
She is embarrassed and slightly confused by how good this makes her feel.
“My name is Clark.” He says it with great meaning, perhaps as amends for
giving her a phony name for the victim earlier. She has been thinking of him as the Loon, as her Loon, for so long, she has to repeat the name to herself. Clark sticks out his hand and she shakes it. Although Clark isn’t the name that seemed to be on the tip of her tongue, she sees right away that he’s telling the truth and she decides she’s been mistaking him for someone else, that he just has one of those faces.
“Nice to meet you, Clark.”
“I wish it were under different circumstances,” he says.
She thinks, not half as much as I do.
ete Decker’s apartment is on the fourth floor of a seedy building that Caroline knows only because it’s across the street from the coffee shop where she and some of the other detectives used to go in the mornings for tea. It is a squat, squalid building at the end of downtown, an old railroad hotel remodeled into flop apartments that house more than their share of criminals and addicts, people in the throes of recovery and teen pregnancy and AIDS, the chronically troubled and luckless. She parks in front of the building and opens the door, climbs the stairs three levels and finds herself in a dark, dank hallway, lit by a single bulb. There are six doors on the fourth floor, profanities scratched into the wood. She reads the graffiti and finds that Tina gives good head, that Joe B. is a motherfucker. None of the doors has a number or a letter. Caroline looks down at her notebook. Pete Decker lives in 4B. It could be any of the six. She checks her watch. Not quite 7:00
. She doesn’t have to worry about Pete—if he’s even here—skipping out in the morning. As a group, criminals are not early risers.
She leaves the building, happy for the fresh air, crosses three lanes of theoretical traffic, and opens a door into the warm smell of her old coffee shop. She stopped coming in after the barrista—a young bundle of stomach muscles and dreadlocks everyone calls Goose—asked her out one morning.
She walks across the dark floor and smiles at two of the coffee shop regulars, a youngish father and his round, blond, agreeable son, who is torturing a cinnamon roll for information.
“Hey,” says the father, who hasn’t bothered to learn her name, as she hasn’t bothered to learn his; the beauty of coffee shop culture is its sustained surface cordiality, like an office without that irritating work.
“Hey,” she says back.
“Haven’t seen you here in a while.”
“No,” she says, and continues to the counter. Luckily, Goose isn’t working; the pierced girl behind the counter gives her a warm smile.
“Can I get a twenty-ounce chai tea?” Caroline asks.
“Certainly,” the pierced girl says, and the snappiness of this exchange, this entire morning, makes her feel as if something has changed. This is what her life felt like before—normal exchanges with people one step removed from strangers: driving, walking, talking, sitting in a dark coffee shop and indulging in a cup of tea.
She picks out a day-old pastry, pays, and sits at the window, watching Pete Decker’s apartment building. No one comes or goes, and she thinks maybe she’s missed something—misread his record and the down-and-out address. Ah, but it’s early for heavy drug traffic anyway. She’s a little groggy, having stayed up all night while Clark the Loon worked on his opus. The tea warms her throat.
She watches the fourth-floor windows, but no lights come on. Just then a car, an old beat-up Honda Civic, pulls up to the curb in front of the building. Caroline grabs her tea and stands.
“See you,” says the father as he wipes frosting from his boy’s mouth.
“Okay,” says Caroline, and she pulls on her gloves and leaves the coffee shop. She jogs across the street just as a young woman steps out of the car. From first glance Caroline sees that the woman is a meth addict, one of those forty-year-old twenty-year-olds that the drug produces, eyes red and deep-socketed, skin sallow and puckered.
The girl sees her coming and her fried nerves go off scattershot; her arm cocks and her lip twitches. “What? What?”
“You live here?” Caroline is friendly, firm, and holds out her badge. “In this building?”
“I didn’t do nothing.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. It’s okay. I need to talk to your neighbor.”
The girl answers reflexively. “Don’t know him.”
“Sure you do,” Caroline says. “Look, I just need to see if he’s okay. Have you seen him in the last few days?”
“No,” she says. “Something happen to Pete?”
“I don’t know yet.”
The girl thinks about it for a moment and relaxes. “I wouldn’t mind if somebody finally killed that fucker. He steals everything.”
“Will you show me his door? I won’t tell him that you did.”
The girl shrugs again. “If he ain’t dead, I wouldn’t want to be the one to wake him up. He got a fuckin’ temper, him.”
“Oh, I’ll be gentle,” Caroline says. She follows the girl back up the stairs, into the fourth-floor landing. The girl points at a door and nods solemnly. Caroline nods back and hands the girl her tea, then waits for her to make her way quietly down the stairs.
When she hears the girl’s door ease closed two floors below, Caroline smells around the door. It stinks, but she isn’t sure if it’s
stink. Caroline puts her ear to the door. Nothing. She knocks on the door to Pete Decker’s apartment. She rests one hand on the nine-millimeter in her shoulder harness, and with the other reaches for the doorknob. She is surprised when the knob turns and the door opens, and she finds herself staring at an even younger girl, about sixteen, wearing nothing but a flannel shirt.
“Hi,” the girl says cheerily.
“Don’t answer the fuckin’ door,” says someone, presumably Pete, who is also presumably alive, in a tangle of blankets on a mattress on the floor. Caroline steps in, past the girl. The apartment consists of this one room, about twelve feet by twelve feet, nothing inside but the mattress and a new thirty-two-inch color television across from it. The walls are chipped and covered with shit and there are bags of chips and cookies all over. There are six people along the walls of the room, boys and girls, teenagers, and they all have the blank eyes and cat-box smell of heavy meth users.
She recognizes Pete from his mug shot. Alone on the mattress, he sits up, pissed off and bare chested. “What the fuck time is it?” Pete stands and he is naked, as skinny as the teenagers in the room—a bantam rooster, hard and small. Quarter-size bruises cover his body. “Don’t answer the fuckin’ door unless I tell you to!” Pete yells again, and he shoves the sixteen-year-old girl, who looks like an empty flannel shirt as she flies across the room.
Caroline steps toward him, inside the range of his fists. She grabs him by the throat just as he swings at her. She deflects most of the punch, and catches the rest in the neck; she is taller than he expected, and not as easy to move. This is a guy used to hitting down at his women. Caroline gathers herself, tightens her grip on his neck and swings her knee up into his balls. He grunts and slumps, and she pushes him back down on the mattress. He rolls over onto his side, moaning.
“You must be Pete,” Caroline says, and shows her badge. She picks up Pete’s jeans, feels in them for a weapon, and comes away with a long pocketknife that she slides into her own pocket.
“Anybody in here eighteen?” she asks the owl-eyed teenagers. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. You’ve all got twenty seconds to get your clothes and get out of here. And if I ever see any of you in here again, you’re going to jail.”
As Caroline continues to look for weapons, the teenagers scramble into their shirts and shoes, grab their bags of Doritos, and hurry out the door. Only the flannel girl is left. She pulls on a pair of pants and wipes her bloody lip with a white T-shirt. “Where do I go?”
“You his girlfriend?”
The girl considers lying. “I’m sixteen,” she says finally.
Caroline gives her two dollars. “Go to the coffee shop across the street and get yourself a cup of hot chocolate. I’ll be over in a minute.” The girl leaves and Caroline turns back to Pete, who makes no move to cover himself or his sore testicles.
I could shoot him, Caroline thinks, and she immediately thinks about investigating her own crime: the trail of witnesses, the barrista, the teenagers, the father with the blond son, the girl who showed Caroline the door; Caroline’s handprint on Pete’s neck, the police slug in his chest. Maybe she’d confess, ask for three legal pads and some coffee and sit down next to Clark the Loon, drawing a line between all the events in her life and this one crime.
“Pete,” she says, “you should get some friends your own age.”
“You’re a lucky man, Pete. I’m not gonna arrest you today.”
Finally he pulls the dirty blanket over himself. Caroline walks to the window and looks down on the street. She sees the young flannel girl cross the street, swing around a parking meter, and go into the coffee shop. Caroline turns back to Pete.
“I need some information about a guy named Clark. You know him?”
Pete Decker is used to having cops ask if he knows someone. “Come on.
Think. Clark something. About my age. Mid to late thirties. Dark hair. Good looking. Little over six feet tall. Has an eye patch.”
With that last bit of information, Pete Decker sits up in bed and smiles. “Clark? No way. How is he?”
“He’s okay. So you do know him?”
“Sure, we was like…best friends when we were kids. You know, little kids. Rode bikes and shit. Before—” He doesn’t say before what.
“You know his last name?” she asks.
“Clark? Oh, fuck. Sure. You know. Clark…uh…starts with an M. I used to know it. You know, when we were kids. So how is Clark, man? Still the same?”
Not knowing what he was like before, Caroline isn’t sure how to answer.
“Man, I haven’t seen Clark in…fuck, years.”
“You don’t keep in touch with him?”
“Clark? Nah, man.” He looks around the one-room apartment. “Yeah, I don’t keep in touch with too many people from the old neighborhood, you know.”
“Clark have a beef with anyone, someone he might have wanted to hurt?”
“Clark? Nah,” he says. “No, everybody liked Clark. He’s funny. Smart as shit too. Get all A’s and shit. I used to tell him, ‘Clark, don’t worry about your ol’ buddy Pete. You go make something of yourself. Ol’ Pete, he’ll be fine.’ You know why? I used to kind of protect him from bullies ’n’ shit. We was tight.”
Pete sits up in bed. “Yeah, Clark, he was the kind of guy you always knew would be okay. Played sports and banged all them cheerleaders, even with…” He raises his hand absentmindedly to his own left eye. “…You know, the accident and shit.”
“Yeah, his eye. How’d that happen?”
“Oh.” Pete looks around nervously, as if he’s wondering about the statute of limitations. “Some kind of accident. You know. Kids.”
“When did you see Clark last?”
“Huh.” Pete thinks. It does not appear to be his strong suit. “Oh. Probably 1979. Yeah. Probably then.”
Caroline nods. She’s not sure whether to be upset that this has turned out to be nothing, or glad that Clark whose-last-name-starts-with-an-M the Loon told the truth when he said Pete Decker was nobody.
“Okay, Pete,” she says, and she crouches in front of him. “In just the last ten minutes, you’ve committed six felonies. I’m gonna give you a break, but I need you to do some things for me. Four things. Can you do four things for me, Pete?”
“Sure.” He sits up, all sunken cheeks and vacant eyes, and she knows he will do nothing, that twenty minutes after she leaves, the teenagers will be back and they will all be smoking crystal and watching Pete’s stolen TV. “Anything,” he says.
She pulls out her notebook and writes,
“That girl,” she says. “The one you hit. Never see her again. You understand? Send her home to her parents.”
“Yeah,” he says.
she writes. “This morning, you take this TV back where you stole it from.”
“Okay,” he says.
“Monday morning, you go to your probation officer and tell him that you’re using again and you need to get into treatment.” She writes,
“Good,” he says, “I’ve been thinking that I need some help to…”
She doesn’t bother listening.
“And number four. You avoid me. Because if you don’t do all four of these things—and we both know you won’t—then I’m gonna shoot you in your fucking head. Do you understand?” She writes,
“Yeah,” he says.
Caroline rips the page from her notebook, tosses it on the bed, straightens up, and starts for the door.
“Hey.” Pete has pulled the blanket up to his neck, suddenly modest. “Will you tell Clark I said hi?”
She’s a little unsure what to make of this. “Sure,” she says.
“And tell him that if I could, I would’ve voted for him last time.”
And that, of course, is when it hits her. She stops cold at the door to Pete Decker’s apartment and closes her eyes. She did vote for him.