02 – A CALCULATED RISK
The day had started off a pleasant grey. Less sun meant more energy, more mental strength to care Now, as she stepped out of the car, a wave of disappointment consumed her. She smelled her own sweat rising as it flooded the cotton of her shirt, pulling it to her skin like an unwanted hug from a toddler that had just gotten out of the piss-filled kiddie-pool. She had a small personal hell between the A/C of the station ahead of her, and the car they were leaving behind. It had just gotten to the perfect temperature right when it was time to get out.
“Huh,” was all Allan had casually whispered as he’d closed the driver’s side door and beeped the locks. Norma had seen him get stabbed once, and he’d barely been concerned enough to bleed.
They were on their way to see the San Monico Chief of Police, but it felt like they were off to the executioner. Word had been passed along that he wanted to see them as soon as they had finished with the crime scene, but they had been words without reason. Norma knew her detective methods were unorthodox at the best of times, and lazy every time. Now all of a sudden she had a minor celebrity body, and a mysterious call from the chief. I’m either putting my neck in a noose, or a guillotine.
She’d made her career under his radar, barely garnering the notice of her own captain. The Chief also had an anti-social reputation. He never talked to anyone he didn’t have to, but if he was talking, chances were everyone in the building could hear him. The last time someone had been called to his office, shit hadn’t just hit the fan, it had diarrhea’d in the ventilator shaft. Nobody in the force was to blame, but you didn’t have to do something wrong to be on the wrong side of the boss.
Even though they had made it into the sweet air-conditioned halls of the main base, Norma couldn’t hold back the salty tide.
As they made their way to the Chief’s office, they were met with the usual greetings of “Hey big Al,” from the few familiar uniforms and detectives. No extraordinary interest, no compassionate gazes to give insight to the boss’s mood. When they turned the last corner, his secretary just waved them on without bothering to ask their names.
The door was open, in foreboding contrast to the Chief’s demeanor. He got up quietly as they came in, limping like he’d earned it, to silently close the door behind them. He wasn’t a big man, but he filled the room. A room sparsely decorated but for a framed medal, a picture of him shaking hands with a long gone mayor, and an American flag. The desk was nearly bare: a closed laptop and an uneaten croissant next to a coffee mug full of pens. Most of the work papers seemed to be in the recycling bin on the floor. The man looked tired.
“Now I know this isn’t your fault, detectives,” he began with a forced fatherly look. If not for his reputation, it would have taken some of the stress out of Norma’s shoulders. “But this whole thing has fucked out of my area of understanding.”
Norma and Allan took the two cordially offered seats in front of the Chief’s desk. While Norma leant back with her hips, ass on the edge of her seat like a cat on a windowsill, Allan sat upright; leaning forwards slightly. The Chief was now the only person she’d never seen him slouch for.
“I shouldn’t have to tell you guys that the hardest part of this job is keeping up with the times. Normally, I’d say that the press is hounding us for a conference about your celebrity dying, barking over each other as they shout their incessant questions at me. But they aren’t. All is quiet on the newstern front. But that doesn’t mean I called you so we could all go to the beach while the tide is out. We’re still being slammed by journalists, but it just isn’t the usual big names. Those leeches don’t seem to care at all. No, it’s all these – I don’t know – blogists. Unschooled nobodies. Foreign ones, even. Slimy internet writers from China and Brazil and… fucking Finland or some shit!”
The Chief was quickly tapping his stress onto the desk with a cheap pen marked SMPD. Suck my police-
“They want a statement,” he continued to the beat of his metronomic stylus. “And it puts us on the see-saw. The more information we give one party, the more interesting this non-story will look to the other. Journalism used to be a lot more contained back in the old days. Now, we’ve got this young, online thing, and I don’t know how seriously to take it. At the least, it’s pretty clear they’ve got some serious population, even if most of them aren’t American. I’ve barely got the ivy-league master’s degree animals under control, I don’t want the damn internet brigade acting like they know our job, telling us we didn’t treat it seriously enough. Nobody is brattier than those goddamn, plugged in kids.”
Norma found herself liking this side of the Chief. In another world, she might have stopped avoiding him, maybe even let him pay for her next pint. Instead she let Allan talk him down.
“Don’t worry sir, we played the whole thing off like an accident, kid somehow ate something he shouldn’t have. It’s simple enough that they believe us. These guys have no interest in drama.” That stopped the Chief’s pen from banging on the table, and now it was getting a good thumb rub on it’s previously abused end. “In the public eye, Chief, this should be nothing more than a statistic and a sad memory. You can release a simple, quiet, online statement saying it’s unfortunate, but there was no sign of malice. SMPD won’t be getting involved or whatever.”
“That’s right, sir.”
“But it wasn’t?” It was barely a question.
Norma moved her head in a slow, single negative. Not breaking eye contact.
“Humph… Your wording can be improved upon.” To which Allan merely shrugged, fighting the slight with his oafish grin. “But I like it. A classic move, lets the killer think he got away with it, hides your hounding.” The tap came back for three strikes on the expensive wooden surface. “That is, if you’re still interested in pursuing the case.”
The Chief now put the pen down completely, and looked Norma straight in the eyes. Leaving Allan out completely, he locked her into a state of seriousness that changed the mood in the room by a matter of degrees. The air was leaden, Norma’s spine was straight.
“If that’s the card you played, detective, just say the word and it becomes the truth.”
“Ignore the murder, sir?” Norma asked, even though she knew exactly what he meant. He was offering to play a hand she’d pulled out of her sleeve more than once.
“We don’t talk, Detective Keen, but I know you by reputation. Even if you don’t put the right lid on them, you close cases.” Allan slowly shifted in his seat, the sound of fabric on fabric like a heavy knife being pushed across a sharpening stone. “Everyone here is overworked, and undersolving. What we’re looking at here is most likely a murder of passion, regardless of it being premeditated. A grudge, jealousy, misunderstanding, doesn’t matter. Low risk of serial.”
But it still leaves a murderer out there. She couldn’t tell if he wanted her to say it out loud or not. The Chief leaned back in his chair, giving a solid poker face. Norma had no idea which option he preferred they take. Her response here could force her into early retirement, or keep her working way beyond her usual terms. Neither seemed like a good option.
She looked at her partner. This was one of those times where Allan knew exactly what she wanted, and he was more than willing to go along with it. He nodded.
“Let’s drop it,” Allan told the Chief.
“I can solve it,” Norma said. There, that got a reaction out of him for once.
“Great,” said the Chief, and seemed to mean it. “Detective David, according to the statement I’ll be giving, you were the lead on this. You’re also off the real case, which should help sell it if anyone cares to stalk you. Detective Keen, Norma, you do what you have to do to figure it out. This is a win-win for me, because nobody will be the wiser if you can’t solve it, but we’ll get some serious karma with the younger generation if you do. Plus it’s not like you’re going to be missed on your regular beat. With David here out, who’s your number two of choice?”
Norma had dreamed of her ideal working conditions, and now the Chief of Police was giving them to her on a silver platter. Even if it had an indignantly sharp edge, she took it. “I’m used to working alone, Chief, I’ll be fine.”
“Fine or not, Norma, you partner up. Even if it’s just a quiet nobody watching your back.”
It was worth a shot. But she already had someone in mind. A nobody, sure, but he probably wasn’t going to be quiet.