The night I went to work I gathered up my reporter’s notebook and heavy purse and then went to check on my husband Peter. My sweetie pie was sitting up in bed, his left leg in a cast. The bruises about his eyes were beginning to fade, though they still had a sickish green-yellow aura. The television was on and a cellphone was clasped in his right hand.
“You doing okay?” I asked.
He grinned, his teeth showing nicely through his puffy lips. “Like I’ve been saying, as well as could be expected.”
I kissed his forehead. “You okay moving around by yourself?”
“Good,” I said. “But you be careful. You go and break your other leg, that means you’re stuck in bed. And I don’t think this whole ‘in sickness and in health’ covers bedpan duty.”
He moved up against the pillows, winced. “You could have warned me earlier.”
“But you wouldn’t have listened.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because you’re madly, hopelessly, and dopily in love with me, that’s why.”
As I headed out Peter said, “Erica? Be careful.”
I hoisted my heavy purse on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, I will.”
And then his face darkened. “One more thing. Sorry I got dinged up.”
I shook my head. “No time to talk about that.”
I blew him a kiss, which he pretended to catch and slap against his heart with his free hand.
Cooper, Massachusetts, is one of the largest and poorest communities in the commonwealth, and I drove this warm May evening to one of its three police precinct stations. In the station’s lobby were hard orange plastic chairs filled with residents, most of whom didn’t speak English and were busily arguing with each other or with the suffering on-duty officer behind a thick glass window. When it was my turn I said, “Erica Kramer, I have an appointment to see Captain Miller.”
The harried officer looked happy to confront an easy issue, and in a manner of minutes, I was brought into the rear of the precinct station. Captain Terrence Miller sat me down at his desk and passed over a clipboard with a sheet of paper.
“Look that over, sign at the bottom, and you’ll be on your way,” he said. Miller looked to be on the upside of 50, with an old-fashioned buzz cut and a scarlet face.
The paper was a release form stating that one ERICA KRAMER was going to accompany OFFICER ROLAND PIPER as part of a civilian ridealong program, and that by signing said release form, myself and my heirs promised never, ever to sue the city of Cooper if I was shot, knifed, killed, mutilated, or dismembered. I scrawled my signature on the bottom and passed it back.
He checked the form and then he checked me. I knew the look. I had on black nylons, heels, short denim skirt, and a one-size too-tight yellow top. He seemed to consider what he was doing and said, “Well, I guess I’ll bring you over to Roland.”
“Thanks,” I said, grabbing my purse.
Officer Roland Piper was even older than his Captain, and in his crinkly eyes and worn face, saw what I knew: a cop satisfied with being a cop who didn’t want the burdens of command and was happy to be in his own niche. In the tiny roll call room Roland looked me up and down and said, “All right then, come along.”
We went out to the rear of the station where a high fence surrounded the parking area for the police cruisers. I followed Roland, him holding a soft leather carrying case in one hand and a metal clipboard in the other. He was whistling some tune I couldn’t recognize and he unlocked the trunk of a cruiser. There were flares in there, chains, a wooden box, a fire extinguisher, and Roland dropped his leather case in and slammed the trunk down. He went to the near rear door and opened it up, then lifted the seat cushion, looking carefully in the space behind the seat. He pushed the seat cushion down and closed the door.
He looked over at me. “If you’re ready, get aboard.”
I went around to the side and got in.
Roland ignored me as he opened up his clipboard, wrote down some notes, and then turned on the ignition. Then he flipped on the headlights, then the strobe bar over the roof of the cruiser—the lights reflecting on the rear brick wall of the police station—and then flipped on the siren, quickly going through four different siren sounds. Next to the siren console was a pump-action shotgun, bolted upright.
“Everything looks good, sounds good,” he said, backing up the cruiser. “Thing is, you test this stuff, every night. Don’t want to find out the sirens or lights don’t work when you need them.”
I opened up my notebook pad, scribbled a few lines. “Why did you open up the rear seat?”
He nudged the cruiser out into traffic. “Checking things over. Sometimes perps, they get arrested, even with their hands cuffed, they can dump stuff back there. I don’t like stuff dumped in my cruiser. Don’t like surprises.”
We were now out in traffic. He picked up the radio microphone, keyed it and brought it up to his mouth, and said, “Dispatch, 19 out and available.”
He looked over to me. “Got that? I don’t like surprises.”
I made another note.
“I got that,” I said.
I looked at the dashboard clock. It was 8:02 p.m.
We went through about a half-dozen blocks before he spoke up. “All right. Why me?”
He made a right-hand turn past a row of old three-decker homes, the last one on the end a burnt-out shell. “You heard me. There’s about 60 or so cops on the department. Why me?”
“Because you’ve been here the longest,” I said. “With a half-dozen citations for bravery and excellent police work. I thought you’d be an interesting human feature story.”
“You writing for The Cooper Chronicle, then?”
“No,” I said. “I’m freelance. I’ve done articles before for other papers in the valley, but I thought maybe I could interest Boston magazine or even the Sunday Globe about your story.”
“Hah,” he said. “That’ll be the day.”
We went on for another couple of blocks and he said, “You want to know the deal?”
“Sure,” I said. “What kind of deal is that?”
“Deal is, I didn’t have to have you with me tonight. Captain couldn’t force me. And if he did, I could tell you nothing at all. But you see, the department’s getting a new allotment of cruisers next month. I made the deal with the Captain. I put up with you and your dumb questions, I get the best cruiser. No more riding along in this six-year-old deathtrap.”
“I don’t do dumb questions,” I said, my hands clasping the notebook tight.
“Hunh? What’s that?”
Now it was my turn. I said sweetly, “Officer, you heard me the first time. I don’t do dumb questions. You’re good at what you do, and I’m good at what I do.”
He looked at me, scanned my legs, and offered me a thin smile. “All right. Point taken. Just so there’s no misunderstandings, there’s two rules.”
We stopped at a traffic light. A group of kids in Red Sox jerseys were on the street corner. When they spotted the cruiser, they faded into the shadows and were gone.
“Rule one. You don’t get in my way. You stay behind me, and if I tell you to stay in the cruiser, by God, you stay in the cruiser. Rule two. No questions about my personal life. I owe you and the taxpayers of Cooper eight hours a shift, 40 hours a week. What I do on my own time, what hobbies I got, hell, who or what I like to date, none of your damn business. Got that?”
“Sure,” I said. “Got them both.”
The light changed and we moved ahead. And he looked at my legs one more time and said, “You really thought dressing up like that was a good thing for a night like this?”
I flipped a page of my notebook. “Here’s a rule for you, officer. No comments on how I’m dressed. You got that?”
Another thin smile. “Gotten.”
We rode around Cooper for a while in an aimless pattern that I was sure was anything but. The radio crackled with different calls for other units, and I said, “Why have you always been a patrolman? Why not try for a promotion?”
He waited a few seconds and said, “Why put up with the aggravation? Same streets, same crime. You’re a patrolman, you’re responsible for yourself. You become a sergeant or a detective, then you got to manage people. Ugh. I have enough problems keeping myself in line. Hate to think of doing that with other people.”
“Then why this part of town?” I asked. “There are three precincts in Cooper. Hillside, Tremont Avenue, and here, the Canal Zone. Why are you here?”
I noticed that while he drove his eyes were rarely on the road. They were always scanning the sidewalks and the intersections, like a hunter searching for the ever-elusive prey.
“Describe them for me,” he said. “The precincts.”
“Hillside … well, that’s a bunch of nice neighborhoods and the outer suburbs. And Tremont Avenue covers the business district. And the Canal Zone … everything else, I guess.”
Roland raised a worn hand to the old brick mill buildings built along the banks of the Micmac River. He said, “That’s what powered central Massachusetts last century. These mills, making shoes, making leather, making woolens, shipping them out on the canals. And in the space of a decade, it was all gone.”
Most of the tall brick buildings were empty of light, empty of life. I shivered. “There’s squatters over there, drug dealers, pimps, all sorts of action,” he went on. “Oh, some of the mill buildings have been rehabbed with businesses, but it’s slow going. And this is where the action is, Erica. And that’s what I like. Action means the time passes quick, means I get home in a good mood.”
I made a point of taking some notes in my fresh reporter’s notebook. I looked at the dashboard clock. It was now 9:05 p.m.
Something chattered on the police radio, and Roland braked, made a U-turn on an empty street, and flicked on the overhead lights.
Our first call of the night.
We sped for several blocks and came up behind another police cruiser parked right up against a polished black pickup truck with oversized tires. Roland put the cruiser in park and with one smooth motion grabbed the radio microphone. “Unit 19 off at Tucker and Broadway.” He put the microphone back into the cradle and said, “You can come out, but stay behind me, all right?”
“Sure,” I said, and I stepped out with him.
We walked up to the truck and there were two young men wearing baggy clothes and backward baseball caps standing with their hands on the hood. A young female officer looked relieved at seeing Roland, and he talked to her, and then she watched as Roland went through the men’s pockets. Coins, cigarette lighters, and then plastic baggies full of white powder were distributed onto the hood, and within moments the men were handcuffed and placed in the rear of the first cruiser.
More chitchat with the younger officer, and Roland laughed and got back into the cruiser, and I followed.
He put us out on the street and, with microphone in hand, he said, “Unit 19 clear.”
“What was that about?”
“Just a traffic stop, that’s all. Clown driving that pickup truck blew through a stop sign, and Officer Perkins there pulled him over. She sensed something screwy was going on and asked for back-up.”
I said, “I read somewhere that some cops, they don’t like women cops out there on the streets. Think they’re too weak, they’re—”
“That’s a load of crap,” he said. “They’re tough when they have to be, and they’re great to be at your side during a domestic dispute. Man, I hate domestics. And anyone who can help me out here on the streets, I don’t care if they’re male, female, or any combination thereof.”
A few more notes made in my notebook. Roland said, “You surprised me with that comment. I thought you’d stick up for your fellow sisters on the force, something like that.”
I smiled. “Guess I’m full of surprises.”
The dashboard clock said it was 10:12 in the evening.
The rest of the night went on with more aimless cruising, and I eventually learned that Roland was ex-Army military police, received an honorable discharge, and started working on the Cooper force. And as for his citations for bravery, he shrugged them off. “Most of that stuff was just being in the wrong place at the right time, and having the chief wanting to make a big deal out of it, ’cause it made for good newspaper headlines around budget time.”
We also made two traffic stops, one coffee-and-doughnut stop (“And if this gets in the paper, make sure you write that I got a bran muffin, okay? No doughnuts for me,” Roland said), and a fight outside the Sloppy Cow Pub & Grub that resulted in one woman being arrested, two men being put into ambulances, and a good half-hour of paperwork and note-taking on Roland’s behalf.
“You having fun?” he had said after we left the Sloppy Cow Pub & Grub, where the owner was taking a hose to wash off the blood stains on the sidewalk.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “A real blast.”
Now it was the start of a new day, and my legs were getting cold. I watched the light blue numerals of the dashboard clock flip, and with each change of the number it seemed like the air in the cruiser was getting thicker and harder to breathe.
Then it clicked over to one in the morning. I yawned. Roland said, “You want to go back to the precinct, head on home?”
“No, I’m okay,” I said.
“Whatever,” Roland said. We were driving past another burnt-out collection of tenements and Roland said, “There’s a story for you. Someone should trace the deeds of those properties, see who owns what. Bet you dig enough, you’ll find that somebody’s making a lot of money off those arsons—”
The radio crackled to life. “Unit 19.”
Roland picked up the handset. “Unit 19 go.”
“Unit 19, 14 Venice Avenue, the Gold Club. Robbery in progress. Other units responding. Caller said robbers appear to be armed.”
Roland said, “Unit 19 responding.”
He replaced the hand mike, brought the cruiser to a shuddering halt, and then made a U-turn and flipped on the overhead lights. He punched the accelerator and I felt myself thrust back against the seat as we roared down the center of Market Street.
“What’s the Gold Club?”
“Jewelry store. Only one in this area. I know them … got a large inventory.”
“No siren?” I said.
“Nope,” he said. “Sirens just let them know we’re coming.”
Roland braked again and we slewed into a turn, and he said quickly, “Deal is, you stay in the cruiser. All right? Other back-ups will be here in a bit.”
I clenched my purse and notebook tight in my hands. “Right. I’ll stay behind. No problem.”
The cruiser roared down a deserted stretch of roadway flanked on either side by empty brick mill buildings and the still water of the canals, and with a slap of his hand Roland switched off the overhead lights. He slowed and then dimmed the headlights.
My voice shook. “Do … do you know what you’re doing?
“Yeah,” he said. “Alleyway up here will put us right across the street from the Gold Club. You just stay put.”
Another turn and Roland eased his way up a narrow alleyway and then switched off the headlights. He slowly inched his way forward. Up ahead was an overflowing dumpster, and he parked the cruiser. The handset was in his hand. “Unit 19 off at the scene.”
“Ten-four, unit 19. Be advised, other units about ten minutes in-bound.”
The handset went back and with a rattle of keys he unlocked the pump action shotgun and got it out. My heart was racing right along and I knew my face was pale and my eyes were wide.
Roland opened the cruiser door and said, “Erica …”
“I’m not moving. You just be careful.”
“Just my job, that’s all,” and he got out and closed the door behind him.
I saw his shadow move in front of the cruiser to the side of the dumpster. I watched for a minute or two and then, with shaking hands, reached down and took off my shoes.
I picked up my purse and got out of the cruiser.
The pavement was cold on my bare feet and I prayed for no broken glass or discarded syringes to be in my way. I reached into my purse and found a comforting object, which I withdrew and then extended. A collapsible police baton. The definition of irony, I guess one could say.
I whispered my way up to Roland. He was kneeling on one knee, shotgun in hand, looking out across Venice Avenue and the shuttered doors of the Gold Club and some construction supplies and the footbridges that went over one of the canals. I raised up the collapsible baton and brought it down hard against the base of his neck.
Three hours later I was home, tired, thirsty. The light was on in the bedroom so I walked in, and my sweetie pie was sitting there, face expectant, looking up at me.
I pulled a few strands of hair away from my face. “Gee, I missed you too, honey. Did it go all right? How are you feeling? What happened?”
His face flushed. “Sorry, Erica.” He moved about on the bed some. “I missed you. Didn’t sleep a wink. Did it go all right? How are you feeling? What happened?”
I dropped my heavy purse on the floor. “It went just fine.”
“So. Where have you been?”
I gave him the dear-why-didn’t-you-empty-the-trash-like-you-said-you-would look. “Where do you think?”
He tossed the cellphone over to me. “Talk to me, then.”
So an hour earlier I was in an interrogation room of the Cooper Police Department, facing an unhappy Captain Miller and a blank-faced detective named Stephens. The interrogation room was stuffy and I was twisting and re-twisting a paper napkin in my hands, which I used sometimes to dab at my eyes.
Captain Miller looked to me and then Detective Stephens, a young hard-faced man with close-cropped black hair going to gray. “Any more questions?” he asked the detective.
The detective stared right at me like he was trying to look through me and beyond. He had a cheap pen that he fluttered through his fingers like a magician.
“No,” the detective said slowly. “No questions. Just want to make sure we have it straight, what happened. Do you mind?”
“No,” I said. “Of course not.”
He looked down at his legal pad, read from his notes. “So when you got to the scene, you said Officer Piper told you to stay in the cruiser, correct?”
“And after he left … what happened then?”
“What I told you. I saw him go up the alleyway to a dumpster. I saw him crouching … and then … I got scared.”
Detective Stephens said, “And what happened when you said you were scared?”
“I … I scrunched down in the front seat. I didn’t want anybody to see me. And then …”
I wiped my eyes again with the paper napkin. “It was so quick. A man ran by carrying something in his hands. He … he hit Officer Piper on the back of his head and then ran around the corner. I panicked. I got on the floor of the cruiser.”
“You didn’t get out to see what was going on?” Detective Stephens asked.
Snot was running down my nose. “I was so scared … and he told me to stay … and I knew that other policemen were coming ….”
“Mmm.” Detective Stephens said. “But then you had the presence of mind to grab the radio microphone and call for help.”
“Yes,” I said, my voice soft. “I … I knew I had to do something, and I pulled the microphone off the radio and called it in. Officer down.”
Both Miller and Stephens were quiet, and I said, “What … what happened at the Gold Club?”
Stephens looked to Miller. “It’s still under investigation. Looks like a burglary. Sorry I can’t tell you any more at the moment. Later today … if you wish to check in again, we can probably tell you more.”
I nodded, wiped at my eyes. “And … Officer Piper. How’s he doing?”
“He’s at Cooper General Hospital,” Miller said.
“Will he be okay?”
Miller smiled for the first time. “That guy’s got a thick head. He’ll be just fine.”
So about 12 hours after I got home from my ridealong my sweetie Peter was in the passenger’s side of our Toyota Camry, bags packed, the disposable cellphone having been disposed of, and I was heading over to the driver’s side when a black Ford F-150 pickup truck came into the short driveway, blocking us. The door opened up and Roland Piper gingerly stepped out dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved black denim shirt.
I opened the door and said to my sweetie, “I’ll be just a minute.”
“You going to be all right?”
“Trust me,” I smiled. “I’ll be just fine.”
I went over to the truck and said, “Officer Piper.”
“How are you feeling?”
He turned so I could see a bulky bandage around the base of his head and then turned back. “Not bad. Out for a week, and docs said I should be ready to go back on duty then.”
We stood there for a moment, waiting, and he made the first move, for which I was thankful.
“I’m just a cop with seniority but no command,” he said, “but you didn’t question me or insult me last night about being just a cop. So don’t start insulting me now. All right?”
I folded my arms. “Fine. I won’t start insulting you now.”
He leaned against the fender of his pickup truck. “After I was attacked and brought to the hospital I got to thinking. And questioning. And I decided to do some quick digging. You’re not much of a writer, Erica. Three articles in the space of eight years.”
“Good writing takes time,” I said.
“I’m sure,” Roland said. “And your husband … he’s a ghost. Not much of a payroll record, not much of anything. And the two of you … no criminal record at all. Which means the two of you are either simple and dumb or complicated and very smart. And since you’ve had a rental agreement on this apartment for just a month, I’m not thinking simple and dumb.”
I said nothing, waited. He cocked his head and said, “It was no coincidence you were with me last night. You wanted to be on that ridealong because you knew something was going to happen at the Gold Club. Not a bad set-up. Me being knocked out, leaving the scene deserted. Available for whatever. So you’d think … not a bad deal.”
“A deal,” I said.
“So,” he said. “Here’s my deal. A cut of whatever was taken there, and I go away, and you go away, and nothing more is said.”
I kept silent and he said, “Erica, no insults now. It’s a good deal. I won’t even ask you who else was involved.”
I still kept silent, and then he added, “If I got all of that in just a few hours, imagine what the detectives can do in a few days.”
I nodded. “How much?”
“I’ll trust your judgment. Just know you should be fair, or I’ll be insulted, and—”
I jangled the keys in my hand, went to the rear trunk of the Camry, and Roland moved around and said politely, “Just so there’s no misunderstanding. Just want to see your hands. Professional courtesy, wouldn’t you say?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
I snapped open the trunk, went into a side pocket of a knapsack, unzippered it, and pulled out a plain brown paper-wrapped package. I tossed it to Roland, who caught it easily.
“Quick question?” I asked.
“What tipped it for you?”
He hefted the package in his hand. “You said you were doing a profile on me, you asked me all those questions, and then after I got whacked on the back of the head—according to the detectives, most likely by one of the gang serving as a look-out—you didn’t come to see me at the hospital. That would make your story even better … if you were planning on writing a story. But you weren’t.”
I closed the trunk of the Camry. “So what are you planning now?”
He smiled. “Early retirement.”
“To do what?”
He went back to his truck. “You seem to like stories. So here’s two stories for your consideration. Story one. A grumpy, embittered cop, working long hours, little pay, no advancement … sees his chance to score and leaves for sunnier places.”
“And the second story?”
“A cop with a wife in home healthcare with a long-term degenerative nerve disease who needs lots of money, who realized long ago that if he just stays as a cop and works lots of overtime he can barely make it go … sees his chance to score and be settled for a long time.”
He got into the truck, rolled down the window. I called out to him. “So which story is true?”
“None, both,” he said. “You’re the writer. You figure it out. And Erica … go far and don’t come back. The detectives still have a lot of questions about what happened last night. Don’t be around … you’re a cold one and you might get by, but don’t tempt it.”
I started walking to the driver’s side of the Camry. “We won’t.”
Inside the Camry I started up the car. Peter put his hand on my arm. “Had to make a payoff?”
“So far, so good.”
I backed us out onto the street, thinking, less than a week. We’ll be in California in less than a week.
And I thought again about last night.
So about 15 hours earlier, after Officer Roland Piper fell to the ground with a moan, I put my shoes back on and continued to work. I slid the collapsed police baton back into my purse and then sprinted across the street to the entrance of the Gold Club. I ducked in a brick alcove near some construction supplies, knowing in a few seconds what was going to happen.
There was a creaking sound.
The door to the Gold Club opened up.
A head poked out. Took a quick scan. Missed me. Ducked back inside.
Hurry up, I thought, hurry up. The cops are coming.
The head poked out again. A whisper.
My unzippered purse was in my hand. I put my free hand inside, curved it around a familiar and comfortable object.
Movement. Two men ducked out carrying small black knapsacks in their hands. They started sprinting up the sidewalk, away from me, and—
I stepped out, dropped the purse, hands now cradling a Smith & Wesson 9 mm pistol, and I shot them both in the back.
They dropped to the ground, the knapsacks tumbling next to them. I stepped up and fired again, finishing off the one on the left. The one on the right was moaning, curled over on his side, and I kicked him over on his back, so he was looking up at me.
I said, “Tsk, tsk, Tommy, do you think I’d let this go? After my hubbie planned it, scoped it, and brought you and your brother in? It would have been fine … but you were too greedy, you twit.”
He grimaced. “Sonny … should have listened to Sonny … he wanted to kill your Peter … and I just wanted him out … by tuning him up …”
“Yes, Tommy, you should have listened to your brother.” And then I shot him again, finishing him off.
I picked up both knapsacks, went back to the construction gear, pulled out lengths of chain and some pre-positioned cinder blocks, and, in a few minutes, Tommy and Sonny were dumped into the canal along with my baton and pistol.
I emptied the contents of the knapsacks into my large purse, ran back to the cruiser and dumped the empty knapsacks into the nearby dumpster, and then made a desperate radio call and waited, shivering on the cruiser’s floor, doing my best to ignore the still figure of Officer Roland Piper on the ground.
As I drove Peter rubbed my leg and said, “Perfect. You were perfect.”
I shook my head and my sweet hubbie said, “What’s wrong?”
“Something not right,” I said.
I stopped at a traffic light, noted the exit sign for the Interstate just a block ahead.
“Officer Piper, he said I was cold. Can you believe that? He said I was cold.”
I turned to Peter. “You don’t think I’m cold, do you?”
He laughed. “Erica … no way. Not cold at all.”
I smiled. “Thanks, hon. I appreciate that.”
My hubbie laughed again. “Of course, if I said anything else, you’d probably kill me.”
I turned, smiled sweetly, and blew him a kiss.
“Honey, you’re absolutely right.”