The City of Fleet awaits you . . .
Two pay periods passed, and Natalie had yet to see the salary increase in her check. The first one was understandable. She signed the contract on a Monday; she didn’t expect to see the increase a short three days later. Natalie understood paperwork takes time. But two weeks later, when there was no change, Natalie had to find out why.
Aware that Arnold was in—she had just moments before received an email from him announcing a mandatory staff meeting—Natalie figured now was as good a time as any to inquire about the delay.
She wouldn’t to go into Arnold’s office empty handed. Her two detectives, with her help, had closed six previously unsolved cases over the last three weeks. Natalie had, tongue in cheek, made the snarky prediction that if the three of them kept solving the department’s cold cases at this rate, they would be able to report “mission accomplished” after a mere two decades of steady work.
Natalie stacked the six heavy closed files and carried them, as a schoolgirl would, in the crook of her left arm. She made her way to the opposite corner of the building.
Betty was hooking her purse onto her forearm when Natalie arrived in the administrative wing.
“He’s not in there,” she announced.
“Oh, I just got an email from him, like ten minutes ago,” Natalie said.
“He was here. Then he took off. He didn’t tell me where he was going or when he’d be back.”
Natalie shifted the files to her right arm. “I was hoping to go over these with him. We closed six cases.”
“I’ve got to get to the dentist. Root canal,” Betty said, pointing to the left side of her face.
Natalie made a face of blended pain and sympathy. “Good luck.”
“I don’t need luck, just the gas,” Betty said with a slight laugh.
Betty swept out of the open space leaving Natalie alone. She stepped into the unnecessarily large, overly appointed office: The couch and two armchairs in the corner were, in Natalie’s observations, never used. The executive bathroom, around the corner, was a luxury the taxpayers could have done without.
Arnold’s U-shaped desk had three separate areas. Furthest from the door, on the left arm of the U, was the computer area. Three monitors were set, side by side, in a staged central-command sort of way. Natalie knew Arnold only used one; the other two had “Protect and Serve” bouncing around as the screensaver. The bottom of the U was Arnold’s work area: not a whole lot happening there. The right arm of the U was what she imagined he referred to as the “conference area” with two chairs opposite Arnold’s. It was here, over this section of his desk, that Arnold offered Natalie her new position. She set the one green file and the five yellow ones down on the blotter.
Natalie wanted to clear up the raise issue before the weekend. As she didn’t want to interrupt her afternoon by crossing the building to see if he had returned, she decided to leave a note in case he failed to fire up his one computer and check an email she had yet to send. To the right of “central-command” was a police scanner, on mute, and Arnold’s copy machine. Natalie pulled the paper drawer out enough to remove a sheet. She got an FPD pen from the FPD coffee cup and rolled her eyes at the number of items bearing those three letters. There were times she wondering whether all the branding was done to convince those who worked at FPD that they were, in fact, real police officers.
Sitting in Arnold’s chair, she felt a bit like Alice after having been enticed to imbibe from the “Drink me” bottle. The wheeled behemoth was more like a loveseat than a chair; it could have fit two people. She didn’t remember Daniel, Arnold’s predecessor, looking as small as she felt in the chair. Is this even the same chair? she wondered.
Natalie turned to the left and wrote her note:
I came by to go over these six closed cases.
Also, my raise wasn’t in my check yesterday.
When you get back, please call me. I’m here all afternoon.
She spun 90 degrees to her left and placed the folded note on top of the files. She wrote his name on the outside. Natalie pushed off to roll the chair back to where it had been. Her foot hit the box under the desk. Natalie had forgotten about catching Arnold with it despite having seen him dramatically throw it under his desk.
Should I? she thought.
As she was flexible, she folded in half resting her chest on her thighs. She scooted herself over to the box, hovering her face directly above the lid. There was room to open it under the desk. Natalie considered this her safest approach. She flipped the lid off. The tabs were unmarked. Plain manila file folders filled the thick-walled box to capacity. No wonder Arnold’s breathing was so labored after moving it from the desktop to its hiding place.
These were not FPD files, at least not recent ones. The colored filing system had been in place for the last five years. Red for open investigations of violent crimes; blue for open property ones; green for closed violent ones; yellow for closed property ones. Personnel files were orange.
Natalie tipped her left ear to the ceiling. It was quiet. She sat up and reached for one of Arnold’s business cards. Folding back down, she extracted a file from the center and slid the card in to act as a placeholder. Natalie laid the file on the floor and opened it. Her eyes scanned over the handwritten notes about “HC.” In some ways, it looked like the narrative from a police report: chronological with short descriptive entries. But unlike the reports she was taught to write, there was no indication who had authored the observations.
Natalie heard something: the bolt on the door from the side parking lot. Sitting up, Natalie saw Arnold’s metallic beige Crown Vic in his usual space, closest to the side door. She guessed she had no more than ten seconds to restore the scene.
She closed the file to replace it. She couldn’t see Arnold’s card and there was no time to find it. Necessity dictated she would need to find someplace else to put it.
Recap box. Six.
Shove chair back into place. Five, four.
Get on other side of desk. Three. The file, the file. Two.
Natalie grabbed the folded note she had written for Arnold off the stack of files which she brought into the room and stuffed that into the HC file. Then, she hid the HC file inside the green one and placed it back into the crook of her arm. One, zero.
Without hesitation, she said “Hi, Arnold. I came by to review the cases we’ve closed.”
“The dentist’s. Root canal.” Natalie made the same face with Arnold that she had with Betty.
“She let you in here?”
“The door was open and I was going to put these files on your desk so I wouldn’t have to carry them back and forth again.” Natalie stepped to the side enough to show Arnold the stack of yellow files. “They’re heavy,” she added.
Arnold’s eyes narrowed a bit.
Natalie could tell Arnold was no fan of having his office space intruded upon. She didn’t give him the chance to lecture.
“Hey, Arnold, there’s a problem with payroll. I haven’t gotten my raise yet. Did you do everything on your end?” she purposefully asked with a tone of annoyance.
“Yes, of course I did.”
“I can understand the first check not having it in there. But I fully expected yesterday’s check to have it.”
“Right. I would, too,” he added softly.
“I’m going talk to personnel about it,” she asserted.
“No, no, let me clear it up. You’ve got better things to do than chase down Ellen. I’ll have it cleared up by Monday morning.”
“Ellen handles that?”
“Yeah, when I got my raise, she was the one who processed everything. I think because she’s the finance manager, she’s the one who enters all the numbers to make it happen.”
It sounded fishy to Natalie. She’d make an ‘Operation Ousting’ note of this when she got back to her desk.
He added, “Ever since she’s gotten back from her honeymoon, her head’s been in the clouds. That Michael must be a real distraction.”
Natalie was now further perplexed by Arnold’s feigned familiarity with Ellen. He wasn’t even invited to the spring wedding with the impossible-to-drink-from mason jars reappointed as glasses and the tacky baked potato bar.
Arnold pointed to the green file. “Is that one closed too?”
“Why’s it in a green file then?”
“My mistake. It’s almost closed. I jumped the gun putting it in the green file. It’s close though. By the time you work out the payroll issue, I’ll be able to hand it to you—fully closed.”
Natalie didn’t want their conversation to go on a moment longer. She made a show of reaching down and placing her palm on the outside pocket of her suit jacket.
“I’ve got to take this call,” she said.
“I didn’t hear a ring.”
“It’s on vibrate. Have a good weekend, Arnold.”
Natalie walked quickly away. For Arnold’s benefit said, quite loudly, “Detective Sergeant Martin.” She returned to her desk, grabbed her purse, and slipped out to her car with the pilfered file. Natalie removed the HC file and hid it fully under the driver’s seat and masked her accelerated heart rate as she returned to her desk where her two underlings were end their week of word. The remainder of her afternoon was spent in frustrated distraction knowing she would have to both wait until she got home to read about HC and thereafter find a way to get the HC file back into its box.
On his way home from the station that evening, Arnold went looking for Tommy. He couldn’t call him because they had never exchanged cell phone numbers. There hadn’t been a need: they spoke in person or over headsets while online gaming.
Arnold reasoned that there were only so many places Tommy might be. It was unlikely he was home; Tommy hated being there. School was over—not that Tommy would be found there since he took his classes online. Arnold trolled around Deerhurst for an hour hoping to spot Tommy at one of the town’s fast food joints or the open-around-the-clock coffee shop. Nothing. He considered going home since it was close to Sweetie’s dinner time. But as there was close to no chance Tommy would be coming by, Arnold opted to keep looking.
While there were fewer hangout spots in Ledbury, Tommy’s hometown, it was Arnold’s next logical choice. In Ledbury, there were no fast food joints; the two coffee shops in town both closed in the midafternoon. As Arnold pulled out of the parking lot of the third, and final, gas station in Ledbury, he questioned his choice in even going to these automotive establishments: Tommy was almost always carless. That’s when Arnold concluded that Tommy might be on self-powered transportation.
Two small bikes and what Arnold thought was Tommy’s pintail longboard rested below the large plate glass windows of the Apple Mart. Arnold parked in the farthest spot from the door giving himself plenty of time to take in the scene as he made his way inside.
A bumper sticker—a thin rendering of the American flag on the left side; two black stripes framing a blue one on the right—alerted Arnold to the likelihood that there was a cop inside.
Most cops in the county knew each other. When understaffed on shift, the various departments requested backup from the neighboring ones. Fleet called Ledbury at least twice a week. Knowing that there was probably a colleague inside, Arnold felt his heart rate increase. He was there to find Tommy, not to be seen finding Tommy.
Stepping into the Apple Mart, Arnold saw Ledbury’s most recently retired chief sitting alone on a stool with a coffee in his right hand, the newspaper in his left. Sean Ryan recognized Arnold.
“Arnold Tucker. What brings you to the fair town of Ledbury? Not enough crime in Fleet?”
Tommy was standing in front of the magazine display. He looked up.
“Chief Ryan, I—”
“No, not ‘chief.’ It’s ‘Joe Citizen,’ nowadays.”
Arnold fast forwarded to the day he would be addressed as “Chief” after his own retirement—provided he wasn’t looking at the inside cover of his coffin. He was sure that he wouldn’t chastise the speaker for using that form of address. “Once a chief, always a chief” was how he saw it. Unsure whether to call him Mr. Ryan or Sean—they’d never been more than acquaintances—he skipped it.
“How’s retirement treating you?” Arnold asked.
“Can’t complain.” Sean looked ready to go but asked, “How are things at the station? You like running the ship?”
“You know how it is. I’ve only been chief for a few months now so I’m still getting my sea legs.”
Sean glanced at the tree-trunk-like legs holding Arnold up under ill-fitting slacks bunched at the crotch. A smile broke across Sean’s face. He stood, folded the paper, and tucked it under his left arm. He extended his right hand and shook the swollen flesh offered back by Arnold.
“Take care, Arnold,” he said, and over Arnold’s head he called, “See ya’, Geoffrey.”
Arnold turned around and, meeting eyes with Tommy, motioned with his head toward the door. Arnold stepped out and headed to the Crown Vic. Tommy came out alone with a bag of chips and a soda. He leaned down, placed all four wheels of his longboard onto the sidewalk, and pushed off. He skated down a side street.
Moments later, Arnold pulled up and unrolled the passenger-side window. Bending across the seat, Arnold improved his view of Tommy only slightly.
“Can you come by tonight?” Arnold asked.
“Yeah, that’ll work,” Tommy said. “I’ve been meaning to come by and give you an update. I’ll bring my laptop.”
“You’re ready to set it all up?”
“Ready like Freddy.” Tommy said. He leaned down, so Arnold could see his face, and asked, “You got something for me?”
“No, not now. Just be over around ten.”
Instead of going back by the station to raid the evidence locker, Arnold made his way home. The day had been hot and humid. The one AC window unit in the kitchen had done little to keep the house comfortable.
Sweetie was curled in her bed; she didn’t stand when Arnold closed the side door after coming in. He thought for a sinking, dreadful moment she was dead of heat exhaustion. He approached her with as much silence and lightness he could manage after a long, tiring week at the station. His gait across the room wasn’t quite tip-toeing. In fact, in the five decades of Arnold’s struggles with his weight, he couldn’t remember if he’d ever even been on the tips of his toes. If he had, he had been young: too young to form a solid memory of the common act.
Arnold could feel his heart beginning to squeeze hard deep within his chest. He heard his own voice inside his head pleading: “Please don’t be dead, please don’t be dead, please don’t be dead.” With Sweetie in full view, Arnold thought she didn’t look any different; therefore, he surmised, she wasn’t dead. That optimistic conclusion was rapidly supplanted by the image of his mother, lying flat on her back; she had been made up so well by the funeral home everyone commented “how good” she looked. Arnold stood over the cat watching for a twitch of a whisker; an expanding of ribs. Nothing at all. As he reached his hand out toward her and began to feel the tears filling his eyes, Sweetie exhaled in a short burst. Arnold followed suit: he had been holding his breath for the last many seconds in his approach.
She had a stroke, he thought, and would be in a vegetative state until she finally did die. Arnold’s clammy palm touched the top of Sweetie’s head. She blinked her eyes open. Arnold was sure she was returning the wide grin that he’d felt break across his face. He lifted the animal up by her armpits and held her face right in front of his own.
“You scared me, Sweetie. I thought you’d gone to cat heaven.”
Sweetie hung limply in Arnold’s grip. He heard a few backbones crack. Arnold briefly wondered if he had broken her vertebrae. It had been years since he picked Sweetie up in this manner, and he realized he lifted her without gentleness. Gingerly, he placed her back on to the terry-cloth cover of the orthopedic bed.
“I’m going to get out of my work clothes. Then I’ll feed you,” he said.
Arnold changed out of his casual Friday FPD embroidered golf shirt and khakis and into his perennial house clothes: a threadbare concert t-shirt from the “Rough and Ready” tour and cut-off sweats from the nearest Wal-Mart. Laying back on a diagonal across the bed, Arnold counted the casings of dead insects collected in the shallow bowl of the ceiling light. Getting onto the bed to disassemble the fixture and clear the mass grave was out of the question. He was likely to get hurt doing that. Something had to be done though about the filth. He decided to start in the kitchen. He was headed there anyhow.
Entering the living room, Arnold saw Sweetie was asleep. Her dinner can wait, he thought. Arnold needed music, some whistle-while-you-work inspiration. Sweetie, he figured, was apathetic as to both genre and volume.
Over the last few years, country music had become Arnold’s favorite. The down-on-your-luck ballads and the up-by-your-bootstrap directives each told a complete story of woe and redemption in four minutes or less. A dozen or so of these, plus commercials, filled the hour which Arnold concentrated on the kitchen. He stood back and complimented himself on his diligence. Sweetie jumped down when she heard the electric can opener grinding away and Arnold scooping out some dry cat kibble. He rinsed out her water bowl and began to consider dinner for himself. It had been a while since he had the taste of Lotus Blossom. He placed the delivery order. As he waited the 25 minutes for the $53.00 worth of cheap food to arrive, he made a mental list of other chores, instead of changing his stale. He had time, though not the energy. After a full week of work and the hour of kitchen cleanup, he just wanted to sit back and eat.
Three crisp $20.00 bills were handed over in exchange for lo mein, beef and broccoli, pork fried rice, Kung Pao chicken, shrimp egg foo young, a double order of egg rolls, and six fortune cookies. Arnold deduced thar the restaurant counted out the half dozen cookies estimating a half dozen diners.
Arnold awoke with a start to the sound of the kitchen door closing hard into its jamb.
“Hey, it’s ten o’clock,” Tommy said.
Arnold sat up. He saw several empty containers scattered on the coffee table. He hoped Tommy wouldn’t ask for any Chinese as there only remained some brown sauce from the egg foo young, half of the lo mein, and two fortune cookies. Then he remembered why Tommy was there; it wasn’t for late-night gaming with the usual collateral benefit of takeout.
Arnold asked, “Where’s your laptop?”
“In the car. I borrowed my mom’s.”
“Did you set up the bank account?”
“Yeah. The money’s in there already.”
Arnold got up and started down the hall.
Tommy asked, “What are you doing?”
“I have to change.”
Arnold put his day clothes back on. Tommy was fingering the napkin holder at the clean kitchen table when Arnold returned.
“Looks nice in here. You finally hired a maid?”
Arnold shook his head but refrained from commenting, instead he said, “Let’s go.”
The heat was almost bearable now that it was nighttime. The air hung heavy with humidity. Arnold broke into an immediate sweat.
“I’ll drive,” Tommy said.
Arnold looked at Tommy’s mother’s compact two-door car and insisted that he drive.
“You want your neighbors seeing her car here?” Tommy asked.
Arnold did not. Tommy got in first and lifted his laptop into the backseat. Arnold squeezed in and shifted around in the seat.
“Buckle up,” Tommy said.
Arnold struggled around his sweaty self to grab for the seatbelt buckle. He could feel the perspiration beginning to accumulate in the crease made at his waistline. Tommy started the car and pulled out of the driveway.
“You too, Tommy,” Arnold said as he clicked his seat beat around his dampening middle.
“I don’t like feeling constricted.”
“It’s the law,” Arnold said.
“What are you going to do? Arrest me?”
“No, but I could cite you.”
“Oh please, we’re going over to the police station to hack into Fleet’s server to fix your little employee-relations problem and you’ve got to give me a ration of shit?”
Arnold let it go and instead spend the time in the tiny car trying to will his sweat glands from excreting any more sweat. He was unsuccessful and upon wrestling himself out of the car saw that there were two dark lines across the front of his pants where the salty liquid had soaked through. He hoped that the wrinkles there would disguise the sweat stains.
As they had done before, they got in through the side door and left the lights off in Arnold’s office.
“We’d better make this quick. Shift change is in a half hour,” Arnold said.
Tommy was connecting cords and booting up the two computers. “Believe me, I’m going as fast as I can here.”
Within a few minutes, Tommy had both screens up and various tabs open on his laptop. He began to explain, “So I opened an account and because of all the homeland security rules, I had to use my name and social. I’m not worried about that because I’ll only be making small deposits. The bank won’t have nothing to report to the NSA or CIA or whoever. But for the record, it is a risk and I expect you’ll sweeten the deal on my end to make it worth my while.”
Tommy glanced over his shoulder at Arnold who nodded, lips pressed together. Arnold considered the arrangement a temporary one. With next year’s budget, he’d be able to accommodate Natalie by the book.
“We’ll talk about that,” Arnold said. “Show me how this is going to work.”
Tommy pulled up his online account; the balance was $1,005.00. He pointed at the number. “I needed to deposit five bucks to open the account. You don’t have to pay me back though.”
“Generous of you. How much did you get from the OC’s?”
“I got you your grand for your employee and the rest was for my troubles.”
“Dude, who cares.”
“I do,” Arnold said. “I don’t want to hear you’re skimming so much off the top for yourself that you’re going to need more from my end to keep you happy.”
“I’m plenty happy now. And the way I see it, you’ll have to do what you need to keep me that way.”
Arnold was suddenly sickened by the idea that there had been a profound change: ribs from the local restaurant and the occasional ounce of pot had been rapidly upgraded to a ready supply of OC’s and vague endorsements of future happiness.
“Just get to it,” Arnold said.
“Already there,” Tommy said.
Arnold was leaning over him. He saw Tommy had accessed Ellen’s portal and the First Federal Bank. With a few clicks, the thousand dollars was deposited into Fleet’s “undesignated funds account.”
“Why’d you put it there?” Arnold asked.
“You have a better idea?”
“Yeah, put it into my budget.”
“Then what, Genius?” Tommy challenged.
“Then, I’ll get it to Natalie.”
“How? You’re going to cut her a check? The city pays her,” Tommy said.
Arnold hadn’t thought out the practical steps in getting the money to Natalie since he had been so focused on getting the money period. The reality was that Arnold didn’t have access to anything more than a credit card for departmental incidentals.
“I guess you’re right,” he admitted. “So then how are you going to get the money from undesignated funds to her?”
Tommy typed and clicked as he narrated the process. “Right now, the computer thinks I’m Ellen. I’m going into payroll as her. See? There’s the list of Fleet city employees. What’s your employee’s last name?”
“Got it, Natalie Martin, Fleet Police Department, Sergeant, Grade Six, Step Nine.”
“Yep, that’s her.”
“Did you tell her you were going to bump her up a grade or change her step?”
“No, but that might make sense now that her title’s changed,” Arnold said.
Arnold opened his desk drawer and pulled out yesterday’s pay stub.
Arnold directed, “There’s nothing on mine showing grade or step. Leave it.”
“What about title?” Tommy asked.
Arnold acted as if he needed to look. He remembered the thrill he got seeing “Chief” for the first time four months ago; and every two weeks since then, he still got a rise out of it.
“Um, yeah. You should change that.”
Arnold wanted her pay stub to reflect the title he had come up with. A bi-weekly reminder that he was in charge. The box was small and unable to accommodate “Senior Detective Sergeant First Class.”
He said, “Detective Sergeant.”
Tommy typed the revision and added the salary bump. Looking at the sum, he said, “She gets that much to be cop? Shit, I should go to the Academy.”
“She’s been on the force for fifteen years. You wouldn’t last fifteen minutes.”
Tommy gave Arnold a snarky look but kept to himself whatever he was thinking.
“I’m going to teach you how to do this so I don’t have to keep coming here,” Tommy said.
“Oh no you’re not. We’re in this together, and I’m not interested in learning the ins and outs of what you’re doing. You do your thing. I’ll do mine.” Arnold looked up at the clock on the wall: 10:50. “I’ll be right back. Pack up because we have to get out of here in the next few minutes.”
Arnold used his key and ID—twice—to get through the three locked doors that stood between his office and the evidence room. As he filtered through the confiscated drugs just back from the lab, he couldn’t find a bag with enough pills to cover next month’s payment to Natalie. All of the bags contained two dozen or fewer. For now, he’d have to deal with what he was offered. He pocketed the surplus from two small bags of OC’s, 40’s in one and 20’s in the other. Those are going to have to do, he thought. Predicting Tommy would moan about it, he opened a large evidence bag of marijuana and plucked a dozen fat flower buds out. He stuffed them into the front pocket of his windbreaker.
Tommy was waiting in the hall leading to the exit. When he saw Arnold he said, “All packed up. Let’s go.”
“You should have waited in my office. There aren’t any cameras in there.”
“Let’s just go. It’s all good.”
They got back into the car and Tommy started up the engine.
“I was only in the hall for, like, a minute,” Tommy said defensively. He slid the shifter into reverse, backed up, pulled the stick down two more gears, and stomped on the gas.
“We’re going to need a better system next month,” Arnold said as he thrust his hips high and pulled the two bags out of his pocket. “You’ll have to deal with these. It was the best I could do.”
Tommy held the pill bags up and inspected them under the light coming in from the streetlights and said, “Twenties? You’re making more work for me.”
Arnold offered, “Here, this is for you, too.” Arnold held out his closed fist. Tommy raised his open palm to receive the buds of pot.
“What the hell am I going to do with these?” Tommy asked.
“Sell them, smoke them, bake with them. I don’t care. I’ve given you plenty to work with and—How’d you say?—something ‘for your troubles.’”
“We’ll see, man. I don’t need the kind of troubles that this is pointing to,” Tommy said, dropping the bags into the center console under the dash along with the loose pot.
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