Welcome new readers in South Africa, Ireland, Canada, as well as all of you regular readers.
I’m glad you are here to continue the adventures of Fleet.
Arnold’s Monday was going to feel unusually long. He had his 9:30 roll call with Natalie, which she was ten minutes late to, and he had his monthly department heads’ meeting at 11:00, which he hated. Arnold was the least experienced department head in the room. Even the department head from IT had been there longer than him, and they turned over all the time.
This would be Arnold’s fifth time climbing the stairs at Fleet City Hall to the third-floor meeting room. So far and regardless of the season, Arnold was always profusely sweating by the time he reached the third floor. Last month was particularly bad with Arnold’s underarm sweat stains nearing his belt line. Over the last few weeks and inspired by the high and tight results claimed by a late-night infomercial hawking the Brazilian Butt Lift Program, Arnold restricted his bingeing by both frequency and volume. While he didn’t have a scale to check, his belt was tighter by one hole, close to two. However, irrespective of the loss of a few pounds, Arnold was still predicting heavy perspiration on this August day. Cynically, he couldn’t understand how Fleet was not in court being sued for handicapped violations. He mused that if only one wheelchair-bound person filed a lawsuit, then Fleet would have to put in an elevator. And if that happened, Arnold might arrive looking less wet and winded. Better access for people on wheels and less sweat for Arnold: A real win-win, he thought.
Arriving to City Hall with only few minutes to spare, Arnold stepped into the men’s room and did the best he could with the non-absorbent paper towels. They were the same brand as those he used as a child in grade school: worthless. He wondered why municipalities kept buying the scratchy towels since they were obviously not a superior product worthy of purchasing loyalties.
The room was filling up quickly with his peers carrying iced coffees and bottled water. Arnold was filling a small paper cup from the water cooler when the meeting was called to order. Arnold settled himself nearest the AC unit and tried to slow his still elevated heart rate.
The subject of the meeting was the next fiscal year and the steps each department would need to take to stay within the parameters of the current fiscal restraints. Not good news for Arnold, as he already knew he would have to make room for Natalie’s salary increase. He began to consider whom he might have to fire alongside the notion that he might have to continue relying on Tommy past July 1st of next year.
Knowing he wasn’t going to be solving anything while sitting there, he began to daydream about lunch. It had been a month to the day—he’d been counting—since Arnold had enjoyed Lotus Blossom Chinese. They had a weekday buffet that he loved. While he would admit that the buffet would be even better were customers allowed to take home any uneaten leftovers, he felt like he got his ten dollars’ worth—twelve, with tip—when he went. Arnold was seriously considering going as a treat to himself for having abstained for an entire month when he felt his cell phone vibrate. Pulling it out from his shirt pocket, he saw a phone number that he did not recognize though a text that he knew was Tommy’s:
I’m out. Customers not happy.
Arnold wasn’t sure how Tommy got his department-issued cell phone number. He didn’t remember giving it to him, and Tommy declined giving Arnold his. The two either spoke in person or over their headsets while playing for Heckler, never cell-to-cell. Arnold texted back:
I’ll get some more.
It took Arnold’s brain a minute for him to recall that the last time they had been at FPD together was on the very same night that Arnold had last had shrimp egg foo young: one full month. I guess that explains why he’s out of pills, he thought.
The department heads’ meeting wrapped up with the city manager’s terse dictate to keep within a level-funded budget. Arnold thought it better to go back at the station than to Lotus Blossom. Although he was initially angry about the change for his lunch plans, he decided to give thankful credit to the universe for reminding him, via the distraction of Tommy’s text, that this really was “the right time” to make a positive change in his life. I just dodged a two-pound bullet, he thought.
Back at the station, stewing over the pros and cons of going into the evidence room in the middle of the day, Arnold trained his ears on the police scanner. When he confirmed the patrol officers were on the road and Betty was out for lunch, he made his move.
Arnold got through the locked doors with his Fleet PD ID to find the windowless evidence room dimly lit with one overhead bulb. It was staged as if any amount of light would damage the confiscated items. Arnold searched quickly for what he needed to provide to Tommy to underwrite the $1,000.00 monthly deposit. Thankfully, Arnold found a large bag of pills that had recently come back from the lab. They were not OC’s, but they might do. Arnold pictured Tommy’s reaction to the non-conforming stash and kept looking.
Arnold’s rifling through the strewn-about boxes yielded another bag: OC’s. 40’s. Thirty of them. Enough to get through the next month and then some. He slipped the brown evidence bag into his pants pocket and made a mental note to swap out some near-matching breath mints for the OC’s as per Tommy’s suggestion and as soon as possible. As he was recapping the lid, Detective Joe Diaz came into the room.
Arnold was not prepared with any viable reason for his presence in the evidence room. He wasn’t sure what to say. “Joe, how are you?”
“Yeah, I’m dandy. What are you doing in here?”
“I was checking to see if everything was in order.”
Diaz’s look was one of suspicion. “Oh yeah?” he said. “Is it?”
“No. This room is a mess. Look at all these boxes. There is no rhyme or reason to any of it. We should be able to put our hands on exactly what we need when we need it,” Arnold lectured. “When the DA calls for evidence, we need to be able to produce it.”
Joe said, “It would have been better to have left the filing system the way it was. Never should have been changed. We had a perfectly fine system, and then your predecessor took it upon himself to color code the files. It was easier the old way.”
“I’m sure Chief Clayton had a reason for changing the system.”
“To preserve his legacy of being a micro-managing prick?” Joe asserted.
Arnold almost launched into a lecture to address Joe’s out-of-line, though accurate comment about the former chief, but then he remembered the wadded-up evidence bag in his pocket. A rush of adrenaline shot through his legs as he wondered whether the bulge from the bag of pills was visible. He resisted the urge to check whether it was protruding, figuring that under the wide ridge of his overhanging gut the bag was not noticeable.
“Chief Clayton is no longer in charge. I am. And if I hear you speaking in that way about me or any other superior officer, I will write you up for insubordination.”
“Chief, I wouldn’t call you a mirco-managing prick,” Joe said defensively.
“Good. But consider yourself warned,” Arnold said. He turned on his heels and left.
Arnold wondered if once he was out of earshot, Joe would have anything to add this time. The choice to steal from the evidence room in the middle of the day must have been what fueled Arnold’s commanding speech with Joe. Arnold proudly marched back to his office feeling very much in charge.
Arnold texted Tommy to let him know of the success:
All set. 10:00 PM.
Back at home, Arnold gamed over most of a large pepperoni pizza and a medium order of curly fries, which may sound excessive, but was less than the extra-large and large orders that had been his standard fare. Shooting with 96% accuracy, Arnold oozed gratitude for Tommy’s upgrade to his system. The other gamers’ accolades made Arnold feel good, so good, he didn’t care he was cheating.
At 9:55, Arnold moved to the living room to wait on the couch with Sweetie for Tommy to arrive, and when he did, he let himself in without knocking.
“Hey there,” Tommy said.
“‘Hey there?’ How about ‘Hey, sorry to text you at work’? And while we’re at it, how’d you get my cell phone number?” Arnold asked, stroking Sweetie’s oily fur from the center of her forehead to the tip of her tail.
“You gave it to me,” Tommy said.
“No, I didn’t.”
“You did,” Tommy stated without pause. “And if you didn’t, how’d I get it then?”
“That I cannot explain, but I don’t remember giving it to you,” Arnold said.
“Hey, I know, you were high when you did,” Tommy said, laughing.
“The only one here who does drugs is you,” Arnold said with an aggression that betrayed his real feelings about Tommy’s choice to use any drug.
Arnold rested his wide hand across on the cat’s back the vertebrae textured her thin skin. Making an effort not to disturb Sweetie, Arnold slowly leaned forward, picked the brown paper bag off the coffee table, and tossed it to Tommy.
“A present? For me?” he said in a childlike voice.
“There’s plenty in there.”
While Arnold was no fan of his newest role as procurement officer in the partnership to fund Detective Sergeant Martin’s salary, he deeply disliked the idea of Tommy using the OCs to get high. Pot was one thing—and even if Tommy wasn’t abusing the pills, it seemed way worse than smoking marijuana in Arnold’s basement and then blasting through all the salty snacks in his pantry.
Tommy pulled out the small zip bag, held it up and said, “Looks more than ample.” Tommy jammed them into the front pocket of his sweatshirt.
“There are thirty 40’s in there. That ought to keep your customers happy for a while. And I’m going to need the bag back.”
“Which one? The zip or the paper one?”
“Come to think of it, both of them.” Arnold gingerly lifted the cat and placed her down smack in the center of a throw pillow. He heaved himself up trying not to shake the couch and scare Sweetie into relocating. As he stood, he saw the cat hadn’t moved and seemed content to stay on the pillow. Arnold lumbered into the kitchen and pulled open a shallow drawer. He removed a small zip bag, held it up to Tommy who had followed behind, and said, “Here, put them in this.”
Tommy poured the pills into the new bag and then stuffed that back into the front pocket of his hoodie. He handed over the empty zip bag and the brown evidence bag.
“Are we going over now to make the transfer?” Tommy asked. “The money’s in the bank.”
“No. Now that you’re my nephew, you can swing by during regular hours.” Arnold leaned back and rested against the kitchen counter.
Tommy narrowed his eyes at Arnold and said, “You know, I can’t be at your beck and call all the time.”
“Nor can I be at yours,” Arnold said. “How’s this? You and I will agree that in the even months, you come when it works for me and in the odd months, when it works for you. You like that?”
“Compromise is good.”
“So, tomorrow, you’ll come in at 12:30. My secretary leaves at noon for her lunch hour.”
“Not sure I’ll have wheels,” Tommy said, holding up his left hand, seemingly distracted by something captivating under his fingernails.
“I don’t care how you get there. Be at the station at 12:30,” Arnold said, waited a moment and added, “Not for nothing, but with the money you’re earning on our arrangement, you could probably buy a car, Tommy. You’re 24 years old.”
“Twenty-five in two weeks,” Tommy added.
For months, Arnold had been ruminating on what he could get him to celebrate his quarter century. Tommy’s birthday was one of the very few dates of personal importance he had memorized.
“Well, then,” Arnold said in the hopes that his coming suggestion would be welcomed. “We’ll have to celebrate.”
“Seriously, dude? How?”
“I could do ribs. But don’t have the waiters coming over to the table and singing me ‘Happy Birthday.’ I hate that.”
Unlike Tommy, Arnold loved when he saw restaurant wait staff congregate around an unsuspecting dinner and morph into an impromptu chorus. To him, it showed the extra step some families would take to make their loved one feel extra special. Ruth had done it for him on the last birthday she shared with Arnold.
Though he didn’t believe it, he said, “Yeah, it’s embarrassing. I wouldn’t think of it.”
“Good,” Tommy said. “I’ll see you then, tomorrow, 12:30.”
“Yep,” Arnold said, just then realizing Tommy wasn’t staying over. He asked anyhow, “You feel like a little gaming?”
“Nah, I played all day. Got to level six.”
“For real? How?”
“I programmed another update. I don’t even have to play one through five anymore.”
Arnold was envious; he didn’t like level five. “That’s great. Good for you.”
“I’ll bump your system up if you’d like,” Tommy offered.
“Sure, whenever. I kind of like level four.”
“Big surprise,” Tommy said heading for the door. “See ya.”
Arnold sat at the kitchen table and had the last piece of pizza, a consolation in recognition of the lonely remainder of his night. When he returned to his bedroom, the screen was paused on level four on an image of a nearly naked woman, tied to a bed, her legs spread. Arnold liked to think of this not as a scene of violence but rather one of invitation. He muted this part because he didn’t like listening to the woman’s pleas which he knew spoke the absence of her consent.
Natalie had her shredder and clear plastic bag ready for her nine o’clock visit to the Marchands. She rang the doorbell as Olympia wasn’t waiting as before.
Olympia looked well-rested and comfortable aloft on a fresh pair of red Jimmy Choos when she opened the door. “Come in, Natalie,” she said.
Natalie followed her into the kitchen. The file was on the table. Lily was in an over-sized high chair. She had food on her face; it looked like yogurt, pink.
“Oh, good morning, you must be Lily.”
Olympia said, “This nice lady is visiting us for a few minutes this morning.”
Lily looked up but past Natalie to her mother. Olympia’s words to Lily were louder than what seemed necessary. The staccato annunciation came across with a tone of anger. Natalie figured this was the same volume and style she used when barking commands to her non-English-speaking maid or gardener.
Olympia turned to Natalie and in a near whisper said, “She understands what she sees and hears but she has challenges with her expressive language.”
Natalie looked around the kitchen: thousands of dollars’ worth of copper pots and pans hung from a baker’s rack, the eight-burner gas Viking stove comparable to the size of a compact car, two marble sinks, a stocked wine refrigerator. The counters were unlike any stone that Natalie had ever seen before.
Olympia must have noticed Natalie’s curiosity: she asked, “You’ve not seen onyx used in countertops before?” Natalie shook her head. Olympia explained, “Russ pushed for marble but everybody does marble, too mundane, you know, a bit too pedestrian for the Marchands. The onyx was close to three times the cost. But why not? I saw it as a treat for me, even though I rarely cook. When Marta put a scratch in it, I almost fired her. But my Lily loves her, so Marta got to stay.”
Natalie thought of her laminate countertop. She wondered what adjectives Olympia would use to describe that. “Mundane” and “pedestrian” would likely be too generous. Remembering that Natalie wasn’t there for a home décor chat, she decided to get down to business.
She asked, “How’d it go?”
“Terrific,” Olympia said, drawing out the first syllable.
“May I see?”
“Sure thing. Have a seat. Take a look.”
Natalie struggled a bit with the kitchen chair and its ridiculous heft. The plush carpet underneath the four chair legs didn’t allow Natalie to slide the chair out. Wondering just how foolish she looked wrestling with the chair, Natalie gave up and squeezed her thin frame between the edge of the table and the back of the chair. Olympia centered the file in front of Natalie and smiled. Natalie wondered whether Olympia’s rewrite would look even more convincing than Henry’s. Natalie opened the file. It only took a moment for her to discern that Olympia had done nothing. Not one change was made.
“Where’s what you did? Where are your alterations?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Olympia said.
“I can’t give you any more time. I have to get this back—before anyone notices it’s missing. I can wait, for an hour or so. Could you get it done in an hour?” Natalie asked, with a tone more desperate than she wanted to use.
“No. I had 24. An additional one makes no difference. I’m not changing it.”
“Because I’m not. I’ve not done anything wrong.” Olympia reached over to Lily with a linen napkin. She wiped the child’s face clean.
“That might be true. This, however, makes it look like something very wrong happened.”
“So it does. I can sleep at night knowing my choices were my own. My family is intact and happy. Frankly, I don’t care what the Fleet Police Department seems to think about me or what they think happens in my own home. I’ve made my decisions, and I’ll stand by them.”
“Olympia, the file alleges criminal acts: perpetrated by your husband; victimizing your daughter.”
“Russ is a good man and Alissa is fine. He provides for our family. He’s been nothing but a model father to Lily.” Olympia paused and looked around her palatial kitchen. She asked, rhetorically, “Do you see where I live? Do you think I don’t have an appreciation for what he has given me?”
“Olympia?” Natalie said with dismay.
“People get married for different reasons. They also stay together for different reasons. I don’t pass judgment on others’ marriages. I expect the same courtesy.”
“You’ve put me in a tough position, Olympia.”
“Because I’m an officer of the law and have information about what appears to be a past crime.”
“You don’t have a victim, do you?”
Natalie looked at Lily and back to Olympia. Natalie could feel the look of shock she was conveying.
“Oh, her? She hasn’t a clue,” Olympia said with confidence.
A chill ran through Natalie. Goosebumps appeared on her forearms.
Natalie said, “What about Alissa?”
“What about her? She’s a big girl now and certainly not foolish enough to bring that sort of attention to our family—or to herself. Russ hardly pays her any attention, so neither do I.”
Natalie felt a wave of nausea. She shook her head. “I’ll be going, then.”
She stood and with the adrenaline coming on, she pushed the heavy painted oak chair back with the backs of her legs. Natalie pulled one strap of her oversized bag off of her left shoulder, reached for the file with her right hand, and placed it inside—next to the superfluous shredder.
As Natalie made her way down the fieldstone walk, Olympia called after her. “Thanks for stopping by. It’s always a pleasure to get to chat with Fleet’s finest.”
Natalie got into her car, engaged the clutch, and looked to see the front door closing. She waited until she was well away from the white mansion with the red door before calling Charlie.
“Nat? Why are you calling me at my desk?”
“Did I? I didn’t even notice.”
“What’s going on? Are you all right?” he asked.
“No. I’m not.”
“I wanted to hear your voice.”
“Nat? What’s happening?”
Natalie’s right hand covered her forehead. Her eyes were closed, her chin pointed downwards. She exhaled. “I just wanted to hear your voice, Charlie.”
“You want to meet up for lunch? I have time today,” he offered.
“I can’t. I’ll see you at home?”
“Sure, I’ll pick something up so we don’t have to cook. Sound good?”
“Yeah. See you at home,” Natalie said.
“I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Natalie wanted to get the OM file as far away from her as possible. The presence of it made her feel dirty. She ran over her conversation with Olympia. Nothing Olympia said confirmed—or denied—the allegation of incest but everything pointed to it. Believable explanations could be made for individual pieces of the story; but held up together the leap of faith was too far, especially in light of Olympia’s cavalier attitude regarding Lily’s capacity to comprehend her parentage and Alissa’s shame in exposing hers.
Back at Fleet PD, Natalie saw Arnold’s Crown Vic in the west parking lot. She was stuck with the file until he was away from his office. She would stay late if she had to, though that was not her first choice. Better to offload it today, she thought. Betty would be gone at lunchtime; perhaps, Arnold would be stepping out as well.
At a quarter to one, Natalie called Arnold at his desk. No answer. She reached under hers and pulled the OM manila file out of her bag. She hid it inside a red open case file. Cutting her way diagonally across the station, she whisked into Betty’s open office and took a quick hard right into Arnold’s. She clearly startled them both.
“Oh, sorry,” she said.
A young man was hunched over a laptop which was tethered to Arnold’s desktop computer. He looked over his shoulder at Natalie with a snap of his neck. Arnold, standing in the center of his U-shaped desk, had the same look of surprise and embarrassment that accompanied one caught using a public bathroom stall and having mistakenly left it unlocked.
The what’s-going-on stalemate grew more uncomfortable with every silent second that ticked by, all three frozen in place. Natalie could see activity on the laptop and the desktop screens. They were scrolling at the same rate. Arnold saw her looking, taking in the scene.
“Natalie, this young man is my nephew. He’s fixing my computer.”
“Oh, hello, my name’s Natalie Martin,” she called past Arnold’s protective stance.
Tommy stood up, turned, and rested his left knee on the seat of Arnold’s chair, waved limply with his right hand, and said, “Hey.”
“Arnold, I didn’t know you had a nephew. Aren’t you an only child?”
Arnold stepped around the edge of his desk toward Natalie. He stepped to his right, seemingly, to obscure her view of Tommy, who had returned to his task. Arnold motioned toward the door. Natalie stepped out. Arnold pulled his office door shut.
“I am an only child, but he is my nephew, so to speak. His mother and I have known each other since we were children. Our parents were good friends. So, she’s like a sister to me and, therefore, he’s like a nephew to me.”
“And he’s a computer repairman?”
“He knows what he’s doing,” Arnold said.
“You know, Jenny in IT also knows what she’s doing.”
“I called over there. She was out.”
Natalie felt like she had to say something: “Arnold, I know you probably have no qualms about your nephew fixing your computer. I hate to wait for IT, too, believe me. But it could potentially look bad having someone from outside the department, and not even a city employee, fixing your computer.”
“What are you saying?”
Natalie thought what she was saying was pretty clear.
She took another swipe: “I think it is not a good idea for your nephew to have access to our system regardless of your trust in him or your impatience with IT. Not a good move, Arnold.”
By this time, her shock and righteousness had made her forget about the OM file which rested in the crook of her left elbow.
“Listen here, Natalie. I know him. He’s not poking around on our system. He’s fixing something that was slowing down my computer.” Arnold’s description showed his ignorance of how computers worked. He added, she thought in an attempt to convince her of the implausible, “I’m not even sure he’d know how to poke around in our system.”
She challenged his faulty logic by saying, “That makes no sense, Arnold. Your nephew is savvy enough to diagnose and repair the internal processor but not sophisticated enough to access the department’s first tier of information from the police chief’s computer using your password? Your password is what gets you into all the FPD files.”
At her own mention of the word, files, she felt her stomach drop. She shifted the red file to her right hand and held it against the outside of her right thigh—as far from Arnold’s reach as possible.
“It’s fine,” Arnold said tersely. “What do you need?”
“I wanted to discuss a case with you.”
“Fine, I’ll call you when I have time to do that,” Arnold said.
Natalie nodded her head and turned on her heels. She found herself back at her desk, pulse through the roof. Natalie couldn’t parse out if her physical reaction was based on her concern over potentially-compromised computer security or her worry about the now-long-absent OM file.
Charlie had been thinking about Natalie all day. His level of attention to his work was questioned when Elaine was midway through updating him on the Nealy case.
“Sorry, I’ve got something else on my mind,” he said.
“I can come back later today, or tomorrow, but I don’t think we should delay much longer,” Elaine said.
“No, let’s discuss it now.”
“I need you to pay attention to what I’m going to say. So, before I start, do you want to talk about what’s distracting you?”
“I already have a therapist,” Charlie said with a humorous tone. It was part self-mocking, part confession.
“I’m not qualified to shrink heads. I was only offering as a friend,” she said.
Elaine was as close to a friend as Charlie had at work. He felt no pressure to compete against her and no anxiety in her being the technical expert. They held different roles, and he was the lawyer after all.
“Nat is having a hard time at work. I think.”
“You’re not sure?”
“No, I don’t know what’s going on with her. She called me this morning and was obviously upset. She didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t want to press the issue. So now I have all day to concoct various scenarios about what was bothering her. I bet we won’t even talk until we’re both home.”
“She’s a headstrong woman, right?”
“She certainly is.”
“Too strong to ask for help?”
“Sometimes. But worse is that, I think she’s too proud to ask for help. Being as smart as she is, she usually likes to solve her issues on her own before inviting commentary. I respect that. But it’s hard sometimes to know. There’s a lot going on between her ears which she keeps to herself.”
“Still waters run deep.”
“One of her favorite quotes,” Charlie said, smiling.
“So, what can you do for her? In the short term?” Elaine asked.
“I’m picking up dinner so we don’t have to cook.”
“Perfect. What will you be having?”
“As much as I’d like to get the Alfredo from Giovanni’s,” Charlie didn’t tell Elaine why, “I think I’ll pick up sushi.”
“Eww, raw fish. Gross. Plus, you should be careful eating that. My cousin was told by her obstetrician to stop eating sushi. Did you know you can get toxoplasmosis from it?”
“Yeah, not a real concern for us nowadays,” Charlie said wishing he hadn’t. Less about his private life, more about work, he thought. He said, “Thanks for the ear, but enough about me. Where are we with Nealy?”
Elaine drew a deep breath and began. “You remember how I met with his parents last month? They gave me a list of his childhood friends and people they thought he might have been working with.” Charlie nodded. “They did that not because they think one of those people will exonerate their son but because they think their son did what he is accused of. They don’t want his friends not being held responsible for their participation in the crime. Mr. and Mrs. Nealy feel doubly bad about the crime being computer-based because they underwrote his college education in—Can you guess?—computer science. His poor mother was especially upset, talking about the shame he brought upon the family name. She said she’s embarrassed to show her face around Ledbury because everyone knows she’s Brian’s mother.”
“Yep, small towns are like that. Nat and I try to keep a low profile in Ledbury. For some reason, it feels like folks there are extraordinarily interested in other people’s business.”
“So, I took the long list of names his parents provided to me and ticked through, person by person. No one stood out, not even a little.” Elaine saw Charlie’s face turn to a frustrated scowl. “Wait, don’t get all into a twist. I’ve been keeping tabs on Mr. Nealy’s visitors at the jail. A week and a half ago, he was visited by one of the people the Nealys named. A 24-year-old Ledbury resident named Thomas Whitworth.”
“What turned up on him?”
“Initially, not a lot. They grew up on the same street. Acorn Lane. Thomas still lives there with his parents. He finished at Ledbury High with a decent GPA. Could have gone to a four-year college, but instead he’s been taking sporadic classes at Stanfield Community. Can you guess in what?” she asked.
“Computer science,” Elaine almost sang the words.
“Not your garden-variety, get-to-know-your-word-processor kind of classes.” Elaine flipped a few pages in her steno notepad and read, “Introduction to Operating Systems, Analysis of Algorithms, Computer Architecture, and Parallel Programming. And unlike the solid B-student he was at Ledbury High, he’s aced them all.”
“How’d you get all this information?” Charlie asked.
“I have my sources.”
Charlie tipped his head and narrowed his eyes in response. Instead of probing for more information, he said, “This is great, Elaine. This is more than we’ve had.”
“Don’t get too excited. Nealy and Whitworth are connected but not necessarily by criminal conspiracy. Just because they were together a couple of weeks back, doesn’t mean they were together months ago when the warkitting was happening.”
“I know, I know, you’re right. What about a car?”
“No record with the DMV on car registration for him. He’s got a license. No history of driving infractions.”
“How about bank accounts?”
“I called my contacts at the local banks. He’s got an account at Hampshire S&L in Fleet. Small balance, regular deposits,” she said.
“Direct deposit? Who does he work for?”
“I didn’t say ‘direct deposit.’ Cash deposits. No record of employment—at least not the over-the-table type.”
“If you’re getting paid in cash, why would you be putting the money in the bank? Why wouldn’t you keep it on you?” Charlie mused.
“Some people would rather not use cash,” Elaine asserted. “When everyone is using debit cards, you run the risk of sticking out if all you use is cash. It could be he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself.”
“Can you get some details from the bank on how he’s spending his money?” Charlie asked.
“Listen, I was lucky to get what I did from my contact there. The only thing she’s permitted to disclose is whether the bank has had to report his activity to the IRS. That only happens when there’s a lump sum cash deposit of ten grand or more. My contact was clear: Thomas Whitworth has not been reported to the IRS. She didn’t have to tell me anything at all, though I was happy that she did. There’s no way I’m going to risk my good karma with her and ask for his most recent bank statement. We do live in a free country, Charlie. We have a right to privacy in our banking.”
“Spare me the criminal defense attorney talk. Stupid Constitutional rights,” Charlie said.
Elaine laughed at Charlie’s tongue-in-cheek speech.
She said, “So what we have are two people who shared a neighborhood growing up, both skilled in computers who happened to be chatting at the jail recently. Thomas’s small cash deposits don’t correlate with the money that was stolen with Nealy’s warkitting—either in amount or by timing. As I was told, the deposits are ‘small,’ and Nealy was in jail before Thomas opened his account.”
Thinking outside the box, Charlie asked, “Do you have time to stake him out?”
“Of course. I love stakeouts.”
“I’ve never been on one,” Charlie said with an overdone pout.
“Oh my gosh, how is that possible? Charlie Burke, you are hereby invited to an official stakeout. You will need to bring copious amounts of coffee, preferably in a Thermos. I also insist on having cold Chinese noodles on hand at all times. If you can provide the coffee and noodles, I’ll bring the binoculars and the dark sunglasses.”
Charlie smiled. “I should stay in the office. Sorry. If the trail gets particularly hot, then I’d like to tag along. But I can’t justify leaving my supervisees to hang out with you in your car drinking, what would surely be, lukewarm coffee and squinting through spy gear. As much as I appreciate the invitation, I’ve got to pass, for now at least.”
“You’re missing out. It is an exercise in controlled boredom. The noodles are the only saving grace of the whole endeavor. I’ll get on it, and let you know when I find anything.”
“Thanks, Elaine. Good luck.”
On the way out the door, Elaine turned over her shoulder and said, “You, too. You might want to get a bottle of sake to go with dinner.” Charlie smiled and nodded.
Lifting the takeout bag carefully, so as not to tip it perpendicular to the ground causing the sushi to slide in its container, Charlie reached back in for the chilled sake sweating through the paper bag. Natalie was home. She’d opened all the windows. A late afternoon breeze made the light sheer curtains wave.
“Down here,” she called from their unfinished basement.
Charlie pulled the sake out of the bag. He jammed it into the freezer. He side-stepped down the narrow set of thin stairs. Natalie was on the floor, surrounded by open shoeboxes and pocket-sized spiral notebooks.
“What are you doing?” he asked. Natalie looked up at him. Her eyes were red. Had she been crying?
She said, “I lied to you, Charlie. When we moved to this house, I told you these boxes had mementos from my childhood. You probably thought they were filled with photos and concert ticket stubs and love notes. But that’s not what’s in these. These boxes are all filled with my notebooks—notebooks I’ve been keeping since I was eleven.”
Natalie lifted a handful of notebooks from a Nike shoe box and held them up for Charlie to see. Charlie knew his wife well enough to see that her normally “still waters” were churning and frothy. He nodded a little, signaling her to go on.
She did: “I think I began writing down what I saw to keep myself busy doing something I thought would be helpful. For instance, that time when I saw that someone had pushed over the sign for the playground and I recorded it to remind myself to tell my dad so we could fix it. But as I got older, I began to write things down that were less about helping and more about other’s wrongdoing. Like the time I watched my brothers get into an argument and when they went to my parents to act as the final arbiters, I was able to provide essential information for them to dole out the proper punishment. I learned that there was power in words and in having ‘a record.’ As I read through these, it’s like I’m right back there, writing down my observations, feeling confident that what I wrote down was right. Not only accurate, but right. You know: true.
“My idea to keep a notebook on Arnold wasn’t some brilliant plan I devised two months ago. Up until four years ago, I’d always kept my own notebooks. You know why I stopped?”
Natalie reached over to the box labeled “2008-2009.” She pulled out six notebooks and held them up. Charlie stepped off the last step onto the concrete floor. He approached her slowly. He squatted down on the outer perimeter of the dozens of notebooks pulled from different shoe boxes which encircled her.
She said, “These are filled with just some of Arnold’s missteps as a sergeant. I put in what I saw and even added what others said they saw. My antenna was up when it came to him. You know why of course?”
“Because you wanted to make sure Daniel promoted you to lieutenant, not him.”
Natalie nodded her head and tipped her smug chin to the right.
“Well, none of it mattered back in 2010. Daniel knew I had the goods on Arnold, and didn’t even ask. Instead, he gave Arnold the lieutenant position. It was down to just me and Arnold, and Daniel picked him—over me. You probably didn’t realize how angry I was at the time. I did my best to channel it into working longer and harder to avoid history repeating itself, because my recordkeeping didn’t matter. That man—as pathetic and as incompetent as he is—was given a goddamn golden ticket by being promoted over me to lieutenant. Four years ago, I was the qualified one, not him.
“But what then happened? Six months ago—without vetting, without interviewing, without having to pass even a basic fitness test—the city council handed him four stars and the corner office. You don’t know this, Charlie, but I almost quit. I was on the edge of hanging it up. But, somehow, I couldn’t. I worked too hard to get almost where I wanted to be. Now, I have to stay, take my notes, and see how this ends.”
“Natalie, this doesn’t sound like you—hyped up and vengeful.”
She smirked at him, then her expression changed.
“But here’s the confounding piece: who am I to think that what I perceive and what I understand are both accurate and true? My definition of truth comes through the filter of my biases. That’s what we’re all saddled with: our own perceptions and our need to think we are right. We have this collective egotistical notion that if something is seen and understood, it must be true. But there is no truth in these notebooks. There’s only my thinking I saw it correctly and then writing down the so-called ‘facts’ as I saw them.
“If I know this is how perceptions work, and I believe myself to be a decent person, what does that say about the perceptions of those people with self-serving agendas or with malevolent hearts?
Charlie wasn’t given a chance to answer.
She continued, “And who among us are charged with recording their perceptions? Cops. And can you guess who among us have agendas and malevolence? Right again: cops.”
“Do you realize the amount of power the police have? I’m not talking about the power to arrest or shoot someone. I’m talking about the power the police have to make the ‘official record.’ Police reports are filled with simple, and often wrong, perceptions.”
“And Charlie, you know it. As a prosecutor, you’re complicit. You, like every other prosecutor, have the same first question of every cop you put in the stand. You ask whether I recorded my observations ‘soon after’ having made them. We all seem to think if you just saw something, you must have seen it correctly. But that’s crazy. Misperceptions happen at the precise moment of observation. Just because I wrote it down ‘soon after’ doesn’t negate the mistake. But it’s no secret that no one likes to be wrong, especially not a cop and especially not on the stand.”
Natalie shook her head in disgust.
“So, I’m back to keeping a record. Arnold is up to no good. I am uniquely positioned to discover what he is up to. It might take some time, but I’ve been waiting for four years already. What’s a little more effort to get what I have patiently earned and for Arnold to get what he so rightfully deserves?”
Natalie drew a deep breath. She picked up a notebook and flipped to the inside cover. Charlie watched her drop it into a shoe box. She repeated this for the remaining dozens of notebooks. She then restacked the shoeboxes by date on the metal shelf against the back wall, to the right of the water heater.
As she got closer to Charlie, he hoped she would wrap her arms around him. Instead, she walked past and said, “I’m not in the mood for Alfredo. I hope you brought home something else.”