Short Stories 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Dec122012

Short Stories by John A. Bray and Randall Mawer

 

THE CAPTAIN’S MAN

 By John A. Bray

 

My promotion from patrolman to sergeant in the New York City Police Department had come at an inauspicious time in my career. Most cops would have seen that promotion and assignment to the Fifth Precinct as beneficence from the Fates in those days. Given its locale, many perceived the Fifth as having certain hidden perquisites. Just then, however, I had targeted my focus elsewhere. I reported to the captain as soon as I arrived and stood at attention on the worn carpet of his office.

“What do you want?” he said without looking up from the papers on his cluttered desk.

 “I need to request tour assignments that don’t conflict with my night classes in law school, Captain.”

“Aw, what did they send me now?” he explained pleasantly. “Just what I need around here, students.”

“I have a written order from the Chief Inspector that authorizes steady tours,” I blurted.

“Steady tours? You’ll work the regular rotation same as everybody else, when a four-to-midnight conflicts with school hours you do a day tour. That’s all you get.”

“Yes sir,” my only answer, before he changed his mind. I did an about face and exited, happy to have gotten that much.

Awkward at first, and thrust into an unfamiliar role, I discovered that the precinct sergeants formed a secret cabal to which I had no entree. To add to my excitement, the roll-call clerk who prepared the duty rosters made sure I received every assignment that did not involve patrol in the Fifth Precinct. The secret cabal had tentacles everywhere. Only when there weren’t enough sergeants to man the supervisory zones in the Fifth, did I get a patrol assignment within my own command. Most other times I was assigned to adjoining precincts as a fill-in, or the City Hall protective detail. My colleagues preferred me anywhere but the sergeant’s car in the precinct, and Bill Riordan reigned as senior sergeant.

Tall and heavily built, Bill returned to the Fifth Precinct stationhouse at the change of tours about four o’clock on a late autumn afternoon. “Hey, John,” he shouted. His exuberance warmed the heart.

“Hey yourself, Bill, how’s it going?” I cheered in reply.

Bill had finished his day tour from eight to four as a replacement in a neighboring precinct. An old warrior in many senses of the word, a veteran of European combat in the Army during WW II, as well as a seasoned cop of long service, his tenure as sergeant spanned several years. He wore the veneer of cynicism as befit street-hardened men inured by constant patrol in crime-ridden precincts. Bill functioned as unofficial liaison between the precinct sergeants and the commanding officer: the Captain’s man. My vivid memory of his bizarre escapade on that fall day in 1968 still resonates.

In the cramped, dingy sergeants’ locker room, I changed into uniform and prepared to start the four-to-midnight tour.

The stationhouse, an ancient dilapidated building, featured stairways that creaked when trod upon and floors that sloped at odd angles. The rats, our co-tenants, crept around like furtive, sinister shadows. The decades-old specter of human misery clung to the grimy, paint-peeled walls. A creation of nineteenth-century architecture located on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side sandwiched between two other bedraggled buildings, its provenance matched its surroundings. Chinatown encircled it on the south side of Canal Street, Little Italy and its run-down tenements teemed with people on the north. The large, filigreed iron, green-glassed sconces that bracketed the wooden doorway on the exterior wall evoked an aura of a musty bygone age.

Bill strode into the second floor locker room that day showing the effects of a tour spent drinking. He burst through the door, slammed it behind him, and made no effort to conceal his buoyant, playful mood. He shed his gun belt, hung it over the open door of his locker, slumped down on the bare mattress of the antique metal bunk, and cradled his head with his hands as he lazed back against its steel pipe head-frame.  

“This job stinks, did you know that, John?” he said with a mischievous glint in his eye.   

“Yeah, Bill, it sure does,” I said, as I buckled on my own gun belt.  

“Hey, John,” Bill said, while he stared up at a bare bulb that protruded from the ceiling above the bunk.  

“Yeah, Bill?”

“John, do me a favor. Reach over there by my locker and hand me my gun.”

“Sure, Bill.”

I entered into the spirit of the foolishness with no inkling of what came next. I released the revolver from its holster, turned it butt first and handed it to him. Back at my locker I buttoned my uniform jacket. With peripheral vision I saw him point the weapon at the ceiling, the hammer cocked. He sighted down the barrel arms extended, hands entwined, finger on the trigger. His left eye shut, his right eye aimed in the classic attitude of someone fixed on a target.

The first shot caught me completely off guard. My ears rang with the sound reverberating in the enclosed space. I snapped around to see the wisps of powdered plaster that floated in the air from the impact of the bullet that had pierced the antiquated, molded tin leaf ceiling above his head.  

“Ah beans, missed the sucker,” Bill snarled.

He had fired at the light bulb. I snatched up my cap and nightstick determined to put distance between that closed-in locker room and me. As I reached for the doorknob, Bill had recocked his gun. The second discharge, with the second puff of powdery plaster lent additional haste to my departure.  

“Aw nuts,” Bill exclaimed, “missed again.”

I had forgotten the episode until several days later at the end of a day tour, when I returned from patrol, the desk lieutenant handed me a notice to see the Captain. I knocked on his office door.

“Come in.” A growl from behind the closed door ushered me in.

“Yes, Captain. You wanted to see me?”

“Somebody told me there were shots fired from the sergeants’ locker room a few days ago. You know anything about it?”

“No, I don’t, Cap.”  I tried to keep a straight face.

“You were the only one assigned to the four-to-twelve that day. Who do you think did it?” he asked. “I may have to reconsider my permission for you to switch tours for school. You know I’m going to find out, sooner or later.”

“Yes Captain, I understand.”

“Now, get out of here.” Captain Lotz had a succinct turn of phrase.

Certain that it wouldn’t take much for him to knock me out of any special tours; I also knew that in the unlikely event someone recovered ballistics evidence, it would not match my weapon.

A few days after my brusque interview with Captain Lotz, I arrived at the station house to begin my tour. I pushed through the front door, there stood Bill beside the desk officer’s station, his elbows on the corner of the chipped mahogany structure, his arms folded, propped on the wooden surface. His uniform cap, set back at an angle from his forehead, exposed a shock of prematurely white hair; an expansive Cheshire Cat grin creased his florid, spider-veined features.

“Hey, John, come over here for a minute, I got to tell you a story. This’ll kill you.”

“What’s up, Bill?”

“The other day Captain Lotz called me in to his office. He said that a detective from the squad upstairs came to him with two spent rounds. He told the Captain that he was by his locker in the detectives’ room, a floor above ours, when two shots came through the floor near where he stood. Scared the pants off of him,” Bill could scarcely contain his mirth as he depicted the detective’s plaintive narration to the captain.  

“The detective assured him they came from the sergeants’ locker room. The Skipper wanted me to nose out the culprit.”

“So what did you do?” Apprehension started to twist my insides.

Hilarity overcame him as he recounted his conversation with the commanding officer.

“The Captain said, ‘look at these, Bill.’ He showed me the spent rounds and repeated the detective’s story. Then he told me, ‘I know who did this, too.’  I said, ‘No kiddin’, Skipper, who do you think?’ He mentioned a name. I won’t tell you who he thought.”

“And what happened next?” I asked.

Bill chuckled. He relished his role as sly conspirator.

“I told him, ‘no Cap, I did it.’ Then he said, ‘for the love of Mike, Bill, what’ll I do now?’ and I said, ‘listen Skipper, prepare a Crime Report and refer it to the detectives, they’ll never, ever solve it.’”

 

John A. Bray is  the author of three novels THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY MADIGAN, THE CONFIDENTIAL and CODE NAME: CALEB, as well as several short stories both in print and e-format. CODE NAME: CALEB has recently been published in paperback by Avignon Press and is reviewed in this issue of Lost Coast Review.

 

Excerpts from Is Roy Home? a forthcoming novel by Randall Mawer

 

It did not occur to Arthur Shell to feel guilty about enjoying his stay with his Aunt Lillian while his mother was in the hospital. He visited his mother often. She seemed to be getting better after her operation, whatever it was for—nobody told him what. And he tried very hard not to worry his father, who, between working and going to the hospital, didn’t see Arthur very much anyway.

None of this seemed to have anything to do with his staying in Tipton, except that it was the reason for his new life, a life which Arthur had not wished for and could not, then, be blamed for.

He liked his new school, where nobody knew him and so didn’t bother him, liked his breakfasts and suppers, the evenings with his aunt, who didn’t have much to say and who never tried to have the kind of “little talks” his mother and especially his father sometimes insisted on having. And most of all, Arthur liked the town, which was like the school on a much larger scale. He could walk through it without being recognized. Fellow pedestrians and occasional porch sitters didn’t know him at all, much less the legend he was in his home town. Tipton was so big, in fact, that Arthur seldom had to walk the same route too often, which meant that almost no one saw him twice.

On one of these early evening walks, something strange happened. A man coming home from work, a businessman in a suit and tie, met Arthur on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building where he, the businessman, lived. “Hello, young fellow,” said the man politely.

“Good evening, sir,” Arthur said, and passed on, leaving the businessman smiling.

Strange as this encounter was, stranger still was the fact that Arthur thought about it afterwards. Why did I do that? he wondered. I never talk to my father like that, or to my mother—never mind to a stranger. And here Arthur frowned, worried about his mother there in the hospital. Could I speak that way to Aunt Lillian, Aunt Lillian who is being really … nice to me? He consciously articulated this thought in his mind.

And then he met an old woman walking her dog, a big, unkempt brute of a dog. “Good evening, ma’am,” said Arthur. And then, “Hello, puppy.”

“Why hello there, young man,” said the old woman. “Do I know you?”

“No, ma’am, I don’t think so. I’m new in town.”

Here the dog, grinning an ugly grin, offered his head to be patted. Arthur obliged.

***

Arthur Shell was talking to the old woman with the dog.

“My name is Mrs. Tuttle,” said the woman. “And this is Clarence. He’s named for my late husband. I think he would have liked it, the other Clarence I mean.”

Arthur’s laugh creaked in his throat. Arthur didn’t laugh much.

Mrs. Tuttle smiled her approval of the boy’s reaction. “And your name is?”

Arthur identified himself.

“Clarence wears me out, he needs so much walking.”

Arthur spoke without thinking. “I could walk him for you.”

“Could you?” The old woman thought about that while Clarence, ears cocked, looked back and forth between the two humans. “Could you indeed? I would pay you of course.”

“No, that’s all right.”

“Would a dollar a day be enough?” Mrs. Tuttle was used to getting her own way, except with Clarence, of course, whom she loved.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Every day, right after school? Do you go to East, just over here?” She had named Arthur’s new, temporary school.

‘Yes, ma’am.”

“Same time on weekends? If you can’t make it any day, just call me, all right? I’ll give you my telephone number.”

They were walking now, along the way Mrs. Tuttle had been going.

“The thing is,” Arthur said, “I don’t know how long I’ll be here … here in Tipton,” and he told her about his mother, the hospital, his aunt, his new school.

Mrs. Tuttle was thoughtful. “Yes, it would be too bad to get Clarence used to someone he liked and then, then for him to lose you. He likes you already.” She handed the dog’s leash to Arthur.

Arthur had never had a dog, never really known one well, except Frog Mott’s Handy, who was nice to Arthur because Arthur was Frog’s friend. Still, he could tell from the dog’s quick over-the-shoulder glance that Mrs. Tuttle was right. Clarence made a show of trying to pull loose, then relaxed and let the leash go slack when Arthur tugged back.

“What I could do,” said Arthur, surprising himself for perhaps the dozenth time that afternoon, “if I have to go back home, is ask around at school. Somebody else should be able to walk him.”

“Do you think you could find someone trustworthy?”

“Yes, ma’am, I think so.” I’m telling the truth, Arthur thought. “A dollar is good pay.”

“For an hour’s walk? Maybe throw a ball for him in the park? I’m really not fit for that, and Clarence loves it.”

The three walked on in silence, the boy, the old woman, and the unkempt dog, until Mrs. Tuttle said, “Here’s my house. Come in for a minute while I write down my phone number for you. Do you like tea?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Arthur, who had never drunk a cup of tea in his life. “Thank you.”

***

When he had said goodbye to Mrs. Tuttle and big, dumb Clarence, Arthur hurried toward his aunt’s apartment. He mustn’t be late for supper. His father would be there soon, to take him and Aunt Lillian for a visit to his mother in the hospital. But he had one stop to make on the way. In his pocket was the five dollar bill Mrs. Tuttle had give him, an “advance,” she called it, on his first week’s “wages“ for walking Clarence. There was a florist‘s shop on the corner near his aunt’s apartment building, and there Arthur bought two bunches of daisies for a dollar apiece, one for his mother, one for his aunt. The young woman who waited on him thought Arthur seemed very nice.

***

Arthur Shell was learning to talk. Looking back years later, he supposed it was because he had someone to talk to: Clarence. The big, messy dog was a good listener, no matter what Arthur had to say. “That’s just a blue jay—big noise, no danger,” said Arthur once, and “Don’t drink that—it’s all mud. We’ll get you some water when we get home, all right?”

Sometimes, Arthur even offered up whole paragraphs, about his mother and how worried he was about her, how worried his father was too. About how nice his Aunt Lillian was, cooking special suppers and helping him with his homework … even when she was obviously tired from her job. About Roy Hough and Connie Dunn, who treated him like a friend even though they could do much better without really trying.

Clarence listed to it all, sometimes even stopping, holding still and looking up at Arthur as if trying to see how the boy felt about the information he was dispensing.

So I’m changing, Arthur thought. Nice to know you can change, sometimes without even trying.

But through his transformation, Arthur Shell, walking the streets and alleys of Tipton with his shaggy, always attentive friend, remained a watcher.

***

Arthur Shell was walking Clarence, and talking to him, sometimes in his head and sometimes out loud. As always, Clarence listened carefully.

He was worried, was Arthur, worried about Roy Hough, worried that Roy hadn’t really figured out what was happening with his mother and this Vonny guy, worried that Connie Dunn, talking to Roy, had got things wrong, and that they became even more wrong when she passed them on the him, Arthur.

“And now I’m telling you about them, Clarence. What do you think?”

Clarence didn’t answer, except to whine a little, sympathetically.

I guess that’s what it means to have friends, Arthur said, this time to himself. You worry.

But maybe it works both ways. Maybe if you worry, it means you have friends.

 

Randall R. Mawer is Poetry Editor of Lost Coast Review.  His Sycamore and Other Poems was published in 2000 by Writer’s Club Press. His young adult novel, Frog’s Field, was recently published by Avignon Press.

 

 

 

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