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I stepped into the central squad room of the Cedar Valley Police Department and then stood still a moment, taking in the familiar sights and smells. In contrast to the freezing, frenetic energy of the blizzard outside, the room was warm and calm.
Christmas had come and gone more than a month ago, yet tinsel and evergreen boughs were still draped high on the walls. I have been inside enough law enforcement centers around the state to know how common that is; holiday cleanup always seems to take a backseat to crime.
The room smelled as I remembered: fresh coffee, burnt microwave dinners, and paper, so much paper. There were folders and files stacked high on the desks. Post-it notes in every shade of the rainbow were tacked to the edges of computer monitors, on the handsets of the telephones at each desk, and across the bulletin board that ran the length of the back wall. Much of our day-to-day business had gone electronic, but old habits are hard to break.
Photographs of haunted, hunted men and women stared out from that same bulletin board. At one time, their stories may have been unique, but the moment their picture hit that board, they became one and the same: criminal, thug, wanted.
In front of me, a doll from the popular holiday game Elf on the Shelf hung from the ceiling in a noose fashioned from a dirty shoelace, her small arms twisted up to grip the sides of her head as though in shock at her fate. I gave her foot a gentle push and she swung in the air, her coy smirk unchanging even in death.
In the corner, the radio was tuned to an oldies station. Elvis Presley sang softly about a boy, born in a snowstorm, to a mother all too aware that his was to be a hard life, short-lived in the ghettos of Chicago. The song breaks my heart every time I hear it.
“‘Well, the world turns,’” a deep voice crooned along with the King. I turned to see Finn Nowlin, mostly a decent cop and generally a pain in the ass, strike a classic Elvis pose. He shimmied his hips and then swung his arm up and held the move.
I rolled my eyes and turned away before he could see me smile.
I was home.
Grinning, I went to my desk, expecting a bare surface. Before I had gone on maternity leave in November, I’d cleaned house. Stained mugs and a few long-forgotten spoons went home with me to be deep cleaned. Files were returned to the records room, outstanding cases were handed over to my colleagues, and pens went into hibernation in my desk drawers.
To my surprise, though, a stack of file folders sat in a tidy pile waiting for me. A purple note on the top folder read “Ask Finn.” They were coded for local, recent misdemeanors; they belonged in the records room, not on my desk.
The rest of the space was still clean, and I dropped my bag and pulled off my heavy parka.
“It’s warm in here, isn’t it?”
Finn shrugged. He rubbed his hands together. “Feels good to me. The thermostat was busted all week. They finally sent someone to fix it yesterday. We’ve been freezing our balls off.”
I snorted. “Don’t you first have to have them, before they can freeze off?”
Finn grinned. “You know you missed us, Gem. Your baby is pretty cute but you’re not exactly June Cleaver. Tell me you haven’t been getting antsy.”
“Yeah, I missed you guys like I miss dysentery.” I tapped the files on my desk. “What’s happening? I hope I didn’t get dolled up to watch you channel Elvis the Pelvis and read week-old files.”
“Chavez wants you to get up to speed on all the work the rest of us have been doing while you’ve been sitting around playing Betty Crocker,” Finn said with another flash of his wolfish grin. The smile faded as he snatched up the top file folder and flipped through it.
“What is it?”
He scowled. “Ever heard of Black Hound Construction?”
Thinking hard, I shook my head slowly. “I don’t think so. Should I know them? Are they local?”
“No. They’re new in town. They arrived a few months ago, from New York. Alistair Campbell and his seven dwarfs. More like seven assholes. They’re a hotshot construction crew. Campbell’s got a thing for ex-convicts, most of his crew have records. I’ve been keeping an eye on the group.”
“Why? We have other people in town with records, probably more than we know. Most of them are harmless.”
Finn said, “I don’t know, call it a hunch. There’s something off about them. They travel together like a pack of wolves; you see one, there’s another one around the corner. Anyway, it’s been par for the course the last few months. A couple of robberies, hotel rooms ransacked. It’s mostly tourists getting hit. Armstrong and Moriarty believe it’s a gang of employees, from the different hotels, working together. They’ll catch them eventually. Christmas was quiet, New Year’s Eve was a disaster as usual. Drunks all over town, on the road, in the bars. Some clown decided it was a good idea to climb the old water tower after drinking a bottle of champagne. He made it to the top and then panicked. The fire department had to climb up after him. They brought him down, and his date, some hot little ski bunny in town from Denver, finished her night with the deputy fire chief.”
“Sounds exciting. What else did I miss?”
Finn shrugged. “Like I said, the usual. We do have our own little Banksy up at the Valley Academy. Someone’s spray-painting graffiti on the campus after hours. So far, no one’s been able to catch him. Or her. The little goon is spraying the Grim Reaper. He’s actually very talented, whoever it is. Hey, did you hear the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the Grim Reaper in Las Vegas? So they walk into a bar…”
I tuned out the rest of Finn’s joke and stared down at my desk, running a hand across the surface of it, feeling the coolness of the old wood, the pits and scars where countless other officers had scratched the surface with their pens and paper clips. I could smell the citrus furniture polish the custodial service used.
It was good to be back.
Before Grace was born, I worked a day shift that often had me chasing leads into the evening and on the weekends. There were long hours and too many nights spent far from home, far from Brody. That kind of time away, especially the evenings that dragged into early mornings, has a way of changing the dynamics of your life and your relationships. Like the tide on a sand castle, it ebbs away the very things that make up the foundation of what’s important.
I was back on a part-time basis but I’ve been a cop long enough to know that sooner or later part-time turns into full-time, and then into overtime, and suddenly you realize it’s been days since you thought about anything but the case at hand. Tonight’s shift was only a few hours—seven to midnight. Not quite the graveyard shift but close enough.
There’s a certain kind of tension that lives in those hours, an anticipation of one day’s ending and another’s beginning. I didn’t mind it, though. The last few months had seen me up at all sorts of strange hours. If I wasn’t nursing Grace, then I was lying in bed, worrying about things beyond my control. Would she grow up good, and strong, and kind? Would my baby find her way in this world, this world that will beat you down, chew you up, and spit you out faster than you can say “pretty please”?
I sat back as a Tina Turner song ended and a commercial began. It was quiet, especially for a Friday night. The bone-chilling blizzard might have one saving grace, if it kept folks home and off the roads. I should have known better than to even think the words quiet night, for in the next minute, one of our dispatchers poked her head in the room.
Chloe Parker waved. “Welcome back, Gemma. Guys, I got a call about a suspicious man, a prowler, at Valley Academy. The caller wouldn’t leave a name and the number came through with a New York area code. You two want to check it out? Twenty bucks says it’s a prankster. I can radio patrol if you’d rather stay here. It’s terrible weather.”
I looked at Finn and stood, then began shrugging back into my heavy parka. “No, save patrol for the roads. There will be at least a few accidents for them to respond to before tonight is over. Maybe it’s your Reaper artist, Finn.”
Chloe added, “I’ll call campus security and have someone meet you at the school. They’ll need to open that front gate if you want to get on the property.”
Across the aisle, Finn stood, too, and reached for his jacket. On the radio, the commercial for acne cream ended and the Temptations came on, wishing for rain. Finn danced along with an imaginary partner. Chloe giggled and retreated back into the tiny room that was the dispatch call center.
“Oh, but I wish it would stop snowing,” Finn muttered along to the song.
I joined in, “‘But everyone knows that a man ain’t supposed to cry.’”
Finn rolled his eyes and made a gagging sound. I know I’ll never win American Idol but I’m not that bad. I’ve heard worse.
I rounded up my hat, gloves, and flashlight and followed Finn down the short hallway that led from the squad room to the front door. He paused so I could button up my parka, then he opened the door. The storm had picked up in intensity and the screaming wind seemed to tear the oxygen from the air.
“Jesus,” I muttered. No one in their right mind would be out in a blizzard like this. I was sorry I’d returned to work, tonight of all nights. I should have been home, with Grace and Brody, in front of a roaring fire with a hot cup of cocoa and a gossip magazine in my hands.
I thought I was ready to be back, but all of a sudden, I didn’t feel so sure.
Copyright © 2017 by Emily Littlejohn