The Night Watch
An SUV and a pickup truck had jousted with each other on a lightless section of Route One. The pickup won. By the time I got there the drivers and passengers had been carted off to two local hospitals. The emergency rooms always seemed to share the wealth on victims.
I filed the story and pictures from my lap top, basking in the smeared Christmas lighting of the fire engine and the cop cars. I had one more stop to make. My Civic, all 127,000 miles of her, groaned as I added 20mph to the speed limit. The local cops would occasionally hit the lights and start to chase me, but would turn off once they recognized my beater. We had an understanding.
Intersecting car lights threw my reflected face up onto the windshield. Worry lines that had splintered into wrinkles. Unsmiling. The resigned expression of someone gambling alone in a casino.
The Coventry police station squatted at the end of the block like an abandoned convenience store. Faded lettering, dimly lit sign. Only the illegally parked squad cars really advertised its presence.
The high rise granite steps that climbed to the front door had been precision dressed when laid in place, but had slowly heaved out of true. The thick metal door with security glass complained on being opened, reluctant to admit innocent or guilty..
The room inside was the depth of three adults laid end to end and the width of four. The left wall held a recessed cage where the duty officer sat facing out through thick metal mesh. A bench had been bolted to the floor against the back wall of the room . A large bulletin board was screwed onto the right wall, pinned full of announcements and warnings about half of which were out of date. The floor tile was crab grass green , the ceiling was gray acoustic tile, water damaged in two corners. A locked door at the back wall left of the bench lead back to the squad room and holding cells.
I had slept over twice in those cells during snow storms. The cops left the cell door open so I didn’t have to use the seatless toilet in the cell, and gave me extra blankets to try and soften the steel bunk bed. Breakfast had been whatever I’d had coins for in the vending machine.
George was the desk sergeant almost every week night, tonight included. George wasn’t quite crippled enough to retire on disability, but his body had failed him too badly to be out on the street. His round torso was desk bound until he was pensioned off.
“Morning, Pete. You’re late.”
George is a bluegrass fan, and after midnight was able to pick up a Kentucky station. The guitars and fiddles compete with the two police radios, one town, one state. Every once in a while it sounded like the radio cops were chanting in tempo with the radio music.
“ Anything I should get excited about?”
“Nah. Couple B&Es, domestic disturbances, few fender benders. Hang on.”
George pulled up the log on his screen and sent it to the printer. The printer was a still surviving dot matrix, and squeaked as the paper was fed through.
The dues I paid for getting to write occasional bylined stories placed above the fold was to handle a lot of the drudge that fills the news holes around advertisements in the inside pages.
I took the sheet to the bench and opened up my lap top. Coventry was the last stop on my circuit, and I started listing the offenses. One guy had been caught for the second time in a year crawling back out of an alarmed window with his break-in tools in his pockets. Slow learner.
Doing a cop wrap up was less painful than doing church news, but more repetitive than obits. The dead were usually more refreshing to write about than the perps. As I was typing, George and I continued to talk. No concentration required.
“How’s the gout tonight, George?”
“Shitty, same as always.”
“You gotta quit drinking those cheap shots and beers, get a Richard Simmons diet.”
“Screw you,” George said agreeably. “At least I can still drink. Alice, though, she’s not doing too good. Needs some plumbing repairs.”
“ Where’s she going to get it done?”
“ Better than here in Coventry.”
“Yeah. You still haven’t heard from your ex?”
“Not for a couple years. Once she remarried and I wasn’t writing checks any more she forgot my phone number. I think the last thing she said to me was how well the kids were doing with their new dad.”
“Been some time since you’ve seen the kids ?”
“Years. Nothing like moving them four states west. She doesn’t need a restraining order any more.”
I had sent off the wrap up from the lap top and was packing it away when the town radio started squawking.
“Hang on, Pete, might have something for you.”
“Don’t tell me you actually arrested a hooker.”
“Dunno. Steve and two uniforms are bringing somebody in. Didn’t say why, but it’s taking three of them.”
“Maybe five minutes.”
I waited, standing next to the cage. The bluegrass strings got sawed and plucked, the singers all fiddle tuned to a high pitch. George and I said nothing, comfortable in each others silence.
Cop lights splashed across the front window and door, then went off. No sirens. Doors slammed shut outside.
The front door shrilled open. Steve first, small framed but sinewy, pulling in a Tee shirted white guy who was in turn pushed in by another uniform and followed in by the third. The guy was handcuffed behind his back but not leg shackled. The right side of his mouth was swollen but not yet purple. He looked to be around 30 and had gotten a head start on his beer belly.
The uniforms dragwalked the guy back to the bench and pushed him onto it. Steve and another uniform sat on each side of him, still holding on. The third uniform stood facing the guy, his night stick held at his side.
Steve nodded curtly. I nodded back. We were two bristling dogs not quite ready to snarl at each other. Steve confined himself to living in a tough guy image, an image I relished taunting.
Steve started whispering in the guy’s ear. The guy faced away from Steve, but talked to him out of the corner of his mouth. I could hear fragments.
“My girlfriend will be here in…
“You lying bastard, I…
“No way you make me for this…”
Steve huddled closer, whispering more quickly. The guy’s face and neck darkened.
The handcuffed guy jumped up, breaking the cop grips, pivoted to face Steve and popped heads with him. The impact was a solid crack. He kicked at the other seated uniform but hit mostly bench. He spun again to face the standing cop and got smacked with a night stick. The guy dropped to the tile, then lunged back up, grabbing the shirt of the cop with the night stick from behind his back, kicking at Steve and the other cop who’d been on the bench. The guy started screamed the same curse over and over without pause.
The three cops swarmed the guy. Steve and another cop pulled out leather covered saps and flailed at any of the guy’s parts reachable without getting kicked. The cop with the night stick was more rhythmic, swinging his right arm in tight measured pops. With his left hand he was bending back one of the guy’s fingers to free his shirt.
The guy took a deep sobbing breath and resumed cursing.
The tempo of saps and night stick increased and the guy dropped to the floor, curling into a fetal position, trying to protect his face and groin. He was down, but the cops kept at him for perhaps another half minute. The exposed back of the guy’s head took a staccato thumping from the saps.
The guy’s screams shrank to whimpers, same words but not a curse anymore, a hoarse incantation, a feeble last defense against what was happening to him.
The cops paused to get their breath. Beatings were hard work.
Steve glanced over at me. “Son of a bitch threatened my wife and kids.”
It was a little too quick, a little too smooth and a little too loud. He’d been saving that line. Whatever had just happened wasn’t about a threat to wife and kids.
They grabbed the guy and dragged him to the door on the back wall. George buzzed them in. The guy was a bleeder and there was smeared blood here and there on the green flooring.
George and I hadn’t moved. I took no notes. We had an understanding. It would have been the perp’s word against three local cops. I could only record what could be substantiated. In the echoing quiet the bluegrass refilled the room. It was the song about a man of constant sorrow.
“Any idea why they brought him in?”
“Nah. Think they were out on a disturbance call.”
“Probably better wait till I see if it’s worth a rewrite.”
We waited several minutes. If we talked any more about it George would have to lie to me, so we didn’t talk.
The front door squeaked open and a woman sidled in. There had been no headlights, so she was a walk in. She was disoriented enough that she came up to me rather than to George. Her light colored hair frazzled around her face. Stringy. She looked to be high twenties and still pretty, but with another year or two of hard use she’d lose that. Her complexion was already turning the color of gray duct tape. She was doper skinny, too many drugs and not enough food. Her hands trembled. My guess was smack.
“I’m here for Jamie, Jamie Brolish. Has he been booked yet?”
I pointed over to George, saying nothing.
She stepped over to the cage and repeated the question.
George started into his litany.
“What’s your name?”
“Betsy Simpson. Look, Jaimie’s got no papers out on him, no outstandings.”
“125 Court Street, apartment 3C. He’s all right isn’t he?”
George continued his questions. Her answers were street smart, but her voice and manner were apologetic and tentative. She hadn’t grown scar tissue to shield herself. Whatever experiences she’d had made her more vulnerable, more prey like.
I had a vagrant memory of a daughter I could no longer visualize.
The rear door lock clicked and Steve stepped out. The girl got his attention.
“You Brolish’s girlfriend?’
“ Yes. You’re not going to hold him are you? He hasn’t done anything”
Steve moved in front of her, putting his face very close to hers.
“Nothing my ass. Just assaulting three police officers, plus the stuff we brought him in on. You may not be spending much time with him.”
She cringed but didn’t move away from him.” I don’t think I can make any kind of bail. Could you release him to me? Can I see him?”
Steve focused more closely on her. His eyes went flat but stayed wide open. Raptors looked like that.
He shifted so his right shoulder was behind and close to her left shoulder. Just the two of them. “Listen,” he said, “Jaimie’s in a lot of trouble. We’re still interrogating him, so you won’t be able to see him for awhile. How long have you known him?”
“About three months.”
“Maybe I can help you. Let me check out a few things out back. Give me thirty minutes and then we can go somewhere and talk a little. My name’s Steve.”
Her body tension loosened. “Could you help us? Anything you can do I’d really appreciate.”
“Half an hour,” he said, and went back through the door to the squad room.
She didn’t move. She was going to stand in the spot Steve had left her in until he got back. Her hands were still trembling.
I stood across the room for several minutes before approaching her.” Miss, I’m a reporter not a cop. You need to remember that Steve’s is a cop, who’s interested in an arrest and convictions. He’ll use you any way he can, pumping you to get information. How would Jaimie like that?”
“But he said he’d help.”
“When was the last time a cop did you a favor? Look, here’s $40 to get you home and maybe some food. You’re not going to be able to see Jaime for hours. He’s not going anywhere or seeing anyone. He’ll be here tomorrow for you to visit. Don’t make his problems worse and maybe get into trouble. Do yourself a favor. Get out of here while you can.”
You could watch the slow progress of her thinking as her mouth pursed and unpursed. She rubbed the $40 absentmindedly.“Okay, yeah I guess you’re right. Thanks.” She edged back out the front door and into the early morning dark.
George and I had another of those prolonged silences.
The rear door eventually clicked open. Steve paced out and stopped when he saw the girl wasn’t there. His eyes went flat again.
“Where’d the skank go?”
I volunteered the obvious. “She took off.”
“Why? What the hell did you tell her?”
“What would I tell her? She took off.”
Steve refocused those hard, open eyes on George.
“George, what happened?”
“Dunno Steve, she left all of a sudden.”
Steve swiveled his glare from George back to me, and stared at me for several seconds. He blinked and walked back to the door on the rear wall. George buzzed him in. George stayed silent. A banjo had joined the fiddles and guitars on the radio.
“You know,” George finally said, “she’s taking your $40 to her dealer and copping whatever she’s on.”
“You know you should’ve let Steve try and bang her. You just moved way up on his shit list.”
“I know. You ever do something you know was stupid?””
“I’m still married. You gonna write something?”
“Couldn’t write anything if I wanted to. All I know for sure is that the guy broke loose and hit a cop before he was subdued.”
We were both silent for another moment.
“Go home Pete.”
The dirge of the bluegrass singers cut off as the front door closed behind me.
Edward Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and export paper sales. Still on his original wife, but after 42 years suspect, suspects they are both out of warranty.