Saturday, April 17, 2021

A Short Story for Our Times

 In the past two years, I've written two stories about gun violence and shootings. In Deepest Darkness was published this past year in MURDER 20/20, a short story anthology by Speed City Sisters in Crime. The other, Be Wrong, has never been published. 

Tragic events in my adopted hometown of Indianapolis, in Chicago and Minneapolis have made me think a lot about those stories these past few days.  I've decided to the stories on my blog, for whatever worth they may have.. 

So here's the 3,000 word story, Be Wrong. I'll post the second story in a few days.  

Be Wrong  By Stephen Terrell

Hear anything yet?”

Dave Miley looked up from where he sat behind a battered desk, shook his head, and went back to the mindless work of completing monthly reports on an aging desktop computer.

"The hearing was what? Two weeks ago?"

Miley looked up again. Joe Curry stood over him, arms propped onto Miley’s temporary assignment desk. He wasn’t going away. “Almost three.”

“It’s all bullshit. They should have cleared you the same night as the shooting.  It was a righteous kill. They’re just making you go through all this because of all those people screaming on TV.”

“It’s a process, Joe. Every cop involved in a shooting has to go through it.”

“We shouldn’t have to.”

Miley fought back the instinctive smirk. We. What fucking we? Joe wasn’t going through it. Never had. Never would. He was a paper-pusher cop twenty-five years in and counting the months until retirement.

“They tell you when you can expect a decision?”

“Union lawyer says it could be any day. Or not. No one knows.”

Miley turned back to the computer and furrowed his brow in feigned concentration. In his peripheral vision, he saw Joe shrug and move away.

*  *  *  *

“Officer Miley, concerning the day of the incident, what time did you go on duty?”

“I was working 4 p.m. to midnight. I normally work days, but the department moved some of us to a later shift. It was part of the Mayor’s plan to increase police presence during higher crime hours.”

“How did you feel about that?”

“To be honest, I thought it was a publicity stunt. Wasn’t going to help anything. But I’m a patrol officer. I do what I’m told.”

“With the shift change, did you get a good night’s sleep the night before the incident?”

“As far as I know. I don’t remember anything specific about how long I slept.”

“Did you consume any alcohol the previous 24 hours?”

“No. They took a blood draw after the shooting and it was zero percent. I thought you knew that already.”

“Describe your shift to the point where you received the call?”

“Pretty ordinary day. It was a Friday night, so there was a little more buzz coming across the radio. I was assigned to the Northwood area, which is usually pretty quiet. I made a couple of traffic stops, helped with traffic control at a serious car crash. But like I said, it was quiet.”

“What do you remember about getting the call to 5738 Waldemere?”

“There was nothing unusual about it. The call came in about a suspected prowler. Dispatch said that the call came in on 911 from a Ronald Wilson.”

“What details were you provided about the situation?”

“None. I was just told the address, that the homeowner – or at least the person making the call – was Mr. Wilson, and there was a suspected prowler.”

“Was anything said about an urgency in responding to the call?”

“No, sir.”

“Did you run lights and siren when you responded?”

“No, sir. There was nothing that indicated an emergency. Besides, I was only five or six minutes away.”

“If you had been further away, would you have used lights and siren?”

“No sir. There just wasn’t any reason to.”

*  *  *  *

“How are you doing today, Dave?” 

Margaret Halsey’s voice was soothing, devoid of any judgment or emotion. Miley wondered if it came naturally or if it was something learned at whatever school turned out the corps of counselors who served police departments after officer-involved shootings.

“I’m fine. That’s what I’m supposed to say, isn’t it?”

Halsey let the hand holding her notebook fall into her lap. She leaned forward. “Dave, I really am here to help. Taking a human life, even when justified, is a traumatic event. It is for anyone. Every cop I’ve had in that chair who has killed someone in the line of duty has faced issues. Every single one.  No matter how justified the shooting, every officer has to find a way to come to grips with shooting another person.”

“Look, Margaret, we’ve been having these sessions for what?  Four weeks? I’m doing fine. I’m sleeping at night. I’m not getting sloshed or popping pills. I don’t sit around pondering my navel. I’m not going to swallow my gun. I wish it didn’t happen, but it did. It’s part of the job. Now I just want to move on. I want get back on the street doing my job.”

They sat looking at each other, the room silent except for the muffled sound of traffic on a nearby street. After several minutes, Halsey picked up her notebook. “Tell me about what you’ve done since we last met.”

*  *  *  *

Miley sat in the old barber chair, unsure if Brody was a first name or a last name. The business was Brody’s Tattoos, and that was the only name the guy standing over him, tattoo gun in hand, ever used.

“This isn’t a very big tattoo,” Brody said. “But there’s not much meat on the bone in your hand. There are a lot of nerves.  That means this is going to hurt like hell.”

“Just do it.”

“Okay, but I want you to know what you’re in for.”

The needle bit like a hornet’s sting as the black ink drove into the dermis.

*  *  *  *

 “What happened when you arrived at 5738 Waldemere?”

“I parked on the street and turned on the flashing lights. That was mostly so my car would be visible to traffic. I exited the vehicle and walked up to the house.”

“What type of neighborhood is this?”

“Older established middle class neighborhood. I’m not an expert on houses, but I’d say it was one of those 1970s neighborhoods. A lot of ranch and bi-level houses. Seemed like the neighborhood was neat and pretty well kept.”

"How about the house itself."

“Brick ranch, from what I could see. It was dark, so I didn’t see many details at the time. Of course, I went back later to look.”

“You did your own investigation?”

“No, sir. I was instructed not to do that, and I follow orders. I just drove by in the daytime a few days after the incident. I stopped for a few minutes on the street, but I never got out of the car. Never talked to anyone.”

“Back to the night of the incident, what did you do when you arrived?”

“I went to the door. There was a doorbell. I pushed it and heard the bell inside the house.  No one came to the door, so I rang it again. Then I knocked. Again, there was no answer.”

“Did you report that back to the dispatcher?”

“No, sir. There wasn’t anything to report. This was a suspected prowler, not a break in. I decided to take a look around.”

“What did you do?”

“The backyard was fenced. One of those wooden privacy fences. About six feet high, I guess. It had a gate.”

“No lock on the gate?”

“No, sir. It was just one of those latches.  I pulled out my flashlight, opened the gate and stepped in to the back yard.”

*  *  *  *

The electronic ring of the desk phone startled Miley from his monotony. Miley had never heard phones ring as loud as they did in a police station. He didn’t know if the ringers were a special kind to be heard above the din and hubbub of the squad room, but they were certainly set at maximum volume.

He answered on the third ring.

“Dave, it’s Vince.”

Police union lawyer Vince Thornton’s voice long ago had become familiar. Miley recognized it at the first syllable.

“What’s up, Vince?”

“Just got word through the Chief’s office. The review board decision on the shooting will be released this afternoon at four o’clock.”

“Any word on how it will go?”

“Nothing definite. But like I told you after the hearing, I feel good about this.”

I feel good. Jesus. Vince wasn’t going to face any consequences. None except collecting his fee, win or lose.

“So, what am I supposed to do?”

“Just sit tight. Usually the department’s lawyer will give me a head’s up on the decision about ten minutes before the decision is announced. I’ll call you as soon as I know.”

“What if it’s bad news?”

“We’ll worry about that if it happens. You just keep positive and stay squirreled away in that back office until we talk. I don’t want you anyplace where the press can get ahold of you until we have a chance to digest the decision. If somehow a reporter finds a way to get to you,  your answer to anything is ‘no comment.’ I don’t care if he asks you if the pope is Catholic, you just say no comment and hang up or walk away. And for God’s sake, don’t go celebrating with any of the other officers if the decision goes your way. The last thing you need is some TV station doing a live shot from outside a bar, reporting that you’re partying with other officers.”

*  *  *  *

“Hey, Dave. Heard that the review board is going to announce the decision at four. Anyone let you know if you’ve been cleared yet?”

Before Miley looked up, he knew Joe Curry was standing in front of his desk.  It was less than half an hour since Miley received the call from the lawyer. There were no secrets in the police station. None except the final decision in Miley’s case.

“I know they’re announcing the decision, Joe. I don’t know what it is.”

“That’s strange. When Bill Lewandowski shot that guy a couple of years back, they let him know he was cleared before they announced it. Maybe they don’t tell you in advance if it’s bad news.”

Miley looked up toward the ceiling trying to control the anger that flashed inside. After a long moment, Miley lowered his eyes, hoping that Curry had disappeared. He had not.

“The way things work around here, you’ll hear about the decision through the office grapevine before I know. Until then, why don’t you go back to your desk and leave me the fuck alone.”

 *  *  *  *

“What did you see when you entered the backyard?”

“Nothing much. There was a patio with some furniture, a grill, a few flowers. There were several trees and bushes scattered around the backyard.”

“Did you see signs of anyone in the yard?”

“Not at first.”

“Tell us what happened once you got into the yard.”

"I swung the light around, but didn't see anything. Then as I swung it back, I saw some movement behind this big bush. I focused on my beam on the bush and saw a crouched figure moving, headed away from me. I shouted ‘Police. Halt. Put your hands up.’”

“You sure about those words?”

“Absolutely. I’ve done it a hundred times before. Did it the same way this time.”

“How far away was this person?”

“Forty feet. Maybe a little further.”

“Did you keep the light on him?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then what happened?”

“This guy turned real quick. My light flashed off what looked to be the barrel of a shotgun. It swung up and pointed in my direction.”

“What did you do?”

“I grabbed for my weapon and yelled ‘Drop it.’”

“Your weapon was holstered?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then what happened?”

“He pointed the barrel at me. Right at me. He didn’t respond to my demand to drop the weapon, and I fired my gun.  I remember firing twice, but I know that ballistics found that I fired three times.”

“How much time elapsed between the time you shouted the command and the time you fired?”

“It all pretty much happened immediately. The entire incident took only a couple of seconds.”

“And you are certain that you shouted before you fired?”

“Yes, sir. Absolutely.”

“Did the man have time to respond to your shout before you fired?”

“Yes, sir. At least I think so. Yes, I’m sure he could have. But he didn’t.”

“When did you become aware that the person was the homeowner Mr. Wilson?”

“When I went over to him. He identified himself.”

“Was that the first thing you did after firing the shots, go over to him?”

“No, sir. After firing the shots, I immediately called for backup on the radio that’s on my shoulder. I also asked for a bus, that is, an ambulance.”

“Did you wait for backup to arrive before you approached Mr. Wilson?”

“No, sir. As soon as I made the radio call, I walked over to where Mr. Wilson was on the ground. As soon as I knelt down next to him, he just started asking ‘Why?’ over and over.”

“Did he say anything else before assistance arrived?”

“It was hard to understand him. He was hurt pretty bad. I knew I hit him at least once in the chest. He was able to identify himself as the homeowner, but that was about all.”

“When did you become aware he was carrying a metal baseball bat and not a shotgun?”

 “I saw the bat on the ground next to him. It was black.”

“Did he say anything else to you?”

“I asked him why he didn’t drop the bat when I yelled at him. He just said ‘I don’t know.’ He repeated it twice. That was the last thing he said to me.”

“Officer Miley, did you fear for your own safety at the time you fired your weapon?”

“When my light hit that bat and he pointed it toward me, I thought it was a shotgun. I’ve replayed it in my mind a hundred times. Every time, I still see that glint off the barrel and I see it as a shotgun.  I thought I was going to die.”

*  *  *  *

Brody stepped back and looked at the freshly inked tattoo.  “That what you wanted?”

Miley held up his right hand and examined it.  “Yeah,” he said. “Exactly. Now do the left.”

*  *  *  *

Miley jumped when the phone rang. Before he picked it up, he knew it was the lawyer.

“You’re cleared,” Thornton said, without any greeting. “Review Board findings are unanimous. They found that under the circumstances, you acted reasonably in the face of a perceived danger. I’ve prepared a statement on your behalf. It thanks the Board, confirms that they made the correct decision and expresses your condolences to the Wilson family. You want to see it before I release it.”

“I trust you. Go ahead.”

“Keep a low profile for the next few days. Leave the station by a back exit. Eat at home. Don’t answer your phone or your door unless you know it’s me. And don’t talk to the press or TV people under any circumstances, not even to give them the time of day. Got it?”

“Is this really necessary?

“Yes. Don’t forget, the family will probably still file a civil suit. You don’t need to be talking to anyone. That includes your fellow cops. Especially your fellow cops.”

“When do I go back on patrol?”

“That’s up to your commanders. Give it a couple of weeks before you start raising the issue.”

*  *  *  *

“I’m not sure you’re being candid with me,” Margaret Halsey said in her practiced calm tone. “I don’t mean that you’re lying to me. I just don’t think you’re being completely honest with yourself about your feelings.”

 “I’m not really a feelings type of guy.”

“We’re all feelings type of guys,” Halsey said. “But cops are like soldiers. You mask those feelings to do your job.”

Miley sat without responding.

Halsey spent several minutes in the silence, checking boxes on a form she was holding.

“This is the fitness report to the department,” she said as she made one last check. “I’m clearing you to return to street duty.”

Miley tried to hide his smile, but couldn’t.  “Thank you,” he said.

With a flourish, Halsey signed the report. 

“I’m always here for you, Dave. If you start having issues, if you can’t sleep, anything, call me. Sometimes issues pop up months, even years after an event.”

“I’ll be fine. I just want to get back and do my job.”

“I’ll walk the form over to the Deputy Chief myself as soon as we’re done here. But I have one last question.  I don’t expect you to answer, but I want you to think about it.  The next time you’re sent on a call.  The next time you or another officer is in a situation like you faced. The next time a suspect makes a move for what appears to be a weapon, can you still pull the trigger?”

*  *  *  *

“Here to qualify?” It was the way the sergeant at the police shooting range greeted Miley.

Miley nodded. “I’m back on patrol next week, but I have to requalify on the range.”

“Let me see your badge.”

Miley pulled out his badge folder and slid it across the counter.

The sergeant wrote down Miley’s badge number in a log sheet, then handed it back.  “Be Wrong,” the sergeant said, looking at the block-letter tattoo across the back of Miley’s left thumb. “Not seen that before. What’s it mean?” 

Without responding, Miley grabbed a box of 9 mm ammunition from the counter.  The sergeant shrugged and set up the human figure targets for the qualifying test.

“Anytime you’re ready,” he said.

Miley checked the clip in his new 9 mm Sig Sauer, then slapped it into place. The one he used to shoot Ronald Wilson remained in the police evidence room, probably forever.

Miley stepped to the firing line. He meticulously grasped his weapon and took aim.  His right thumb lay on top of his left thumb, both alongside the grip. The two-word tattoo on his right thumb stacked on top of two words tattooed on his left. As he fired, the words stared back at him.



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