"The Cleanup is a wonderful discovery. Tight, taut and tough, this is the work of a writer who knows the territory inside and out. This is a great read."—Michael Connelly
The Cleanupby Sean Doolittle
Matthew Worth is a mess. Somewhere between a good cop and a bad screwup, he botched a marriage and a career. His fellow officers think he’s a joke. His commanders are tired of cutting him breaks. Even his wife has left him for a flashy homicide detective. Busted to night patrol at a robbery-prone Omaha supermarket, Worth is doing time, wearing his uniform and
Matthew Worth is a mess. Somewhere between a good cop and a bad screwup, he botched a marriage and a career. His fellow officers think he’s a joke. His commanders are tired of cutting him breaks. Even his wife has left him for a flashy homicide detective. Busted to night patrol at a robbery-prone Omaha supermarket, Worth is doing time, wearing his uniform and asking shoppers if they want paper or plastic. If that isn’t enough, he suspects he might be falling for Gwen, the shy checkout girl who may be an even bigger mess than he is. It couldn’t get any worse. Until it does.
When Gwen comes to him one night scared and desperate for help, Worth discovers just how far he’s willing to go to protect and serve. The next thing he knows, he’s driving a stolen car with a corpse in the trunk, a pistol in the glove box, and no way to turn back. Everything he doesn’t know could get them killed. And things haven’t even begun to get messy yet....
The New York Times
- Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
In retrospect, announcing himself in the hallway almost seemed funny. Police. I'm opening the door.
The small bedroom in the back of Gwen Mullen's apartment felt like a meat locker. Worth understood when he reached down and felt cold iron: She'd valved off the radiator in here. She'd also opened the windows. Plastic blinds clattered on the chilly breeze.
He raised the Maglite to eye level.
Russell lay naked in a twist of sheets. In the beam of the flashlight, Worth caught glimpses of white amid ragged red pulp. He guessed he was looking at molars. Maybe jawbone. He wasn't sure.
Moving the light around the room, his own breath foggy in the beam, he passed over the nightstand and noticed a dark square centered in a thin layer of dust. He found the lamp on the floor beside the bed, cord trailing, still plugged into the socket near the peeling baseboard.
The lamp came on when he flipped the switch by his elbow, throwing shadows up the cracked plaster wall. By some trick the bulb had remained intact; dark clots of stuff had congealed around the chunky glass base.
Worth automatically reached for the mike on his shoulder. The words sat in his throat, pushing their way up: Three Adam Zero, Three Adam Sixty. His sergeant's car.
He wondered how long the guy had been here like this. He wondered how many times she'd hit him with the lamp.
At some point, he realized he'd released the call button without speaking.
Worth found Gwen sitting on the floor in the living room, staring at nothing, arms around her knees. A dimestore jack-o'-lantern the size of a Weber grill hulked in one corner, bathing the place in cheap orange light.
He slid a stack of magazines out of his way and sat on the edge of the low coffee table in front of her. There was a big ceramic ashtray shaped like Texas, heaped with butts. None of them looked like Gwen's brand.
"In the bedroom." She pointed. "Back there."
"Gwen," he said. "You showed me."
"Can you look at me?"
If she could, she didn't.
"Can you tell me what happened?"
"Didn't you see?"
She drifted again, and Worth let her go. In the reflection of a framed race car poster on the wall he could see the jack-o'-lantern standing sentry over his shoulder, jagged mouth leering. For some stupid reason, he found that he didn't like having the thing at his back.
He stood and took a better look around.
Cracked woodwork, water stains on the ceiling. A fist-size hole in one wall, exposing slats like broken ribs. Between two tall windows, mismatched sheets tacked up for curtains, an enormous, expensive-looking flat-screen television sat on milk crates.
Back in the bedroom, standing over the fish-bellied body on the bed, Worth couldn't decide what depressed him most: the bludgeoned corpse, the image of Gwen Mullen raising the lamp and pulling it down, or the thought that he could, conceivably, wind up playing officer-on-scene to that miserable prick Vargas in Homicide.
He keyed the radio. The beep made him think of the checkout scanners at the store.
Just then a soft gasp drifted in from the other room, toward him down the short dark hall. Worth followed it back.
Gwen had finally lost her grip. Fat tears squeezed beneath the heels of her hands, leaving slick trails; her cheeks glistened in the gaudy Halloween glow.
Worth got down beside her, cuffs rattling, silent radio digging into his side, not sure where he could touch her that wouldn't hurt.
She covered her face and slouched against him. It was as if she had no weight. He felt her tears, her steamy breath.
"I didn't know what to do," she whispered.
He stroked her hair. "It'll be okay."
Worth didn't kid himself.
Eddie Tice was officially done fucking around.
"You'd better be dead in a ditch," he said into the phone. It was the last message he intended to leave. "You hear what I'm saying, smart guy? Because if you're walking around out there? Thinking you're a smart guy? I'll find you, is the first thing. Don't even think I won't find your stupid ass."
He longed to slam a phone down and hear its guts jingle like you used to be able to do. Instead, he thumbed the button and threw the Wi-Fi handset against the wall. Batteries and shards of cracked plastic were still hitting the carpet when Troy Mather stuck his head around the door.
"Um . . . hey?"
"Okay to come in?"
Tice took a deep breath. "Come in, Troy. Please. Let me extend a personal invitation."
Troy pushed the door the rest of the way open and came inside. Derek Price followed, hung a left, and fell into the sofa sectional in the far corner. Price grabbed the remote and punched on the wide-screen Eddie had taken off the showroom floor and put in the office. Last year's model.
"By all means," Tice told him. "Be comfortable."
Derek held up a thumb, flipping through channels until he landed on SportsCenter.
Troy had plopped himself into the discontinued leather glider on the other side of Eddie's antique desk.
"Well," he said.
"He ain't anywhere."
"He's somewhere," Eddie said.
From the sectional: "Maybe he just forgot to charge his phone."
Tice folded his arms and leaned back in the tall chair. He'd already checked with the state cops between here and Chicago. No reports involving the GTO so far.
He'd check again tomorrow. Benefit of the doubt. Possibly a whole different set of problems to worry about.
Troy nodded along with the whole cell-phone idea, then said, "But just to be, like, devil's aggregate?"
Eddie Tice sighed. "I'm listening."
"Okay, me and Derek got the idea to check his girl," Troy said. He sounded proud of himself. "Right? So I remember she got the Modells a job where she works. The SaveMore there on Saddle Creek. Curtis and Ricky. Remember those guys?"
"No," Eddie said.
"Big beefy dudes? Kinda stupid? They worked for me, I dunno, couple months. I think they might be those kind of twins that don't look like each other."
Worked for me. Troy liked to feel as though he had a little authority at Tice Is Nice Quality Used and Discount Furniture. At least in the warehouse. Eddie Tice let him feel as though he had a little. "Keep telling your story, Troy."
"Anyway, we go there," Troy said. "I already know she works Fridays, being Russ normally comes to poker night, but she ain't nowhere around there tonight. Talked to Curtis and Ricky, nothin' outta them. Talked to some other dude pushin' a mop on the way out. He said the girl hasn't been to work in, like, a couple days."
While Troy Mather rambled, Eddie's mood about the situation began to darken. He realized he still hadn't taken off the thermal FootJoy Windshirt he'd been wearing on the thirteenth green at Tiburon twelve hours ago. Now his back ran with sweat.
"Does she have any other jobs?"
Troy opened his mouth, then shut it.
Eddie moved on. "But she definitely wasn't home."
"Um . . ." Troy said. He glanced over toward the corner. Derek wasn't even paying attention. "We didn't know what kind of car she drove."
"What happened when you knocked on the door?"
"Well, it's Friday night, man, so we figured . . ."
"Didn't go to the apartment, did you?"
Troy's face darkened. He was blushing. "Shit, Eddie. I mean, like, why the fuck would he be at the apartment, right?"
"It's okay," Eddie said. Thinking: Holy Lord. Troy was dependable if you didn't give him too much to think about; Derek Price didn't weigh more than a buck twenty, tattoos included, but he had some street sense and knew how to keep his mouth shut. The two of them together didn't quite equal a Russell–who, until tonight, Eddie Tice had always looked at as a candidate for bigger and better things. "I'll call Tony."
"Aww, come on." Troy hopped up out of the chair. "Let us handle it. Seriously. We'll go back there right now."
"I said it's okay," Eddie told him. "You guys did fine."
"Quiet," Tice barked. When he saw the wounded look on Troy's face, he softened. "Look. Do you want to help?"
"You name it, boss." Troy cracked his knuckles. "We're on it."
Eddie Tice pulled off the Windshirt and tossed it aside. He leaned forward, opened the middle left drawer of his desk, took out a bottle of Eagle Rare and a rocks glass, grabbed his BlackBerry from its charging cradle, and said, "Go down to Electronics and bring me back a new phone."
Tiffany Pine had led the news for a sad string of days in December his first year sworn.
Worth had been fresh out of the academy, still rolling with his FTO. She'd been twenty-two, a Metro student, working her way toward a two-year associate's degree in early childhood education. It was Christmastime.
No one who knew her claimed to understand why she'd stayed with the guy so long. By all accounts, he was a hothead with tendencies, nonviolent coping skills not prominent among them.
Pretty girl. Ugly situation. For too long she did everything people did, and then she did everything you were supposed to do. None of it mattered in the end.
They'd found her on the front steps at Helena House, throat slit, pregnant belly hacked apart. To Worth had fallen the task of setting up a tape line around their remains: adult female, infant male, two young bodies slowly freezing in a slushy pool of blood-melted snow.
He still remembered what it felt like to be a cop in the weeks after Tiffany Pine. It didn't feel very much like he'd thought it would.
Problem number one: supplies.
Gwen had a roll of cheap garbage bags in the cupboard under the kitchen sink. Russell's toolbox, same cupboard. Worth cracked the lid and found a roll of silver duct tape in the bottom.
Problem number two: Russell T. James.
There was a mangy area rug in the living room. Worth moved the coffee table and took the rug up. The fake pumpkin watched.
Back in the bedroom, he stopped what he was doing long enough to think, one last time, of the camera kit in the trunk of the cruiser. He could get digitals of Gwen before the Henry units arrived; he'd take the photos in good hard light. Call it in.
Russell James probably had been considered a good-looking guy. T for Thomas, according to the driver's license he found in the wallet on the nightstand by the bed. Twenty-five years old. He'd given the DMV a cocky grin.
Good hair, nice straight teeth. The kind of face that made you try to think which young movie actor he resembled. Worth remembered something Sondra once told him about how women couldn't help being drawn to men with dark eyes.
That's what good-looking Russell looked like now. Scraps of meat, pieces of bone, a slick cap of dark tangled hair.
The prosecutor's office would secure photographs of their own. Worth tried to see the big picture, all the angles, the possible outs, but all he could think of was that he and Sondra had lived in an old building like this early on. No air-conditioning, no thermostat, finicky heat. Once, in the dead of winter, the power had gone off for nearly thirty-six hours. But they'd been fine, huddled together under heavy blankets, finding ways to pass the time. That was one thing about these old iron radiators: They'd stay warm for at least a couple of days.
The radiator in Gwen's bedroom was cold as a morgue tray.
No matter how he played it out, standing there, looking at the mess in front of him, Worth kept running up against the unavoidable fact:
She'd beaten a guy to death with a lamp. While he slept. She'd crept out of bed so she wouldn't wake him, and then she'd hit him until his face was gone.
Afterward, she'd opened windows. She'd even rolled up a bathroom towel along the bottom of the door.
You didn't have to be a lawyer to imagine how it would play in court. Russell James was the victim now. Not the other way around.
For Gwen, even with a back full of ugly bruises, self-defense would be a tough sell. He imagined the prosecution's arguments: Had the defendant ever attempted to leave the victim? Had she ever filed a report? Could the defense offer any proof that the defendant had suffered her injuries at the hands of the victim in the first place?
If she'd been able to slip out of bed undetected, why had she chosen to bludgeon the victim to death in his sleep instead of simply leaving the apartment and finding safe haven?
She'd eventually reported the crime. Maybe she'd helped herself there. But in this town, she'd still be above the fold in the papers, a lead-off on the six and ten. A juicy burning-bed story. She'd be there again at trial time.
Worth thought of Gwen, working bad shifts, knuckling over textbooks during her breaks. He thought of all the waste-of-space Russells he'd encountered on the job. He thought of Tiffany Pine.
An overwhelming sadness swept over him, like a wave that had been building from a great depth.
Even if she caught the outside odds, some sort of clemency, starting now, this girl's life was off the rails. And for what?
He hadn't known he was capable of thinking this way. Worth wondered how his older brother Kelly would have handled the situation. He thought he knew the answer, and it didn't really help.
He wondered what Dr. Grail would have written in his case folder.
By the time he'd taken off his gear belt and started unbuttoning his winter duty shirt, Worth had moved beyond all that. Past logic, past speculation, past the right or the wrong, finally on to something he found simpler to grasp:
In that sense it came down to nothing more or less complicated than sacking groceries. A big pile of problems. A few tidy solutions.
Russell had been a good-looking guy.
As it happened, he'd also been just about Worth's size.
The alley separated Gwen's building from a sagging two-story house next door. In back, a cross alley ran between a row of overflowing Dumpsters and the backs of two other apartment buildings. Nothing to the north but a fractured pad of asphalt, fenced off from the street by weedy, trash-clogged chain link. Tenant parking. Currently vacant but for one dark, orphaned GTO.
Worth had parked the cruiser out front. As if from a distance, he saw himself hoisting a rolled rug into a fireman's carry, descending a wooden fire escape in back. He wore a dead guy's clothes, black ball cap stitched with a NASCAR patch pulled low over his eyes. It was like watching a murky scene in some movie. A movie about bad people. Dumb bad people.
But if anybody with a view happened to look out a window, they wouldn't see a uniformed cop hauling a bulging bundle out the back of Gwen Mullen's apartment after midnight. If anybody in the building was paying attention, the presence of the squad unit would most likely draw their attention toward the street.
If anybody who knew Russell came around the corner, or up the fire escape, Worth didn't know what would happen.
Problem number three: vehicles.
Meet the Author
Sean Doolittle is the author of four novels: The Cleanup, Rain Dogs, Burn (winner of the gold medal in the mystery category of ForeWord Magazine's 2003 Book of the Year Award), and Dirt (an Amazon.com Top 100 Editor's Pick for 2001). His short stories have been collected in Plots With Guns and The Year's Best Mystery Stories 2002. He lives with his family in Omaha, Nebraska.
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I came across Sean Doolittle after finding his story (Mr. Big Deal) in the super hero anthology Who Can Save Us Now?. Based off how much I liked that story, I decided to read one of his novels. All I can say is, I've been missing out. "The Cleanup" seems like such a simple premise, yet the characters and writing take the story much deeper. Matthew Worth just wants to do what is right, stand up for Gwen when she needs some help. What he doesn't know about Gwen's situation is what might just get him killed. From the broken cop (Matthew Worth) to the dirty cops (Briggs & Salcedo), to the needy but hard to resist girl (Gwen), add in a hitman and you have yourself one hell of a ride. Doolittle's characters are excellent, his writing is top notch and the story moves along at just the right pace. The story has a "Fargo" / "A Simple Plan" type of feel to it. I've already bought Doolittle's new novel Lake Country and plan to read his future novels. Highly, highly recommended noir, edgy story!