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Dennis Drabelle…an enthralling and unsettling story. Doolittle has written four previous novels, and Safer is good enough to make me want to catch up with them all.
—The Washington Post
In this unsettling thriller from Barry Award-winner Doolittle (The Cleanup), Boston transplants Paul Callaway and his wife, Sara, scare off a violent intruder their first night in their new home in Clark Falls, Iowa, where Paul has taken up a post as an English professor at the local university. As a result of this incident, the Callaways meet members of their tight-knit community, including ex-cop Roger Mallory, the neighborhood's unofficial protector. Though Paul is initially welcomed into Roger's circle of friends, Paul becomes suspicious when he discovers Roger is conducting secret surveillance of the neighborhood. Tensions mount between the two men, coming to a head after Paul is arrested for child pornography, a charge he's sure Roger helped concoct. Desperate to clear his name, Paul begins his own investigation into Roger's past. Despite Doolittle's admirably complex plot and empathetic hero, readers may question just how many skeletons a single small town can have in its closets. (Mar.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Friday, December 16—9:25 p.m.
My wife, Sara, and I are hosting a faculty party at our home when the Clark Falls Police Department arrives to take me into custody.
It's the last day of the fall semester. On campus, offices are darkened, final exams completed, lecture halls standing empty until the new year. Most of our colleagues, a few graduate students, and assorted companions have retreated here, at our invitation, to shake off the cold and brace for the holidays.
The house smells like mulled cider and catered food. Hickory logs crackle in the fireplace while conversation bubbles and alcohol flows. I'm at the foot of the staircase with Warren Giler, the chancellor's husband, where we've found common ground on Islay scotch, the '04 Red Sox, and a mutual ambivalence regarding faculty parties. Winter air threads its way into the festivities.
"I'm sorry?" I hear my wife say. She's standing at the front door in her dress and heels, talking to a man in an overcoat. I see two uniformed officers behind him, breathing clouds on our stoop. "Can you tell me what this is about?"
"Uh-oh," Giler says to me. "Those men look stern."
He's right. They do. "I'd better go help," I tell him. "You're not wanted, are you?"
"Not to my knowledge. Possibly the music is too loud?"
I chuckle and excuse myself. Sara gives me a worried look as I join her at the door. She looks terrific with her hair up.
"Evening, guys." I smile. "Cold tonight."
"That's right." There are two squad cars parked in front of our house, plus an unmarked sedan in our driveway, behind the catering van. "Is something wrong?"
The man in the overcoat reproduces the badge he's just shown Sara, a gold shield seated in a black leather wallet. He stands medium height, trim and efficient-looking, gray hair neatly combed. Detective Bell, according to the ID card. "Mr. Callaway, we're here to place you under arrest."
Bell hands me a folded document. "I'll give you a minute to find a coat."
Sara takes the papers out of my hand. "Let me see that."
"Guys," I say. "Obviously there's a mistake."
"I'll give you a minute," Bell repeats, "to find a coat."
Our guests are starting to pay closer attention. The simmering stew of conversation thins near the door. Sara, leafing through what appears to be a court-issued arrest warrant, takes a short breath and whispers, "Paul . . ."
"I'm telling you, I don't even have any parking tickets. Arrest me for what?"
"Suspicion of the sexual exploitation of a minor," Bell informs me, this time louder than strictly necessary. He produces a second document. "This entitles us to search the premises, as well as your office on campus."
"My office on campus?" I don't even have an office on campus. I have a mailbox and a table I like in the faculty lounge. In the pin-drop background, all conversation has ceased. I hear the silence rippling through the house, but I've had three rounds of scotch with Warren Giler and now I've lost my temper. "Let me see that badge again."
"I can instruct the officers to handcuff and Mirandize you right here on the steps if that's the way you'd prefer to accomplish this." Bell looks me in the eyes. "But I can see that you're having a party."
Sara says, "Paul . . ."
In spite of the shock I know exactly who's behind this little production. But it still doesn't make any sense. Sexual what? I picture all of this from the point of view of one of our guests—say for instance Warren Giler, the chancellor's husband—and I realize that by reacting the way any reasonable person might, I'm only making things worse. In fact, I can see in the tense, readied looks on the faces of the two officers flanking Detective Bell that I'm possibly one good outburst away from getting Tasered in my own doorway.
"This has to be a joke," I say.
"Mr. Callaway, you have the right to remain silent." Detective Bell stands aside as one of the officers moves his hand to the cuffs on his belt.
"Jesus." I kiss Sara on the forehead, break away, and reach for the closet.
"Paul, this says . . ."
"It's okay." I nod inside the house. "See if anybody in there knows a lawyer who can make things as unpleasant as possible for Detective Bell and his teenage sons here."
"I want your badge numbers before you leave," Sara says. "All of you." She's taken her administrative tone, and something about the sound of it fills my heart with gratitude. It tells me—if I needed to know—that despite all we've been through these past few months, we're still playing on the same team.
For the moment, that's all I need to set aside the fundamental injustice under way here, swallow the hundred protests clanging in my head, and move this insanity away from our doorstep. I put on my coat and join the two officers waiting to escort me to the curb.
The night air is a bracing slap that leaves me hyperalert, yet strangely numb at the same time. On either side of me, I can feel the officers' hands on my elbows. I can feel the flagstones beneath the soles of my shoes. I can hear myself breathing, feel the hairs freezing in my nostrils, but none of it feels real.
At the curb, the cop on my left cuffs my hands in front of me and puts me in the back of the lead squad unit, behind the wire cage. The other cop finishes informing me, in case I didn't catch it the first time, of my right to remain silent. As to rights, I have a number of others, and he lets me know about those. Do I understand?
I nod my head anyway. The door slams shut, muffling the world outside.
The officer who handcuffed me retraces his steps back to our front door, where he says something to Detective Bell, then something to Sara. Giving his badge number as requested, I presume. The silence around me is punctuated by the occasional soft crackle of the police radio up front. The car smells like peppermint and sweat.
After a few moments, the officer returns and gets in behind the wheel.
"I know you're just doing your job," I tell him through the wire cage, "but this is bullshit."
He makes a sound like it isn't a shift until somebody tells him that. How old is this kid? Except for the uniform, and the gun that goes with it, he looks like he could be a new freshman on campus.
"Out of curiosity, who am I supposed to have exploited? I'd really love to know."
The officer speaks a few words into his radio in a code-riddled language I don't understand, then fastens his seat belt and starts the car.
Our house is the first on the left as you enter the circle, making it the last house you'd pass as you leave. All of our guests' cars are facing my direction. But these cops came in backward, straight to our address, which means that we have to drive clockwise all the way around in order to exit, past each of our neighbors, one by one. Through the foggy backseat window, I see Pete and Melody Seward's porch light go dark as we roll past.
"I guess these cars don't go in reverse," I say, still too angry to be humiliated. We pass Trish and Barry Firth's house, now Michael and Ben's. I saw Michael not half an hour ago, in our kitchen, tutoring the caterers. "Why didn't you back up into the driveway, turn around—wait, but then you couldn't have paraded me around the neighborhood first. You're right, this is much better."
"Let's have a contest," the young cop finally says. "Whoever can be quietest all the way to the station wins. How about that?"
"Gee, I don't know, Officer." Condescending prick. "Who gets to judge?"
Sycamore Court is decked for the holidays. All around the circle, white light drips like icicles from the dormers and eaves. Tendrils of smoke curl from the chimneys, and all the trees twinkle in the cold. I see a wet glint in the dark as the cop's eyes flicker to the mirror again.
"That's a good point," he says. "I guess it'll have to be your word against mine. Sir."
We're almost all the way around now. Between the squat stone pillars on either side of the entrance, I see the black ribbon of newly topped asphalt that will take us around the tree line, down the hill, and into the thick of Ponca Heights, the newer housing development below.
I take a long look at my neighbor Roger's house as we roll past, directly across the circle from ours. His dark windows seem to be watching us. I sense the meaning in the cop's eyes, still fixed on me in the mirror: Get the picture?
For the first time, I feel a chill in my joints that has nothing to do with the weather. I get the picture.
Off we go.
Our neighbors say they can't believe how much Clark Falls has grown. They wonder where all the people are coming from.
Sara and I came from Boston, and to us, Clark Falls feels more or less like what it is: a pleasant little university town fifteen hundred miles from Boston. The city proper tucks up against a range of forested bluffs, which rise unexpectedly from the Iowa flatlands and run along the eastern bank of the Missouri River. We've learned that these bluffs are known as the Loess Hills, which explains the town slogan found on welcome signs posted at the city limits: Clark Falls: Loess Is More.
Forty-five thousand people live here, sixty thousand during the school term. According to the plaque on the front steps of the courthouse, the original township, built up around the frontier fur trade, earned its name for the modest tumble of springwater William Clark pointed out to Meriwether Lewis some months into their storied walk to the Pacific Ocean two hundred years ago.
We don't go up the front steps of the courthouse. Instead, I'm driven around back to a secured parking facility, then escorted into the adjoining building, which houses the Clark Falls Municipal Jail.
I realize that I've been anticipating the police station. I know what the inside of the police station looks like because Sara and I went there together, back in July, to leaf through mug shots. I've been thinking of the police station, not the jail, and that's the first thing that makes all of this start to sink in.
The officer who drove me here—C. Mischnik, according to the nameplate pinned to his fur-collared duty coat—stops in a frosty vestibule and checks his gun at a bank of small gray lockers. He takes the locker key in one hand, my elbow in the other, and pushes on through the next set of doors.
I'm led down a buzzing fluorescent corridor, past two officers on their way out, and into a grimy central pod for booking. A middle-aged desk sergeant with veins in his cheeks sits me down in a cold plastic chair. He asks me questions without looking at me, hunts and pecks at a plastic-covered keyboard. I'm entering the system.
"When does somebody explain this?" I shift in my chair. "Where's Detective Bell?"
"Address of residency," the sergeant says.
I can only imagine what the sergeant must be thinking. Wouldn't an innocent man have asked for an explanation already?
Or maybe the sergeant couldn't care less. Maybe he's just waiting for my information so that he can type it into the blank spots on his computer screen.
Why didn't I take the time to read the arrest warrant? There I was, marching out of the house with a righteous stride, and now I don't know the first thing about the charges against me. I feel like I've leapt off the end of a sturdy dock onto a frozen pond, and the ice is cracking all around me.
The sergeant is waiting.
"I'd like to make a phone call," I say.
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Now the sergeant finally looks at me. He raises his eyebrows.
"Thirty-four Sycamore Court," I tell him, starting the gears of the justice machine turning again.
I know that Clark Falls isn't Boston. It can't be more than fifteen degrees outside, the local bars won't close for three more hours, and I have no frame of reference in the first place, but still: it must be slow in here for a Friday. Except for me and the desk sergeant, the intake area is bright and vacant.
A plate of crumbs and candy sprinkles sits in a puddle of red cellophane on a nearby table. There's a spindly artificial Christmas tree standing cockeyed in the corner; colored lights blink a few times, chase each other around the frazzled branches, then blink again.
I follow the faint crackle of radio chatter to a glass partition labeled Dispatch, where a young woman wearing a bulky holiday sweater and a radio headset sits behind a shoulder-high console, working the controls. I hear Officer Mischnik joking around with somebody down the hall. In a moment, I see him emerge with a foam cup in one hand, steam curling around the rim. He pauses to chat up the dispatcher through the glass.
Sitting here, hands cuffed in my lap, robotically answering these questions about the mundane nuts and bolts of my life, it strikes me that, on the right side of things, this is just a place where people work. They come here for a while and go home again. In between, they joke and eat cookies and earn paychecks.
There's no way to get comfortable in this chair. The desk sergeant pokes at the keys and squints at his screen. Hard steel gnaws at my wrist bones. I forgot to put on gloves before I stalked out of the house, and my hands are freezing.
I'm on the wrong side of things.
This is happening.
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