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The Snow Angel
By Michael Graham
Schaffner Press Copyright © 2006 Michael Graham
All rights reserved.
Ralph Kane sat on the edge of his bed in a ratty east-end rooming house, contemplating the Beretta in his hand. Kane — Detective III, badge number 2342, forty-seven years of age, sixteen years in Organized Crime Intelligence — was trying to settle on the best way to kill himself.
He was a short man with a graying military haircut, wiry, without a trace of fat. His right cheek bore the scar of an ancient knife wound. His constantly-moving eyes missed nothing.
Outside the window, heavy snow was falling. Across the street a Christmas tree in the upper window of a two-flat blinked on and off, mocking him. From a church down the street a ridiculous bell pealed out "Joy to the World."
Kane considered the options. Whenever a cop took himself out, he did it with a gun. That was the code, show the world you have balls.
But Kane had a problem with that. A nine-millimeter leaves a large exit wound, and someone would have to deal with the mess. Besides, being alone in a room like this, it was possible that no one would hear the shot. Days could go by before anyone discovered him. As much as he disliked his landlady, he couldn't do that to her.
Of course, if he capped himself somewhere else, a stranger might find him — maybe even some little kid. Kane recalled cases where a child was the first one to come across a gunshot death. That's a terrible thing to do to an innocent.
Systematically, he considered other methods. He rejected the spectacular ways — jumping from a high building, running in front of a train, driving into an expressway overpass. People who resorted to such methods, he believed, were selfish exhibitionists. An average citizen who witnesses something like that is troubled by the memory for life. Kane's fight was with himself, not strangers.
Poisoning was too complicated, requiring too much preparation and knowledge of chemistry. Kane never worked Homicide, so he wasn't up on such things. He might screw it up, end up a brain-damaged invalid.
Ditto a pill overdose or drowning. Besides, the river was too cold this time of the year. Carbon monoxide was a good way, but he had no access to a private garage. Hanging was too messy, and there was the same problem with finding the right location. Kane lay the gun down.
He crossed the room to his portable refrigerator and opened another beer. Then, automatically, he turned on the radio. Hearing "The Little Drummer Boy," he snapped it back off. He took a pull off the beer, then started to pace about the small room.
He thought back to the times past when he had considered suicide, all the times he had held back. Cowardice, that was his secret shame. Never mind the medals, the bravery citations. He was yellow, just like his old man had always said.
He thought about his only child, Pete, dead from a drug overdose at seventeen, six years ago. And his ex-wife, Jennie, now drinking herself stupid in a little shack in northern Michigan. What could he have done to change things for them?
Not only was Kane a coward, he was a guilty coward. A fresh wave of self-loathing washed over him. He picked up the remote television control and snapped it on. A preacher, in love with his own voice, droned on about the "true meaning of Christmas," now just five days away.
He glared at the television in disgust. What planet does this pious prick live on? How can a rational human being believe that loving-God shit? Assholes like him should spend a couple of years in some war zone. Pick one.
Kane muted the television, walked to the window and looked out at the street. Already his department car, a green Pontiac, was covered with snow. There, Kane decided. That's where I'll do it, inside the car. Locked.
The more he considered the matter, the more he realized that the unmarked police car was the perfect place to die. A forty-five-degree angle up into the mouth would drive the slug through the car roof, not out the back window where it could hurt someone down the street. Locking the doors would prevent some passing dirtbag from stealing the Beretta. He'd radio for assistance just before he capped off the round. That way, the person who found him would be a fellow cop.
Having made the decision, Kane suddenly felt almost giddy. This would be his final fuck-you to this city and this police department.
His mind started moving in other directions. Absurdly, he wondered if his low-life "customers" would miss him. He thought about the militia group he'd been working, and the latest LCN conspiracy. How about Vito Vitale, and Aldo Giacalone, and Carmine Lucci? What would the goombahs say when they found out old Ralph Kane ate his gun? It was creepy, now that he thought about it, but those shitheads were the closest thing he had to a family.
Kane let his mind linger there for a moment. No other cop could ever get close to those pricks, not the way he had. For sure, not the current batch in OCI. Like that college punk, Van Horn, who prided himself on being the youngest lieutenant in department history.
Kane took another swig of beer. He thought about last night, sitting in Harvey's Place, idly listening to a new blues group. Out of nowhere, Harvey had asked him if it was true he was planning to pull the plug.
The question startled Kane. How had Harvey guessed? Then he realized the old bar owner was talking about his retirement. The word was out, Harvey had informed him, that Kane was about to retire.
So Kane had set him straight. "Don't believe what you hear on the street," he told Harvey. The city's dirtbags couldn't wait for old Ralph Kane to retire. But he didn't have his twenty-five years in yet.
Kane let his mind wander back to the early years of his police life, to the incident with the Caldwell kid. He winced, then went back even further, to the Marine Corps — and that nightmarish day when Saigon fell. The memory of that horrible day had been coming back a lot lately, and not just in his sleep, the way it used to. Now the nightmare kept popping up when he was awake, with the clarity of a technicolor movie.
He forced Saigon from his thoughts and, instead thought about Angela, and what was probably his last chance ever for happiness. He remembered the early weeks with her, when he was on the wagon. Their lovemaking had been a ballet, the closest Kane would ever get to a spiritual experience. But then he had to screw it up by drinking again.
Kane was puzzled by the memory. It had been three years now, and he rarely thought about her any more. Maybe it's always this way with men who are about to kill themselves, he thought. Maybe they always review the regrets.
Then, at last, he thought about his brother Billy, also dead. His only sibling had been murdered two years earlier inside Statesville Prison. Kane tried to imagine Billy's last thoughts as a fellow convict shanked him ...
Fuck this sentimental bullshit, he told himself finally. He set the beer on the counter, put on his mackinaw and picked up the Beretta. He studied it for another long moment. How will it feel? You see hundreds of these things. But you never know, do you?
He shoved the pistol in his belt and unsnapped the deadbolt on the door. The wall phone rang. Reflexively he grabbed it. "Kane."
"Ralph, this is Roberta Easterly."
Kane was startled. He took a deep breath before answering. "What can I do for you, Inspector?"
"We've got a caper going down," she said. "A bad one."
Of all the fucked-up timing. "I'm off today. I have plans."
"It's a kidnap, Detective. A child."
"Why are you calling me? I don't work that detail."
"Because it looks professional, and no one in this city has better informants."
Kane pondered that. "It's a little boy," Easterly added quietly. "He's seven years old. We need you."
Kane shut his eyes. Then he shook his head. "I'll be there in a few minutes."
When he received the same summons Isaiah Bell was in church — a white man's church, no less. Wearing a trench coat over a dark blue suit and red tie, Bell stood with his family in a middle pew of St. Aidan's, watching the congregation sing. The floor was wet in several places where worshippers had tracked in snow. Everyone, including the Bell family, wore galoshes.
Bell covertly inspected the Christmas-decorated church, and the congregation. The Bells were the only African Americans here. His wife Vera, twenty years his junior, sang with feeling: "I once was lost, but now I'm found ..."
The kids, Cassie, ten, and Ikey, eight, dressed in warm clothing, were less than enthusiastic about the hymn. But they were well-behaved children, and quietly endured the Sunday ritual with these strange white people. They knew how important good behavior was to their parents, especially here in the new neighborhood. If they missed the old church,
with the raucous gospel songs and amen! shouts, they did not show it. Bell burned with love for them.
Ike Bell was nearly fifty-four years old. But, except for the graying hair atop his coal-black face, you would never know it. He was a huge man, maybe six-five, built like a linebacker — which, indeed, he once had been, before leaving school for the Special Forces and Vietnam. Now, still rock hard, he had the arms and hands of a man who could break a person in half.
Bell's cell phone went off. As the Gang Intelligence Unit's weekend duty officer, he had to keep it on at all times, but had it set to the vibrate mode, so no one else would hear it during the service. He checked the number. It was a headquarters extension. Vera looked at him quizzically. He shrugged. His wife just shook her head, knowing what to expect.
Bell waited for the hymn to end, then discreetly slipped out of the pew. The other parishioners sat down for the sermon and glanced at him politely as he quietly walked toward the back door. He heard the pastor begin the homily, a pleasant man who, just two weeks ago, had welcomed Bell's family to the neighborhood:
"Our lesson this morning concerns the promise of Christmas, the promise that culminates in the miracle of the Resurrection — the promise of human redemption ..."
Bell feared the minister would think him rude. But the man knew what he did for a living. When welcoming the family to the congregation, he had made it clear that he appreciated the police and "all the heroic things you people do to keep our community safe." His brother Mike was a cop in Detroit, he revealed, adding something about the Archangel Michael being the first policeman.
The speech was a little too self-conscious, Bell thought at the time. He decided, for Vera's sake, to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Still, he fought the old cynicism: how warm would these people be if he were some African American janitor? He knew that from now on the Bells would be the parish's "black family," even though no one would ever say it that way. How many of the people in this community had ever suffered? He thought about mothers in gang-infested neighborhoods whose children had to sleep on the floor to avoid bullets flying through the windows. What did these people know about that world?
But, still, Vera liked St. Aidan's better than any other church she had investigated in the three months since they'd moved into their "new" thirty-year-old house. She was nondenominational and ecumenical. She didn't care about the messenger. All she wanted from a church was to hear the real message of Christ. So far these people were doing a pretty good job.
Bell opened the church door. Wind-driven snow blasted his face. The stuff was coming down even harder, a thoroughly rotten morning. He paused to light a furtive cigarette. Vera would raise hell if she saw him. He hadn't been able to quit, which he had promised when the department doctor first got on his case. Here I am, sneaking my drug like a common hype.
Bell hated this time of the year. The winters were endless, and this one was just beginning. Someone in olden times must have put Christmas in late December for just that reason, to bring a little joy to an utterly depressing season.
He crossed the parking lot to the family station wagon, in case this was going to turn into a long conversation. The snow was already halfway up to his knees. For the thousandth time, he wished he had joined the Los Angeles PD back when he was discharged from the Army out in California twenty-eight years ago.
Instead he had come here, to an entirely strange city. At that time, even before affirmative action, the department was actively seeking African American recruits. The city fathers foresaw an explosive race problem. They needed black faces on the job. So they authorized bonuses to black military veterans, and young Ike Bell had responded to their ad in Army Times.
Now, three years past retirement age, Bell still clung to the job because his wife and kids needed the money. That's what happens when a confirmed bachelor finally marries late in life. He reined in his regret. Not only was it futile, if he had stayed in California he wouldn't even have this family.
Bell wished he could be more like Vera, a trauma nurse at Central Receiving. He admired his wife's faith, and the love she had for her fellow man. He would give anything to be like her. But he had too many old resentments.
They were very different people, he and Vera. He had seen far too much of life's ugly side. And, despite her entreaties, he supposed he'd never get over this race thing.
He knew his anger was justified. But he also remembered how his father had driven himself crazy with resentment, until it finally killed him. And he remembered what that did to his mother. Vera was right; such rage was toxic. And Bell always feared that his father's madness might be genetic.
So now here he was, all these years later, in this dismal northern city, having just moved his family into a lily-white suburb to get away from the gangbangers who were destroying their old community. At times, Bell was not overly fond of the black race, either.
He got in the station wagon, turned on the motor for heat, and dialed the headquarters number. "Major Crimes, Officer Williams," a black voice answered.
"This is Detective Bell, from GIU. Someone paged me." "Stand by."
Bell was puzzled by the source of the call. What could Major Crimes want from him?
Then, realizing that he was still smoking, he rolled down the windows and turned on the fan. He knew he might already be in trouble: Vera had a sensitive nose. He flicked the cigarette out into the snow, just as a female voice came on the line: "Detective, this is Inspector Roberta Easterly, commanding Major Crimes."
"I know who you are, Inspector."
"I'm sorry to interrupt your weekend, but we need you. We have a very nasty kidnapping going down."
"Kidnapping? I work gangs. Kidnapping belongs to Criminal Conspiracy."
"You also have the best network of black informants in the city." She paused. "It's a child, Detective. A black child, seven years old. It looks professional. We're bringing in specialists from all over the department."
Bell looked at the clean lines of the modern suburban church, at the spire reaching up through the snow. He sighed, remembering what he always told young cops when they complained about the job: no one drafted you.
"I'm at church with my family. With this weather ... I have to go home for the department car."
"Get down here as soon as you can. And don't tell anyone. We're trying to minimize media exposure."
"Yes, ma'm." He turned off the cell phone, wondering who the hell he would tell. But Roberta Easterly was one of the most respected command officers in the department. So he did not question the legitimacy of the call. This will get my family some attention, he thought, pulling them out in the middle of the service.
Bell rolled up the windows and climbed out of the station wagon. He stopped and picked up the soggy cigarette butt, dropped it in a trashcan, then walked back to the church. He stomped the snow off his feet before entering.
The snow again had stopped falling by the time Kane pulled the green Pontiac into the side street adjacent to the ancient headquarters building. He wore jeans and an old mackinaw.
Platoon Two was into their midwatch shift change, so the street was jammed with blue-and-whites. There never was any place to park around here. Kane pulled alongside a fire hydrant and placed the blue Kojak light on the dashboard, a time-honored practice. Lately the squints in Admin had been issuing reprimands for such infractions, but today Kane didn't give a damn. Let's see them summon a dead man to an ass-chewing.
He reached into the glove box and pulled out a pint of cheap whiskey. He took a long pull off it, then popped a breath mint into his mouth.
He got out of the car and noted that the wind had shifted. Now it was blowing in from the south, so the air was warming up again — typical for this time of year. Next it would probably rain on top of the snow, then freeze again. He silently cursed the weather. He rubbed his chin and remembered that he hadn't shaved.
On the way up the front steps of headquarters, he passed a pair of detectives who worked Central Holdup. They pointedly looked away. Kane ignored them.
As an intelligence officer, he was as much a spy as a detective. His job was to collect information about crime syndicates, keep track of things — who was who, and what they were doing. That information provided deep background for other investigators and prosecutors. Kane himself never had to gather actual evidence, testify in court, or work with a partner. It was the perfect job for a loner.
Excerpted from The Snow Angel by Michael Graham. Copyright © 2006 Michael Graham. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
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