At the beginning of her career, Sarah "Salt" Alt was a beat cop in Atlanta's poorest, most violent housing project, The Homes. It is here that she meets the cast of misfits and criminals that will have a profound impact on her later cases: Man Man, the leader of the local gang on his way to better places; street dealer Lil D and his family; and Sister Connelly, old and observant, the matriarch of the neighborhood. A lone patrolwoman, Salt's closest lifeline is her friend and colleague Pepper, on his own beat nearby. And when a murder in The Homes brings detectives to the scene, Salt draws closer to Detective Wills, initiating a romance complicated by their positions on the force.
When Salt is shot and sustains a head injury during a routine traffic stop, the resulting visions begin leading her toward answers in the case that makes her career. This is the tale of a woman who solves crimes through a combination of keen observation, grunt work, and pure gut instinct; this is the making of Detective Salt.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Trudy Nan Boyce
CHAPTER 1—IMPROPER CROSSING OF THE GORE
They were always close to hard times. So she and Pepper invented a game to play before the calls piled up. On Friday, their Thursday, because their off days were Sunday and Monday, they had run from roll call, scrambling to get to the Crown Vics. In the late afternoon, before the zone began to bust up, before the adrenaline hours, they would try to make a traffic case on some obscure charge. The winner would be the first one to have written at least one ticket for each of the violations in the traffic code.
Running her finger down the worn list, Salt had made all the easy ones a hundred times over, “Stop Sign,” “Failure to Yield,” “Improper Equipment,” and she had made the harder ones, A through H. Her favorite so far was the “Lewd Bumper Sticker” case she had made last week. “Fuck Up,” it had read. “Improper Crossing of the Gore” was on her agenda for the afternoon. If she could make this one she’d keep her slight lead on Pepper.
After shift, on the nights he had ticketed for some obscure infraction, Pepper would make his entrance into the precinct giving her the business and calling himself “Hot Pepper,” inviting the rest of the cops to rain insults, Pepper playing straight to the champions of put-down. “I am, black and proud and red hot tonight,” pimp walking into the precinct, underscoring his street name.
Now idling on the expressway, Salt sat parked beside an entrance ramp wall, watching for a gore violation. The vibrations of the concrete ramp beside her reverberated to her hand on the gear arm. Hearing Pepper on her shoulder mike calling out a tractor-trailer rig stop, she could imagine some weird “tonnage” charge he’d be carrying on about at shift change. Highway dirt blew up from a ragged hole in the passenger side floorboard. A fine dust coated her arms and everything in the car, one of the Atlanta Police Department’s finest vehicles. The city was playing its budget games again this year, this season with the police vehicle acquisition contract.
Still smiling at the thought of “Hot Pepper” she saw a Maxima come shooting from the entrance ramp sending roadside trash whirling, its draft rocking the patrol car. The driver ignored the thatched lines of the gore island and had to break sharply before he was able to bull into Atlanta’s fragile, rule-dependent, rush hour commuter derby. “As improper a crossing as it gets,” she declared out loud as she hit the blue lights and fell in behind the violator, calling the stop. “Radio, hold me out southbound on the Downtown Connector at Fulton street on a late model black Maxima, New York tag ‘one x-ray, Mary, two, two, five,’ occupied one time, white male driver.” The car pulled slowly into the emergency lane, the driver seeming uncertain, brake lights on, off, on, off, his silhouette leaning right. Her foot copied his, on the brakes, on the gas, off, on. She followed him a hundred yards or so until he pulled to a stop in the right emergency lane.
Beginning of rush hour was always the most dangerous, traffic just fast enough so that accidents, occurring at the higher speeds, were more injurious. She stepped out of the cruiser, hyper vigilant of the roaring freeway on her left. An eighteen-wheeler’s big tires, head high, whooshed close. Speeding cars and a hot wind swirled dust and debris across fourteen lanes. She put her hand up to shield her eyes as she approached the Maxima. Muscle memory took over; coming up close on the rear driver’s side, touching the trunk with her entire palm flat on the warm metal, watching the barely visible print evaporate. The oils from her body could be evidence if a driver made a run for it. The safety films at the academy had perps hiding there ready to spring out, “Make sure the trunk is latched.” She pressed the lid but in the noise of the traffic, which wasn’t in the training film, couldn’t be certain what she heard, something, a click?
She moved to stand just behind the driver’s window and leaning down began a polite, “Sir, the reason I stopped you is because you merged illegally, crossing the gore.”
The driver, about forty years old, didn’t look at her but stared straight ahead, his large hands hovering over the steering wheel, “I crossed what?” His lips were badly chapped, pieces of skin peeling off with some tiny, fresh bloody spots.
“The gore, the diagonal lines between the ramp lane and the traffic lane. Could I see your license and proof of insurance?”
His jaw muscles clinched beneath gray stubbled cheeks, “You stopped me for crossing some lines?”
She focused on his hands. On the back of his left hand was a fuzzed line tattoo of a joker with hat points on the knuckles. A jail type tattoo of blue gray ink. “Sir?” checking the interior of the car, “Sir, do you have your license?”
“You stopped me for that?” The points of the hat spread as his fingers tightened around the steering wheel.
“Sir, it’s a violation.”
“I apologize, Officer. I didn’t know it was against the law.”
“May I see your driver’s license.” There was can of carburetor cleaner and a black case on the passenger seat.
“I said I was sorry. Give me a break,” his eyes were on hers as it registered, all wrong – carburetor cleaner for a new car? No. Carburetor cleaner, the lazy man’s gun cleaner, the black case.
“Sir, do you have your license?”
“Look, Officer,” he was beginning to spit his words, “I pulled over, I apologized for breaking a tiny rule that I didn’t know existed. Now why don’t you give me a fucking break.”
She’d already heard it in his voice anyway; his wires crossed, now pulled too tight, a jailhouse joker, a convict. Now they both knew he couldn’t con her. His right hand went to his jacket. Backing away, she reached for her weapon, unsnapping the safety strap, fast drawing. “Radio start me another.” Before she could finish the transmission he was moving, opening the car door. She backed toward her cruiser, seeking cover, careful of the rubble of the freeway under her boots. As quickly, before she could get to the car, he was out of the Maxima, both arms in a shooting stance, short barrel, a glint of fire.
The world slowed, the expressway faded and the sounds of traffic were gone. She saw gray white smoke from her gun, saw the rounds entering the blue cloth of his shirt and watched as he fell backwards in the blowing dirt. Then there was only her own breathing and the weight of her weapon.
Like a phone ringing in someone else’s house, radio was calling, “3306, 3306, 3306.”
“3306,” her mouth formed words but she couldn’t hear them.
Still in tactical mode, her focus was on the driver, though he had to be dead, she had clearly seen the rounds entering exactly where his heart should be, she moved closer to him, slowly, still pointing the nine, keeping the sights trained, her eyes gritty from the flying dirt and not blinking. She kicked his weapon away, breathing heavy, her mouth open, smelling and tasting gunpowder.
The stream of time eddied and broke as she pointed her gun at the motionless man. Eventually, she dropped her arms to a waist-high stance. Then Pepper was there, calling out as he ran up, “Salt, Salt.” He touched her shoulder. Only then did she holster. But the wind had blown something into her eyes, making it hard for her to see.
Pepper took her elbow and made a cradle with his arm, guiding her down to the dirt-coated asphalt. “Radio, 3306 has been shot. Ambulance. Code 3!”
She wanted to tell him it was okay but she got distracted trying to clear her sight. She touched her eyes, slowly, carefully. They felt sticky. One eye cleared enough for her to see that her hand was covered in blood, and she was confused because she hadn’t touched the dead man. His blood wasn’t on her. Now her lips were wet and tasted of gun smoke, a sharp flavor mingling with her own trickling blood.
Pepper was telling her, “You’re okay. You’re going to be okay.” She felt his hands moving her hair, tracing through her scalp. The words to a childhood prayer had been trying to surface, “Lead me,” was the only part she seemed to remember. And then she lay back and rested on the hot pavement, not far from the gritty white lines of the gore.
She was a chair maker, alone in sepia-tinted woods, wearing overalls and gloves. In the distance, seen through a mist, were trees, their almost black trunks visible in a light fog. The trunks of the closer trees, their limbs bare, appeared darker. The ground was covered in brown leaves. A clearing, her workspace, room for materials and the work.
She had just finished the first chair of rough, gray, uneven boards, which stuck up at odd heights on the back, a chair of the folk, not a standard size but larger, with an unusual elegance.
Then someone, faceless, nameless, but important, came into the clearing and admired the chair and then vanished.
She began to decide what to use to for her next chair, whether to use some rough tree limbs, some shiny, painted-primary-color boards, or the same rough weathered boards that the first chair had been made from. She chose the rough boards and began again.
The dream shifted. The mist swirled back revealing the upstairs of her house. Trees gave way to walls Leaves blew back from bloodied flowers on the rug. Terror crept into her gut at the realization of what was coming. Her paint stained hands were sticky but now with viscous blood.
Her father’s skull rolled at her feet while she stood frozen, unable to move, call out or cry for help.
Salt woke to twilight and tentatively made her way from the hospital bed to the wide window tinted with an aqua color that washed the panorama, high above the city of Atlanta, with a softer, cleaner light, a vastly different perspective than from the streets of The Homes. She touched the crease in her scalp, which in her reflected face seemed to continue down over her forehead, eye and cheek, effects of the anesthesia still lingering.
Grady Hospital, called “The Gradies” by some old Atlantans, plural from a time when the hospital was divided by segregation, was all too familiar. She frequented the trauma center to interview victims and witnesses and sometimes for wounded colleagues. It never seemed to change; the muffled sounds, soft-soled shoes on linoleum, muted doors, and the sick smells underneath disinfectant.
But her first time here she had come to see her father. He was restrained with bandages that tied him to the bed and she’d overheard someone say it was so he wouldn’t throw furniture. “He’s a jumper,” she remembered someone saying and thought they were wrong because she’d never seen her father jump or even run anywhere. He was a walker.
She had worn her Sunday dress. Her mother told her, “Smile and tell him you made an A on the math test.”
“But I,” Salt had said.
“Put on your best face. Do you want him to worry?” Her mother pushed her into the room.
The room had been too warm, too close, as this room was now. Arms spread she pressed her body and the stitched wound, against the cool glass.
“You look like an angel.”
She jumped, startled, then realized there had been a knock but she’d thought it was part of the memory.
“I didn’t mean to scare you. Shouldn’t you be in bed?” At first Salt didn’t recognize the Chief, the big guy himself, his uniform blending in the darkening room. Only his shiny brass badge and insignia catching the light. He was a huge man with terra cotta skin and gray eyes. Her father’s face began to recede though she held on.
“Where were you?” her mother had asked. Her father moaned in the bedroom. His voice heard from anywhere in the house.
“Stay here with him,” shouted her mother.
Salt had given a little push to the door of her parents’ bedroom, and stood looking through the barely cracked door. Her father was lying on the floor and when he lifted his head to look up at her there was sticky blood on his face.
She shook her unbandaged head to get out of the memory then quickly realized that her backside might be exposed through the loosely tied hospital gown and tried to side step her way back to the bed. “I think I’m still a little confused, the drugs maybe. No one told me you were coming.”
“I always make my way here ASAP when my officers are injured. How’s your head feel?”
“They said it’s superficial, a mile, mild, concussion.”
The Chief walked to her side at the bed and put his hand out. “Good, that it’s not so bad. Bad enough.” he said, shaking her hand, the movement jarring her eyesight. “If there’s anything you need, tell Major Townsend. At the window, what were you looking at?”
“Just looking. The city is really different from up here. You know ‘A kinder, gentler, city,’” she said.
When he smiled it was like the grin of the Cheshire cat, all teeth gleaming through the dimness. Closer now his eyes looked tired. Salt felt groggy from the anesthesia, trying to work out if the Chief was part of the memory or the here-and-now.
“It’s the whole picture, not just one perspective, that makes it really beautiful. You did what you had to do on the expressway. I hear about your everyday work, Officer Alt,” said the Chief. “I hope you know the regard your fellow officers have for you.” He turned, walked over to the window and stood looking out.
After what seemed a long silence Salt said, “Chief?”
It was his turn to snap back to the moment, “Some days it’s hard to tell the forest for the trees,” he said.
She thought of the trees in her dream. “Yes, Sir,” she said and fumbled for the light switch pinned to the hospital pillow.
The Chief headed for the door as the florescent light flickered on. He stood with his back to the door and saluted her, “Salt,” he snapped to attention, then made an about-face. Before she could return the salute he was gone and she realized that he had used her street name.
The door didn’t even click shut before the department chaplain stuck his head in. “I’m ready for the prayer. I had to wait for the Chief to leave,” he said walking in and sitting down in the chair next to the bed. He opened a black notebook with the city seal on the front. The preacher was wearing a clerical collar with his dress uniform suit coat. Little white tufts of hair sprang randomly from his pink head.
“Chief, was here,” she said sorting the dreams from the present.
“’The Nondenominational Prayer Specified for Police Officers Shot in the Line of Duty.’” He cleared his throat. “’Yea, though I walk through the valley of. No, wait. That’s the one for ‘Killed in Action.’ Oh, here it is,” he said turning the page. “’Officers Surviving Injury in the Line of Duty.’” “’Yea, though I walk through the valley.’” It’s the same one,” he dismayed.
“Chaplain,” she tried to gently interrupt him, “Could you get me some water?”
“Oh, sure,” he said and stood up quickly, searching the room. The notebook fell on the floor and the prayers scattered. He bent down to scoop them up and banged his head on the food tray as he tried to stuff most of the prayers into the binder. “I’ll put those in order later,” he said and began looking for water. “Where do they keep the ice?” he asked, picking up the hospital cup with a flexible straw.
“I think the ice machine is next to the nurses station.”
“Oh, right,” he said.
“Is Homicide here?” she asked before he opened the door. He was having trouble with the cup and the notebook with the loose prayers.
“They’ve been waiting until I finish.”
“Could you tell them to come on in?”
“I’ll get the water.” He seemed relieved to be going rather than praying. He pried open the door with the edge of the notebook then wedged it open with his foot, calling out to the detectives in the hall, “She said for you to come in. I’m bringing her water.”
In all police-involved shootings Homicide processed the scene, took statements, completed the initial investigation and presented the results to Internal Affairs, which then conducted its own investigation.
The two detectives from Homicide filled the doorway. Salt tried to even out her breath, like she had been taught on the firing range, right before squeezing the trigger, a breath in, part of a breath out.
The detectives, Hamm and her partner, Best, were two of Homicide’s most respected and they were both fat, really, really fat. But neither seemed to mind all the jokes: “Their basic food groups? Glazed, powdered, jelly, and chocolate,” “Is that your belly or did you swallow the suspect,” “Two pigs in a poke,” In fact they both wore little pigs; she, one on her jacket lapel; he had one as a tie tack. Their reputation as detectives was exceptional but they had additional high visibility because of their size. Both were almost as wide as they were tall. Hamm, now at Salt’s bedside, quickly tried to put her at ease, “We just want to get the basics and we’ll be out of here. From what we could tell from the scene, you did all the right things.”
“Why did he do it?” Salt asked. A flash bulb of memory went off, bringing into focus the hairs of his knuckles spreading from the joker hat as he’d tightened on the steering wheel.
“He was a ‘three-strikes-you’re-out’ candidate,” answered Best, “twice convicted of violent crimes committed with guns. Name, Johnny Mitchell, out of New York. They have him linked to a major drug cartel, but only as a contract worker, very low rung. His handlers won’t give a shit that he’s gone. He was known for pinching off something for himself anyway. He had a trunk load of guns, mostly handguns and a couple of rifles, all with altered serial numbers.”
“I’m starting the tape,” said Hamm, placing a mini recorder on the tray table and rotating it in front of her. Best gave the date, time and place of the interview, as well as the names of those present.
“Officer Alt, tell us what happened on the afternoon of May eighteenth,” Hamm said for the record.
Salt began with the gore violation, leaving out the rules of the game she and Pepper had been playing, trying to give them every other detail. When it came to the part where the perpetrator jumped from his car with the gun pointed at her, she remembered to say, “He put me in fear of my life,” the phrase that justified the use of deadly force by a police officer.
“He put me in fear of my life,” she repeated, took in a few short breaths, then let a long breath come slowly, controlling her breathing, still seeing the rounds going in his chest. She looked down at her fingers pulling the trigger on a frayed edge of the bedsheet. Hamm lightly covered her fist with her own soft, fleshy fingers. The tape recording would not reflect that touch.
“Do you know how many rounds you fired?’ asked Best.
She was tempted to say “enough” but conceded, “I don’t know.”
“You fired four rounds center mass,” said Hamm.
The words were posted on the walls of every classroom in the training academy, “Ability, Opportunity, Jeopardy.” In every deadly force situation an officer had to instantly evaluate: “Ability.” “Opportunity.” “Jeopardy.”
“Salt?” Detective Hamm reminded her that the tape was running.
“I didn’t know I had been shot but I saw my rounds go in his shirt,” she felt the stitches stretch on her scalp as her jaw moved.
“That concludes the preliminary interview with Officer Sarah Alt. The time is 7:45 PM,” said Best shutting off the recorder.
She didn’t want to ask but did anyway, “How long before I know how it’s ruled?”
“You did fine,” said Hamm, collecting the recorder and their interview notes. “We took the guns to the crime lab. They’ll do what they can to raise the serial numbers. But since the perp’s not at large they won’t be in any hurry, backed up like usual. When and if we get some numbers ATF will do traces.”
Then they were gone and it was all fuzzy, like they were too fast and she was on some slow speed.
The chaplain came back with her water and, placing a full cup on the food tray where the recorder had been, he asked, “Is your family here? Do you need me to talk to them about anything?”
“No, my mother lives in North Carolina. I’m keeping my brother informed so he can keep this from frightening her.” Salt hadn’t listed any family on the emergency call section of the personnel form. Pepper would know who and how to call if something worse happened. It was good of the chaplain not to mention her father. Or maybe he didn’t know. She often wondered how much talk there was of him. It was a long time ago and not many people were left that had worked with him.
She looked to the window where the sky had changed from satiny pinks and orange to deeper violet and gray. The chaplain asked if he could get her something other than water. She told him no and thanked him for coming. He must have left the prayers somewhere because the notebook with the city seal wasn’t with him when, closing the door softly, he left the room.
Her stitches had been left unbandaged so that air would help them heal quicker. Alone now, she reached up and touched again the line of shaved scalp. It was on the opposite side from her father’s wound. She thought about having to cut the rest of her hair to match the shaved part.
From her bed Salt watched through the wide window as a searchlight scanned the oncoming night, moving back and forth, across the low clouds above the skyline. What was it they wanted you to see that you hadn’t already? Another searchlight from some opposite location crisscrossed the first light, and the two lights came together then spread back out over the city sky.
CHAPTER 4-COODA POT PIE
Their fear for her had been great and this was her first day back at work. Individually and, as a group, they were formidable, huddling, large arms encircling her, hugging in turn, badges snagging on silver buttons, batons tangling, their vests, buffering each of them, breasts no differently from chests.
“Nice hair,” Big Fuzzy punching her on the arm. But at the hospital he had stumbled over his words, “When you came on the radio, I could hear it in your voice and since you never, I mean I knew. Oh, hell,” his voice trailed and he looked away to continue. “When you said, ‘Radio, start me another unit’, I knew it was bad.”
“Fuzz,” she had said and laid a hand on his arm.
But they were guarded in their tenderness. Blessing and Pepper had started a play fight at her bed, jostling for position at her side, going for their batons, threatening moves to their holsters.
“Unhand her you vile piece of excrement!”
“You, sir, are a scalawag!”
They had a baton sword fight with swashbuckling moves, jumping on chairs and the bed across the hospital room. The nurses threw them out, laughing and charmed by their foolishness.
These fools were all assigned to the “War Zone.” Every police officer in the city would tell you that if you could work The Third, you could police anywhere. They were one-man cars, answering more calls per officer than in any other area, with a higher percentage of the calls violent. They had more projects than any precinct. Salt had never worked or wanted to work anywhere else - her shift, the four PM to midnight, busiest of all. Proactive policing and patrolling were luxuries. Most nights it was a struggle just to keep up. Radio would advise, "We have pages pending,” which meant ten calls per screen, or pages, calls waiting to be dispatched to approximately ten officers who were already working other calls. “Can any unit clear?” radio would implore. On the rare occasion that they were caught up, the officers would try to get something to eat, take a restroom break, or check on problem areas. Socializing happened on calls, cars pulled together, driver’s window to driver’s window, briefly passing gossip, complaining about command or a quick catch-up on off-duty lives.
Almost every night was an adventure. She often felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. In the culture of poverty things sometimes appeared upside down. Citizens elsewhere never left their houses without identification in purses or wallets, while an ID for denizens of the Zone might mean incarceration for warrants or going to jail under the correct name. Rookies became veterans when they learned to ferret out real names and dates of birth. For new officers, even the language presented a barrier. Accents of the ghetto, street slang, and the rapid-fire conversations of disputants left many rookies mystified.
Now Sarge, their watch and sector supervisor, was yelling, “Watch, fall in!”
She turned to the roll call room mirror and checked out her newly shorn hair and the wide part left by Mitchell’s bullet and the doctor’s ministrations.
She and her shift-mates formed the line for roll call.
Theirs was the southeast quadrant of Atlanta. It was divided for policing into two sectors and ten beats many of which had become ghettos of housing projects and poverty, testaments to the legacies of slavery, Jim Crowe, and economic discrimination. Salt had policed beat 306 for ten years. Third shift, four to midnights.
3301, your regular, 3302, 3305,” said Sarge, going down the assignment sheet, “3306,” he looked at Salt, “You’ll be on the desk.”
“Sergeant,” she responded, roll call formal. “I’ve been cleared for full duty.”
“Sarge, request permission for my regular.”
“First day back and you’re already a pain in my ass. See me after roll call. 3307,” he continued down the roster.
After they broke she walked to the podium where the sergeant was signing forms and gathering his work. “Sarge, SOP says I can resume full duty.”
“Fuck the SOP and don’t quote it to me. Hell, I wrote the damn SOP. I just want you to take it easy for a while.”
“Sarge, I want to get back on the horse.”
He shook his head and crossed out a line on the work roster. “3306, your regular.”
And so, she was back, carrying her gear, clipboard, report forms holder, ticket books, water bottle, and heading to get 306’s car. She loaded her utility belt with a large flashlight, her baton and checked the pepper spray and weapon clips in the leather pouches. The heaviest items were the radio with the attached shoulder mike on her left side, and the Smith and Wesson 9mm on her right. The belt fit snug against the bottom edge of the bullet resistant vest under her uniform shirt.
The big white patrol cars were all Crown Vics and her car, which she shared with two other shifts, like many of the War Zone cars, had scraped doors, a smashed bumper and a siren that sounded more like a hiccup than a scream. But when she got all her gear settled and got behind the steering wheel, and as she strapped the belt over her chest, she felt the familiar giddy high of anticipation. All those dings and damage to the cars were evidence of some adventure, some often repeated tale of comedy, terror, heroics or brotherhood. This dent or that bullet hole on a car could be read like a “How To” or “How Not To” manual of police work, or could be fine material for the next precinct comic. They couldn’t wait to get the rookies, fresh out of the academy, so the talent could audition and compete, using the old tales, embellished with every retelling.
Radio gave her a couple of minor highway accidents back to back and she milked the last accident by not telling radio she had finished the call, so that she and Pepper could meet up for a six o’clock afternoon lunch. An easy afternoon, and a whole 30-minute lunch at the Big Buddha. Then, as always, toward evening and on, the calls, started and they responded and ran and tried to keep ahead of the violence.
On Thayer, in the very deserted darkness, Salt slowly steered the cruiser, tightening her bladder, and hoping for a quiet last ten minutes till the end of the watch. She touched the still raw scar on her forehead and at the same time saw her father’s hand as it had moved toward his bloody head. She’d seen him before in the cruiser with her, riding shotgun, while she’d remember him talking about the streets, “Oh, you shouda been there girl,” he’d laugh. Then she’d imagine telling him, thinking he could see it through her eyes. Her eyes, her vision gained starry speckles. She shifted in the broken low drivers seat, distracting herself by trying to remember the childhood prayer. Just as some of the lines were coming up, something about “lambs” and “through the darkness,” a skeleton-like woman appeared under the dim rays of the lone working streetlight. Salt stomped on the brake pedal of the battered patrol car and felt through the sole of her boot the vibrations and heard the scraping of the worn brake shoes and grinding bare metal. The pieces of the prayer vanished. As the woman came more fully into the light, Salt recognized Shannell --prancing, knees high, like a majorette -- now in the narrow street, right in front of the still moving patrol car, her giddy motions uninterrupted by the approaching steel bumper. Salt pumped the mushy brakes and brought the heavy police car to a stop. Shannell kept coming, and leaned toward the open window of the cruiser. When she stopped, her arms kept swinging, like a little girl being cute. Her head shook and swung in an impossible arc and reminded Salt of those bobbing toys that attach to the dash of a car. She was all bone, sweat shine, and skinny legs. Her scalp alternated with wild sprouts of hair and bald patches. A slipping tube top flattened what little curve of breasts she had and black leggings hugged the bones of her thighs.
“Big D cut,” Shannell said.
“How bad?” Salt tugged at the open neck of her navy/black uniform shirt, pulling it to get some air beneath her vest, undershirt and athletic bra. Whoever had decided that dark, wool blend uniforms were the way to go for officers in a Deep South city had obviously never worked the streets. The humid heat had come early to the usually fine southern spring and now the barely working car AC was already on overload. Salt kept the windows down anyway so she could see, hear, and smell the streets better. Except for Shannell, Thayer Avenue seemed deserted, although voices, children’s hysteria, harsh laughs and fighting words, echoed down from the corner. Salt recognized Etta James’ “Tell Mama,” but the music was thinned coming from cheap or old speakers and a player that skipped and repeated.
“You got to help my man. My Big D he bad cut.” Shannell had stopped but her body continued its involuntary disjointed gyrations. Her teeth clicked the downbeat over her words
In this Southside neighborhood, on the doomed periphery of The Homes, it was really risky to be alone on the street. The doors and windows of the small sad houses that still stood were shut against the night and against the predators that searched in the dark, like roaches seeking an opening to slide through. Every other lot was vacant, houses torn down as nuisance properties. No one sat on stoops or caught fireflies.
Shannell grimaced, her lips pulled wide over her clinched teeth. “He’s bleedin’ like a faucet and walkin’ roun, and bleedin’ lots and walkin’ and I’m tryin’ to fine him. You got to hep me fine him, he bleedin’ and walkin’ roun.” She smiled, coy, some part of her brain reminding her that life would be harder if her D were found dead. She held onto the car, swaying, lost her balance, then leaned closer. Clown-like, her eyes squinted, her mouth opened in an oval, “Oh, you Salt,” she said, sounding pleased with herself.
“Shannell, you couldn’t tell it was me? You get something bad in your bump tonight?” Salt’s hands felt sticky as she lifted them from the steering wheel.
“You poleese car all muddy,” Shannell ran her hand over the windshield, “I couldn’t see,” she held up her hand, dirty, then wiped her hand through her fierce hair.
Salt shifted again in the seat as she moved the gear arm up to the park position. Even though at 5’8” she was as tall as some of the male officers, she could barely see over the steering wheel of this old cruiser because the seat was broken down to the floor board. The big day watch guy had been driving this car for a couple of years..
Cutting through Shannell’s crack chatter Salt tried to get to the necessities. The best way to catch sight of Big D on these night streets would be by his clothes. “What shirt does D have on?”
“That Raiders one he love and always wear.”
“Black with the silver lettering? Where’s he cut?”
“Just his arm. Yeah he love them Raiders. They go to jail almost much as he do.”
“Where on his arm?” Salt pictured Big D in his old Raiders shirt, old OG.
“His top arm, near his pit.”
“How long since he was cut?”
“Just a minute.”
“Who cut him?”
“I did.” Shannell dragged out her last word, just like a kid, sampling the consequences of a partial confession.
“Why this time?”
“We just always fight.”
“Get in the car and help me find him. Where’s the knife?” There was no place on her skinny body to conceal much of anything.
“D took it,” she grabbed the door handle before Salt could press the automatic lock release. Then she had one leg in the open window of the back door before Salt saw what she was doing, “Ah, Shannell, don’t come through the window, let me get the door unlocked.”
“Oh, I can,” she had one leg in and one out, all jittery, she couldn’t be still even when stuck. Finally, she got all the way back out. “I can’t never decide which way to go.”
“Just get in the back seat on the other side so I can see and talk to you while we look for Big D. I don’t know why you stay with him.”
“I’m not scared of him. He the one cut.”
“He’s always the one cut. Why doesn’t he move out?”
Shannell passed in front of the headlights to get to the other side of the car, “Cuz I’m Shannell and he luuuvv my cooda pot pie!” she sang, grabbing her crotch, hootchie dancing and laughing. When the skin-and-bones woman opened the back right door and plopped to the seat Salt overwhelmed by Shannell’s odor; metallic crack, recent sexual encounters, and reek of days without proximity to any body of water larger than a shot glass, tried not to smile or breathe “Cooda pot pie.” Salt exhaled as she tripped the auto lock system, the simultaneous clicks of the four door locks insuring Shannell’s containment in the caged back seat. She turned her head to the open window, scanning the street, while she took in air. “I really don’t know why you stay together.”
Everyone in and around The Homes knew Shannell cut Big D on a regular basis. Big D never showed for court because he almost always had warrants out on him for some crime or other, usually receiving stolen autos. But now he had to be found quick. With a cut to the upper arm he might be bleeding heavy. Shannell might go down for his murder tonight rather than next week or next year, though the opportunity would probably come to her again.
Salt’s hands on the steering wheel were still, just for a moment before she shifted the gear arm to go into the urgent search for Big D. As she checked the rear view mirror something in her own reflection, in her eyes, reminded her of the skinny kid she’d been when she’d needed that prayer. Along with an adrenaline surge, she saw herself watching from the twilight woods, her hands on rough tree bark, the lights of her own home,. “Lead me through the darkness.”
The call log, open on the console beside her, was going on three pages long now. It was nearing 10:30 P.M., almost time for the shift to be over. The gun belt cut into her hips. Her water bottle in the console had been empty since around 8:00 when the zone busted into violence. Calls rolled, one not over before they were called for the next, every one somebody’s emergency. Her bladder shot her a sharp reminder. Unlike the men, she couldn’t just unzip behind an abandoned building. And now she and Shannell would be tracking Big D and there would be reports, tickets, and the logs to finish after either finding D dead or something close to dead.
Shannell’s funk stewed in the patrol car. It was hard to keep watch for D and roll fast enough to get fresh air through the window. They crawled through The Homes trying to pick up a blood trail or a sighting of D in his Raider’s shirt; back to the alley where the fight ended, at each corner gang, passing the dope traps, asking after D, bloody minutes dripping away. These five- or ten-block streets were filled with the scrapings of the young who had nothing to lose and the old who’d already lost everything. Here blood was cheap. People had stopped taking much note of it when it was splattered on the ground. Haloed by bright city lights, the lights of these sorry streets were either shot out or so few and far between that there were more shadows than light. At the corner of Moury and Thirkeld, Shannell shrieked, “I see him, there he is, look by the barrel.” Salt turned the exterior spotlight over the vacant lot and there beside a rusted fire barrel was a huge mound, Raiders’ silver dimmed by dirt. D, on the ground, not moving. She pressed the accelerator, tires grabbing the curb, undercarriage scraping metal against concrete, driving the car into the lot, as glass popped and cracked, in the short weeds beneath the tires as they crossed over to D. Shannell screamed to be released to get to the man that she’d stabbed. “Deeee.” Salt caught glimpses of her in the rear view mirror, twisting in and out of the reflection. Swiftly she refocused the spotlight on D, then manually lifted the single lock on the driver’s door and left all other doors locked. Shannell screamed again when she saw that she was being left in the prisoner compartment.
In a couple of strides Salt was out, leaning over D, her fingers feeling for a pulse on the sweaty rolls of his neck. She was both relieved and furious when D groaned and tried to push up with one hand. Blood left his brain again and full consciousness eluded him. He rolled and slumped back toward the ground. Keying the radio mike on her shoulder, she called out the location for the ambulance, “Emergency Code 3.” Shannell’s screams were muffled shouts in the background.
“3306, raise 3394. Sarge, I’m out on a person stabbed. Ambulance in route.” D went still again, his eyes rolled back under half closed lids. Salt sprinted to the cruiser for the first aid kit and scene tape. She snatched the keys off her belt and popped the trunk open. The lid jumped up, blocking Shannell’s smeary face, plastered to the rear window. The car rocked with Shannell’s attempts to change her status, to argue her case to get out.
“3306, you okay?” Sarge checking on her.
Inside the trunk Salt found a ridiculous plethora of highway flares, a garbage bag of stuffed animals, a bicycle wheel and no kit and no yellow ribbon. “Shit fire,” she muttered. The car had been to too many crime scenes and no one had mustered the energy to replace supplies. She fantasized briefly about lighting the flares around Big D. If he went south, Homicide would give her hell about not stringing the tape and preserving physical evidence. Again, she hoped D would live.
Over the radio she heard the Code 8s announced for other cars going out of service. Her shift was in route to the precinct, their night over, done. The next shift would be in no hurry into the melee. She was now officially on overtime, slogging through a haze, if she had to run it would be slower; perps could catch a corner sooner. Her brain on overload, she registered the checklist of crime scene duties. There wasn’t much benefit to police overtime. She needed to pee worse than ever.
Salt slammed the trunk. Shannell’s face strained toward the dark crumple of Big D. She would cross the t’s and dot the i’s to make sure that Shannell would spend at least the next month in jail, before the judge would get tired of D not showing up for the hearings. During that month or so Shannell would cool down and be off the pipe, and Big D would stay alive and his wound would heal. Then they would have a fresh start at the same games all over again. Unless D died. Then Homicide would take it and Shannell would never have another chance.
Salt walked around Big D, reminded of his large circumference, needing to turn him to check his breathing. He just might survive, and if he was not in shock but just passed out drunk, he could still have the knife Shannell stabbed him with. Normally a gregarious, ursine man, he was a mean drunk and at three-hundred-plus pounds he could do damage. She’d once seen him tear a door off its hinges with a single swipe.
“Where are you hurt, Big D? Can you hear me?” She hoped he was conscious enough to recognize her voice. No response, just his labored breathing. Blood was pooling under his body. “D, it’s Salt.” Carefully she knelt closer. “D?” She touched his arm, thick as a ham, “D, it’s Salt.” Keying the mike again she asked for the ETA of the ambulance. She pulled at his meaty shoulder to turn him but he didn’t help her, his dense body was close to dead weight, his left cheek stayed pressed to a patch of dusty weeds. She succeeded only in moving his torso half an inch forward and back. His old Raiders jersey was torn and losing pieces of the luminescent lettering. Then he groaned, opened his eyes and said “Bitch, I’ll,” and then lost his words as the blood ebbed in his brain. But his hand had inched to the ground under him.
Finger on the radio transmit button, it occurred to her to ask for a backup. But she couldn’t see a knife, just bright blood soaking into the dirt. Shit, she didn’t need this. She rubbed at her gritty eyes and reminded herself to keep her hands off the itchy scar. Tired, hungry, and on her last nerve, she was too near to having the night done, ready for relief, and here was D reaching underneath his chest.
“He done dropped the knife,” the voice, bitter and straining, came from behind her. Darrell, AKA Lil D, son of the D on the ground. She’s seen him earlier at the dope hole near Sam’s Chicken Place. Lil D, Shannell’s and Big D’s twenty-four-year-old, on a sure path to dying in the streets and unlikely to reach twenty-five. He showed what he had, a smeared butcher knife. “He done dropped it and I picked it up after him.” Small, thin and shirtless, he held the knife blade out. His muscles twisted between deep brown skin and bone. With one hand he held a towel, ever present around his neck, covering a port wine mark, with the other he kept swinging the knife forward and back in the same rhythm as his mother’s arMrs. Lil D was a holder for the dope boys, lowest rung on the crack ladder, paying off her debts when his mother couldn’t.
“Put the knife on the ground,” Salt ordered. This family couldn’t stay still. Lil D kept moving and saying that D had dropped it. “Lil D, put it on the ground!”
Shannell yelled something sharp; Salt could just make out, “D.” and “My baby.” The big car rocked with her exertions.
Lil D stopped where he was and still holding the knife looked toward Shannell’s muffled screaming. “What you pick her up for?’
“Lil D, knife on the ground.”
Last thing Salt wanted was to tell Lil D his mother was under arrest. Big D began moaning again.
“My Daddy just laying there like a dog. Where’s the ambulance?”
“I called. It’s on the way. Put the knife on the ground.” Salt was trying to keep her eyes on the blade as well as Big D’s attempts at regaining consciousness, hoping that Big D didn’t have anything else under his huge belly that could be used as a weapon.
Now she keyed the mike, asking for back up, “3306 to radio, start me a unit,” and talking to Lil D, “Lil D, he’s okay. I need you to put the knife on the ground.”
“My mama ain’t goin’ to jail.”
Salt kept close hold of the mike, her safety net, the antenna biting into her cheek, everyone at the precinct changing shifts, worst time for trouble and she was calling, “Radio give me a back-up.” She really didn’t want to start a move to her holster.
“She ain’t going to jail,” repeated Lil D . Several more members of the gang and gang wanna-be’s came up from the street.
“You know she won’t stay more than a month. She’ll get rehab,” Salt tried to reassure him.
A crowd was forming. People came to watch. Word was out. Shannell was still screaming in the car but wasn’t visible because the windows had fogged over; Salt added possible heat stroke to the growing crisis. Big D moaned louder. Lil D still held the knife. Rocks, bits of glass and rough stubbles of weeds bit into Salt’s knees as she knelt at Big D’s back. She kept her eyes on the crowd, on their eyes, all wide and glittery, reflecting light from the cruiser’s headloghts. The crowd grew; gang bangers, dopers, users, children, all watching, turning eagerly to each other with predictions, excited to see how it would play. One of the gang members, Stone, his angry face peeled to ugliness, jaw muscles bulging, eyes squinting, brow furrowed, called out like a hell-fire preacher, yelling to Lil D and for the crowd’s benefit, “You gone let you daddy just lie there? You gone let Miss Poleese take your mama to jail?” He walked closer, four yards and closing, crowd following, mouths moving, necks straining. Someone, a man’s voice in the middle of the group testified back, responding to Stone’s excitations, “That’s right.” Several women loudly joined the call and response, “They don’t care,” in support of Lil D, identifying with the too-long wait for an ambulance and D on the ground in the broken-bottle grass. The crowd now closer, within stride distance, arms, gleaming with sweat, hands, and whirling gestures.
“Y’all please, give him room to breathe, let some air get through,” she swept space with her arm
A far-off siren wailed; It was hard to approximate distances because of echoes off the city hills.
Careful not to interact with Stone; One wrong word, one stupid move, by anyone, could ignite the scene. One misjudgment could tip her hand toward her holster; she already had the “in jeopardy” reason to draw her gun. But it wouldn’t go over well with the crowd. She was on empty and desperate, grabbing for anything, she thought of the prayer and Shannell, dancing in the headlights, “Cooda Pot Pie,” Salt said, out loud.
“What?” said Lil D.
“Cooda Pot Pie. Big D loves her Cooda Pot Pie.”
“That bullshit” Lil D looked toward the car and his mother.
“Listen, Lil D. She said he loves her Cooda Pot Pie. Big D is going to make it, again. He’s going to be okay. He’s more drunk than cut.”
From the crowd, someone laughed, and seized the chance to have a speaking part, “Tha’s right, she always says he loves her ‘pie.’”
The prayer, the way her father would calm her when she was little, scared something would happen to him, and on the edge. “Lead me,” Salt said to herself again. She said to Lil D, “He’s okay. Your daddy’s okay. He’s okay.”
A close siren yelped as blue lights spangled the block -- Pepper. His cruiser spun up, slinging dirt, grass, and gravel as he slid the car into the lot. The car rocked from the sudden stop and Pepper jumped out leaving the car door swinging, -- cool. The crowd loved his entrance and began yelling “Pepper, Pepper, It’s Pepper,” calling out his street name. The ambulance, on the tail of his cruiser, turned and crossed the curb. The kids in the crowd got louder, sing-songing the street names of the two cops, “Salt and Pepper, Salt and Pepper,” laughing at each other.
“Now! Lil D! Put down that knife. The paramedics need to get to Big D. You can talk to your mother, let her know Big D is going to be okay.” Salt kept telling him, watching for his shoulders to lower, watching for the slack in his arm.
Lil D let it go, slung the knife to the ground. Salt scooped the knife up; And the paramedics were on Big D in an instant.
Pepper joined the inner circle pointing to her holster. “Sometimes you too cool. You didn’t even unsnap? Must have been hot what with the crowd and all. Girl, you can’t cut shit so close, so soon.” He tapped her head with his knucles.
“You’re the cool one. Great entrance. Thanks,” she said and went to catch up with Lil D, walking toward his mom in the car.
Lil D’s head tilted forward as they walked, pulling the towel to wipe his face. Though his skin was a shade of dark mahogany, the port wine birthmark, darker, stood out clearly from below his left ear to his collar line. Salt and he both reached for the door handle at the same time. Shannell jumped out and up against her son.
As they lifted Big D onto a gurney Pepper stood by with the paramedics. one of whom gave a thumbs-up that Big D would make it. Lil D dashed from his mother to the ambulance. The gang members, including Stone, walking backward, still watching, began to leave the scene,
The chorus crowd filled the hot air with “Cooda Pot Pie, Salt and Pepper, Cooda Pot Pie, Salt and Pepper.”
Pepper, grinning, walked up to Salt at the patrol car. “What’s that they’re yelling?” he asked motioning toward the crowd. “’Pie’?”