Eric considered his thin fingers. “Are you getting out of the car?”
“When did you first decide to be a cop?” Ryan asked.
“It doesn’t seem like I thought …”
“You’re being sensitive, again,” Ryan said. It was dusk. His full, acne scarred cheeks were backlit by a distant streetlight as he smirked. “Thanks for covering the rest of our shift, rookie.” He pointed to the dispatch radio, “Just listen to this. Do what it tells you.” He looked around with a playfully conspiratorial air, “Now, Eric, if you have to shoot somebody,”—his small eyes twinkled—“it’s draw, point and squeeze. Don’t do any of that snapping and jerking I seen you doing on the target range.”
“Alright, Ryan, but please,” Eric said, “Make sure you return the favor next week—you know I—”
“Pop the trunk then, bitch.” Ryan got out. He carried a duffle bag around the cruiser. The guy was nuts for bowling.
I’m ready, Eric thought. Just remember. Remember all those fucking dispatch codes.
Ryan slammed the trunk, then slammed the passenger door with his ball bag. He had stuffed his button-down navy shirt into his duffle but, as a six-three guy in an undershirt and polyester pants, he still looked a lot like a cop ducking out of the last few hours of his shift.
Eric drove from the curb and continued on Forty-Second. He could hear Charlene’s slightly nagging voice, see her wagging her finger at him. Aren’t you serious about us? How could you forget to take off work for the first anniversary of our wedding? He would never admit to anyone, least of all Ryan, but he knew he absolutely couldn’t let Charlene know he’d forgotten their anniversary. He had to make dinner reservations, be home early with flowers, the whole thing. He was proud of himself, in a way, for fixing his mistake like this. He just had to coast through two more hours on a Tuesday and then Ryan would owe him, and would cover for him next week.
He turned left on Carriage. Streetlights lit cracks of a vacant firehouse’s brown concealment coat. Between shadows, fresh blue paint shimmered with the tag NO HOPE!
The radio issued: “Dispatch to Eight-Tango-Twenty, over.”
Eric stared at the radio, then he unlatched the black-corded transmitter, “This is Eight-Tango-Twenty, over.”
“Code Three. Investigate a three-seventeen at the Thirty-Second and L Smart Mart, over.”
Damn. Eric pulled to the curb. Thirty-Second and L … “Eight-Tango-Twenty to dispatch, that’s affirmative—”
He looked to the empty seat.
“—we’re on our way, over.”
His siren bleeped as he flipped the switch and pulled a U-turn. He pressed the gas. The brake lights of a grey Datsun glowed red. Eric swerved around the car. It shrunk in his rearview. His tires squealed as he turned right on Thirty-Eighth. You’ll call for a supporting unit—but that doesn’t make sense. He pressed the gas. Cars parted in front of his gleaming black hood. You’ll just go. You can handle this. Nine times out of ten it’s nothing, anyway. You know that. Just take care of this and Ryan will owe you big.
He pulled into the Smart Mart’s lot. It was dark. The yellow, backlit banner sign flickered and hummed above big windows. A lone fill-up hose had been left splayed across the grimy cement beneath the gas canopy. His heart hit against his ribs as he parked by the tire inflation hose, away from the glass front.
He opened the glass door. The store’s dusty, outdated merchandise was lit to a white gleam with buzzing fluorescents and muzak hummed softly. What’s that smell, what’s that smell? Hotdogs and … sulfur? … gunpowder? No one was sitting at the beige Formica booths along the windows or walking near the freezers. His right hand rested on his holstered Beretta. His other hand felt empty. What’s wrong with you? Eric looked behind the checkout counter, between shelves of WD-40 and Christmas tree car deodorizers. The black register till lay empty on the tiles.
He drew the Beretta. Nothing. Maybe—
A shuffle of footsteps—his stomach fell faster than gravity—his mouth dried. From between rows of shelves, a lanky man in a brown T-shirt and tattered navy tuxedo pants shoved a short woman. The man had a creased, taxed face like a used-up rock star.
Eric winced and stepped backward. He drew and aimed between the man’s eyes.
Buzzing fluorescent lights lit her face. The thin, creased skin around her eyes revealed the outline of her cheekbones and her short Notre Dame shorts showed-off her tan, toned legs.
The man clutched her straight red hair near the base of her skull and rammed a shotgun against her neck. He repositioned the barrel, exposing a tennis-ball-sized bruise on the inside of his needle-tracked forearm. Rose rings flushed around his eyes and his marble-sized pupils quivered.
A rubber band fought one side of the woman’s braces and she muttered “please” over and over, soft and fast.
Eric yelled, “Drop—!”
The man’s eyes shattered. “I don’t have to explain—” his feminine voice wheezed, “You can’t see the beginning—can’t see the end—only what’s here!”
She cried, “Please!”
Eric’s hands squeezed to align his red dot sights beneath the man’s temple. He blinked to stop the dots from bouncing. It didn’t work.Can he see my hands? The Beretta’s rubber grip slickened. Don’t let him leave. Take a shot if it’s clean.
She trailed a “please” with a gasp.
“Drop the gun, NOW!”
The woman moaned.
The man said, “Listen to me,” he walked her toward the entrance.
Eric stepped back. He cocked. “STOP! Don’t move!”
“NO!” And then he mumbled, “Listen. I’m hold’n it,” his nostrils flared, “I’M CHANG’N! And fix’n and walk’n … talk’n.”
The man’s eyes begged: “Listen. LISTEN!”
A drawled “please” escaped from the woman’s rubber band latched braces one more time.
Eric tried to steady his aim on the man’s temple. Clean. Clean. Clean. Steady. Clean. His sights bounced.
Eric’s heel struck a raised tile edge. It couldn’t have been any thicker than a quarter. His Beretta exploded. Bits of the cartilage of the man’s ear scattered behind and he staggered, pulling the barrel backward. Her neck mushroomed crimson, propelling geysers, speckling warm across Eric’s face. Buckshot riddled a plastic cigarette sign by the checkout counter and her grimaced face turned upside-down as her head rolled off to her side. The head bounced against the tiles with a crack before her body fell.
The man’s hand slapped to his ear, “NOBODY!” He thrashed his head, “NOBODY! NOBODY! NOBODY!”
The Beretta exploded three more times. Red mist flashed over the man’s face. He fell onto a shelf, popping and crumpling plastic Doritos and Tostados beneath him as his shotgun clamored and slid.
“Jesus! Shit … God.” The Beretta fell. The handle clinked. His hands searched his chest and stomach for wounds.
The buckshot had hit the cigarette sign.
He collapsed onto the checkout counter and used his arms for support. Then he twisted toward the glass doors and his numb legs followed. The glass door swung silently closed behind him, sealing off the brightly lit store from him with its hot guns and the girl’s lifeless head. Eric staggered on past his police cruiser toward the dim yellow streetlights.