Chapters:

Chapter 1

Ahlers’ Story

Chapter 1

You know, I was a cop for 26 years before I quit, been on the force since I was 23 years old. Now I spend my evenings on the porch, looking out at the horizon, worried about seeing something that isn’t supposed to be there.

I worked homicide for 14 of those years. It’s not like I worked in Chicago or New York or some place with a high murder rate, but we had our share. Sometimes people would ask me if it was hard to work violent crimes. I don’t think I ever really thought of a good way to explain it. These days people are so obsessed with true crime shows and investigation shows that they think they understand. Honestly, I’ve seen stuff on TV that looked as bad or worse than most things I saw. The difference was that I stood there. I talked to their loved ones. I had to try and figure out why it happened.

The images were tough. The images are tough. But I think the hardest part for me was seeing the repeat offenders. I always forget that term…recidivism. People love words like that. They like stats, they like trying to figure out motive and all that, stopping crimes before it can happen. And I’m all for that, but don’t talk that shit to me like you have the answer and that my methods are wrong. Because I’m the one who has to see how bad it gets. I’m the one on the stand trying to convince twelve people, mad about being there in the first place, that the piece of shit in the suit his public defender got for him, with the pile of evidence against him and all but a confession, is guilty.

I don’t believe there’s a cop on the force, with any time in, who only has that “one who got away”. We got the ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred who got away. Some who we never put a face to, some who we stared down in the courtroom before some ass-hat jury found them not guilty. Starts when you work patrol and you see the revolving door, getting the same asshole in the back of your squad over and over again.

It happens. Sucks every time though.

That’s probably the part I miss the least.

It wears on a guy, right? Plenty of cops can’t make their pension. Not that many people have jobs where people hate to see them. Makes a guy spiteful. Jeer at us, lump us in with those ones you see on the news, then get mad when we aren’t around when you think we’re supposed to be there.

I went through six partners when I worked homicide. First four years I had four different partners. Two transferred to different divisions, two quit outright before they made it to pension. Fifth partner I had for ten years. Paul Henderson. Good man, good cop. Solid. I think he had more influence on my career than anyone outside my training officer. Had this funny way of humming to himself as he wrote up reports. Use to type with just two fingers. Smelled like garlic a lot, always opted for Italian food for dinner. He was a good man.

Paul killed himself a year to the day he retired. Bone cancer. He made the right choice. I like to think if I was in that situation I’d be able to pull the trigger too.

Then came Will Newton. Partner number six. Will was maybe thirty when we got partnered, but he had plenty of experience. He’d done a few tours with the Army before coming home and getting into the academy. He did his time in patrol up in the cities, got himself on the high-risk squad serving warrants to crackheads and drug dealers. Did that for a few years. He was a first-through-the-door sort, but you wouldn’t tell by looking at him. I think people get that wrong sometimes, that it takes a different kind of person to be first through the door, being that they are one’s most likely to take the bullets and all. But those high-risk and SWAT guys are different breeds. They want to be first through. Adrenaline junkies. Being around cops it’s usually easier to tell the high-risk guys from other officers, in the way they carry themselves. Most departments don’t have a dedicated squad who just sits around waiting for the calls. They’re patrol officers who keep their gear in the trunk and snap into action when they get the call.

Will never struck me as one of those guys. He was about average height, six feet or so, but lean. And he didn’t have any kind of stare, no edge. He didn’t sound like high-risk guys I knew. He didn’t talk much and when he did he had this low sorta drawl that was hard to place. Maybe Oklahoma, maybe somewhere in Texas.

Getting to know a new partner isn’t really that tough unless they get transferred in. It’s a little weird I suppose. These are the guys and gals you trust to have your back and if you share a car it’s even more so. Don’t go getting that blue wall of silence shit in your head, this isn’t about that. You just need to trust the person you work with. You need to trust their instincts and their reasons for being there. I’ve seen partners break each other down, too different or too similar. You feed off a partnership and get irritated at each other like a married couple. But that happens whenever you spend extra time with another person. Those little things grate on you. I know I have those things, you can ask my ex-wife. She had ‘em too.

Will didn’t really. Not that I noticed in the short time we were partnered anyway. I guess you need to talk to irritate people. But if you give them long enough, not talking can get irritating too. Silence is awkward when you think about it. Waiting for someone to say something to pass the time or just shoot the shit. I don’t mind talking, I like talking sports and fishing, the sort of things I suppose you might expect. I never served though, so I started to wonder if that was the issue. Being a cop and being a soldier are further apart then some people might think. At least that’s how it always felt to me. Even though you see soldiers get into law enforcement or security jobs when they get back stateside, it’s different. A soldier can understand a cop, but a cop can’t understand a soldier or something like that. At night I go home or out to the bars or wherever. Don’t fucking tell anyone this, but sometimes I wonder if being a soldier isn’t that different from being in jail. Being away from home, following rules that aren’t suggestions, always having to watch your back, waking up from a nightmare in the middle of the nightmare. And even when your time is up, it’s in your head.

I don’t know why I think that. Maybe it was Will and the time we worked together. The way he carried himself. He sure didn’t talk about it. Yeah, I mighta poked a few times to get some information early on when we got partnered—him new to the division, my old partner Paul having retired, but still alive at the time—but he brushed it off most of the time, talking just as much as he had to. Not in a hard way or even aloof, just sorta walked through questions like he didn’t hear them. Gave off the impression that you didn’t ask them in the first place and the matter got dropped. I’d worked with vets before, they all had their own way of things. I let it be. I’d learned by then if you want a partnership to work, you let the little shit go.

But that’s all its own thing, that’s not what you want to hear. You want to hear about the house, and that’s fine. I’ve told the story before, the words will all be the same this time too for all the difference it’ll make.

We’d been partners for about two months. We’d picked up five cases in that time, a lot all things considered. First one was a tweeker who got paranoid and stabbed his dealer in the eye with a busted syringe. Open and shut.

Second one was…second one was another drug case, argument over money that escalated beyond whatever amount the argument was over. No witnesses, jury let him off. Can’t blame him, the DA did a shit job of proving anything. My testimony was just the facts as I knew them. No point in trying to spin a story on the stand. I think that makes juries feel edgy, like you’re trying to force something on them and there’s always one who’s gonna resist extra hard to that sort of thing.

Third was a domestic. The two were both on the wrong end of things half the time. Long sheets on them, both cited for domestic abuse, still kept going back to each other. Same as it ever was. Things got out of hand, she got her head cracked on the corner of the countertop and never woke up. Guy didn’t confess right away. It was the first time I saw Will in a room.

Working a room is a funny thing. You see guys do different things, most aren’t very good at it, myself included. You try to tell them what they want to hear, build trust and all that, but in the end, it’s an acting job and if you don’t have your shit together it’s never gonna come across unless they’re almost ready to confess anyway. Will though…he was just Will. He went in there and sat down and barely said a thing, just asked the guy to tell his story. Then asked him to do it again. Not malicious or contradictory, almost like he was slow and just didn’t understand or missed something. Second time the guy told the story it was like he forgot what he said the first time around. And the thing is, I don’t know if it would have happened that way if it weren’t Will asking. He just had a different way about him. Like he was just existing in this world with the rest of us, but not really participating. It put some people on edge.

Fourth case was a bar brawl over a fucking baseball game of all things. 162 games in a year and a person’s gonna get so worked up over one of those that they’re gonna end life as they knew it for themselves and just plain life for someone else? Sometimes I don’t get how we’ve made it this far. Anyway, we found someone with footage of the fight on their phone. Posted it on fucking Facebook of all things. I almost wanted to arrest him too for being such an asshole.

Fifth was a hit and run, open to this day as far as I know. Car hit a kid playing in the streets and sped off. The only ones there to witness it were kids, and none of them could tell us anything resembling a lead. If that’s not a fucking tragedy as bad as anything, I don’t know what is.

And then there was the house…fuck, can we take a break? I need to take a piss.

***

Sergeant Pete Monroe turned off the camera. “Yeah, sure. You want a coffee or anything Detective Ahlers?”

Ahlers stood up from his chair and stretched his back. He resisted the smile at the forced formality. He wasn’t a detective anymore and hadn’t been for four years. They only called him that to try and illicit some sense of pride and duty or whatever else they thought they needed to get him to talk casually about the house. Ahlers didn’t know the point of any of the questions, or being asked about Will, but they had reasons and they were being a bit heavy-handed about it.

“Sure,” Fred Ahlers said, “black’s fine.”

Sergeant Monroe held the door open for him, leaving Monroe’s partner, Sergeant Taggart in the room. Both detectives were a bit younger than him and he didn’t recognize either from his days on the force. Monroe wore a crew cut and a clean shave. He had a little smirk when he spoke, sort of like a salesman, like he wanted people to feel comfortable with him. Taggart was the other side of the coin, and wore a scowl behind a well-groomed beard, a bit like he was being forced to do something. Ahlers had known plenty of people like that, cops too, who acted like they were always being put out. He wasn’t quite sure if the two men were transfers or just new enough that he hadn’t gotten a chance to work with them before he left the job. Taggart kept his head down as Ahlers left the room, jotting something down on a yellow legal pad. It wasn’t good cop/bad cop, not that there was a reason for it, but Ahlers got the impression Taggart was more the latter in the partnership.

“Bathroom’s at the end of the hall,” Monroe said, pointing at the far side of the open floor, past several rows of desks.

“I remember,” Ahlers said. The office had changed quite a bit over the years, got a full facelift, but it still felt the same.

Alhers stood in front of the urinal, just standing there, zipper down, staring at his own blurred reflection in the green tiled wall. He was the only one in the bathroom and he hoped he’d have at least a minute before someone would wander in and he’d have to pretend to just finish up his business. The truth was, no matter how hard he tried to think otherwise, no matter how he tried to treat it like any other case or even a story that happened to someone else, he just didn’t want to talk about it. Years ago, but still raw. They asked though, in that way he couldn’t say no to. It was by request of the Chief that Ahlers was there at all. Then he sat down and Monroe turned on the camera. He just started talking, the words coming out like he was trying to convince them of something, remind them he was a cop and his word was supposed to matter, make them understand before he got to the part they weren’t going to believe.

The detectives were working on some old files and needed Ahlers to talk about The House. It was a fingernail at the edge of a scab, one that wouldn’t heal because every time it crusted over, started to mend, that fingernail would catch a ragged edge and peel it away, exposing the wound.

Ahlers wanted more time, regretted pretending to have to piss instead of taking a squat, but sometimes that’s how life was. He zipped up and went through the routine of washing his hands. He didn’t bother looking in the mirror. He knew what he would see.

The bathroom had one of those jet-engine style hand dryers and he watched his skin ripple as the water wicked off his skin, dripping onto the floor. Ahlers kept his hand there even after they were dry, until his skin started to tingle. He sighed again before going back to the interview room.

Monroe and Taggart were both in there, Taggart still writing something down, or he just started when Ahlers came in, some kind of weird mind game maybe. Ahlers’s suspicion wasn’t just from his time on the force, anyone would be if they had to talk about the house after all that time.

“Everything come out alright?” Monroe asked with a dry sort of smile, like they were buddies.

“Burned like hell, same as always,” Ahlers said, returning the smile as he sat down. Monroe slid the cardboard coffee cup across the table. “Thanks.” Ahlers took a sip. The station had done all kinds of upgrades, the coffee was a hell of a lot better than the sludge they use to have. “I suppose we should just cut the shit if we don’t want to be here all day.”

“Got someplace to be?” Taggart said. It wasn’t innocent, or at least it didn’t sound innocent. Ahlers didn’t know the guy well enough to tell if that was just how he spoke or not. Ahlers didn’t answer, instead he tilted his head a little as if he were thinking about how to respond, but it was really an answer in itself.

Monroe scratched at the faded hair on his temple and cut the tension. “Let’s start with that day and walk it back from the beginning. Do you remember the date it happened?”

Ahlers looked from Taggart to Monroe. “October 20th. It’s been almost five years now…”

Next Chapter: Chapter 2