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The Decoy

(Author’s note: Skipping ahead in the story so as not to reveal certain plot elements. The following is from Part One, Chapter Nine.)


Detective Santoni decided to make a game of it, but I was winning. An hour after we started panhandling, I had twelve dollars. He had nine.

“Guess I’m just more likable than you,” I said.

“Or more pathetic,” he responded. “Maybe people just feel sorry for you.”

“Could be,” I said with a shrug.

We had taken our spots across the street from the City-County Building at 7 a.m. I had Cooper with me, which I suspected was the real reason I was getting more money than Santoni. Cooper was confused. He kept poking his nose into the cup when coins dropped in. He’d sniff the money and then look at me, his head cocked. Every now and then I’d slip him a treat from my pocket.

At 8 a.m., the crowd on the sidewalk was heavy with every type of person the city of Pittsburgh has to offer. The City-County Building is next to the Allegheny County Courthouse, so the people filing past us included lawyers, politicians, media, administrators, suspected criminals … everyone. The poorest of the passersby always looked at Santoni and me, and many of them gave. The richest pretended we weren’t there.

“You feeling anything yet?” Santoni asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

This was discouraging. The mayor—or his decoy—would arrive soon. But nobody had seen anything out of the ordinary yet.

A man with a bald head and red hair sticking off the sides crossed Grant Street, weaving between cars stopped at a red light, and approached us. He looked vaguely familiar. Cooper, who had been lying on the pavement by my side, stood to greet him when he jumped up on the curb.

“How’s business today, young man?” he said.

“Could be better,” I replied. I sensed that he saw through my act, but I extended my cup anyways.

The man smiled and reached into the breast pocket of his shirt. He withdrew a $100 bill and placed it in my cup.

“Buy him something nice,” he said, motioning to Cooper. “He’s a good dog.”

I wanted to give the money back, to explain that I didn’t really need it.

“You don’t want change?” I said.

The man laughed. “Change? Son, if you can break a hundred-dollar bill, business must be better than you’re letting on.”

I didn’t know how to respond, so I just stood there dumbly, holding the cup out in front of me. The man leaned over to scratch Cooper behind her ears. He responded by barking. Not aggressively, but in a playful way.

“He likes you,” I said.

“I should hope so,” the man chuckled. “I just helped him out, and he’s quite smart.”

The man turned and walked away, mixing into the crowd of passersby on the sidewalk.

“What do I do with this?” I said to Santoni.

He looked into my cup and his eyes widened with surprise.

“Who gave you that?”

“That man. The guy who was just here.”

“What man?” Santoni said.

“What do you mean?” I said. “You were standing right next to me. Didn’t you hear us talking?”

“Talking to who?” Santoni said.

Before I could answer, I sensed something behind me. I turned to a row of cars in the parking lot. Nothing. Then my head snapped up to the Frick building across the street. On the tenth floor was an open window. The drapes were slightly parted.

“There,” I said, pointing. “There’s a gunman up there.”


***

Santoni was calm. He lifted his right arm to his mouth and spoke into a tiny microphone on his wrist.

“10th floor, Frick building, facing south, 5th window from the North. Enter in rear. Plainclothes only. There could be eyes in the lobby.”

He turned to me. “Let’s go,” he said, then walked down Grant Street to the parking spot where the mayor’s decoy would soon arrive.

We rounded the corner, out of view of the window, and Santoni spoke again into his cuff. “Abort decoy,” he said. “Do not drive here. Go to headquarters.”

Santoni was wearing an ear piece so I could not hear the response. He hurried up the street to a side door at the City-County Building. He banged on it four times, paused, then once more. The door opened. Santoni grabbed my arm and pulled me though. Cooper followed. We stepped into an elevator—one I had never seen before in all my years of covering events in this building. He hit a button marked only with a ^ sign. The doors closed.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

I paused before answering.

“I wish I could answer that, Detective. But I can’t.”

The elevator came to a sudden halt and the doors opened. Five uniformed officers waited for us. They eyed me suspiciously.

Santoni led the way and we followed him down a dark hallway. He turned abruptly and pushed open a door. Cooper and I followed. A strong wind hit my face: We were on the roof. Two snipers were already there, their guns pointing towards the building across the street. The wall separating us from a 150-foot drop to Grant Street was waist-high. Santoni, the snipers and the other officers hunched down so that only the top halves of their heads peeked over. I crouched and ran over. Santoni motioned for me to stay down.

“I don’t want anyone to see you,” he said.

“No one will,” I responded. I hunched over and leaned into the wall, peaking over next to Santoni. He didn’t stop me.

Across the street, the window was open. An officer handed Santoni a pair of binoculars and he stared through them, occasionally putting his finger to his ear, apparently to better hear what was being said. We waited two or three minutes. Nobody said a word. Then a strobe of bright light flashed from inside the window. An instant later, the sound of the boom reached us.

The blinds flapped in the wind. Santoni stood, still peering through the binoculars, apparently no longer afraid of being seen. The snipers kept their guns trained on the window. Cooper looked up at me as I too stood for a better view. On the street, people craned their necks upward. They saw traces of smoke wafting from the window, then rising suddenly into the sky as it hit the wind.

Santoni again raised his hand to his ear. He listened for several seconds, then turned and looked at me.

“We got him,” he said. “Of course, you knew we would, right?”


***

Santoni, Chief Applegate and I met in the chief’s office at Headquarters. Cooper was still at my side. Applegate poured a glass of Scotch and offered drinks to Santoni and me. I accepted. Santoni declined. He brought me my glass, and I started to speak before they could.

“I don’t know.” I said. “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. You can keep asking me but my answer will not change: I do not know how I knew this would happen.”

I drained my glass. Cooper pressed against my leg.

Applegate walked slowly around his desk, one hand holding his drink, the other rubbing his forehead.

“Pretend you’re me,” Applegate said, sitting heavily in his chair. “What would you do, knowing what I know and listening to what I’m hearing? What would you do?”

“Forgive me, chief, but I don’t know or care,” I said. “How about you pretend you’re me. Pretend that everything I’ve told you is the truth, OK? Now—what would you do if you were me? Seriously. What would you do?”

He didn’t answer. But he did explain his next move. Cops would be monitoring me, he said. Wherever I go, someone will follow. Chances are they’ll be listening to my phone calls soon. Your wife, too, he said.

“In short,” Applegate said, “I believe—thanks to some convincing by Detective Santoni here—that you really do not know what’s going on. But we need to know. So we’re going to try to figure it out. Even if that means that we understand before you do.”

I sat staring at him. “Is this legal?”

“For the most part,” he said. “If you choose to challenge us, we will say it’s for your own protection, and nobody will argue. Or, we could just arrest you. We have grounds to do so.”

I didn’t know what to say. I felt violated.

But I also knew, somehow, that this didn’t matter.

This was small. This would pass. This, like so many other things, would soon be forgotten.

Applegate stood, walked slowly to my chair and reached out his hand. I gave him my glass. He walked back behind his desk, filled it with one more drink, and returned it to me.

“Do you need a ride home?” he asked.

I did not respond.

“Sam,” Applegate said. “Do you need a ride home?”

“No,” I said. “We’ll walk.”

I finished the drink and stood. Santoni escorted me out. We walked down a linoleum-floored hallway to the elevator. Santoni pressed the down button and we waited.

“You OK?” he said.

I shrugged. “I’m not sure,” I said.

The elevator doors opened and we stepped inside. Santoni pressed a button and the doors closed. The elevator descended.

“Hey,” Santoni said with a grin. “Who won?”

“Who won what?” I replied.

“The contest,” he said. “Who got more money?”

Santoni reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins and bills. As he counted, I reached into my back pocket, remembering the $100 bill.

“Stop counting,” I said. “The guy who gave me the hundred sealed the victory for me.”

“Someone gave you a hundred dollars?”

“Of course, he did,” I said. “And we already talked about this. You were standing right there. You had to have seen him. The short older guy? He talked about Cooper, and he seemed to like him.”

Santoni’s eyes narrowed. He pulled out a notebook and a pencil from his breast pocket.

“What did he look like?”


Next Chapter: "My name is Lloyd."