I froze. He hadn’t seen me. He couldn’t have seen me.
Who am I kidding? The man can see through walls. Of course he can see me.
At least I hadn’t done anything wrong, so he couldn’t want to ball me out about anything. Or had I? I was still wondering when I knocked on the Captain’s door.
“Come in!” Russo barked.
As I pushed the door open, the lights in the office came on, illuminating the fabled paperwork graveyard, where documents go to die.
I swear every time I go in there, there’s more. Folders, boxes, piles of loose leaf sheets high enough to kill a man if they fell on you. At the back of the office, rumour had it there was a desk. I couldn’t see it, but I assume it was there, behind more piles of reports, clippings and files. A Health and Safety Exec would have a heart attack.
So it wasn’t all bad.
On the alleged desk was a paper snowdrift about three feet high, and Russo’s voice emerged from behind it.
“Sit down, Able.”
I wondered what I was in for this time…
Me and the 18th had an ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ kind of thing going on. Years ago I’d got a job working for them as a data wrangler. The days when cops solved cases by pounding the streets and pounding suspects were mostly history, no matter how much I did my best to keep ‘em alive. These days it was all about connections, data and tracking down that crucial bit of information that you could use to nail the villain. Every Police station had a computer room, known in the trade as ‘the archive’, which was wired into the Police network, and had access to the sort of data that would make your average civvie’s eyes pop.
After seven years I’d left the employ of New York’s finest and set up on my own, but I’d managed to be retained as a ‘Private Contractor’ which meant that if they were short handed (don’t get Russo started on staffing cuts!), they’d got some mostly reliable people like me who they could call on for low level stuff. Stakeouts and grunt work mainly. It wasn’t what you’d call exciting, but it brought in a few shekels, and it also meant that I got access to the Police network. Not entirely sure how legal it is, but nobody looks too closely, and we all get along.
Keep it to yourself, right?
I wondered why I was sitting staring at a pile of paper.
“Able.” said Russo. “Tell me I’m not paying you to be here.”
All our conversations seemed to start like this…
“Tell me that hardworking taxpayer’s dollars are not finding their way into your pockets when my budget is being cut. To. The. Bone.”
He emphasised the last three words by hammering on the desk, which dislodged about six months worth of paperwork. I shuffled the chair back a bit, just in case, as reports settled round my feet.
“No, Captain, this particular visit ain’t costing you a dime.”
“Yeah, well. Keep it that way.”
If I could see his eyes, I suspect they’d be twinkling with mischief. Still. At least it sounded like I wasn’t in trouble.
“So what can I do for you, Captain Russo?” I asked. As I did, I spotted that one of the reports that had landed at my feet was a case that had been in the papers a few months back that I’d been fascinated by. I stretched my leg out and started pulling it towards me.
“Leave that alone.”
CCTV or mirrors. Has to be.
“Pat?” I said. “Is he ok?”
“What? Pat? No way! He’s going to go on forever.”
Pat O’Halloran was the beating heart of the 18th Precinct. He was so like the tourist image of an ‘older’ New York cop that it bordered on cliche : Irish heritage, slightly rotund, infectious smile, and knew the area like the back of his hand. However, running though the tubby and jolly exterior was a core of steel. He’d been a New York cop long enough to have seen it all. Done it all. And you don’t get to Pat’s age, and spend more than forty years on the force without being tough. You didn’t often see this side of him these days - for some years now he’d been one of the desk Sergeants for the 18th, and most of the station regarded him as something of a Father figure. But circumstances occasionally meant that he went out on the street, and those that worked with him said that he was as sharp as ever.
Pat had mentioned something a few years ago about retiring. He was not far shy of 60, so could have gone a few years back, but I’d assumed he’d been kidding.
“So what do you want me to do, Cap? Talk him out of it?”
A chuckle came from the other side of the paper, the chair was pushed back and I watched the top of Russo’s head walk back and forth behind the desk.
“If the Sergeant has made up his mind, and he most definitely has, then I doubt that there’s anything that you could do about it, Able.”
I was puzzled now.
“So, er… what’s the deal?”
“Sergeant O’Halloran will complete his last shift a week on Friday…”
“Indeed. He’s kept it quiet. Doesn’t want a fuss. But there are many officers here who do want to make a fuss. But the Sergeant hasn’t got where he is without being a very good cop, and there’s not much goes on here that he doesn’t know about.”
Just like you, I thought.
“Not unlike myself, I might add.”
“So I want…” he continued, “would like… you to organise something. Just drinks in Mac’s on the Friday evening. But it has to be a surprise. From what I recall, you’re in the habit of being underhand and sneaky.”
“Good. I’ll leave it to you then.”
“So, er, is there a budget?” I asked.
I swear I could hear his eyes rolling. Then there was some scribbling and a piece of paper came over the top of the pile.
“Put it down as stakeout expenses.”
“Ok, Cap. As it’s Pat, I’ll see what I can do.” I slipped the paper in my pocket.
“And no reburbishing that office of yours on the taxpayers dollar. I’ll be going through that claim with a fine toothed comb… .” he said, as I left.
I had no doubt he would.
Well, well, well. Pat retiring. It was the end of an era.
o o o o o
I looked at my watch as I carried on from the Captain’s office towards the archive. It had just gone 10.30 so I had a few hours before I needed to meet Jenny at Stephen’s apartment.
As I got to the door of the archive I waved my badge at the pad by the door and it slid open. It wasn’t a big room, and it was taken up by about eight desks, each with a machine on. For now I had the place to myself, but from habit, I picked a screen that was unlikely to be overlooked should someone else turn up. While I was employed here, this was my domain, hunting down data for the Detectives upstairs, looking for connections, piecing data together. There had been two of us at one point, and officers were also able to come down and do their own searches, but it soon became apparent that it was far easier to just send the details of your request to the wrangler, and wait for the results to land on your desk, so for a few years it was two of us, then it was just me.
Once I left, cuts meant that one officer - Lucy Baines - now did wrangling part time. Occasionally I’d run into her, but most of the time I was here in the morning, and she was here in the afternoon. It was crazy, given how useful the service was, but that’s the public sector for you.
As I sat down, the machine detected my pass and woke itself up. Moments later, I was online and digging.
Over the years there’s been a battle raging between those who believe the net should be a wild frontier, open to all, with little or no regulation, and others who want it locked down tight. There’s also a war about privacy. Most people don’t realise how little privacy they’ve actually got when they go online. Some know the risks and don’t care - it’s a tradeoff they’re prepared to take for the convenience. Some, like me, know the risks and walk a fine line, keeping most of my stuff squirrelled away where all the most most determined of hackers won’t find it.
And then there’s English. The guy who set up my security and provides me with most of my tech. He’s what paranoid people call paranoid. The NSA could learn a thing or two about being cautious from him. Don’t get me wrong - he’s no genius. He ain’t one of these guys who can hack anything, build anything… but he’s pretty good. And he’s smart. Most of the time, rather than coming up with some brilliant way of doing something, he’ll come up with a sneaky way round the back that takes advantage of the average Joe’s stupidity or laziness. You people who use the same password, but just change the last character every month?
English loves you guys.
And then there’s Flint. He only rates a nine on the English security scale. I hadn’t had cause to speak to him for nearly a year, and my bank balance was grateful. Maybe I should get in touch. Never know when I might need his… specialised... services, and it was good to keep the wheels greased.
I got back to what I was doing. Like I say, most people don’t think too much about the net, and as long as they can update their social status, order a toaster and check their email they’re happy. Maybe if they could see what the Police were able to find out about them, they wouldn’t be. I clicked on a drop down list of search engines. Some of them you’d find familiar, some of them you’ll never have heard of, and never will.
If the cops had access to this sort of stuff, I idly wondered, not for the first time, what the hell did the real spooks have?
Maybe I’d ask Flint sometime.
For the next two hours, I trawled for anything I could turn up on Mr Fremont. I plugged a datastick into the machine and took copies of anything I thought was, or might be, useful. I had some code back on the office machine that was pretty good at churning though this stuff and looking for connections, so I grabbed anything that I thought might be even vaguely interesting.
On the face of it, there were no deep, dark secrets to be found. Usually when someone goes missing, there’s a reason for it. Either they’ve done something they can’t face up to, or they’ve done something that someone else wants some payback for. These things don’t happen overnight, and there’s usually a trail of gingerbread leading to the witch’s house. But I was looking for biscuits and turning up squat.
At 12.30 I decided to call it a day. I unplugged the stick and slipped it into my pocket, shut the machine down and headed out. As I walked up the corridor I bumped into Officer Baines, who was just going in to start her shift. I hadn’t seen her for a month or so, so we shot the breeze for a couple of minutes and then she went to work while I made for the front door. As I got there, I saw a familiar figure behind the desk.
“Chuck!” boomed a voice that veered between Brooklyn and Ballymena, depending on how much he’d had to drink.
“Hi, Pat!” I said, shaking his hand. “How’s tricks?” Clearly there had been a shift change, because Pat had now taken over from the Sergeant who had been on duty when I arrived.
“Fine, fine. Haven’t seen you for a while. Been busy?”
“Just the opposite,” I said. “quiet as the grave. But something might have turned up. How’s the ladies in your life?”
Pat was married to a fabulous woman called Mary, but the pride and joy of his life were his two daughters.
“They’re grand!” he said, completely ignoring the woman who was trying to get his attention at the desk. “Let me show you a picture of Emily & Cora.”
He dug out his wallet and produced a picture of two dark haired girls who were in their late twenties.
“And we have news!”
“Emily’s getting married!” At last!”
As far as I could recall, Pat’s daughter Emily had been engaged for years with no sign of a wedding.
“Finally went round to Liam’s with a shotgun, eh?” I chuckled to Pat.
He roared until he went an alarming shade of pink. I suddenly remembered the retirement thing, and how I was supposed to keep it a secret.
“Anyway, congratulations, Pat!” I said, “but I think I’d better be off.”
Maybe something in my face gave me away, because he suddenly stopped laughing and fixed me with a gaze like a hawk.
I made like a pair of trousers after lunch at an all-you-can-eat restaurant and split.
o o o o o
I checked my watch as I headed down the hill from the 18th. Just enough time to duck into the Cup ‘O’ Joe and grab a bite to eat before I went off to meet Jenny. A fifteen minute brisk walk and I approached the eatery. Strangely, I could see Lee, the cook, standing on the street outside. As I got nearer, I could see why.
Much like the bodega, the front window was now just a pile of broken glass.