THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE HIGH/LOW ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO.29.
Washing her hands in the dark, empty bathroom of a rest stop off Highway 10, just west of Ripley, California, Margaret’s thoughts turned once more to Lloyd and Ray Pettibone.
Of all the old enemies she was thinking about revisiting upon her return to Los Angeles, the Pettibone brothers were the ones who made her skin crawl the most, Lloyd in particular. The little bastard had laughed in her face. Murdered a 20-year-old girl and made a paraplegic out of her 17-year-old brother, and when she’d promised him she was going to find a way, somehow, someday, to make him and Ray pay for both crimes — having failed miserably to build a prosecutable case against them — he’d chuckled at the threat as if it had come from a little girl in pigtails:
“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
Maybe if Churchill Stevens hadn’t been everything Lloyd Pettibone wasn’t — a young, hardy black man with a mind and a future and zero interest in the thug life — Margaret might not have taken what the Pettibones did to him so personally. But Churchill was a jewel, a rare ray of light in a desolate, South Central patch of the City of Angels that generally knew only darkness, and to see him reduced to an emaciated, paralyzed stick-figure by two pieces of shit like Lloyd and Ray Pettibone … It had just been more than Margaret could bear.
Lloyd Pettibone hadn’t been the first punk to treat her like a joke and he hadn’t been the last, but it was him and his brother Ray she now found herself wanting to pay back more than all the others. Not because of Lloyd’s cruelty or disrespect, but because of his apathy. What he and his brother had done to Churchill Stevens and his sister Violet hadn’t moved Lloyd Pettibone one way or the other; it had just been something that needed doing, like hammering a nail or taking out the trash. He should have been made to feel something, some combination of pain and regret, but Margaret had left that job undone.
This was part of the unfinished business she would spend the next few days attending to in Los Angeles.
She remembered Lloyd Pettibone’s crooked, self-satisfied grin and felt the old familiar outrage boil to the surface. She’d been suppressing it for years, unwilling to agonize over something she could never change — but now she let it come, turning a deaf ear to the dull voice in her head demanding that she come to her senses and drive her sick, crazy ass back home.
It wasn’t too late. She hadn’t yet done anything to embarrass herself and no one ever had to know she’d come this far. All she had to do was get back in the car and return to Scottsdale. Crawl into bed, say a prayer, and commit herself to being a compliant, hopeful cancer patient.
It was a tempting thought. But not tempting enough.
She wasn’t going home. She was going to Los Angeles. Not just to enact some revenge against Lloyd and Ray Pettibone, but against this thing, this crawling evil, that had taken root in her body and was threatening to destroy it, one cell at a time. What she couldn’t do to cancer she would do to the Pettibones because it was either that or lose her mind.
She had run into a mammoth traffic jam just outside of Goodyear that had set her back almost four hours and she was exhausted beyond description. She was at the bathroom sink in the ladies’ room, freshening up to stay awake, when the girl came in. A big white girl with oversized teeth and jet-black hair, cut the way a blind man might have done it. She wore a silk-screened T-shirt one size too small underneath a dark green hoodie, and denim pants with shredded holes along the tops of both thighs. Margaret put her age at somewhere in the early 30s, her silver nose ring notwithstanding.
Margaret had seen her before. Outside in the parking lot, standing alongside an old Chevy sedan with a white man who, in look and demeanor, delivered the same message of lingering desperation. Their car had been so loaded down with duffels and garbage bags, it sat as low to the ground as a tortoise. At 2:00 a.m., the couple and Margaret had been the only ones stirring in the entire rest stop.
Rather than enter a stall to do her business, the woman went straight to a sink instead, on the end near the door to Margaret’s left. She didn’t speak, just turned the water on and made a half-hearted attempt to run her hands through the spray. Margaret dried her own hands on a towel and watched her, waiting, but the girl wouldn’t look up.
Shit, Margaret thought.
She started for the exit and the white woman stepped away from the sink to block her path, shaking the water from her hands.
“Hey, excuse me. Don’t mean to bother you, lady, but I wonder if you could help me out.”
Up close, her frayed nerves and ill intent were more easily recognized. She was in a bad way.
Margaret tried to move past her but the white woman blocked her again, slipping a knife from the pocket of her hoodie as she did so. It wasn’t much of a knife, but she held the blade up high where Margaret would be forced to consider its potential for mayhem.
“I don’t want to hurt you, nigger, but I will. Your money. Everything you’ve got, right now.”
Margaret had felt sorry for her to this point but being called a nigger with a hard “R” had its usual effect, sucking her dry of all sympathy. She performed the required assessment, relying on old skills not yet dead, and decided the woman before her was nothing she couldn’t handle.
“Okay. Please don’t hurt me.” She nodded and raised her left hand in compliance, then reached into the purse hanging from her shoulder with the right.
“Easy!” the girl said.
Easily or otherwise, Margaret had the Beretta out of her purse and pointed at the girl’s face before she could blink. The knife seemed to fall from her hand with a will of its own.
“Call him,” Margaret said.
The white girl didn’t seem to understand. Her eyes were wide with terror and she lilted to one side, unsteady on her feet.
“Lady, I don’t — ”
Margaret almost laughed. She’d stopped being a “nigger” and was back to being a “lady” again.
“The man outside waiting. The one who sent you in here, with the beard and the gut. Call him!”
Another second passed before she was convinced: the Beretta wasn’t bluffing, even if Margaret was. “Danny!”
He came storming into the room in short order, reckless and clumsy like an ox in heat. He was a big blonde, with thick arms and legs and a neck that wasn’t there, but the most he could do with all of it was throw it around.
Margaret put a bullet in his left shin, just below the knee, to take the steam out of him right away.
He howled and went down in a heap as his woman let out a scream of her own. Margaret backed her way to the door, stopping just long enough to pick the girl’s knife up from the floor.
“You fucking bitch!” the woman said.
“Yeah, that’s me. On the floor. Face down. Unless you want some of what boyfriend got.”
The white girl didn’t move.
“What, you think that shit was an accident? Grandma with a gun just got lucky?” Margaret took aim at her right leg.
“All right, all right! Fuck!” She got down on the floor, her man still wailing and bleeding beside her.
“I’m leaving now,” Margaret said. “I see either one of you outside before the count of a hundred, I finish you.”
“Go fuck yourself,” the man said, but he was in too much pain to put any substance behind it.
Margaret rushed out, paused to fire a round into each tire on the driver’s side of the overloaded Chevy, and resumed her trip to Los Angeles.
Minutes later, flying down the interstate, eyes checking her mirrors for the flashing lights of a Highway Patrol car that had yet to appear, Margaret was overcome by a giddy lightheadedness she hadn’t known since her earliest days as a rookie cop. She still had it. She was still the Queen.
She should have been ashamed for taking such a stupid chance, shooting a man in a public rest stop and leaving the scene of the crime, but she wasn’t. She felt good. Alive. The asshole and his lady friend had fucked with the wrong angry black woman. She rolled her window down and laughed into the wind.
When her cell phone rang, she almost didn’t hear it. She took it in hand and checked the display: Early again. Her second call in three hours. Margaret hadn’t answered the phone the first time and she was reluctant to answer it now. The voicemail Early had left previously mentioned no emergency; she just wanted to talk. After 11 months of treating Margaret like a pariah. The child’s timing was incredible. Even if Margaret were interested in a reconciliation — and to her mild surprise, she was — it was too late to pursue it. Any peace she made with her daughter now would only feel like a slap in the face to Early later, after Margaret had done what she was planning to do behind Early’s back in Los Angeles.
And yet … It was almost 3:00 a.m. Two unanswered late-night calls would almost certainly arouse Early’s suspicions. As broken as their relationship was, they’d never been in the habit of not picking up the phone for each other. If Margaret didn’t answer this call, a third would come after it. And a fourth after that.
Margaret put an end to the phone’s ringing. “Do you know what time it is?” she asked, trying to sound half asleep.
Early ignored her mother’s rude greeting, said, “Yes, mother, I’m sorry. I tried to call you earlier, but you didn’t pick up. I’ll call back tomorrow.”
“No, no. I’m awake now. What’s on your mind?”
“Where are you? It sounds like you’re in the car.”
Margaret quickly rolled her window up, cursing silently. “In the car? It’s three o’clock in the morning, Early. I’m home in bed, of course.”
An ensuing silence suggested the lie was less than convincing, but Early moved past it. “Well, I only called to say I was thinking about you tonight and realized how much I miss you. And how much I love you.”
She waited for Margaret to reply.
Feeling a twinge in her chest, Margaret had to pause to think before she could say something her pride would hold against her later. “That’s nice to hear. I love you, too.”
“Of course. But — ”
“That doesn’t mean you forgive me. Is that what you were going to say?”
“Something like that.”
“Mother, I did my job. That’s all I did. In most cases, when I do my job, justice is done. Mistakes are corrected and lives are saved. But I’m not perfect. I can’t always see all the ways the work I do can go sideways.”
“Except in this case, you could have. I told you how it would go sideways.”
“You were guessing. You couldn’t have known. No one could have known.”
But Margaret had known. She hadn’t been the cop who put Anthony Kingman away but she had known enough about his arrest and conviction for the murder of nine-year-old Jamilla Alberts to predict what returning him to the streets was likely to accomplish.
“Call it what you will,” Margaret said. “A guess, intuition. Any way you slice it, you had a chance to trust my judgment and you chose not to. And now we’re both living with the consequences.”
“Mother — ”
“Is this why you called, Earlene? So we can have the same old argument?”
“No! I just wanted to talk. To see if we could find a way to be friends again. Wouldn’t you like that, too?”
Before Margaret could answer, a sound outside the car became incessant, building from a faint note to a violent wail. It was the Highway Patrol car Margaret had been dreading, only this one, flashing by on the opposite side of the highway, wasn’t coming for her.
“Mother, what is that? Is that a siren?” Early asked.
“It’s nothing. We can talk about all this later. I’m going back to sleep now.”
“You are in the car. At three o’clock in the morning. Mother, what’s going on? Where are you going?”
“I’m not going anywhere. You’re imagining things. Good night, Earlene.”
Margaret ended the call.
If she hadn’t been on the clock before, she was now. Early would not rest until she found out what Margaret was up to. She would call and keep calling, and text and keep texting, when Margaret refused to answer — which Margaret would from this point forward — she would call the police in Arizona. They’d wait two days to make sure she was really missing, and then someone would eventually enter Margaret’s condo and find the note she’d left for her daughter. After that …
Margaret rolled her window down again, needing to feel the night air on her face, and stepped harder on the Camry’s gas.
In Harry Shepard’s experience, people who didn’t write always thought it came easily to those who did. They had this idea in their heads that a writer just sat down under a shady tree with his laptop, flipped an inner-switch while sipping a piña colada, and watched the words flow onto the page, one immaculate, inspired line after another.
Harry knew all that was bullshit.
In the seven years he’d been writing professionally, he had yet to write a full paragraph that he hadn’t had to drag, kicking and screaming, into existence. The process of writing for Harry, if it wasn’t comparable to natural childbirth, was at least akin to passing a gallstone, and it pissed him off that some couldn’t look upon what he now did for a living as work.
Of course, it only made matters worse that Harry was an ex-cop who wrote novels about a fictional one, Thelonious Wendall Coltrane. People assumed Harry got all his story ideas from his own personal experiences, or the experiences of cops of his acquaintance, eliminating any need he might otherwise have for an actual imagination. In truth, Harry hadn’t written a book yet that was based to any substantial degree on a real-world case in his past. That wasn’t his method. Rather than draw upon history, Harry chose instead to reinvent it, using his own experiences as a former Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective to provide detail and verisimilitude to murder investigations he created from whole cloth.
Today, onboard the 45-foot Carver Voyager he had christened The Alabaster Angel after his first New York Times best seller, Harry was pulling teeth trying to get a scene in his latest Theo Coltrane novel to take shape. It was an interrogation scene, Theo and his partner Dinah Ellington trying to work a confession out of a murder suspect before he could lawyer up. Such scenes were anathema to Harry because they rarely bore any resemblance to the real thing; in all his 24 years on the job, Harry could count on one hand the number of Q-and-As that had not been either tedious or brief. If a suspect didn’t run the cops through endless hours of denials and lies, they asked for a lawyer within minutes of entering the room. Neither option offered an author much in the way of suspense, so Harry always had to come up with something different, something that was both clever and marginally plausible at the same time.
This morning, Harry had spent the last two hours seeking inspiration and finding none. Nothing he tried would grease the rails. He was about to go up on deck and call it a day, watch the girls in bikinis float in and out of Long Beach Marina on sailboats and cabin cruisers, or read a better book than he knew how to write, when fact came to the rescue of fiction yet again.
This time, it was in the form of a woman named Glenda Caffrey.
Harry’s old partner Margaret Dodd almost never took the lead in Q-and-As, preferring instead to let Harry do the honors while she sat back and waited for the perfect moment to ask a question that, more often than not, would knock their suspect on his or her ass. But every now and then, the Queen — as she was known throughout the squad in deference to her debatable resemblance to Aretha Franklin — felt moved to take the reins of an interrogation herself. Such was the case with Glenda Caffrey.
Caffrey was a 33-year-old mother of two who had murdered a rival for her boyfriend Lester Andrews’s affections, shooting her four times in the face in the garage of the woman’s home with a .38 caliber revolver not yet found. It was supposed to look like an aborted carjacking, and without witnesses, Harry and the Queen had little to suggest it had been anything but. What they did have in the way of motive and circumstantial evidence, however, was enough to convince both that Caffrey was their killer. All they had to do was prove it, or better yet, get Caffrey to admit it.
But Caffrey was playing tough. On her first round of questioning, she’d flatly denied any involvement in the crime and had said nothing remotely incriminating. Eleven days later, armed with cell phone records that punched holes in Caffrey’s alibi and threatening emails sent from her home computer to the victim, Harry and Margaret were ready to try again. Only this time, Margaret asked the first set of questions.
She started by placing two photographs on the table in front of Caffrey: Steven, age 11, and Penny, nine.
“Where did you get those?”
“That’s not important,” Margaret said. “What’s important is that you love them. They’re your children, your babies. You would do anything for them. And you’d do anything to save them pain. Wouldn’t you?”
“Yes. But — ”
“Maybe that’s why you did what you did. From what we understand, aside from his cheating, Lester is a good man. You wanted a good father for Stevie and Penny and you thought Lester was the one. Then along comes Patricia Escobar to ruin everything. For you and the kids.”
Caffrey just sat there, waiting for Margaret to make her point.
“What I’m trying to tell you, Glenda, is that this may be your last chance to spare Penny and Stevie a lifetime of grief. We know you killed Patricia Escobar because we have the emails you sent her threatening to do so, and cell phone records prove you were near her house when she was killed, not home in bed like you said. Maybe we’ll find the gun you used and maybe we won’t, but either way, we’ve got enough right now to take you to trial. Do you know what that means?”
“I didn’t kill anybody,” Caffrey said, shaking her head.
“It means these poor children will hear everything,” Margaret said, hammering a finger on the two photographs resting on the table between them. “Whether you’re convicted in the end or not, it’ll all come out in a trial. Everything you did and how. Every ugly detail. They’ll call you a monster who plotted and planned the ruthless murder of an innocent, 26-year-old girl. They’ll read your emails out loud and show the jury blown-up crime scene photos of the four bullets you put in the victim’s face. They won’t talk about how you did it for your children, or how Lester’s lying ass drove you to it. They’ll just say you were a jealous, coldblooded bitch and leave it at that.”
Harry watched a tear stream down Caffrey’s right cheek. She was biting her lower lip, no doubt to keep from saying something she didn’t want to say.
“You want to control what Stevie and Penny find out about what you did? Tell the story yourself. In your own words, your own way. If you make us tell it for you, we won’t be kind.” Margaret turned to Harry, who was standing off to the side. “Will we, partner?”
Harry looked directly at Caffrey. “We don’t get paid to be kind.”
She didn’t answer right away. The two photos on the table were a constant distraction to her. Finally, Caffrey wiped her eyes and said to Margaret, “I want to speak to a lawyer.”
They thought they had lost her. Harry couldn’t believe it. But then, five days later, Caffrey’s court-appointed attorney approached the D.A.’s office with a plea deal: a full confession for a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter, with a maximum sentence of 15 years. Margaret wanted more but Harry sided with the D.A.; they didn’t have the murder weapon and weren’t close to finding it, and the case they could build without it might not satisfy the wrong jury. The D.A. took the deal and Caffery got the full 15.
All because the Queen had recognized something about their suspect that Harry had completely missed: Caffrey would kill for Lester Andrews, but she would lay down her life for her kids.
Some people liked to say his partner was lucky, that she took wild guesses that just happened to pan out, but Harry wasn’t one of them. Margaret Dodd had been a damn good cop who simply knew how to read people, and eight years of partnering up with her had provided Harry with more fodder for his writing than all his other professional experiences put together.
So, the lady wasn’t “lucky.” Far from it. The last time Harry spoke to her, she’d let it slip that she was ill. He couldn’t get her to elaborate, but from what little she said, he gathered it was cancer. Harry didn’t push her for more details because he knew there’d be no point; to Margaret Dodd, cancer would just be one more ass to kick. She was indomitable.
Today, the Queen had come through for Harry again. The interrogation scene he’d been struggling to write was a problem solved. He wasn’t going to have Theo Coltrane or Dinah Ellington work a confession from their suspect with a photo of two children, but they were going to do something similar and just as inspired.
Harry knocked the scene out in less than an hour and decided to celebrate by taking the rest of the day off. He typically put in at least six hours of writing every day but his last Coltrane novel, The Black Keys, was the third in a row to sell over a quarter-million copies, so he could afford to check out early every now and then.
He drove his emerald green, ’66 GTO convertible out to Nicky’s in Belmont Shores, top down, jazz blaring. Nicky McMillan was the ex-wife of a cop Harry once knew who worked the bar herself and could pour a martini to rival the ones Harry used to throw down three at a time at Musso & Frank in Hollywood. The bar was small but it had a vibe that matched Harry’s own, cool and dark and quiet as a church on Tuesday morning. It was a place a man could think in, and trade stories with people on either side of the bar without having to shout above the din of some fool’s idea of music, or a drunken birthday party run amok.
At least, that was how Harry usually found it. But not this morning. This morning, there had been a giant blue monster truck cocked at an angle in the handicapped parking space Harry usually put the Pontiac in, flags the size of bed sheets hanging from poles propped up in the back. One flag was the American standard but the others were political billboards for people who loved half-baked conspiracy theories and the former US president who once liked to Tweet about them. Harry parked his car in a regular spot in a far corner of the lot and, on his way inside, confirmed what he already knew: there was no “handicapped” placard hanging from the truck’s rearview mirror.
“How you doing, Harry?” Nicky asked as he took his usual place at the bar. She wasn’t naturally exuberant, Nicky, but the short, meaty blond looked more subdued than usual.
It wasn’t hard to guess why. She only had seven customers to serve, including Harry, and among them were two white men sitting at a table in the rear, laughing and talking like they had the place all to themselves. They were both middle-aged and dressed to impress no one but each other, testing the fit on faded denim pants and cotton T-shirts that advertised the brand of the truck outside and a beer Harry had stopped drinking as a teen. The larger of the two was a bearded redhead with a flat face and forearms black with tattoos, and the smaller was a sickly scarecrow, his cheeks hollow and his long neck that of a goose. Much of what they were saying couldn’t be understood from the bar but every now and then a vulgarity or racial epithet would ring out loud and clear.
Nicky set Harry up with his usual libation — Ford’s gin, extra dry — and waited for him to take his first sip before saying, “I was hoping you’d come in today.”
Harry had made up his mind he wasn’t going to get involved so he pretended not to follow her meaning. “Why? Isn’t my tab paid up?”
“All I need you for is back-up.” She cut her eyes at the two proud Americans in the back. “I can handle this myself.”
“Don’t trouble yourself. They’ll be gone in an hour.”
Another “nigger” made its way up to the front of the bar. Nicky visibly flinched. “I’ve already had one hour of this. I think one is enough.”
She took a step to come around the bar and Harry said, “Okay.” Stopping her cold.
He got up from his stool and went over to the table where the two loudmouths sat, coming to a halt between them. The lightweight went quiet in mid-sentence.
“Sorry to interrupt, boys, but I was wondering which one of you has the disability?”
“The what?” the redhead asked, already annoyed.
“The disability. That’s your truck in the handicapped space outside, right? I was just wondering which one of you has the bad back or the bum knee.”
The bar was suddenly dead silent. The two men shared a glance and grinned.
“Or maybe it’s the kind of disability you can’t see. What they used to call ‘retarded’ in my day but is now referred to as ‘developmentally delayed.’”
The grins went away. The man with the beard turned in his chair to glower at Harry more directly. “You trying to be funny, old man? You’ve lived too long, is that it?”
“Was only one space the truck would fit, so that’s where we put it,” the scarecrow said. “You got a problem with that, go fuck yourself.”
He and his friend laughed, waiting to see what Harry would say next.
“Hey, no offense intended,” Harry said, smiling. “I figured you guys had an explanation and, now that I’ve heard it, it makes perfect sense. Gotta park where you can park, right?”
“Right,” the redhead said. Nailing the subject closed.
Harry turned and went back to the bar, the pair at the table snickering as a way of bidding him farewell.
“Thanks for trying, Harry,” Nicky said as he paid his tab.
“It was nothing. Take it easy, Nick.”
He started out, doing his best to resemble a defeated old man in full retreat.
On his drive back to the marina, a giant blue and white flag emblazoned with the name of the 45th president of the United States flapping against the wind in the convertible’s open back seat, Harry wondered if he couldn’t have done more to defend his honor against the two apes at Nicky’s bar. He decided the answer was no. A man his age, ex-cop or no, had to define “kicking ass” differently than he had in his youth. Twenty years ago, he would have broken the end off the flagpole he’d torn from the bed of the monster truck in Nicky’s parking lot and shoved it up the ass of the truck’s ignorant owner. Today, all he did with the pole end was ram it down deep into the throat of the truck’s exhaust, rendering the vehicle undrivable for reasons that would only become apparent after a tow and a good-sized repair bill.
It wasn’t the same as putting his fist through a deserving face, but it was satisfying, nonetheless.
Gar Anthony Haywood is a three-time winner of the Private Eye Writers of America's SHAMUS award and the author of 12 novels, including the Los Angeles Times best-selling Aaron Gunner mystery series.