The Perfect Cup of Joe – 1

The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride,
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide,
Earth a merry damsel, and heaven a knight so true,
And Earth is quite coquettish, and beseemeth in vain to sue.

– Emily Dickinson

ACT I

PART ONE

Lesson learned: never compare yourself to the Angel of Death.

Thing is, I didn’t even kill the guy. And, he was a big guy. Twice my size and almost three times sergeant Álvaro. And, he had a nine in each hand. Two aimed at me to my one aimed at him. And, he had a worried look in his eyes like a man who wasn’t twice my size and twice my guns. That’s always a bad sign.

That’s when I saw the two kids hiding behind the couch.

“Alright,” I said with a nod toward the kids. “There’s a guy coming up behind me, and the guy coming up behind me won’t give you three, but I’ma give you thr—”

He turned the guns out and flat. I let my arms relax visibly without dropping my aim. When he saw I was okay with it, he eased his nines down to the filthy carpet like a forklift setting down a pallet. Easy peasy, no squeezy.

That’s when the guy coming up behind me came up behind me. Detective sergeant Álvaro stomped into the room stiff-arming his weapon like everything he saw was a potential bad guy. Lamps, chairs, beer bottles. It took him three incoherent questions before his aim settled on the guy kneeling against the floor like a Muslim at prayer.

I nodded with my weapon. “One guy. I got him. Two minors behind the couch, unarmed.” I was guessing.

Álvaro kicked the guy’s nines into the next room and slammed his knee into the guy’s back. The guy was big, he could take it. Al was yelling at him and, the way he was yelling, I could tell he was going to lose his voice. That meant I would end up having to talk to the DA about the arrest. I hated the DA.

“Tell your fucking kids to get in the other room!”

“Come on kids,” I said. They were still pretty scared, so I shook my head behind Álvaro’s back like to say, “Never mind this asshole. Let’s go.” They crept out from behind the couch like the floor was covered in broken glass, instead of just joint stubs and bottle caps. That’s when the two cops behind Álvaro ran in.

The guy on the floor looked up at me again, with that same worried look in his eyes that had told me two minutes earlier that he was willing to give up without everybody dying.

“All the shooting’s done,” I said as if to the suspect, but really to Álvaro and the other two guys. I holstered my weapon and waved the kids back into the kitchen. “We’ll keep ’em safe, get ’em fed.”

The guy on the floor nodded and let his face settle into the comforting nastiness of the carpet. He looked like he wanted to fall asleep, even with Álvaro’s knee on his spine and Álvaro’s gun on the back of his head. The two other cops, whose names I never bothered learning, were trying to cuff the guy under Al’s leg.

Too few minutes later, Al came into the kitchen where I was talking to the social worker and to the kids. Mainly because I didn’t want to talk Cop Talk right then.

“What the fuck, Joe?” Álvaro was doing that thing where he let his tongue rest on his lower teeth to push out his bottom lip. I feel like he must have thought it looked tough. As usual, it wasn’t working. He looked like he was fighting a sneeze. “Why didn’t you shoot that asshole?”

I nodded toward the two kids. “Hey, would you mind cutting out all that talk while family’s in the room?” The worker ushered them out, hands on shoulders.

“Seriously, Joe,” he hissed. “You could’ve gotten us all killed.”

“You weren’t even in the line of fire.”

“Yet,” he said. “Not in the line of fire, yet. You could’ve gotten yourself killed, then I would’ve gotten killed. Then Blah and Blahdiblah.” Only, Al said the actual names of the two other cops, which I didn’t care to remember.

I started stacking dirty plates from the table. “I knew, you knew, we all know we could get killed when we sign up for this gig.”

“Okay, fine. You want to be a hard-ass? We all know you’re a hard-ass. You’re tougher than four armies put together. That still don’t explain why you didn’t just take this guy down.”

I set the stack of plates in the sink, like I lived there. I shrugged with my back to him. “I could see in the guy’s face he was worried about the kids behind the couch. So I gave him three.”

“Jesus, Joe.” Álvaro puffed out that single cough of laughter people do that’s supposed to mean they just heard something unbelievably dumb. I appreciated it. “You’ve put more lead into people than old paint. And now you’re giving this guy a countdown because he’s worried about a couple of brats?”

“I didn’t have to give the countdown. I told him I was going to give him three and he took it before one.”

Álvaro just stared at me as I picked up the glasses from the table. They were annoying me, what can I say? Just sitting there, half-full of milk and beer. Álvaro was annoying me. Being quizzed about my life-and-death decisions was annoying me. I set the glasses in the sink in a little triangle, beer at the top, two milks at the bottom.

The lonely silence demanded a word.

“God promised to save Sodom and Gomorrah from the Angel of Death if there was even a single righteous soul in there, yeah?” I looked at the three glasses, decided to dump them. Álvaro didn’t say anything. He just listened to the sound of milk and beer becoming one and draining away. Maybe he didn’t pay attention in church, despite that kitschy cross pinned to his plainclothes lapel. “The answer is yes, He did promise to save them from the Angel of Death if there was a single righteous soul there. And He had plenty of reason to send that angel, didn’t He?”

I turned and started gathering up the silverware. It calmed my nerves and kept me from telling Álvaro to fuck off.

“If I see a single saving grace in a suspect,” I told him, “pulling that trigger is murder.”

“So, you’re comparing yourself to God, now?”

I wanted to say, “Fuck you, Al.”

Or, “What’s it to a piece of shit like you?”

Or something earnest like: “No, just trying to live my life on the level.” But, I couldn’t resist trying to shake him.

“No, I’m not comparing myself to God.” I let the silverware clank in the sink and grinned at him over my shoulder. “Just the Angel of Death.”

Little did I realize it at the time, but my little joke about the Angel of Death was what would land me in front of the District Attorney again.

Earlier, I said that I hated the DA. That’s not true. I liked her. She was a tough broad. But, she was young and had only been a prosecutor for a couple of years before putting herself up for election as District Attorney. Most people didn’t think she had what it takes to be DA, but most people don’t vote. I’d have something to say about that if I weren’t one of those “most people” people.

The DA had a lot of friends in certain well-knit communities where people did vote. And that was that, as far as elections go.

“So, Joe,” she said slangishly. Only it wasn’t slang. Joseph is my real first name. “You don’t like the police department?”

“I like them alright.”

“You don’t seem to be making a serious go of it, no promotions, even though you have an exceptional arrest record. More important to me, an exceptional conviction record.”

It wasn’t flattery. It was banter. I gripped my racket and batted it back. “Fine. I don’t like them. They’ve got weak coffee and weaker morals.”

“You’d make a better cup of coffee?”

“Are we here to debate my barista skills?”

She smiled at my return. Our little chats were becoming a cordial habit. Almost a relationship. Except I suspected she wasn’t into relationships with men. At least not beyond the banter stage. She had that certain Sapphic demeanor. I admired it. There was something safe about it. Fellow to fellow, no complications.

“People have a habit of getting in the way of your bullets,” she said. Ah, here’s where the talk gets real. She’d never gone there before, so I was genuinely curious where the turn was taking us.

“I shoot people,” I said. “You don’t have to be mealy about it. I shoot people who shoot other people. It’s like judo flipping Death.” Second time that day I had mentioned Death. But, they say you have to repeat a devil’s name three times for the magic to happen, right? “Every bullet I’ve ever put into some crook has prevented dozens of bullets they were gonna put in someone else.”

“You can predict the future now?”

“I can read the past, which is what the future’s made of.”

“Clever.” She lifted her head as if to lift her eyebrows.

“Yeah, I said it to be clever. I’m glad you liked it.”

“So, more of a judge than a prophet.”

“Either one would be a promotion.” I decided to give her a break and cut the crap. “The truth is, I don’t bother with the past much, really. Most of the time, I don’t even know the guy’s past. Like you said, most guys I’ve arrested go to prison so there’s not much past out there to worry about.”

“And, the one’s you don’t arrest?”

“The ones I shoot, you mean? I just decide in the moment whether the guy needs shot or not. Like any other cop does. Only I’m better at it.” She leaned back, the way a therapist would. I didn’t like that much. “Latest guy? The guy with the two kids. He didn’t need shot, even though he’d already shot some folks.”

She sat as still as a frog on a lily pad. She wasn’t buying it.

“Look,” I said, “this city keeps pretty good weapons discharge records. If you dig a little, you’ll see that mine are under the mean. I shoot less often, I hit more often when I do, I arrest fewer suspects, and my arrests get convicted more often. Let that roll around in your head.”

She didn’t let it roll very long. “So, where do you think your reputation comes from?”

“My reputation as a cop who shoots too many suspects? Where a lot of bad reps come from. Envy, cliques, gossip, slander. Bullshit.”

“About that latest guy,” she said. I already deduced that Álvaro had dealt her some cards, and I could sense she was about to lay them on the table. “Some people think you’ve got a death wish. Your partner Álvaro—”

“He’s not my partner. He’s a detective sergeant. I’m a beat cop—”

“Sergeant Álvaro put something in his report about you calling yourself the Angel of Death.” Neither of us had a settled opinion about that, I guess, because we just sat there and stared at each other. She impressed me by going somewhere I hadn’t expected: “No wife? Spouse? No girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever?”

“No girlfriend. Never really got along with women. I mean, they’re smart and competent and all. I didn’t mean it that way.”

“I know you didn’t. You’re probably the only guy on the force without a harassment or EO complaint on his record.”

“A friend in the Internal Affairs Division is letting you look at personnel records? That’s a no-no. I might have to report them…” I tried not to grin at the joke I was ginning up. I failed. “…. to Internal Affairs.”

“But, you don’t get along with women.”

“I mean, as girlfriends or wives. They’re pretty to look at, and okay to work with. Some of the best officers on the beat are women. But, as partners—as romantic partners—I don’t understand them.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “They don’t much enjoy being understood.” I noted she said they, not we. That little share thudded heavy between us like an assessment from lengthy experience. I liked her more.

“I don’t understand them enough to make a partnership out of it. I’m more of a hunter-gatherer type of guy.”

“You mean hunter. The gatherer part was usually the women.”

“Yeah. I stay out all month killing woolly rhinos or whatever, beating down cave lions. Then, I come back to the camp for one week, hopefully not the wrong week.”

Her face tightened, suppressing a smile, letting me know my joke was okay. “Then I’m out hunting again.”

“That doesn’t work so good in the 21st century. I get it.” She glanced around her empty desk as if she wished she had something to pick up and pretend to read.

I guess I haven’t laid the scene very well. Her office was pretty plain. A few law dictionaries in a shelf behind her, tucked between some novels and literary textbooks. The titles were all politically correct bullshit. Her chair was cranked up too high, and she sat in it like a ceramic yard-ornament frog on a mushroom. She was built compact, but not necessarily in a bad way. No point in examining that any further, I guess. Her office window looked out on a boring boulevard, and looked bored doing it. An unlit desk lamp and a green energy LED light overhead. That’s about it.

“Even so,” she said, “no family, no cavewoman. Nothing to lose.” The death wish crap again.

“Nothing to lose but my life,” I said. “Which I like.”

“You do?”

“Yup. Now I suppose we’re going to talk about psych issues? The ex-wife I didn’t mention when I said I had no girlfriend? Surely you know about that. Why the hell did you really want to talk to me?”

She relaxed. I’d broken through the banter to the bare. I was either going to really like what she was about to say, or really hate it. “I asked the chief to let you do some investigating for me.”

“Jesus,” I said. “S’everyone in this town in your back pocket? I’m a regular cop, and I don’t want the politics that goes with being a detective. I’ve made that clear to the chief.”

“Yet, you have a better conviction record than any detective on the force. You make better calls in a few seconds than they do after week-long investigations.”

Fuck it. “Okay, then,” I said. “Beats the beat. Whaddaya got?”

“I want you to look into the disappearance of a guy who used to work for a local business owner.” I did my best not to budge so she’d know I needed more information. She finally added: “Núr Lucas.”

“Núr Lucas? That belly dance studio whatever who had a back-to-Alláh moment and started funneling money to terrorists?”

“She’s not funneling money to terrorists.”

“Feds think so. They audited her three times. She goes all burqaë and starts making nice with her old-school dad overseas who’s on a no-fly list. Seems a solid case. What makes you so sure?”

“I used to work for her.” That was interesting news. So, the DA had a shady history. “I worked for her when I was in law school. Right up to her back-to-Alláh moment, as you put it.”

“So who’s the guy?”

“A private detective named Charles Oliver.”

I knew that name, too. Guy with a solid rep shows up a few year’s back, dead without an explanation. Most privateers are sketchy, but Chuck Oliver’s armor was as shiny as a knight’s could be. His death had eyes blinking for months.

“Why me? You just like picking on the sociopath?”

“You’re not a sociopath.”

“Tell IAD that.”

“I have.”

“So why me?”

“You’re obsessed with angels,” she said. “Just like Núr Lucas. And her job for Oliver had something to do with angels.”

So, shit. She had me dead to rights, not to recklessly invoke the name of the angel a third time. My dad was a secular Jew, which was to say he was about as atheist as I suspected the DA to be, judging from the anti-religious textbooks on the shelf behind her. But my mom had lit enough Shabbat candles to burn a new sun, and had been New Age and Qabbalah enough to ingrain my brain with all kinds of nonsense about angels and mystical approaches to G-d. It was a second language to me, divine forms and emanations and the secret world beyond the Temple veil.

“Hit me,” I said. “What do you got?”

What she had was a case file, a box full of evidence, and two addresses: one to the private eye’s office and one to the belly dancer’s studio.

The file folder was redundant. I remembered the case well enough. The evidence box was also nearly a bust. Mostly clothes. A duster, a bloodied shirt, a fedora so ratty it looked like it objected to its own existence and was trying to fade completely away. A pistol. A flask that smelled of bourbon. Tucked into the coat, however, was a notebook open to a page where Oliver had scribbled a header in all caps, double-scribbled it, and underlined it, over what looked like a list of instructions.

The header read: “BREAKING YOUR MIND.” Alright, for whatever that was worth.

I tucked Oliver’s notebook in my uniform shirt pocket and swung by the guy’s office in Lobany Place. The front window was filthy with years of street dust, but that wasn’t out of place. The row had gone downhill since he died. When real estate crashed and the Reaganomic Riche started dumping their keys in the mailboxes of their McMansions on the far end of Dogwood Road, all of the cutesy straight-laced shops in Lobany Place started going belly-up.

The whole area was like a hollowed out skull now. The bookstore on the corner had been boarded up for a while and the doctor’s office at the other end was now occupied by some crank off-shoot church. The New Biblical Sanctity Messianic Kingdom or some such half-assed Christian horseshit.

Inside the privateer’s office, I felt like I had stepped back in time. The only thing that told me it had been occupied in the 21st century was the Bush-era desktop computer propped like a decoration atop a scarred wooden desk that looked like a grumpy middle-aged Bogart should be shoving himself into a giddy teenaged Bacall on top of it between shoots. No disrespect to the recently dead intended.

Inside the fridge I found a stale stink, some bottled water, cans of a defunct brand of power drink, and a couple of half-empty bottles of bourbon. There was an antique coat rack and an antique chair. On the wall was a framed Independence Day poster from the 1920s featuring some busty brunette fumbling an ice cream cone. The guy had been living in a world as dead as the real estate market.

Staring into the brunette’s icy blue eyes, I realized I had invoked Death more than three times. Guess I was in for it.

I dug through Oliver’s desk drawers and found nothing interesting except a pistol case, lined with velvet like a gaudy coffin. Empty. It looked like it might have once cradled the pistol from the evidence box.

I locked up and headed over to the Muslim chick’s place in Sutler Heights.

The former dance studio, tucked between a second-hand store and a Latino restaurant, was now the Lucas Men’s Counseling Center. The promotional literature I read while waiting in the lobby sold it as a place where guys could come spill their guts about the pressures of cultural obligations. The stock photos were all cops, firefighters, construction workers, and soldiers.

When he saw my uniform, the butch blond behind the counter had assumed I was a client. When I told him I’d been sent by the DA, his eyes lit up in a way that told me he wasn’t “most people” people. Appointments got shuffled, apologetic calls made, and I was told to wait for the hour to drop. Ten minutes of patience, browsing brochures.

Núr Lucas wasn’t wearing a burqaë when she met with me, but she was dressed conservatively, long black pants suit covering everything from her neck to her wrists and ankles. The jacket had been carefully tailored to prevent its buttons from protesting her breasts, but not to prevent her breasts from being distracting. Not sure there was a tailor skilled enough to accomplish that miracle with anything short of a parka. She had a black scarf not quite covering her long dark hair, and a look in her dark eyes that spoke of a humbled confidence. Something about that was endearing.

“Angels?” she said blankly, pretending to read something on a gray laptop cocked at a casual angle on her glass-and-steel desk. She was better prepared for banter than the DA, at least.

“I don’t have time for the cagey,” I said. “The DA isn’t into the spiritual hooey, but she knows that it’s your tie to this dead privateer she wants me to look into.”

She stopped pretending, closed the laptop. Her office was bare, white walls, white mat on the floor. In the corner leaned a corny brown-and-green rain stick, the only hint of color in a neo-noir world.

“You’re not into the ‘spiritual hooey’ either?” She wasn’t giving, but at least she was engaging now.

I shrugged. “I’ve seen lots of freaky shit. I once shot my last three slugs into a meth-head’s chest and he took 15 steps toward me before dropping. I was just standing there, shitting my pants and reloading. I thought he was a zombie or something.”

“So, you’re open to the possibility?”

“I’m always open to possibility.”

Her eyes squinted at that. I recognized the mood. What I said, or the way I said it, was a clue in her investigation of me.

“Anything from your past that could be used against you?” There was a hint of a grin playing at the corner of her full, dark lips. Like we were about to become friends. Or lovers. I stifled the speculation. Sometimes, being open to possibility was a liability.

“Used against me?”

“Against you spiritually. Something from your past that could be a stumbling block.”

“My past?” Again with the cheap psychology, only this time dressed up in religion. Time to hammer the last nail in this silly analysis. “Nah, I’m more of a live-in-the-moment kind of guy. And, anyone from my past I would’ve had to worry about, I killed already. The ones I didn’t have to kill are mostly my friends now, even from behind bars. I’m probably the only cop who’s not afraid of getting shanked if I get sent up.”

“Not afraid of Death?” I could hear Núr’s capitalization. The fallen angel had manifested Himself.

“Well,” I shrugged. “I always figure there’s someone out there, somebody I’ve never seen who, at some point, is gonna kill me. Who knows when?”

Núr’s grin was gone, hint and all. I guess we weren’t going to be friends after all. She looked worried for me suddenly. “The DA wants you to look into Charles Oliver’s death because you’re obsessed with Death.” Oh, yeah. The capitalization was clear.

“You got grudge against Death?” I asked. “He’s a natural part of G-d’s cycle, right?”

Her face shifted from chestnut to ash, from possibility to certainty, lips cranking themselves into the exact opposite of a hint of a grin. Somehow, they were more attractive that way, more sympathetic. That humbled confidence, forced upon her like a bad memory. Her black pupils swallowed the color of her eyes, a sign of arousal. But, not the kind I had suspected earlier. Something had spooked her.

“I’m sorry, Officer Clay.” The laptop opened, no longer a prop for banter, but a black-and-white checkered flag telling me that the contest was over. Even the rain stick seemed to have lost its color. Everything in the office was suddenly grayscale. “I don’t think I can help you.”

I didn’t argue. You can tell when someone isn’t going to talk, just like you can tell when someone isn’t going to shoot. If you pay attention. So, I just walked out, took the blond’s aggressive wink in stride, and pulled the privateer’s notebook from my pocket as I stepped onto the sidewalk.

So, Charles Roland Oliver. Tell me all about “breaking your mind.”

GO TO PART 2

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