Big Sick Heart Excerpt

Chapter 1

The ugly, low-pitched growl from the laptop ricocheted around the cruiser. Ryan swiveled the laptop. Whatever it was on the screen—a doper in a ski mask knocking over a minimart, a teenage girl texting a really cute guy while her car climbed a power pole, a woman who was absolutely certain it wasn’t her son but one of the Hispanic roofers across the street who took the Chablis from the garage fridge—whatever it was, Ryan would be up for it.

I know that because he has been my partner now for three days. I glanced at my watch—another hour and a half left on the clock, another good chance I’d be donating some free overtime to the city of Rawlings, Montana.

“Domestic Disturbance on Harlan. It’s just a couple of blocks up here,” he said. “You wanna take it?”

What else could I say? Domestics were for the uniforms, but the nearest car was supposed to respond, even if it carried a couple of detectives. So, once a month or so my partner and I would have to stop a bout between a man and a woman from way different weight classes. Then, if she wasn’t unconscious or dead, we’d try to get her to press charges, or at least move out. Most of the time, the guy would be looking all hangdog and saying he was real sorry and how he’d never do it again, and unless he’d beaten the crap out of her at least six or eight times before, she’d probably take him at his worthless word.

“Absolutely,” Ryan said, a puppy straining at a leash. “I miss the Domestics.” He wore a wide grin. He had been promoted to detective only a couple of weeks ago. A big, strong kid whose shoulders would definitely send the right message when he entered a house, he radioed we were on our way.

We were driving down Matthews, watching the black clouds stack up a couple of miles off. A few big drops were already blipping the windshield, a heads-up for the serious rain that would arrive in a few minutes. We’d been driving back from interviewing a couple in one of the senior retirement parks, the kind with the mobile homes lined up neat in a fishbone pattern, each house with an aluminum carport protecting the paint on the Accord.

When we drove out there, all we had was a name and address. Since the chief sent us rather than uniforms, it probably wasn’t a kid who’d taken the muffler off his Harley or the neighbor’s dog crapping on their lawn. Most likely, it was a scam.

The man was about seventy, his long face saddle-colored, wrinkles running down his cheeks like gullies. His expression said he was the one who screwed up. His wife, a short, potato-shaped woman with a helmet of permed white hair, didn’t seem to be busting his balls about it, but he looked ashamed, as if real men don’t fall for grifters. He explained to me and Ryan that it was about new windows. A guy in a pickup, no name on the side, said he wasn’t in the phone book because he was new in town and he just needed some cash up front to buy the windows due to the building-supply store wouldn’t give him credit yet.

When I asked how much they were out, the man answered so soft I had to ask him to repeat it. He was studying his shoes. I could barely make out “fourteen hundred.” When he finally raised his head and looked at me, I knew he was going to say how this had never happened to him before. Before he said it, I knew it was true.

“I know, sir,” said. “They’re good at it. It’s how they make their living.” He was looking over my shoulder, miles away. The back of his hand came up fast to wipe a tear. Fourteen hundred was probably a lot of money for these two, but it was plain he had lost a lot more than that to the guy in the pickup, no name on the side.

The wife was all business. The guy was white, she told me and Ryan, medium height, maybe in his forties, couple days’ stubble. And, oh, yes, I think he was wearing a baseball cap, dark blue, with something written on it. The husband said in a low voice he thought the cap was more black than blue.

Ryan was dutifully writing down this useless information. They had just described half the male population of Montana.

I gave the man my card and told them they could fill out a report at headquarters. Said I’d get back to them as soon as we had any information. I knew what the next question would be, but you have to let them ask it. No, I answered, I wouldn’t count on getting your money back, but, yes, we’re certainly gonna try.

By the time we got to the Domestic Disturbance, the rain was coming down for real, dancing off the busted car bodies, banged-up motorcycles, and sun-bleached travel trailers in the front yards. Some of this junk had hand-written for-sale signs attached, the words running in the rain. Most of the cars and pickups looked like they had been there a long while, their skins a rusty orange, the colored runoff staining the cement-block wheels.

We pulled up to the curb at 79 Harlan. Before I could shut down the Crown Vic, Ryan was out the door, across the ragged lawn, his face up against the picture window next to the front door, trying to make out what was going on through the sheet pinned up inside the window. Walking up to the front door, trying to avoid the puddles as big as pie plates, all I could see in the dull glow of a dim bulb in the ceiling was a couple of blobby shadows.

The screaming said one male and one female, the woman’s voice cutting through the rain pinging on the steel roof. Ryan shouted “Rawlings Police Department, open up” as I tried the handle on the hollow-core front door with a push-button lock made for inside. It was locked. The noise from inside stopped, like maybe they’d heard Ryan calling out or me trying the door. Then the shouting started back up, louder and meaner, as if a visit from the police didn’t surprise or scare them so much as give them something else to be pissed at each other about.

“Rawlings Police Department, open the door,” Ryan shouted again.

“Take it down,” I told him. Ryan’s fists came up to his chest as his knees bent. His left leg came up. His trunk leaning back, his leg shot out in a blurry side kick. With a lightning crack, the door exploded in a shower of splinters slamming against the inside wall. The room went silent. I remembered reading in Ryan’s file last week that he was a black belt in Shotokan karate. I had no idea what flavor that was, but I knew the door and the frame were beyond fixing.

Ryan was into the living room, with me right behind him. The couple were frozen, their eyes on us. The guy had his hands on the woman’s throat. She was grabbing at his wrists, trying to break his grip. I sized up the situation. It was good. The woman was about thirty-five, five-one or two, arms flabby, twenty or thirty pounds of belly pushing out the front of her stretch pants. Her face was contorted with screaming, but he hadn’t pulped her up yet. The guy was the same age, a skinny one-fifty, the slack skin and the obnoxious purple welts on his still-young face saying meth. But the good thing was, I could see all four hands, and they were unarmed.

Ryan went for the guy, reaching in over the left hand with his right, grabbing the guy’s thumb, twisting it and pulling it down. The guy cried out as Ryan pulled hard enough to break his grip, stopping just short of snapping his wrist. The guy lost his balance and fell over, landing at Ryan’s feet.

I was already on the woman, grabbing her right wrist and her upper arm, hammerlocking her. The situation under control, Ryan and I dragged the two away from each other. The guy was screaming from pain, the woman from fear. Ryan had his knee on the meth guy’s back, clamping the cuffs.

With all the racket, Ryan didn’t hear the second man. I caught a glimpse of him rushing up behind Ryan from the dark hallway leading to the bedrooms. He was big, a heavy-duty scowl set in the middle of a matted brown-orange beard. The blade in his right hand was a serrated fishing knife with a good ten inches of steel. His arm was coming up, getting into the strike position. From that angle, he could’ve taken Ryan’s head off or snapped his spinal cord like it was string.

“Ryan, behind you,” I shouted. Ryan pushed himself off the meth guy, hit the linoleum floor, tucking his arms in close to his body and rolling away fast, like he did it all the time. Realizing it wouldn’t be an easy kill, the guy with the knife had fury in his eyes as he turned to go after Ryan.

I calculated I had a second, tops. I wear my holster on my belt, right side. I grabbed my Smith & Wesson 9mm service pistol. Not enough time to assume a firing stance. The guy had pushed off his back leg and was almost over Ryan, who was still rolling but about to run up against a heavy chair in the tiny living room.

I decided not to go for the guy’s arm or shoulder—too small a target. If I missed, he could kill Ryan before I could get off a second shot. I aimed for the middle of his torso and squeezed off the round.

In the small house, the explosion sounded like a mortar shell. Through the silver-grey smoke hanging in the air, I could see the big guy go down heavy, the knife flying out of his hand, clattering as it hit the wall. Then the racket started again—the woman shrieking, the meth guy moaning, dogs barking in the distance, breaking through the white noise of the rain hammering the roof.

Ryan had his pistol out and was over the big guy. I was covering the woman and the meth guy. The big guy was fading, the bullet having entered his chest maybe an inch below his heart. Ryan had his fingertips on the guy’s carotid artery, but the gurgling sound, already slowing now, told the story.

The red stain was spreading out on the guy’s t-shirt. Ryan ripped the fabric around the wound, black and scarlet, little pink bubbles forming at the entry point. “He’s going,” Ryan said as he moved over to the meth guy to check that the cuffs were secure.

I was shaking, my breathing rapid and shallow. It was the first time I had fired my pistol at a human in my fourteen years on the job.

Ryan came over to me. “You okay?” he said. He was up close. I could smell his scent, a mixture of the wet wool of his slacks, his cologne, and fresh perspiration. I wanted to grab on to him.

“Yeah,” I said. “Fine.”

“It was a clean shoot, Karen. Completely clean.” He went over to the big guy, checking to make sure he was dead.

The two live ones were yelling, straining at their cuffs. “Hey,” Ryan barked. “Shut up.” He took out his cell, calling for an ambulance and backup and reporting the officer-involved shooting. “I’m going to sweep the bedrooms,” he said. “You stay here, okay?”

“Yeah.” Staying here was about all I felt up to. I tried to breathe deeper. Ryan had flicked on the hall light and disappeared into one of the bedrooms. I didn’t want to stand there, letting my partner do the dangerous sweep. I grabbed a pair of rubber gloves from my jacket pocket and went to check out the small, dirty kitchen. It was full of cigarette smoke, overflowing ashtrays, and dirty dishes. Two skinny cats sitting on the counter looked up at me apprehensively, then went back to eating crusts from a pizza box.

I opened the first drawer. Assorted knives and forks and spoons, all different makes and sizes. Another drawer full of bottle openers, ballpoint pens, string, assorted crap. A third one: bingo. I held the baggie up to the fluorescent ceiling light. Crystal meth rocks. I placed it on the counter, closed the drawer, and went back to the living room to wait for Ryan.

“Bedrooms are clear,” he said, coming back into the living room as he holstered his pistol.

“Good,” I said. “I took a look in the kitchen. There’s some meth out on the counter.”

“I’m shocked,” he said. “Nice people like this, mixed up with drugs.”

“Yeah, who’d’ve thought it?” I said.

“Did I have a chance to thank you?” Ryan said.

“No, I don’t think so,” I said, my voice sounding like it was coming from someone else. “And you’re usually so polite.” My hands were still shaking. My whole body felt clammy, as if I was running a fever. I could feel the sweat on the small of my back and beaded on my upper lip.

He guided me over to the ratty couch. “Sit down here while we wait.” He smiled at me. “It’s going to be okay, Karen. It was by the book, one-hundred percent.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Suddenly, I felt dizzy, like I was going to pass out. I sank into the couch, my head falling back onto a stained yellow pillow. “You wouldn’t think it would be so tiring …” My eyes were closing.

“What’s that?” Ryan’s voice was getting distant.

“Killing someone,” I said, pulling my legs up off the floor and settling in on the couch.

I must have been out for a few minutes. I awoke to the sirens coming in from different sides. They would be the squad cars and the Medical Examiner. I pulled myself to my feet and staggered to the window. Pushing the sheet aside, I saw the chief’s big grey Buick parked fifty yards down the street, the headlights forming silver cones of raindrops.

He was stalling a little on his entrance. The neighbors had already assembled in front of the house, but the media guys needed a few minutes to set up their cameras and extend the satellite antennas on their trucks.

Once the four networks were in place, the chief hit his siren. The cameras swinging in his direction, he accelerated over to the curb in front of the house, then braked hard. The Buick rocking, he stepped out from behind the wheel, leaving the siren on and his door open.

So few things in life are a hundred percent, but the chief is a total asshole.

After the old man debriefed us, Ryan drove us back to headquarters and we started filling out a dozen screens’ worth of forms about the bust and the officer-involved shooting. I called my son, Tommy, to tell him about what happened. I started to explain that police officers sometimes have to use lethal force, but only as a last resort. Tommy interrupted, wanting to know if I’d killed the guy. I said yes, unfortunately the man had died. Tommy said, “Sweet.” Feeling pretty wrung out, I just let it pass.

Ryan asked me if I wanted to go over our stories in preparation for our interviews tomorrow with the ombudsman’s office. I said no, there wasn’t anything to discuss, seeing as the victim’s weapon was logged at the scene. We agreed that the shooting was a textbook example of “preventing an imminent lethal danger to another police officer.”

When we finished up, Ryan asked if he could drive me home in my cruiser. I told him no, but as I stood up from my desk, he saw I looked a little wobbly. He insisted, and I was just as glad. Ryan had one of the uniforms follow us to get him back to headquarters.

I opened my front door, dropped my big shoulder bag in the hall, stumbled into my bedroom, and collapsed onto my bed. I was out. That was Monday. . .


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