THE VANQUISHED by David Putnam
Lynwood Sheriff’s Station 1988
Twenty minutes before I met Maury Abrams and realized his life would be marked for a cruel and inevitable death, I walked down the long hall that led to the watch commander’s office.
I stopped at his door and looked back the way I’d just come to see if Sonja had followed. It would be just like her to come and stand tall in front of the W.C. and take the lumps we had coming. Do it together. But I was the training officer, her TO. This landed square on my shoulders. I should never have let this happen. I knocked and waited.
Lt. Carr yelled, “Come.”
I opened the door and stepped into his office. I wished this hadn’t come down to Carr, the one lieutenant at the station who knew about the street, what it was like to chase calls, to deal with the abrupt violence that tended to catch you unawares. I respected the man too much, and with that respect came the shame for my stupidity.
Carr sat behind his desk, the one he shared with the other lieutenants on different shifts. His gray eyes followed me in. I stood in front of his desk, my hands folded at my Sam Brown buckle. My leather creaked when I moved, even though I had two full years working the streets.
“I think I’d rather stand, sir.”
“What kinda stick you got up your butt, Bruno? Relax, would ya? I didn’t call you here to chew your ass. Wait—you do something that warrants an ass chewin’?”
“What? Ah, no, no not at all, sorry. I think I got a bad taco at Lucy’s.” I held my stomach and grimaced.
I’d almost blown it. And still I fought the urge to spill it, to come clean with him. He looked at me a moment longer.
“I called you in to tell you that, at the end of the month, we’re going to rotate the trainees. We have a new group of five comin’ in, and you’re the best we got for phase one. I don’t have to tell you phase one’s the most important. It lays the foundation for these new guys and helps set their moral compass.”
“Sure, right, no problem.”
I didn’t have time to dwell on the irony of his statement. A large trapdoor opened and my stomach went into a freefall. Sonja would be with another TO. Probably even on another shift. I didn’t want her out of my car. I didn’t want her out of my sight. I wanted her close enough to feel her breath. I wanted her with me all the time.
Right at that moment I realized I had not told her. I’d not told her how I felt about her. Sure, she had to know, if by nothing else than by our nonverbal communications, the hot passionate kisses, the gentle caresses—everything, sure, everything else, but not the spoken words. I’d been a coward and had not said those simple words. Twenty-four years old and I acted like a sixteen-year-old high school kid mooning after his first crush.
“From the look on your ugly mug, I think there might be a problem. Spill it, Bruno.”
“Ah, it’s just that phase one is two months and I’ve only had Sonj—I mean Kowalski—for little over one month.”
Carr looked at me another long, agonizing moment. He’d promoted out of homicide and came with a reputation of being their best interrogator. Now I understood why. He looked down at the desk, shuffled a file folder, and picked up a trainee eval. “Says here your trainee’s more than competent, ‘above average’ in fact. Twenty-six years old, mature for her age, with a degree in sociology.” He looked over the top of the papers at me. “We discussed this at the TO meetings. No trainee was to get above ‘competent’ in phase one in case we have to wash them out in phase two or three. Later on it makes it too difficult to justify having above average marks and then having to shift to ‘needs improvement.’ So I assumed this trainee has to be some kind of blue-flamer, that is if Bruno Johnson’s giving her the seal of approval. Am I wrong here, Bruno? Am I missing something?”
“No, not at all, sir. She’s an excellent trainee. Who are you going to put her with?”
He picked up another paper on his desk. “We’re a little jammed up right now with TOs. She’s above average, according to you, so Sergeant Cole’s put her with Good. He’s our newest Training Officer.”
My mouth sagged open. I recovered, closed it, then opened my mouth to protest vehemently against the choice, and realized that to advocate for Sonja would lead me down the wrong path, lead Carr right to the dirty little secret. Sonja would just have to live with this terrible choice the training staff had made. Good Johnson, of all people. Damn.
“Yes, sir, and who will I be getting?”
“That’s part of what’s at issue here. I’m putting you with a kid named Bobby Crews. Great kid, great evals from MCJ, he just needs to be brought down a notch or two. He’s a little full of himself, and you and I both know overconfidence will get you killed out there. That’s why I’m putting him with you.”
“Yes sir, Crews, no problem. Anything else?”
He hesitated a moment longer, his look burning a hole right through me. “No, that’s all, Bruno.”
I turned and headed for the door.
I stopped and turned.
“Everything all right with you? You seem distracted. You’re not smiling. You’re always smiling.”
“Fine, sir. I’m just fighting off that bad taco, that’s all.” I put my hand to my stomach again and gave him a fake little burp.
“You take it easy and, if you need some sick time, you take it. I know how you are.”
“Yes, sir, thank you, sir.”
“And knock that ‘sir’ shit off when it’s just you and me.”
“Yes, sir.” I turned and headed out.
Now I had to face Sonja. Give her the word.
Sonja waited for me in the stairwell. I put my finger up to my lips and waved her to follow me. We went down the second flight of stairs, across the briefing room, and out to the landing that led to the rear parking lot.
“It wasn’t what we thought.”
Her smile returned. I liked it when she smiled.
“Whew,” she said, “that’s great. What a relief. Hey, there was a four-hour overtime slot open for a Willowbrook car on graves.”
She, too, felt it.
Working a two-person patrol car in the ghetto with her—someone I cared about—could be more intimate than making love. The need to rely so heavily on one another brought us together even closer. And once I’d tasted that level of intimacy, I never wanted to let it go.
She said, “I hope it’s okay, I took the shift, I signed us both up for it. What? What’s wrong?”
“The LT called me in to tell me that they’re rotating TOs.”
Her smile fled and shifted to a look of concern. “You’re kidding? That’s bullshit, we have one more month in phase one, right?”
“I know. They want me to handle this new kid coming in. He’s got a bad case of ghetto gunfighter, and he isn’t even here yet.”
She looked away as her mind absorbed this new information. “I guess that’s not so bad. In fact maybe it’s for the best. We can still . . .” She looked around the parking lot to see if anyone stood close enough to hear. “We can still see each other after shift, right?
“What? What’s wrong?”
You’re not telling me something.”
“It’s your new TO”
I said nothing.
“Who, Bruno? Tell me.”
“The other Johnson? Good Johnson? I hate that asshole.”
Hate was a heavy word. I didn’t think I hated him. I felt sorry for him more than anything else. When I arrived at Lynwood station two years before, the station already had one Johnson, a white one. The other Johnson, a sadistic racist right from the start, called me “boy.” The other deputies called us “the good” and “the bad” Johnsons. That’s how I got stuck with “Bruno, the bad boy Johnson.” I made training officer before Good and it really chapped his ass. He had more time on and he was white.
“I know,” I said, agreeing with her rather than arguing, “but you’re just gonna have to bite the bullet through phase two. You’ll get someone different for the final phase, phase three.”
“Maybe I could get you back for phase three?”
We both knew those were long odds.
“I have another month in phase one,” she said, “so that means I’ll have that asshole Good for three months, the last half of phase one and all of two. I can’t take three months with him, Bruno. I’m telling you right now. I won’t be able to take one week with him. I’ll end up capping his sorry ass.”
She already talked like a seasoned veteran. Maybe she, too, had a touch of the ghetto gunfighter syndrome. Had I failed to see it because of my feelings for her? Had I done her that disservice?
I wanted to put my hands on her shoulders. I needed to touch her and couldn’t. “I know it’s going to be bad but you can—”
The outside PA blared, “255 to handle, 253 to assist a 211 with a man down, just occurred at 16637 White Avenue Compton, tag one-oh-one. 255 handle code three.”
We ran for our cop car.
We jumped into the Dodge Diplomat, and I started up and slammed it in gear. The tires screeched out of the station’s rear parking lot. Normally a hot call would jack up my adrenaline. Normally with a trainee I’d go over what she needed to do once we arrived on-scene. Not this time. This time my mind wouldn’t move away from the idea, the cold emptiness that would come with being away from her. I didn’t want that to happen.
Sonja flipped on the lights and siren. The noise snapped me out of my dangerous funk. I spoke over the loud whine. “What are we going to do when we get there?”
“Secure the scene, make it safe. Contact the witnesses and the victims, and put out a broadcast to other Lynwood units to be on the look out for the suspects.”
“If the suspects are still on-scene, we take cover and contain, request backup.”
“If it goes to guns?”
“Watch my backdrop and shoot for the largest part of the body.”
I nodded, and for the first time since she got in my car as a trainee, a mere six weeks prior, I realized I didn’t want her going on a dangerous call. I wanted to protect her, to keep her out of harm’s way.
How could that be?
How could that possibly work?
She wore the same uniform I did, the same badge. She carried the same gun. She had sworn an oath to protect and serve. But worse, far worse than those things, was that she, too, possessed the same drive I did to jump right into the most dangerous situation, to live in the moment way out on that narrow ledge where safety no longer mattered.
What a screwed up mess I’d made. What a God-awful mess.
I shook it off and tried to get my head back in the game. I stole a glance at her. With her left hand she held on to the upright shotgun in the rack; with the other she held on to the spotlight handle, her eyes front, alive with excitement, the adventure of responding to a robbery call, alive with the threat of the unknown.
The cool wind off the ghetto blew in through her open window, making her squint a little. She sensed my quick glance. She turned in time to catch me.
In that brief second I realized I didn’t have to tell her that I loved her.
She already knew.