Ruth Long’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: The Dirty Bird Squad
Tamsen came through the bar door, grinned at the welcoming catcalls, and hung her coat on an empty peg.
Coltrane met her at the foot of the stairs. “Bad luck to show up late for a wake, Bazarov.”
“Shermans truck never showed, Captain,” she said, smoothing her glossy black hair into a knot on her nape. “The company rep says this is the second delivery that’s gone missing.”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Where does that put us?”
“Anything happens to the unit, we’re screwed. Replacement skins are back-ordered. Four months at the earliest.”
He signaled the bartender for drink. “We’re already playing it pretty close to the vest here, Tam. I waited five months to throw this shindig because Shermans promised we’d be good to go. I got Cohen breathing fire down my shorts and I don’t think another dozen roses is going to cool her heels.”
She snatched the drink the waiter handed Coltrane and downed it. “That’s for scarring my mental faculties with the image of Cohen's face anywhere near your shorts. Now, we still have some options -”
“No,” he said, signaling for another drink. “Nobody is going to wait another four months. As of this moment, we are in play. And unless you want to be demoted, I suggest you keep your paws off the glass making its way towards us.”
"Nice bluff, Captain, but we both know you need me too much to knock me down a peg or cut me loose. You want me to bring the new badges inside so we can kick-start this thing?"
He nodded. "I'll meet you up there in five. And Tam, whatever happens, however this plays out, it's on my shoulders. If this decision turns out to be my swan song, you won’t hit the pavement with me. Your career and professional reputation are safe. You have my word on that."
She held up her hand, palm flat, in mock horror. "Don't go getting sentimental on me, sir. See you topside in five."
She went to the door, poked her head outside, and waved to the passengers in the squad car across the street.
Bellamy was out of the seat and loping across the street in a matter of moments, short fair hair spiked by the autumn wind, lipstick smudged where she'd bit her lower lip while waiting.
Knox made sure the car doors were locked and that both directions of traffic were clear before crossing, his street clothes snug and elegant, stride brisk but not hurried.
She pushed the door wider. "Welcome to The Dirty Bird. Come on. Get in here where it's warm. Hang your coats on the hooks. They're waiting for us up there in the loft. Mancuso only allows members of our squad upstairs. Rest of the flat-feet and riff-raff stay down here."
Bellamy tossed her designer hoodie on the rack and took off up the wide cement steps without further invitation or any pretense of waiting for her fellows.
"I don't drink," Knox said, navy jacket still zipped up.
She smiled and put a gentle hand on his upper arm. "Nobody will notice. Not today. Trust me, okay? You need anything or have a glitch, ask me or the captain for a pimento and we'll know to get you off premise asap."
His pale blue eyes, so strange and striking in the landscape of his dark skin, glanced over her shoulder to the group upstairs. "Frank Mancuso is the one with the boxer's nose and grin deep as a canyon. Runs this place with his brother Antony. His partner Charlie Zhang specializes in loud ties and elaborate pranks. Paul Jansen -"
“Hang on. That’s what’s in their profiles and it’s good to know, gives you something to build on, but they're not just faces in a chart anymore, Knox," she said, tugging his jacket zipper down three inches, trying to soften his buttoned-up exterior. "They're real people and they're about to become part of your life. Friends, partners, teammates. You're going to get to know who they really are now. The parts of them that aren't in their files."
"Am I real people, Officer Bazarov?"
The pitch of his voice twisted something in her chest. "Yes, Knox, you are."
"And the parts of me that aren't in my file ... will they bother getting to know them after they learn about the parts that are in my file?
“They don’t have clearance to see your file,” she said, catching the end of his sleeve and holding it a long moment. ”But this is a special group of people and I feel pretty certain they'll be willing to accept you. We’re going to take each day as it comes, okay? I'm in your corner. So is the captain. And the chief. And Dr. Priestly too."
He looked back up at the loft. "Are you sure this is the right day to do this?"
"I don't know about it being the 'right day' but it’s as good a day as any and probably better than most. Now, let's grab a seat before the captain starts without us."
Coltrane stood at the head of the table, hands behind his back to hide the trembling, voice cracking as he looked at the faces gathered around. "Six months ago, this squad suffered the loss of a friend and partner. Katherine Janowitz was a dedicated officer who brought out the best in people. Officers and offenders alike. All week, I struggled to find the right words for her eulogy. This morning, it hit me. There aren't any right words. Maybe the best we can do is just raise a glass to let her know she is loved and missed, that she’ll never be forgotten."
Mancuso came to his feet, slammed his mug on the table and lifted it high. "To Janowitz."
Seventeen bodies followed his lead, stomping feet, slamming glasses, and calling out her name.
During the commotion, Tamsen reached over and traded glasses with Knox, so that the one in front of him was empty.
Coltrane raised his voice. "May she rest in peace. Now, if you’ll take your seats, I have a couple notes to run through and then we can get back to drowning our sorrows and saying our goodbyes. First up is the mandatory psych evals. If Priestly doesn’t sign off on everybody by the end of the month the chief is going to dock our paychecks. So unless you want to work for free this week, I suggest you put the screws to the slackers.”
Good natured heckling broke out.
“And in other news,” Coltrane continued, “the chief approved two transfers this week. Persia Bellamy will intern with us twenty hours a week while finishing her final semester at the academy -"
The crew interrupted him to barrage Bellamy with welcoming razzies.
"- and Officer Kennedy Knox will be joining us full time."
They welcomed him with the same raucous noise they'd belted out for Bellamy but instead of remaining in their seats, the men got up and came to shake hands and make introductions.
Coltrane tossed back a third shot as he watched. Wasn’t like him to drink this much but then he’d never bet it all on a longshot. Hell, who was he kidding. Knox wasn’t a longshot. He wasn’t even a known quantity. But there he was, greeting the team like any other man with blood in his veins and life under his belt. Looked like a man who could last four months without needing new skin, didn’t he? God help him, he needed this Hail Mary to pay off.
Knox looked down the table, eyes searching until they found a quiet brunette shrugging into her coat and heading down the stairs. He turned to Tamsen but before he could ask the question, she nodded.
He rose and went after the brunette, following her out the back door and down to the end of the dock, moving slowly, as though he had no real objective other than enjoying the fresh air.
Her fingers toyed with a sailboat pendant hanging in the hollow of her throat. "Have you ever been on the water?"
"No," he said, looking out across the ripples glittering under the late afternoon sun.
"Been six months since I was out there. Katherine and I spent our last day off on the boat with her husband. Two days later, she was dead, and I haven’t been on the water since. We used to say that the sun, sails, and salt water could cure whatever ailed us. Where does that leave me now? My best friend is gone and I can’t bring myself to sail without her.”
Bazarov had said there was no right day. Coltrane had said there were no right words. Where did that leave him, now, when he wanted to say the right thing at the right time? “I wish I knew what to say. Officer Garland."
She caught his gaze. "You can call me Abby. Katherine and I were partners for eight years and I don't know to express how her death has affected me. I appreciate that you want to say something of comfort, but just standing here with me, at the water’s edge, that’s good enough.”
He crouched and trailed a cautious hand through the water. "Maybe we have to let go of the past before we can shake hands with the future."
"That's either cryptic or zen. And you don't strike me as zen.”
“I’m not sure what I am. Still trying to figure that out. Back there, in the loft, everyone seems so confident, so sure of themselves, of their purpose.”
She sat beside him, knees hugged to her chest. “Everybody seems normal until you get to know them. Behind Mancuso’s jokes and blustering good nature, he and his brother are fighting to keep the bar from going belly up. Emma is going through a medical crisis. Hardiman is afraid of dogs. Shane’s love life is a constant disaster. Individually, we’re as holey as swiss cheese but together … we hold each other together. Together is all we got.”
“Together sounds good. Any advice on how that works?”
She chuckled. “None what-so-ever. It’s a mix of things, I suppose. Honesty. Patience. Forgiveness. Oh, hell. It’s embracing everything and holding back nothing and protecting everyone. Clear as mud, huh?”
He watched the water swirl around his fingers. “I’m holding something back.”
“I thought as much.”
“Even if I was at liberty to discuss it, I’m not sure how I’d go about it or how it would be received .”
“But you’d try, wouldn’t you?”
“That’s a start. Everybody’s got a ground zero. I’m willing to stand beside you on yours.”
There was a twinge of something behind his ribs. Hope, maybe? This group of close-knit co-workers, this city by the bay, this woman with the slow smile and expressive hands, there was a good chance they would become his definition of home, of family, of real life, and it was the first thing he’d ever wanted for himself.
Abby sat beside Knox for a long while, without talking, feeling out his cautious approach to the water and to her. She’d hoped Patel would follow her out but that bridge was burned. More like frozen over. How did it get this far? Katherine gone. Patel unapproachable. Coltrane putting up with her self-pity.
Sitting behind a desk instead of returning to street duty after Katherine’s death had gone from a comfort to a cage she didn’t know how to get out of. Worse still, she’d done it to herself. Refused every offer Coltrane had made. Her choice of partners, shifts, days off. He’d done everything but get on his knees and beg.
Cohen was injecting funds into their department, Coltrane was introducing a new officer into an evenly balanced squad, and Priestly was wrapping up the grief sessions. Change was coming. Where would she be when it all shook out?
No need to shuffle already established partners. Yeah, she’d made a squawk about staying with a same gender partner. Hell, she’d made a squawk about staying behind that damn desk for the rest of her career too. No reason she couldn’t do a little shaking up of her own.
She reached into her coat pocket, retrieved a small container, and held it up so Knox could see it. "Katherine's husband was gracious enough to allow me a small portion of her ashes. I've been carrying them around all these months, not sure what to do with them, but keeping them with me everywhere because I didn’t want to leave them behind, didn’t want to let go.”
He took his hand out of the water and glanced up at her.
“But maybe you’re right about letting go before I can move on. Maybe it’s time I let this part of her go, let her rest in peace in the place she loved most, outside her husband's arms and the squad room. The sea."
“Would you like to be alone,” he asked, coming to his feet.
"No. I think I’d like you to stay and help me follow through.”
He held out his hand.
She put the mini-urn in his palm and slid her hand beneath his. "On the count of three?"
One. Two. Three. His strength. Her aim. The metal container sang through the air and sank into the sea about thirty yards from where they stood.
She let go of his hand but continued standing shoulder to shoulder with him. "Well, I somehow imagined it would sail forever, but it's in the ocean and it's close to The Dirty Bird, so she's home where she belongs. Thank you."
If she was going to get free of that damn desk, best to do it with a partner who didn’t have any ties to Katherine. Somebody who was strong, smart, and had an appreciation for silence and stillness. Like the man standing next to her.
Coltrane and Tamsen peered out the window at the officers standing side by side on the dock.
“When we get back into the office tomorrow, I’m going to start a discreet investigation into the two missing deliveries from Shermans,” Coltrane said, nursing a cup of coffee. “We need to get a jump on whatever situation is brewing there, because whatever it is, we’re invested in it. “
Tamsen nodded. “Agreed. What about that schmo over there who’s been eyeballing our squad all afternoon from beneath the fedora. You want me to send Garland and Reyes over there to check it out? Maybe warn him how smoking is no good for his health?”
“I wouldn’t advise it. That’s one of Cohen’s CIs. Her way of keeping eyes on the situation. Can’t blame her. She just put her career on the line for Knox. And me. No way she’s going to be pacified with flowers or the absence of my shorts on that score. She’s going to have her nose in our collective crotch the whole hairy way.”
She swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. “For the love of beer, baseball, and all that’s holy, if you don’t stop talking about your undershorts, I’m going to have to turn in my badge.”
He chuckled. “Hang in there, Tam. I got a good feeling about our underground project. We might just pull it off. Look at them down there, standing around and chatting like old friends. She hasn’t pushed him into the water yet or harpied him back into The Dirty Bird. That’s better than I'd hoped for.”
"She’s smart, Captain. No way she hasn’t figured out what you’re up to. So if you and your magic shorts can keep the chief from pulling the plug before we prove this can work and Nicolson doesn’t castrate you for lying about Knox’s identity, we’ll be chilling like penguins on an Antarctic icecap."
He thumped her on the back. “Very funny. I just shot our budget in the foot for the next five years buying our synthetic cop with the odd eyes and snazzy jacket, but when we finally break even again, if Knox hasn’t imploded, I haven't been relieved of my badge, and you haven’t run off with the Shermans tech guy, you’ll be in a very comfortable career position, ladybug.”
“No offense, Captain,” she said, heading back into the bar, “but I’m already sitting pretty in the catbird seat. So how about you show your appreciation now, while there’s still some cash in your pocket, by picking up my portion of today's tab. If you do it without any further references to your shorts, I'll even let you listen to the playback of Knox and Garland's conversation when we get back to the office.”
He grabbed her arm. "You can do that?"
She grinned. "Captain, the Shermans tech guy has nothing on me. Luckily for you and Knox, I really am in that catbird seat. We did good on all counts, sir. I have a fifty that says Garland will be back on street duty soon as Priestly signs off on her eval. Come on, let's settle up the tab and call it a day."
Like what you just read? Have a question or concern? Leave a note for the author! We appreciate your feedback!
A reader by birth, paper-pusher by trade and novelist by design, story-telling in my passion. If you enjoyed reading today's story, please consider checking out my blog bullishink.com, joining my creative community sweetbananaink.com or participating in the madcap twitter fun @bullishink.