I sat in the car on the side of the road for a good fifteen or twenty minutes. The Cormacks’ teenage daughter was flirting loudly with a neighborhood boy on the leaf-covered front lawn, two houses down on the other side. She was around 17 or so, I guessed, and not much over five feet with blonde hair, a baby face, and growing hips. It was chilly out, and both her and the boy had their sweatshirts zipped and hoods up. They were smiling and talking softly. Every now and again, she would say something in a teasing voice and he would reach forward and try to tickle her. She would dance out of the way and let out an exaggerated yelp, regardless of whether he had connected or not.
Mrs. Cormack opened the front door.
“Brooke,” she called to her daughter, “that’s enough. Come in the house, please.”
I got out of my car. I was easy enough to spot sitting behind the wheel, so there was no sense in waiting anymore.
“But you said we could say goodbye!” the girl objected.
“Brooke,” her mother urged sternly. That’s when she saw me walking up the sidewalk. She stiffened.
“Mom! We might not ever see each other again!”
“It’s okay,” the boy said under his breath.
Mrs. Cormack watched me. I stopped at the end of the driveway. I didn’t want to intrude.
“Brooke. Now,” she said in a stern monotone.
The girl saw me and turned back to her mother. “Just a few—”
“NOW!” the woman yelled.
The girl threw her arms. “But we have all day to pack.” She pointed to the open garage.
It was three-quarters full with lawn care equipment, bikes, shelving, storage—even a table saw. Both the Cormacks’ cars had to be kept on the drive. A pallet of flat moving boxes rested next to a freezer.
“I said . . .” Caroline Cormack stepped forward and took her daughter’s arm. “Get inside right now.”
“I’ll see you later,” the boy said, stepping back.
Brooke pulled free. “God, you’re being such a bitch.” The girl stormed into the house and slammed the door.
I watched the boy trot down the street without looking back.
Mrs. Cormack crossed her arms and looked at me angrily. I think she was deciding whether or not it was worth it to speak her mind—to finally tell me what I’m sure she’d been thinking for months—or to just ask me to leave so she could deal with her child. From where I was standing at the end of the driveway, I could see young Brooke walking diagonally across the backyard toward a sloping ditch at the rear of the property. She must have gone right through the house and out the back. She had her hood up and her hands stuck in her pockets.
“What do you want?” Mrs. Cormack asked.
It was more civil that I expected, and I hesitated.
“There’s nothing for you to say,” she told me. “You’re not welcome here.”
I nodded in understanding. “Of course,” I said. “Please tell him I stopped by.” I turned to leave.
“It should’ve been you who was shot.” She glowered for a long moment. “You had a responsibility.”
She wrapped the folds of her cardigan around her and walked inside. I heard the door shut and lock. She even pulled curtains across the narrow windows that ran down either side of the frame. A few moments later, the garage door started rumbling down.
I looked at the cars in the drive. A luxury sedan and a full-size SUV. They weren’t exorbitant. The SUV was at least three years old and the sedan a little older. Neither were top of the line. Neither were outside the reach of a frugal detective. But both were definitely nicer than my car.
I walked along the neighbor’s yard to the ditch that ran along the back of the houses. There was a row of young trees, the kind that survived by growing at the thin margin between public and private property where workers on both sides were sure it was someone else’s job to clear them. Past that was a grassy slope that ended at a concrete-lined ditch, long overgrown—a holdover from some earlier use of the land. At the other side was a fence and then more housing. The girl, Brooke, was sitting on the embankment, out of sight of the house. She had a lit cigarette. There was an old pile of butts at her feet and quite a few others scattered around. The area around her had been mostly cleaned of overgrowth, I suspected so the neighborhood kids could gather there and do some skating.
Brooke had a lighter in her hand and was flicking it over and over like she wanted to do something with it.
“Looks like we had the same idea,” I said.
I surprised her. She glanced to me and then quickly turned away. Her legs moved like she was going to get up. But she didn’t. I suspected that was because she didn’t want to risk being seen by her mother, who would no doubt soon discover she was gone.
“Can I bum a light?” I asked.
She extended the lighter without looking at me. I took it and pulled a cigar from the inside pocket of my sport coat. I rolled the end in the flame to char it. She either got curious what was taking so long or smelled the smoke, because she turned her hood enough to catch a glimpse.
“You smoke cigars?” she asked.
I took a puff with the end in the flame and it flared. “Bother you?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t know girls smoked cigars.”
“Girls can do whatever they want.”
I handed the lighter back.
She rolled her eyes. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Then what did you mean?”
She watched as I took a couple puffs to make sure it was lit.
“What’s it taste like?” she asked.
I looked at the cig in her hand. “How old are you?”
“How old were you when you started?” she asked, turning away from me a little.
I made a face. “Good point.”
I handed her the lit cigar. She took it and held it awkwardly. She barely touched it with her lips. The stream of smoke rising from the lit end sputtered as she drew, but it was weak and she barely exhaled enough for me to see. She made a sour face and handed it back. I took the cigar and sat down—not close to her but not far either. We sat there smoking for a few minutes in silence. She finished her cig and lit another.
“Why did you come here?” she asked.
“Same reason you did. Needed a break after your mom—”
“No. I mean why did you come?”
I shrugged. “Dunno. Seemed like I should at least stop by. Pay my respects. Say I’m sorry.”
I turned to her. “What do you think?”
She shrugged. “People say my dad was . . . You know, that he was going to be arrested. And stuff.”
“Who told you that?”
She shrugged again. “No one.”
“Well, even if he was, he’s still your dad.”
“You got anyone you can talk to?”
She shrugged a third time, as teenagers do.
“You know, not to go all ‘old person’ on you, but I had a hard time with my folks when I was around your age.” I waited a moment to see if she got it. I don’t think she did. “When they found out I was gay.”
Her face got a little pink. “I’m not gay,” she said meekly.
I snorted in humor. Smoke blew from my mouth. “Yeah. I wasn’t saying you were. Just that I know how important it is to have someone you can talk to. Just because you’re not the one in the wheelchair doesn’t mean you’re not having a hard time with all of this as well.”
I waited to see if more came. It didn’t.
“That was all.” I stood. “Thanks for the break.”
“What do you do?” she asked. “Like, what department are you in or whatever?”
“So you find killers.”
I nodded. “I try.”
“Who do you talk to? About the bad stuff?”
She was a sharp kid. Called me on my own BS.
“I had a doctor. For a while.” I took a long puff on the cigar. “That helped,” I lied.
“He said I was crazy.”
She smiled and exhaled just short of a laugh. It was genuine.
“Really?” Her posture relaxed.
We were quiet for a minute. I was still standing. She was still sitting.
“Mom says we’re gonna hafta sell the house and move someplace. I’ll have to change schools. And she was looking for jobs. On the internet. I saw it in the browser history when I went to look for this video my friend sent me the other day so I could show Jordan.” She stopped, but I could tell there was something else. “She was looking at divorce lawyers,” she said. “I don’t think she contacted any of them. But. She was looking.”
“I wouldn’t read too much into that,” I said. “People, ya know, sometimes they just need to think about those kinds of things so they can deal. Or so they can work through things and see what’s a good idea and what isn’t.”
“I know. Trust me. I know my mom. If she was gonna leave, she’d find another guy first. She can’t stand to be alone for, like, five seconds. But it’s just, she was looking, you know? I know how she feels about my dad. But she was thinking about leaving him. He’s in a wheelchair. He can’t breathe without that machine and everything. And she was sitting downstairs—looking.”
I waited again.
“I think she thinks he’s guilty.” She looked to me for confirmation. “You know, of all that stuff. So she was mad because now she has to take care of him and we’re gonna lose the house and everything and we don’t have any money and we have to get a lawyer because the department won’t pay for anything.” She shook her head. “And I don’t think she knows what to do.”
I think Brooke wanted me to confirm her suspicions. That was why I’d been allowed to stay.
Word around the precinct was that at the time of the shooting, Kent Cormack was days away from facing formal charges: conspiracy, money laundering, obstruction. After the shooting, the department was facing a large payout—not just medical bills but disability pension and all the rest. Some of that gets paid through insurance, of course, but just like with regular folks, large claims affect premiums, and Cormack’s bill was going to be measured in millions across the rest of his life.
Thing is, he hadn’t been formally charged, let alone convicted. And there was some question now of whether he ever would be. The department lawyers said, even given the evidence, it would be hard for a jury to convict a permanently disabled police officer who’d been shot in the line of duty, especially once they saw him. Kent Cormack couldn’t go anywhere without a cluster of machines to keep him alive. And of course the PR people gave their two cents. How it would look to the public, they asked, if the department started prosecution now? It would’ve been one thing if he’d already been under indictment, but to charge him after he was shot, when he could barely speak, would seem not only callous but cruel. They pointed out that the union reps would play to that. Legally, they had to. Cormack was a member, and just like anyone, he was innocent until proven otherwise. If the association didn’t represent him to the fullest, he could sue them as well.
So the department found a bureaucratic solution. They neither filed charges nor paid his claim. Part of that may have been greed. But part of it was simply the reality of a finite budget. Brass genuinely didn’t want to take support from good cops to cover a dirty one for the rest of his life.
The Cormacks got a lawyer, of course. But that left the suit a civil rather than a criminal matter, and it made the department the defendant, both of which made for much softer headlines in the papers. I imagine the idea was that a settlement would quietly be reached, charges would be forgotten, and the city would have a much, much smaller payout.
Of course, what happened to Kent after the money ran out was the Cormacks’ problem.
“What’s your dad say about all this?” I asked.
She shrugged. “He doesn’t say much. He can’t really talk. I know he’s mad. He spends all his time writing angry letters. To the department. To his old lawyers, the one we had before that he thinks screwed up the case. To anyone who pissed him off. He’s always got stacks of those big manila envelopes in his room. When I go in there, it’s like he wants to see me, but then he gets embarrassed or whatever and doesn’t want me around. Sometimes he grunts for me to leave.”
“How does that make you feel?”
She shrugged again. “I dunno. Hurt, I guess. But I’m not mad. I just feel bad he’s in his room by himself all the time. Mom barely says two words to him anymore.”
Brooke finished her cigarette and crushed it. “I should go,” she said. She stood. “I’m supposed to be packing.”
I dropped the cigar and pressed the lit end gently with my boot.
“This kinda thing is hard for everybody,” I said. “I don’t have a magic wand, but—” I stopped. “Well, technically there’s one in my bottom drawer, but it’s broken.”
She made a face like she wasn’t a kid and I didn’t have to joke like that.
I reached into my side pocket and handed her my card. “You don’t have to use this. Sometimes it’s just nice to know there’s someone you could call if you needed to.”
She just looked at it at first. I held it closer and she took it.
I watched her walk diagonally up the grassy embankment. “Just don’t let your mom find it.”
a snippet from the third course of my supernatural thriller, FEAST OF SHADOWS.
art by Zach Montoya