“I’m gonna get this guy.”
That’s what you promise yourself when you’re a thirty year-old detective working your first homicide. You tell it to everyone who’ll listen, even to the old-timers, those living antiques encased in brown sports jackets and Sans-a-belt pants who’ve worked in the unit since you were in pre-school. They hear you say it, then stop pecking on their keyboards and stare up at you from behind their monitors. Not knowing stares, blank ones. And you get a queasy feeling, like maybe they’re holding something back, something they won’t tell you because you’re supposed to learn it on your own. Then they look away and you decide they’re just burned out and jealous of young guys like you with a reputation for getting things done.
“I’m gonna get this guy.”
Confidence mushrooms in your chest when you say the words. Your new suit girds you like armor and you feel larger than life, like those hard-nosed characters in the novels the clerks and the dispatchers trade among themselves in the break room. They know how the books will end even before they open the covers, because when Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher or Alex Cross swear they’re going to get somebody, by the last page, dead or alive, he’s theirs, all theirs.
“I’m gonna get this guy.”
Repeating it gives you a feeling of solidity, of certainty. No—of certitude. That’s the word you’re looking for. Cer-ti-tude. You against him. You, hammer. Him, nail.
You’re Tarzan of the concrete jungle.
You knew the victim. Call her Monique. A hooker. She was one of your informants when you worked narcotics. Made lots of cases for you, lots, then got stale. Folks started looking at her funny because hammers kept falling on the people standing next to her and missing her altogether. You figured you owed her something because those cases got you promoted and because her babies always smiled and reached out to you from their cribs. You even tried to get her off the streets and into a drug program. But she wouldn’t go.
It would’ve saved her life.
“Gotta feed my kids,” she said, climbing out of your undercover car the last time you saw her alive. “Gotta feed my kids.”
The night manager of the pizza joint across from the homeless shelter tells you he looked out a side window and spotted a van pulling to a stop in the shadows. He saw something big get pushed out of the side. He ran to the front door and yelled out, “Hey, asshole, don’t dump your garbage there,” but the van sped away. He figured he’d push the trash off the sidewalk and into the street and make it the city’s problem, but he didn’t do it then because he was shorthanded and the phone rang and he had to take an order.
It would’ve saved her life.
He tells you he went out an hour later and found her lying by the side of the building, throat slashed, all bled out on the concrete.
He glances at your partner and smirks. “Turns out it was the city’s problem all along.”
You think of her babies and feel like dropping him with an uppercut and mashing his face into her clotted blood.
A young hooker walks up as the Coroner carts away the body. Dark skinned with corn rows. The girl reminds you of your little cousin, except she’s attending college, not working the streets. She hands you a license plate number written on the flap of a condom box.
“We were scared of him,” she says. “The dead girl was new on the block, so we didn’t have time to warn her.”
It would’ve saved her life.
You run the plate. The owner’s name pops up. Let’s call him Junius. You run his rap sheet. Long as your arm and tattooed with sex crimes. Booking records show a half-dozen addresses in the last two years. You hope his parole officer knows where he’s staying.
But his PO hasn’t seen him in months.
“I was going to toss him back in jail,” he points at a stack of files, all absconders, “but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
The DA is in his office, sitting behind his desk. Nice view of downtown out the window. Diplomas in matching frames hanging on the white plaster walls. A picture of his wife and kids on the desk. One of him in his college baseball uniform looking like Barry Bonds before the juice. He glances up as you walk in the door. He can’t remember your nickname from your narcotics days, so he calls you Detective. You tell him you’ve got an arrest warrant affidavit and you need him to sign off.
“I’ll have to read it later,” he says, standing up and reaching for his suit jacket. “I have a meeting with the boss. Budget issues.” A weak smile. “You know how that is.”
But you don’t know and he knows you don’t know. You don’t make budgets, you only bump up against them when you need to pay off snitches or to hide them in faraway motels so you can keep them alive long enough to testify against crooks who are just a little worse than they are.
“It’s a homicide case. You’ll read it right now.” You toss it on his desk and drop into a chair. “I’m gonna get this guy.”
Ten minutes later you’re sitting outside of the judge’s chambers. He attends the same church as your parents. Known you since you were a kid. The clerk points at the door and you walk in. The judge points at a chair and you sit down. He tells you to raise your right hand and swear that the affidavit is true. He signs the warrant, hands it back, and says, “It’s pretty thin, Detective. You’ve got probable cause for an arrest, but I’m not sure you’ve got enough for a conviction.”
You thank him for his warning, but you’re pissed all the way back to the station, thinking that you didn’t need him to tell you something you already knew.
You read over your notes. Make a list of the addresses you have to work with in hunting for Junius. A visual pops into your head: a constellation of faint dots with blank spaces in between.
That’s all you’ve got: dots and blank spaces.
You and your partner go dot to dot, but people are hiding him or covering for him or just lying because it’s more fun than staring off into space.
The dots flicker and then fade, but one more lights up. You say to yourself:
“I’m gonna get this guy.”
Junius’ last cellmate says his mother just moved into a Section 8 apartment by the barbeque place downtown. U-shaped. Brown stucco. Parking spaces on the bottom. Two floors of units above. Wrought iron railings. Can’t miss it. She’s in number 12.
From a block away, you spot dope slingers out front, and they spot you. They scatter by the time you pull to the curb.
You stare up at 12. You know Junius is inside. Know . . . it. You can feel a vibration coming from him through the door and across the blacktop and right to you. Like a gravitational pull. You picture him sitting in front of the TV, drinking his 40 ounce malt liquor. You smile to yourself: it’s the last 40 he’ll drink for the rest of his life, unless the guards on death row give him one with his last meal.
You shake off the daydream. It’s too early to revel. What with the appeals, he won’t feel the needle for another twenty years. You deposit the thought into the back of your mind. It’ll be something to withdraw and toy with when you’re retired and bass fishing at the reservoir and waiting for the appeals to run out.
“Junius ain’t here,” his mother says, standing in the open doorway. Her pink sweatshirt flows over her lumpy body like a spilled milkshake.
“Go ahead,” she says, “Search. See for yourself.”
The inside of the apartment looks like the Salvation Army store after an earthquake and smells like stale cooking oil from a chicken joint. But not the couch. That smells like a urinal.
You take one bedroom. Your partner takes the other.
No box springs under the mattress. No hangers in the closet. No chest of drawers. Just dirty clothes piled on the floor. You draw your weapon and kick at each one until it topples, but no Junius underneath. Not in the bathroom, either. You wish he’d been in there so you could’ve jammed his head into the toilet bowl, used it to scrape off the brown gunk scumming the inside.
You even look in the cabinet under the kitchen sink. But all you find is an unopened can of Ajax and an empty bottle of E&J Brandy surrounded by rat turds and dead roaches, except for the one who’s looking up and flipping you off with its feelers.
Then a rush of anger, of self-reproach: maybe he got away, climbed out the back window when you came in the front door. You push aside the grimy curtain. You see that the security bars are bolted into the stucco. Junius couldn’t have escaped that way even if the place was going up in flames.
Junius’ mother is smiling I told you so when you walk back into the living room. She’s squatting on the sofa like a florescent toad. Only then does she ask why you’re looking for her son.
“He killed a hooker downtown.” You decide to wipe the smile off of her mottled face. “You the one that taught him how to treat women?”
Her smile freezes. “Boys learn that from their fathers.”
You wonder whether Junius is hiding out with his old man, so you ask, “Where’s the professor now?”
“In the joint.”
Her smile fades. She seems to have remembered that she’s a woman, too. You spot a keloid scar running down from behind her ear. You figure it’s from when the father taught his son the lesson about how to treat women.
“Go see Boo,” she says, “he may know where Junius is. Them two is like Siamese twins.”
“What’s his last name?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know. Everybody just calls him Boo. His mother used to live over there by the free clinic. Dee, everybody calls her Dee, but her real name is something else. I don’t know what.” She pauses and taps her forehead, then says, “Tanisha over at the beauty shop knows, but she ain’t gonna tell you because Junius is her baby’s daddy.”
(Why the hell didn’t she tell you that in the first place, and skip the detour through Boo?)
“She got a baby with Boo, too. His name is Osama. She named him after that man that was on the TV. Liked the sound of it. The baby lives with his grandmamma, but Boo ain’t gonna be there because she won’t let him in the house on account of he steals things to buy heroin.”
“Which shop is Tanisha at?”
She tilts her head back toward the way you came. “Two blocks down. It’s called Galaxy.”
You and your partner drive over and ask for the owner. A woman walks up, blond haired and dressed in a catsuit, leopard pattern. You glance at other women lounging in the lime green beautician’s chairs. None of them look back.
The door opens at the rear of the shop. A white guy steps into the room. He’s wearing a blue mechanic’s shirt, red-faced, pants still unzipped. He spots the badge you’re holding out toward the owner and ducks back into the darkness.
The cat lady pretends nothing happened. You pretend, too. You know how to overlook a misdemeanor when you’re investigating a felony. You learned that in narcotics.
“Tanisha quit last week,” the cat lady says. “She moved back to Chicago.”
“What’s her last name?”
“Don’t know. She didn’t work here long enough for us to cozy up.”
Your last lead just got snuffed out.
You can’t find Tanisha because she moved away.
And because you can’t find Tanisha, you can’t find Dee.
And because you can’t find Dee, you can’t find Boo.
And because you can’t find Boo, you can’t find Junius.
All of the specks of light in the constellation you started with have gone dark. You’re staring into a void, into infinity. You feel sick to your stomach, and you know exactly why. It’s because once you’ve promised yourself, “I’m gonna get this guy,” who are you going to blame when you fail? You sure as hell won’t blame yourself. You’re no failure. The last detective who sat at your desk, that guy was a failure. You knew it the moment you saw his stack of unclosed cases; the ones you inherited like they were genes for sickle cell or heart disease or cancer.
You drive to the station, lean back in your chair, and stare at the ceiling, thinking you should’ve stayed in narcotics. The faces of the guys you busted float through your mind; guys that were big in the business, huge: P-Dub, D-Wash, Tito. You smile to yourself. Tito. Now he was a real son-of-a-bitch. Had to fight him hand to hand, rolling into the street, cars screeching to a stop in the intersection.
The memories get your heart pumping and send adrenaline shooting through your veins. You stand up out of your chair and head out on a mission, going it alone this time, leaving your partner back at the squad room. He understands what you’ve got to do, and he knows he won’t be able to say nothing if he doesn’t see nothing.
Motown pounds inside your head as you’re driving. You picked that up from your father who hummed it all the way to the reservoir after church on Sunday mornings.
Get ready . . . ’cause here I come . . . Get ready . . . ’cause here I come.
You spend nine hours tearing up the town. You lean on old snitches. You roust all the Johns inside the Galaxy just to punish the cat lady for not knowing the help better. You push your way into a few apartments even though you don’t have search warrants, and you rip them the hell apart. So sue me. Call Internal Affairs, but IA won’t do nothing because we’re on the same team.
But you still don’t get him.
You finally head home. It’s midnight. You have a beer, maybe two. Fall asleep on the couch. Get called out at 2AM. DBF. Dead Body Found. You have your jaws clenched as you drive, praying it’s not another hooker, not another slashing, not another Monique bled out on the sidewalk, not Junius out killing again.
Your legs go weak when you see the body. You feel light-headed, then giddy—and your partner’s frowning because he can’t figure why you’re smiling at the old man lying in the bushes with the back of his head blown off.
The cases start piling up.
You get a gut-wrench a month later when you clean up your desk and find Monique’s file under a bunch of newer ones. You think: “I’ll get to it” or “The uniforms are sure to snag him in a traffic stop. It’s just a matter of time.”
“But what if he’s dead?” Decomposing at the county dump or rotting in the woods outside of town.
“Good riddance,” you say to yourself.
But right away a thought slaps you across the face. “What if the asshole isn’t dead?”
Then another gut-wrench, one that seems to knot up your whole body, because you realize that whether he’s dead or alive—whether he’s dead . . . or . . . alive—you’ll have to keep searching for him for the rest of your life.
Why? You know exactly why: because you swore you were gonna get that guy.
But say it goes another way:
Say Tanisha shows back up at the Galaxy and the cat lady drops a dime on her because she doesn’t want you rousting her customers again. And say Tanisha is pissed off at Boo because he stole her and the baby’s bus fare to Chicago that she needed to get away from Junius.
She takes your card. Calls you an hour later.
“Boo is over by the A-rab market,” she tells you. “A and B or C and D or some such name as that. He’s wearing a black hoodie and a blue cap. Word is that he knows where Junius is holed up.”
Fifteen minutes later, you roll up on Boo. You’re alone. He’s alone, leaning against the side of the building, and holding just enough heroin to make a possession-for-sale case. Of course, you found it doing a bad search. The only probable cause you had for making him drop his pants was that you believed he knew something, and you needed leverage.
But that’s not what’s going into the report. What’s going in the report is that you saw him throw down the dope when he spotted you closing in.
You see on Boo’s face that he’s thinking he’ll tell the judge, “I’m not that stupid.”
You shake your head. Who’s the judge gonna believe? Some dope fiend with a dozen arrests, or you, the man in blue or brown or black or whatever color your court-testifying suit is. His Honor is even going to smile at you, a smile that tells you that he doesn’t know shit, that he just wants to do his part in the war on drugs.
Boo knows it too, so he decides not to go that route. Didn’t like it the last two times: four months in pretrial detention and then three years in the pen. He knows that he either has to roll on Junius or kick his habit in jail, all the while making promises to himself that he knows he won’t keep once he’s back outside and cozies up to friends he needs more than Junius: China White and Mexican Brown.
“Just keep my name out of it,” Boo says.
“I’ll keep your name out of it if you give me Junius.” Then you send a chill up and down his bony spine. “You don’t come through, and everybody in town is gonna know you’re a snitch.”
“Okay, man. Don’t play me that way.” Boo swallows. “Junius is hiding at Dee’s place.”
“Where’s Dee’s place?”
Boo looks at you funny, like you’re an idiot.
“You were over there already. She lives right next door to Junius’ mother.”
You clench your jaws. You know you’re not an idiot. You just feel like one and want to smash Boo’s face in.
A vice cop offers to spot on the apartment while you get a warrant to kick in the door. You don’t want to take a chance that the case gets thrown out, so you follow the rules this time.
The vice guy says he doubts that Boo is telling the truth because Boo has never told him the truth about anything. He tells you that Boo spends half his life lying his way into stuff and the other half lying his way out. The cop doesn’t know which it is this time, but it’s one of them.
But you can’t tell that to the judge in the search warrant affidavit, because he won’t sign off if he knows it’s based on the word of a liar. So you call Boo “X” and describe him not as a Confidential Informant who you caught dirty and rolled, but as a Citizen Witness who came forward on his own because he was concerned about crime in the neighborhood. (You don’t tell the judge that X was concerned only about his own crimes and knew that if he didn’t snitch off Junius he wouldn’t be in the neighborhood to commit any for the next three years and four months.)
But that’s not how you explain it to yourself. You tell yourself that you’re calling Boo a Citizen Witness, instead of a CI, because you always protect your snitches; so that when Junius and his lawyer try to figure out who set him up, Boo won’t even be on the radar because they know he could only be a CI.
You head to the DA’s office. He still can’t recall your nickname, but he remembers the time you fought Tito hand-to-hand all the way from inside of a dope house and into the middle of commute traffic on the boulevard. He also remembers that the case got thrown out because even though everybody knew that Tito was the biggest cocaine dealer in the city, the court ruled that you didn’t have probable cause for kicking in his door.
The DA shakes his head when he sees the words “Citizen Witness.” You know he suspects that X is really a CI, a snitch, a scumbag liar. But you also know there’s nothing he can do about it because he has to go by the words on the page and they’re your words on your page and X is whatever you say he is.
He signs off.
The judge signs off.
Boo is waiting for you by the dumpster in the parking lot of the Giant Burger a mile away from Dee’s place. You tell him to check inside the apartment to make sure Junius is still there. You don’t want to waste the search warrant and have to go get another one. You don’t have the time.
Boo looks in the direction of the apartment building and says, “I’m not walking all the way back there. I got bad feet.”
You believe him about that because you watched him limp over to your car. You guess that he’s got infections from shooting heroin between his toes because the veins in his arms and thighs have all collapsed.
The bus fare comes out of your own pocket because you don’t want to fill out a form and leave a paper trail between Boo and you that Junius’ lawyer might later discover.
Boo comes back a half-hour later, eyes glazed, but jittery. You search him again. More heroin hidden in his under shorts.
He shrugs. “Junius fronted it to me. Why not? He ain’t gonna be able to use it where he’s going. There wasn’t no reason to let it go to waste.”
You don’t bother putting the dope into an evidence envelope. You just toss it into your glove compartment. Same reason: no paper trail.
Arresting Junius turns out to be easier than a traffic stop. He doesn’t even fight, just drains his 40 ouncer down his throat, drops the can onto the carpet next to the others, and puts up his hands.
You said you were gonna get this guy, and you got him. He’s yours, all yours. A slam-dunk. You’re high-fiving all around the squad room. Even the old guys have their palms up, but still with the blank stares. This time you don’t get the queasy feeling, because now you’re sure it was jealousy all along.
Two weeks later, your name is all over the newspapers. Junius’ court-appointed lawyer, who believes his means justify his ends, but your means don’t justify yours, has filed a motion to suppress the confession and dismiss the case. Junius is claiming that you beat on him in the interview room before you turned on the tape and that he only confessed to make you stop. And there’s a front page picture of Tanisha and Osama, both crying, and an inset box: Tanisha saying that it couldn’t have been Junius because he was with her the whole night, caring for their sick baby.
The chief is on TV backing you all the way—except for the Internal Affairs investigation and the polygraph they’re saying you don’t have to take, but it would be better for all concerned if you did—except you, because you know the polygraph guy has his finger in the wind just like everybody else. It’s not science. It’s alchemy. He can make anything he wants out of it, and if the Chief needs an exception to prove the rule, he’s more than willing to make it you.
You testify at a pretrial hearing before the judge. You’ve got nothing to fear. You didn’t beat the guy. You only lied to him. Sure as hell did that. Told him his DNA was there and his fingerprints, and that you had an ID witness. You waved around a bogus lab report and a fake photo spread. You’re even willing to admit to it in open court. But you won’t have to because the DA will object when the defense attorney starts down that road and the judge will cut him off because lying to suspects is legal. Not Law and Order legal, but really legal. Even the idiot reporters taking notes in the gallery know that much.
Anyway, so what if the defense lawyer presses you about the confession? Well, asshole member of the bar, tell me this: if Junius didn’t do it, then how’d he know the slash in Monique’s neck was right to left and from behind? How’d he know she tried to crawl away, but got kicked in the head and knocked out? The autopsy photos show the slash and the bruise on her temple and the scrapes on her knees. Nobody can make that shit up, counselor. It’s right there in living color. And Junius knows it’s all there because he put it there.
“He knows because you fed him the information,” the punk defense lawyer says. “That’s why his so-called confession matches the photos. And that’s the other reason why you didn’t turn the tape on for the first two hours. Isn’t that true, Detective?”
The DA objects, but can’t seem to think of a reason. You can see in his vacant eyes that his mind is jumping back in time, to when you were in narcotics. He blinks and then stares at you. You know he just remembered your nickname: Cowboy. And he looks worried. Real worried.
The judge overrules the objection. The courtroom door opens and Boo walks in. You catch the DA’s eye and you glance back and forth between Boo and Junius. The DA asks for a break, but nobody knows why. Everyone, including the judge and the reporters, thinks the DA stopped the hearing because he’s afraid the confession is bogus and doesn’t want your perjury exposed to the world.
The DA doesn’t wait for you. He walks out into the hallway with the defense lawyer. You spot them huddled in a corner talking with Boo. Even from fifteen feet away, you can tell Boo is high. The DA flashes his palm at you as you start to walk over, freezing you in place next to a deranged homeless guy who keeps repeating, “Isn’t that true, Detective?”
Five minutes later, Boo limps away and sits down.
Ten minutes after that, the DA walks toward you. “Let’s go down to my office,” he says.
The DA doesn’t talk to you in the elevator, but you’re not worried. The confession is righteous and you know that all the DA has to do is get the case in front of a jury and Junius is going to die on the table in the death chamber. And it’ll be beautiful. Framed by that big picture window. The pale green walls. Junius sweating, maybe even messing himself as they stick in the needle.
The DA’s cell phone rings as you walk down the hallway. He answers, listens, says, “I understand,” then disconnects.
The DA closes his office door. He doesn’t sit down. You don’t sit down.
“Boo claims that he’s X and that you caught him with heroin and rolled him. That makes him a CI, not a Citizen Witness.”
“Somebody paid him off in dope to say that. You can see how high he is.”
“Doesn’t make a difference, Cowboy. It’s all about who the judge believes.”
“His word against mine.”
“Not just him. He says that you made him go into the apartment ahead of time to make sure Junius was there.”
You don’t react. You know where this is going.
“He says that Dee was there when he went in. He also says he rode the bus back to where you were waiting by the Giant Burger and that he sat next to somebody he went to school with. The defense has both of them under subpoena.”
You still don’t react.
“Sending Boo inside makes him a police agent. That makes it an illegal search and it taints the confession.”
You lock your arms across your chest.
“Still his word against mine,” you say. “They’ve got to prove that I told him to go in. No way they can do that.”
“The defense has already gone to Internal Affairs and they’ve recovered the security tape from the Giant Burger.” He points toward the hallway. “That’s what the call was about. It shows you meeting with Boo twice on the day of the arrest. The second time you’re searching him and tossing something into your glove compartment. I’m going have to turn it over to the defense and they’re going to feed it to the press.”
“It got sound? Can you hear voices?”
“Then they can’t prove shit.”
“They won’t have to. Not with your history, Cowboy, and not with the whole world watching. I’m not taking a chance that the judge tosses the confession because he doesn’t believe you about anything at all.”
Your mouth goes dry.
“I cut a deal,” the DA says. “Voluntary manslaughter. Sex that went bad. He panicked afterwards and dumped the body. Six years in the pen. And just like me, they’re willing to take some, rather than risk all or nothing.”
“A voluntary manslaughter? Like she brought it on herself?”
You imagine yourself walking into the break room the next morning, the clerks and dispatchers reading their novels, and keeping their heads down because they know that this wasn’t how the story was supposed to end—and you know exactly why it’s ending this way, but you’re not going to say the words, even to yourself.
“A capital murder,” you say to the DA, “and you’re handing him a manslaughter?”
You see yourself returning to the squad room, the veterans looking up from their monitors, now with knowing stares, not blank ones, because they can see that you’ve learned that thing they couldn’t teach you, that thing you were supposed to learn all on your own.
“That asshole deserves to be fried.” You step toward the DA, almost nose to nose. “If he murders somebody else in six years and one day, it’s on you, pal. On you.” You wash your hands of it. “He’s yours now.”
The DA holds his ground, locks his eyes on yours. “You told me you were going to get this guy, and you did.”
You swallow hard because you know where this is going and you know you’ll be carrying it inside you like a bad gene for the rest of your life.
He raises his hand and jabs his finger into your chest.
“That makes him yours, Detective. All yours.”
Steven Gore is a former private investigator turned writer who has worked throughout the world investigating public corruption, securities fraud, money laundering, homicide, and sex and drug trafficking. After too many years on the road, has decided to trade an airplane seat for a desk chair, suits for sweats, and fact for fiction. Gore’s thriller, FINAL TARGET, was published in February by HarperCollins. His second thriller, ABSOLUTE RISK, will be published in October.