The Hobby Cop
by Doug Allyn
Art by Ron Bucalo
I read a poem in college that said the saddest words ever written were “It might have been.”
The saddest words are: “We were good friends, once.”
And the memory of that friendship was the only thing keeping me from reaching across the table, yanking Charlie Marleski out of his chair, and slapping the crap out of him.
Ten years ago, Charlie and I went through the Michigan Police Academy together. We were both ex-army, with service time in the ’Stan, which made us older than our classmates in every sense. So we teamed up. We studied together, coached each other, shared dreams, drank brews, and laughed a lot. Charlie had my back, I had his.
We were good friends. For life, I thought.
But our careers veered onto different paths. I worked Detroit, then found a home with the Major Crimes unit on Michigan’s north shore. Charlie went undercover with FANG, the Flint Area Narcotics Group, then bounced to Jackson, then Pontiac, finally back to Ann Arbor, home of U of M and the academy. For Charlie, every bounce was a step down.
So, when the academy asked me to fill in at a seminar the week before Christmas, I gave Charlie a call. Thought it’d be a great chance to hook up with an old friend, have dinner, spend some quality time.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Charlie showed up at my four o’clock lecture totally trashed. Sat in the front row, making off-color wisecracks all the way through my talk. Nobody was laughing, least of all me. Charlie was too bombed to notice. It had been a few years since I’d seen him, and the interval hadn’t been kind.
He’d always been big, ham-handed, country as a razorback hog, with the same disposition. But in a scrap, he was a guy you’d want on your side.
Now he was paunchy, with a boozer’s red-apple flush, needed a shave, didn’t look like he could run around a block.
And as I grimly soldiered on through my presentation, it occurred to me that over the years, Charlie had been loaded every time I saw him. Well, why not? When two old buds hook up, it’s only natural to party down for auld lang syne, right? And we did.
This time was different. To be this blitzed in the afternoon, Charlie must have been drinking all day. While he was on the job. Sweet Jesus, no wonder his career was ski-jumping off a cliff.
He used to be good-time Charlie. Now, he was just another sloppy, drunken loudmouth. Still, we’d been friends once. And you don’t give up on friends.
I hoped we could talk it out over dinner. Maybe I could get through to him, turn him around somehow. Lead him back to the light.
Not a chance. By the time we met up at Snarky’s Pub in downtown Ann Arbor, Charlie was wobbling when he walked, slurring his words, making crude passes at our waitress. There was no talking to him in the shape he was in. My God, what the hell had happened to him?
And what the hell happened to our favorite pub?
Back in our academy days, Snarky’s was a college hangout, a watering hole where university undergrads could swap intel on profs and pickups—easy A’s, easy lays—or scream curses at the big-screen TVs. Snarky’s was always buzzing in those days. Technically speaking, it was still busy, every chair had a butt in it, but the buzz was nonexistent.
From the funky look of them, Snarky’s customers were all students, but they weren’t swapping intel or anything else, at least, not with each other. They were all wired to the Web, their eyes focused on laptops, their tablet screens, or cell phones, sometimes all three at once, talking and texting in total isolation as they ate one-handed. The bar had all the steamy sexual tension of a research lab at Microsoft. These kids had no interest in each other, let alone us.
Which didn’t slow Charlie down a bit. He seemed unaware that he’d put on fifty pounds since the academy, mostly beer gut and jowls. He was ogling every woman in the place like he was still a Big Man on Campus instead of an aging soak, losing his hair, losing his cool, talking trash to waitresses barely old enough to vote. Knocking back double bourbons like Tennessee was on fire.
I didn’t attract any interest either. I’m a decade older than most of these kids. I’m six-one, a buck eighty, with a blue-collar build. Muscle, bone, and gristle. High mileage, low maintenance. With no patience at all.
Somehow, I made it through dinner without punching Charlie out, but it was a near thing. We’d planned to make a night of it. I begged off. Said I was too tired, too . . . whatever. Charlie protested, but not overmuch. I was guessing he got dumped a lot these days.
On the way out, Charlie made a crude pass at the cashier, a drop-dead-gorgeous girl. Looked like Cher, back in the day. I doubled her tip as I paid the tab, but she didn’t bother to conceal her contempt for us both. I didn’t blame her.
Seething and sick at heart, I followed Charlie out to the parking lot, furious with life in general and Charlie in particular.
But not quite angry enough to let the stupid bastard drive home drunk.
Watching Charlie totter across the crowded lot to his car, I was powerfully tempted to let him go. To hell with him.
But we’d been friends once. And Christmas was only a week away.
I hurried after him.
“Hey, Charlie, wait up.”
“I . . . thought you were bailing on me,” he said.
“Changed my mind,” I said. “It’s too early. Give me your keys. Let’s find a coffee shop, swap some lies.”
“Coffee?” he snorted. “Oh hell no.” He beeped his key fob, and the lights on his rustbucket Cadillac winked. “Climb in, LaCrosse, we’ll make a night of it. I know plenty of places with cheap drinks and cheaper women.”
Before I could stop him, he was behind the wheel of the Caddy, firing it up.
“Dammit, Charlie, you’re in no shape to drive! Slide the hell over, let me take you home.”
I reached in to switch off the ignition, but he grabbed my wrist, bumping the car into gear. The Caddy plunged forward, piling into the Toyota Prius facing it, crumpling both front ends.
“Aw Jesus,” Charlie moaned. “Look what you made me do.”
“I didn’t—” But he wasn’t listening. Slamming his car into reverse, he backed away from the smashed Prius, pulling its grille off.
“It doesn’t look so bad,” he said, climbing out of his car, looking over the damage. It looked substantial to me.
“I’ve got to get out of here, Dylan,” he said, looking around nervously. “I can’t afford any more points. Did anybody see us?”
I quickly scanned the fenced-in lot, and my heart sank. A police car was parked in the back row, an SUV with a university sticker on the door, an officer behind the wheel. A campus cop was watching us.
It was like being doused with a bucket of ice water. I could probably pass a sobriety test, but Charlie definitely couldn’t. And a DUI citation at the scene of a property-damage accident could wreck his career and damage mine as well.
“Charlie, suck it up. There’s a cop at the back of the lot, he saw the whole thing.”
“What? Aw hell! If you hadn’t been giving me static—wait. He can’t read my plate from there. If we take off—”
“Are you nuts? Right now this is just a fender bender. If you flee the scene, it’s a felony hit-and-run. We could both lose our badges.” Reaching in, I snatched the keys out of the ignition.
“Buddy, what are you doing?” Charlie pleaded.
“Making damn sure we don’t tank our careers over a freakin’ parking-lot scrape. For all we know we’re already on security-cam video or somebody’s cell phone.”
At the rear of the lot, the campus cop fired up his SUV and headed in our direction. But he didn’t stop. Instead, the cop rumbled slowly past us, looking the other way, heading for the parking-lot exit. What the hell?
“Hey! Wait up!” Charlie shouted, chasing him down, waving his badge at the SUV. The cop slowed to a halt, his window hummed open, but he didn’t get out. He was young, Hispanic. Probably an undergrad police-science major.
“Hey, how you doin’, amigo?” Charlie said, leaning in the SUV’s window. The cop flinched away from his whiskey breath.
“You probably noticed I had a little scrape,” Charlie pleaded. “I’m hoping you can give a brother officer a break?”
“No problem,” the campus cop said. “I didn’t see a thing, guys. Have a nice night.”
“Hey, just a damn minute,” I said. “We’re not trying to rip anybody off just because we’ve got badges. What kind of hobby cop are you? This is a property-damage accident. Write up a report for my friend’s insurance company. I’ll go find the other driver, we’ll settle this properly.”
“You’re a cop too?” the kid asked. “Could I see some ID?” I showed him my gold shield.
“Valhalla?” he said, surprised. “You’re a long way from home, Detective . . . LaCrosse, is it?”
“I was a guest lecturer at the academy this afternoon, Charlie’s with the sheriff’s department. We’d appreciate some professional courtesy, but we want to do the right thing.”
“I’m sure you do.” Reluctantly, he shifted the SUV into park, letting it idle, and climbed out. The snowfall was picking up, I couldn’t see his face clearly.
“Your friend appears to be a bit tipsy, Detective . . . What was your name again?”
“LaCrosse,” I said. “Look, sport, we both know Charlie won’t pass a breathalyzer, and a DUI could torpedo his career. But technically, since we’re still in a private parking lot, it’s not a moving violation. Write it up as a fender bender and—”
“Are you armed, Detective?” he asked suddenly.
“Me? No,” I said, surprised by the question. “I flew in this morning, didn’t want the hassle with airport security.”
“But I assume you’re armed, Deputy Marleski?”
“Sure,” Charlie shrugged. “We’re required to carry, on duty or off.”
“And since you’re clearly under the influence, would you mind placing your weapon on the ground and stepping away from it?”
“Are you serious?” Charlie griped, but he did as the young officer asked. The campus cop picked up Charlie’s service weapon, slid it into his waistband, and drew his own weapon, a bulky automatic.
“Detective LaCrosse, step over here next to your friend, and assume the position. You both know the drill.”
“Hold on,” I said. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Doing this by the book. Strictly a precaution, for my safety and yours,” he said, gesturing with the gun. “Now move it! I won’t ask you again.”
My heart dropped like a rock. I couldn’t freaking believe it. Of all the campus cops in the world, we got a punk kid on a power trip. Still, I knew better than to argue. I moved up beside Charlie, and we both leaned forward, placing our hands flat on the Cadillac’s hood.
He quickly patted me down, found nothing.
“Do you have any other weapons, Deputy?” the young cop asked, stepping behind Charlie. “A backup—”
“Dammit,” Charlie roared, “I’m not taking a frisk from a goddamn hobby cop—”
As Charlie turned, the kid jammed his weapon hard into Charlie’s chest, and fired! Two quick pops. Muffled by his body, the reports were barely louder than hand claps. Charlie stared at the young cop in stunned surprise, then crumpled to his knees in the snow, blood spraying from the chest wound. Grappling weakly at the kid’s weapons belt, he tried to pull him down with him as he fell.
Saving my life with his death.
As the campus cop wheeled towards me raising his weapon, I dove across the Caddy’s hood. I landed hard, but kept moving, snaking on my belly between the parked cars, then scrambling up to my hands and knees, expecting a slug between my shoulder blades any second.
But it didn’t come. Somewhere behind me, I heard a car door slam, then the campus cop’s SUV roared away, burning rubber out of the lot, fishtailing across two lanes, disappearing into the headlight stream of evening traffic.
I rose to a crouch, making sure he was gone, then sprinted back to Charlie. Found him on the ground beside his Cadillac, alive, but just barely. Froth was bubbling out of two small chest wounds. A young couple was standing in the doorway of Snarky’s, watching wide-eyed. I screamed at them to call 911.
Charlie was drowning in his own blood as his lungs filled. I raised his upper body, to help his breathing, cradling him in my arms.
“Stay with me, buddy. Help’s on the way—” But so was the campus cop!
The university SUV came howling into the lot with lights and sirens, pinning us in the blaze of its headlights. Christ, I was unarmed and he’d taken Charlie’s service weapon! Charlie used to pack a backup, a Smith Airweight in an ankle rig. I was frantically clawing the revolver out of its holster as the prowlie’s door flew open and the driver piled out.
“Freeze! Don’t move!” the cop shouted.
To hell with that!
As I jerked Charlie’s weapon free, something hit me in the chest. Lightning exploded over my heart, and I spasmed. My head slammed backward, hit something hard—and the lights went out. I felt myself slumping down to the blacktop as everything slipped away . . .
“Hey! You! LaCrosse!” A woman’s voice. “Can you hear me? Wake up!”
I came out of the fog slowly. I was sitting on metal, the back bumper of an EMT bus. Wearing handcuffs. Had half an inch of snow on my sleeves. I’d been sitting there awhile.
A woman was kneeling in front of me, looking into my face, reading my eyes. Dark woman, African-American, hair in corn rows, café-au-lait skin. Wearing a University Campus Police uniform. Angry eyes. She was holding my ID folder in her hand.
I nodded. A mistake. A tom-tom started pounding behind my eyes.
“I’m Chief Rita Querido of—”
“I got this, Chief,” a state trooper said, snatching my ID folder out of her hands. Querido rose and stood aside, watching, with her arms folded. She was in the same damned uniform as the shooter, maize-and-blue nylon jacket, black slacks. The Statie was in a navy blue bomber’s jacket, navy slacks, combat boots. Pitted complexion. A gaunt, humorless face, his nose as narrow as his outlook, steel-gray hair combed straight back. Could have been forty or fifty, probably hadn’t looked much younger at twenty.
“I’m Sergeant Dan Farnon,” he said. “Can you tell me what happened here?”
I took a breath. Then methodically laid it out for him, step by step, like I’d done a hundred times before. When the victim was a stranger, not a dead friend.
The Statie listened without comment. Until I got to the part where Charlie got popped.
“Two witnesses were exiting the pub when the SUV took off,” he said. “They didn’t hear any shots.”
I thought about that. “Neither did I,” I said, “and I was right beside Charlie at the time. Pellet gun, maybe.”
“Or a silencer?” Querido offered.
“No. I fired suppressed weapons in the army. This was different. He capped Charlie twice and the weapon didn’t cycle mechanically. Had to be a pellet gun. Check Charlie’s wounds. There won’t be any powder burns.”
Farnon nodded without comment. Probably knew the answer before he asked. “You’re positive the shooter was a campus cop?”
“Not possible,” Querido put in. “I only have two officers on patrol tonight, neither of them is an Hispanic male.”
“I didn’t say he was Hispanic,” I said. “I said he looked it. Dark hair, olive complexion.”
“It shouldn’t be hard to check,” Farnon said. “How many hobby cops on your staff, Chief?”
“I have sixteen officers,” she said pointedly, “but half are women. Hang on one second.”
She retrieved a laptop from her SUV. Flipping it open, she quickly filled the screen with photographs. I scanned them, then shook my head.
“Take your time,” she cautioned, “this is my entire staff.”
“No. None of them looks . . .” I hesitated, drawn to a picture in the upper right-hand corner. “This could maybe be the guy.”
Querido and Farnon exchanged a glance.
“Maybe?” she echoed.
“I only saw him for a minute in bad light, but there’s a resemblance. None of the others are even close.”
“This one’s not close either,” Querido said.
“You just identified Mike Malone Junior,” Farnon sighed. “Son of Big Mike Malone, the sheriff who ran this county like J. Edgar Hoover for twenty years. The man was a living legend.”
“I don’t care whose kid it is—”
“I’m not blowing off your ID because he was Big Mike’s kid, LaCrosse. Mike Junior’s got an ironclad alibi. Notice the black border around his photograph? He was a campus cop as an undergrad. Went in the army afterward. Junior was killed in Afghanistan two years ago. Broke his daddy’s heart. Big Mike died a few months after Junior’s death. Helluva send-off. Surprised you weren’t there, Chief. Heard you two were . . . close at one time.”
Querido met his stare but didn’t say anything. Farnon shrugged it off with a smirk.
“Which brings us back to you, LaCrosse. You’ve been drinking, admitted you were arguing with the vic—”
“Are you out of your freaking mind? He was my friend!”
“He was also a drunk who liked to roust college kids, especially chicks. Had a reputation for it.” Farnon unlocked my cuffs, handing them to Querido.
“Offhand?” Farnon said. “I think there’s a real good chance it caught up with him tonight. So, I’m sorry about your friend, but as a professional courtesy, I’d strongly suggest you get the hell out of here before a D.A. shows up and wonders why nobody gave you a sobriety test. Where are you staying?”
“Holiday Inn, downtown.”
“Chief, would you mind giving the detective a ride back to his hotel? And for Pete’s sake, get some coffee into him.”
“I’m not drunk,” I said. We were in a booth in the Holiday Inn snack bar, away from the other customers.
“You ran up quite a bar bill at dinner,” Querido said.
“All Charlie. I only had one.”
She nodded. Maybe she believed me, maybe not. She was a big woman, broad shoulders, wide hips, large brown eyes, squared-off features too strong to be pretty, but handsome nonetheless.
“You tased me, didn’t you?”
“You were reaching for a handgun at the time.” She shrugged. “Campus cops aren’t armed. Are you ticked off?”
“No, you did right. I’ve got no beef with you, I’m just . . . trying to get my head around what happened.”
“Me too. Do you have any enemies, Detective? Any trouble that might have followed you here?”
“Every cop’s got enemies, but I was called in as a last-minute sub by the academy. No one knew I was coming. This wasn’t about me.”
“Was it about Deputy Marleski? He was your friend, right? Did he have enemies?”
“I really can’t say. We’ve been out of touch. Why?”
“Because Farnon’s right. Your pal Charlie has a reputation for roughing up students, groping girls, that sort of thing.”
“I don’t think the shooter was after Charlie either. He tried to leave, we flagged him down. Could I take another look at those pictures?”
“Sure.” She took a tablet from her vest pocket, tapped the screen, and there he was. The late Michael Malone, Junior. His photo edged in black.
“Okay. This is definitely not the guy I saw.”
“Seeing a bit more clearly, are we?”
“At the time, I wasn’t paying much attention to him. I was more worried about Charlie getting busted by some hobby cop.”
“I don’t care much for that term.”
“Sorry, Chief, no offense intended, but bottom line? Most campus cops are basically security guards. Police-science undergrads or retirees.”
“But this guy wasn’t a campus cop. Or any other kind, probably. You’re a detective. Did he say or do anything that struck you as odd? Make you wonder if he was for real?”
I leaned back in my chair, looking up at the tiled ceiling, exasperated. Running over the events in my mind. “No,” I said at last. “He did everything by the book. . . .”
Something nagged at me. Something the shooter said. I couldn’t pin it down.
“What is it?” Querido asked.
“Nothing. But no, it never occurred to me that he might not be legit.” I shook my head. “If anything, the opposite was true—” Damn. There it was again.
“I—don’t know. Look, he seemed young, but righteous. I assumed he was a brother officer. Not just a—”
“Hobby cop?” she finished acidly. “Why?”
“What’s the difference? He’s not one of your guys and a homicide falls outside your jurisdiction anyway.”
“You’re right. Assuming a homicide’s what it was.”
“What do you mean? If it’s not murder, what is it?”
“Farnon thinks this bogus hobby cop was waiting for your friend, because he had a grudge against him. Is that what you think?”
I mulled that over a moment. “No. For openers, he was armed with a pellet gun, which is silent, but only effective at short distances. He couldn’t count on getting that close. Besides, he tried to avoid us. Even after Charlie badged him, he was trying to leave. Until I stopped him,” I added bitterly.
“So, if he wasn’t waiting for you, and was trying to get away, why did he change his mind and shoot your friend? What was your big crime?”
“All we did was wave him over, show him our badges.”
“Maybe that was enough.”
“Enough for what? Is there something about this you’re not telling me?”
“Nothing concrete,” she sighed, leaning back in her seat. “But I might have an alternate theory.”
“When you first saw him, your bogus cop was parked in the back of the lot, right? A spot where he wouldn’t be noticed, but one that gave him a view of the restaurant entrance. When your buddy creamed the other car, the shooter tried to leave, without getting involved. Is that right?”
“He offered to drive away, even after Charlie badged him,” I said. “I was hoping a brother officer would cut Charlie a break.”
“Maybe that was the problem, then. He tried to drive off, until he realized you were cops.”
“But he hadn’t done anything wrong. We were the ones in trouble.”
“You’d seen his face,” she countered. “He’s in a bogus uniform, a bogus vehicle, and two cops wave him over. He panicked.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head slowly. “He definitely did not panic. If
anything, he seemed to be enjoying himself. But you’re not just speculating about this, are you? Do you know who this guy is?”
“I have no idea. But I may know why he was there.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You called us hobby cops. You’re right, most campus cops are basically security guards. We write parking tickets, keep hookers out of the dorms, break up the occasional wild party. Petty stuff. Misdemeanors. The only serious problems we deal with are the runaways. Every year a dozen kids or so go missing from the campus. They’re mostly small-town girls. First time away from home, first love, first serious sex, first drugs. They discover the party circuit, start cutting classes, then blow their grade points. Ashamed to face their folks, they run, usually to Detroit. If they’re lucky they land jobs at Starbucks or Walmart—”
“—and if they’re not, a pimp grabs them and they end up hooking,” I said. “I worked Detroit four years, Chief. I’ve met a few runaways.”
She nodded. “Then you know the game. In an average year, my staff tracks twelve to twenty. Ten years on this job, my closure rate’s nearly a hundred percent.”
“Good for you. But I—”
“In the past eighteen months, two runaways have fallen off the grid,” she said quickly.
“How do you mean?”
“We usually track them down on the Web, trace their credit cards, cell phones, social networks. We can’t force them to go home, of course. Most of them are street legal, and running isn’t against the law. They may have broken their parents’ hearts and bankbooks, but they’re not guilty of anything but bad judgment.”
“The two you couldn’t find? What about them?”
“Nothing about them. That’s the problem. No action on their phones or credit cards. Zero, zip, nada. Which doesn’t prove they didn’t run. They could turn up tomorrow.”
“But you don’t think they will.”
“I think they’re dead,” she said flatly. “It’s been eighteen months since the first disappearance. In that time, I’ve tracked down a dozen runaways without turning up a glimmer of anything on the missing two. I don’t think they ran, I think they were taken. But I had no idea how. Until tonight. For a stalker, a uniform and an SUV that looks like one of ours would be perfect camouflage. An easy way to approach girls without arousing suspicion. And his weapon is silent. . . .”
# # #
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"The Hobby Cop" by Doug Allyn, Copyright © 2014 with permission of the author.
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