An early bedtime, rising excitement and months of getting up before the sun all conspire to wake me at half past three in the morning. I briefly attempt to fall back asleep to wait for my alarm, but as soon as I close my eyes I can tell it’s a lost cause.
By 4:30, I’ve showered, dressed, made coffee and had breakfast. I take a shot at doing a crossword puzzle online, since it seems like the sort of thing that people do in the mornings when they have time to kill, but I can’t stay focused on it. I skim through the news headlines, but nothing particularly catches my eye. I’m practically jittering, and I’ve still got over two hours to go until it’s time to meet Peterson.
I turn on the television and flip through the list of shows and movies in my queue, but nothing seems worthwhile. I take a half-hearted stab at watching a few of them anyway, but everything’s either too vapid for me to care, too involved for my limited focus, or too badly acted to serve as a distraction. I check my phone every few minutes to see if it’s nearing seven o’clock yet.
By 5:45, I give up. If I’m just going to be sitting around anxiously anyway, I might as well do it down at the police station, on the off-chance that Peterson’s there and interested in getting started early. I’m certainly not accomplishing anything here.
About ten minutes later, I’ve parked at City Hall and am heading inside to the makeshift police station. Peterson, unfortunately, is not in yet, so I get directed to a chair in the small waiting area and left to cool my heels. I jiggle my feet and drum my fingers impatiently before pulling out my phone in search of a distraction. What did people do to waste time in waiting areas before smartphones?
“So you’re working with Peterson on this new thing, huh?” A voice pulls my attention away from my phone, and I look up to see the officer behind the desk addressing me. Oh, right, that’s what people used to do — strike up conversations.
“I mean, ‘working with’ is pretty strong, but yeah, he’s letting me help out.”
“Good for you. That’s good for you. Have you been wanting to be a police officer long?”
There’s something in his voice that makes that sound slightly mocking, but it’s early morning for me and probably the end of a long overnight shift for him, so I brush it off. “Hah, not me. I’m in construction.”
“Yeah? How’s that?”
“You know, it’s really satisfying. You go out there, work hard all day, and at the end of the day you feel tired and you can see progress.” The cop nods, so I continue. “I spent a lot of years in a job where nothing ever changed from day to day, so it’s nice to be doing something where you get tangible results.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I bet. So you’re good at it, then?”
“I like to think so, yeah.”
“Nice. That’s real nice. You know, Peterson used to be good at his job, too.”
I freeze, unsure how to respond. “Sorry, what?”
“Yeah, he used to be real good. He was good at seeing the truth behind things, had a real intuitive sense for it. But that was only half of it. Once he knew what the answer had to be, he’d dig for the evidence that’d prove it. And he was great, so great, a real Sherlock Holmes. He’d find clues everyone else missed, spot inconsistencies in testimonies and get guys to crumple. He was a champ.”
“He is a champ. Why are you using the past tense?”
“It’s a sad story, real sad. He found this guy, right? Convinced he was tied up in something, some sort of gang thing or something. And so he started working the case, digging for answers, doing his whole usual thing.”
“And what happened?”
The policeman spreads his arms wide in a shrug. “Who knows? One day, he’s chipping away at this case like always. Next day, suddenly he drops the whole thing. And fine, maybe he was just wrong for once, things didn’t pan out, except he changes. Withdraws, gets real secretive. Starts passing off cases to other guys, saying he’s working on something. Won’t tell anyone what, though. And in the middle of it all, there’s this guy, this maybe-gang guy, Dan Everton.”
I narrow my eyes. “You think I’m ruining Peterson?”
He makes a big show of looking down at the sign-in roster. “Oh, hey! That’s you! What a coincidence. Small world, huh?
“And yeah,” he continues, “I think you’re wasting one of our best guys. I think you got in his head somehow, convinced him he was wrong about you, and now you’ve got his own intuition working against him. And it’s sick.”
“Man, where do you get off?” I demand. “Listen, Officer…?”
“Williams, you ever hear of need-to-know basis? Ever think that maybe Peterson’s not telling you what he’s up to because it’s not the sort of thing that ought to get out to everyone?”
“Yeah, the ‘need-to-know basis’ is that I need to know that I can trust the guys I work with! If he can tell some thickneck construction worker, he can tell us. He can sure tell us! You think I want to be in some showdown with a methed-out arson freak like last year, and not know if the guy behind me has my back?”
“I had your back there, moron!” I say. Probably not the best choice of words, but he’s really managed to push my buttons. I’m on my feet now, and so is Williams. The two of us glare at each other from across the waiting room. “I dragged officers out of that fire. And now, I’m rebuilding the station. Where were you? What have you done?”
“I’ve picked up after you!” he snarls. “Taking on the work that Peterson drops. Calling the news stations to get them to retract the story that you were dangerous, despite my instincts. Listening to half of the guys here get in fights with the other half over whether you’re a hero or just another street scum conman!”
I take a calming breath. “Let me guess. At some point while he was working on his mayoral run, you shook hands with Evan Tanger.”
“He was a pillar of the community,” says Williams angrily. “I don’t know if you faked that video, tricked him into it or what, but that wasn’t him. And it’s a shame what you did to that man. A real shame.”
“Faked it? Tricked him? Come on, listen to yourself. Tanger was the conman, not me,” I say. “What’s more likely — that I managed to trick Tanger into going on a threatening tirade on video, complete with actual violence, or that what you saw is what was actually real? Keep in mind that Peterson, a man whose intuition and evidence-finding skills you claim to respect, buys it.”
“Sure, after you got to him!” insists Williams.
“I’m gonna guess that your experience shows that guys at the top are rarely any better than guys at the bottom. Worse, maybe, because less can be done to them, so they have less fear. And before you say that Tanger was different, answer me this: when I said his name just now, was your immediate thought ‘pillar of the community’?”
Williams looks uncertain, then recovers. “Sure, you’re just saying that because that’s what I said about him a minute ago. I just said that.”
“Yeah, you did. So check it out later. Think of Tanger’s name, see what pops into your head first. I bet it’s that exact phrase every time.”
“So what, you’re saying he brainwashed me? I don’t think so. That’s some science-fiction nonsense right there.”
I shrug. “You accused me of doing that to Peterson, didn’t you? If you’re willing to believe that I got into his head, then you’ve gotta be willing to believe that Tanger could have gotten into yours.”
I pause, then add, “You just thought ‘pillar of the community’ again, didn’t you?”
Williams frowns at me, looks like he’s about to speak, and then sits back down and pointedly turns his chair away from me. I can see that he’s still got me in his peripheral vision, but it’s clear that he’s done talking.
I turn back to go retake my seat in the chair, only to find it occupied by Regina.
“Hey!” I say, startled. “When did you get here? I didn’t see you come in.”
“Yes, you looked…occupied,” she says dryly.
Williams hears her voice and looks up. “Miss, can I help you?”
“I’m here to see Sam Peterson,” she says.
Williams casts a dirty look my way. “Ah, more outside consulting. Well, if you need to know, you need to know. Peterson’s not here yet.” He shoves the sign-in roster at her and turns away from both of us.
“So,” Regina says as we both take seats. “You’ve been making friends here this morning?”
“Despite how it looks, yes, I think so,” I say. “Look, he didn’t punch me. That’s a big improvement over the guys on the construction site.”
“How long do you think you’re going to be dealing with the fallout of Tanger’s broadcast opinion of you?”
“Honestly? I think I could get on national TV saving kittens from a fire, and there’d still be people here skeptical of me. I’m hoping that collaring Ichabot will clear my name at least in the police department, though.”
“And hey,” says Regina, “if you’re lucky, when we kick down the door of his lab, maybe he’ll be just about to set fire to some kittens. I’ll have my camera ready to film your heroics, just in case.”
“Thanks. I can see you’re taking this very seriously.”
“Dan? Do you think we’re really about to end this?”
“I hope so. Oh man, do I hope so.”