Sunday, November 11, 2012
No one thought Barry Erkin would ever become a policeman. He lacked the manichaean point of view, and, even as a child, had no interest in projecting his ideas on others. He was a ‘laissez faire’ sort of person, one who left others alone and in turn wanted to be left alone himself. “Barry will be a accountant,” everyone said, “or a fireman.” But when he reached the age of eighteen he applied for the Police Academy and was admitted.
Erkin papa was a plumber but he and his wife had so many children, after plumbing all day, he worked evenings at the pig works slaughtering pigs. As a result he smelt like a dead, slightly rotting pig and no amount of scrubbing in the big tub could made him smell otherwise. Even dousing himself with cheap deodorants merely made him smell like a dead pig sprinkled with perfume. As one can imagine from his work schedule, which in those days included Saturday, he hardly knew his children. When he rose in the morning they were asleep and when he came home at night they were asleep. When he came down into the kitchen on Sunday mornings and found it filled with children, all of whom became suddenly silent when their father walked into the room, he was surprised. For the last six days he had forgotten they existed. The children saw their father as an unpredictable and violent man, which was true. The kitchen emptied out and he sat down in glorious solitude at the table while his wife served him a huge, working man breakfast.
Barry was the second last of the boys. All told there were six boys and seven girls, the boys rough and ready with great, meaty paws like their father and the girls delicate faced but with strong, sturdy bodies able to defend themselves so fiercely even the bigger boys left them alone. Five of the girls became famous neighbourhood beauties. Two, scorning such a prize, dressed in a deliberately dowdy way all through childhood and early womanhood. One became a doctor and the other a political activist.
During his school years Barry was known as ‘the quiet Erkin’, which is understandable given that the rest were so noisy and boisterous. He liked sports but preferred games like swimming and track where individual skills were the center point and there was a minimum of group togetherness. Paradoxically, of all the Erkin boys, he grew to be the largest and most powerful and yet the one least interested in scrapping and bickering. He would defend himself, however. When he was in grade school he was expelled for a month for breaking a bully's nose. This made those who thrived on tormenting shy, seemingly incapable boys, leave him alone.
Erkin papa thought nothing of giving his boys a backhand slap when they were almost grown and when they were small he punished them by beating them with his belt, a monstrous thing three inches wide. But he treated Barry differently. There was something about the way the boy looked at him that made him hesitate. Since Barry was an obedient boy the question of correction seldom arose but once, when Barry was nine, his father gave him the strap treatment. During his beating the boy never uttered the slightest sound which so infuriated his father that he beat him all the more, so much so that his wife tackled her own husband in the boy’s defence. When his father unhanded him to fend off his wife, Barry ran out of the house and did not come back for three days. When he did come back Mrs. Erkin was beside herself with joy but while she was weeping and fondling and kissing him, Barry was staring at his father with undisguised hatred. After that, for the occasional punishment required, the old man gave Barry extra chores or made him stay in the yard for a day.
The Police Academy teachers thought highly of Barry. He was intelligent, quick, physically capable, polite and deferential. He graduated at the top of his class. As was usual he spent three years as a regular constable stationed in the city, learning the ropes. In his fourth year he was sent back to the Academy to do the Detective course and when this was finished appointed an assistant Detective under an older man, soon to retire. This was a great honour because the older Detective was a legend and the scuttlebutt was that Barry had been hand picked to succeed him.
Barry and the old man, Frederich Delany, got along fine. Neither liked small talk. Neither drank. Neither went to church. Both loved to go on long walks and sit quietly in sidewalk cafes drinking coffee. Both liked to play chess and read complicated scientific books. One might be tempted to say they were like father and son but this would be inaccurate for Frederick, right from the beginning, accepted Barry as an equal. If he had anything to teach the younger man he did it in a bluff, factual way which seemed to assume it was a mere oversight of the cosmic order that Barry did not already know it. He put on no airs. His main method of teaching was giving Barry old dossiers to read and then discussing them with him while they went through the old section of the city for a long walk. In other words he walked him through past experience, the only way to teach anyone anything.
Detective work, unlike the way it is depicted in most fiction, is often boring. Writing endless reports and long interviews going nowhere compose the bulk of a Detective’s day. But it has its perks. Free meals at restaurants where the credentials of the kitchen staff are best left unexamined is one. During lull periods, wandering about the city enjoying oneself while claiming to be working is another.
A typical Detective murder case goes like this. A call comes to the station. The Detective and partner are sent to an address. The technicians are already there, gathering their harvest of evidence, so the partners sit on the step outside until they are finished. Then, in they go to look at the body, inert of course, and very dead. Dead bodies don’t bother them for they have already seen many dozens. They do not burden themselves with modern notions that they are somehow responsible, ‘if only they had’ or ‘if only society was somehow differently structured’ and all that. That’s for the hand wringers and they are not hand wringers. After looking about for a bit they instruct the uniforms to find the husband, the lover, the cuckold, the drinking partner or whatever. Often they don’t have to do this for they are already present, weeping and confessing. Sometimes the uniforms find them at the nearest bar or on a train leaving town or holed up in a hotel three blocks away. They may offer a little resistance but mostly, once they are in the interview room, they spill the beans. Just as they could not resist the impulse to kill, they cannot resist the impulse to unburden themselves. It’s all very sad and sometimes the Detectives empathize but mostly they remain very cool and simply observe. After this has been repeated many times they no longer judge. They may even begin to wonder if all this is not somehow preordained, if some vast chemical process over which individual human beings have no control, has not delivered them here, cop on one side of the desk writing, the murderer on the other side, emotionally distraught, confessing, pleading for understanding, for self justification.
In the first five years of being a Detective, Barry, accompanying Frederick, went to many of these cases. They comprised perhaps eighty or ninety percent of the murder roster. But there was another kind of murder comprising maybe five to ten percent. In these cases the partners would arrive at a taped off alley where a corpse, covered with a white sheet, lay on the bare ground. When the techs were finished they pulled back the sheet and saw the sign – one shot through the head. The victims were sometimes from the underworld, sometimes not. They were sometimes well dressed, with money in their pocket, sometimes not. But they were all shot through the head, usually from the back, by a small caliber pistol, most often a twenty-two. Most were male but there was the occasional female.
The usual procedures were followed. People who lived and worked round about, and intimates of the victim, were questioned but nothing came of these enquiries. Sometimes a person living nearby would say he heard a car backfire at a certain time the previous night. But, even if connected to the shooting, this information was useless. It merely confirmed that someone pulled the trigger and they already knew that. The timing supplied by the witness was usually vague. It could have been ten o’clock; it could have been twelve thirty. Very, very occasionally a witness heard something and then saw a figure walk off down the street. But the description of this figure could have fit perhaps one half of the city’s population, so it too was useless. He was wearing a baggy coat or perhaps it was a sailor’s jacket. He was young but then again he may have been middle aged. He was bulky and strong but perhaps it was the coat made him look that way. As useless as they were, all of these things were written down by uniforms and entered into the dossier.
Ballistic were done on the bullet but they all knew the pistol was now in the river. Tech evidence involving shoe prints, etc, was examined carefully but they all knew the shoes and clothing were also in the river or ashes in a wood stove somewhere outside of town. Of the several hundreds of these kind of murders Frederick had investigating in his career, only two were ‘solved’, each by the higher ups ordering it be pinned on a certain individual who, in reality, had nothing whatsoever to do with it, which means, of course, that none of them were solved.
“Who does them then?” Barry asked one day when they were waiting at a counter for a plate of Chinese food.
“Gangsters settling scores. The odd private citizen hiring a professional killer and somebody else. I suspect that more than half are done by the somebody else.”
“And who is that,” asked Barry.
Frederick looked at him for a long time and then smiled. He didn’t speak. Instead he nodded his head in a northeast direction, one quick nod with the eyes following it intensely. Three blocks away to the northeast was the headquarters of the Secret Police.
Because of the nod and Frederick’s intensity, Barry asked no more questions. Everyone knew it was unwise to speak of ‘them’ anywhere in public. The restaurant was crowded with workers on their lunch hour. They ate their chop suey in silence and then left to go back to the station.
Three days later they were walking along the banks of the river headed for an interview with the wife of a merchant. The merchant had disappeared and since he was very prominent, the Chief had sent Frederick out to interview his wife.
“So you think it’s the Secret Police who shoots all those people?” Barry asked.
“I don’t think,” said Frederick. “I know.”
“But I thought they took them to the station and shot them,” said Barry.
“Some,” said Frederich. “The ones they want people to know they shot. The ones they don’t they do it like the gangsters do so everyone thinks it’s the gangsters.”
After Barry had been with him six years Frederich was getting ready to retire. He had already served thirty years, five more than was required for full pension. Recently he and his wife bought a few acres just outside of town. They planned on keeping pigs and chickens and growing a big garden. Barry went out to see it with him one slow afternoon. Flat prairie land with a house just off the dirt road and a rough poplar fence around it. The house needed work and Frederich was going to auctions, looking for a tractor. It was late spring and they sat for an hour in the backyard drinking tea while Frederich told him his plans for the place – a chicken house, a pig barn, but first a screened gazebo because the summer bugs were outrageous.
Three weeks before he was to retire Frederich suddenly disappeared on a day Barry was at a course at the Academy. No one got in touch with him so he didn’t hear about it until he came in the next morning. Taking a younger detective with him he went off on a long walk through the old town asking everyone who knew Frederich - the shopkeepers, the waitresses, etc - if they had seen him. No one had. The last anyone at the station saw him was the previous morning at ten o’clock. He said he was going for a walk to talk to someone and he left through the front door. When they searched his desk for an appointment note, a phone number, they came up with nothing. Frederick wasn’t good about writing things down. He kept a lot of things in his head.
They found him the next day on the riverbank shot through the head with a twenty-two. No sign of struggle, so the shooter was probably walking with him and suddenly pulled out the pistol and fired. It was a deserted part of the bank where people seldom walked. He was lying a little off the main path, face down. It was late in a very hot, rainless summer and the earth was as hard as concrete, so the Techs got nothing from the ground and nothing from Frederich’s clothing or body. Probably the shooter met him on the path and they went walking. The man never touched him.
“Who?” Barry asked his Chief Inspector.
The Chief Inspector shrugged his shoulders. “Frederich was a secretive man. Who knows what he had going on. You would know better than anyone. You spent the last six years with him.”
Barry was made the Investigating officer. There is a classic set up for such an operation and he set it up but he had little faith it would find anything. Once things were organized he let the cherub cheeked younger detective run it and report to him. If he were to find an answer it would come from unorthodox methods.
First the gangsters. He made a few phone calls and met with a middle ranked man in a coffee shop where he often had lunch with Frederich. The man told him the organization had no problems with Frederich. He had never been on the payroll but at the same time he had stayed away from certain sensitive cases and the organization had no reason to kill him. “If he was a problem,” said the man, “we would have killed him long ago. Why wait until he was almost retired?” Barry felt the man was telling the truth. The uniforms, who went through Frederich’s papers both at the station and his apartment, found absolutely zilch connecting him to gangsters. This was like Frederich thought Barry. He would be circumspect and cautious but keep himself clean.
So who was he meeting on the riverbank by himself? A snitch? But why would a snitch kill him? There was no benefit to a snitch killing his connection. Did someone kill him for personal reasons? Unlikely Barry thought. Frederick was a smooth operator who genuinely got along with just about everyone. That someone would kill him out of personal pique was very, very unlikely.
So it came around to ‘them’, didn’t it? But that didn’t make sense either. Why would they want to kill Frederich, especially when he would soon retire? Approaching ‘them’, well that was a tricky matter. You didn’t phone them up and ask if they had killed your partner and if so why? The Secret Police were like a hard shelled turtle except the shell extended all the way round. They would talk to you all day, if you let them, squirreling for incidental details about cases and operations but they gave nothing in return. They were like a brick wall, a stainless steel door. They were like priests sworn to secrecy.
But Barry knew a few things. He had been taking computer night courses at the Academy for four years. Frederich called him a computer geek and he had to admit it was true. Last year an older man from the Secret Service had been in one of his courses. He was typical Secret Service type, hard and cautious, tight lipped, but Barry talked to him a few times in the break between sessions. The Service had gone big on computers. They took in the best graduates from the tech schools. The older man wasn’t looking to become a technical expert. There were lots of bright young recruits for that. What he wanted was a general knowledge detailed enough so that he could supervise intelligently. The man, like everyone else in the class, carried a laptop with him. One day while passing his desk Barry noticed the man was on a strange looking site, one tingeing the screen a faint blue colour. Barry memorized the ULR and the user name, George Simil, the name of his classmate. He thought it strange that the man used his real name, or at least the name he gave out in the class as his. He thought a Secret Service Officer would use a codename.
An old neighbourhood pal knew how to find passwords but Barry wouldn’t let him do it on their own computers. Far too dangerous. Like hiding on the riverbank beside a roaring fire. He bought a laptop on the black market. The user name and password belonged to an old man who died a month before in a pensioner’s home.
Barry wouldn’t let his friend try the site. Instead he had him walk him through the steps to find the password. Then he took the laptop to a café with wi fi. It took him two hours of trying but he finally got the password. Then he left the café because he was afraid being on the site might be tracked and there might be a finder truck.
The next night he went to another café. Blue screen. Enter password. Service Interface Files. Frederick P. Delany. The file popped up but to enter you needed Special Sections clearance.
He explained to his friend who told him, “No problem.”
But Barry thought there was. “Do you think finding the password left a track?” he asked his friend.
“Yes, but whether there is anyone looking for tracks is the real question,” answered his friend.
“But if there was then they would find a computer owned by a dead man, sold on the black market so no one knows where it is, right?
“Depends. Central could track its physical location when it’s online but someone would have to go there and catch whoever had it in their possession.”
“What’s the best way to do it then?” asked Barry.
“Get a black market stick and use it outside town. That makes it much much more difficult to track and if you do, to get there,” said his friend.
So that’s what they did. It took Barry’s friend only ten minutes to get Special Sections Clearance. “These guys are still in kindergarten,” he said.
But Barry wouldn’t let him go into the file. He did that himself three days later in a police car late in the afternoon twenty miles outside town, parked on the riverbank. Blue screen. Frederich P. Delany. Files of Operations Officer. Latest. August 12th, Tuesday, the day of Frederich’s death. The page came up slowly revealing a blank rectangle of blue excepting in the center of the page where there was a capital E, a bracket, the numbers 4930, unbracket. Barry stared at this for a full minute. If this meant what he thought it meant he found it hard to believe they would put it in a file but then again why not? They were basically untouchable and if, as Frederich had said, this was a normal every day thing for them, why not? Not wanting to stay on any longer, he exited and went back to the station and home.
He asked his friend the next morning, “When would be the best time to go on and stay on for a while?” ”In the morning,” said his friend with no hesitation.
“Why?” asked Barry.
“Because it’s so busy. The busier it is the less noticeable an aberration. Although I wonder if it would come up as an aberration on their system. It didn’t seem to have any pick ups for this sort of thing when I was on there.”
Barry arranged his schedule so he had a car in the mornings and drove out of town on a different road each day. He spent two hours reading files and then went back to town.
Frederich was an informant. The files were filled with his reports on anything from office politics to the drinking habits of his supervisors. There was even a report on Barry, his political opinions (none), affiliations (none), personality, daily habits. There were pages and pages of this kind of stuff, penny ante, mundane and boring. That Frederich was spying for the Secret Service shocked him but the fact that Frederich had spent many hours, thousands perhaps, writing up these inane, banal reports shocked him even more. The files went back thirty years so he was a snitch right from the beginning. Why? Barry wondered. Maybe he was blackmailed. Or maybe in those days it was expected as a normal, every day part of the job. Maybe everyone did it.
On the fourth day of reading Barry opened a file having to do with the arrest of a prostitute. The older files were handwritten, a paper original scanned into the file but the newer were typewritten. This one was typed. Barry recognized the name of the prostitute. She was the Great Leader’s present mistress and had been so for three years, the longest reign for any of his women. The date on the file was four years ago, so one year before she became the big boss’s mistress. Frederich had arrested her for assaulting a man in a bar. The woman, who must have had considerable strength, had hit the man over the head with a heavy barstool and fractured his skull. He died on the spot. She was jailed and brought to trial. Frederich was the officer supplying evidence and he did an excellent job, as usual. The woman was given ten years hard labor, remitted a short time later to six months minimum security detention. The file was essentially the police report on the incident with comments by Frederick. The comments were scathing. He called the woman a dangerous psychotic, a sociopath. It was his opinion that the state should lock her up and throw away the key.
“So,” Barry said aloud to the empty car, “So.”
“If you let me go up on the file I can probably find you the shooter.” Barry’s friend said when he explained what he found.
They were walking through the old district towards a café to have lunch. Barry was paying which was usual practice. Today he owed his friend a debt but on many other days his friend was simply broke. He spent all his money on computers and programs.
“Why?” asked Barry. “The actual person who pulled the trigger was a professional. ‘Kill this person on Tuesday,’ they said and he did it. He was the means but the real killer was much higher up, right? The real killer was HIM at the instigation of his mistress. What surprises me is that the file is still there on the site. When I checked in police files it was gone. In that year’s arrest lists, nothing, no such name. No Prosecutor’s files under that name. No witness reports. No Supervising Officer reports, nothing, as if, as far as the police are concerned, the woman did not exist; there was no crime, no killing. The whole thing has evaporated. Even the autopsy report on the victim has disappeared.”
“I suppose they don’t have to worry too much,” his friend said. “I mean, who in their right mind would try hacking their site and even if they did what would they do with the information? What use is it to anyone?”
“Well, to me it answered a question which would have bothered me all my life. Not that the answer is a satisfying one, mind you, but at least it’s an answer. As for anyone else, you are right. What would one do, shout it from a street corner until they came to blow your brains out? Write it on bathroom walls until they catch you and beat you to death? Although it is the truth, it is a truth totally useless to anyone, excepting to the big boss and his mistress who gain something from its eradication. To them its value is in its negation.”
The route to the café led over a bridge across the river. When they were in the center of the bridge Barry lifted the laptop strap from his shoulder and, without checking his stride in the least, tossed it over the rail. A few seconds later they heard the splash. His friend said nothing. It was the natural conclusion to the whole affair, wasn’t it? A dead man’s laptop, a dead cop, a dead man in a bar. It was like putting a period at the end of a very long sentence. You do it and then it’s over and time to start another.