by Elizabeth Sims
©Elizabeth Sims 2005
I always like a good thick ham sandwich, so I was delighted to find a whole baked ham, flanked by a pot of Polish horseradish and a stack of rye bread, on the buffet table. It was an admirably loaded table: no dainties, just solid cop-fantasy food. You know, the kind of food cops talk about when they're trying to stay awake on an overnight surveillance. Besides the ham, there was a grill-your-own steak station with a guy to ensure you didn't ruin yours, a cauldron of bolognese sauce with a platter of meatballs the size of fists, a dune of steaming pasta to ladle the stuff over, and a handsome green salad. There were boiled sausages and oven-baked chickens, mashed potatoes with some kind of wonderful-smelling cheesy thing mixed in, and the obligatory steamed vegetable medley, touched only by one or two of the younger cops who didn't know any better.
Then there was the cake, this iced slab decorated with teensy handcuffs and guns and stacks of paperwork, with GOOD RIDDANCE, ERMA beautifully scripted in pale green frosting.
My knees got a little weak as I stood looking and smelling and swallowing my saliva. I took a pull from the bottle of Stroh's I'd picked out of a cold well next to the bar.
I was about to grab a plate and get going on the ham when something struck me between the shoulderblades so hard my head snapped back. An unfamiliar laugh rang out, and I turned to see Lt. Tom Ciesla enjoying the effect his backslap had on me.
Ciesla himself was a familiar sight, of course, his thick shoulders straining his jacket just a smidge, his large careful hands holding a bottle of Stroh's, his direct expression, his five o'clock shadow. But I realized that I'd hardly ever heard him laugh. He was a serious cop, and we'd had many a deep conversation, but I couldn't remember when I'd heard him laugh, and that was a little sad. Cops have to take life more seriously than most people.
But right now he was off duty, he'd eaten well, and he was happy to see me.
"Was the cake your idea?" I said.
"What do you think of it?" His voice was as direct as his expression.
"It's perfect. If anything could make Erma cry tonight, it'll be that cake."
"Well, she saw it."
"Did she cry?"
He laughed again.
"What else have you guys got in store for her? Is that guy from narcotics going to do Elvis again? Please tell me he's not going to put on that—"
"Yeah, Tom." I was smiling, but suddenly he wasn't.
Ciesla said, "You don't look...good." He took my upper arm and pinched his fingers into my flesh down to the bone. He held me away from him and looked me down to my Weejuns. "You're way too skinny. Are you sick?" Here he'd been joking and having a good time, now abruptly he's worried about this nerdy unemployed writer.
"No, Tom, just hungry."
"You're eyeballing that ham like you think it's going to jump the fence."
"Yeah, well. I like ham. Where's Erma? I haven't had a chance to say hi."
"Those probation officers have her cornered over there. I think they're trying to get her to sign up for bowling again."
"Can't the woman get some peace after all these years?"
"Yeah, but she's a good bowler, and the team's gonna stink without her. She threw a 290 in the finals last month."
"Wow." I couldn't help keeping an eye on that ham.
"Well," Ciesla said, "you better eat."
"Out of my way." He watched me pick up a plate and begin piling food on. When I turned from the buffet table, he'd taken off.
This ballroom, the Crystal Grand in the Marriott, was surely the safest place in the city that night. A hundred cops in every flavor, off duty, most carrying, plus a few badges who'd stopped in for a few minutes between calls, all of them bullshitting and laughing and eating and drinking. The room hummed with the pleasant chaos of it.
I saw this towering black lady detective who'd cracked a major car-theft ring last month by calling the main crook's girlfriend and posing as a telephone psychic. She got the girlfriend to tell her everything, which was a lot more than the boyfriend thought she knew. There was a white homicide cop whose face had gotten carved by a prisoner who'd slipped out of his cuffs and reached a razor blade he'd stuck in the edge of his flip-flop. The cop's face had healed in a half-grin that gave him a crazy look, which reportedly made him a much more effective interrogator. Then there was the Chinese-American vice cop who was addicted to Little Debbie snack cakes; he'd sit down to write a report and half an hour later you'd have to climb over this barrier of Little Debbie wrappers to talk to him.
Most of these party guests gave me a good feeling. I'm a resolute believer in the basic goodness of cops. Only a few of them creeped me out—ones that I'd heard tampered with evidence and never got nailed, ones that were always on the make somehow. Ones with a quiet rep for using smack or for shaking down stupid people who couldn't figure out how to stay out of their way. You just hope you never have to deal with them.
I found a seat at an empty table. I wanted to concentrate on eating, on filling my belly with as many solid calories as I could, and I wanted to thoroughly enjoy the experience of eating food that was not only free but good. The smoky-peppery ham was succulent between the firm slabs of bread. It's easy to find food that's good and expensive, and relatively simple to find food that's awful and more or less free, but good and free—that's the combination for me.
I chewed and swallowed, and a little sunburst of horseradish rose to clear my sinuses. So good. It felt so good to eat well.
I finished my sandwich and pickle, and a bus boy came by and took my plate. I set my coordinates for the meatballs. I stopped, though, seeing Det. Erma Porrocks disengage herself from the probation officers and head toward me. I met her for a hug.
"Congratulations, Erma. You made it."
She smiled widely, showing her even teeth that formed a friendly arcade between her post-menopausally-fuzzy pink cheeks. Probably the smallest cop in the department, Porrocks was nevertheless fearlessly herself. She wore her gray hair in a style that made you think of moms on 1960s-era television: a simple smooth style, but styled. She liked cardigan sweaters. There always was a little something soft and retro about Porrocks, which somehow never represented a handicap to her in the testosterone-soaked world of the detective division.
"Man, Erm, twenty-five years. How does it feel?"
"Funny. It feels funny." She tugged at the waistband of her skirt. "I started on the force late in life, for a cop. I was thirty-two. Now I can't believe I'm pushing sixty."
"Just think, you'll be able to do stakeouts only when you really, really want to. Hey, thanks a lot for inviting me. Fabulous spread—you can tell the department thinks highly of you."
"Yeah, I got the 25-year spread. I'm glad you're enjoying it."
"Well, what're you going to do?"
"I'll take some time off, you know. Then I might go into private investigation."
"Yeah? That sounds good. You'd be a great gumshoe, Erma."
She started to say something, then bit her lip and I saw she was feeling emotional. "I—I'm going to miss all these jackasses."
I touched her arm. "Yeah."
"Uh, have you had a bite to eat?"
"Mm-hm, I was about to go get some more."
"Lillian, can I talk to you?"
"Sure, what about?"
"Why don't you get some more food and come back here?"
I grabbed two fresh bottles of Stroh's on the way back with my steaming plate of pasta.
She thanked me and took a sip of beer. "I bought a house a few weeks ago."
"Just to the waterfront. Wyandotte, actually."
"I've always wanted a view of the water, and you know there's nothing with a view in the city except high-rises. Now that I'm retiring, well, I got an opportunity to buy this place—rather suddenly, actually, and it was such a good deal I went for it. It's a nice house, it's got good bones, like they say in the magazines. But it needs work. Quite a bit of work. I think somebody with a temper lived there."
"Yeah?" I wondered what her point was going to be. In a prompting way I said, "Is it one of those bootlegger places?"
During Prohibition smugglers ran so much illegal Canadian booze into Detroit and all its shoreline communities you couldn't spit into the river without hitting some guy in a fast motorboat. The houses on the waterfront with private docks were coveted by the smugglers for obvious reasons: You'd hear about places with secret passageways from the waterline into hidden cellars, then tunnels to the alley or a neighboring house. I'd always hoped to get a look at a place like that.
"Oh!" said Porrocks. "Well, I don't know. It does have a boathouse."
The boss smugglers would buy these places for cash from some prosperous haberdasher or car dealer, then do the modifications in the dead of night.
And you couldn't toss a daisy into a police squad room without hitting somebody on the take. It was a high time all around.
Porrocks got a little more intense. "How have you been, Lillian?"
"Well—fine, Erma. Just fine."
"Really. What are you living on?" Porrocks had a little dry voice, but it carried authority. I haven't yet mentioned that she was a high-level judo expert, so good at leveraging her modest weight and strength that she taught special classes at the police academy on how to subdue obstreperous suspects without bone-breaking violence. Now and then I'd wondered about her private life.
"Yeah," I said, "I'm—I'm working on some, uh, some ideas for—for all these magazines that are interested in my work, you know. And, uh, I'm into my music."
"Yes, I've seen you playing on the streets." She was looking at me so steadily that I got a little nervous. "Lillian, why don't you get a job?"
"Oh, God, Erm." A hot blotch of shame crept up my neck. "Look, I just have to go my own way. You know. I'm trying to—I have some things going." How fucking embarrassing. I hadn't thought my circumstances showed that much.
"Your clothes are shabby." She was looking at the cuffs of my jeans.
"But clean. Lots of people wear frayed clothes. It's the style."
"Come on. Even your shoes are frayed."
It was true, my Bass Weejun penny loafers had been resoled three times now, and yes, the tongues lay soft as mushroom gills. But they were clean.
In fact, I'd tried. My freelance writing just wasn't bringing in enough money, so I'd applied to several management training programs, one at Comerica Bank, one at J.C.Penney's, and one at Midas Mufflers. The tests revealed that I had good verbal skills (news flash there), was lousy with numbers (ditto), and dismal on management skills, however the hell they quantify those things.
Somehow I couldn't hook into anything solid. I considered trucker school, I considered bartender school, I even considered cosmetology.
Cops excel at letting you dig a hole for yourself.
"I'm doing fine, Erma. Really." I sank my cutlery into a meatball and lifted a steaming morsel to my mouth, my saliva almost spurting out to meet it. I wolfed the thing down. "I mean, I'm paying my rent and keeping Todd in bunny chow." I didn't mention that my landlords had reduced my rent so I could afford to stay there, and that I was foraging in people's backyards for leaves for my old sick rabbit. "It's not that I think I'm too good to flip hamburgers or pull weeds, OK? It's just that I'm, I'm just, I'm. Oh, hell."
"No, you're not fine."
"Well, what, then? Have you been opening my bank statements or something?"
"Look, Lillian, I can't believe you've let yourself get into such dire straits. You're actually going hungry."
"I'm a fussy eater."
"You're not getting enough to eat. Are you depressed?"
"Jesus, what is this? No, I'm not depressed. I'm happy as a goddamn lark." I kept eating. I hadn't gotten to the point of borrowing money from anyone. I just kept thinking things would turn around. Something would come up. I kept expecting myself to think of a new thing to do: a business to start, or some fabulous idea for a book everyone would need to buy. Something.
As I sat there talking to Porrocks what I really wanted to do was burst into tears and wail, "I've wasted my life! A newspaper job I blew, a few crummy freelance bylines, a couple of half-assed warehouse jobs where they didn't even let me drive the forklift, a few dollars a night busking on the streets with my mandolin—that's been it! That's been fuckin' it!"
FIRST CHAPTERS AND EXCERPTS:
The Rita Farmer Mysteries
The Lillian Byrd Crime Series