Frozen Hearts
By Johnny Nys
Published: October 16, 2007

When I started work at our local police station, I had no idea I was going to shoot one of the officers. Over the years, I have learned to expect the worst in every situation. Call it survival, call it paranoia, I call it realism. Nightmares can come true before you know it. But some people have the power to fight them. That’s something two police officers told me.

I shot the precinct’s photographer three months after I started work. It’s one of those stories you have to tell over and over again. People never grow tired of it. Why would they? It’s the closest they get to any excitement in their lives. I wish I could switch places with them. You don’t shoot another human being and continue living as if nothing happened, even if that person stays alive.

When I returned to the job a week after the incident, my career in local law enforcement would last another three months. The longest of my life.

The guys, at least the ones that were left, noticed it too. I was different, they said. No longer the jovial, fun youngster who used to brighten their days. I don’t know if they were kidding or if they meant it. I certainly can’t remember ever brightening someone’s day. Perhaps it was only because they were all either middle aged or nearing their retirement. Several of them were divorced, others were trying to get divorced, others were trying to stay away from women altogether and failed miserably.

I guess a cop’s life isn’t easy on relationships. But when I came in each morning and booted up my computer, a photo of my new girlfriend decorating the background, they would all come in and pat me on the back, smiling their smiles.

It was one of the many traditions inside a police station.

The first day back on the job, however, none came to pat me on the back. Not in the first place because almost a third of the squad was gone. Three had been killed by the precinct’s photographer. The fourth was the photographer himself, shot by me but not killed.

They would all be missed. And I really mean all of them.

It was a chaotic time. Three funerals, to start with. Then we had to find replacements for the men lost.

It’s not fair. People die every day. Families lose parents, children. Husbands lose wives and vice versa. They will never be replaced. Yet when it concerns work, there’s always someone to fill in the gaps. The show must go on and everyone’s expendable. Even I was replacing a woman who had given birth almost two months ago. Everyone could do everything, with the right training of course.

As I sat down at my desk, I tried to remember what I was supposed to do. I couldn’t recall what the welcoming officer had told me on my first day. My notes had been long thrown away. After three months, everything had become routine. Who would have thought something would happen and scramble up my mind?

Even though I’m not one of the guys, out on the streets with a gun on my hip, my job comes with its own responsibilities. Next to all the administration work, I’m a dispatcher.

Usually, there are only four people on patrol. Sometimes, however, that number can triple and there could be a dozen guys waiting for my reply on whatever it was they requested. You’d better have a clear head, then.

I was lucky that first week back, because due to the sudden lack of personnel there was only one patrol on the road: Albert, a sweet older guy one year away from retirement and Dudley, one of the divorcees. They were a happy couple, always joking around. They were about the same height and build, five nine and broad shouldered. The sole difference between them, next to the amount of grey hair, was their attitude. Duds was a real cop’s cop while Albert had no trouble putting things into perspective.

Right before they left, in fact, Albert was the first one to talk to me. “You all right, Jake?”

I nodded. “Sure.”

“We’re gonna do some random checks,” he said, meaning they were going to drive around a little, stop the occasional car and see if all drivers licenses were in order and if the vehicle wasn’t stolen. That also meant some dispatching work for me, looking up previous warrants and arrests, contacting insurance agencies and the DMV.

“You hooked up with Duds again?”

“Sadly enough, yes,” he smiled.

“You don’t fool me, Al,” I smiled back. “You love the guy.”

“Well, somebody has to, but he takes himself so seriously sometimes. The big action hero, you know.”

He pulled his gun, held it in front of his face and did his spy act until Duds walked in. “You talkin’ bout me, Al?”

Albert quickly holstered his gun and winked at me. “I wouldn’t dare, Dudley.”

“That’s what I thought,” Dudley said and winked at me as well. “Let’s go, we’re runnin’ late.”

“That’s okay,” I laughed, “I’m sure the terrorists will wait for you, Duds.”

“I’d rather run into some terrorists than stay here with you, Jake. More chance of survival.”

That silenced us all.

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I’m sure Dudley meant it as a harmless joke. But when he realized what he’d said, only a week after the shooting, he froze. I could see it in his eyes. In Albert’s too. They both looked away, stared at the ground, then finally turned around and left. Albert waved goodbye but that was all. Neither talked.

In some way I’m sure they suffered more than I did. I’d only known the guys who died for three months. Albert and Dudley had worked with them for years, lifetimes. I was a snot-nosed kid who came and disrupted the life they had gotten familiar with. I never was one of the guys but now it was clear that I never would be. It was apparent in each morning’s handshake. They had never felt clammy before I shot one of their own.

---

The morning passed and lunch came along. Albert and Dudley came back in for a refuel of coffee, then left again. They’d be relieved at three.

Or they would be if nothing happened.

I had lost my appetite for breakfast so I ate my cereal for lunch. Nobody asked me about it, they all accepted it as normal. It was one of those peculiarities that filled my life.

Sitting at the table, I stared at the opposite wall where the dart board hung. The two darts last thrown by officer Tony Valetti hadn’t been touched since he had been shot with the third dart still in his hand. He had been buried with that dart. He had loved the game and nobody had wanted to remove it from his cold fingers. And since you can’t play a decent game with only two darts and nobody had considered buying a new one, the dart board was hanging, unused, as a memorial.

Quickly I finished my cereal, washed out the dish and spoon in the small kitchenette off the common room and went back downstairs.

No sooner had I touched my desk chair or the radio came to life. “Brenda Base, Brenda Twelve, over.”

Brenda was our call sign. Each precinct in this county had a girl’s name. It was funny the first week on the job. After that it became just another routine.

The radio unit in my office was Brenda Base. Each officer had his own number. Brenda Twelve, I knew, was Albert.

“Brenda Twelve, Brenda Base, over,” I answered, as I had done dozens of times already that morning.

“Requesting a 10-29 on license plate CCK-833, over.”

As I typed the number in the computer program, I imagined Albert and Dudley waiting patiently in their squad car, staring out the window at the vehicle in front of them. After a few seconds, the results of my search appeared on screen.

I gasped.

Memories of blood filled my head as I read that the vehicle in question had been witnessed at a drive-by shooting a month earlier.

With a quivering voice, I relayed this information to Albert.

“10-4, Brenda Base. I thought I remembered hearing about that car.”

“What’s your 10-20, Brenda Twelve? Over.”

“Corner of Mill and Mountain. We’re code 6, over.”

As I imagined Albert and Dudley leaving their car, I screamed in the transmitter. “Al, wait!”

“Don’t worry, Jake,” he said. “It’s 11-24, there’s nobody around.”

“Still, be careful.”

“Hey, it’s us, remember? Brenda Twelve, out.”

That’s what I was worried about. It was them. Just them. Sure, they were trained police officers, but I had seen trained police officers die before. This precinct had seen enough of that already, so if I couldn’t stop Al and Duds from approaching that vehicle, I could tell the senior traffic officer what was going on.

I rushed upstairs to his office, all the way at the back of the hallway. “Frank!” I said. We were all on a first name basis there, except for the chief. Nobody called him anything else but chief.

Frank looked up from his files. Mostly unpaid traffic violation fines. He was preparing to bring them to court. “What’s up, Jake?”

“Albert and Dudley have found a car last seen at a drive-by shooting last month. 11-24. It's at Mill and Mountain. I have a bad feeling about this.”

Frank looked at me, probably remembering the case the late officer Pete Marino had been working on, the suicide which turned out to be a homicide and for which I had pointed out the essential clue. The location of the bullet wound didn’t fit the suicide label. That intervention had caused all those deaths and I imagined Frank trying to decide whether he should follow up on my hunch now or not. Maybe trying to decide if this would get him killed as well.

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In the end, his training got the better of him. He was a police officer, he had vowed to protect and serve. He stood up.

“Who else is here?” he asked.

“Just us, sir,” I said, suddenly compelled to drop the first name basis. “Henry and Sam are at a stake-out. The guys on the late shift are coming in two hours.”

“Then you’re on your own here for a while.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Call the chief,” he said. “I know it’s his day off, but he’ll understand. I’m taking the Get.”

The Get was one the squad cars. They all had names based on the first three letters of their license plates. The Get was Frank’s favorite car. The fastest and also the shiniest. He was sure to take care of that.

He was gone before I knew it and I found myself all alone. I tried to call Albert and inform him Frank was on his way, but he didn’t answer. Then I called the chief by phone. He said he’d be right over.

The corner of Mill and Mountain wasn’t that far off. A few blocks. I was expecting Frank’s call in any moment now.

The chief arrived first. I heard his Jaguar roar onto the parking lot at the back of the building. I could see him from my office, through the hall and the back door, as he stepped out. A tall man with white hair and a belly that hid his Elvis Presley belt buckle from view. I ran over to open the door so he wouldn’t have to search for his key.

“What’s the situation?” he asked, losing no time.

I hadn’t told him the details over the phone, so I filled him in now. Afterwards, he walked into my office and picked up the transmitter. “Brenda Twelve, Brenda Base, over.”

The chief was actually Brenda One, but since we were in HQ he used the name of the base.

There was no answer from Albert. He also tried Dudley’s number, with the same result. “Brenda Three,” he tried next. This was Frank, who had been third in command until the week before when Brenda Two, Pete Marino, had died. Frank had retained his call name, though, since Pete had been more to him than just a colleague.

The radio came to live. “Brenda Base, this is Brenda Three. Arriving at the scene just now.”

Frank Marino’s voice went up at the end of the sentence as if he was posing a question. I imagined him looking through the window and searching for clues as to the current situation so he could tell us about it.

I was standing next to the chief and we were watching the radio together as if it was a far more advanced piece of technology which could project a holographic image of officer Marino and his immediate surroundings. No such image came, of course, but we had to look at something. We didn’t dare look at each other.

Frank came back. “I see the abandoned vehicle. It’s a red Nissan. The Spa is parked a few yards behind it.”

The Spa, of course, was the car Albert and Dudley had taken out.

“No sign of our men. I’m code 6, over.”

“10-4,” the chief said.

We waited again. At that same moment, Frank Marino would be stepping out of the Get, walking over the abandoned vehicle and glance inside. We had no idea what he would see. Suddenly we heard a loud crackle coming out of the radio, followed by a bang and a muffled shout. “Hold it!”

“What just happened?” I asked.

“I think he dropped his radio and it got turned on,” the chief said. He bent closer to the receiver so he could hear better. I did the same.

“Frank, catch him!” we suddenly heard Dudley scream. Seemed like they were chasing someone, perhaps the owner of the abandoned car.

We heard running, heavy boots on what we knew were cobblestones at the corner of Mill and Mountain. Another shout. “Al, where are you!”

Sounds of a struggle very close to where the radio had been dropped. Grunting, snarling, “Take it easy,” and “Stop trying to bite me!” all silenced when a gunshot made us half deaf. A fraction of a second later, we could hear the echo of the report all the way to where we were in the police station.

Then, “Al, are you crazy?”

“Calmed him down, didn’t I?”

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Finally, the chief and I looked at each other. I was trembling and I noticed a coat of sweat on the chief’s forehead. He picked up the transmitter. “What the hell is going on out there!”

I could hear Dudley whisper, “Shit, the chief. Hey, is that radio on?”

Some more crackling and then the clear voice of Duds travelled the airwaves. “Brenda Base, this is Brenda Seven. We have a 10-15.”

“Prisoner in custody,” I said, although I didn’t have to tell the chief.

“We could hear that much,” he said. “Who fired the shot?”

“Officer Tillmore, sir,” Dudley said. “Didn’t think he had it in him.”

“You’re all 10-19 immediately, do you hear me! I want you all back here in five minutes! You’ve got some explaining to do. Out!”

He threw down the transmitter and sat down on my desk chair. “And all that on my day off,” he sighed.

And on my first day back, I thought. For three months, nothing exciting had happened except for the occasional drunk, silly neighborly complaints and wild, runaway teens thinking they were grown up already. Now it seemed all hell had broken loose.

Exactly five minutes later, the Get and Spa drove onto the parking lot. Four people emerged, our three officers and a young man, handcuffed and with a black eye. As soon as they put him in the holding cell, everybody gathered in my office.

The chief was still sitting in my chair. I was leaning against the file cabinet at the back wall. The others remained standing in the middle of the room.

“Start talking,” the chief said to no one in particular.

“We found the abandoned car at the corner of Mill and Mountain,” Albert started. “I called in and asked Jake to check the plate, which he did. Turned out the car had been used in a drive-by shooting. I told Jake we were gonna check it out. We got out of the Spa and approached the vehicle, carefully of course. It was empty except for a bag on the back seat. Dudley tried the door and it was unlocked so we took a look inside.”

“Suddenly this guy shows up out of nowhere,” Dudley continued. “I guess he must’ve been in the liquor store across the street or somethin’, because he’s carrying this brown paper bag, similar to the one we saw lying in the car. But I had a feeling there was something else than booze in it because as soon as he saw we saw him, he took off. Pretty suspicious, we thought, so we ran after him.”

“The bastard was fast,” Albert went on. “He disappeared around the next corner with Dudley right after him. I followed about a quarter block behind them. When they rounded the next corner, I was only halfway.”

“He went all around the block, tryin’ to lose us and escape in his car no doubt. Halfway around the block he suddenly pulls a gun out of the bag and started shooting. Not easy to aim behind you while running, so all his shots went high, luckily. Of course, I drew my own gun and I’m sure Albert did too.”

Albert nodded.

Now it was Frank’s turn. “I was already at the scene when he turned the corner, talking to you on the radio. I don’t think he saw me at first, he didn’t expect me there so he ran right into me. I dropped the radio and he dropped his gun. I kicked it away. We started to struggle. Suddenly Dudley joined the fight. I don’t know which one of us gave him that black eye. He fought like a wild animal. Strong bastard. Bit my hand, too!”

“I don’t know how long they’d been at it,” Albert said, “but as soon as I turned the corner and saw them I fired in the air. He stopped struggling right away. Dudley cuffed him and then we heard you on the radio, sir.”

Silence. Then, “That’s about it.”

Another silence. I watched them all, Albert and Dudley shuffling their feet, Frank crossing his arms and staring at the chief.

The chief sighed. “All right. Write your report. We already got this guy on charges of a concealed weapon. You contact the guys working on that drive-by so they can check the gun with the bullets. Routine stuff. But I hope you realize you’ve been very lucky today. Someone could’ve been killed. You shouldn’t have approached that car without decent backup.”

Albert and Dudley nodded.

“Dismissed,” the chief said. He stood up and went to his own office. Frank accompanied him. Albert and Dudley went upstairs. I quickly followed them into the common room.

“I can’t believe that happened,” I said.

“You can't believe what happened?” Albert asked while pouring us all some coffee.

“This whole incident,” I said. “Finding that car, the chase on foot, guns firing and all.”

“All part of police work, son,” Duds said. “You’ll get used to it.”

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“I don’t know,” I said. I sipped from my coffee and sat down next to them. “It scares me. When I first came here I toyed with the idea of becoming a cop myself after my contract expires. It seemed like fun. But it’s no fun at all.”

“I don’t know,” Dudley snickered, “Al looked pretty funny coming around that corner, puffin’ and gasping as if he’d just run a marathon.”

“Brains over brawn, Duds. We got the guy, didn’t we?”

“But you could’ve been killed,” I said. “And still you went after him.”

“Wouldn’t be good cops if we didn’t,” Dudley said.

“But weren’t you afraid?”

“Sure we were,” Albert said.

“Speak for yourself,” Duds said.

“You were scared too, Duds. I saw that vein throb in the side of your neck when you cuffed that guy. It looked like a raw, micro waved egg about to explode.”

“You’ve got a natural way with words, Al.”

“But I’m right, right?”

“Right,” Duds said. “Sure I was scared. The guy just shot at me. I admit, if Frank hadn’t been there I would’ve let him run. No way would I chase a guy by car who had just done a drive-by. Guess he’s a better aim with one hand on the wheel.”

“You say that now,” Al said.

Dudley nodded. “You’re right. Listen kid, there are all kinds of species of humans out there. Now I’m not talkin’ race and all that shit. Forget about that. It’s a special kind of man that makes a cop. You can be tall, short, athletic, Albert, you name it.”

“Hey,” Albert said.

Dudley ignored him. “What matters is what’s inside. When there’s a mugging in the street and the victim yells ‘Catch him!’ or whatever, you’ll have people just walkin’ on, perhaps stopping but only looking as the perp runs past them. They only care about themselves. Then there are the people who will trip the dude when he runs past them, or jump to catch him by the legs or something. Usually they don’t even realize what they did until afterwards. They acted on instinct. That’s the type of species that turns cop.”

“Wow,” Al said, “that was profound, Duds.”

Dudley shrugged. “But it’s the truth, ain’t it?”

“It sure is,” Al said. “You were here, Jake, listening through the radio. You weren’t at the scene. And even though you’re scared and you think you would have frozen up, I know you would have tripped the guy if he had run past you.”

I stared at him with a blank mind.

“You might not see yourself as a cop, Jake, and perhaps you never will become one, but you won’t become one of those people with frozen hearts, either. You won’t stand by to let things happen that shouldn’t.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because you stopped Gerry.”

I almost dropped my coffee cup when he said that. “But that was no act of heroism. He was gonna shoot me!”

“This afternoon that bastard was shootin’ at us as well,” Dudley said. “We were all the right people at the right place on the right time. Gerry might have killed you but you might have survived. You never know that. Sometimes bullets don’t kill, Jake. You know that, because your bullet didn’t kill Gerry. It merely stopped him from doing more harm. And whether you were alone here or surrounded by people you had to protect, that doesn’t really matter.”

I didn’t want to hear this. I had to get away from them. I excused myself and left the common room in a hurry. I locked myself in the toilet. I sat down on the bowl and started to cry.

I had no idea what Albert and Dudley were trying to tell me. Perhaps they didn’t want to tell me anything at all. Perhaps they were just trying to move on and take me with them.

They had seen these kind of things year after year. I was new to this, without any training, without even knowing what to expect. They tried to explain how it worked to make it a little more bearable. To make it somewhat understandable.

But sometimes words can overwhelm you and I guess I’m one of those people who gets easily overwhelmed. And since I had three months left in this place, I imagined myself taking these kind of breaks on a regular basis.

After a minute or two I wiped away my tears and flushed the toilet. I don’t know if that would convince anyone I actually used the toilet, but I’m sure Al and Duds would act as if they were convinced.

When I returned to the common room, Al and Duds were just finishing their coffee. My cup was still half full, but I left it on the table and walked over to the dart board. I plucked the two darts from it and presented one to the officers.

“Who wants to play?” I said. “Highest score wins.”

 

"Frozen Hearts" is the second story Johnny wrote after working as administrative assistant at a local police station for six months. It's the sequel to "Frozen Eyes".

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