“I know this has been a difficult night for you,” said Nicole, hoping that her voice conveyed some degree of empathy and warmth.
It’s been a difficult night for me too, pal. A difficult night, a difficult day, a difficult year.
“You’ve been such a help, Mr. Chowdhury. If you remember anything else, anything at all, please call me. Even the smallest detail could help,” she continued, handing the little man her card.
You’ve been no goddam help at all. A short man wearing a ski mask with a Hispanic accent and tattoos on his arms? That narrows it down to what, like a million? So he was pointing a gun at you. Big fucking deal. He didn’t shoot, did he?
Mr. Chowdhury was blinking hard and polishing his glasses furiously, as he’d been doing during the entire interview.
“Will you catch him?” he asked.
Nicole tried to soften her eyes.
“We’ll do our very best.”
Ummmm….no. Your case will be on the top of the pile until the next one comes along five minutes later. And the next. And the next.
Mr. Chowdhury looked over at the empty display cases the officers were still examining. Two hours ago, they’d held a variety of knives, pistols, revolvers and jewelry.
“I had to give it. And all that cash in the safe, right? He had a gun. He had a gun, Miss. What choice did I have?” He turned to Nicole, almost pleading.
You’ve asked that like six times already tonight.
“You did the right thing, Mr. Chowdhury,” she said. “Nothing is worth your life.”
Nicole sat in her unmarked car scratching out notes and trying to shake off the irritation, but the glare of Mr. Chowdhury’s red blinking PAWN sign only added to it.
She took a sip of water and focused on her breathing as her meditation app had instructed. In-two-three-four. Hold-two-three-four. Out-two-three-four. A tap on her window.
“We’re heading back to the station, Detective,” said Officer Martinez.
She gave a thumbs up.
It was 12:45 am by the time she pulled out of the pawn shop parking lot. The streets were clear and she drove slowly. Her mind wandered, as it did so often lately, to her early days on the force. The days when she was first to respond to calls, when compassion for someone like Mr. Chowdhury would have bubbled out of her and she would have listened – really listened – to every word. She would have poured over her notes for hours, followed up on even the slimmest lead and, more likely than not, have solved the case. Back then. Tossing the folders onto her desk with a half-hearted promise to review them the next day would have been unthinkable.
By 2 am, Nicole was pulling into her driveway and took a moment to soak in the dead-of-night quiet. She dragged Michael’s Big Wheel off the lawn and onto the front porch and straightened the daisies on the wreath before slipping inside, hoping not to wake Joe or the kids. After hanging her coat in the hall closet, she removed her holster and gun, checking the lock on the safe three times before heading to bed.
Eighteen hours later, Nicole was back in her car, obscured by a bush as she watched people coming and going from a rundown apartment complex. She rubbed her head, sipped her coffee and looked at her phone, wondering how Sarah’s ballet rehearsal and Michael’s t-ball game had gone. No new messages. She’d have to find out the next day.
Oh my God, my head – my head hurts so fucking much.
Nicole and her team had spent most of the afternoon in the Cuchillo. That’s what the cops called the six or seven blocks where most of the gang activity occurred. Earlier in the day, they’d received an anonymous tip that some of the weapons stolen from Mr. Chowdhury’s pawnshop were circulating in the area. The bits and pieces of information they gleaned from their investigation that afternoon were coming together to lead them to a suspect known as Manzano.
But just when they were about to grab a sandwich and plan their next move, they heard screams and shouting from another block and sprinted to the commotion. They saw a tangle of tattooed arms, glinting chains and blood. Three young men were piled on top of another, punching and kicking him. A fourth held another by his neck with a knife at his throat, spewing vile Spanish. It only took a few moments for the officers to tackle them, make arrests, treat the injuries and bundle them all off to the station. Nicole took statements from witnesses, but the scene had set off a tightness in her stomach and a tremble in her hand.
As she made her way back to her car, she started to feel dizzy and blackness closed in on her. She felt heat suffocate her lungs. She gasped for air and swayed.
Just get to your car. Ten more steps. Seven. Four.
Collapsing against her car, she managed to open the door and fell into the driver’s seat, sweat pouring down her back and heart pounding. That moment from two years ago. The feel of the blade against her throat, the man’s breath hot on her ear, locked into his vise grip. She tried to push it away, but it kept flashing in her head like Mr. Chowdhury’s neon sign. Nicole closed her eyes and tried to settle her breathing as she had during other panic attacks. As her heartbeat slowed and body temperature returned to normal, she became aware of someone standing outside the car. He looked like one of the locals. She lowered the window.
“Are you ok?” he asked.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she said.
That’s what she told the trauma counselor her supervisor had sent her to after that case. She waved off the Xanax he offered.
That’s what she told Joe every time he looked at her with concern, sensing that she was not fine.
That’s what she told herself, again, that afternoon.
C’mon Nic. It’s been two years. It goes with the job, you know that. Everyone’s had something like that happen. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine.
Eventually, as always, she collected herself and got back to work. But the attack had drained the energy out of her and left her with a migraine that even two Excedrin couldn’t dull.
And that’s why, as Nicole sat outside that apartment building five hours later waiting for Manzano to appear, she was rubbing her temples and guzzling coffee.
Come on you, fucker.
Almost on cue, three men emerged from the ground floor. Nicole looked through her binoculars.
“That’s him,” she radioed to the team. The officers swept in and had all three cuffed in minutes. Manzano was protesting. He’d heard about the robbery, but he wasn’t involved. He’d been asleep, alone, when it happened. He didn’t know anything about the stolen weapons, jewelry or money.
Nicole peered at the evidence bag containing the pistol the officer had just pulled off Manzano.
“I’m pretty sure that when we trace this, we’ll find it was one of the ones stolen from the pawn shop. You telling me it’s not?” she asked.
“Shit, I don’t know,” he mumbled. “I just bought it, you know?”
Nicole pressed her fingertips to her forehead, trying to ease the pain, and dialed Mr. Chowdhury.
That night, the shop owner identified Manzano in a line-up. The gun was, in fact, traced to the pawn shop and Nicole promised Mr. Chowdhury they’d keep working the case. Hopefully track down the rest of the stolen merchandise and cash. Manzano was booked and the case sent to the prosecutor. Nicole fell into bed that night too exhausted to feel any satisfaction.
The next day, the prosecutor charged Manzano with armed robbery. Nicole spent most of the afternoon tethered to her desk, plowing through expenses and paperwork on other cases. It wasn’t until about 8:30 that night that turned back to Mr. Chowdhury’s case.
She pulled up the security footage and zoomed in, hoping to get a better look at the weapons and jewelry that had been taken. She watched Manzano enter, pull a gun on Mr. Chowdhury and make him clear out the cases. He was wearing a ski mask, but his bare arms were covered in tattoos too thick and elaborate to be discerned in the grainy footage. She caught a glimpse of a snake on the inside of his left wrist, which she’d noticed during the arrest, impressed by the level of detail in the scales and eyes.
As she watched the footage, something nagged at her. Something that the Nicole from 20 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago, would have noticed right away. Her stomach tightened and she tried to ignore it, keep her focus on the weapons. But finally, she had to know. She grabbed the booking photos and found one where she could see the snake tattoo.
Nicole leaned closer to the security camera footage. And then looked at the photo again. She looked back and forth and back and forth and back and forth hoping that she could unsee what she had just discovered. The snake tattoo on the man in the security camera footage twisted from right to left.
Manzano’s twisted from left to right.
Nicole pushed the keyboard and photo away from her.
She dropped her head into her hands.
She thought about the avalanche of shit that would come if she revealed the mistake. An investigation, reprimands, Mr. Chowdhury, the media.
Oh god, the media.
Nicole looked at the two images again. A fleeting moment, so fleeting – and so grainy - the moment the tattoo appeared in the security footage. This is a Salvadoran gang member, she told herself. He’ll get one of those overworked, underpaid public defenders who just wants to get through the case fast. He’s a Salvadoran gang member, she repeated to herself. He’s probably already done something he should be in jail for. If he hasn’t yet, he probably will.
Probably will? Of course he will.
She closed the footage and shut down the computer. She stuck the photos back into the folder and slipped it into the middle of the pile under the more pressing, higher profile cases.
I didn’t see anything. I didn’t have to look at that footage. I didn’t even see the footage.
She walked quickly to her car.
What footage? The Chowdhury case? Remember it? Vaguely. Some gang member held up the pawn shop, right? Didn’t hurt anyone. No big deal.
On the drive home, Nicole blared the local news station, trying to distract herself. She picked up Michael’s bat and glove from the lawn and stacked them neatly on the porch. She eased open the door, hung up her coat, removed her holster and gun and locked them in the safe, checking the lock three times.
She padded down the hall and looked in on Sarah, then Michael and then Joe. All three slept deeply, Michael bathed in the glow of his Winnie-the-Pooh nightlight, Sarah with her silky hair draped over the edge of her bed and Joe snoring. Nicole moved into the kitchen and reached into one of the highest cabinets, where she and Joe kept the alcohol. They rarely drank and she couldn’t even remember what they had. Her fingers closed around a sealed bottle of vodka.
Just one sip.
She stood at the kitchen island and took a tentative swallow from the bottle.
She heard Manzano’s voice – “What are you talking about? I was home, sleeping.”
She took another sip.
Five to 15 years. If he’s lucky. He won’t be lucky.
She tried to block out Manzano’s protests. The fear in his eyes. That damn snake tattoo.
Another swallow. And another. And another. And another.
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Author's Note: I know very little about crime, investigations and police work. Pretty much just what I've read or seen on TV. I didn't have time to do the level of research I would have liked for this and I think the accuracy suffered. I was mainly interested in the character and trying to convey how burnout and trauma could change a person and lead them to making a horrible decision.
Hi Kristin, I thought you did a marvelous job with this story. You created a very compelling character in Nicole, I found myself wanting to know more about her. So, at the end I'm glad to find out she has kids and seems to be a good mom. She triple checked the gun safe and checked on her kids. I think you brought to light how stressful that job can be. This story shows the depth of your storytelling and creativity. I remember back in one of Psychology classes, I learned that writers and creative people have a higher emotional I.Q. than othe...
Thank you! You've become one of my favorite writers too! The inspiration for my stories comes mostly from observation....I have this running list of bits and pieces of stories/characters that I see and hear .... or theme that i want to explore through a story. Or just simple absurdity, which you'll see whenever you get to The Cookies. Or I'll turn to Brad or Liz for the kernel of ideas when I'm stuck because they are far more creative and have some crazy good thoughts. Twisted Snakes was an interesting one for me. When I submitted it,...
I think it's fantastic that you have some good people around you to help get those creative juices flowing. I can't wait to read "The Cookies" I will read that story tonight. I thought you did a great job with this story. If you change anything in the story let me know because I would love to read it again. I think it's amazing that your working on becoming a psychotherapist. I know that's a huge undertaking and I wish you nothing but success. I have no doubt that you will achieve your dreams. I knew you were interesting, and now I'm amazed!
Hi, Kristin! I'm back and can't wait to do some catching up. Your latest stories look quite compelling. :) This one was very engaging! I've never written a detective story, but I love reading them, and I think you did great! The trauma effect + the disillusionment brought after years on the same job were represented very well. Great MC as well, flawed and real. I hoped she got the push to turn her life around, but your ending is much more original. Still, in my mind I kind of added an epilogue where she discovers that the CCTV footage rever...
Hah! That would be a great twist! I really appreciate your comment on this one. I'd never written a detective story either. I liked how it was in my head more than how it came out on paper, if that makes any sense. I really wanted to make a character who did something completely unexpected and I think I achieved that. But if I'd spent some more time wrestling with it, I might have been more pleased with the execution of it. Thank you for reading!! I'm glad you're back!
Hi! I am from the critique circle. I must say this story is amazing. The imagery, the conveying of the thoughts of the character were brilliant. The decision she made was very impactful too even though that is wrong I think it fit well with the story. I will be looking forward to your stories!
Thanks so much! As I read your story, I felt we had a similar thematic point with the idea of how trauma can really have such an impact on a person’s decisions years and years down the road. An interesting aspect of character to explore!
I agree whole-heartedly!
This story had me hooked the entire way! Nicole was such a fascinating character to follow, she feels whole and complex even though it's just a short story. The tension just kept building and I was on the edge of my seat, hanging onto every word. I loved the imagery of the snake tattoo at the end, and just the ending in general, especially this sentence, "Five to 15 years. If he’s lucky. He won’t be lucky." That really hit hard. The decision she made at the end to not do anything was so powerful, and even though, yes that is wrong, I could s...
Thank you so much, Yolanda! I went back to read the story after reading your comments and felt better about it. I am starting to see more of the good things about it now. In Nicole, I really wanted to create a detective who wasn't your stereotypical hard-boiled, hard-drinking, macho man (or woman). I was thinking more like Nancy Drew in her 40s - a suburban mom who is capable of maintaining healthy relationship. But she's ground down by work and the trauma that goes with it, reluctant to seek help....which leads to a good person making ...
I totally agree! I love how you did something different, and there is definitely a lot of value in this story. I could just imagine the turmoil she would feel and how that would haunt her. Such an interesting character you created, Kristin! Great work!
Well done! I love your (very realistic) conclusion that the realization they have the wrong suspect does NOT lead to a reprieve! Great take on the prompt. Nicole's character development is excellent. I can almost forgive her. =) I'd love your feedback on my latest story if you find the time.
Thank you, Rachel! When I was thinking about the story and reached that point where Nicole would have to make a decision, I thought, "Here's the moment when the detective makes the right decision and 'fesses up no matter the consequences and the innocent man walks free." But then I thought "What would happen if she didn't own up to the mistake? Especially if she's not a bad person...but a good person who made a terrible decision that she (and the innocent man) will have to live with the rest of their lives?" That seemed so much more inter...
Kristin! I love what you did with this prompt! Especially the details - the snake tattoo, the miniscule difference between the suspect and the guy she caught, the sprinkling of spanish, the contrast between the trauma of her work life and the safe cozy space that is her home. It's all so fragile. It has just the right amount of action too. And Nicole - you really have a way of letting your characters unfold slowly. From the meditation app to the ending with the hidden bottle of vodka, I was right there in her shoes. Another awesome sto...
Thanks so much, Julie! Your comments help me feel a little more confident about this one. The idea behind the story felt promising when I started, but it didn't feel quite right as I laid it all out. Perhaps, as Abigail said, lingering more over some description would have helped. I was sort of plowing through it, trying to figure out how to get from Point A to B to C and I may have lost some of the flow. But your comments help me see that it has potential with some more work!
Oh it has more than potential - you've created a fantastic character in Nicole. I want to know what's going to happen to her next!
Hello Kristin! Nice work. I really enjoyed the crime aspect of everything in the stories based on this prompt, and yours is no exception. I enjoyed how the main character wasn't able to get the guy out of jail, it really contributed to a nice ending. Good job!
Thanks so much Maya! It definitely feels like a work in progress, but it also feels like it's got potential.
The funny thing about this story is the character's inside thoughts as she handed her card. That should be in the opening parts, I think. Hilarious. The serious thing is the trauma and the effects it's had on her. A mistake that big would inevitably destroy her if she let it. Take for example, the drinking. That's an obvious play on how this new fact is going to destroy her. I do like mystery stories although I think you did a lot of showing rather than telling. As a result, some of the emotions were hidden. Working on a bit of description...
Thanks so much, Abigail. I really appreciate your suggestions. This was an odd story - it seemed clear in my head, but didn't work out as I'd envisioned on paper. I see your point about description. I'd actually love to luxuriate in more description, but I'm always so focused on showing, not telling that I guess I swerved in the other direction - too much showing, not enough telling. I guess there is a healthy balance of both that makes a story work and I've got to figure out that balance. That is why Reedsy is so great - plenty of roo...
I really enjoyed this story, and thought you did an amazing job with the investigations even though you didn't know much about it! I mean, neither do I, I just go by my gut and hope it turns out good :) I loved the detail and the emotion you conveyed throughout the story! Awesome job!!
Thanks so much! It was so much darker than my last one. I'm glad I read yours after posting this one - yours made me smile!
Aww, thanks!! And I love the darkness!! It made everything seem amazing!!