“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.