Blue Religion by Alverne Ball: Cover Reveal and Excerpt

Blue Religion is Alverne Ball's sequel to Only The Holy Remain, following Detective Frank Calhoun as he springs back into action after a social worker and a rookie police officer are murdered in Chicago’s East Garfield Park. Check out the cover and start reading an excerpt!

Chapter 1

I was born in death.

At least that’s how my father put it whenever I’d ask him about my mother. In truth, I guess he’s right, because she died during childbirth. Some people say it was her last selfless act, but I’ve been told that a mother’s love is unconditional, and no matter how one tries to spin it, the fact is, she died so that I could live.

I don’t know the full details. Just what my father told me—that she was rushed to the hospital while hemorrhaging, and before anyone knew what was happening I was born, and she was dead.

These are the thoughts that keep me up at night, tossing and turning, unable to shake the feeling that death and I are in some ways kindred souls—lone soldiers cut from the same dark cloth. Sometimes I wonder if my sole purpose for becoming a homicide detective, after doing a four-year stint with the Navy chaplain corps, is so I can be near death—to know what it looks like day in and day out, and to know that deep down when I see it, I feel at home, like a child in his mother’s arms.

I roll over and steal a peek at the digital clock on the nightstand. 1:00 a.m. glows in blood-red. Sleep and I are at war again. I place a pillow over my head. If it’s not the thought of my mother’s death haunting me, it’s the dying cries of families from so many years ago in Fallujah that keep me awake.

My phone chirps from the nightstand. I roll back over and pull it off the charger, then flip it open. The message on the screen reads 666*911. The 666 is my captain’s code. Before I can close the phone, it rings. “Yeeeeah?” I answer with a drawn-out yawn.

“You up?” the voice on the other end asks. It’s my new partner, Fred Lions.

“Yeah, I’m up,” I say, throwing back the sheet and sitting up on the side of the bed.

“You get the captain’s text?”

“Yeah, I got it.”

“Good, I’ll be pulling up in ten. Be out front.” The line goes dead.

I take a second before rising, allowing the coldness from the hardwood floor to soak into my copper-colored feet and up into the rest of my body. Lions is one of the few cops in the department who’s actually willing to be my partner, knowing full well that my father is incarcerated for killing my last partner.

I trek seven feet across the room to the bedroom door, where my dark blue suit hangs. When you work homicide, you learn to expect that at any given time you’ll be called into action, especially when your number’s up.

I dress quickly, without giving much thought to my appearance. All I can think about is the 911 behind the captain’s code. To any normal person those three numbers spell out emergency, but for me they spell out trouble, with a capital T.

***

Ten minutes later, Lions pulls up in front of my Greystone two flat in his classic Cadillac Brougham. The car is burgundy, with white walled tires and a burgundy suede interior. Lions reaches across the front seat and pops open the door. His face is grim, with the hue of a milk chocolate candy bar.

“We gotta hustle,” he says as I close the door.

I run a hand over my clean-shaven face. “What’s wrong?”

“We got an officer down.”

He pulls away from the curb and heads down the partially lit street.

I turn and look at him. Lions hasn’t changed in all the five years that I’ve known him. He’s rocking a salt-and-pepper, box-styled haircut as though it’s still in fashion, and his gut is as bulbous as ever. His eyes are circular and wide, as if he saw a ghost at a young age and has never been able to erase the image.

“Anyone we know?” I ask as the car bounces along the potholed street.

“Don’t know. Just told officer down and since we’re on call—”

“It means this one goes to the top of the pile.”

“Yep, and it’s going to be sprinkled with all the brass fixins’, too.”

I sit back and say nothing for a while. Just the fact that an officer is down turns every cop’s demeanor into sour mash, as one realizes that at any given moment, it could be you.

When we pull up to the crime scene it’s already taped off. There’s a helicopter hovering overhead, shining a large spotlight down over a residential section of Franklin Street, in the 3300 block, where a technician is working to install multiple generators.

I count at least twenty patrol and unmarked vice cars, with their red and blue lights dancing against the backdrop of three-story Brownstones and two-story wooden frame homes. Mixed amongst the hodgepodge of departmental vehicles are the medical examiner’s white van and two dark windowless vans belonging to forensics. Farther beyond the taped-off perimeter, I make out the silhouette of the Garfield Park Conservatory, looming behind the bright lights of news cameras popping on all around us. When an officer goes down, the lights of the media circus come on.

We exit the car with an urgency that says we mean business. The September morning is brisk, and the downward wind from the copter’s blades isn’t making it any more comfortable.

Lions nods his head in the direction of Captain Haggerty, who’s standing next to a Hispanic woman and a blond-haired white man in an ash-gray suit, with a crimson necktie that cuts down in between his open jacket. The woman is Adriana Estrada, the department’s spokesperson. The man is Dennis Perlenski, the new Assistant State’s Attorney.

The captain is decked out in a long black overcoat with two silver bars adorning the lapels. His white and black officer’s hat is pulled low over his brown eyes, hiding his sandy colored hair. In his right hand he holds an unlit cigar. He catches a glimpse of us out of the corner of his eye and holds up a hand for us to stay put.

Lions rolls his eyes and kicks a piece of broken asphalt. “Great,” he says. “Now we’re going to be part of the dog and pony show.”

“It all comes with the job,” I say, trying to stay as upbeat as I can. But he’s right. The media’s going to start snapping pictures like mad dogs, and sooner or later they’ll have to be thrown a bone.

Officers move all around us, acting as crowd control or assisting evidence technicians with setting up spotlights, so they can properly examine the scene.

“I got twenty bucks says the captain tells us we’ve gotta do the Jerry Lewis bit for the cameras,” Lions contends.

“You don’t know that, Fred,” I say. “Just because the A.S.A. is on the scene doesn’t mean we’ll have to take part in the show.”

“All I’m saying is that I got twenty, Frank.”

Before I can answer, Captain Haggerty makes his way over to us. He sighs and looks over his shoulder to make sure that the A.S.A. isn’t within earshot. “This is fucked,” he says. Lions and I say nothing as we allow the captain’s words to settle in. “Follow me.” We cut in between two squad cars heading for the taped-off crime scene. “We have an off-duty along with a civi,” he says over the rising voices of the reporters, who are beginning to gather at the perimeter.

“Wait, there was a civilian casualty too?” I ask, wanting to make sure I heard him right.

“Yeah, and right now it’s not looking good.”

We duck under the yellow tape where two four-by-four spotlights illuminate the actual crime scene. There’s a black SUV with its driver’s side door ajar, parked in between a silver sedan and a blue hatchback.

A few feet away from the open door of the SUV, a white sheet is draped over a body. Forensics has already marked off the spent shell-casings with yellow triangular cones designated with black Roman numerals. I count eight so far.

“I want you two to assess the scene before forensics finishes doing their thing,” Captain Haggerty says.

We all bend down in front of the first body and Captain Haggerty lifts the sheet. The victim’s head is turned towards us. She’s a strawberry blonde with flushed pink cheeks, a small pointy nose, and even smaller lips. The back of her head is matted with blood, and I can see clear into her skull.

“This is the civi,” Captain Haggerty says. “Her name’s Katherine McNabb. She’s a social worker for United Children’s Homes, or at least that’s what her work ID says. No formal ID has been found as of yet.”

Lions pulls a pen out of the pocket of his suit coat and begins slowly picking through the victim’s blood and membrane-splattered hair.

“Do we know the make of the weapon?” he asks.

“You can get all that from forensics,” the captain says, dropping the sheet on our dead social worker.

We move around the trunk of the hatchback to the passenger side of the SUV, where we find a forensic photographer taking crime scene photos. The flashes from his high-tech camera cast an almost black cutout of the body on the concrete.

“This is Officer Richardson,” Captain Haggerty says, pointing to the wretched corpse lying face down in a puddle of blood. The man is wearing black sweatpants and a blue shirt stained dark with blood.

I move in closer. I want to get a good look at the officer whose face will come to represent the mantle of justice across the five areas of the Chicago police department. I turn on the Maglite attached to my keychain, and squat down in front of the fallen officer. The hue from the bulb highlights his butterscotch complexion. His right eye is closed, and the other is dotted out, with a deep black burn mark left by a bullet, but the contour of his sharp nose and small angular chin tells me instantly that I know him.

“Is his first name Tavares?” I ask, still crouched over and staring down at the body.

“Yeah, Officer Tavares Richardson,” Captain Haggerty says. “He’s a rookie.”

“You knew him, didn’t you, Frank?” Lions asks.

“Yeah,” I say over my shoulder while outlining the body with my eyes. “This here is Paul Jeffries’ brother.”

“Who?” Captain Haggerty asks while Lions whistles in disbelief.

I look up from the body and into Captain Haggerty’s eyes. “Paul Jeffries is better known on the streets as Prince Paul.”

 

Chapter 2

“I’ll be fucked,” Captain Haggerty says as he searches his coat for a lighter. Lions and I both know he doesn’t have one because he gave up smoking two years ago. “You sure?” he asks, planting the unlit cigar in between his lips.

“Yeah,” I say, standing up from the body. “I’m sure.” I don’t want to tell the captain, or even Lions, that the reason I’m so sure is because I helped Richardson get into the academy, and that I did so as a means of paying back a favor to Prince Paul.

“I’ve got to let the Deputy Superintendent know about this,” Captain Haggerty says as he turns and scans the small pool of officers gathering just beyond the perimeter of the crime scene.

“I’ll take the civi and you work Richardson,” Lions suggests. “Then we’ll switch and compare notes.”

“Yeah, yeah, you two do that,” Captain Haggerty says still scanning for the Deputy Superintendent. “Fucking Prince Paul,” he whispers to himself, shaking his head as he sets out towards the crowd.

Lions follows the captain, making his way back around to McNabb’s body.

I stand in the spotlights for a full minute, wondering how such a good kid could have come to such an ugly demise. I’m not shocked by the sight of death, having seen my fair share in Iraq, but looking down at Richardson’s body paralyzes me with a blood-boiling anger. I feel as if my head is going to burst open and overflow with rage.

I take a deep breath, then pull out a pair of latex gloves from my pants pocket and slide them on. After taking three long steps back from the body, I stand there and look at the layout of the scene. If there’s one thing I can say I’ve learned from Lions, it’s that every detective has a different method of approaching a crime. Lions has to get up close and personal to examine the scene, whereas I am the total opposite. I always need to pull back and see things with “God’s eyes,” as Lions so eloquently puts it.

Officer Richardson’s body is laying halfway between the sidewalk and a section of weed-infested grass. A small patch of bright yellow dandelions is forever stained with his blood. In his right hand, he holds his badge, a silver five-point star. His lips are covered with dried blood and next to them is an open cell phone. I pick up the cell and look at the display. The blue numbers that glow up at me are 911. I return the phone to its exact position and notice for the first time that a pool of blood has poured out from the left side of Officer Richardson’s abdomen.

Even though there isn’t an exit wound in his back, I’m certain that once I roll him over, I’m going to find a bullet wound somewhere near the lower half of his body. The kill shot had to be the round that entered behind his right earlobe and exited through his left eye. Half a foot away, a yellow cone marks the single shell casing.

I feel as though I’m about to blow as I stare up, scanning the windows of the four-story apartment buildings and two-story brick flats that line the street. If anyone cared to look out their window, they would have seen the shooter as clear as day, but deep down I know that no one did. I wonder then, even though I tell myself not to, what Officer Richardson must have felt as his murderer stood over him, knowing that his possible salvation was just a few feet away—if only someone had been brave enough to take a peek.

“You ready to switch?” Lions asks.

“Sure,” I say, thinking the switch might ease my ever-growing temper.

On the driver’s side of the SUV, the crime scene is open for just about anyone to see. It feels more chaotic than usual because of the large spotlight beams drowning out the constant red and blue whirl of the patrol cars. Then there’s the incessant thump-thump-thump of the helicopter’s blades slicing against the wind, not to mention the sounds of the bloodthirsty media, jostling for primetime real estate against a growing crowd of gawking bystanders.

There isn’t much to Katherine McNabb that I haven’t already seen. The most surprising thing to me is the fact that there isn’t a single bullet hole or scratch on the SUV’s body, which is peculiar when one takes into account the victims’ causes of death.

I shine the Maglite’s beam into the SUV’s blood-covered cabin. On the dash is a picture of McNabb along with a younger woman with curly blond hair who resembles her. The woman is either a sibling or her daughter. On the floor are the contents of McNabb’s purse, which consist of a work ID, a few cosmetic items, a tampon, and an open wallet. I call out to Lions, who’s on the other side of the vehicle.

“What’s up?” he replies, appearing at the passenger side door.

“Do you mind checking the glove compartment?”

“No problem.”

He reaches into the vehicle and pops open the compartment. To our surprise, Officer Richardson’s service sidearm comes rolling out and falls onto the blood-soaked floor. “I’ll be damned,” Lions says, stooping down to examine the gun. He sniffs the air around the muzzle and comes back up shaking his head. “Poor bastard didn’t even get a shot off.”

“Looks that way,” I say. “Let me know when you’re ready to compare notes.”

I duck my head back out of the cabin of the SUV and find Maggie Westhall, the head medical examiner, staring up at me. She’s a person with Dwarfism, measuring in at three feet and five inches. For years, she had long blond hair, but it has since been dyed black and cut into a short, stylish bob. “You and Fred still playing with yourselves, or can a real woman cut in?” she asks, smiling. Her eyes are the color of a full moon, bright and slightly blue.

“Hey Mags, how’s it going?”

“I was sleeping before this came in, and the CPD machine demanded my presence.” I nod. Mags is at a point in her career where she doesn’t normally have to come out to a crime scene, bodies come to her. “So, what are we looking at?” she asks.

“So far, double homicide. A civi and one of our own.”

“It’s going to be a long night,” she says, pulling on latex gloves.

“Mags, you just hit the nail on the head, but I’m sorry to say that you won’t be able to put the vics on ice until forensics finishes with them.”

Mags looks at me, her doughy hands on her hips. “Are you telling me they dragged me out of bed and forensics hasn’t even had their turn on the ride?”

“Yep, ‘fraid so, Mags. Captain Haggerty wanted to make sure we got a good look before anyone did a thing. You know, fresh eyes and all.”

“Shit!” she snarls with a dead tone, pulling off the gloves. “Well, I guess I’ll grab a cup of coffee. I see they brought in one of those new high-tech mobile command centers… I wonder if they have an espresso machine?”

I watch Mags leave, then turn back to the SUV and count the yellow cones. Still eight in total. Five of them, starting with the number eight, are near the driver’s side door, spaced about six inches apart from one another. The trail counts down and ends at the number four, then picks back up, 40 feet away, across the street where the last three cones have been placed, ending with the number one. I stand there for a few seconds, examining the distance between them.

“You find something?” Lions inquires, rounding the back of the hatchback.

“Not sure. Tell me what you see when you look at the markers.”

Lions scans all eight cones. “Nothing. What do you see?”

“I see distance between shots. Three there.” I point across the street. “And five here.”

“So what? Maybe the asshole got the drop on them, then really unloaded once he was up close.”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t make sense. There’s no damage to the vehicle, and Richardson wasn’t even able to get a shot off.”

Lions shrugs. “Maybe forensics can shed some light on this one.”

“Yeah, maybe so.”

“By the way, did I hear Mags over here?”

“Yeah, she went to grab a cup of coffee at the mobile CC, while she waits for her time at the wheel.”

“How about we do the same? That way we can really compare notes.”

“Might as well. Forensics is in the driver seat now.”

When we approach the mobile command center, which is a rectangular mobile home turned into a high-tech communications hub with an extended trailer, we find officers of every rank standing around a large coffee dispenser set up on a folding table, trying to keep warm while scarfing down donuts.

“Hey Thomas,” one of the uniformed officers, a jolly Santa Claus looking man calls out to another uniform, as he sips his coffee. “I hear you caught a zit at last call. Heard he swallowed a whole dope pack.”

“Dumbass watched too many movies,” the other officer says. “Somebody should have told him what happens when you swallow twenty bags of coke. Medics had to pump his stomach before he OD’d.”

“Well, at least that’s one zit popped,” the jolly officer laughs into his cup.

Once we have our coffees in hand, Lions and I enter the MCC. Inside, there are flat screens mounted all over the walls with versatile keyboard shelves mounted to an elongated plastic counter, which has a built-in computer system that controls everything from the headlights to the air conditioning.

We retreat to a section in the back of the extended trailer that houses tables and chairs. We find Mags sitting alone at a table. At another table three M.E. techs sit, waiting for her to give the word to go to work on the bodies.

Mags looks up from her cup. “Are we up?” she asks.

“Almost,” I say, scanning the room and finding a table in the back corner of the small space. “I’m sure forensics will let you know.” We move past her to our seats. “So this is what I think happened,” I say to Lions. “The shooter comes from the westbound side of Franklin. He’s more of a shoot-first, ask-questions-later type of asshole. Maybe the first two shots hit McNabb, and before Richardson has time to react, the asshole is on him, letting loose like a madman.”

“Maybe,” Lions responds. “But if that’s true, why did Richardson grab his badge instead of going for his piece?”

“Maybe he froze up. Maybe he was thinking that if he flashed his badge, he could live through it… You know, scare the asshole off.”

“I guess somebody in the academy should have told him that these streets don’t respect the badge.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I respond, knowing that that somebody should’ve been me.

The door to the trailer opens and Captain Haggerty sticks his head in. “Lions! Calhoun!” He calls us over to him. “Now that you’ve seen the bodies, how do you want to play this, Fred?”

The fact that Captain Haggerty addresses Lions instead of the both of us is a clear reminder that Lions is the lead investigator on this case.

“We’re playing it as a homicide, Captain.”

Captain Haggerty frowns. “I know it’s a homicide, but I gotta give Estrada something to give to the press. How do you want to play the information game?”

Lions looks at me, then back to the captain. “We’re um…going to call it a robbery homicide for now.”

“Good, we can sell robbery-homicide.” The captain turns to go, then turns back to us. “Oh, and before I forget… There’s going to be an official press conference at O-nine hundred hours, down at headquarters. Get cleaned up. You’re going to be on TV.”

“The fuckin’ circus,” Lions tosses his coffee into a trashcan. “Frank, you know what this means, right? You owe me twenty bucks.”

 

Chapter 3

We stand in the bullpen of cops near the MCC, watching as Adriana Estrada stands before the bright lights of the media’s cameras, readying herself to reveal to the rest of the city the horrible news that will become the topic of today’s coffee breaks.

Estrada is a short but bold woman with a smile that can disarm the most dangerous criminal. It’s rumored throughout the department that she’s a black belt, though no one knows in what, and no one wants to find out.

I can only imagine how the crime scene looks on TV. The whirling emergency lights in the background, along with the yellow tape cordoning off the scene, make it look like a Hollywood set. But there’s no glamour in a killing, or in the job of apprehending a murderer.

“You think The Zookeeper can handle ‘em?” Lions asks as he leans back on a squad car. Estrada was nicknamed “Zookeeper” as a term of endearment by members of the department. It’s believed by many on the force that the media are a bunch of wild animals biting and clawing for the next big story, and as the department’s official spokesperson, she’s the zookeeper who feeds them bits of information and keeps them in order.

“Maybe,” I say. “But this beast is going to grow legs before the day ends.”

I eye Detective Jeff Bishops and his new partner Tim Michaels maneuvering their way towards us through the crowd of officers. There’s a mutual hatred between Bishops and me, because I’m the son of a cop-killer, and he’s done his best to make sure I don’t forget it.

“Fred,” Bishops utters, extending a thin white hand to Lions, his old partner. He’s wearing a blue pinstriped suit with dark shoes. His black hair is cut short and has started to gray on the sides.

He shakes Lions’ hand. “Calhoun,” he says in a melancholy tone, refusing to look in my direction with those black eyes of his that are deep-set in his slender face. There’s no love lost between us.

“Bishops,” I reply, turning to greet Michaels with a partial smile.

Michaels is a cheerful guy, maybe too cheerful for the job. He has sandy-colored hair that is sculpted into a perfect wave of curls on his head. And unlike Bishops, Michaels loves wearing Hawaiian shirts, even in the winter. Hell, his eyes are the color of an exotic blue sea, and yet he is a Chicagoan through-and-through. During football season, Michaels bleeds orange and blue for the Bears—during baseball season, he bleeds black and white for the Sox.

“You guys got called in, too?” Michaels asks, showing his white, seashell-colored teeth.

“Even better,” Lions says. “We got the call.”

Both men whistle, not because they don’t want the case, but it’s a natural reaction to the fact that a case such as this means that all eyes are going to be on it, from the mayor on down to the loneliest patrolman—which means this case has to go on the books as solved, or it’s going to live with us till the end of our careers.

Bishops points to a growing crowd of officers gathering around a remote monitor. “I see The Zookeeper is about to go to work.”

“Yeah, she’s gotta give the people what they want,” Lions replies, pulling a lighter from his pants pocket. He flicks it and the flame leaps to life, then quickly dies.

“Well, we’ll see you around. Gotta find the captain and get the orders.” Bishops walks off with Michaels following. If Lions isn’t going to tell him that the captain is in the MCC, then why should I?

“That guy can be a dick sometimes,” Lions says, once Bishops is out of earshot. Surprised, I turn and look at him. I’ve never heard Lions badmouth another man, especially an old partner.

“What?” He looks back at me, still flicking the lighter. “You thought I chose to be your partner out of pity? Shit, I couldn’t take his attitude anymore. I was shooting to have Michaels as a partner, but the captain thought it best if you had someone that you could relate to. Like I know what the hell that means. Just ‘cause I’m Black too doesn’t mean we can relate.”

I shake my head and lean back on the squad car. I have to love Lions for his truthfulness. We watch from a distance as Estrada stands tall in front of the video cameras and various sized microphones that are being shoved in her direction. Her shadow silhouettes the crime scene as if it’s a magical veil cast over it to hide the incident from the rest of the world. Her voice erupts from the monitor to the right of us where every officer now stands in uniformed silence.

“At one o’clock this morning a call came into Emergency Services reporting gunshots fired. Upon the arrival of officers, two victims were found. One was an off-duty police officer, the other was a civilian. At this time the names of the victims are being withheld until their respective families can be notified. Investigators are still conducting their investigation, and as of now, all we know is that this incident is a robbery turned fatal.” Estrada takes a breath, not for herself, but for the media, so that they can rattle off their questions.

At that exact moment, the door to the MCC bursts open and Captain Haggerty steps out onto the stoop. “ALL RIGHT YOU HOUNDS!” he barks, his voice demanding the respect and attention of every man and woman with a badge. “I know you’ve been waiting for orders, and here they are.” Our ears perk up and our eyes grow wide. “As you all know, one of our own has fallen this night. Whether he was in uniform or not, it doesn’t matter. He was one of us.” The captain looks out over the crowd.

The fact that he mentioned Richardson was out of uniform means he’s signaling to the rest of us that there’s going to be a battle with upper brass and the city over survivor benefits—a battle that won’t officially begin until we’ve found Richardson’s killer.

“Somewhere out there a cop-killer is walking free, breathing air, and laughing about the evil deed he has committed. I want this asshole found, tried, and locked away for the rest of his life. I want every officer to hit these streets, to put a vice-like squeeze on every hustler, pimp, prostitute, crackhead, gangbanger, weed smoker, and drug dealer, until someone either gives up this asshole or gives up information that will lead to his arrest. I want a message sent to the streets that we won’t tolerate the killing of law enforcement in this city. Now get out there and find this asshole!”

Every cop breaks formation like good soldiers and scatters off to their cars, ready to carry forth Captain Haggerty and the upper brass’ message that killing cops is bad for business.

Now that the hounds have been unleashed, Lions and I set off for the crime scene. By now, we’re sure that forensics has collected enough evidence and photographs for us to start piecing together the puzzle.

“Lions! Calhoun!” The captain calls after us as he makes his way through the dwindling crowd of officers. “Where do you two think you’re going?”

“Back to the scene,” I say.

“Don’t worry about the scene for now. I have Bishops and Michaels coordinating the bag-and-tag. I just got word that Richardson is the one who made the call to Emergency Services before he was killed. He gave us something to go on, but we’re not releasing it to the media until the press conference downtown. By that time, whatever he gave us will have hit roll call and be on the streets with our boys. Lions, I need you to go down to Emergency Services and get that operator’s audio.”

“What about me, Captain? What am I going to do?”

Captain Haggerty smiles and puts the stub of his cigar in his mouth. “You’re going to question the first responding officer.”

“And who would that be?”

“Officer Smith. You remember him, don’t you? You broke his nose last year.”

 

Chapter 4

I stare across the small aluminum table at Officer Smith. His black hair is tucked neatly under his officer’s cap, which he removes when he takes a seat. I can see that his eyes are still ablaze with hate for me as he scrunches his furry black eyebrows together into one long unibrow.

He taps his calloused fingers against the table, and in a way I’m grateful, because it keeps me from looking directly at the misshapen mound of cartilage over the bridge of his large hook nose––where I broke it.

I decide to try and clear the air by letting him know that we don’t need to be at each other’s throats. In spite of everything, we both bleed CPD blue. “So, where’s your partner, Richter?” I ask gingerly.

“He’s nursing a desk downtown until DOPS clears him on an OIS.”

The fact that the Department of Professional Standards hasn’t cleared Richter in an officer-involved shooting is a clear signal that the situation is drastic—for both the department and the city.

“He shot a kid,” Smith says, staring at me with dark piercing eyes as if he just read my mind. “And not just any kid. A Black kid.”

The way he says “Black” makes me feel as if I’m the one being questioned, because of the color of my skin. I sit forward in my chair. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Smith sneers, looking off to the side. “You know what it means. Richter’s white and the kid’s Black. Whatever soapbox preacher or corner reverend they can get will be pulling the race card from here to Mississippi.”

I say nothing, because what can I say? It’s the truth. Every cop knows how the game of “serve and protect” is played. Richter rolled the dice and hit craps. “Well I’m sure that DOPS will find he was justifiable in his actions. Plus, he’s got you to testify on his behalf.” This time it’s Smith’s turn to say nothing as he drops his head. I realize then that he hadn’t actually been with Richter during the shooting.

Clearing my throat, I open my notepad to a fresh page and start in on the questioning that has brought us together. “From the beginning, can you tell me what you saw when you arrived on the scene?”

Smith stops tapping the table and sits up in his seat. “At about twelve-thirty I got a call from Emergency Services that there’d been shots fired in the vicinity, and there might be a victim in distress. When I arrived on the scene, I found both victims on the ground. It was apparent that they were both DOA, so I halted the arriving EMTs and started cordoning off the scene for investigations.”

“Thank you for doing that. You probably saved a lot of crucial evidence. Now, despite the EMTs, were there any other vehicles you might have seen fleeing the scene?”

“None. I made sure that the residents who wanted to move their cars didn’t. Can you believe one woman told me she didn’t want the blood to ruin her new paint job? The nerve of that nig—” He stops short of saying what I know he’s going to say.

The room grows quiet. I sit back in my seat and wait. I want Smith to understand what his mouth almost got his ass into. “Okay, Officer Smith, I need for you to take a few minutes and really think back to after you taped off the area. Was there anything out of the ordinary? I mean, anything that grabbed your attention for whatever reason?”

Smith takes a second. He’s biting his bottom lip while looking down at the table. I can tell he’s reliving the moment in question, looking at every angle as if he’s there again.

“Wait,” he says. “Now that I think about it… I got a call about the silent alarm over at the Conservatory across the street going off around the same time I arrived on the scene. After coming across the bodies, I paid it no mind and went about preserving the scene.”

I nod as if I understand his reasoning. “Did the alarm go off while you were on the scene or before you arrived?”

“It had to be before, because I was en route to the scene when I heard the call about the alarm come in over the radio.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

I rise from my seat and extend my hand. “Thank you, Officer Smith, for your help.”

“Yeah, don’t mention it,” he replies, shaking my hand. “I hope you find the fucker, and he puts up a fight, so you can put one right between his eyes. I may not have known Officer Richardson, but he was one of us—that’s all I need to know.”

***

I wait until Smith has exited the MCC before I sit back down and go over his statement. The fact that the Conservatory’s silent alarm went off before he arrived on the scene has my gut churning. What does it mean? I have no idea, but I’m determined to find out.

I close my notepad and head out to the crime scene.

There are still news vans parked all along the perimeter of the small street, with reporters and their crews readying themselves for the early morning shows. Forensic techs and photographers are busy working the scene, while Bishops works the bag-and-tag of evidence, and Michaels catalogues everything.

The bodies have been removed, but I’ve got a clear image of Katherine McNabb and Officer Richardson burned into my psyche. With the media still nosing around, waiting for any tidbit of information to come out of the makeshift camp, I decide to do a few door-to-doors as a means of masking my actions. I don’t need news cameras following me from the crime scene to the Conservatory. Plus, in all the excitement of collecting evidence, I’m sure that Bishops hasn’t done the due diligence to put someone in charge of questioning possible witnesses.

The first door I come upon is white with a semi-circle of glass at the top that’s separated into three panes. The mailbox mounted to the front of the small brick home reads: JOHNSON. I ring the doorbell and wait for someone to answer. I check the time on my watch: 4:00 a.m. Waking people up at a time like this doesn’t bode well for the investigation. A few seconds pass before a dark face appears at one of the panes of glass in the door. A huge man whose eyes are bloodshot.

“Yeah, who is it?” he asks.

I show him my badge. “I’m Detective Calhoun. I want to ask you a few questions about the shooting that occurred outside your home.”

“Man, I’on know nothin’. I was asleep.” The red-eyed giant disappears back into the darkness of his home. I nod and turn away from the door, knowing this is just the beginning.

The next door I come across is inside an apartment building of ten units. I have to remember to request patrolmen if we’re ever going to get the questioning done in a timely manner. I knock but don’t receive an answer even though I can see a person’s shadow pass over the peephole.

I turn away. What can I expect from residents that understand the unwritten law of the streets: if you don’t see anything, then you can’t say anything. And if you don’t say anything, then you live a longer life.

I can’t fault anyone for being afraid and not wanting to talk to the police. We are the frenemy of society’s less privileged.

After four more “I’on know nothin’s” from behind closed doors, I decide it’s time to make my break for the Conservatory. I take the apartment building’s gangway and follow it to the back, then out into the alley. I head south until I hit Lake Street.

The Garfield Park Conservatory is on the west side of Central Park Avenue. It’s a football field size greenhouse with concrete stairs that lead up to the entrance. When I reach the top of the stairs, I turn and stare across the way at the caravan of news trucks. There are streetlights aligned on the street, and yet, the darkness from the park’s lagoon to the right of the building seems to be a deep pit, waiting to devour the world.

I turn back to the entrance, which consists of four doors made of glass and steel. The lights are off inside, save for the yellow luminescent fixtures attached to the gray concrete medians between each door. The place looks like a gothic haunted house. Down near the lower part of one of the doors, the glass is cracked into a million pieces. I bend down to examine it, and I can smell the exotic plants inside.

“Thought that was you,” a familiar voice says from behind me.

I turn and find Arnie Ratcliff standing on the stairs, staring down at the hole in the glass door. “What ya want, Arnie?”

He adjusts his black-rimmed glasses and runs a hand over his balding head. “The same thing every reporter out here wants… A lead, a comment on the murders.”

Arnie works the murder beat for the Chicago Tribune. A year ago he gave up the name of a source in the murder of my mentor, and in exchange I give him an exclusive interview with my incarcerated father. Word on the street is they’re developing a memoir and Arnie already has a publishing deal in the making, but for me, that chance encounter has become the proverbial deal with the devil.

I look out over the drove of reporters, then back to Arnie. “You’ll get it when the rest of your horde gets it.”

“From The Zookeeper? Come on, Frank. I thought we went back farther than that? Besides, what’s it gonna hurt for you to comment on the investigation?”

“Like I said, Arnie, I’ve got nothing to say.”

“Okay fine, no comment. Mind if I ask what brings you over to the conservatory?”

“Just checking up on a few things. Turns out it’s nothing.”

“What’s nothing?” He sniffs the air as if the scent from the exotic plants inside the conservatory allures him.

“This here is nothing. Just part of the routine investigation. See?” I move to the side so that he can see the small hole in the door. I’m not really convinced that the silent alarm is coincidental, but I have to play it cool around Arnie. I don’t need him to start writing about this in an article that my suspect could possibly read. “I’ll see you around, Arnie. Gotta get back to the investigation.”

“Yeah… See you around, Frank.”

I leave Arnie with his thoughts as he paces back and forth in front of the conservatory’s door.

As I cross the street and round the hub of media hounds, I see Lions’ car pass between the posted patrolmen and their wooden barriers and pull into the protective circle of the investigation. He hops out of the car holding a white computer disc, his lips fixed into a frown.

“Is that what I think it is?” I ask.

“Yep, and it’s not pretty.”

We both enter the MCC, which is damn near empty except for a female officer manning a computer terminal used for coordinating the evidence intake.

Lions and I take a seat at an open terminal. He slides in the disc. There’s a second or two of dead silence, and then the voice of a female operator comes out of the external speakers.

“911. What’s your emergency?”

“A robbery. Three men. A maroon car fleeing west.”

“Sir, I’m getting you help. Are you still there? Sir?”

BOOM!

Lions and I look at one another, then turn to look at the officer manning the computer. At the sound of the gunshot, the officer stops typing and is as shocked as we are.

We turn back to the terminal and replay the audio once more, listening for any distinct names or sounds that can give us a more definitive description of our suspects. Each time we hear the report of the gun is a sucker punch to the stomach. At some point, I look over at the officer and find her terminal empty. She stepped out without us even noticing.

I slump down in the chair. “Jesus, Fred. At least now we know why there’s only a single shell casing next to his body.”

“Yeah, the poor bastard never had a chance.”

We sigh and shake our heads in disappointment.

 

Copyright © 2021 by Alverne Ball. All rights reserved.

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About Blue Religion by Alverne Ball:

Flanked by his new partner Fred Lions, while also battling remnants of his father’s recent conviction, Frank chases down clues across the city as he begins to assemble pieces of the case. With mounting pressure from his girlfriend Gloria, as well as the Assistant State’s Attorney striving to make a career off the case’s headlines, Frank must keep his head on straight as he attempts to find the killer and navigate the pitfalls of the blue religion.

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