“Okay, Chris, soon as the bell rings and Mister Jax blows the whistle, make a break for the alley.” Jamal grinned, the light in his eyes a warning that trouble was brewing.
Over a hundred teens milled about in the open yard of Pulaski High, separated into clusters by cliques based on race, gang affiliation, or social status. The two freshmen stood near the schoolyard fence.
On the other side of Lincoln Street, three men stood in the alley, puffs of smoke wafting around their faces. One of them beckoned Jamal with a wave.
Chris looked back toward the double doors of the school. Already some of the nerds gathered, working on homework, waiting to get back to class. When Jamal wasn’t around, Chris would join them and get a head start on the next day’s projects. But Jamal always had something else in mind if he wasn’t busy with his connections or getting high in some dark corner of the school.
“Yo, you with me or not?” Jamal rocked on his feet, eager to escape the afternoon’s classes. His thick arms and chest made him look big and slow, but he could sprint like a jackrabbit. Once again, Chris shoved down disappointment at his own awkward, lanky frame.
“Yeah, man,” Chris said. “I’m with you.”
“Then wake up, bruh, this is serious. These guys promised me a set to work, Eighteenth South, from Madison to Nelson. And I’m bringin’ you in with me. We play this right, we can make serious bank.”
“If we don’t get caught ditching.”
“Man, screw that,” Jamal said with a soft shove at Chris’s shoulder. “Wastin’ time in a stuffy room, solving for x or talkin’ about white dudes hundreds of years ago. That ain’t gettin’ you nowhere fast. My boy Lamar got stacks-a-cash for us—if we get out there and move his product. This is big time, bruh.”
“Okay, okay, true enough. This is a step to the big time. Lamar see us doin’ good work, he’ll maybe hook you up with your own set next to mine. Then we makin’ double what we get at the start.” Jamal looked across the yard at the school doors and Mister Jackson, called “Jax” by the students. The teacher was well out of earshot. “How’s that for some math in real life, Jax? Hundred percent increase in profits.”
Jamal checked his cellphone. “Almost time. Hope you run faster than I remember.”
Chris nodded, swallowing fear. He tried to ignore the pounding in his chest. Mom will kill me if I get caught doing this. She will absolutely murder me if she ever finds out I had anything to do with drugs.
He looked up at the school’s third floor, searching for the admin offices. Mom might be in there… what if she comes to the window? Once again, he decided it sucked having your mother work for your school district.
“Better not punk out on me, man,” Jamal said. “We gotta make a good impression. Show ’em we can get it done.”
A long, clanging bell announced the end of lunch break, and Mister Jackson—a former Marine—loosed a whistle blast that echoed through the yard. The scattered groups of teens plodded toward the doorway while Jax yelled for them to hustle and line up.
“Go!” Jamal took off in a dash, trusting the crowd at the door to serve as distraction.
Chris froze. He tried to pick up his foot and run off after Jamal, but terror held him in check. His eyes watched the office windows. No sign of her. It’s safe. Go!
But something inside balked at the thought of Jamal’s plan. Taking this step felt like getting on the metro. Once the door closed behind you, you went wherever the train was headed, no chance to get off.
Jamal looked back as he ran across the street. His brow furrowed, then he sneered. He said something that looked like an insult, and disappeared into the alley.
Last chance, man. Chris tried to push past his fear. You want to make money? This is real, this is right now, this is your golden opportunity. Whatchu waitin’ for?
He lurched toward the fence and reached the edge of the schoolyard.
“Mister Washington!” Jax’s voice.
Chris froze, hand on the chainlink fence. He winced and turned to face the teacher.
Polo shirt stretched across a wide chest, with the same high-and-tight he’d have worn in the Corps, Jax marched toward Chris. “Where you think you’re headed, son? It’s time for class.”
Chris sighed and moved toward the school.
Jax looked at the alley and frowned. “Washington, I don’t know exactly what you had in mind, but do you realize you were about to make a huge mistake?”
Chris glared at him and kept walking.
Jax laid a firm hand on Chris’s shoulder, halting his progress. “Look, son, I’m not your enemy. But I’m not your friend either. And I’m not stupid. You’ve got hope. You’ve got a future, and you’re going to find it in here.” He pointed to the school doors. “Nothing good for you on that side of the street, you hear me?”
“Excuse me, son?”
Jax put his fists on his hips. “Boy, I could walk upstairs, pull your mother aside, and have a nice chat about what her son’s up to. You want that?”
“No, sir.” This time the respectful tone was genuine.
“I thought not. Here’s my deal with you. I won’t talk to anyone about this, but you promise me you’re not getting into something you’ll regret. And you’re coming to see me for detention after school’s out today. Now let’s move.”
Chris’s shoulders sagged. “Yes, sir.” He followed Jax to the double doors and took his place at the end of the line.
But he glanced back at the alley, just in time to see Jamal and his friends stroll down Lincoln toward Jamal’s set. Jamal’s words echoed in his mind. Better not punk out.
He hoped his ears played a trick on him when he thought he heard Jamal’s laughter on the breeze.
Sergeant Christopher Mason straightened his crisply ironed uniform shirt and adjusted his cap as he stood outside the Precinct 112 police station. First day. Remember this moment. He smiled, took a deep breath—and immediately regretted it.
Precinct 112’s jurisdiction included the industrial district of Stapleton, Illinois. The smokestacks of the massive car part manufacturing plants pumped God only knew what into his lungs and everyone else’s.
Chris coughed and strode up the stairs to report for duty. Showing up for half a day and a Friday… not a bad plan. The drive from L.A. in a U-Haul truck with a wife and toddler following behind in the family car took two days longer than expected.
He stepped through a packed waiting area and showed his ID to the clerk, a blonde twenty-something with an easy smile once she realized he wasn’t another civilian with a complaint or report. She buzzed him in to the operations floor.
The detectives got the nice desks with computers. Other than a long table in the break room at the back of the station, patrol officers were left to fend for themselves. A female sergeant rushed past with a stuffed folder and an evidence bag.
Chris reached for her. “Sergeant, can you tell me—”
She turned aside and brought her burden to one of the detectives, paying him no heed.
Another officer ignored Chris’s second plea with an abrupt “I’m off duty.”
Welcome to Stapleton. Chris meandered through the ops floor, taking in bits of conversation and noting details. He looked over an enormous street map of the precinct that covered the north wall. Precinct 112 sat divided into eight color-coded regions. Magnets with dry-erase names showed which officers were scheduled for patrol in each zone that week.
He looked for Mason and found his name in a large rectangle at the precinct’s center, slightly east of downtown, running north to south. Kazsinski. Can’t wait to meet him… or her.
Another officer stopped beside him, a studious black woman with a tight bun and a pretty face. She adjusted names on magnets for the residential area on the east side of the precinct.
Chris glanced at her nametag. “Afternoon, Sergeant Bristow. You post the patrol schedule?” His academy instructor’s voice echoed in his mind. Always pays to know the scheduler. Never disappoint your Captain, never screw over your scheduler, and you’ll be fine.
She gave a silent nod, then spared him a second glance. “Mason… right. New guy.” She extended a hand and gave a firm shake. “Welcome to Stapleton. Your first patrol’s next week, good luck in the Twenties.”
“Uh, sure, thanks,” he answered. “Can’t wait to hit the street. But can you point me to the Captain’s office first?”
She laughed. “My bad. Captain’s office is down the hall around the next corner. Good timing, I think your new partner’s in there now.”
“Perfect.” Chris nodded his thanks and hurried to report in. His shining dress shoes clicked on the tile floor with military precision. But a sudden voice swallowed up the sound.
“Come on, I had the last one! You gave me Jarvis, and that guy was a moron. Do me a solid here, give him to someone else.”
A soft voice replied behind the tinted door and windows ahead, but Chris couldn’t make it out. He slowed as he neared the door. Stenciled letters read ‘Michael McCullough, Captain of Police, Precinct 112.’
“Look at the record. This kid’s so fresh outta academy, he’s probably still wearin’ T-shirts with the logo on the chest.”
Chris blushed and stood at parade rest outside the Captain’s door.
“Kazsinski,” the other voice growled. “You know why I give you the new guys? ‘Cause you get results. If half my force hit the beat like you, the Mayor would finally be off my—as a matter of fact, look who we got here. Come in!”
Chris turned the knob and entered. “Sergeant Mason reporting for duty, sir.”
Kazsinski snickered. He looked like a caricature of a bodybuilder, with an oversized chest stuffed into a too-tight uniform shirt, tucked into a pair of creased trousers over thin chicken legs. His blonde spiked hair looked frozen in plastic, and his abnormal jaw muscles bulged. He probably does reps clenching his teeth with all his “bros” just for that effect.
The Captain seemed the opposite of everything Kazsinski represented, with thinning grey hair, some chubbiness under his chin, and a decent beer-belly stretching his waistband.
“Have a seat, son, and relax. Meet your new partner, he’s gonna show you the ropes.”
Kazsinski huffed and spun toward the door. “I got tickets to file. See you tomorrow morning, six forty-five, ready to ride, scrublet.” He stormed out and let the door slam behind him.
Chris Washington rubbed his palms together, trying in vain to get the dry-erase marker powder and chalk out of his skin. Backpack slung over one shoulder, earbuds buzzing with distorted bass, he walked out of the school and checked the time on his cracked phone screen.
The display read quarter past four. René is gonna walk home on her own any minute now, and I’m gonna catch it from Mom. Better to take the beating now than to wait for later.
He paused the music and dialed his mother’s number. Before he hit call, strong hands grabbed his shoulders. Chris jumped and spun with a yelp.
Jamal laughed. “Yo man, I knew you’d punk out.”
Chris bristled and kept walking. “Screw you, man, I wasn’t gonna get busted for cuttin’ class to hang with the Kings. My mom would kill me.”
“How long you gonna be a Momma’s boy, dog? Carryin’ all your books home, doin’ homework on lunch break.” Jamal pointed back at the school. “Man, just ’cause your mom work at Pulaski don’t mean all this gonna do you any good.”
“Education will do me good,” Chris countered. “It’ll get me the hell out of the Twenties.”
“Yeah, whateva. Keep talkin’ white if that works for you.” Jamal put his hands in his pockets and followed Chris for a moment, then spoke with a warmer tone. “You know what does me good? My buddies Ben and Grant.” He flashed two large bills. “Not bad for an afternoon. How much cash you make today, cleanin’ the classroom boards?”
“Jax gave me detention instead of tellin’ my mom what he almost caught me doin’. You should be glad I didn’t turn you in too.”
“Nobody like a squealer, Chris. Don’t even think about it. The Kings be on you in no time. Besides—” He clapped Chris on the back. “I put in a good word for you.”
“Please. They saw you choke. They ain’t gonna give you product to push. But I told ’em to give you another chance. Maybe when the heat dies down an’ Jax has other kids to worry about, you can come with me. I’ll hook you up.”
Chris ignored the queasy feeling building up. “Hang on man, I gotta call my mom to pick up René.” He dialed and held the phone up before Jamal could object.
“Hey Mom. Yeah. Yes, ma’am. I’m on my way home now.”
Jamal cracked an imaginary whip. Chris glared at him then turned away. “I got held after class to work for Jax—sorry. Mister Jackson. No, ma’am, I didn’t. I’m with Jamal, we’re headed home. No, really.” Jamal gave Chris a mischievous smirk.
“He’s not like that, Mom. Yes ma’am… Uh, can you pick up René? She always leaves if I’m later than four thirty. Thanks, Mom. Bye.”
Jamal cracked up when Chris lowered the phone. “Yes ma’am, no ma’am, whatever you say, ma’am.”
“You met my mother, bruh?” Chris slapped the back of Jamal’s head. “Talk about punkin’ out. I bet you say ‘yes ma’am’ real quick if you come by our place. Or she put you in your place.”
Jamal chuckled, but nodded. “Yeah, true dat.”
Sergeant Mason’s head swam with information from briefings. Equipment hung in his locker, an issued weapon sat on an armory shelf, and a file folder stuffed with signed documents joined the others in the records room. The afternoon whirlwind of activity drew to a close. But now he was ready for duty.
Chris noted the long shadows and amber sunset hues in the windows of the ops floor. He checked his watch and gathered his things.
His cell buzzed and a text message from Laura flashed on the screen. “I’m in the parking lot. The Bee is with me. How was first day?”
With a smile and a joyful step, Chris made for the exit to see his wife and daughter.
“Mason!” The captain’s voice rang in the hallway to his office. “Got a sec?”
Of course I do. Even if I don’t. Chris walked with a brisk clip, fired off a text to let Laura know he needed a few minutes, and entered the open office without knocking.
The captain grunted a greeting without looking up from his computer screen, fingers tapping keys. “I know you’re on your way home, Mason, but there’s something you should know. Close the door, son.”
Chris did so, then stood at parade rest. “What’s wrong, sir?”
Captain McCullough paused his work and looked up to meet Chris’s gaze. “The stuff I told you about Kaz? Forget all that. He gets to babysit rookies—sorry for the term, but that’s what it is—because he’s hopeless. None of the vets will work with him. He’s certainly not the best I got. But he’s the open patrol slot where I could put your name.”
“Okay, Captain, understood.”
“I’ve got some special training lined up for next week that might help him sort himself out. Might help get you on the right path from the start, too. But listen, a new guy like you can still learn some things from him. Kaz knows the precinct well, and can teach you what to look for. He does a decent job while he pisses everyone else off, so figure out the stuff he does right, and throw away whatever else he tells you. Got it?”
The captain nodded and returned to his work.
“Sir? I have a question, if you don’t mind.”
“Hmm?” He kept his eyes on the screen, and kept typing.
“I keep hearing about the Twenties. That’s where Kaz and I are scheduled to patrol starting Monday.”
“Yeah, the Twenties…” The captain chuckled and sat back, hands behind his head. “Most of our trouble starts there, with the Southern Kings and the Mercy Disciples shooting each other up. Same way no one wants to ride with Kaz, no one wants to ride in the Twenties. That’s behind enemy lines to us, Mason.”
Great. Chris swallowed hard.
“I send rookies there first,” Captain McCullough said. “Trial by fire. You learn to deal with that place, everywhere else in the precinct is cake.” He noticed Chris’s reaction and softened his tone. “Don’t worry. Kaz may be a brick some days, but he can handle a rough situation. Pretty soon, this’ll all be old hat to you. Anything else?”
“Good. Dismissed. Leave the door open, please. And Mason? Get a good night’s sleep.”
“Thanks, sir. I’ll try.” He left the office.
Chris stepped outside to his wife’s smiling face and his daughter’s delighted squeals, and his mood brightened. Their hugs gave him comfort—one around his neck, one around his right leg. But he couldn’t shake the dread that latched onto him like a heavy backpack slung over his shoulder.