“The M-Word” – short fiction

Sitting in the windowless shoebox that housed the NYPD’s Omnicide Division, Plank and Darwin were waiting for a call and doing what they usually did while waiting for a call: they were arguing.

“Look, pal, all I’m saying is the English language is full of so many good words that you don’t really need to use swear words,” Plank said. “I’m not saying substitute ‘fudge’ or ‘sugar’ or anything like that. I’m saying go without.”

Darwin looked up from his crossword puzzle. “Do you know what the median IQ of the NYPD is?”

Plank stared.

“Didn’t think so,” Darwin said, scratching his chin with a thick mitt. “And actually, I don’t know either. But I’d guess it’s around 110 or so. Maybe. Don’t quote me.”

“Kinda low, isn’t it? 110?”

“Eh. It’s average intelligence. And as such, the average person doesn’t speak the King’s English so it’s completely normal for them to say ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ or ‘cockknocker.’” Darwin giggled at the last one. Plank cringed at all three. “That’s how people fucking talk, Plank. And those words are especially useful when you’re pissed off. So knock it off with that ‘curse words are for the unenlightened’ bullshit.” He turned back to his puzzle. “Now what’s a five-letter word for ‘bouncy orbs’?”

Plank folded his arms and scowled. “Balls,” he said.

Darwin giggled again and scribbled on the paper. “Hey, that fits.”

The phone on Plank’s desk rang. He picked it up. “Omnicide, Plankard.” He listened to the voice on the other end. He rolled his eyes. “Yes, I know. ‘Omnicide’ means ‘the destruction of all life.’ They’re still working on the name. Something I can do for you?” Plank picked up a pen and started jotting on a steno pad. “Uh huh. Uh huh.” He put down the pen. “Alright, we’re on our way,” he said, hanging up the phone.

Pencil poised over his puzzle, Darwin said, “Well?”

“Body at 62nd and 3rd. Human.”

Darwin put the puzzle in a desk drawer, trading it for a holstered Glock, which he attached to his belt. “Want me to drive?”

“Very funny,” said Plank.

 

Barreling down 3rd Avenue, Plank and Darwin’s squad car got a lot of stares. Of course it did, it was the mongrel offspring of an SUV and an M1 tank, all rounded edges and armor plating, designed to hold up under nothing less than a stampede of maladjusted apes. Darwin hadn’t gotten his license yet (he’d failed three times already), and it made him nuts. He ached to drive the Bastard. However, Darwin found the Bastard’s plush passenger seat quite comfy and was enjoying the ride. That is, until Plank decided to ruin it.

“Could you go a day without swearing?” Plank said.

“Holy living Christ.” Darwin turned and glared at his partner. “Again with this?”

“Seriously. If I bet you fifty bucks, could you go a day without swearing? Bet you couldn’t, pal.”

“Lemme ask you. What is a swear word exactly?”

“It’s a word that, um, you know, hurts my ears when I hear it. Something that sounds…boorish. Uneducated.”

“And that makes it offensive? It offends you when you hear ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’?”

“’Offends’ isn’t really the right word. Like I said, it. Well. It hurts my ears. It’s distasteful.” Plank paused. “You like fruit. What’s your favorite fruit?”

Darwin cocked his head and closed one eye. “Peaches. Those freestone guys.”

“And if you bite into a peach that’s past its prime, one that’s all mealy and mushy, what do you do?”

“Spit that shit out.”

“Right.” Plank held out his right hand. “That’s what curse words are to me: bad peaches.”

Darwin nodded. “Interesting analogy.” He spotted a piece of lint on his suit jacket and flicked it off. “You realize, though, that by finding these words offensive and shooting your mouth off about them, you are, in effect, giving those words even more power. If you calmed down and simply ignored them, maybe they would cease to bother you. Maybe they’d become powerless.”

Plank rolled the Bastard up to the corner of 62nd and 3rd, parking it inches from the yellow crime scene tape. “Yeah. Maybe,” he said.

Exiting the car, Darwin smiled. “Yeah. Maybe.” was Plank’s way of crying uncle. For the moment, anyway.

 

The first thing Darwin and Plank noticed at the scene was the smell. Not the smell of the dead guy decaying on the sidewalk in the afternoon sun but rather the stench of the shit that was strewn all over the body.

“Hoo boy,” Plank said, crinkling his nose at the odor. Approaching the officer at the edge of the cordon, Plank opened his suit jacket to reveal the badge clipped to his belt. “Plankard, Omnicide.” He jerked his chin at the body. “Was the vic found like this? Covered with, you know, feces?”

The officer, whose nametag said HARR, nodded and put a hand under his nose as a breeze blew the smell toward him. “Sure was.”

“Any witnesses?” Plank said.

“Not sure,” Harr said. “Haven’t gotten a chance to find out, been securing the scene since I got here.”

“It’s secure now so do us a favor,” Darwin said, pointing at the growing throng of rubberneckers near the taped barrier. “See if you can rustle us up a witness or two. Broad daylight, lots of foot traffic, somebody must’ve seen something.”

Harr, quite a bit taller than Darwin, stared down at the detective.

Plank snapped his fingers in front of Harr’s face. “Hello, Earth to Harr.” The officer’s eyes fluttered and shifted to Plank. “You heard him,” Plank said. “Chop chop.”

Harr nodded, gave a thumbs-up, and went to do their bidding.

Plank looked at his partner. “Shall we?”

“After you,” said Darwin, his arm outstretched.

Peering past the Crime Scene Unit techs who were bagging, tagging, and photographing everything in sight, the two detectives studied the victim. He was wearing a Ferragamo suit and loafers, looked to be in his mid-40s, and had a full head of curly black hair that was graying at the temples. Other than the golf ball-sized goose egg above the victim’s right eye socket, the body looked untouched. There was no blood, at least none that was visible. It was one of the tidiest crime scenes they’d ever seen.

“What’s up, doc?” Darwin said to the small Indian woman kneeling next to the body. She was wearing a dark blue jacket with MEDICAL EXAMINER emblazoned on the back.

Making notes on a clipboard, she said, “Oh, Detective Darwin, aren’t you the clever one.”

“Actually, Dr. Parveen, he is the clever one,” Plank said, removing a notebook and pen from his jacket pocket. “I’m just the driver.”

“Only because ‘the clever one’ failed his driving test three times,” said Parveen.

“Alright, alright,” Darwin grumbled. “Couple of ball aches, you two.” He sat on his haunches and rested his knuckles on the sidewalk. “So what’s the story here?”

“Well,” said Parveen. “It would appear that the victim was hit above the right orbit, fell down, and then once he was on the ground, his chest was beaten until his breastbone shattered.” To illustrate her point, the doctor opened Zatmary’s shirt, exposing a large, dark purple bruise in the middle of his chest. “My guess is that the blunt trauma induced cardiac arrest.”

Plank flipped open his notebook and started writing. “Commotio cordis, right, doc?”

“Why Detective Plankard.” Dr. Parveen smiled at Plank. “Been doing some studying, have we?”

“Nah, just a baseball fan,” said Plank, ignoring Darwin’s incredulous gape. “It’s why catchers wear chest protectors.”

Shaking his head, Darwin directed his attention back to the body. “We have an ID on this guy?”

“Not yet,” said Parveen. She looked past the detectives and said, “Ryerson!”

“What?” The voice came from a nearby CSU tech who was too immersed in cataloging bags of evidence – what few there were – to look up.

Parveen said, “Do you happen to have the victim’s wallet over there?”

“Yup.”

“Kindly bring it over, would you?”

“Yeah, okay.” Gripping his clipboard and an evidence bag with one hand, Ryerson continued making notes as he walked over. When he reached the body, he looked up from his clipboard, immediately noticing Darwin. “What can I, uh.” His eyes slid from Darwin to Plank to Parveen and then quickly back to Darwin. “Do. For you guys.”

“For starters, Ryerson, you can stop staring,” Darwin said.

“Sorry, Detective,” Ryerson said. “It’s, uh, just that I never—“

“Never what?” Plank said. “Seen a detective doing his job? Ain’t your first crime scene, right?”

Ryerson shook his head.

“So quit gawking and try to divide your attention between all of us,” said Plank. “You got the wallet?”

“Yeah.” Ryerson tucked the clipboard under one arm and held up the evidence bag with the other. “Right here. What’d you guys need this for anyway?”

“Beer money,” Plank said. Ryerson’s lips parted as if he was going to say something but didn’t. “His ID, genius. We need his ID.”

Darwin smiled. He hated being on the receiving end of Plank’s ball breaking but he loved witnessing it.

“Oh,” Ryerson said. “You mean you guys don’t recognize the vic?”

“Obviously,” Parveen drawled.

“Drum roll. That.” Ryerson pointed at the body. “Is Ron Zatmary. As in Zatmary Cosmetics Ron Zatmary.” An adamant proponent of animal testing, Zatmary was often in the news because of his outspoken beliefs. A friend of PETA he was not.

Parveen and the detectives were speechless.

“Right?” Ryerson said. “Check this out.” He opened the plastic evidence bag and took out the calfskin wallet. He extracted a New York driver’s license from the wallet and held it out for them to see. “Beard.” Ryerson cocked his head at Zatmary. “No beard.” He put the ID back in the wallet. “I didn’t recognize him without it either.”

Darwin snapped on a pair of latex gloves and held out his gloved hand. “May I?” he said.

“Be my guest,” said Ryerson, handing Darwin the evidence bag and wallet.

Plank paused from writing. “What do we got?”

“Besides the ID,” Darwin said, thumbing through the wallet’s contents. “A few hundred in cash, a Black AmEx, and this.” He held up a photo of a ridiculously beautiful woman holding a ridiculously adorable little boy. Darwin turned to Ryerson. “Where’d you find the wallet?”

“Pants pocket,” said Ryerson.

“Looks like everything’s still here,” Darwin said. “Guess it wasn’t a robbery.”

“Man, Ron Zatmary,” said Plank. He shook his head as he scribbled in his notebook. “We better pray for an eyeball wit,” he said. “This guy’s got so many enemies anybody could’ve done it.”

“Who could blame ‘em,” Darwin muttered. He was no fan of Zatmary’s either. He caught Plank giving him the same disapproving look he gave him when he cursed. “Sorry,” he said. “Slipped out.” He turned his attention back to the wallet photo. “Who do you suppose this is? Wife and kid?”

Parveen’s eyes darted to the ring finger of Zatmary’s left hand. “No wedding ring,” she said.

“Somebody might’ve swiped it,” said Ryerson.

Darwin said, “Take the ring but leave the wallet? I doubt it.”

“Whoever she is, we’ll find out. She should be notified,” Plank said, making a note. “So what do you think, pal? Probably rule out premeditation, huh?”

“Yeah I’d say so,” said Darwin. “What you said before though, about how anybody could’ve done this. It couldn’t have been anybody.” He pointed at the bruise on Zatmary’s chest. “It takes a hell of a lot of force to shatter somebody’s breastbone and induce cardiac arrest. And there doesn’t seem to be any sign that a weapon was used, right, doc?”

“It wouldn’t appear so,” said Parveen. “A weapon would’ve made more…mess.”

“Right. So. It was either a bodybuilder or.” Darwin looked at Plank. “The obvious.”

A breeze kicked up, and Plank caught a whiff of the dung. Grimacing, he said, “And what of the, uh.” He waved his pen at the putrid logs. “Leavings.”

“Oh, right. Almost forgot,” said Darwin. He tucked his tie into his shirt and leaned over the body, his nose damn near touching the small turd that lay just above Zatmary’s belt.

Parveen said, “Oh god, is that really necess—“

But it was too late. Darwin was in full-on hound dog mode, taking long sniffs of the excrement. After the fifth, he stood up. “Elderberries.”

Plank jotted it down. “Yeah?”

“Yup. Got the same ones in Central Park.”

“We can have that analyzed, you know,” said Parveen, whose face was a mask of revulsion.

Ryerson gagged. “Seriously.”

“My way’s faster. But we should still run it for DNA.” He pulled his tie out of his shirt. “But who knows how long that’ll take. Probably solve this thing before we get the results back.”

“We can hope anyway,” Plank said. He felt a light tap on his shoulder and turned around. “Oh. Harr,” he said. “Any witnesses?”

“Just one,” Harr said.

Plank held out his hand. “Lead the way.”

Making a point not to look at Darwin, Harr walked a few steps ahead of the detectives. He led them to a young redheaded woman standing just inside the cordon. She was holding a paper shopping bag with SEARLE printed on the outside of it. “This is Lacey Horrocks,” said Harr. He turned to Lacey. “These gentlemen are detectives. They just want to ask you a few questions, okay?” Lacey’s head bobbed, signaling that it was. “Guess I’ll leave you to it then,” he said, walking away.

“Hi Lacey,” said Darwin, smiling. “I’m Detective Darwin.” He motioned to his partner. “This is Detective Plankard. Like the officer said, we just need to know what you saw so if you could start from the beginning, that’d be great.”

“Oh, okay, so, like, I was coming out of Searle? And this, like,” she waved her hand at Zatmary’s body, “total d-bag—“ She gasped and covered her mouth. “Oh, um, I didn’t mean to, like, speak ill of the dead or whatever. My mom? One time she accidentally called my Gramma the c-word and this was, like, literally right after her funeral and she said, ‘Lacey, do as I say, not as I do’ and I get it, right? Shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. Anyway, this guy is walking down the street, like, talking on his phone, I think he might’ve been FaceTiming? He’s walking toward 62nd and this mom and her kid, they’re, like, walking up the street toward me. And they’re totally minding their own business and this guy is walking toward them, like, not paying attention to where he’s going, like, at all, and he literally walks right into the mom and the guy drops his phone and as he picks it up, he calls the mom,” she glanced at Darwin, “the m-word. Like, ‘Stupid effing m-word’ or something like that.” She looked at Darwin again. “I was, like, totally disgusted. I mean, get with the times, right? Anyway, the mom hears this and sort of tries to, like, brush it off or whatever. And the kid, oh my god, he was so cute. He says, ‘Are you okay, Mom?’” Lacey put her hand to her chest. “You could literally hear my heart breaking. And then the guy says something like, ‘Keep your m-word on a leash.’ And that was when the mom, like, totally lost her shit. She, like, punches the guy in the face or whatever,” she brought her fist up to her right eye, “and he falls down and she literally starts, like, beating on his chest and yelling. All this happens and, like, I had to do something, right? So I, like, ran back into Searle and had them call 911 because I totally left my phone at home.” Lacey hung her head and scratched her arm. Dropping her voice to little more than a whisper, she said, “In the interest of, like, full disclosure or whatever, I have to admit that I think the guy kinda, like, had it coming. I mean, you can’t use words like that and expect people not to, like, lose their shit.” She raised her head. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not glad he’s dead but you can’t, like, underestimate the effects of hate speech.”

“True,” said Darwin. The expression on his face matched that of a funeral director’s.

Plank glimpsed his partner’s somber demeanor. Turning back to his notes, he said, “So. When you came back out of Searle, the mother and the kid, they were gone?”

“Yeah. Totes.”

“Could you describe the mother?” Darwin said. “She have any distinct features or anything?”

“Um,” Lacey said, playing with a strand of her hair. Examining it for split ends, her face brightened. “Oh! She had, like, bright auburn hair? Her son totally did too.”

“Anything else?” Darwin said.

“I guess she was, like, around your height or so,” Lacey said, looking at Darwin. “It’s, I don’t know, tough to tell?”

“Do you remember what she was wearing?” Plank said.

“Jeans and a t-shirt? It wasn’t, like, fashion forward or anything.”

“Understood,” Darwin said, handing her one of his cards. “If you think of anything else, please give me a call.”

“Oh yeah, totes,” she said, accepting the card. “Do you happen to, like, have an extra one of these? I can give you my digits in case you need ‘em or whatever.”

“Absolutely.” Darwin handed her a second card.

Lacey took it, searched her bag, and came out with a pen. Flipping the card over, she started jotting on the back of it. “I’m, like, such an idiot,” she said. “I can’t believe I left my phone at home. I could’ve totally just, like, put your number in my phone, and you wouldn’t’ve had to waste another card. Save some trees, you know? And I probably could’ve, like, taken a video or whatever with it.” She finished writing and handed the card back to Darwin. “That would’ve helped, right? A video of the crime, like, in progress?”

Plank’s ears pricked up, and he rifled through his notes. “Lacey, you said before that you thought the victim was FaceTiming, right?”

“I mean, I think he was? He was holding his phone, like, away from his face, and talking to it. And he didn’t have, like, earbuds or a Bluetooth or anything so I just assumed he was FaceTiming.”

Plank said, “Excuse me a second, I’ll be right back.”

Darwin and Lacey both nodded.

Trotting over to where Ryerson was boxing up his evidence bags, Plank stuck his pen behind his ear and wedged his notebook under his arm, slipping a pair of latex gloves out of his jacket pocket. “Ryerson,” he said, putting on the gloves as he approached the tech. “Please tell me you found an iPhone near Zatmary’s body.”

“Sure did, boss,” said Ryerson. He pulled a bag out of the box and handed it to Plank.

“Okay if I take a look?” Plank said.

Ryerson shrugged. “It’s your dime.”

Plank removed the phone and was stonewalled by the passcode screen. “Should’ve known,” he mumbled. He pursed his lips and examined the phone. It had a fingerprint scanner. That gave him an idea.

He approached the EMTs who were fitting Zatmary’s lifeless form into a vinyl body bag and said, “I get in there a sec?” One of the medics nodded. Plank reached into the body bag, gingerly pulled out Zatmary’s hand and pressed the thumb against the phone’s sensor. The phone made an audible click as the home screen appeared. “Thanks, guys,” he said. The EMTs finished sealing up the bag as Plank accessed Zatmary’s call log. His most recent call was indeed a FaceTime call, and it was with someone named Ada. Plank took out his own phone and copied Ada’s number into it. Then he resealed Zatmary’s phone in the evidence bag and handed it back to Ryerson.

“Get something good?” said Ryerson.

“Fingers crossed,” Plank said as Ryerson went back to work. Plank turned to see Darwin coming towards him. Alone. “You finish up with Lacey?”

“Yeah, think we literally got, like, everything we’re gonna get from her?” Darwin said.

“Wait, you’re goofing on her for how she speaks?” Plank said.

Darwin smiled and shrugged. “Nice girl and all but you gotta admit, some elocution lessons wouldn’t hurt.”

“But, to quote you, ‘that’s how people talk.’”

Darwin’s smile vanished. “Actually, killjoy, I said that’s how people fucking talk.” He nodded in Ryerson’s direction. “Anyway, what’d you need from him?”

“Got the number of whoever Zatmary was talking to before he got killed,” said Plank, waggling his phone in the air and starting back toward the Bastard. “Lacey was right, it was a FaceTime call. I figure we find out where this Ada person lives—“

“Ada?” Darwin said, following his partner to the car.

“The name in the phone. Ada. I’m thinking we find out where she lives, talk to her, see if she saw anything. Bit of a long shot but a lead’s a lead.”

“True.”

The detectives reached the Bastard and got in. Using the on-board laptop, Plank ran a database query on Ada’s number. Seconds later, a result came up. “Ada Zatmary,” they said in unison.

“Who’s that, you think?” said Darwin. “The woman from the picture?”

Plank scanned the details on the screen. “Only one way to find out.” He put the Bastard in gear and aimed it toward Ada’s address on Central Park West.

 

Over the years, Plank had had to tell quite a few people that their loved ones had been killed. And it always went horribly wrong.

Either he went into unnecessary detail about how they were killed (“Your wife was stabbed eight times in the neck with a railroad spike. Sorry.”) or he giggled while delivering the bad news because he sometimes giggled when he got nervous, he couldn’t help it.

Luckily for Plank, Darwin’s bedside manner was exceptional. Thus, Darwin took the lead when Ada – who was indeed the woman from the wallet photo – opened her apartment door.

After introducing Plank and himself, Darwin, his hands held in front of him, said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry to inform you that Ronald Zatmary was killed this afternoon.” His tone was so tender that he could’ve been on PBS teaching people to paint “happy little trees.”

The detectives waited for her to say something or do something or simply tear up but nothing came – Ada appeared as if she hadn’t heard Darwin at all. She just stared at Plank, and he, awkward as it was, stared right back.

“We’re very sorry for your loss, Ms. Zatmary,” Darwin said. “If you need to talk to somebody, we can put you in touch with a grief counselor.”

Still nothing. Ada’s blue-green eyes remained dry and focused on Plank.

Plank licked his lips. “I’m sure. Heh.” He stifled a grin and the chuckle that was sure to follow, took a breath, cleared his throat. “I’m sure this comes as a shock—“

“It’s not a shock,” Ada said, blinking slowly. “I know Ronnie was killed, Officer.”

“Detective,” said Darwin.

Ada looked down her nose at Darwin. Then she turned her attention back to Plank. “My son was talking to Ronnie when that…,” she glared at Darwin, “animal killed him.”

Plank said, “May we speak to your son, Ms. Zatmary?”

“It’s Mrs. Zatmary, and you may.” She pointed at Darwin. “He may not.”

Darwin began to seethe. “Ma’am, do you want to help us catch who did this or do you want to go to jail for obstructing a homicide investigation?” Ada’s lips disappeared into a thin line. “Well? What’ll it be?”

She stepped back into the apartment, holding the door open. “Please come in.”

The detectives followed Ada through the foyer into the living room, which could have easily held Plank’s entire apartment and a good chunk of Darwin’s house. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the living room had floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a marvelous view of Central Park.

Despite its opulence, the apartment was quite warm and homey. Its walls and shelves displayed many framed pictures: some depicted Ada, the same little boy from the wallet photo, and a man who looked similar to Zatmary; some depicted Ada, a slightly older version of the boy, and Zatmary himself; some depicted all four people. In each photo they were smiling, hugging, laughing. They were on beaches and boats, in parks and backyards.

Leading the detectives down a hallway, Ada caught them slowing a bit as they inspected the photos. “Ronnie’s not my husband if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said. “Ronnie was my brother-in-law. I was married to Vernon, Ronnie’s younger brother. Vern died a few years ago, and Ronnie got us this apartment shortly after. He has, well, had an apartment down the hall.” She stopped in front of a door. “This is RJ’s room.”

“RJ?” Darwin said.

“Ronald James. My son,” said Ada. “We named him after Ronnie.” Facing the door, she put her hand on the knob. “I haven’t told RJ about Ronnie yet. Mostly because I didn’t know for sure.” She shut her eyes. “You aren’t going to tell RJ about Ronnie, are you? That he’s dead?”

“No,” Plank said. “We just want to ask him some questions, that’s all.”

“You can tell him when you’re ready,” said Darwin.

Ada nodded and opened the door.

The walls of RJ’s bedroom were decorated with Philadelphia Phillies pennants, a panoramic photo of Citizens Bank Park, and autographed action shots of various Phillies players. It was as if the Phillies had thrown up all over the room. The only non-Phillies items were several framed pictures of RJ and his uncle – most taken near or on a baseball field – that sat on the dresser.

RJ, who looked to be eight or nine years old, sat cross-legged on his bed, head down, sorting baseball cards into different piles.

“RJ, honey?” Ada said.

The boy lifted his head.

As Plank and Darwin entered the room, Ada gestured to them and said, “These are police detectives, sweetie. They need to ask you a few questions about what you saw when you were on the phone with Uncle Ronnie, okay?”

He nodded and put his cards down.

“Hi, RJ,” Plank said. “I’m Stanley Plankard and this is my partner, Oliver Darwin.” He pointed to the bed. “Mind if I sit?” RJ shrugged. Plank sat. “So. Phillies fan, huh?” No response. “I’m a Mets fan myself but—“

“The Mets suck,” RJ deadpanned.

Plank and Darwin howled.

“RJ!” said Ada.

“It’s true, Mom!” RJ said, looking up. “They got no pitching!”

Darwin turned to Ada. “He’s right, ma’am. They don’t.”

Plank grinned sheepishly and shrugged. “It’s a rebuilding year.”

“Isn’t it always?” said Darwin, winking at RJ.

RJ grinned.

“But who was it who beat the Phillies the other night? Let me think,” Plank said, tapping his chin. “Oh that’s right, it was the Mets.”

“But their record stinks and they still got two games left in the series.” RJ’s head drooped and gloom settled over his face. “Uncle Ronnie was s’posed to take me to the next one.”

Darwin and Plank exchanged a glance. Plank said, “Is that what you were to talking to him about this afternoon on the phone?”

RJ nodded. “Yeah, before he said that mean stuff to that lady.” He picked up a card and, as if it were too heavy, his hand flopped on the mattress. “She didn’t have to hit him. He didn’t mean what he said.”

Darwin had his doubts but kept his mouth shut.

Plank said, “Could you tell us what you saw?”

RJ nodded and proceeded to tell them. Aside from a few missed details – he’d witnessed the whole thing via cell phone camera, after all – it matched up with Lacey’s statement. That is, until RJ said, “Then Mom took the phone away from me and told me to go to my room.” He went quiet and regarded his cards again. “Uncle Ronnie is dead, isn’t he?”

Darwin said, “Uh…”

Ada took a step into the room.

“Yes, he is,” Plank said. His tact, that wild pony, had broken free and hurled itself out the window once again, causing him to go against his word to Ada. Fortunately, children, unlike adults, were better at handling the truth, even in its rawest form. That’s how Plank rationalized his mistake, anyway.

If Ada had had something in her hand, she would’ve thrown it at Plank. But she didn’t so she stayed quiet and waited for her son’s reaction.

RJ just picked up a few cards and put them back down. He swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand.

Plank put his hand on RJ’s shoulder. “I promise we’ll find who killed him. There will be justice.” He never made promises with murder investigations because he couldn’t promise anything. But a major part of the kid’s life had been wiped out, and a promise that might’ve been empty was all he had to offer in the way of comfort. And comfort, even a modicum of it, was sorely needed. “You know, I was a little older than you when my dad died.” It was an admission he hadn’t expected to make. He had more to offer after all.

His attention still directed at the cards, RJ said, “Did it hurt?”

“Yes, it did. Very much,” said Plank. “Sometimes it still does. But I have good memories of him so that helps. And from what I can see,” he gestured to the framed photos on RJ’s dresser, “you have some great memories of your uncle. As long as you have those, he’ll never be truly gone.” He paused. “Some people might call that a cliché but that doesn’t make it any less true.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out his card. “We need to talk to your mom privately for a little bit but before we go I want you to have this.” He placed it on the pile of baseball cards. “Like I said, I know what you’re going through so if you ever want to talk, my number’s on the card.” He gestured to the baseball cards. “Even talk baseball if you want.”

RJ, clearly not in the mood for consolation or social gestures, was still. He picked up Plank’s card and held it by the sides as he would a Mickey Mantle rookie card.

The detectives got up and went to the door. Plank paused, turned to Ada, and said, “We’ll be in the living room when you’re ready.” He closed the door behind him, and he and Darwin went to the living room to wait.

A bit later, Ada emerged from RJ’s room and joined them in the living room. When she came in, Plank, who’d been sitting on the couch, writing in his notebook, stopped writing and stood up. “Listen, I’m sorry for telling RJ back there, I—“

Ada slapped him across the face. Plank just stood there and took it. Darwin

winced.

“Apology accepted,” said Ada. She lowered herself into a leather easy chair adjacent to the couch. “Now. What would you like to know?”

“You can start where RJ left off,” Darwin said. “After you took the phone away from him. Just tell us what you saw.”
Ada folded her arms across her chest. “After I stopped screaming Ronnie’s name into the phone, you mean? After he’d been beaten to death? Is that where you want me to start?”

Darwin and Plank sat there, blinking.

“I’m sorry,” said Ada. She put a trembling hand to her forehead. “It’s just, uh.” She lowered her hand and composed herself. “Never mind.” She swept a lock of strawberry blond hair out of her face. “Where was I? Oh, right.” Her eyes locked with the detectives’. “That little brat threw his feces at Ronnie.”

“I assume you’re referring to the assailant’s child,” said Plank.

“Yes,” said Ada. “Him.”

Darwin, who was sitting next to Plank on the couch, leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Are you sure?” He spread his hands. “I mean, the camera angle—“

“The camera was pointed down the street,” said Ada. “It was pointed upward while Ronnie was being hit but the angle changed afterward, I don’t know how. It was pointed down the street, and as he and his mother were walking away, I saw that kid reach into the back of his pants, pull out a fistful, and throw it at Ronnie. And then he started talking about muffins.”

“Muffins,” said Darwin.

“Muffins,” said Ada. “He threw his excrement at my brother-in-law and then asked his mother if he could have a muffin when they got home. As if what he’d just done wasn’t the most repulsive thing ever.”

Darwin slowly sat back, sinking into the couch.

Plank made some notes. “Anything else?”

Ada shook her head. “The call ended after that.”

Plank nodded. “Out of curiosity, you know why Ron shaved his beard? We didn’t recognize him without it.”

“He got tired of all the negative attention so he shaved it off, figured he could go incognito for a while.” Ada managed a small smile. “It was his disguise.”

“I see.” Plank closed his notebook. “Alright, well. Guess that covers it.” He stood up.

Ada pushed herself up out of the chair. “I’ll show you to the door.”

They both looked at Darwin, who was still sitting.

Plank cleared this throat. “You comin’, pal?”

“Oh, yeah,” Darwin said. “Yeah.” He got up slowly, mechanically, as if on autopilot.

Ada held the door open for them. Darwin trudged into the hallway but Plank stopped short, dug into his jacket pocket, and came out with another card.

“Thank you for your help, Mrs. Zatmary,” Plank said, handing the card to Ada. “If you or RJ think of anything else, please let me know.” He paused. “And what I said to RJ back there. The same goes for you; you want to talk, call. You’re not alone in this.” Like with RJ, this was unorthodox but, as with RJ, it was the right thing to do.

Ada nodded, and, for the first time since they’d entered her apartment, tears breached her eyelids. Her hand went to her nose as if she were holding back a sneeze, and she closed the door behind Plank as he exited, the latch fitting into its notch with a snick.

 

Plank flipped through his notes as he walked toward the elevator. “We ought to get the super to let us into Zatmary’s place,” he said. “Probably a dead end but we should check anyway.” It took him a second to realize that Darwin wasn’t by his side. He stopped and turned and saw Darwin still standing outside Ada’s door.

Darwin, his arms hanging like wet spaghetti at his sides, had his back turned to Plank, and he was facing the floor-to-ceiling window at the end of the hall. Like the windows in Ada’s apartment, it too looked out onto Central Park.

Plank went to his partner’s side. “You hear what I said about Zatmary’s apartment?”

Darwin waved him off. “Forget about that.” Furrows creased his brow, and his eyes were aimed straight ahead at the park. “We gotta go across the street. We gotta stop by my place real quick.”

“Um,” Plank said. “Okay.”

 

Once they hit the street, Plank did his best to keep up with Darwin, who was zipping right along as they crossed over into the park. Darwin didn’t offer an explanation, and Plank didn’t ask for one. He just tried to keep up as best he could as they approached the Tree Houses. Darwin’s breakneck speed was such that Plank wasn’t able to stop and marvel at the sheer magnificence of them, which is what he’d done every other time he’d seen them.

Located smack dab in the middle of Central Park and suspended in the boughs of genetically modified, speed-grown sequoia trees and held in place by a complex network of bolts, girders, and high-tension cables, the Tree Houses were, well, tree houses. With running water, electricity, and even cable TV, the fully functioning domiciles were also a 12-year-old’s wet dream.

When they arrived at Darwin’s quadrant, a small panel on the side of a tree irised open and Darwin positioned his eye in front of it. A beam of light scanned his eye from top to bottom and side to side. Darwin stood back as the panel beeped and a metallic voice chirped, “Welcome home, Mr. Darwin.” A carbon fiber ladder shot down from above and came to a quick yet gentle stop in front of him. Darwin immediately began to climb with the same furious determination he exhibited while jetting through the park. Plank followed.

Plank’s lungs and muscles were screeching at him to stop when he reached the platform at the top of the ladder. But his body’s cries went unanswered as he trailed his partner across one of many high-tech walkways that spanned the evergreens. A few moments later, Darwin, with Plank in tow, burst through the front door of his house. Storming through the living room and into the kitchen, Darwin stopped when he saw the tinfoil-wrapped plate on the table.

Licking his lips, he went over to it. After he removed the foil, he rested his hands on the back of one of the chairs. “Muffins,” he said, his shoulders slumping. He picked one up and sniffed it. Even though he didn’t need to, he bit into it anyway. It was delicious, as always. “Elderberry,” said Darwin.

“So what does that mean?” Plank said.

“It means that my neighbor might’ve killed Zatmary.” Darwin ran a hand over his face. “Fuck.”

A cop arresting somebody in his or her own neighborhood was always a dicey proposition. It was like farting at a funeral – you tried to avoid it but sometimes it happened. Eventually, people realized that it wasn’t personal, that cops just have a job to do, and life would slowly return to normal. It was a different story in the Tree Houses.

A few weeks earlier, the detectives had worked a case that had occurred in the vicinity of the Tree Houses. That is, the victim, a Tree House resident, appeared to have fallen from the Tree Houses and landed on the concrete walkway below. Plank and Darwin hadn’t been able to rule it a suicide or a murder because nobody in the Tree Houses would talk to them. They went to each house and asked the residents (the ones who would actually open the door, which was only two) if they knew or saw anything, and they both unequivocally said they hadn’t. It turned out the victim was set to testify against a murder suspect who didn’t even live in the Tree Houses, let alone have anything to do with anybody residing there. Living in the Tree Houses, it seemed, was tantamount to swearing a blood oath of secrecy. Some called it omerta, like in a mob movie. It was a tenet not to be violated under any circumstance. But if Darwin was right about his neighbor, he was about to.

“Might not be her,” said Plank. He sincerely hoped it wasn’t. He remembered the looks Darwin got on that other case, how both residents treated him like he’d peed in their corn flakes, as if just asking them a few questions made him a turncoat. Plank didn’t think the Tree House residents would grease a cop as they probably had with that witness but he couldn’t entirely put it past them.

Darwin was silent as he put the half-eaten muffin back on the plate with the others. He sighed and waved for Plank to follow him.

 

Standing at his neighbor’s front door, Darwin tilted his head from side to side, stretching his neck like a boxer about to enter the ring. “I’ll do the talking,” he said, sucking in a lungful of air and knocking on the door.

Scampering feet sounded from inside the house. When they stopped, the door was flung open, and the detectives were looking down at a kid whose auburn hair looked a bit damp. He was standing on a welcome mat – it said FOSSEY in block letters. A smile plastered across his face, he said, “Mr. Darwin!”

“Hey, Stevie,” Darwin said. He tried to smile but the result made him look constipated. “Your mom around?”

“You get the muffins we left for ya?” said Stevie. “Elderberry’s my favorite. Mom puts cimmamon in them, you know.”

“Oh, yeah, they, uh, were great as usual,” said Darwin, scratching his bald pate. “I actually wanted to thank your mom for them, is she here?”

“Yeah, lemme get her.” Stevie tilted his head back. “Moooomm! Mr. Darwin’s here!” The kid had a bell in every tooth.

Seconds later, Stevie’s mother, who had the same auburn hair, sauntered to the door. She was wearing jeans and a loose-fitting shirt and smelled like soap. She was smiling until she spotted Plank. Her hand on her son’s shoulder, she said, “Do me a favor and go to your room for a few minutes, sweetie.”

Stevie was prepared to protest but the scowl on his mother’s face changed his mind. He raised his hand in a pitiful wave to Darwin, turned heel, and trudged to his room.

“Can we come in, Marlene? Gotta talk to you about something,” said Darwin.

Marlene studied Plank. What she was searching for Darwin had no idea but it was clear she didn’t like what she saw. “Make it quick, I gotta start dinner soon,” she said. She held the door open for Darwin but let it swing shut in Plank’s face. Plank caught it and paused at the threshold. When it was clear that Marlene didn’t care whether or not he came inside, he entered.

Marlene and Darwin were in the living room. Darwin installed himself on the couch while Marlene was ensconced in a leather recliner. Plank stood next to the couch for a moment, feeling like a spoon in a drawer full of knives. “Sit down,” Marlene said. “You’re making me nervous.”

Plank did as he was told and sat beside his partner. He slowly got his notebook and pen out of his pocket and held them in his lap.

Darwin leaned forward and clasped his hands together. “There’s no easy way to say this so I’m just gonna say it,” he said. “We got three witnesses put you at the scene of a murder this afternoon, Marlene.”

“Me or someone who looks like me?” Marlene said, straight-faced.

“You, Marlene,” said Darwin. “They gave a description of Stevie, too.” He sat back and crossed his arms. “Found Stevie’s fecal matter at the scene, too. There were elderberries in it.” He paused. “I was surprised he threw it like that. Thought you broke him of that habit.”

Marlene stiffened.

“Look,” Darwin said, “we can take you out in cuffs and make a big scene or you can come quietly to the station with us.” He shifted just enough in his seat to expose his holstered Glock. “Or we can tranq you, do it that way. Up to you.”

“Fine,” Marlene said, holding out her wrists. “Handcuffs it is.”

“Doesn’t have to be that way,” said Darwin.

“Only way I’m leaving is in handcuffs.”

Darwin inhaled and let it out little by little. “I’m not looking to embarrass you, Marlene.”

“Oh cut the shit, Ollie,” Marlene said, boring into him with her dark brown eyes. “You’re not looking to help me save face; you’re looking to help yourself. You walk me out in cuffs and you become a pariah, which you obviously don’t want. But guess what? If I’m fucked, so are you.”

“So you admit to killing Ronald Zatmary this afternoon?” Plank blurted. He couldn’t help himself – screw this lady and her complacency.

“Plank—“ said Darwin.

“Is that who that was?” Marlene said. “Thought it was just another dickhead bigot. Piece of shit disrespecting my son like that. Ask me, I did the world a favor. Assholes like him aren’t meant for longevity.”

The detectives looked at each other and had an entire conversation without saying a word – Plank was sorry, Darwin let it go, the situation sucked but what could you do.

Darwin stood up. Taking handcuffs from a pouch on his belt, he said, “Marlene Fossey, you have the right to remain silent.” As Darwin slapped the cuffs on and continued to Mirandize her, Stevie poked his head into the room. He glimpsed a flash of silver at his mother’s wrists and rushed to her side.

“Mom, what’s going on?” he said. He turned to Darwin. “What are you doing to my mom?”

Darwin uncuffed Marlene. “Tell him,” he said.

Marlene crouched in front of Stevie and put her hands on his shoulders. “Remember how I hurt that man this afternoon?” Stevie nodded slowly. “Well, that wasn’t a good thing to do. Mr. Darwin and his friend need to take me away for a little while.”

“What? No!” Stevie said. He clamped his arms around his mother’s neck. “You can’t take her, Mr. Darwin!”

“Is Phil here, Marlene?” Darwin said.

“Nope, won’t be back ‘til later,” she said, smirking.

“We could get child protective services down here to get the kid,” Plank said. Marlene’s smug look was replaced with a worried one.

Ignoring his partner, Darwin said, “Can we call him?”

“You can,” Marlene said. “But he ain’t gonna like it.”

Unfortunately, she was correct – Darwin called Phil, explained the situation, and Phil just yelled “Fuckingchrist!” into the phone before promptly hanging up. When Phil got home, barreling through the front door and nearly blasting it from its hinges, Plank’s hand went to the butt of his Glock.

Phil came bombing into the living room, chest heaving, hair matted with sweat. He was wearing construction coveralls.

“Hey, Phil,” Darwin said. “I don’t know when Marlene’s bail is going to be set so—“ He was interrupted when Phil’s fist collided with his face.

Plank drew on Phil.

Darwin raised his hand. “Don’t,” he said, rubbing his jaw. Plank lowered his weapon but kept it in his hand.

“Fuckin’ traitor,” Phil said.

“Sure, it’s all my fault,” Darwin said. “I made Marlene kill Ron Zatmary just to fuck with you.” He threw the handcuffs to Plank and nodded.

Plank holstered his weapon and went to put the cuffs on Marlene. He was a few feet from her when Phil launched himself at the detective.

Darwin pulled out his sidearm and fired. The tranquilizer flechette buzzed across the room and stuck in Phil’s side. Plank barely had time to move out of the way before an unconscious Phil cleared the sofa and crashed into the wall. Stevie, who’d been relatively calm the whole time, started to cry.

Darwin sighed and reseated the Glock in its holster. “Guess we better call for backup.”

 

The black-and-whites, once they got to the house, were tasked with keeping an eye on Stevie until Phil woke up. The officers suggested that perhaps it wasn’t the greatest idea to leave Phil unrestrained but the detectives assured them it would be fine; the flechette, besides being a tranquilizer, also contained a mood-altering cocktail that would leave Phil feeling groovy and placable when he awoke. The officers were still wary but took the detectives at their word. They asked why Phil had been sedated and, after they were given the rundown, why charges weren’t being pressed. To which Plank replied, “No harm, no foul.”

Darwin wouldn’t have blamed Plank if he’d wanted to run Phil in. If somebody had come at Darwin like Phil had at Plank, that somebody would’ve been fucked. But Plank shrugged it off.

As the detectives ushered Marlene out of the house and onto the walkway, the officers were at the door, flanking a bawling Stevie who was yelling, “Don’t take my mom, Mr. Darwin! Come back! Come back!” Forget about the bodies and the blood, it was stuff like that that kept Darwin up at night.

Since they had Marlene in handcuffs, they couldn’t use one of the ladders to get down; they had no option but to take one of the open-air elevators. But to get to the elevator, they had to walk past a bunch of other houses, the doors and windows of which were now filled with prying eyes. It was a small miracle that Plank was blasé about the Phil situation because it was already awkward as hell perp-walking Marlene down the walkway. It would’ve been ten times as bad if they’d had both Fosseys in custody.

When they got to the elevator, the three of them got on board, and Darwin hit the “down” button.

“Take a good look, Ollie,” Marlene said. “Nothin’s gonna be the same after this.”

Darwin mashed the button repeatedly and, even though he tried not to, he looked at the residents lining the walkways, their eyes all pinned on him. He didn’t want to admit it but she was right – his life as he knew it was over.

The elevator sank slowly, and Darwin tried to put himself in Marlene’s shoes. Would he have come quietly or put up a stink like she had? He wanted to think he was a little more righteous than to make an innocent suffer needlessly. But then, if he were in Marlene’s shoes, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t have flipped out on Zatmary, too. It didn’t matter though, he had a job to do and that’s what he was doing. But doing the right thing should’ve felt better.

 

The detectives guided Marlene to the Bastard and loaded her into the back. Once she was situated, they got in, and Plank fired it up.

As Plank drove them back to the station, Darwin sat back, closed his eyes, and massaged his forehead. The idea of booking Marlene, calling it a day, and relaxing at home appealed to him until he remembered that home wasn’t exactly his sanctum anymore.

“Maybe this isn’t the best career choice for you, Ollie,” Marlene said.

Darwin ignored her.

“You could do a million other things, and you choose the one thing that puts you at odds with your own,” she said. “You really think you’re accepted by them, don’t you?”

Again no response from Darwin.

“Hate to break it to you, Ollie,” she said, “but you’re just another monkey to them.”

Plank peered at Marlene in the rearview mirror. “Say, how come it’s okay for you to throw around the m-word but I can’t?”

“Oh, c’mon, you know why,” Darwin said, his arms crossed. “You’re a human and we’re monkeys. You ain’t one of us, you shouldn’t use the word.”

“’One of us’?” Plank said. “Don’t lump yourself in with her.”

“You know what I mean,” Darwin said. “We’re monkeys and you’re not.”

“Technically, pal, you’re a hairless chimpanzee,” Plank said, again looking at Marlene in the rearview, “and you’re an orangutan.” He paused. “And, really, the proper nomenclature is ‘sim.’ Or ‘simian’ if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”

“That’s what you call us,” said Marlene. “Just another label.”

Plank considered arguing but thought better of it – it’d be like reasoning with a brick wall. He stayed silent and so did she.

“She’s got a point, you know,” Darwin said, breaking the silence. “We’re given labels, treated like second-class citizens. You saw how Harr and Ryerson acted around me. How Ada treated me like a piece of shit.”

Plank said, “I don’t think—“

“You don’t think what?” Marlene said. “You heard him, we’re treated like second-class—“

Darwin whirled in his seat and gave Marlene the ol’ eye-fuck. “You. Shut up. Or I swear to Christ we’ll hit you with a resisting arrest charge on top of everything else. Isn’t that right, partner?”

“Technically, she was resisting, yeah,” Plank said. “The whole ‘give me cuffs or give me death’ schtick.”

Marlene acquiesced and shut her piehole.

Darwin turned back to his partner. “You were saying.”

“I was going to say that I don’t think that Harr and Ryerson have anything against you. I’ll bet they’re probably just not used to the concept of sims as citizens yet. To them it’s still got some novelty. I mean, it’s a brave new world, pal. Some people just ain’t ready for it. As for Ada, that was misdirected hostility.” He hooked a thumb in Marlene’s direction. “Mother of the Year back there kills Ada’s brother-in-law so of course she’s going to be a little less than civil toward the next sim she comes in contact with.” He put up a hand, traffic-cop style. “I’m not justifying it or saying it was right but it was a natural reaction. She lost family, can’t blame her for going off the rails a little.

“And really, it took me a little while to get used to working with you,” he said. “‘Course that had more to do with you being surly than being a sim.” He smiled and playfully elbowed his partner. “But still. Gotta give it time. I mean, Doc Parveen doesn’t act weird around you. And that girl, Lacey, she was nothing but nice to you.”

“Fair point,” Darwin said.

Marlene muttered something involving the word “blame.”

“What’d I tell you about talking?” said Darwin.

“Wait, what did she say?” Plank said. Darwin shrugged. Plank looked in the rearview again. “What’d you say?”

Marlene opened her mouth, shut it.

“It’s okay, I honestly want to know,” Plank said.

“I said you can’t really blame me for killing that shithead,” said Marlene.

“How the fuck you figure that?” Darwin said.

“Your partner there said he couldn’t blame that woman for going off the rails since her brother-in-law was killed,” she said, “and I’m saying that you can’t blame me for going off the rails either. He called my son, an innocent kid, who doesn’t know from prejudice, a monkey. Guy bumps into us and we’re the assholes? Fuck him.”

“Bit of a stretch, no? Kill a guy just because he used a word you didn’t like?” Plank said. “Look, you love your son and want to protect him and I get that. But nobody needs protection against words because they’re not a threat. And because you didn’t stop to think about that, you’ll probably do twenty to life now. Where does that leave Stevie?”

Marlene face went hangdog, and she looked out the window. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

“Oh, what, you’re the only one who’s ever been called a monkey?” Plank said. “Look at my skin, lady. I’m black. I’ve been called monkey, nigger, coon, you name it. But unlike you, I don’t let that rule me. Because, in the end, they’re only words. They don’t matter.” He smiled and shook his head. “Damn it.”

“What?” Darwin said.

“I hate it when you’re right, pal,” Plank said. “No offense.”

A grin slowly spread across Darwin’s face. “None taken.”

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