Here are the first five chapters of Out to Twist, my 2014 NaNoWriMo project. Enjoy.
It’s unfortunate that I even have to include this disclaimer at the beginning of this work of fiction, but it’s 2015 and this is where we’re at as a society.
Yes, this book contains Muslim villains (and heroes). No, that does not make this novel inherently racist.
It is my opinion that dismissing any work of fiction containing Muslim antagonists as ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ is ignorant at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. If you would like to have a civil conversation about the matter, feel free to contact me.
Rain fell on the roof and windshield of the patrol car as patrolman Vito Altamori and his partner, Hector Ortega drove back to the station. They had been responding to a call about an armed robbery, but by the time they arrived, the suspect had been long gone. They still went by the book and collected statements from the clerk and several witnesses, and Hector was already hard at work on the police report in the passenger seat as the pair finished up their patrol route. They would turn their report in at the end of their shift
“You alright, V?” Hector asked as his partner took one of his hands off of the wheel to rub his eyes.
“I’m fine,” said Vito as he resumed scanning the sidewalks and passing vehicles for anything suspicious. Fall was coming, which meant that crime would be dropping off slightly due to colder temperatures, but the neighborhood that they were driving through was never quiet. Even though he was growing tired, he did his best to stay alert. Even though the patrol car sat much lower to the ground than the MRAP that he had once driven through the streets of Tikrit, the job remained largely the same; look for anything suspicious, and deal with it appropriately. At least he had a night in his own bed to look forward to as soon as his shift ended.
“How’re your classes going?” he asked his partner.
Hector shrugged. “They’re going alright; at least they are when I can make it. Going to class when I’m working full time is what makes it tough.”
“Well if you think getting to class is the toughest part of getting an architecture degree, you’re way smarter than I am,” said Vito. “Are you still thinking about quitting?”
Hector shrugged again. “I don’t know, man. Right now, I’m just taking it one day at a time, you know? The job just isn’t what I thought it would be.”
That was a sentiment that Vito could understand. He’d lost track of the number of times he’d thought that exact thing during his time in the Army, and even now as a cop in his hometown. He wanted to help people and feel like his life had meaning, but there was just so much red tape and bullshit that there were times that he felt more like a bystander than someone who was supposed to be protecting people.
They rounded a corner and drove by a small parking lot sandwiched between two run-down apartment buildings. He almost missed the cluster of men standing in a circle at the far end of the lot. Vito’s instincts immediately went into overdrive. There was no reason for a group of young men to be standing around in the middle of a parking lot at two in the morning while it was raining outside. He’d been to a briefing just two days ago where he’d been told by a department lawyer who had never worn a uniform in his life that this kind of thinking was unproductive and unwarranted. Nope. He was going with his gut on this one.
“Hector, look over there,” he gestured and slowed the car. Hector looked up from the laptop and followed Vito’s finger to the back corner of the parking lot.
“Yep,” he said. “Looks pretty sketchy to me. Wanna check it out?”
Vito was already on the radio calling it in. He pulled forward just enough to keep the distinct silhouette of the patrol car out of the group’s line of sight. Pojanski and Mullen were a few blocks over and began to make their way to Vito and Hector’s position. Traffic was light, so it was only a few moments before the second patrol car turned onto the street perpendicular to Vito and Hector’s vehicle.
“What are you thinking it is?” asked Hector.
“Narcotics, most likely. These guys don’t know or trust each other. Otherwise, they’d be meeting somewhere more private.”
Hector nodded in agreement. Chicago was a historic hub for all kinds of commodities including the full gamut of illegal drugs. Cocaine from South America, meth from Mexico and Appalachia, pot from all over, it was all CPD could do to keep a lid on the worst and most violent of the gangs that made their money through the drug trade.
Pojanski’s distinct nasal voice came over the radio. “We’ll circle around and cover the alley in case they bolt. Are you good with making the approach?”
“Absolutely,” said Vito after receiving a nod from Hector.
“Sounds good,” replied Pojanski over the radio. His car pulled through the intersection and disappeared from sight. In less than a minute, he called in to say that he was ready.
“You ready?” asked Garcia.
“Let’s get it over with,” said Vito.
He turned on the lights on top of the patrol car and put it into reverse. The darkly clad figures were still clustered in the back corner of the small parking lot. As soon as the blue lights began reflecting off the walls of the surrounding buildings, the young men spun around just as hector bathed them in blinding white light from the floodlight mounted on the passenger side of the patrol car.
For a split second, they all froze in the bright light, mouths open in shock. Vito, looking past Hector, could see that his suspicions were correct. There were two groups of six men present, one group was wearing the baggy clothing and bright colors that marked them as members of one of the larger Mexican drug running gangs active in the city. The other group was far less flashy. They were wearing plain street clothes, looking for all the world like they were simply students or office workers on their morning commute. Looking down, Vito could see two duffel bags at the feet of the gang members, while the tallest member of the other group had a backpack that he appeared to be in the act of handing to the gang members. Before he could even get out of the car, the men scattered and all hell broke loose.
Several of the gang members pulled pistols out of jackets or waistbands and opened fire. Hector cursed and dropped low into his seat as a bullet struck the searchlight. Vito rolled out of the car, giving Hector space to crawl out of the driver’s side door. Before his partner could wriggle completely free from the car, a bullet struck him below the shoulder. Garcia shouted in surprise and pain as Vito drew his pistol and fired three quick shots in the direction of the muzzle flashes. There was very little light in the alley, and Vito’s limited night vision had been robbed the second they fired up the searchlight.
“Garcia, are you alright?”
His partner grunted in response as Vito helped the smaller cop make his way over the center console and through the driver’s side door. Looking down at his injury, Vito could see that Garcia’s injury was rapidly bleeding through his shirt. Not good. Hector’s eyes started to glaze over and Vito fumbled in his pistol belt for one of the half-dozen trauma tourniquets that he had kept when he got out of the army two years before. He already had the straps set up so that he didn’t have to awkwardly cinch it tight around his arm. Instead, he gave it a quick pull and tightened it as hard as he could before wrapping the strap around the arm. The Velcro on the two sides of the strap kept the tourniquet from sliding as Vito twisted the little handle and tightened it further. Garcia gritted his teeth as Vito secured the winch after checking to make sure that the injury was no longer immediately life-threatening.
“Don’t move, bro. Better for it to hurt a bit than have you bleed out,” he said to his partner as he made sure that the bleeding had largely stopped. Vito pulled his gun back over the hood of and assumed a low firing stance behind the car with the engine block between him and anyone else who might want to take a shot. It had taken him less than twenty seconds to get the tourniquet on his partner, but the situation in the courtyard was already almost irreparably out of control.
Men were scattering in all directions. Several had broken one of the ground-floor windows that faced the parking lot and were climbing through. Naturally, the two nearest streetlights were out, making it hard for the two police officers in the other car to acquire a target that they could confirm was armed and dangerous. From inside the car, they could hear Pojanski shouting into the radio.
Vito scrambled for the hand mic. “Pojanski, we have shots fired at our position. Several suspects are cutting through the alley heading toward your position. Garcia is down but responsive. Some of the suspects are definitely armed.”
“Got it,” Pojanski responded. Pojanski might sound ridiculous on the radio, but Vito knew that the fifteen-year veteran was very cool under pressure.
Vito pulled the first-aid kit out of the car and turned to Hector. He pulled out a bandage and wrapped it around Hector’s arm, just to be safe. His partner groaned as he pulled the bandage tight.
“Are you good?” he asked his partner.
“Good enough,” said Hector as he pulled his weapon out of his holster and began scanning the parking lot. His normally steady hands trembled from loss of blood, but he could still at least lay down covering fire, even though Vito didn’t think he had a chance of hitting anything more than twenty feet away in his current state.
There were several cars parked in the lot, and Vito used them as cover while he bounded into the lot to scan for any remaining suspects. His radio cracked back to life. It was Mullen, reporting that he and Pojanski had run down one of the gang bangers who had tried to use the back alley to escape.
One down, thought Vito as he advanced further into the lot with Garcia covering him from behind the patrol car. Unfortunately, the guys that had broken the window and escaped through the apartment building were probably long gone. Vito swept his light through the broken window, seeing only a folding table and a broken chair, confirming that the apartment was abandoned. Vito sighed with relief. It could have gotten ugly if anyone had been in there when four or five armed gang members had smashed their way through the apartment.
Vito heard footfalls behind him and spun around, gun drawn. Across the lot, he saw two figures disappearing down a second alley that had not been visible from the street. Vito called it in over the radio and began sprinting after them. In a few seconds, he was through the lot and in the alley. The buildings pressed around him and the smell of old garbage forced Vito to breathe through his mouth. He reached the street and whipped his head back and forth, looking for any clue as to where the fleeing suspects could have gone. There! About two hundred yards away, a door slammed shut.
Panting hard, Vito sprinted toward the building, barely pausing to glance at the sign above the door. About one resident in three was middle-eastern in this part of town, so the fact that the sign was mostly in Arabic was not unusual. He had never bothered to learn the alphabet while he had been in Iraq, a fact that he now regretted slightly. Still, he called up the address on his radio before trying the door. It was unlocked. He rolled his eyes skyward when he saw that the door opened into a narrow staircase. After running a quarter mile in a Kevlar vest, stairs were not something that he was in the mood for. He pounded up the stairs anyway and stopped when he saw the room above. Row upon row of carpets were separated by a partition in the middle of the room. It was a mosque, an Islamic place of worship. Shit. This was another place where his old and new jobs were similar. You weren’t supposed to go in a mosque without permission from higher. Even if you thought there was something fishy going on in there. He stopped to listen but couldn’t hear anything.
Just when Vito was beginning to think that he must have picked the wrong door, he heard muted voices coming from behind a door near the back of the mosque. There was just enough flickering light coming into the darkened main room from under the door that Vito could see shadows darting back and forth across the threshold. He took a moment to catch his breath before padding up to the closed door. He was outnumbered and he could smell smoke. Were they destroying evidence? He knew that the element of surprise was his best and probably only option if they were armed. He put his back to the wall and pivoted on his left foot, smashing the sole of his right shoe into the cheap wood by the doorknob. The wood splintered with one kick, and Vito bust into the room.
The two men jumped up from their work. They had been feeding papers and disks into a small metal wastebasket on a windowsill. The wastebasket had smoke billowing out of it into the early morning sky. “Hands in the air,” yelled Vito. The fire continued to burn as the two men slowly got to their feet, hands raised. In the corner of the room, Vito could see the backpack that had been in the parking lot. The zipper was undone and he could see several crisp stacks of bills poking out of the top of the bag. It would have to wait. He tossed the two men his handcuffs and instructed them to put them on while reading them their Miranda rights. For their part, the two men remained quiet, though their eyes burned with defiance.
A quick look into the wastebasket confirmed that the papers and disks in it were already useless as evidence, but he saw several folders and binders that had been left untouched. For a moment, Vito considered trying to go through the papers or take some with him, but he was by himself with two potentially hostile suspects. Taking his attention off of them would have given them an edge. No. Better to take them down then sort everything out.
The three of them made their way back down the narrow staircase, out into the cool autumn air. As they walked down the stairs, Vito was fairly certain that he saw one of the men look back over his shoulder. When he turned around to see what he was looking at, there was nothing there. The lights of several patrol cars illuminated the street in flickering blue light. Several officers rushed up to help with the two handcuffed suspects. Hector had driven their patrol car to the scene, but was now being loaded into an ambulance. He looked worried as the paramedics loaded him into the back of the vehicle. Pojanski had taken charge of getting Vito’s two arrests and the gang banger that he and his partner had grabbed back to the station.
As soon as Pojanski and Mullen had the two men in the back of his car, Vito turned back to the building.
“Come on,” he said. “There’s something you guys have to see up there.”
“Altamori, hold up,” a voice called out from behind him.
Vito spun around just in time to see the precinct’s Captain getting out of the passenger side of a squad car. He did not look amused.
Achmed’s heart pounded as he listened to the receding footsteps of the cop and the two members of his group that had fled to the mosque after the deal went bad. The evening had started out perfectly. They were supposed to meet the Mexicans that night and buy the chemicals that they needed to carry the plan that God himself had doubtless revealed to him. The gang was involved in the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine, a stimulant enjoyed by many of the godless heathens that populated the United States. Unfortunately the police had shown up at just the wrong moment and ruined everything. Two of the gangers pulled out guns and started firing, not wanting to get caught selling chemicals to a bunch of middle-easterners.
Their sudden flight had left Achmed and his compatriots in the lurch. Nasir, Mohammad, and Rasheed had gotten by a second police car that had been circling around behind the lot while the officers were handcuffing one of the gang bangers. Achmed, Mahomet, and Faisal had headed back to the mosque, two blocks away. Fearing that the plan had been exposed, and the police were aware of the plot, they began destroying the diagrams and photographs that they had put up in the back room of the mosque while they planned the attack. It was clear that Allah was going to test him before allowing Achmed to carry out His divine will.
Fortunately, Achmed had been in the supply closet when the police officer arrived and apprehended Nasir and Mahomet. As their footsteps receded down the steps, Achmed stole out of the closet and peered out of the window overlooking the street, doing his best not to be seen from the street. There were already three squad cars outside and he was willing to bet that more were on the way.
He crept away from the window into the room that the Imam had allowed the group to use to plan their operation. Since they were all students living in campus housing or dorms with little to no privacy, a quiet place to prepare had been paramount. To his dismay, he saw that they were only halfway through destroying their blueprint, diagrams, and photographs. He knew he couldn’t continue to burn the papers and keep his presence hidden at the same time, so he collected the pile of incriminating documents and proceeded to the mosque’s small restroom. He continued to shred and flush the evidence as he made the call that he hoped would be his group’s salvation.
The phone rang twice before being picked up. “Yes?” said a voice on the other end, obviously just roused from sleep.
“Walid, it’s me,” said Achmed, voice urgent.
The voice immediately sounded more alert. “What happened, did everything go alright?”
“No. We were unable to pick up your brother at the train station, so we went home. Now there’s a garbage truck blocking our way, so we cannot leave the house.”
“Shit,” responded the voice. They had rehearsed the code words previously. It was a trick that Achmed learned in Afghanistan. His uncle had always insisted on using innocuous code words when they were delivering their shipments of Chinese-made weapons to the mujahideen in Khost and Logar in hopes that it would foil the technology that the Americans used to listen to radio and cell phone signals.
The imam, who was little older than Achmed, would sit in rapt attention for hours while Achmed regaled him with tales of his battles against the infidels that were, admittedly, slightly exaggerated, had loved the idea of code words. Still, the sheer panic conveyed by the man’s frantic breathing on the other end of the line put Achmed on edge. He was clearly a man who had doubts about Allah’s support for the plan, which could make him into a liability down the line.
“Listen,” said Achmed tersely while he flushed another several handfuls of shredded documents down the toilet. “I need you to call your friend that works in the sanitation department and have him move this truck so that we can get out.”
“I’ll call him, but it might be too late,” said the imam.
“Just get it done,” said Achmed, hanging up as he continued to shred and flush documents.
Last year, the local city alderman had stopped by the mosque hoping for an endorsement from a pillar of the Muslim community before the citywide elections. Achmed, newly arrived at the time, had advised the imam to strike a deal with him and request that he intervene in instances where the police were harassing Muslims. Such incidents were rare, so the alderman happily agreed. Now it was time to see if the crooked politician would keep his word.
He was already back in the mosque’s back office, pulling photographs of buildings off the corkboard that took up a good portion of one of the walls when his phone began buzzing.
“Yes?” he said, after pressing the green button on the touchscreen.
“Alright, it’s done,” said the Imam. “He’s making a call to the local station to delay the search.” He’d dropped all pretense and wasn’t even trying to stick to the agreed-upon code words. “This was way too close.”
“He’d better get there fast.”
“He will, I reminded him that our voting bloc was the one that put him over the top. He knows that he’ll need us again before too long. Are you still up there?”
“Yeah, not sure if I can get out without someone seeing me. I’m taking the trash out of the office right now.”
“You’d better get everything out of there. I’m not getting arrested for this.”
Achmed bristled at the comment, “Now isn’t the time to be getting cold feet. God will decide whether or not you go to prison. They’ll be back up here eventually, and if they find me, it could get bad.”
“Alright, I’ll figure something out,” said the imam, fear and anger mixing in his voice. “Keep cleaning out the office. I’ll stall them as long as I can.”
Achmed groaned inwardly as he looked around the cluttered room. He had a long way to go before all evidence of the plot was discarded. Worse, it meant that he and his followers would have to start again, virtually from scratch, and that was if and only if he could somehow slip out of a building with one entrance surrounded by cops. It was going to be a long night.
“This isn’t good, Altamori,” said the Captain as the two handcuffed men were led away. “The station has already gotten a call about a baseless police raid on an Islamic house of worship. I’ve been at work since eight o’clock yesterday morning, and when this breaks, I’ll be dodging calls from reporters for the whole day. The press is gunning for us and we just handed them a whole lot of ammunition.”
Vito, who had been riding a wave of adrenaline since the first shots were fired, tried to conceal the look of shock on his face. “Sir, they were up to something. Twelve guys meeting in a dark lot at two in the morning? Shots fired? My partner hit? I don’t know what they were buying, but if you go upstairs, you’ll see that they had a bag of cash and were in the middle of destroying evidence.”
The Captain paused, “Kid, you’re obviously hyped up right now, but you’re not in Iraq anymore. You can’t just go kicking down doors in mosques, rounding everyone up and calling them terrorists. That’s what you were implying, wasn’t it?”
“Whatever it was, there’s plenty upstairs that will tell us what they are up to.” He didn’t want to set off the Captain.
The Captain looked over to another patrolman, who was listening intently to a cell phone pressed up against his cheek. He shook his head before going back to listening.
“Too late,” said the Captain. “Judge just called. We need to wait for the Imam to come down before we are allowed to reenter the building.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Vito. “There’s a room up there full of diagrams, photographs of buildings downtown, cash, you name it. Those fucking kids are up to something.”
“Well, you got them all, right?” asked the Captain.
“All of the ones that ran into the mosque,” said Vito as doubt began to trickle into his mind. Truth be told, he’d been so amped up from the shooting and the fact that he was alone with two restrained suspects that he had not checked the upstairs mosque as well as he should have. Then there was the one guy who had looked over his shoulder as they went down the stairs. Despite the low temperature of a Chicago morning in the fall, Vito felt a thin sheen of nervous sweat on his body.
“Well, good,” said the Captain, breaking Vito’s train of thought. “It’ll still be up there when the warrant comes through. You’re not in the Army anymore, Killer. No one’s ever had a problem with these folks until tonight.”
The phone rang again, and Vito tried not to listen as Lonergan turned away from him so that he could hear over the wind. “Are they talking?”
“Are who talking?”
“The guy Pojanski caught and the two from the mosque.”
“Nah,” said Lonergan. We’ve got ‘em in one of the overnight cells, but they either can’t speak English or are keeping their mouths shut on purpose.”
“Great,” muttered Vito. “Sorry for being short with you. It’s been a hell of a night.”
“I hear you,” said Lonergan. “You did right by your partner, and if anything you’re saying is true, then you’ll have a hell of a bust to your name. Just be patient. This is over both our heads right now.”
It took another three hours before the call authorizing the police to re-enter the mosque came through, by which point the sun was already coming up. A sizable crowd had gathered around the police cordon over the past forty-five minutes or so. Some were local residents that were simply curious about the commotion, but Vito could see that there were also a large number of angry-looking men, along with a few women in headscarves, pressing against the barriers and yellow tape. At that moment, three or four of them were arguing vocally with police officers manning the cordon.
As for the police, everyone was tired and clearly wanted to go home. A few of them had heard Vito’s conversation with the Captain, so rumors abounded as to the exact nature of the investigation. Vito had been the only cop in the mosque, and the Captain had tried his best to tamp down on any of the muffled conversations in case someone overheard, but most of the cops were eager to get in on a potential terrorism-related investigation and griped about all of the red tape keeping them from going up and searching the building.
The crowd was getting more and more restless. Several bearded men got in a shoving match with two of the cops manning the perimeter before their compatriots dragged them back into the crowd. The tension in the air was palpable. The Captain looked nervously at his phone and back out at the growing crowd. Finally, it began beeping loudly. With a sigh of relief, he pulled it out of his case and answered it.
Vito could see Lonergan’s breath rising as he spoke with whoever was on the other end. After several minutes he hung up and turned back to the assembled officers.
“Alright guys, we’ve got clearance to head up there and check things out just as soon as the resident Imam gets here. We’ve got a delicate cultural situation on our hands, and city hall is watching this real close.”
Several of the cops groaned, while a few others looked nervously at the increasingly hostile crowd. Apparently, they had interrupted morning prayers. While most of the men were still milling around outside of the cordoned area shooting venomous glances at the cops stationed along its perimeter, several had, in fact, taken out carpets and began prostrating themselves in the direction of Lake Michigan.
Finally, a young-ish looking man with glasses and a scraggly beard approached the cordon and waved at Captain Lonergan. Lonergan looked at a picture on his phone before walking over and shaking the man’s outstretched hand.
“Good morning, Officer. My name is Hassan Abdullah and I am the imam here at this mosque. I hope we can clear this issue up in time for at least some of my flock to make it in for morning prayers,” he said in a smooth voice with only the slightest trace of a foreign accent. Even though his voice was calm, Vito could see that his hands were shaking.
“Excellent,” said Lonergan. “Hopefully we will clear this up soon. Aside from the officer who initially followed the two individuals into your mosque, we have remained outside ensuring that no one can come in or out.”
“I see,” said the imam. “And what, may I ask, became of the two men that your subordinate dragged out of their place of worship? I have been told that they were last seen being bundled into the back of a squad car. Just so you are aware, my community will not tolerate this kind of harassment.”
“They were taken to the station five blocks west of here. For now, they are not suspects and are simply being held as possible witnesses to the shooting of one of my men. The rest depends on what we find when we head up these stairs.”
The imam nodded, face impassive. Again, Vito could see that he was extremely nervous about something from his tense posture and trembling hands. As he unlocked the door and opened it for Vito, Lonergan, and the three other cops that were going to accompany them up the stairs, the commotion along the perimeter of the cordon increased exponentially. Like a dam bursting, the crowd of angry onlookers surged forward as the cops along the perimeter clustered defensively together in groups of two or three.
“Tell your people to get back,” snapped Lonergan to the Imam.
The Imam nodded obligingly and called out in English and Arabic. The crowd slowed, but several bearded, scowling men remained in place, arms crossed and scowling, speaking in heated Arabic with the imam
“I apologize,” said the imam, voice absent of any real sincerity. “Some of the more devout members of the community are concerned about unbelievers walking freely within our place of worship. You don’t, by any chance, have any practicing Muslims in your group here?”
Lonergan shook his head.
“I suspected not,” said the Imam with a sigh. “My community is sadly underrepresented within the police force, which probably contributes to these pointless searches.”
At that, Vito lost his patience. “Pointless searches? I don’t know how or if you’re involved in this shit, but I’d be a lot more concerned than you are if someone was planning an attack on innocent people from my place of employment.”
“You and your compatriots are always planning attacks on innocent people from your place of employment,” snarled the Imam.
Before the situation could degrade any further, Lonergan stepped in. “Enough,” he barked. After glaring at the mix of police officers and bearded, Middle Eastern men in the landing he continued, “We’re going to go up and figure this thing out.” He turned to the imam and said, “I’ll let a few of your ah, congregants come up, to confirm that we are not disturbing anything. If there is something of religious significance that you do not want my guys to touch, you will handle it yourself while we watch.” You two,” he said, pointing to the two cops in the doorway, “watch these guys like hawks, alright?” Both officers nodded as they appraised the small knot of elders on the landing.
The group made their way up the narrow, creaking staircase, eyeing one another suspiciously the whole way. They got to the top of the stairs and the elders suddenly appeared agitated. Several moved to different parts of the room inspecting the sacrosanct portions and articles of the mosque while exclaiming angrily in Arabic.
“Get them back here,” Lonergan said to the imam. “Until I say otherwise, this is still a fucking crime scene.”
Apparently satisfied that the mosque had not been defiled by outsiders, the elders returned without complaint. All but two or three were apparently satisfied by the cursory once-over that they had given the main room and were escorted outside by the two officers that had been ordered to look after them.
Once they heard the door close behind them, Lonergan turned to Vito. “Alright, Altamori,” he said. “Let’s take a look in this back room so that we can get this sorted out one way or another.”
“Absolutely,” said Altamori, trying to keep his voice from trembling. For the first time that evening, he realized that this bust could potentially make his career, not to mention the dozens or even hundreds of lives that this chance encounter might have just saved. He hadn’t spent two of the last six years in Iraq chasing down religious fanatics with a death wish just to have them blow something up in his own back yard.
He opened the cheap wooden door that led back to the room where he had arrested the two men destroying the blueprints and diagrams several hours ago. He found it strange that the door was closed. He could not remember doing so when he had taken the two men out of the mosque, but his adrenaline had been pumping furiously at the time, so anything was possible. He looked about the room and saw nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever. The room looked, for all intents and purposes, like a modest office. The corkboard that had been covered with photographs and wiring diagrams was nearly bare, covered only by a few forlorn fliers in English and Arabic. The smoldering wastebasket was nowhere to be seen.
Lonergan elbowed his way past Vito into the room. “What’s going on here, Altamori?”
Vito couldn’t believe his eyes. “Sir, I’m telling you, it was all here; diagrams, blueprints, piles of cash, everything.”
The imam looked at Vito with a smug expression that conveyed an equal measure of pity and disgust. “It looks like officer Altamori was in too much of a hurry to wrongfully arrest two of my congregants to bother noticing that the nefarious plans in question were for a children’s’ trip to the Field Museum, and plans for a potluck at the community center. The news agencies and the mosque’s law firm will be hearing about this outrage, rest assured.”
The Captain looked at both Vito and the imam suspiciously before turning to the other officers who were craning their necks to look through the doorway. “Tear this room apart and shout out if you see anything. You. Come with me. We need to have a little chat in private.”
The assembled group of elders and police officers stared at Vito wordlessly as he followed the Captain back to his patrol car. This was not going to be good.
The combine sliced through the rows of corn, its powerful diesel engine propelling it through the field. Eric Ingarson kept an eye on the gauges, occasionally adjusting the combine to keep the six rows of corn centered between the whirring blades. He glanced up at the sun, which was beginning to set behind the trees that lined the far edge of his field. This was the sixty-eighth time that he had harvested the field and knew that he had another hour before he would have to switch the machine’s lights on to keep harvesting.
At eighty-four, Eric was still lean and relatively spry. While he had one of those four-pronged canes with the tennis balls that someone had given him as a birthday present, he barely ever remembered to use it. He heard a thump underneath the combine and removed his noise-cancelling headphones long enough to confirm that there was nothing wrong with the combine before putting them back on. The Ingarson family had been working the same land since the eighteen-fifties. Over the years, they had found dozens of arrowheads and even a giant Potawatomie axe blade in the field, but chances were it was nothing more interesting than one of the large stones that sometimes worked their way to the top of the field. He put his headphones back on and turned up the volume of disc-man that he kept in the cab. His smiled as he listened to a blistering saxophone solo. He loved jazz music. Even though his life had changed drastically over the past three years, he knew that he would never stop enjoying the complex melodies of the old jazz masters like Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
As he reached the edge of his property, he pivoted the large vehicle with the ease that only comes with years of practice and began heading back in the direction of the farmhouse, harvesting the next six rows of corn as he went. Even though the combine was more than a decade old, and far removed from the cutting edge of agricultural technology, Eric still marveled with the speed with which the machine separated individual corn kernels from the cornstalks as they passed through the whirring blades and complex machinery in the bowels of the machine. As he got closer to the near edge of the field, he could see the entire Ingarson farm laid out before him. On the right, he could see the property’s two houses, the large, traditional clapboard farmhouse that he grew up in that he now rented out, and the newer, more modern ranch house where he currently resided. Directly in front of him, he could see his large barn with the new metal roof along with a silo that barely got any use nowadays. Behind the barn, there were two machine sheds and a low-slung building that used to house the pigs. After he’d been hired by the local high school to teach science back in the seventies, he’d sold the pigs and the building had been unoccupied ever since. In the current market, if you wanted to raise hogs and make a profit doing it, you had to go all in on it, and at his age, Eric had neither the energy nor the inclination to do so.
His farm butted right up against the small town of Chattaqua, Illinois, population seven hundred eighty-four. It was a nice town. He had grown up in Chattaqua, left for a few years to serve in the Army, but had returned when his father grew too sick to run the farm in the late 50s and had been there ever since. His grandkids, born and raised in the land of subdivisions and strip malls, had a hard time wrapping their heads around what life was like in a town with one bar, one restaurant, one gas station, and no stoplights, but Eric could not imagine living anywhere else. Chattaqua and the area around it had been good to the Ingarsons for generations.
He continued to watch the rows of corn as they shivered then fell in front of the combine’s blades and thought about how his job had changed over the decades and how it remained the same. Sure, the gear he used was different and made a lot of the work a little easier, but farming was farming and he doubted that it would change much even after he was gone. Unlike the farm, his life was very different now than it had been even five years ago. His body was finally starting to slow down. He had been an avid golfer and never had too many problems doing any of the long list of physical tasks that running a farm entailed. He hadn’t stopped baling hay or working under vehicles for hours at a time until he was well into his seventies, but after his wife had lost her long battle with lung cancer five years ago, it seemed as if a part of him just gave up. Every day, a new part of him ached and it was harder and harder for him to get out of his now-oversized bed each morning. Even his old injury from the Korean War, which hadn’t bothered him in decades, was starting to make walking difficult for him again.
His family was growing older too. His grandkids were almost all grown. His son and daughter both had great families. Sometimes, he wished that they had stayed in LaSalle county with him, but he knew that the good jobs and opportunities were all closer to the city. As such, he was the last Ingarson to live in the river valley had been home to his family since his great grandfather came over from Norway more than one hundred and fifty years ago. His oldest grandkid, Alice, had graduated cum laude from the University of Chicago, and had been hired by the Chicago Courier last spring. His six other grandkids were well on their way to leading successful lives of their own. He just wished that he could spend more time with them.
His son, Carl, was returning from the grain elevator in town. He was driving an open-topped tractor with two empty hoppers hitched behind him. Carl lived and worked in the western suburbs of Chicago, but came out every weekend to help him out with the farm, and Eric was not sure if he would have been able to complete the harvest on time if it hadn’t been for his help. On more than one occasion, he had breached the subject of what would happen to the farm when he couldn’t run it anymore with his son, but so far, Carl had stonewalled him. Eric couldn’t blame Carl for not wanting to talk about it. He knew that his son wanted to keep the farm in the family, but was also fully aware that Carl and his family would have to uproot their lives if he was to take over the farm full-time. He briefly considered discussing the subject with his son before he left for the night, but decided that it could wait until his next visit.
Carl expertly pulled the tractor alongside the combine while Eric extended the boom over the rearmost hopper. With a flip of a switch, the corn began cascading into the trailer in a golden wave, filling the massive trailer in just a few short minutes. As soon as the rear trailer was full, he pulled forward a few yards so that the corn began filling the front hopper. He knew from long experience that the combine could carry enough corn to fill one-and-a-half hoppers. He left the engine idling while he climbed down the ladder to talk to Carl.
“You doing alright, dad?” his son asked, concern on his face as Eric walked toward him.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Why do you ask?” said Eric.
“I don’t know, you just look tired,” said Carl.
Eric was feeling tired, but he didn’t want to talk about it. He would be able to get some sleep in a few hours and he could make it until then.
“How many more trips do you think we can make tonight?”
“I talked to Willy on my last trip in, the Gjoviks and Sandersons are still bringing soybeans in, so he’s keeping the elevator open for another hour.”
Eric looked at his watch and nodded. “If you have to get back, I understand.”
“It’s fine, Dad. I’ve got tomorrow off, and Maggie can get the kids ready for school, so I can get some sleep.”
Eric nodded in thanks. “You sure you don’t just want to spend the night and just head in tomorrow morning?”
“I’d probably better head in tonight. Thanks though.”
Eric understood. When the kids had been younger, Carl could bring them out on weekends and help out around the farm while his three daughters played with their Grandmother. Now that they were older and his wife was gone, so a combination of an intense schedule of after-school activities and the lingering sadness over his wife’s death that still seemed to affect the family kept them away more than he would like.
Eric tried not to think about things he had no control over as he began hauling himself back up the ladder to the combine’s cab. As his left hand closed around the rail at the top of the ladder, it started to tingle, as if he had been holding it above his head for several minutes rather than a few seconds.
Without warning, the entire left side of his body stopped working. His now-useless left arm lost its grip on the ladder and he lost his footing on the ladder. He did not have to fall far, and the dirt was fairly soft. Still, his right arm shot out instinctively to try to keep his head from hitting the ground first. He heard a crack as his body hit the ground, but his mind seemed to be working in slow motion.
His glasses had been knocked askew and his vision was out of focus. Still, he could see his son in his tan barn jacket standing over him, eyes filled with worry. He tried to say something, but the words forming in his brain did not seem able to make their way to his mouth. He could hear his son shouting indistinctly into his cellular phone, but try as he might, he could not make out the words. The pain in his head was so intense that he closed his eyes for just a moment.
When he opened his eyes, he could see red and blue lights flashing nearby. The blurry form that he knew was his son was helping several other blurry forms move him on some kind of stretcher. It was too hard for him to keep his eyes open, so he closed them again.
The next time he opened his eyes, he could tell that he was inside a moving vehicle. Someone was gripping his hand tightly and he had some kind of mask covering the lower half of his face. His mind was still moving incredibly slowly, but things were starting to make sense again. He heard his son’s voice from a long way off.
“You’re going to be OK, dad. Just stay with us, we’re almost there.”
The vehicle was beginning to slow down, though Eric had no idea why.
“I know,” he whispered. Just make sure the tractor makes it back in the shed before you lock up. I wouldn’t want anyone… messing with…” it was too much effort to keep talking, so he closed his eyes again and drifted out of consciousness.
Vito taped the top of the cardboard box shut and turned up the volume on his laptop, which was sitting on a coffee table blasting a mix of classic and alternative rock. The sound of the protesters outside his door was a constant reminder of just how completely his life had fallen apart in less than two weeks. By the time CPD had gotten a warrant to search the inside of the mosque, there was nothing suspicious to be found. There were no burning piles of evidence, no mysterious bags of cash, or anything else that could back up Vito’s version of events. The two suspects that he had apprehended were engineering students at a local college with no priors. One had been born in the southwest suburbs, while the other was from Egypt on a student visa. Their story was that they were walking to the “el” after participating in a late night Koranic study group when they were attacked by a group of thugs. It was their word against that of Vito and his partner, at least until the first few reporters started sniffing around.
Even if no one believed him, Vito was certain that there had been a third person in the mosque that must have gotten rid of the evidence before they were allowed back in. That would certainly explain why the one guy had been looking over his shoulder as Vito took him down the stairs. Saying as much out loud just made him seem all the more desperate to keep his job.
The newspapers and TV reporters took it and ran with it. It had been the top story for a week. Ex-Army Cop Desecrates Mosque competed with Innocent Students Rounded Up by Troubled Iraq War Veteran after Traumatic Mugging for ratings. There was no mention of the mysterious deal taking place in the parking lot, no mention of destroyed evidence or the fact that it had taken hours for the police to get permission to reenter the mosque, and worst of all, there was no mention that Garcia had taken a bullet during the brief shootout. Against the advice of Mullen and Pojanski, Vito had tried to engage the first few reporters that had fired questions at him as he walked to the parking lot after his shift the next day, but quickly realized that they already had their minds made up. The story that they wanted to tell was one where a psychotic veteran with a grudge against anyone from the Middle East was detaining innocent college students instead of their attackers. If something didn’t fit, they wouldn’t report it.
Worse, one of the students caught up in the arrest was the son of the owner of Gholani Construction, one of the largest general contractors in Cook and Lake Counties, and holder of a number of important city contracts. When Nasir Gholani Senior heard that his son had been arrested under less than clear-cut circumstances, he’d raised an ungodly stink with his friends in City Hall. That was probably the foot-thick log that broke the camel’s back. Even if he’d been able to keep his job, the displeasure of such an influential player in Chicago’s political arena basically ensured that he would never see another promotion come his way as long as he was with CPD.
To his credit, Vito’s boss had fought for him, but the political pressure coming from city hall was just too much. The mayor was in for a tight primary race and did not want to lose a key demographic by making it easy for his opponent to portray him as being soft on over-aggressive cops. Within two days of the incident, Vito had been placed on administrative leave, and he had received a call that he was going to be officially terminated at the end of the month less than a month later. At first, Vito was determined to fight for his job, but a conversation with the union rep had dampened his resolve. Apparently, the rep had already been told by his bosses that a tentative deal had already been struck. Vito Altamori would go away, and in exchange, the law firm representing the mosque would not pursue a federal Civil Rights case. If he chose to stay, the union would not help him since he was only a three-year veteran of the force. Vito had been overjoyed to see that his mandatory union dues had turned out to be absolutely pointless.
This was actually his first time back to his apartment in a week. Some jackass had leaked his address online, and there had been a steady stream of hostile protestors outside of his building ever since. His mom had offered to let him come back and stay in her two-flat, and his brother and three sisters had all called to express their concern. He hadn’t wanted to get them involved though. Truth be told, his childhood hadn’t exactly been pleasant and he’d pretty much severed ties with his family when he’d joined the Army. He didn’t want to drag them into this.
Instead, he’d been living at Mullen’s place, in the spare room in his basement. Mullen had a wife and three kids, so there wasn’t much room to spare. Even though his co-workers had been forbidden from going on the record to say anything supportive of their disgraced colleague, dozens of cops had made small gestures to support Vito. He was going to miss working with them.
His landlord had been more than happy to terminate his lease early in light of what he liked to call the ‘screaming wackos’ that were camped outside of his building’s entrance, so Vito and a couple other cops had gone over to pick up his stuff to take to a self-storage place while he figured out his next move. Right now, two members of his squad, O’Brien and Nichols, were out front guarding a U-Haul truck from the dozen or so protestors in front of the building. Both cops topped out over six feet and made for an intimidating sight with their massive arms folded over broad chests. So far, the protestors, a mix of scrawny college students and members of the local Muslim community, had wisely decided to give them a wide berth.
“Where do you want me to put your kitchen stuff?” asked a desk sergeant named Helton.
“In here is fine,” said Vito as he gestured to a half-filled box that contained everything from socks to DVDs.
Garcia was there too, though his arm was still in a sling. “This is absolute bullshit, man,” he grumbled as he sorted some books into a different box.
Vito shrugged. “You know, I’m starting to get used to it. I’ll figure something out. I really appreciate the help, though.”
The cops all shook their heads or muttered that it was no big deal, but it meant a lot to Vito that they were willing to help him out with little stuff like cleaning out his apartment.
“They’re doing you dirty, and it’s not right,” Garcia persisted. “You guys should have seen him out there. He pulled me out of that car like I was a bag of groceries. I thought I was done, and he gets fired? He should be getting a goddamned medal if you ask me.”
“They didn’t though,” said Helton. “They didn’t ask any of us. City Hall says jump, and the Higher-ups do it.”
“Well come on now,” said Peters, a detective that worked in the same precinct, “they’ve got their retirement to worry about. They don’t care if a few good cops have to get fired to get them there.”
The griping was interrupted when the laptop on the coffee table started chiming. A popup indicated that Vito’s video chat program had an incoming call. He checked the name and pushed the ‘accept’ button. After a few seconds, a familiar face materialized on the screen. Vito recognized the man’s large, square head and shock of short blond hair.
“Harrelsson? How are you?”
“I’m doing pretty good Sergeant, uh, I mean V.” He looked a little embarrassed as he continued. “I saw your name on the news, man. That’s rough. What happened?” Don Harrelsson was wearing a mottled green set of fatigues. Vito could see that he was at a computer terminal in an unfinished, plywood building. He could hear muted conversations from the other soldiers that were sitting on nearby computers talking to friends and family as well. He described the past two weeks’ events to Harrelsson and watched as the young man appeared more and more crestfallen. He had been one of Vito’s Team Leaders during his last deployment before he got out of the Army, and he could see by the rocker on his chest that he had been doing alright.
“That sucks, man,” said Harrelsson when Vito had finished his story.
“Shit like this happens sometimes,” said Vito. “At least I’ve still got some friends who have my back. The cops in Vito’s apartment had gathered around the screen and a few of them waved to Harrelsson. “Where do they have you right now?” asked Vito.
“Logar,” replied Harrelsson. “Easy deployment this time. We get rocketed every once in awhile, but we’re mostly just training ANA and tearing stuff down here. That’s not why I called, though. You know my dad’s a cop out in LaSalle County, right?”
Vito nodded. He’d grown up in Roger’s Park, and had laughed at Harrelsson when he first showed up to his infantry squad as a brand new sergeant and told everyone that he was from Chicago. It turned out that he was actually from a small farming town two hours west of the city.
“Well,” Harrelsson continued, “he’s the chief now and is looking for a new hire. I mentioned you to him, but he said that he’d already heard about you on the news. I said they were lying and I’d call and get your side of the story. I can give you his number if you want to set up an interview.”
Vito was taken aback. He loved police work, but figured that no one would want to hire him since he was damaged goods. Helton slapped him on the back. “There ya go, man.” He turned to the computer screen. “You, my friend, just restored my faith in humanity. Thanks for your service and keep doing what you’re doing.”
Harrelsson’s pale face turned red. “I never know what to say back when people say that, but… thanks, I guess. It’s really great of you guys to be helping out Sergeant- I mean V like this. He’s a friggin’ hero, even if he won’t talk about it.”
Vito tried to keep his voice from sounding raw. “Thanks, man. I’ll give your dad a call tonight and see if he’s interested.”
“Sounds good,” said Harrelsson. “I’ll let him know what the real deal is right now. I’d better get going, though.”
“Hey, give us an address so we can send you a care package,” said Garcia over Vito’s shoulder.
“Sure thing,” said Harrelsson. “Just send a couple logs of dip for my squad and we’ll call it good.”
The cops all laughed and said that they’d see what they could do. After Harrelsson ended the call, they gathered around Vito, patting him on the back and grinning broadly. It did not take them long to finish packing up the rest of his stuff and load it into the waiting truck. The protestors made a pretty serious racket when Vito emerged with the last of the boxes, but they stayed out of the way for the most part. After a kid with greasy dreadlocks that had ‘wealthy suburbs’ written all over his expensive shoes and skinny jeans tried to spit on Vito, Garcia shot an elbow into his stomach with his good arm, causing him to double over and drop his ‘End CPD Racism’ sign.
“Probably shouldn’t have done that,” he said with a smirk. After they had dropped everything off at the storage facility, the group went out for a few drinks at a bar just up the street from Mullen’s house.
“To V,” shouted O’Brien, lifting a half-finished mug of beer over the center of the table. The rest of the cops all brought their glasses together, murmuring in approval.
“Just think. This morning we were helping you move out of your apartment and you had no idea what you were going to be doing or where you were going to be a week from now. Now, you’ve got a new job lined up, and if I’m not mistaken, that chick over there is checking you out.” Several of the cops turned in their chair to look in the direction O’Brien was pointing. “Jesus, don’t look all at once. That’s bush league shit,” muttered O’Brien.
“Sorry,” chuckled Garcia. “I guess those of us that were actually carrying boxes down the stairs are all too tired to pick up on your subtle social nuances.”
“Hey, I helped,” said O’Brien indignantly.
“Naw,” countered Helton. “You just stood around the truck in your little sister’s t-shirt and tried to look scary so those jackasses wouldn’t try to mess with it.”
“Whatever, guys,” said O’Brien. “I know you’re all just jealous of my athletic physique.”
“My ass,” said Nichols. “My eleven-year-old has bigger legs than you. You can’t just do curls in front of the mirror every day and say you’re an athlete.”
Vito had enjoyed more than one beer, and was feeling good about his lot in life for the first time in two weeks, and had stopped listening to his friends’ banter. Truth be told, he had caught the gorgeous brunette three tables over looking over her shoulder at him a couple of times already. What the hell, he thought to himself. What’s the worst that could happen if I go and talk to her? He got to his feet and made his way over to where the brunette and her two friends were sitting. One of her friends noticed him approaching first and whispered to the brunette.
She spun around in her chair, and Vito could tell that she was quite pretty. Her shoulder-length hair formed beautiful ringlets that framed her face, and she had gorgeous green eyes. Before he could open his mouth to introduce himself, the aforementioned eyes narrowed in recognition.
“I knew it,” she said, anger and hostility dripping from her voice. “You’re the guy that’s been on the news.”
This was not the reception that Vito had been hoping for or expecting. He opened his mouth, but could only stammer, “It didn’t happen the way that they said it did.”
The brunette rolled her eyes before continuing to glare at him. “It’s the twenty-first century, you know. It’s jerks like you that make the rest of the world hate us. If you can’t put your bigotry aside long enough to enforce laws and help people, you shouldn’t even be a cop.” Vito wanted to say something. He wanted to tell her what really happened. He wanted to tell her about his time in Iraq, how he had held the hands of close friends from his units as well as Iraqi soldiers and police officers as they had been evacuated after IED strikes, their bodies shattered thanks to violent psychopaths that wanted to return the world to the eighth century and would think nothing of beating and violating the woman in front of him for so much as looking at them the wrong way. He wanted to, but he couldn’t. He just watched impotently as the three women stormed off to find a table at the other end of the bar.
“Don’t worry about it man,” said Garcia when he shuffled back over to the table. “Any girl that gets her opinions from the news like that isn’t worth keeping around.”
“I know what I saw,” said Vito. “Problem is, people don’t want to believe me. I should have checked the place out more before I left.”
“You had two detained suspects in custody and you were alone,” said Nichols. “You made the right call. I believe you, I just wish I knew how the third guy slipped the net.” He took another long swig of his beer before turning back around to make fun of O’Brien’s tiny legs.
Even though the rest of the cops were distracted and talking amongst themselves, Garcia still lowered his voice. True, they were helping out a friend from work who had fallen on rough times, but there was no way of telling how seriously any of them took Vito’s claims. “Look man, you saw what you saw. I wasn’t there because, you know,” he gestured at his dangling arm, “but that shit was sketchy as hell. We both know that wasn’t no mugging. The bag of cash? What were they buying? Then you find all of those maps and blueprints and equations in that little room up there? Something big’s going to happen. I can feel it.”
“Me too,” said Vito. “Not that there’s anything I can do about it. If I say anything, they’ll just call me crazy or racist or say I have a grudge to settle.”
“Don’t worry about that. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Besides, this time I won’t have a convenient gunshot wound to keep me from dangling right there beside you when they leave us out to twist. Tell you what, I’ll keep an eye on the ground, and I you get hired out in that hick town, you won’t be too far away. I’ll put some feelers out too. Some of these guys probably feel the same way.”
Vito nodded in thanks. Deep down, he hoped that he was crazy. Or paranoid. Or both. It was true that his time in Iraq hadn’t exactly left him with a glowing impression of Islamic culture, but his instincts still screamed that there was something horrible afoot, and that God or fate or something had placed him and Hector in a position where they could deal with it.
After a few more drinks, Vito got up from the table and walked out the building’s back door. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number that Harrelsson had emailed him. The phone rang three times before someone picked up.
“Hello?” said a low voice, words slightly slurred.
“Hello, is this Chief Harrelsson?”
“Yes it is. Judging from your area code, you’re not from around here. What can I do for you, city boy?”
“My name is Vito Altamori, and I was told that you may have an opening in your department.”