First Look: The Academy
Here's a little something different for this website: An unpublished (and unpolished) story of mine. This is the prologue to a book I wrote some time ago. Contrary to my usual practice, I wrote the whole thing in first person... only to realize about 100,000 words later that third person is really the way to go for this. Eventually, I'll go back and rewrite it. Until then, here's a little sample of what I'm working on, and peak inside my process. Hope you enjoy it! Comment if you feel like it. Or if you don't. Just let me feel some of that sweet, sweet engagement!
“We have officers on the way,” she said, her voice clipped, curt, impatient. She was expecting me to say something and not waste time doing it.
“I’ll be here,” I replied, bristling at her insensitivity, and disconnected before I could say anything I’d regret later.
My eyes led me around the room. A futon sat still folded out in its sleeping position, a hodgepodge of Target linens tangled across it. A lone satin sheet threaded through the white cotton like a ribbon of dark caramel, skirting the slight depression in the mattress roughly the size and shape of a young woman sleeping on her side.
There was a bookshelf and a small desk, both still with assembly labels attached here and there. Rings from a coffee cup pockmarked both pieces of furniture, one accidently making a perfect replica of the Olympic symbol.
God, I could use some coffee.
A stack of textbooks threatened to collapse the presswood desk. I knew them well. Our Criminal Investigations book lay cracked open to the section on drug trafficking, an index card marking her spot. The top was off a highlighter. I fought the urge to put the cap on so it wouldn’t dry out.
It’s funny what your mind will do to protect you. I couldn’t stop myself from looking around the apartment, all around the edges, locking on to every little insignificant detail, anything at all to keep me looking outwards, away from the center of the room, away from the body of the young woman hanging there.
She didn’t sway or spin like bodies do in the movies. She could have been a statue or another piece of furniture. Her knees hovered above the ground, but not by much. Her weight, light as she was, pulled the yoga strap taut from the hook in the ceiling all the way to her neck. I stood behind her and forced myself to look. It was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body in real life, and I needed to learn how to do it.
Looking at her from behind wasn’t really so bad. Her ponytail had come undone and her red hair spilled down to cover the nape of her neck. Her skin was grey and didn’t look real, so it was easy to think of the body as an item instead of a person. That thought bothered me, so I made myself walk around and look her in the face. And that was all it took. It wasn’t a body; it was Snowflake. Dried blood caked the grey skin of her upper lip and an angry bruise surrounded the nylon strap around her throat, but it was still our little Flake. I reached out and closed her eyes. I know I shouldn’t have done that, but I couldn’t take looking into them. It was almost too much like her being alive.
The complete lack of warmth on her skin finally and absolutely drove home that she was beyond my help.
I wiped my hand on my jeans. I felt like a jackass for doing it. The cops would be here soon, the real cops, and there were things that needed to be done. What needed to be done? I closed my eyes for a second and focused, pulling up a mental checklist.
I needed to call Officer Towns. Police recruits don’t come into contact with law enforcement without alerting their instructor or there are dire consequences. They drill that in on the first day of the Academy and make it stick as only drill instructors can.
I pulled my phone back out and dialed Officer Towns’s private number. A part of me hoped for voicemail. Of course, she answered on the second ring.
“Towns,” she said. “What do you need, Mr. Cole?”
“It’s Cole, ma’am,” I replied. That’s me, master of the redundant and smooth under pressure. “I need to report… I need….”
It’s the damnedest thing. One minute I was speaking, and then my throat wasn’t working. I formed the words in my head, heard them in my own inner monologue, but when I sent them to my mouth to speak they got caught up in my neck somewhere. The muscles at the back of my throat tightened and I knew that if I pushed any harder, I was going to break down sobbing. I tilted my head to the ceiling, trying to stretch my vocal cords and use gravity to keep the tears in my eyes.
“Mr. Cole?” Officer Towns repeated. I tried to speak again and failed. All I managed, and this is crazy to me, was to hum. Not a tune or anything, just a low hum. It’s all the noise I seemed able to make.
Weighing my options, I took the lesser of the horrible choices and just ended the call. I figured anything was better that standing there humming into the phone or breaking down like a child for my instructor to hear. I left the room and went outside to get my shit together before the cops arrived. I paused at the door and made myself endure one last look at Flake’s body. I owed her that.
There is not much to an interrogation room. Four walls, a large one-way mirror, an army-surplus table, and a couple of office chairs. Oh, and a cop standing guard out in the hallway. There are no posters, no music, just the hum of the florescent ceiling lights and the occasional muffled traffic over the officer’s radio. It wouldn’t be bad if they didn’t keep me waiting so long. I think I may have been in there an hour, but it felt like a five. The cop brought me a bottle of water and a Snickers, and I thought about how it was just as boring for him. We both looked relieved when the detectives finally showed up.
“Detective Broyhill,” the larger of the two introduced himself and reached to shake my hand. He dropped his 250lb frame into one of the office chairs and slapped a leather portfolio down on the table. He loosened his already loose tie and smiled at me.
“They tell me you’re in the Academy,” he said as he opened the portfolio and dug into his jacket for a pen. “What number are they up to now?”
“We are the five hundred and fifth, sir,” I answered. After four months, the sir just came naturally. He noticed and chuckled.
“That high, huh? I was in three-ninety-eight myself. Hard to believe it’s been that long. You can leave off with the sir, by the way. We’re all on the same team outside the classroom.”
A second detective entered the room and crossed to lean against the corner opposite me. He wore a sharp suit and wire rimmed glasses and was as fit as his partner was fat. He carefully avoided blocking the door, just as Det. Nahng told us we should in our interview and interrogation class. It was supposed to help put me at ease and maintain the illusion that I was there of my own free will. The second detective would be the senior partner, the thinker. I’d never been the subject of a police interview before, so I decided to treat the experience as a learning one.
“We’ve read over your initial statement,” Broyhill said, shuffling papers. He dropped a couple on the floor and when he straightened from picking them up, the exertion left him short of breath. “You told the responding officers you were close to the young lady. Were the two of you romantically involved?”
“No, it was nothing like that. We were squadmates.” I thought about Flake and added, “And friends. We all liked her, but in a friendly way. We studied and worked out together. You know how it is in the Academy.”
Broyhill nodded. His partner frowned but didn’t move from his spot on the wall. The textbook said that he’d be the one watching my body language and facial features, searching for a micro-expression that would tell him I wasn’t being honest. A micro-expression is a new age term for a poker-tell, and I was willing to bet the blank-faced detective was one hell of a card player… as well as the last person invited to any party.
“Was that why you went over there tonight?” Broyhill asked. “To study and work out?”
“She had a bad day today. One of the instructors,” and here I made a conscious choice to omit Sgt. Brown’s name just in case he was one of their fishing buddies, “chewed her out pretty good. She tanked part of the midpoint physical assessment, too. I texted her after class to check on her, but she didn’t answer. A couple of us were going out for Chinese food, so I stopped by to see if she wanted to come out and get her mind off things.”
“And this was at what time?” Broyhill prompted as he scribbled a few lines in a notepad. He flipped the page and I could see that it was already crammed full of neatly spaced, handwritten notes.
“About 7:20pm. Nineteen-twenty hours. The last I saw her was at seventeen hundred when she left the Academy. She was alone, but she’s got two roommates. You might want to check with them.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” the second detective said, speaking for the first time. “We are going to talk to everyone.” His voice was deep, his pronunciation crisp. He sounded like a stage actor to me, one of the good ones who turn monologues into soliloquies. He had his hands in his pockets, the tails of his coat tucked back casually, but his eyes had not left me since entering the room. I met his gaze and stared back for a few moments. Something about the guy just pissed me off and, detective or not, I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me.
Det. Broyhill noticed my stare and followed it back to his partner. “Lets keep this friendly,” he said to the two of us. “That okay with you, Halsman?”
The other detective shrugged.
“Mr. Cole, can you tell me what you think happened tonight?” Broyhill asked.
I still felt his partner, Halsman, scrutinizing me, but the big man seemed like an okay guy, so I took a breath, uncrossed my arms, and told him the sad, painful truth.
“She was about to fail out. She went behind her parents’ back to join the Academy and they cut her off. She was about to lose her job and her apartment and that’s just the pickle on the crap sandwich that was the end of her dream of becoming a police officer. The instructors have been trying to break her since she poked her perky little face through the door. They didn’t think she could be a cop because she couldn’t do a set number of push-ups, so they hounded her until she failed. She couldn’t face it, so she went home and made sure she didn’t have to.”
Damn, I thought, remembering who I was talking to. I hadn’t meant to say all that. I guess I had that building for a while. The two men looked at me, Broyhill with sympathy, Halsman with calculated interest. Both men wanted me to continue, to come right out and say it.
“She killed herself,” I stated and set my hands flat on the table.
Halsman stepped from the wall to shut the door. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and addressed me. “Did you actually look at the decedent, Mr. Cole? Did you attempt to render aid?”
“Yes, sir, I did look at her. She was already dead when I got there.”
“Did you notice anything unusual?”
I thought about it. I’d never seen a dead body before, so what was usual for them probably wouldn’t be usual for me. Had I messed something up by closing her eyes? How much trouble could that possibly cause?
“You mean aside from the fact that my friend was cold and grey and not breathing?” I said. “No, nothing.”
The two detectives looked at each other. They had a shorthand going on, a silent conversation I couldn’t begin to decipher. Broyhill shrugged and Halsman said aloud, “As you are both the person who found the body and as far as we know the last person to see her alive, we are going to need you to fill in the blanks.”
Halsman pulled a chair from the wall as he spoke, removing his jacket and carefully draping it across the back. He held his tie against his stomach as he sat so that it wouldn’t catch on the table.
“Now,” he said interlacing his fingers and leaning forward attentively, “you are going to need to start from the beginning and tell us everything.”