Chapter 6: Pleasantries

Chapter 6 - Pleasantries

“Kill Crystianne. Don’t forget!”

Maggie’s been whispering the same damn thing all night. I suppose she wanted to get in one last reminder just before daybreak. I’m sitting in the backseat while Jessica sits shotgun and Leanne drives like its Talladega on I-20.

It’s too early to be blasting AC/DC, but Leanne is amped up and excited. Remarkable. Her demeanor would have me believe we’re on our way to cash in free passes at an amusement park. She’s laughing at all of her own jokes, cutting off Jessica, and dominating the conversation with theories about the mainstream media being in the pockets of the Liberal politicians. Whether I agree with her or not is irrelevant. I only know that providing any feedback will only encourage her ceaseless oratory. Jessica, on the other hand, has yet to learn that critical lesson.

Leanne assumed Jessica and I were happy for our homecoming. She asks what it was like growing up in Augusta. And of course, as soon as Jessica opens up, Leanne cuts her off to talk about her own rough upbringing in New Port Richey, Florida. Yep, I get to hear replays of stories I’ve already heard as she narrates with the same spite about backstabbing boyfriends, an overbearing mother, and old co-workers who doubted she’d ever amount to anything.

In between bursts of laughter, Jessica sips from her coffee and glances back at me. She’s curious. She wonders if I’m always well groomed in my black slacks, blazer, and white collar. I’m not tired. I expect it to be a long day. There’s an energy shot in my bag just in case.

In my hands is a computer tablet. They think I’m taking the time to better acquaint myself with the case but that’s only half correct. In truth, I want to know what Det. Mark Griffin’s been up to since botching my mother’s homicide five years ago. I still remember it like it was yesterday. It was my crucible.

Back then, Det. Griffin had only recently transferred to the Athens Police Department. Taking that into consideration, I couldn’t place the blame entirely on him, not as much as I did his veteran partner. Det. John Hart was everything I hated about old school law enforcement. How they lingered to stereotypes and put everyone in a category. To Det. Hart, my mother was no exception.

Even at her funeral, I could hear Det. Hart calling my mother a whore who got what was coming to her. When they first questioned me, they made it point to bring up my family’s history with mental instability, reaching for that suicide theory, noting that no one in my family has ever lived past the age of forty-five. Then, days later, Det. Hart called himself trying to put me in my place when he told me he was closing the case and dared me to hit him. When I refrained, that fat bastard chuckled thinking he got the best of me. That was just an hour before I met Maggie.

I see…

It appears detective Hart and Griffin managed to botch another case not long after I graduated and left Athens. I scroll through the local news sites and learn that Det. Hart manufactured evidence to justify shooting an unarmed African-American. I guess he didn’t count on the rising trend of everyone taking out their camera phones. A neighbor recorded the whole thing.

Hart received a three-year sentence and was now bound to wheelchair in an assisted living facility after suffering a stroke in prison. The disgraced Det. Griffin transferred out of the precinct, somehow finding his way to Augusta of all places.

I should be satisfied but I’m not. I send Miranda a block long text to get her opinion. She was also questioned by these same detectives back then. So if there’s anyone who could possibly understand my resentment, it’s her. It’s still a little before seven, so I don’t expect her to text back anytime soon.

My mind drifts back to the case at hand. KeNedra, our survivor turned suicide. I minimize the screens of my research on Griffin and pull up her case files. Agent Dixon, failed to send photos of the crime scene like he promised but that’s all right. It’s better to see it in person anyway. It’s just puzzling, really.

I recall Jessica’s explanation as to how severe trauma could drive KeNedra to commit suicide, but my gut tells me that’s not it. I replay her interrogation video. There! Right there, before she speaks, she looks at the detective with a glimmer of hope. I see it in her eyes. Then when he leaves and just before she commits suicide, KeNedra flashes that intense scowl. I want to say it’s a scowl of determination but I’m not sure. In my heart of hearts, I’m certain she felt bad about being powerless to save the other girl, Tiquasia Payne. But still…KeNedra went so far as to break her wrists in order to escape in order to survive, only to kill herself later? Could it be that –

“Cloud!” Leanne shouts.

“What is it?”

“Jessica says you used to practice martial arts! I didn’t know you knew MMA.”

“Wing chun.” I correct.

“Wing chun? What is that? Like, kung fu?”

“Wait. Isn’t that’s the style Bruce Lee used?” Jessica asks with a smile that beams brighter than the sun rising over the tree line.

“Yep.”

That’s not entirely true. Wing Chun is actually the style Bruce Lee learned before developing his own system of fighting called Jeet Kune Do. I’m not trying to be rude with my short answers and half-truths. I’m just not convinced they really care about the subject. They’re just trying to suck me into their conversations, which again, isn’t a bad thing. The problem is I have no talent for small talk. Unless I need to know something or stand to benefit from soaking in the trivia, I’m not really interested in superficial subjects like sports and entertainment. And every time I have to feign interest for the sake of being polite, a little piece of me dies inside. I’m just weird like that.

We’re coming up on Augusta. You can tell you’re approaching when you pass the yellow caterpillar rollercoaster of “Funsville” skirting the eastbound side of I-20. I’ve been gone for far too long. They renamed the establishment. The smalltime theme park was one of the few good things about my childhood and they changed it.

Augusta’s the kind of place where if you were born and raised here, you’d have no aspirations of moving elsewhere. The trends and dictations of pop culture have no affect over this southern community and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. They’re content with their annual PGA tournament, their weekend barbecues. Saturdays are dedicated to college sports, and Sundays to church. It’s a land of hunters, builders, barbers, and starving artists who’d never let themselves sell out. God, family, and country is the creed, the commonality that keeps people united. Of course, beneath the surface there’s subtle racial segregation. But that’s by preference. Nothing’s forced.

That’s why no one got worked up when the media started pressuring southern states about taking down Confederate flags. Every that hits the news, I smirked, thinking about Augusta. I knew there was no way in hell the flags were coming down.

I wish I could say I fit in with my peers here but no such luck. The stereotypes are all too real and I used to be the fat white boy who everyone thought was going to shoot up the school. So yeah…I guess the bad taste comes from all the years I spent watching friends hang out with each other while I was always alone, drawing anime on the back of the bus, riding to a broken home.

The rolling hills make it nearly impossible to stick to the speed limit. You won’t see a whole bunch of skyscrapers or flashy arenas, but more so, a spread out area of subdivisions and districts not far from blue-collar factories, plants and historic high schools. It was also home to Fort Gordon, a bustling Army base in which it seems a lot of vets come to retire and make their reentry into civilian life.

Outside the shopping hubs, there are vast fields of dull green pastures where cattle graze and horses roam. When I was a kid, I used to daydream about a t-rex bursting from the trees, snatching a cow, and thrashing it around. My mom would ask me why I was laughing and I’d just say, “Cows!!!” She’d smile. God I miss her smile.

Weaving our way to the downtown area, I can see initiatives to renovate the historic buildings and old abandoned houses. Downtown Augusta’s skyline was right along the Savannah River, modest, yet beautiful in its simplicity. It’s rush hour but traffic is light.

Homeless people smile as they meander to the downtown library. They greeted each other as if they were all part of the same family, regardless of race or gender. They were just happy to be alive, happy it wasn’t freezing yet. I spent a lot of time in that library. I’m glad it still looks exactly the same.

We check in our bags at the motel before arriving at the GBI field office at eight as expected. The small brick house was nice and cozy with floral wallpaper, baby blue carpeting, and framed Christian motivational posters on every wall. The staff is settling in for the day with a bubbling fresh pot brewing in the kitchen.

No one greeted us when we arrived. Deborah Musk was the receptionist while a Ms. Eleanor Legg was Agent Dixon’s assistant. Both ladies were middle-aged, large, bordering on obesity as they waddled about, wearing the same resting bitch-face by default. One was black and one was white. Not that it mattered, but I could imagine the fun debates that took place over the years. I assumed both were the no-nonsense types who thought they knew best.

We wait in the lobby as Ms. Musk fiddles with her radio to turn on the quiet storm. Then she says, “Y’all from Atlanta?”

Jessica and I exchange glances with highbrows and smirks. It’s just awkward with the three of us standing there like a bunch of tax auditors. Before too long, I take a seat in the lobby closest to the front door. The ladies branch off, letting their curiosity take them around the office, particularly to that fresh pot of coffee. Leanne seems to hit it off with Ms. Legg while Ms. Musk has already made up her mind not to give us the time of day.

Jessica keeps glancing at me as she examines the framed photos on the wall of historic old Augusta. Those brown eyes with a twinkle unlike any other…Come to think of it, we haven’t had a chance to catch up yet. Five years is a lot to cover. I wonder if we had the same understanding in which we rather not disclose such details in front of Leanne. It’s only been five minutes and already Ms. Musk was starting to grunt every time Leanne made a joke.

The front door opens with a ringing bell stationed at the top corner of the frame. In entered a juxtaposition if I’ve ever seen one. From the way the door opens and the fact that nothing about my attire is catching to the eye, I go completely unnoticed as the men enter and are immediately drawn to my partners.

Agent Dixon looked exactly as I expected. White male, white hair, grapefruit skin, early 60s, short and heavy set with tight suspenders clinging to dear life as they held up his slacks.

And next to him stands a taller, younger, more masculine male with broad shoulders, clean cut with dark hair and dark eyes. His expression is inherently respectful and submissive, but I know from experience that he could exert himself if he needed to. In his late 30s, he has the deep booming voice of a natural born leader, the kind of commander you’d expect to see taking front and center on some medieval battlefield, the kind of guy you’d depend on to make the tough calls like detonating a bomb or ordering a drone strike. This is Detective Mark Griffin.

He’s chatting with Dixon as I stand up and watch as the men gravitate towards Jessica and Leanne like a magnet slowly gaining traction. Griffin is pleasantly surprised by Leanne’s over-enthusiastic smile, the way she invades so much personal space to lean in with her handshake. Jessica maintains the firm posture in her back, shaking hands with professional courtesy almost as if she’s trying too hard not to be promiscuous.

Damn, that sounds way too prejudicial on my part. I’m in some kind of mood and I need to snap out of it. It’s go time.

Jessica’s eyes shift from Griffin to the man past his shoulder, prompting the detective to turn around and cast his sights on me. These moments are the best. You can see the stages of his mind working in real time. First, there’s the squinting eyes. Something’s just triggered. He knows he’s seen me before, but from where? Then there’s the flashes of shock and horror, before he realizes who I am and how he fucked me over. Then comes the timid smile as he beat backs regret and guilt. It was five years ago, after all. He tells himself he’s a changed man and there’s nothing to feel bad about. More than that, I smile gregariously, to appear as if it’s all water under the bridge. He doesn’t detect a single hint of animosity in me. This is good. It’s important to me that this man thinks I’m his friend.

“Cloud Beaudry! Oh my god! Look at you! You know, they told me that you’d be joining the case and I thought the name was familiar. But holy cow! It’s really you!”

I go to shake his hand, but to my surprise, he moves in to embraces me with a strong affectionate hug. It’s just like with Jessica.

“So this is Cloud.” Dixon says, shaking my hand. “Welcome aboard. I hope your record speaks for itself.”

They all laugh as they chat about Griffin’s name and how close it is to the mythical Greek creature. I find myself sharing Ms. Musk’s annoyance but at least I’m polite enough to wear a courteous mask for pleasantries.

“Well then! We should be off. Ya’ll had a bite to eat? Get somethin’ in your gut. Cause this is gonna be a longon’,” Dixon suggests.

“We’re ready. Let’s get to work!” Leanne says, way too chipper for her own good.

Before heading out to the crime scene, we follow Griffin to stop by the police headquarters just a couple of blocks away. Griffin introduces us the Chief of Police, who proceeds to give us the same spiel we already heard from out superiors about how important this case is. He stresses the urgency to solve it quickly. We give him his due respect and it’s here that Jessica steps up with her superior gift of oratory.

She assures the homicide unit that none of us are looking to use the case to further our own careers. She’s demonstrates her awareness of Augustan culture, comparing the city to a dormant volcano. She mentions that after the Ferguson and Sanford Florida incidents, the last thing this country needs is another media-fueled race war triggering an eruption. It’s an impressive speech. The Chief and his deputies are appeased by her grace. I expected no less.

It’s a quarter till nine when we leave the chief’s office. The stakes are high and I feel an exhilarating rush running through my bones. I actually prefer these difficult cases over the ones that appear clear-cut and dry. I’m sure Jessica and Leanne feel the same. So badly, I just want to get out to the crime scene and sink my teeth into it. Let me see the reports, analyze the data, memorize the geography. I’m ready! Let’s do this!

“Hey Cloud! Can you come by my office? Just want to talk to you for a second. It won’t take long, I promise,” so says Griffin.

Leanne, Jessica and I were marching down the hall with the main entrance in sight when I bite my lip and quickly flash a smile as if I was actually happy to hear his voice. Thankfully, Jessica takes Leanne by the arm and pulls her along.

With my hands in my pocket, I stroll by the other desks in the bullpen. Most are vacant with the deputies and detectives already out on assignment. The few who are seated give me quick nods. Everyone looks so rugged and old even though the median age was forty-two.

As I pass by the break room, I notice a picture of a flag football team posted on the cork bulletin board. Dressed in blue, Det. Griffin is squatting in the front row before thirty other stocky athletes. From his energetic smile and the way others seem to crowd around him as if he was the captain, it appears Griffin has come to fit in well with his new post.

“Yeah, we won the tournament last year. We kicked some ass!” Griffin says over my shoulder.

I turn and nod. Gesturing, “That’s what’s up man!” even though I don’t say it.

He pats me on the shoulder and guides me into his office. He’s married and has a son, judging from the propped up photo next to his computer. The rest of his office is nice and tidy. His desk is bigger than mine and he has a window-view of the manmade pond out back. Yes, Det. Griffin you’ve done very well for yourself. Very well, indeed.

With his hands on his hips, Griffin stares at me in earnest. I try to be receptive in my expression, but when there’s so much resentment, I can’t be sure what I’m projecting.

“I um….I just wanted to get you alone for a second and formally apologize to you for all that business that went down in Athens. Not making any excuses, but I was new to the department and your mother’s case was my first. Det. Hart, he was a poor role model and an even sorrier excuse of a law enforcement officer.”

Something swelled in my chest as I heard him speak. My eyes get warm and I have to look away to focus on something else.

“Where is Det. Hart now?” I shudder to ask, fully aware that if I didn’t ask sooner, I might slip up and reveal knowledge of it later.

“He had a couple of strokes a while back. Confined to a wheelchair in an assistant living facility, last I heard.”

“I see…”

“Cloud…the way you were treated, the way your mother’s case was handled, it’s unbecoming of an officer sworn to uphold the law and protect the innocent. A lot of inappropriate things were said about you and your mother and I just wanted you to know that I never, on the souls of my wife and child, I never agreed or condoned Hart’s behavior. On the souls of my wife and child, I humbly offer you this heartfelt apologize.”

He extends his hand to shake mine. I turn around and do my very best to keep it together. The souls of his wife and son…how could I refuse such remorse. To his credit, he was right. It was mostly Hart’s misogyny that stoked the fires of my ire. I smile with overwhelming emotion as I reach out and shake his hand.

“I appreciate that Griffin. Really, I do.”

“Mark. Please. Call me Mark.” He insists.

“Mark, by your candor and humility, you’ve expelled all disdain and sadness that once took residence in my heart. I respect what you’ve done and I congratulate you on your beautiful family. From this day forward, I want you to put those unpleasant memories out of your head. It’s water under the bridge. Honestly, I don’t want any shame or guilt on your conscience. I embrace you as a brother and if there’s anything I can to help you and it’s within my power to do so, I will.”

Mark sighs, shrugging his heavy shoulders. It’s like I can see and hear the chains dropping to his feet. Relief washes over like rays of sunlight hitting a man now freed from his own internal prison.

“Thank you, Cloud!”

“Haha! Alright, boss. Let’s go out there and solve this case!”

“Yeah!” He cheers, patting my back to usher me out.

Yep. This was the high point of my relationship with Griffin. I’m sure you can guess where it goes from here.

Click to continue to Chapter 7: The Cotton Fields

…to go back to Chapter 5: The Next Case

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