Archie’s vision blurs, the words on the page before her at first merging, and then doubling. A groan escapes her lips, wrapped around a sigh. She’s been at this for too long, about一her olive green eyes flick to the gold watch on her wrist—seven hours.
“How is it one already?” she grumbles into her palms, scrubbing her face with the heel of her hand as if the pressure can demystify her eyes and reawaken both her mind.
For good measure, she guzzles down the last dregs of her cold espresso, a successful albeit disgusting chaser. The alternative is going home, which is probably the right choice, but in reality, it’s no choice at all.
Another hour, for Cole, she can do.
Stretching her arms above her like her cat, Archie blinks at the fluorescent light above her, out the window overlooking the quiet Main Street, and back to the file in front of her. Ballistics. Right.
At the scene, they found slugs from a 45 ACP pistol, the weapon itself discarded in a ditch two miles away. Serial number sanded off, the gun itself a frankenstein of artillery, pieced together to become a ghost.
So few traces of evidence left behind. Half of a fingerprint, the tread of a shoe, and the bullets lodged in Cole’s stomach, lung, and the cinderblock after they had blasted their way through Cole’s cheek.
Archie’s stomach lurched. Maybe the espresso was a bad idea, or maybe it was the six nights in a row of downing it. Or maybe it was worry fomenting into pure acid in her stomach. Or maybe it was all of it, each and every aspect, that was slowly killing her stomach and by extension, her.
Cole was the first friend she made at the department and if she is honest, the only one.
The first. Despite getting her job more than 10 years into the 21st century, the department had remained a bastion of masculinity and good ol’ boys clubs everywhere. Until she ruined it, of course.
Chief Lewiston had brought her before her colleagues for a quick introduction before she started her first shift. She stood there her navy slacks and button down, gold badge glimmering beneath the office lighting as bright as her smile. Thirty seconds into the intro, it nearly faltered when Gerry, one of the detectives, said, “What is this? A diversity hire?”
She’d be lying if she said it didn’t feel like a slap to her dignity, even if at some level, she had expected it. But Archie kept the smile plastered on, as if to not let him and others who held similar thoughts know it had made an impact.
“No, this is a hire for someone who is more than qualified for the job,” Chief Lewiston had said, his voice at once droll and irritated.
“No, this is about those women in the Letters to the Editor section calling this department a sausage fest,” Douglas, a patrolman, griped. And based on what Archie had seen thus far, she agreed with the letter writers.
“No, once again, it’s that Officer Sweltek was the most qualified and suited to this job,” Lewiston said. Gerry didn’t even bother to muffle his reply of “bullshit.” Even in the academy, where she was one of a handful of women enrolled and maturity levels were middling at best, Archie had felt more welcome.
Leaning against the communal bulletin board, Cole stirred his coffee with a brown swizzle stick, ginger curls falling against his forehead, sky blue eyes crinkled in mischief although they were set firmly on the liquid in his cup. “It’s good to have fresh faces, different perspectives, Ger. One of us here needs to be able to solve a case without their head up their ass.”
Ger, to say the least, didn’t take too kindly to it, his gasp nearly as loud as the laughs reverberating through the room. Cole winked at Archie—not in the flirty way people come to accuse them of, despite their purely platonic status—but like she had an ally in the room. She bit back her genuine smile in the name of professionalism.
Cole kept his nonverbal promise. He became the person she traded stories with around the watercooler, who was her ridealong partner on third-shift nights, and the frequent voice of reason among their not-so-reasonable coworkers. He was the first person to congratulate Archie when she was promoted, when she became the youngest detective in the force’s history and the first to receive a medal from the governor for her work with victims of abuse and assault. Sometimes he was the shred of humanity that kept her tethered to this job, that made her not walk away when the “boys club” became too much to bear. Or when a perp drove his blade into her arm, missing her throat like had intended, and the trauma almost drowned her, taking her back to that college dorm where all of her went in, but not all of her came out.
“You can’t let the bastards get you down,” he told her after the incident, when the thought of going on another call had her curled up on the floor of the files room. He had been there with the abuser, caught him in his flight down the front steps as Archie chased him, blood spilling from her arm and still slick on the blade. Cole had tackled the guy into the grass, wrenched his arms around his back, and held him there even after the handcuffs were around his wrists.
“Co-opting Handmaid’s Tale now?” she had muttered at her feet.
“Sometimes Margaret Atwood says it best,” he replied, and in her periphery she could see that cocky, pleased-with-himself grin, because they both knew he wasn’t wrong.
This case, this solve, she will do it all for him. It’s the only thing keeping her from crumbling on that file room floor again.
Grabbing the next folder from the stack on her desk, Archie flips the cover open. “There has to be a lead in here,” she begs of the pile of witness statements.
The thing about witnesses is that they can’t always be trusted. Emotions and time—even a matter of minutes—can manipulate memory. But that doesn’t mean they’re without value. Data, ballistics, prints, they’re all integral pieces of evidence, but eyewitness testimony can be the key to an otherwise unopenable lock. Her colleagues had mocked her for the amount of time she spent pouring over interviews, but she knew all it took was one little detail to change everything. When they laughed, she pointed them to her solve rate, and sure as shit, it wasn’t so funny anymore.
Over the years, she had learned that typically collective memory can be believed, and in Cole’s case, all the witnesses said the same thing: It came out of nowhere.
It was another day at the local Stop ‘n Shop. People were picking up items for late lunches and early dinners. Kids were raiding the candy counter. End-of-day donuts were selling like hot cakes. Cole was there to talk to the store’s owner, Lin, about the strange, disturbing, and profane graffiti depicting a woman bloodied and bound that had appeared in the alley across the street to see if Lin had noticed anything odd in the days prior.
The front window collapsed in on itself and its gape, dressed in the stereotypical ski mask, was the perpetrator: about five-eight, wearing non-descript light-washed jeans and a long-sleeved white t-shirt. Either he had a birthmark on his neck or the beginnings of a tattoo beneath the collar of his shirt. Dark tendrils of hair fanned out from beneath the mask.
In a moment that the witnesses described as time moving in milliseconds, and actions in millimeters, Cole reacted in an instant. He dove in front of the exploding glass to shield the father-son pair on the other end of the gun’s barrel.
In the fear and panic of what followed, accounts of what happened to the assailant varied. For the most part, witnesses said that the shooter was simply gone, disappearing before they tore their gazes away from Cole or lifted their heads from hiding. But Lin, who was sheltering behind the cash register, couldn’t look away from the perp, and said the person looked into the shattered window, smiled, and walked away with no urgency, no fear.
“They smiled?” Archie had asked Lin from across the black laminate interview table, her arms braced against the edge as she clung to every word. A tremble went through her body, although whether it was a product of his words she couldn’t say. She had been shaking since the call came over the radio: Officer Hounsell Down. When she heard it, she drove so quickly that if someone tried to pull her over, it would’ve been a high-speed chase. She arrived in two minutes flat, and what she saw in the Stop ‘N Shop would be forever emblazoned on her mind: Cole’s blood bright on the gray tiles, stark against his pallid skin, his shirt clinging to him like he had just cannonballed into a pool fully clothed, his red hair slick with sweat against his forehead, his mouth gasping like a fish with its gills shredded.
Lin nodded, eyes wide and still petrified. “I swear on my life. On my husband’s life. He smiled like… like he had gotten what he wanted… almost like he had planned it.”
“You think the shooter was targeting someone?”
Lin nodded again, this time slower as if bearing the weight of the question and its implications.
Just like when Lin first told her, the hairs on Archie’s arms stand at attention, her breath flees like it is outrunning the bullets, and nausea churns in her stomach like it hadn’t since her arm was carved. Just like when Lin first told her, the words stop her short.
The evidence points to it. This wasn’t a suspect randomly spraying bullets. They were aimed and quickly dispersed.
But who was the target then? Lin and his store? Ray Hess and his son, Troy? The perp had damaged Lin’s store but if the purpose was to do damage, why would you commit attempted murder?
If they wanted to hurt or kill the Hesses, they hadn’t succeeded, the pair walking away physically unscathed.
That left Cole, which made no sense. The store wasn’t part of his patrol, although the area was. The fact that he was at the Stop ‘N Shop was nothing more than coincidence.
“Wrong place, wrong time,” her fellow detective, Miton, said as he stood over Cole’s hospital bed, eyes fixated on the even beep of the heart rate monitor. Archie stared at Cole’s chest, making sure it was truly going up and down, not shuttering like it had been when she saw him.
“What happened?” she asked with each of his exhales. “Who did this?” As if he would wake up from the medically induced coma and give them all the answers they needed.
He had even pissed off a couple of guys in the department who had “threatened” to shoot him if he didn’t stop shooting his mouth.
After an hour of brainstorming, Archie had compiled a list of 47 people who could’ve had a vendetta against Cole, but, days later, none of them felt right. Either they didn’t match the description, or they had alibis, namely the county jail.
“No offense to Lin, but I think you’re spending too much time on this.”
Thanks for reading part I of this two-part story. Please check back tomorrow for the conclusion.