“Sir? Would you step over to the table, please?”
Finally, Marcus thought, changing course and moving toward the simple, makeshift NYPD bag-checking station rather than the short rest of the way to the subway platform. There was already a train there disgorging passengers and taking on new ones, just beyond the turnstiles. Marcus didn’t need to be on that train. He really didn’t even need to take a train at all, being that his office was just ten blocks uptown from Penn Station, where the Long Island Rail Road terminated, and he could easily walk the distance the subway covered in just one stop, though it would take him roughly four times as long to do it. Marcus did take the subway that one stop almost every day, paying $2.50 for the convenience. And another $2.50 for the same ride in reverse each night. Because even though he could walk the ten blocks, he didn’t like to, as they were ten of the most crowded, noisiest, most irritating blocks in Manhattan, to Marcus’s mind anyway, running as they did right through Times Square.
This morning, though, was to be a bit less convenient than usual, inasmuch as a nondescript and forgettable uniformed police officer had chosen Marcus, at random, to have his bag looked into. Marcus had absolutely expected to be selected sooner or later once he’d started carrying a briefcase that looked like just the thing a terrorist would use to house and transport a bomb, if the terrorist wasn’t trying to be subtle about it. Marcus’s bag was bright orange, for one thing, and padded, and even though Marcus himself was as average- and generic-looking as a thirty-nine-year-old, third-generation, professional American man could be, nonetheless he knew his time would come, if only for the sake of appearances. So it was that he finally stood at the not-quite-dirty-but-not-quite-white, plastic-and-metal folding table, facing two additional uniformed New York City police officers—one a tall, clean-shaven white man, the other a black woman with her hair pulled into a tight ponytail, each in standard-issue dark blues, with the full complement of belt gear, including the bulky, clumsy pouches containing and concealing gas masks that began appearing strapped to New York City cops’ legs some twelve years earlier, neither wearing a hat, Marcus noticed—and said, “Hello.”
“Would you open your case for us, please?” the female officer asked.
“No,” Marcus answered, shaking his head slightly and smiling slightly as well. He had not placed his bag on the table. He was still holding it at his side. “I’d rather not,” he said, merely using more words to say the same thing again without elaborating any, which is just what he meant to do.
“Sir,” the male officer said, “are you refusing to let us inspect the contents of your bag?”
“I am,” Marcus said. This was, Marcus perceived, not only something these police officers did not expect—from someone of Marcus’s description, at any rate, he was certain—but also something they were not quite prepared for. And for sure it wasn’t something either officer wanted at that hour.
“Sir,” the female officer said to him, “if you refuse an inspection of your bag—”
“I can’t ride the train,” Marcus finished. “I know. I guess I’ll just hoof it from here, then.” And Marcus turned to leave, pointing himself toward the exit, to one side of the bag inspection station, that led to the street.
“Sir,” the male officer said, in what Marcus figured was a tone taught at the police academy as an intimidation tactic (along with invariably, meaningfully addressing a civilian man as Sir), and moving to intercept Marcus, putting himself between Marcus and the staircase. “I’m going to need to ask you a few questions.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Marcus said evenly, not intimidated, or at most intimidated just a very little. “I’m simply opting out of the random bag inspection—an option clearly given to me by your own sign, not to mention the United States and New York State Constitutions... which refusal does not create an exigent circumstance such that you can detain me without other probable cause. So unless you’ve got a warrant for my arrest—which I’m pretty sure you don’t, being that you don’t know who I am, being that you selected me randomly for a bag inspection... I’m going to go upstairs and outside and walk to my law office.”
And with that, Marcus decisively and undeterredly sidestepped the male police officer and headed up and out into a summer morning on the streets of Manhattan, emerging on the southeast corner of 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, bright orange, padded case firmly in hand. Inside this bag were Marcus’s keys, his phone, his wallet, his glasses, two pens, and the classic European detective novel he was reading at the time. With the $2.50 the NYPD had just unwittingly and unintentionally saved him, he thought he might buy a cup of fancier coffee than he usually drank, the kind he couldn’t believe people paid that much money for.
Most people , Marcus thought, are idiots. But at least Marcus himself was going to enjoy the rest of his day, replaying in his mind often and savoring the exchange he’d been looking forward to having for some time. Finally.
• • •
When Marcus returned home that evening, he saw in the circular common driveway of his co-op complex a police car—one of the later model Ford Crown Victorias, white with blue and orange decals, those being the colors of Nassau County, and all the bells and whistles (and lights and mirrors) that the marked Interceptors brandished. He knew that the NCPD was not looking for him, but he was momentarily, subconsciously thrilled by the thought that the NYPD had called across the city line for their suburban colleagues to check him out. The cop car was double-parked in front of a building that wasn’t the one Marcus’s apartment was in, though.
He couldn’t have said why at the time—although it was almost certainly to do something snarky with it later—Marcus took his phone from his bag and snapped a photo of the cruiser. He was just lowering his phone again when the police officer whose car it was—another white man, not large but somehow imposing nonetheless—stepped out of the vehicle and began walking toward Marcus.
“Sir,” the officer called. Always with the sir, these guys. “Would you come over here, please?”
Marcus complied, meeting the officer near the back of his car. The officer’s uniform of the NCPD was more or less identical to that of the NYPD. Maybe the county’s dark blue was a bit lighter than the city’s dark blue, Marcus mused. Maybe it wasn’t. But cops themselves were the same everywhere.
“Could I have your name, please?” The cop produced a notepad and pen and opened both.
“What do you need my name for, officer?” Marcus asked. Respond to a question with a question and you alter the balance of power. That’s something Marcus’s own professional education, training, and experience had taught him.
“It’s not usual for someone to take pictures of a police car,” the officer said. So he’d seen that. But that’s okay, Marcus thought. In fact, good for him for noticing.
“Well,” Marcus said, “it’s not usual for a police car to be parked outside my building.”
“You live in this building?” the officer asked. He meant, Marcus presumed, the one they were nearest to. But Marcus didn’t live in that one.
“Actually, I live in Building 2.” Marcus didn’t put much effort into clarifying things for the other man, and he didn’t care if the cop knew which building was which. “But still, we don’t usually have police officers here.”
“A woman in this building”—the officer still meant the one they were in front of—“called the police.”
“Then maybe you should be finding out why she did that, rather than asking me why I’m taking pictures of your car.”
“We have the situation well in hand, sir,” the officer assured Marcus.
“That’s great. Me too. So I’m going to go to my apartment now, officer, if we’re done here.” And Marcus turned to go inside.
“Sir,” the officer called after him. “It’s my job to be curious about what people are doing, especially in an area the police have been called to.”
“That’s fine, I suppose,” Marcus said. “I just... Well, I just don’t like the police.” Huh. That’s not something I meant to say. But then Marcus continued: “I don’t quite trust the police. ‘Who watches the watchers,’ and all that. You know...?”
The officer didn’t respond immediately, but rather just looked at Marcus. Marcus said nothing further but just looked at the officer. In the back of his mind, Marcus hoped that the other man had a partner on the scene who was actually doing something for the woman in Building 3 who’d called the police...
“One more time?”
“I said: That’s fine, but you don’t have to be a jerk about it.”
So that is what Marcus had heard. And yet the officer had more to say:
“I didn’t come here, to where you live, to cause trouble. I didn’t come to give you a hard time. I didn’t come to give you any more reason not to like police officers. I came to try to help someone, a neighbor of yours. This time it’s someone else, but next time it could be you. And if it is you next time, I’m still going to come out here to try to help you, or another cop is, even if you don’t like the police, even if you don’t trust the police. Because not everybody feels the way you do, although there are plenty who do. And it’s too bad...
“And what’s worse is that you’re probably a decent man. You’re probably a good husband and a good father and you probably try to do your job the best you can. And maybe you and I even root for the same teams and maybe we like the same movies or read the same magazines, and maybe in another life we could have been friends. So I’m sorry you don’t like cops, but I’m not sorry I am a cop. Because we do important work, and I just hope that you never find yourself needing to call the police, because a cop is gonna show up and help you, and then you just might have to change your mind.”
Marcus thought very, very carefully about what he would say next before he spoke... and while he was thinking Marcus remembered an old television ad he’d seen—for beer, if he recalled correctly, years before he’d been old enough to buy beer—in which a minor league baseball player gets called out at the plate by the ump, and the two men argue about it, and dirt gets kicked, but then later, after the game, the player sees the ump, drinking alone, at the same bar the team has repaired to, and the player sends the ump a beer and nods at him to say, No hard feelings.
“Having a rough day?” Marcus finally asked the officer.
“I wasn’t,” the officer answered.
Marcus laughed. “Well, what you just said made a lot of sense. But you’re wrong about one thing.”
“We could probably still be friends in this world,” Marcus said. “Officer. Maybe I don’t have to be a jerk about it. Maybe I had a bad day, and maybe I’m not usually this testy, though I’m not making any promises on that account.” Marcus offered his hand to the other man. “My name is Marcus.”
The police officer shook Marcus’s hand. “Alex,” he said. “Alex Spiro. Nassau County Police Department.”
“Marcus Bayer. Attorney at law.”
“No kidding,” the cop said, causing Marcus to laugh again. This time Alex joined him.
• • •
“Let me ask you something,” Marcus prefaced, entirely unnecessarily, as he well knew. The men were at a bar—seated at the bar itself in a dingy establishment between a closed-for-the-day nail salon and a vacant store for rent, in an area of the village bordering the one Marcus lived in. Marcus had not even been aware of the existence of this watering hole, but Alex had, because it was within the boundaries of his usual beat. So when the men decided to get a drink and clear the air, they came to this small, otherwise empty (but for the bartender, a man Marcus figured for a ’Nam vet) dive. Marcus and Alex were on their second round; they’d already discovered that in fact they did not enjoy the same movies or the same reading material, and Marcus wasn’t a sports fan at all. Nevertheless, the men were still talking.
“If you’d been off-duty,” Marcus said, “you wouldn’t have said ‘jerk.’ Am I right?”
Alex chuckled. “You are correct.” He added, “Dick.”
Marcus nodded. Guilty as charged. Sometimes.
“So what is your beef with the police, exactly?” Alex asked Marcus. “Were you ever arrested?”
“No,” Marcus said. “I’m a member of the Bar in good standing. I’ve got a clean record. Two or three speeding tickets, and each of those incidents probably couldn’t have been more pleasant,” Marcus admitted, “all things being equal. But... I don’t know... lately, I’m just not keen on cops.”
“But it’s not because of any personal experience? Is it... stuff you’ve read in the news?”
“Maybe,” Marcus said, “but I don’t think so. I try not to let myself form opinions based on things I have no firsthand knowledge of.”
“Do they teach that in law school?”
“They don’t teach much in law school,” Marcus groused. “But they do teach you to ‘think like a lawyer,’ and I suppose I do. Much of the time anyway. It’s a gift.”
“Do you like being a lawyer?” Alex asked.
“Not as much as you like being a police officer, I’m sure. You know,” Marcus said, remembering something, “maybe it’s because nine times out of ten cops in cop cars don’t signal when they change lanes.”
“Do you always signal?”
“Always. But if I ever didn’t, I’m sure I’d get pulled over.”
“You fellas want another couple?” The bartender was standing before them, behind the bar. “On the house if you’ll do me a favor and watch the place while I step out for a couple of minutes.”
“Sure,” Marcus said. “He’s a cop,” he volunteered, pointing a thumb at Alex.
“Unarmed,” Alex mentioned.
“That’s okay. This is a very safe part of town,” the bartender said, perhaps to reassure them, perhaps to reassure himself. “Old Village. Almost no crime at all.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Alex said. “But it is safer than average. Where’re you going? If it’s for a smoke, you can do it here. I won’t cite you.”
“I quit ten years ago,” the bartender said. “Those things’ll kill you. Nah, I want to pop over to the bank.”
“Bank?” Alex asked. “It’s nine-thirty at night. I don’t think your bank’s gonna be open.”
“I’m just depositing cash,” the bartender said. “I can do it at the ATM machine.”
Marcus winced internally but said nothing about the M of ATM already standing for Machine.
“Well,” Marcus joked, “if you’re taking the cash, then we won’t rob you while you’re out. But come back soon. I’ve got a curfew.”
“Won’t take more than ten minutes. Help yourself to something from the chiller.”
“Be careful,” Alex called after the bartended as he walked out the rear of the building. “Curfew?” he asked Marcus.
“Self-imposed. I’ve got a deposition in the morning.”
“You don’t do any criminal work, do you?”
“No. All civil. Commercial litig—whoa!”
Alex was already off his stool and headed toward the back of the bar, where the bartender had gone just moments earlier. The police office and lawyer had heard a single loud, sharp crack from that direction. Marcus followed Alex out the back door of the building...
...and when he caught up with him, Marcus found Alex already crouching over the body of the bartender, unmoving, lying in a growing, seeping pool of blood.
“He’s been shot,” Alex told Marcus with what Marcus registered as admirable calm, no doubt learned on the job. “Lock the front door. Call an ambulance.”
Marcus went back inside and threw the deadbolt on the front door. Then he went behind the bar to find a telephone... but saw none. And he’d left his own phone in his car.... He went back outside to the alley behind the bar. He thought he’d find Alex there doing chest compressions, his hands covered in the bartender’s blood, trying to revive the veteran, but Alex wasn’t touching the prone man, and something else caught Marcus’s eye, anyway.
“He’s dead,” Alex said, quietly.
“Alex,” Marcus said, offering him what he’d just retrieved from under a dumpster against the back wall of the bar. “Look what I—”
“Marcus!” Alex barked. “Put it down!”
Marcus put the small, warm gun on the ground, next to the body of the bartender.
“Your hands!” Alex whispered.
My hands? My... prints! “But I didn’t...”
“No, of course you didn’t,” Alex said. “But your fingerprints are now probably the only ones on the gun.” Alex shifted in his crouch to look at the gun. “Saturday night special,” he mumbled. Marcus knew what he meant: an inexpensive gun, compact, small-caliber. Unreliable but effective when they work. And this one had worked. “Whoever shot him is probably long gone, and probably not from anywhere near here. Must have been waiting for him to go to the bank. Must have known he made late deposits. Just shot him, took the cash, wiped the piece, tossed it, and took off. Probably didn’t think anyone was in the bar. Not that it matters. I couldn’t have saved him. Did you call an ambulance?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Alex said, finally rising. Marcus remained crouching. “I’ll call it in myself.” Alex took his phone from his jeans pocket.
“Wait a minute,” Marcus said. “My prints...”
“You didn’t shoot anyone. You picked up the discarded gun by accident. You were trying to be helpful. I was with you the whole time, and we were inside when the victim was shot and robbed. You’ll have to answer some questions,” Alex said, “but I’ll vouch for you. I overreacted a bit earlier. I wasn’t thinking completely clearly either. Picking up a gun that might have just been used to commit a murder isn’t the smart thing to do, but you’re not going to the electric chair because of that mistake.”
The electric chair? Well, of course Marcus wasn’t going to the electric chair, and not just because New York didn’t have capital punishment. But Marcus didn’t even want to have to answer any questions. In fact, Marcus had to be getting home. It was close to ten p.m., and he had to prepare his own questions for his morning deposition.
“Alex, I have to go. Can’t we just wipe the gun clean again and pretend that I wasn’t here? We’re the only people around. No one saw us here, other than this man. Can’t you say you were here alone?”
“No, Marcus, I can’t,” Alex said. “I can’t lie about who was at a crime scene, even if you didn’t have anything to do with the crime. How could you even ask me that? You need to stay right here, and when the on-duty officers arrive, I’ll try to get you home as soon as possible, but you can’t just go now. And I’m certainly not going to tamper with evidence. I said yours might be the only prints on the weapon, but they might not be, and if we wipe the gun now, we could wipe off the perp’s prints.”
He’s right, of course, Marcus thought. Everything he said makes sense. He’s a good cop. If all cops were like him, no one wouldn’t like them. Everyone would trust the police.
“Marcus, “Alex said. “Why don’t you go back inside and have a drink. Get another beer. But just one. Try to relax.”
Sure. Maybe I should.
But before Marcus could return inside for a third beer—indeed, before he could even stand—the first two beers came up again. Marcus vomited in the alley, the full impact of the situation finally occurring to him. As he retched, as his stomach emptied onto the pavement, his mind filled with disjointed thoughts: murder... blood... questions... fingerprints... dead...
“I can’t...” Marcus started to say. Alex was trying to help him up from the ground.
“It’s okay,” Alex was saying. “You’re in shock. Let’s just get you inside. Drink some water and breathe. Just breathe.”
“I can’t,” Marcus repeated. “I can’t answer questions.” His strength was returning, as was his presence of mind. “I’m up for partnership review,” he explained. “At the firm,” he clarified.
“Come on inside,” Alex insisted, as Marcus was fighting him. Marcus did not want to go inside and drink water and just breathe. Marcus wanted to be a partner at his law firm, and he did not want to answer any questions about a dead bartender and why his fingerprints were on the gun that had been used to shoot and kill the bartender in an alley behind a dive bar where he and an off-duty police officer had been having drinks on a Monday night when Marcus had a civil deposition to conduct the following morning. Marcus wanted to continue to be the one who asked the questions. Marcus did not know how the partnership committee would view this evening’s incident, but he knew for sure that he would be better off if no one knew about it, ever.
“I’m sorry,” Marcus said, rising now on his own. And when he’d gotten to his feet, he was holding the gun again, and when he had said he was sorry once more, he fired the gun into Alex’s chest at point-blank range. “I trust you,” Marcus said to Alex as the off-duty police officer bled out on the cold ground of the alley behind the bar, next to the body of the bartender who’d recently done the same. “But you’re just one good cop.”
Then Marcus put the gun in his own pants pocket and walked out of the alley, headed to his car, parked just across the street from the front of the bar. He would hold onto the gun for a while, he thought, maybe just keep it, unloaded, somewhere in his home. In the bottom of a box in the back of a closet, probably. Maybe he’d stash it in his orange, padded bag, which he didn’t think he’d be carrying to work anymore. It drew too much attention to him. Eventually, Marcus figured, he’d take the gun to another state and bury it or throw it in the ocean or have it melted down.
But why, why, why had he picked up the gun in the first place? He just didn’t know. You didn’t have to go to law school to know not to do that. You only have to have seen any television show or movie about a crime committed with a gun to know not to pick one up if you find it at the scene. He’d been entirely out of his element, sure, Marcus allowed, but still. That was almost unforgivably foolish.
And come to think of it, while he was rebuking himself, the partnership committee likely would not have held it against him that he’d just happened to be at the scene of a crime, as long as he’d had nothing to do with the crime itself, which, of course, he hadn’t.
So when he’d taken a few minutes to calm down, to slow his breathing and make sure that he was sober enough to drive, Marcus Bayer started his car and began moving in the direction of his home, just about two miles away, taking pains not to speed despite how badly he wanted to be home as quickly as possible.
After only a mile or so, he was already going over deposition questions in his head, so he didn’t notice, when he drove through a very stale yellow light that turned to red before he’d entered the intersection, the telltale double-flash of the automated camera that took photos of his car and its license plate on the more or less empty road, placing him only a mile or so away from the scene of a double homicide at just around the time of the murders and, indeed, even closer to the scene minutes earlier.
But Marcus Bayer, Esq. would handily beat a red light camera ticket. That whole system is rife with corruption, he knew, and any decent lawyer could avoid a conviction. He’d done it several times already.
“Inconvenience” appeared in Heater, October 2013.