In a national surven, seven out of ten people who viewed this page and didn't buy the book died of a strange brain infection involving burrowing insects.
To the men and women I knew in the evil streets in my eight years as police reporter for the Washington Times, the cops, firemen, paramedics, the shock-trauma people, out in the bad sections, in the bad hours, in a world that few know.
On the night in early June when Chiflado Gomez put two twelve-gauge blasts into Corrigan’s chest, I was covering a political demonstration from a squad car at Farragut Square, in the south end of Washington’s business district. A couple of hundred students from George Washington University were waving placards about capitalist oppression of Nicaraguan fruit workers. The night was warm, the air thick and humid with vapor from the Potomac River. Heavy traffic congested by demonstrators blocked the streets.
Several police cars idled here and there to inspire caution. Clots of kids waving signs kept crossing against the lights. The cops let them get away with it. It was less hassle to wait for them to get bored than to crack their heads.
Sergeant Ken Dugan looked at them sourly. “Dumb sons of bitches,”
Dugan was a beefy Irish sergeant I’d known for years, thirty-fivish, florid-faced, phlegmatic. He wasn’t the brightest guy alive and would never make lieutenant, but he was steady and got the job done. He had been a cop too long to be outraged at dumb sons of bitches. Anyway, they outnumbered everyone else.
Next to the statue of Farragut an angry dark-haired sweetie with a bull horn harangued the protesters, trying to work them up enough to riot. She looked to be in her late twenties, probably one of the penny-ante semi-professional radicals who lived around Dupont Circle. The squad car was dark except for dash lights and indicators on the radio, which squawked periodically.
“Some sons of bitches are dumber than others,” I said. “Used to be, sometimes you could get laid after a demonstration. The girls thought it showed solidarity.”
Dugan’s heavy profile loomed stolidly in the murk, the red veins of private alcoholism hidden by shadow.
“Yeah? If she was getting laid regular, I bet Miss Bull Horn wouldn’t be here. I bet she’s never worked a day in her life.”
Miss Bull Horn was standing under a red banner proclaiming her membership in the Spartacists, originally a left-wing group in Weimar Germany. She spit anger and frustration into the bull horn as if it were a bad taste. The echoes rolled away down I Street.
“WORK work-ers u-NITEnitenite….” The reflected screech of rage was ominous in the night. I wondered what the Spartacists would have thought of this, what Farragut would have thought, how many of the kids knew where Nicaragua was.
I wasn’t interested in the protest. I was watching because I needed something to write about. I was a police reporter for the Washington Herald. I liked being a reporter. Journalists were morally equivalent to winos, but didn’t have to carry paper bags. I had never liked carrying things.
Washington crawled with demonstrations, mostly pointless. Locals got tired of them. Everybody in the country seemed to be mad about something, and nobody believed anybody else was listening, so they demonstrated in hope of at least being noticed. People just wanted to say, hey, look at me, here I am, I exist, I’m not just another human molecule in a vast anonymous society, which of course they were. And so every several years the farmers circled the White House on their tractors and Hells Angels roared through in a brain-fog of lug-wrench patriotism. Abortion wackos screamed at each other across Pennsylvania Avenue. Students protested everything they had heard of. The city ignored them.
Dugan said, “Might’s well move around, see the show.”
He ooched the cruiser slowly around the square, eyeing posters that waved like the fronds of some agitated urban anemone. In the yellowish caste of the street lights the surging bodies melded into one roiling shape, like a complicated animal struggling with itself inside a cloth bag.
I said. “How smart were we at their age?”
He chuckled. “Yeah, shit, I know. But I get tired of them anyway…Dunno about you. Me, I was dumb as owl shit. Nothing mattered but beer, pussy, and driving like a damn fool. I’d never heard of Nicaraguan rag-pickers”
“I think it’s fruit-pickers.”
“Nose-pickers is more like it. Some of them got nice tits, though. I’ll give you that.”
Just about then, Corrigan was getting it in the chest.
.“They’re not really bad kids,” I said. “They’re play-acting, practicing to be grown-ups and haven’t figured out how yet. It’s the first time in their lives they’ve done something that might be important, even if it isn’t.”
Dugan tapped the horn to move a group of kids out of our path. They went. They weren’t ready to riot. Not yet, anyway.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Thing is, my people two generations back really were farm labor and got the shit kicked out of them. It burns me see these little faggots playing games, even if I agree with them. Know what I mean?”
I knew. These kids would have a few socially conscious years as undergrads before going to law school and specializing in tax evasion. What the hell.
In the District building downtown, a dispatcher got a call. She got hundreds every night.
Dugan said, “Every year, the same demonstrations. Sometimes I think we’re all part of a big wind-up clock. We think we know what we’re doing, but maybe we’re just doing it. Know something? Maybe we wasn’t as dumb as we thought. I’d still settle for beer, pussy, and my old Ford.”
I wasn’t used to philosophy from Dugan. I said, “Yeah. They think they’re the first people ever to be nineteen. So did we. Think they’ll get rowdy?”
“Naw. They don’t really care about fruit-pickers. If it was something that affected them personally, like a law to take away their stereos, then they might pop. Dumb sons of bitches.”
I said, “I almost sympathize with them. Life’s boring these days. At their age in the middle ages, these guys would be off raping and murdering in the Crusades like guys are supposed to.”
That’s when it happened.
The radio squawked, “Code one, code one, Sixth and School Southwest, officer down, officer down, code one, Sixth…”
“Shit,” said Dugan. He hit the siren with a right hook and started a U-turn across three lanes of traffic. The urgent warble split the night like a wedge. Startled white faces turned toward the howl and kids ran for the sidewalks. They thought Dugan was after them.
In police talk, “Officer down, Code One” meant a cop was in bad trouble, hurt, and needed help several minutes ago. When that call went out, every cop in radio range dropped everything and headed for the address.
Dugan worked the siren switch from wail to chirp. “Goddamit, what do they think a siren means?”
He had us sideways in the intersection of Seventeenth and I, trying to get onto Seventeenth. The kids’ faces flickered in the blue and red of the bar lights. One guy started to make an issue of his right to be in the street. Dugan emptied his lungs out the window.
“Get the fuck out of my way, you little prick!” he bellowed out the window. The little prick got the fuck out of the way. His choice was to eat a police car.
Away from Farragut, traffic vanished. We turned hard onto Pennsylvania Avenue, swerved around the dogleg in front of the White House, and accelerated down the straight toward Sixth Street. The speedometer didn’t say seventy-five. If it had, Dugan could have gotten into trouble, so it said something else. We weren’t gaining on the three cruisers in front of us. They must not have been doing seventy-five either.
What had happened, although we didn’t know it yet, was that Officer James Corrigan had been patrolling the bad neighborhoods of Southwest in Police District One, and gotten in trouble. Corrigan was a young ex-Marine six months out of the Police Academy. He had a crewcut and a pretty wife and a small blonde daughter named Rita Sue. He had spent three years in the gyrenes as a mortarman-instructor at Lejeune. Then he had joined the police force because he had a sense of duty and wanted to help people. Young cops were like that. They got over it.
New young cops also died more often than old mean cops.
Anyway, it was a slow night for a Saturday. Most nights were slow in Corrigan’s sector. It was a bleak region of anonymous office buildings. There weren’t a lot of bars there, which kept fights down. The nearest slums with their drug markets and drive-bys were blocks to the east. Corrigan was driving slowly through the deserted concrete and brick when a rattletrap pickup truck pulled out in front of him a bit too quickly.
Corrigan fell in behind it. Burglars liked to break into the office buildings along Fourth Street and steal office equipment. A pickup was ideal for carrying loot. The driver saw him and turned right at the next street. It was evasion, and fairly clumsy evasion, although it didn’t make any difference because Corrigan was going to stop him anyway.
He called in the location and the truck’s tag number, and hit the bar lights. The truck wavered, as if the driver was considering a run for it. Then it pulled over into a driveway.
Normal procedure on traffic stops was to park the cruiser so that the headlights shone in the side mirror and into hte eyes of the stopped vehicle’s driver. Stopping cars was the most dangerous thing a cop did. If he pulled the wrong car on an isolated street—a guy wanted for something serious, or a mule with a load of drugs, or just a guy full of the growing anger on the times—the suspect might decide to shoot and run. You wanted him blind and helpless.
But the truck had stopped at an angle that kept Corrigan from pointing his cruiser at it.
Corrigan got out with his flashlight in one hand and the butt of his service Glock accessible to the other and approached the truck..
“Put your hands where I can see them,” he called. Two hands came out the window. “Don’t move.” It was a pretty hard-nosed approach to a minor traffic violation, but something about this one made Corrigan uneasy.
He cautiously came closer and shone the light into the cab. He saw a shabbily dressed man he judged to be Hispanic with a gaunt narrow face and a scared expression. Corrigan had seen it before. Immigrants from the third world were accustomed to brutal police, didn’t really know the language, expected to be knocked around and hurt and to have no recourse. That was how it worked in their countries.
Corrigan got a little careless, which was enough. He saw the frightened expression but didn’t see the shortened Remington 870 pump-action shotgun leaning against the driver’s door.
“Let me see your license and registration,” he said, shining the light in the driver’s eyes. The driver slowly reached for the glove compartment. Corrigan tensed. If there was a gun, this was when it would appear. But there was no gun. The driver got his license and registration out between two fingers, keeping his other hand high and visible. He was a little too polished, a little too aware of Corrigan’s concerns, but Corrigan was a new young cop. Gomez handed the documents to Corrigan, who relaxed a little.
He said, “Wait here,” and turned to go to the cruiser to run the license.
Mistake. He would never make it again.
He heard the truck door open and turned just in time to Chiflado Gomez pointing the 870. The first load of buckshot caught Corrigan full in the heart. The second was a belly shot.
When Dugan and I reached the scene, nine other police cars were there and more were converging from all directions. Whirling bar lights whipped their eerie red-blue-red-blue from buildings, faces, squad cars. Sirens yowled in the distance. Nobody had yet figured out what had happened with enough precision to file a solid radio report. We got out and hurried to the truck where a dozen officers were looking at the dead man. And Chiflado Gomez was very dead indeed.
Gomez was dead, and Corrigan wasn’t, because of the peculiar nature of the aramid molecule. Molecules have more relevance to police work than most people know. Aramid molecules, as chemists at DuPont discovered in the sixties, can be polymerized, meaning stuck together end to end in a chain. The resulting polyaramid had enormous tensile strength, greater than that of steel. If it was made into yarn, the chemists discovered, and woven into fabric with a special weave that prevented the fibers from separating, then anything that wanted to penetrate it had to stretch a great many of the fibers to the breaking point, which wasn’t easy.
This had consequences. For example, if a cop wore a vest made from many layers of this polyaramid, which had come to be called Kevlar, and Chiflado Gomez shot him twice with a Remington 870, before turning his back in the belief that the cop was dead, the result would be ghastly black bruises on a frightened and very angry cop, who would in all likelihood shoot Gomez eleven times with his Glock. Chiflado Gomez had discovered this the hard way. Chiflado was very, very dead.
“We better not touch this shithead until the Crime Lab guys get here,” said one of the cops in a tight circle around Gomez. He had bled out. The body was lying in a huge pool of blood, more blood than you would have thought one guy could hold. He was crumpled at an odd angle as if he had tried to bend over to escape the rounds. Maybe he had instinctively held his hands out to stop the bullets, which didn’t really work with nine millimeter. The frozen gesture was almost feminine.
“Then can we stomp him? Piece of shit,” said a cop with a long angular face and staring hostile eyes. “Sorry piece of shit.”
Cops didn’t like people who shot at them.
One of Corrigan’s rounds had taken off part of the skull over the left eye. Gray matter glistened in the red-blue-red-blue. I didn’t think it had been a deliberate headshot. Corrigan had been scared, shocked, in a killing rage, and just pumped rounds through the tube as fast as he could.
There were good things in the world. I had to tell myself this sometimes. There were puppies who bounced and licked your face and thought they had somehow come to the right universe. There were little girls in blue dresses, and there was snow on tree branches and women who hugged you in the night. Good things. But a guy lying in a pool of greasy coagulating blood with his brains hanging out was not one of them.
“Who’s this guy?” one of the cops asked Dugan, meaning me.
“Dawson, with the Herald,” I said, maybe a bit too pugnaciously.
“He supposed to be here?”
“Yeah,” said Dugan. “He’s my ride-along. Reporter. With the Herald.”
I didn’t want a lot of guff at the moment. I handled bodies pretty well. I’d seen lots messier ones. And I understood not liking reporters. But I wasn’t in a mood to go through the I’m-a-tough-guy-cop routine with some combative rookie who didn’t like the press.
“Yeah, we thought so,” said the rookie. “You might want to look at Corrigan, Mr. Dawson. Lieutenant said.”
Somebody was wrong, because the department never wanted the press to talk to shooters before they get lawyered. I went over to the ambulance where Corrigan was getting looked at. His shirt was off. His eyes were wild, he was breathing fast, and his voice shook. Not fear. Adrenaline. That stuff hit you hard. You trembled, your heart raced, your blood pressure rose enough to stroke out an entire old people’s home, and you were ready to throw a squad car a city block. He had gorgeous red hematomas on his rib cage. By morning they would look like asphalt.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Motherfucker shot me.”
He was breathing hard as if he couldn’t get enough air.
The shrug was spasmodic. He shook his head unnaturally fast, gestured too quickly. His eyes were wide and staring. Corrigan wasn’t used to killing people.
“Damned if I know. Damned if I know. It was just a routine stop. That’s all it was. I don’t know what happened. I had to do it.”
The med-techs ignored me and kept examining him. Sometimes cops got pumped up in firefights and didn’t notice that they’ve been hit in places that don’t show.
The head tech, a bald fire department guy with a Doc Holliday mustache, said to Corrigan, “You’re OK, I think. We’re sending you to X-ray just to make sure nothing blew loose from your rib cage. You’ll be sore. That’s all. ‘Nother case of Scotch for Second Chance.”
Second Chance was the company that made Corrigan’s ballistic vest.
“Know who he is?” I asked Corrigan, meaning the dead guy.
Again the hopeless shrug, chest heaving.
“I had to do it. I had to do it.”
“Yeah, yeah, take it easy,” said the tech.
I didn’t push. Corrigan had enough to think about, just having liquefied a total stranger. Cops are supposed to be tough guys. Very few people can shoot a man at close range and watch him trying not to die without taking it real hard, especially if they have never done it before. The press usually peddles shootings as casual brutality: “Officer Kills Ghetto Youth.” Actually the cop is probably in shock and going to Mass three times a week with his wife screaming at the family doctor for sedatives and trying to pry the bottle out of his hands.
Half an hour later I caught a passing cab and went home. The cops would be at the scene for hours but it wasn’t likely they would find anything they hadn’t already found. I figured things had come out pretty well. Any time you got it from an 870 and came away with sore spots, you had won. Corrigan’s daughter still had a daddy, and his wife was still married. And the cops had a brown-paper bag of neatly banded hundred-dollar bills, lots of them, that they had found in Chiflado’s truck. My, my.