Caleb snarled. "What the fuck kind of driving was that?"
"What?" came the petulant reply.
Caleb gave his partner a sidelong scowl. Unclenching his throbbing hand from the death grip he had on the door handle, he reached over and turned off the siren, silencing the piercing scream that was sure to result in yet another rash of citizen complaints.
"This ain't fucking NASCAR, Reg. And that sure as hell wasn't following procedure."
"At least I st—"
Just then a flash of movement caught their attention. They both looked up in time to see their cloaked suspect launch up and over what remained of the metal fence, then vanish into the depths of darkness.
"Shit," officer Reginald Collins gave a toneless growl.
"Hold for back up," Caleb cautioned, anticipating his partner's next move.
Reggie gave him a cursory grunt before shouldering open the driver's side door. Launching out, he did a quick sideways dash through the tight space between the car and alley wall, then clambered toward the front of the cruiser, stumbling gracelessly over the broken fence.
Caleb watched his partner disappear down the back of the alley, his voice trailing behind him as he barked orders into the walkie at the poor soul unlucky enough to be manning dispatch that night.
The veteran officer heaved a weary sigh, before squeezing his own bulky frame (more to love, he joked with his wife) through the painfully few inches allotted to him on his side. After several uncertain moments, he managed to wedge his way toward the still ticking grille.
He surveyed the damage: the hood had suffered a series of rather impressive dents and scrapes, but nothing he'd have to hand in his badge for. The fence, however, was a total loss. It now lay crumpled and defeated against the undercarriage.
Caleb let out a low whistle. How could somebody get up from that kind of hurt?
His expert eyes scanned the rest of the alleyway. It seemed their second man had elected not to stick around for introductions, either.
Resigned to waiting his partner out, Caleb rested his mass against the side of the cruiser. He fished out a rumpled pack of cigarettes. Finding a likely candidate, he lit the end with a practiced hand and sucked deeply. Reggie, he figured, would likely be a while.
Strange, his partner's behavior tonight.
Something's up his ass, Caleb thought. Reggie's pinched expression and bloodshot eyes as of late hinted at long nights, and the gray in his hair could now claim triumph over what had once been a deep ebony not too long ago.
His partner of nearly two years had morphed into a total stranger.
Caleb pulled thoughtfully on his cigarette. Reggie's growing volatility was troubling, not to mention problematic for a department already beleaguered with lawsuits and a bad reputation among the locals.
Maybe it would run its course. And if it didn't? Should he say something?
Caleb wasn't one for playing psychotherapist, nor was he known for taking the touchy-feely, NVC-approach to the listening side of things, a fact Marlene (and the department's shrink) would certainly attest to. His partner was clearly upset about something, though, and he'd be remiss—liable even—for not reporting his suspicions if something happened.
The cigarette continued to make a slow and philosophical journey from one side of his mouth to the other.
Maybe there was something wrong on the home-front. Or maybe it had something to do with work itself. Hell, in that case Reggie's anger was pretty fucking justifiable, given the crap that'd been handed down to them as of late. The whole force was in a veritable crucible, thanks to the talking heads on high who dined on the city's diminishing budget while demanding more work with fewer resources from the peon subordinates. Faithful servants to the system were seeing their pensions cut and their paychecks dwindle to a mere trickle. Just last week a hiring freeze had been put in effect; worse yet, several officers had been given the pink slip.
Seniority had saved Caleb from the ax, but it was a begrudging stay of employment on the Chief's part, no doubt; after all, Cal was too old school, too untrainable, and too damn expensive to be worth the trouble.
Had Reggie been given notice? If so, why didn't he just come out and say it? Granted, it wasn't like the two had a Riggs and Murtaugh man-love thing going on. Still, he'd thought they had a close enough partnership that Reg would feel comfortable confiding in him.
Caleb's head spun slightly from the pendulum thoughts and the not unwelcomed influx of nicotine, black-tar lungs be damned. He eyed the ground, his mind still lost in thought.
That's when he saw the torn fabric.
Pulling out a latex glove, he reached down and plucked the cloth from the fence's metal tines. It certainly looked like it came from the suspect's coat. He held it up to the car's headlamp. Possible blood stains, too.
Caleb looked up to see Reg, sans suspect, making his way back from the alley. Reg shook his head. "Nothing," he grumbled. "Dispatch's sending someone out."
Caleb held up the scrap of cloth. "He's injured. Doubt he's gone far."
Reggie gave him a distracted nod. "Guess we could swing by the hospitals on our way out."
"Might as well." Caleb dropped the stub of his cigarette and crushed it with the heel of his shoe.
Caleb followed Reggie's puzzled gaze. There, at the base of the cruiser's hood, faint but still visible, looked what appeared to be a partial, muddy footprint. Both officers hunched down for a closer look.
The guy's barefoot!
And it wasn't like anything he'd ever seen before. The outline indicated something that was a helluva lot larger and wider in form than anything even remotely approaching normal, and—
Christ, that can't be right.
It only had two toes.
"What the fuck is that?" asked an incredulous Reggie, who was looking a little bit more like his old self again.
"Don't know," Caleb said in an even tone. But he did.
Reggie, who'd transferred over from the earthquake state a few years back, hadn't been at the precinct as long as Caleb. But Caleb had cut his teeth in this district.
The rumors started about four or five years ago: strange humanoid creatures that flitted around like ghosts during the night, prone to leaving gifts of criminalistic street trash, tied up all neat and pretty for the night shift to find.
At first it was chalked up to nothing more than the laughable gibberish of crazed junkies coming down from a gnarly high. But when fellow officers—veterans, mind you, who hailed from lengthy, high-security stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, and were not especially prone to falling for stupid—started talking about seeing flashes of these things for themselves…well, at some point you take notice.
Reggie turned to him, eyes like saucers. "We gotta get pictures of this."
"I got it." Caleb said, before Reg could act. "Think it's in the trunk." He began inching his way toward the back of the car.
"Maybe the dashcam caught him," Reggie called out in a reflective tone.
Opening the trunk, Caleb pulled out an evidence bag and secured his finding, then placed it back in his jacket pocket. He rooted around, finding the digital camera stuffed under a small clutch of toys reserved for the young unfortunates they inevitably encountered in the line of work.
Camera in hand, he paused, reconsidered, then opened the latch and pocketed the batteries. Later, reflecting back on that incident, he couldn't say why he'd been compelled to do that. Despite his recent behavioral issues, Reggie had always been a trusted partner. Caleb never had reason to question his loyalty, and yet…
"Camera's dead," he called back.
"Hold on, think I can get one with my cell."
There was a sudden commotion behind him; a shifting and clattering of aluminum cans.
Caleb instantly spun around. He studied the alleyway with a renewed focus.
The trash bags were moving.
Hand resting on his holster, Caleb crouched against the alley wall, upsetting a family of rats nesting in the remains of a litter of wilted cardboard. Reggie slipped up behind to join him, gun drawn. They moved cautiously toward the pile of trash bags tumbling apart on the opposite side.
"Looks like our guy stuck around after all," Caleb murmured. "Sir, come out with your hands where I can see them!"
A slight moan greeted them in response.
"Sir, come ou—"
"I got him," Reg pushed past Caleb.
"Reggie!" Caleb hissed.
Ignoring him, Reggie proceeded to haul their second suspect up by the scruff. "You better have a damn good explanation..."
The man winced in pain, leaning heavily against the cop. "Think I hit my head." It came out an almost incomprehensible croak.
Reggie sniffed. "That or the bottle."
"Lay off," Caleb snapped from behind. "Let me handle this. Pretty sure I know him."
Reggie's nostrils flared, a renewed flash of anger spilling from his eyes.
Caleb was unmoved. "Think I hear back-up coming. Deal with that and I'll take care of him."
Reggie's mouth curved upward at the corners in a dry-lipped and decidedly unconvincing smile. Without another word, he brushed off the still tottering Beeker and marched toward the entranceway.
"Beeker, isn't it?"
Beeker slouched against the wall, gently probing the tender spot on the back of his head. "What's up with that asshole?"
Calib's eye momentarily flicked toward his partner who was angrily flagging down the approaching cruiser.
"Been wondering the same thing myself," he sighed. "You okay? Need me to call medical?"
"Nah, I'm good. Could use of those," he said, tilting his chin at the Marlboros poking out of Caleb's uniform pocket like a red tongue.
Caleb handed him the pack. "Keep it."
Beeker beemed. With palsied hands, he pulled out a smoke, then leaned toward the proffered light.
Almost immediately he started hacking and sputtering. Undeterred, he sucked greedily on the cigarette. Inhale, cough, spit, inhale.
Caleb waited him out.
"Mind telling me who that was you were talking to back there?" he finally asked.
"Don't know," Beeker rasped. "Never seen 'im before."
"Mmm." Caleb studied the man's hardened face. Beeker, he knew, was not the kind who readily talked. Too loyal to the street.
"What you want 'im for anyway?"
The tactic was not lost on Caleb. "We've had a string of assaults in the area. Your friend fit the description: male, kinda on the short side, trench coat, large hat.
Didja notice any…uh, unusual characteristics? Scars, tattoos?" Or two-toed footprints, he thought.
"Can't say that I did. It was dark, you know."
"Uh-huh, and I'm sure you know I can take you in for that stunt you pulled when officer –"
"Officer Collins gave you orders to get down on the ground." Caleb ran a hand through his thinning hair. "But, lucky for you, I got enough paperwork as it is."
He pulled out his wallet, a gift Marlene had given him some years before. It was holding together by a mere thread, the deep brown now a corpse gray. It should've been tossed, along with everything else, but Caleb just didn't have the heart.
"Here." He handed Beeker his card. "You hear anything, call the number."
Beeker took the business card. He gave Caleb a gap-toothed grin. "Ayuh, will do, osifer."
Caleb smiled in spite of himself.
"Sure you don't want a ride somewhere? Looks like it's starting to rain again."
"Eh, I'm good. Thanks for the smokes, though."
Caleb watched Beeker disappear around the corner at the mouth of the alley, whistling some half-formed tune. It sounded vaguely familiar, like something Marlene listened to during Classical Hour on the radio; the one where that snobbish announcer would spout little anecdotes—"Facts and Fancies," the dumbass called it—about the powdered-headed composers between endless hours of tinkling harpsichords. Caleb despised the deep, sonorous voice of that pretentious little prick; always pictured him in tweed, smoking a pipe, probably rubbing one off between sets of Bach and Beethoven.
Marlene loved it, though; tuned in religiously while she knitted. Said it relaxed her.
Caleb winced at the thought. Marlene, his beloved wife, was dead and buried in Riverview Cemetery some three years now. Seemed like only yesterday, though, when he held her hand for the last time as the cancer devoured the final moments of her life, the terrified look in her eyes silently pleading with him to save her.
Caleb abruptly pushed the thought away and cleared his throat.
He returned to where Reg stood, hands on hips, overseeing the reinforcements as they swarmed around the scene like overzealous bees. Reg turned to face him, his mouth set downward. "You just gonna let him off like that?"
Caleb kept his voice low. "Wanna explain to the review board why you were trying to run over our suspect?"
Reg, looking momentarily humbled for once, had no response.