There is a woman and her dog. The woman carefully sets a bowl of water onto the sidewalk, in front of her dog’s nose. He’s a chow-retriever mix, big brown eyes absorbing all the light as he stares forward. His eyes never leave the pile of trash and the shopping cart full of dried fruit and raw bacon. I know this is what’s in the cart, because it’s mine.
And I won’t break my stare, either.
This woman, her name is Mary. She loves her dog. Loves him to bits. His name is Bipper. I know this because I saw it on his collar through my binoculars a week ago. That was the first time they sat down, on the curb, outside of Paul’s Auto Shop.
Paul’s is a one-stop-shop for squeaky clean oil changes and tire rotation. Sometimes they replace your air filter, but that extra flavor of tomfoolery with a customer’s bank account is reserved for the truly gullible who enter this dump with legal business to begin with. When I use the word dump, I don’t throw it around lightly. This place has dirt seeping from the corners just under the roof, and the doorway is cluttered with trash and a line of what appears to be simple brown/gray dirt.
For the most part, the usual traffic up and down Georgia Street consists of small-time drug peddlers and, once in a while, the fancy Mercedes driven by an anonymous white-haired suburban grandpa just this side of retirement, in search of one last quick fix to keep his ticker ticking.
That’s why I’m here. I’m feeding my hunger, my own inner dog, for the chance to track down the man of the hour, the man we’ve all been looking for. Well, my hunger is really my pension, which is due to me either in four years, or four days. All I have to do is catch this guy, this ghost, this master of the steal who takes your money and hands you a bag full of potent drugs.
If I get one last big arrest, one final moment in the spotlight, then I can finally retire to Florida, just east of where I laid to rest my father years ago. Maybe I’ll even get a dog, name him Bipper. You would think, though, that a career full of outstanding arrests without any cases slipping through the cracks would earn me an island all to myself on behalf of Our Fair City. But no. Not a chance. Not from this city.
Our woman here, Mary, she knows this guy, this Ghost. I know this because I saw them, together, just last night. I thought it was a dream at first, because I was shouting and screaming for him to stop, but the man wouldn’t listen to me. Neither of them would. I thought, I might as well be wearing a muzzle. I could’ve jumped out of my hobo get-up and blown my cover, but there was no backup. There hardly ever is any more. No one wants to help an old man catch his thief. Either they’re too intimidated, to envious, or want to see me fail. Or maybe it’s more like watching a pitcher pitch a perfect game. You shouldn’t say a word to him, unless you want to blow the fun for every one.
So there I was last night, watching the Ghost give Mary a piece of his mind, and then the back of his hand. Then he had disappeared back inside Paul’s. Mary just touched her face, then, and looked across the street. Looked at me. But she couldn’t know I was there. At least, not in the sense that she would know who I am. What she saw was my cover, my disguise. Droopy hat, boots worn through the soles. Jacket covered in bird droppings and urine. The smell of urine used to crowd my nostrils and curb my appetite, but you get used to it when you spend five weeks or more undercover.
She walked away when she saw me, probably ashamed that she had been treated so poorly and there was a witness. But that’s to be expected. You don’t get the back of someone’s hand without a little shame at the root of it all. Still, the Ghost had no right to treat a woman that way, and when I saw her this morning, with her dog staring back at me, I could tell that she was beautiful, more than modestly so, and I suddenly felt desperate for a backhand to my face for acting like a coward last night.
Could’ve blown the whole investigation, but aren’t I here for that sort of thing? To serve and protect and all that jazz? What’s the purpose of saying you protect the peace when you sit idly by because you might nail a criminal for a one-to-three year sentence rather than a life behind bars? You have to step up and do a little good. That’s the point of wearing the blues. That’s what all the boys downtown say when they emerge from the Academy: “Wear the blues, keep the peace.”
I moved out from behind my cart. It hurt to stand. I had been in one spot, one position, for far too long. Nevertheless, it felt good to stretch, and besides, it was high time I moved in for a closer look at the Ghost. Also, I had a hunch, a good one, that Mary was just about ready to come clean and “turn over” on him. It was obvious they were close. Again, you don’t give someone a slap unless you’re somewhat familiar with her, and she’s done or said something to threaten your own authority. She could have vital information on his full operation, and would lend a hand to a great leap to his arrest. Perhaps she held the key component, the secret whereabouts of his street thugs, and the hidden stash of cash and grass I’d been looking for.
Mary watched me, barely acknowledged my presence. As I crossed the street, shoving my cart full of raw meat and surveillance gear in front of me, Bipper’s eyes didn’t move. He didn’t sit or eat, either, and then I realized — I had never seen her walk with the dog. It was always just there. I stopped moving, let go of my cart and allowed it to roll up to the curb, clunking to a stop at Mary’s feet. She didn’t flinch or move her toes, just watched it. She looked up at me.
“Want something? I ain’t got change.” She said it with attitude, laid everything out for me in a few quick words. She wasn’t taking any shit, but she was willing to give it. Her face had dirt marks, and her clothes looked tattered. Her outfit was familiar, and it should’ve been, as she’d worn it yesterday.
“Nothing for me, thanks. Need to ask you about him. About the Ghost.” I stopped. She stared at me, confused. She had no idea what I was talking about. I needed to drop the act, the code chatter, and get to the point. Even if she was crazy. “I need you to help me with some information.”
She reached over to Bipper, wrapped her arm around his stiff back, for comfort, or even protection. “What is it you want? I’m not doin’ nothing wrong.”
“No, not yet. But your friend — Paul — he’s up to no good.” Her face turned to stone at the mention of the Ghost’s name. She stared past me, at nothing in particular, and her lips creased white, pursed, sewn shut by a promise, perhaps, or a sick dedication to the Ghost. “I’m in the middle of an investigation and you can help me. You have an opportunity –”
“Get away from me. Please.” She said it with a tear trickling down her face. I backed up, unsure, and felt the blunt end of a pistol at my back.
“You a cop?” The voice was rough, groggy, as though the man had only in the last few minutes awoken from sleep. I dared not turn.
“Not as much as I am an astronaut.”
“You know the way to Jupiter’s seventh moon?” I opened my eyes wide as I could and turned to face the ghost.
Up close, his face looked like a mask — a false cover, an untamed surface full of scars and pock marks, leathery skin thinned with age. He had to be 80 at least, fragile and quivering with soft tremors. His torso was bare — lean, rubs showing, sagging chest and pale shoulders, liver spots cluttering like craters on a foreign surface. He had indeed just woken up.
I spit on my hands and rubbed just above my eyes, keeping my cover. “All washed and showered for my mission, sir!” I snapped to attention and offered a salute.
The Ghost, he held the pistol level. It may have been my imagination, but the tremoring in his wrist ceased. He smirked, locked his gaze with mine. “I like your tricks, detective. But this has gone on far too long.”
I woke up three weeks later with my wife at my hospital bedside. My face burned, the beard I had acquired through weeks of undercover research having been shaved during my brief coma. Hadn’t bothered with lotion, though, the bastards.
My wife, Mary, she looked at me and shook her head. She’d been my partner in every way you could imagine, especially on the streets. “Almost had him, Rick. Almost.”
My forehead felt itchy, and when I tried to peel back the bandage to scratch the scar, Mary took my hand. She held it and smiled at me, a tear running down her cheek.
She told me Paul disappeared that night, tried to take Mary with him but she ran off. He never suspected her of being more than she appeared.
In the corner, I saw our dog, Bipper. He stared back at me, as he has done since he passed 16 years ago.
I can still smell that raw meat.