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By Max DiLallo
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"GIMME TWO scoops, three waddles, and a shake!"
Marlene is standing a few feet away from me, yelling out the next order because of the damn noise. Like the clanging of the manhole-sized skillet I'm using to sauté a fresh heap of diced onions, celery, and bell peppers. The popping and crackling of our deep fryer, louder than hail on a tin roof. The roar of the exhaust fan, straining to suck out all the smoke.
And that's just inside our sweltering little food truck.
Outside, a line of hungry customers stretching twice around the block is starting to get rowdy, yelling out encouragement and menu demands. Midday traffic with its engines and horns is rumbling up and down Canal Street, along with rattling trolley cars. And seemingly out of nowhere, a five-person roving brass jazz band has appeared on the corner, blaring a toe-tapping tune, causing some in line to snap photos with their phones to preserve yet another memory of their trip to this enchanted place.
A collision of food, music, history, passion, chaos…yep, that pretty much sums up New Orleans for you. "Nawlins," as us locals say it. NOLA. The Crescent City. The Big Easy. Different names for the same magical, one-of-a-kind place. My hometown of three-and-a-half decades. The capital of the world, as far as I'm concerned. A city where anything can happen, and nothing is ever as it seems.
Sometimes that's a good thing.
Other times—and I refuse to go there at the moment—it's a bad thing.
A very bad thing.
"Two scoops, three waddles, one shake!" I call back to Marlene, parroting the culinary shorthand we've developed running Killer Chef together these past few years. The work is grueling. Endless. Exhausting. But I love every second of it, doing something so simple yet so satisfying, providing great food at good prices to hungry and eager customers.
And with Marlene, I couldn't imagine having a better partner in crime, even though we've been divorced for years.
From the stack of empty paper serving boats beside me, I take six and fan them out along my prep space like a poker dealer flicking cards. From a plastic baggie sticking out of my back pocket, I grab an organic green jalapeño chili pepper and pop it into my mouth for a spicy pick-me-up. It's an unusual habit, I know, but better than a lot of other chefs' vices—trust me. Then I get to work.
I start with the "scoops." I fill two paper boats with mounds of fresh, piping-hot cheese grits. I top each with a healthy—well, unhealthy—dollop of softened butter, followed by a huge scoop of grillades. That's a thick, fragrant Cajun stew made with seared veal medallions, onions, garlic, beef broth, and red wine.
Next come the "waddles." Into three serving boats go generous portions of "dirty rice," the grains the color of caramel, thanks to the spiced chicken giblets they're cooked with. Then, from the sizzling griddle in front of me, I add to each one a gator boudin, a succulent smoked sausage made with the meat of that legendary bayou predator. (The first time I ever cooked one for Marlene, years back, she said it tasted so fresh and juicy, she half-expected it to waddle off her plate. The name stuck.)
Last, I make the "shake." I dump a batch of twisted strips of raw dough into the metal deep-fryer basket, then plunge them into the scalding vat of oil. Once they're golden brown and perfectly flaky, I slide them into a serving boat and dust them with precisely six shakes of powdered sugar. Most New Orleans joints serve beignets, a similar, more common regional pastry. But I've always preferred these, known as angel wings. And I've never been one to follow the crowd, either here or in my other career.
"Order up!" I cry, sliding the six steaming paper boats over to Marlene.
She grabs them without looking, bundling each with napkins and plastic cutlery. Then she hands them down through the service window to a gaggle of attractive women, already tipsy despite the early hour, each wearing a bright sash over their shoulders and tiaras in their hair. A bachelorette party, if I had to guess, which is about as common in this city as air.
"Thanks, Killer Chef," one of the ladies says to me, twirling her colorful beaded necklaces around her finger. She adds with a coy giggle, "It sure looks…yummy."
Most of our customers come to us for the incredible food. Can I help it if a few also want to flirt? And truth is, all sweaty, covered with food stains and smelling of cooking oil, I love the attention.
But before I can respond, Marlene answers for me—with a blatant eye roll.
"Oh, honey," she says, her voice dripping with experience and sarcasm. "Don't let Caleb's two hundred pounds of hunkiness fool you. That man's a lot like the sun. Plenty hot when he shines on you, but try to get close and he'll burn you to a crisp. Believe me. I know."
Good old Marlene. Opening this truck with her was one of the best decisions I ever made. But walking down the aisle with her? Eh, not so much.
I'm just about to tell these gals how my ex-wife is a lot like a lemon—sweet-looking but truly bitter—when something outside catches my eye.
And chills me, despite the sweltering heat inside my truck.
Down the block, four white boys in their mid-twenties are leaning against the hood of a black SUV, a Ford Explorer with new, shiny chrome rims. They're passing around a bottle of liquor in a paper bag. Whispering among themselves. Watching the traffic go by. Watching the morning tourists stroll past.
But most of all, watching me.
I don't recognize their faces, but I do recognize their clothes. Each is wearing something yellow. A yellow bandana. A yellow baseball cap. A yellow hoodie.
They're part of the Franklin Avenue Soldiers, an up-and-coming crew based out of the St. Roch neighborhood, a good four miles from here. I wasn't expecting to see any of them this far from their turf. In fact, I was hoping that working this busy brunch shift would distract me, would help keep all that bullshit out of my brain for a few hours.
I should have known they'd find me.
"Hey, fall asleep at the stove again?" Marlene barks, jolting me back to reality. "I need four waddles, two shakes, and three scoops!"
And so goes the rest of our morning. I try to stay focused on cooking our food. On pleasing our customers. On flashing a devilish grin at the pretty ones. But every time I glance through the service window, those gangbangers are still out there. Glaring at me. Waiting for me to make my next move. Waiting for me to step out and away from all these potential witnesses lined up at my truck.
"And that's the last of 'em," Marlene finally says long minutes later, as the last two happy customers stroll away, leaving the sidewalk clear before us. She wipes her hands on her apron. It's stained with so many different colors, it looks like some kind of abstract painting.
I've already untied my own apron—and stripped off my sweaty black T-shirt with the Killer Chef logo as well. I wet a clean towel with cold water and rub down my chest, belly, and arms, trying to get most of the sweat off. I reach for a black duffel bag in the corner of the truck. I unzip it and start rummaging inside. Marlene clicks her tongue, annoyed.
"You're really not gonna stick around and help me prep for lunch, huh? Slacker."
"Trust me, Mar, I'd much rather keep slaving away over a hot stove than get dragged over the hot coals that are waiting for me down the way," I say, taking out a stick of deodorant that I liberally apply to each underarm. "Even if it means listening to you yammer on while I do it."
My ex-wife snickers. We're just busting each other's chops. The truth is, I would rather do just about anything right now over what I'm about to. And she knows it, too.
"Caleb," she says softly, putting her hand on my bare chest. "Good luck."
"Thanks," I answer. Then I remove from the duffel bag a folded blue dress shirt, along with a plastic ID card dangling from a cloth lanyard.
It reads: ROONEY, CALEB J.—DETECTIVE—NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT.
I have a badge, too. I swear. And a gun.
But currently, they're not in my possession.
I slip on the collared shirt, stuff my ID into my pocket, then look one more time through the service window at those gangbangers.
To my surprise, they're gone.
I should be relieved, but I'm not.
I know at the time and place of their choosing, they'll be back.
And they won't be lining up for my famous food.
I STEP out of the food truck and suck in a deep breath of fresh air from the sidewalk.
The temperature probably topped triple digits inside that metal sardine can, but out here it's balmy and delightful. Folks are walking around in shorts and T-shirts. The palm trees lining Canal Street are gently swaying from the slight breeze. Anytime is a perfect time to visit New Orleans, if you ask me, but February can't be beat, especially if you're from some frozen place like Maine or Minnesota.
I start walking north away from my truck and ex-wife. After a few steps, I hear a metallic screeching and clattering coming up behind me. Turning back, I see a distinctive red and yellow vintage streetcar slowing down as it nears its next stop. If I broke into a jog, I could probably catch it. I'm going in that direction anyway. But I decide not to. I'm in no rush. Besides, I want to use the mile-and-a-half walk to do some thinking.
And ponder that visit from the Franklin Avenue Soldiers.
So I keep strolling, taking in all the sights and sounds. Preparations are well under way for Carnival, the two wild weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, the single greatest party on the entire planet—at least in my totally biased opinion.
It kicks off tonight and you can feel it in the air, see it everywhere you look. Shopkeepers have started hanging up purple, green, and gold streamers, flags, and other decorations in their windows. Eager, excited tourists have already begun trickling in. And at various key intersections around the city, the NOPD has started placing Delta barriers—big, white, mechanical traffic barricades that keep cars off designated parade routes and pedestrian paths. Things can get pretty crazy when the festivities are in full swing, but law, order, and safety are always top priorities.
Right now, I'm thinking about my own safety.
In more ways than one.
As I keep moving, scanning the streets for any lurking Franklin Avenue boys, I mentally rehearse how this whole thing is going to play out in just a short while.
I know what I saw. I know I did the right thing. And I know what I want to say.
So why do I still feel like I'm walking the plank?
Soon I'm hooking a left onto South Broad Avenue. I keep going until I cross Tulane—the thoroughfare, not the university. Up ahead is the Orleans Parish criminal court, one of the ugliest buildings in this otherwise beautiful city, a hideous concrete fortress surrounded by barbed-wire fences.
After I cross Gravier Street, my destination comes into view. Set back from the road by a wide courtyard, it's a place I've spent hundreds of hours of my life and been a part of some extraordinary investigations. But today, the New Orleans Police Department headquarters feels different. Strange. Foreboding. Uninviting.
I consider whether to enter through one of its side doors, or maybe via the staff parking garage. Both would avoid a possible scene.
But that would also make it look like I had something to hide.
I take a final moment to compose myself. Then I march straight through the courtyard and up to the main entrance. As I expected, a flock of reporters is there waiting. They spot me, and the feeding frenzy begins. They'd all showed up at Killer Chef earlier, but Marlene screamed that she'd ban them from the truck forever if they didn't leave us alone. That took care of them.
"Detective Rooney, Detective Rooney!" they yell. "Any last words before you—"
"Last words?" I ask wryly. "This isn't an execution. Just a firing squad."
A shout comes from the rear of the journalist scrum. "Is it true you've waived your right to have a police union official or other counsel represent you?"
"You're looking at an innocent man," I firmly say.
I've nearly reached the glass front doors. I'm almost inside. So the questions come even faster, in a frantic jumble, like they're desperately trying to trip me up.
"What outcome are you expecting this afternoon, Detective?"
"How do you respond to critics who claim this whole proceeding is a sham?"
"Do you regret any of your actions?"
"Do you have anything to say to the victim's family?"
Grasping the metal door handle, I turn back and face the thick throng of reporters, some I know intimately from investigations past. You'd think they'd show me some courtesy, some consideration, not be part of a baying pack eager to bring me down.
But you'd be wrong.
To them, I'm a story now. Strictly business. Nothing personal.
The reporters finally quiet down, waiting, their cameras and phones ready and rolling.
I want to say plenty. To everyone involved.
But not here. Not now.
I give the crowd a nod and head inside, knowing that when I eventually leave this huge building with so many memories, I won't be the same man who came in.
Which both frightens and exhilarates me.
TYPICALLY, THE NOPD Use of Force Review Board hearings are handled internally on the third floor, inside a stuffy conference room furnished with a beat-up oval table and a bunch of uncomfortable chairs. I know this because over the course of my fourteen-year career with the department, I've testified in three such proceedings on behalf of fellow cops.
But in this, my fourth appearance before the Board, I'm the focus.
Not a great feeling.
Usually the hearings are kept confidential and closed to the public, except in cases where the department is looking to make an example of someone and try and look good to the public.
Like this one.
I'm kept waiting for nearly twenty minutes in the hallway outside the spacious ground-floor briefing room co-opted for today's event. The uniformed officer acting as the hearing's sergeant-at-arms—a kid barely out of the academy, with a face so pink and boyish I bet he gets carded at R-rated movies—tells me the committee must first address some "administrative matters."
"Sounds like a bullshit excuse," he adds under his breath. He's clearly trying to buddy up to me, gain some macho props. "This whole thing's bullshit, if you want the truth, Rooney. Everybody knows it, too. Your shot was cleaner than a nun's ass."
I pity-chuckle at the officer's attempt at humor, but smile with genuine thanks for the support. I couldn't agree with this kid more. Every police shooting should be investigated thoroughly, but what the department's making me go through is ridiculous. It's all politics. Pure PR.
But that's the job. Sometimes it's your turn to be "made an example of," and my number just came up.
It pisses me off so much that some nights I can't sleep, just replaying the events over and over again in my mind: the chase, the gunshot, the aftermath.
Each time I think it through, I know I made the right choice.
But facts aren't going to matter today.
Finally, the young officer opens the door to the briefing room and I walk in. Five NOPD brass are seated behind a polished wooden table up at the front. They range in rank from lieutenant to the big cheese, Deputy Superintendent of Field Operations Charles Bossett, a burly African-American man whose mere presence projects authority.
About two dozen people are crammed into the gallery. As I take my seat by myself at a separate table, I give the crowd a scan. It's a mix of spectators, reporters, a few department colleagues and police union reps, as well as the friends and family of the late Larry Grant.
His death last month by my use of a department-issued sidearm—which is currently being kept inside a locked steel cage deep in this building's evidence room, alongside my silver badge—is why we're all here today.
"For the record," Deputy Superintendent Bossett begins with a stern voice, "Detective Caleb James Rooney has joined the proceedings."
"Good afternoon," I respond with a respectful nod.
Bossett continues. "We now return to the matter of the detective's use of lethal force in the line of duty against Lawrence Christopher Grant, age twenty-nine, at approximately 11:43 p.m. on the night of January 10, 2018—an episode, we are all aware, that has been the subject of ample media coverage, both local and national."
No shit, I think. That's why the department is making such a big spectacle out of this. Not because of the facts of the shooting, which was about as by-the-book as could be. But to try to regain some shred of public respect after all the negative press over the past years.
Grant had been on my radar for a couple months. He was a mid-level Franklin Avenue Soldier and well-known drug dealer. But he was also a devoted husband who coached his little cousin's youth basketball team and took night classes at nearby Delgado Community College. Not exactly your typical criminal lowlife.
And I'm not exactly your typical police, either. Just try to find another major crimes detective anywhere in the country who moonlights as an award-winning chef and runs a popular food truck in his spare time.
The blogs and papers had a field day with that. The story spread far and wide. The headlines practically wrote themselves. KILLER CHEF TURNS KILLER COP. NOPD IN BOILING WATER AFTER FOODIE FLATFOOT FIRES FIRST. PUBLIC TO CITY: 'COOKING COP MUST FRY.'
I've never tried to keep my double life hidden from anybody. Not from the community, not from my superiors. Killer Chef even catered the policemen's ball three years running, and the wedding of my chief's niece. I understand police use-of-force policies are being put under a fresh microscopic examination across the nation. So overnight in my hometown of New Orleans, I'd become an embarrassment to the entire department. A liability. Any support I might have gotten from my fellow cops and senior officers dried right up.
So here we are.
"This board has had the opportunity to read your official statement regarding the events of that evening, Detective," Bossett says. "Before we begin our questioning, is there anything you'd like to add to your story? Now is your chance."
My story. Like I was a suspect hauled in for questioning!
What a shit-show. What a betrayal.
But I know if I ever want to get my gun and badge back, I have no choice but to play along.
I take a breath, knowing everything—my life, my future, my dual careers, hell, even the possibility of a prison term—rests on what I'm about to say.
"THANK YOU, sir," I reply, grabbing the armrests of my chair to try to control my building anger. "I stand by my story one hundred percent. But yes, there is something I'd like to say before we get started."
The room grows pin-drop quiet, everyone anxiously waiting to hear the accused speak.
I swivel in my seat so I can address Grant's family, who are sitting off to the side in the front row. Among them I recognize his soft-spoken widow, Crystal, her eyes puffy from crying. Next to her is Grant's younger brother, Ty, his face clenched in a tight scowl. It's no coincidence he's wearing a pale-yellow dress shirt and a mustard-yellow tie, a symbol of his Franklin Avenue affiliation. A warning—like I needed one after seeing that SUV earlier today—that the gang is watching me.
"Larry Grant may have made some poor choices in his life," I calmly say. "Like selling crack cocaine. Like pulling a handgun on a police officer. Still, his untimely death is a tragedy, for both his family and our city. My sincere hope is that his memory lives on, and that the legacy of the good he did for his family and community serves as an inspiration to others. Thank you."
The crowd reacts with murmurs of pleasant surprise. Even Crystal and Ty look taken aback. I don't feel I owe an apology to anyone for following protocol and taking out a dangerous would-be gunman. But of course I mourn the man's death. I'm a human being. Unfortunately, that's rare to hear any cop publicly admit in this day and age.
"Very well, Detective," Bossett says, looking a bit distracted from my statement. He shuffles some papers. "To begin…can you please explain why you chose to continue chasing suspect Grant, despite the situation meeting multiple criteria for terminating a foot pursuit as set forth in Section 458.3 of the NOPD policy handbook? Among them: you had been separated from the rest of your unit, and as you informed the radio dispatcher, you were unaware of both Grant's exact location as well as your own. Do I have that correct?"
Now I'm the one caught off guard. Bossett is hitting me hard right out of the gate. I wasn't expecting this hearing to be a breeze, but I didn't think I'd get grilled like this, either.
"You do, sir," I reply. "But I believe the exact wording of Section 458.3 lists guidelines for an officer to consider terminating a foot pursuit. Doing so is still up to his or her discretion."
Bossett frowns. We both know I've got my facts right.
"So even though you were all alone, in the pitch dark, in an unfamiliar part of the city…"
I cut him off. "Actually, sir, I had been on a team surveilling suspect Grant all over his St. Roch neighborhood for the past week. I felt I knew my way around well enough. And there were multiple streetlights and porch lights on that night. A full moon, too."
"I have a question, Detective Rooney," says Major Deborah Katz, the sole female on today's board, a compact woman whose bun is tied so tightly, her hair looks as flat and shiny as glass. "Your report says you pursued the suspect with your sidearm in hand. Which is also against department guidelines. Some might say, having your weapon out and ready like that would make you…more likely to use it."
I give the major a polite smile. "Was that a question, ma'am?"
She gives it right back to me. "Do you have an answer, Detective?"
"My Glock was out, yes—because I'd drawn it moments earlier. Me and my fellow officers had just moved on the suspect and his accomplices after observing them selling narcotics in an abandoned lot off Touro Street. When Grant ran, I chose not to waste even one second re-holstering my weapon. I also knew I might have to use it, too."
Major Katz's eyes grow perceptibly wider. "So you admit you were predisposed to firing your sidearm that night?"
I grit my teeth. I'm starting to lose my patience with these grandstanders.
"I admit I did my homework. Grant was a Franklin Avenue enforcer. Known to be armed and dangerous—which, as seems to have gotten lost in today's hearing, he was."
Bossett interjects, "Yes, about that handgun allegedly recovered at the scene…"
Allegedly? No way. He's not about to suggest I planted it, is he?
"A number of witnesses have come forward to say they saw you placing the weapon near the suspect following the shooting," he continues. "How do you respond?"
Okay, this is beyond ridiculous now. It's downright insulting. And another thought about my future is starting to demand attention.
"With respect, sir, that's absurd," I reply, working to keep my voice calm and level. "Those witnesses are all fellow gang members. And not one has offered a single photo or frame of video to back that story up."
I feel myself picking up steam so I keep going with it.
"And let's talk about the weapon itself for a minute," my voice rising. "Earlier I'd learned from an informant that Grant was rumored to pack a golden, personalized piece. It's in my field paperwork from two days before the shooting. And that's exactly what was recovered at the scene: a gold-plated 9mm Heckler & Koch, engraved with the letters L-C-G. The gun he pulled on me before I fired two shots of my own."
- On Sale
- Nov 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing