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Oakland, California, 1983: a city churning with violent crime and racial conflict. Officer Hanson, a Vietnam veteran, has abandoned academia for the life-and-death clarity of police work, a way to live with the demons that followed him home from the war.
But Hanson knows that justice requires more than simply enforcing the penal code. He believes in becoming a part of the community he serves — which is why, unlike most officers, he chooses to live in the same town where he works.
This strategy serves him well . . . to a point. He forges a precarious friendship with Felix Maxwell, the drug king of East Oakland, based on their shared sense of fairness and honor. He falls in love with Libya the moment he sees her, a confident and outspoken black woman. He is befriended by Weegee, a streetwise eleven-year-old who is primed to become a dope dealer.
Every day, every shift, tests a cop’s boundaries between the man he wants to be and the officer of the law he’s required to be. At last an off-duty shooting forces Hanson to finally face who he is, and which side of the law he belongs on.
It’s winter in Idaho, past midnight, and it should be dark, but the wind-driven snow crackles with lightning and shakes the clattering glassy branches of frozen trees. Green and blue curtains of aurora borealis flare and furl and curtsy across the northern horizon.
Hanson appears out of the hissing snow with a double armload of firewood, on his way to the cabin. An owl, back in the trees where the wind doesn’t seem to touch him, watches with great yellow eyes as Hanson drops the wood onto the porch, opens the door, and goes inside, pushing the door closed against the wind. He hangs up his coat and feeds chunks of split locust into the cast-iron stove, watching the fire leap up before closing and latching the door. The only light in the cabin comes from the crazed mica window in the hinged stove door, flickering the cabin walls in and out like an old movie projector. It had seemed like April, spring on its way, when the storm blew down from the Hi-Line. He sits cross-legged in front of the fireplace, drinking tequila from the bottle, looking at his books stacked and shelved against the walls, the titles on their spines glittering in the firelight.
He’ll be leaving in another six weeks, as soon as the quarter is over and he’s turned in his grades. He’ll miss his students—he knows that—and the cabin too, half a mile above Boise, where he walks the hills through all the seasons, watching the weather roll in from the northwest. But after three years as an assistant professor at the university in town, he’s leaving. The English Department will be glad to see him go. He isn’t anything like them and wonders how he ever thought he was. He’s going back to the only work he could find after the war, a job where people understand pain better than rhetoric. So much for the life of the mind, he thinks, smiling—time to go back to what he was good at.
He reaches into the neck of his wool shirt and pulls out a compass the size of a dime that he wears on a cord. An army issue survival compass he’s had since the war. The olive-drab enamel has chipped off the edge of the brass case, but the compass still works like it should, something he can trust if he thinks he’s lost. He holds it level, watches the arrow turn, twitch, reverse itself, and steady up on north. Good old north, he thinks. You can depend on north, where it’s always ice and howling wind and polar bears out there, white shadows deep in the blowing snow.
Finishing the last of the tequila, he stands and walks to one of the bookcases, considering the titles in the firelight, touching them, pulls out his Yeats, still warped to the shape of his leg from carrying it everywhere in Vietnam, wrapped in plastic, in a pocket of his tiger suit. He taps it with his knuckle, smiling, and slips it back into its place between The Oxford Book of English Verse and a King James Bible he picked up one night in a Motel 6 in Salt Lake City.
He’s lived in isolated A-camps where he was always awake, even when he slept, in cities where he booby-trapped his apartment with trip wires, shotgun shells, and blasting caps behind the Sheetrock. And once, in a cabin by the Rio Costilla in the Sangre de Cristos in Northern New Mexico, seventy miles from the nearest supermarket, he had to make peace with ghosts. Their bodies had been buried on the property during the wars between the Spanish and the Ute Indians two hundred years before, and for the first week or so he slept outside by the river while they watched him, chanted, tore their own arms and legs off in display, and one night called an icy wind down from the mountains that uprooted three of the ancient cottonwood trees growing by the river. After that they left him alone—accepted him, he liked to think—and he was glad to have them out there at night, watching over the place.
Outside, the snow blows silently in the wind, rushes, spins, whirls away, and gone. The distant glow of lights in the town below.
In the partitioned end of the cabin that is the bedroom, he shucks off his jeans and long underwear, slips between crisp pale-green sheets and, with his hands clasped behind his head, studies the flickering shadows on the log-and-plank ceiling. His ears chitter and chirp and ring and whine with the tinnitus the VA doctors told him would never get better, only worse.
Death is in the cabin, on the other side of the wall. Hanson had heard him opening and closing the drawers of his desk, reading old mail. He’s looking at the books, talking to them in his ancient language. When he begins to sing Hanson smiles, closing his eyes. Death is watching the fire. In the sky above the cabin, far beyond the storm and earth’s concerns, the constellation Orion, huge and magnificent, is keeping time.
Running third now, Hanson picked up his pace. He could talk to the pain. He could hurt the pain if he had to. He could step out of his body, watch himself run, and leave the pain behind. But Hanson trusted pain. It was real, not some abstraction or metaphor or clever analogy at a goddamn English Department cocktail party. On the street, whoever takes the most pain wins, simple as that, and Hanson could take as much as anybody wanted to serve up. So he was singing:
“Well, I had an old dog an’ his name was Blue,
Had an old dog, an’ his name was Blue,
Had an old dog…”
He jogged across the street, crossed back again. He couldn’t see the runners ahead of him or, looking back, behind him. Well.
“Had an old dog, his name was bluuuu,
Betcha five dollars he’s a good dog too…”
Come on, he told himself, come on. Run. He angled across Railroad Park, running parallel with a ten-foot hedge, its dusty leaves mutated with pollution. On the other side of the hedge a massive steam locomotive—silver and gleaming black—seemed to move with him, picking up speed, flickering through the branches.
Third place, fine, he thought. Good. I like third place. Gimme third place, it is only running, after all. Who kills who is what it comes down to. It doesn’t matter how fast you can run if you’re dead. Nothing matters if you’re dead—who you were or thought you were, what you believed, which gang you belonged to. That’s all over. The good thing about death is that you no longer have to deal with your failures—the times when you were scared, uncertain, drunk, when your memory or social skills let you down, all the times you should have done better than you managed to do. That’s all over too. When you’re dead you can relax finally and get some sleep.
But he felt good today, running, good and mean. The harder he ran the better he felt, and when he felt really good he didn’t want to dance or laugh or sing—he wanted to kick ass. He’d tried to explain that to normal people but couldn’t even explain it to himself. The reason why didn’t matter, not in combat or alone on the street with a badge and a gun. He was fine out there. “No problem, Your Honor, good as gold, sir, ready to meet the public,” he announced, laughing, as he ran.
Just up ahead McCarty, who had been in second place, limped toward downtown, one hand on his hip. Hanson snarled and pushed a little harder, looking for Byron Fernandez, ahead in the lead somewhere. Fernandez was his only friend in the Academy. You’d think he was Hispanic with that name, but he was a middle-class black kid who’d grown up over in Alameda. He’d better catch up to Fernandez soon, though, because the high-rise Oakland Police Justice Center was in sight now, rising above the trees and traffic, blocking the sun.
A deputy chief had made the decision to accept Hanson’s application and hire him unseen over the objections of Lieutenant Garber in Training, the officer in charge of the Academy. He was, after all, a deputy chief, and subordinate officers like Lieutenant Garber needed to be reminded of that fact from time to time. Besides, Hanson had four years of previous police experience working the ghetto of Portland, Oregon, a city roughly the same size as Oakland, that like Oakland had brought in trainloads of black families from the South to work in the shipyards and defense factories of World War II. When the shipyards and factories shut down, they were stuck. In Portland he had received a number of citations for valor and innovation. He’d been a Special Forces sergeant in Vietnam, winning two Bronze Stars. He had a master’s degree in English literature and was teaching English at Boise State University. True, he was thirty-eight years old, but many of the OPD’s best officers were in that age group. Hanson, he had declared, would be an asset to the Department. The reasons this deputy chief had approved Hanson for the Academy were the reasons Lieutenant Garber didn’t want Hanson. He’d learned the job in a different police department—he was too old—he wasn’t going to be trainable.
By the time Hanson arrived in Oakland and discovered that he would be required to go through the five-month Police Academy, with twenty-one- and twenty-two-year-old recruits as classmates, the deputy chief was no longer with the Department.
Every Tuesday afternoon for several months prior to Hanson’s arrival, the deputy chief had been meeting a woman named Brandi in a comped room at the Marriott Hotel. Brandi had been introduced to the deputy chief by a DEA mutual acquaintance, a crony of Lieutenant Garber. Under Lieutenant Garber’s direction, surveillance was set. Video cameras were installed, and Lieutenant Garber, along with a sergeant from Vice, watched the crime-in-progress: accepting a gratuity, free use of the room at the Marriott. The deputy chief was not charged or arrested, but the week before Hanson arrived he resigned from the Oakland Police Department to take a job with the Detroit PD.
Hanson knew nothing of this, of course, but he had realized that signing up for the OPD was a mistake. He was not what they wanted, and they were not what he wanted, but he needed the job. They thought he had a bad attitude, and he did. Lieutenant Garber and the Training cadre had started in on him from his first day in the Academy, trying to coerce him into resigning, but good luck on that, he thought. He was tougher than they were.
At one of the first formal inspections, Sergeant White, a senior cadre, told Hanson that the hideaway pocket in his new wool pants wasn’t deep enough to accommodate his “short wood,” a ten-inch lead-filled billy club they’d been issued in addition to the longer nightstick—for close work. When Hanson said, “Yes, sir, I’ll have it fixed,” White reprimanded him for unnecessary talking in formation and put a memo of reprimand in his file. Most recently White had written a memo for Hanson’s file about the last inspection, when he’d told Hanson to pull his uniform pants pockets inside out and pointed out a union label sewn into the bottom of the right pocket, a uniform violation. Hanson had to respond in writing, explaining how he’d been derelict in not removing the pocket label.
He’d made White look bad at the outdoor firing range when White had picked him to use as an example of how difficult it was to fire a handgun accurately after running thirty yards and back. Hanson had put all six rounds in the black, and all White could say was “Normally it’s difficult to shoot accurately when you’ve been in a chase and are under pressure. Remember what I’m telling you, not Hanson’s dumb luck. There’s no luck out on the street.” Hanson realized then that he should have blown a couple of shots, but when he started shooting he’d gone into point-and-shoot muscle memory, his body taking over, faster than thought, into survival mode.
He’d felt a little bad about making White look stupid at the firing range. Some days White started drinking after lunch, Hanson could smell it on him. White’s life, he imagined, was difficult enough. But Hanson was getting weary of it, and he’d never had any such compassion for Lieutenant Garber.
Lieutenant Garber, several years younger than Hanson, had not done much time on the street, as was the case with most officers above the rank of sergeant, but had instead spent the years preparing for promotion exams and learning how to navigate the internal politics of the Department. His official objection to Hanson, voiced frequently to the Training cadre, was that Hanson was insubordinate. Hanson could be ironic sometimes when he shouldn’t be and he asked too many questions in class just to stay interested and awake, but it wasn’t insubordination. Hanson could follow orders and maintain a respectful demeanor.
It was late in the afternoon on a Friday, and Hanson, along with most of the class, was having trouble staying awake after the run that morning and a two-hour lecture on traffic law. Lieutenant Garber had come in at five to teach a class on writing search warrants for a test Monday morning, but he digressed into a rant about a recent probable cause ruling by the California Supreme Court and its “Communist” Chief Justice Rose Bird that had, once again, further eroded police powers.
The rest of the class leaned forward in their desks, listening intently, encouraging the lieutenant to go on so that the search warrant test might be postponed. Hanson sat back and listened too, skeptical as usual of Lieutenant Garber’s politics, but telling himself to just listen and not ask any questions—this wasn’t a college classroom. It hadn’t been but a couple of weeks earlier when he’d suggested to a lecturer that police officers were basically armed social workers whose job was to interpret and enforce the social contract of the community they patrolled. Fernandez saw Hanson thinking, and when the lieutenant turned to close the hall door, he grinned and made a “slow down” gesture with his hand, warning Hanson not to comment. Hanson smiled back at Fernandez and shook his head: Not today.
The lieutenant was in uniform, beautifully tailored, and so wearing, of course, his OPD lieutenant’s badge, a solid gold star. He stepped back up behind his podium, removed his hat, and looked the class over silently, in a manly, military manner, Hanson thought, establishing his excellent “command presence” as he went into more detail about the stupidity of the California Communist Supreme Court’s latest assault on police powers.
A police officer, Lieutenant Garber told them, had stopped a black man walking in Beverly Hills at 11 p.m. because he was dressed inappropriately and was clearly not the type of individual who belonged in that neighborhood. The suspect claimed that he was a screenwriter, staying not far from where he’d been stopped. He had the odor of an alcoholic beverage on his breath, the officer testified, and based on the officer’s past police experience, he believed the suspect was under the influence and asked him for some ID. The suspect responded to his request by saying, “Dream on, motherfucker, I’m going home,” and began walking away, ignoring the officer’s commands to stop. A cover car arrived and the officers now at the scene, observing the suspect’s demeanor, his appearance, and his refusal to comply with the primary officer’s commands, justifiably concerned that he might be armed, subdued the suspect and placed him under arrest. A resident, a somewhat elderly individual, who claimed to have observed the arrest—from his porch, almost a block away, under nighttime conditions—testified that the officers, brandishing their service revolvers, had assaulted the suspect for no apparent reason, slamming him repeatedly into the side of a patrol car while making racial slurs.
The suspect refused a plea bargain, and when the case went to trial, several Hollywood celebrities testified on his behalf and he was found not guilty of all charges, including possession of a quantity of cocaine the officers discovered in his shoe. The court had thrown that out along with all the other charges—assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, public intoxication, and possession of cocaine—because, in their view, the police had no probable cause to stop him in the first place. He sued the Beverly Hills Police Department and was awarded 1.3 million dollars. The elements of a probable cause stop were going to be even more difficult to establish now, at least in California.
Jesus, Hanson thought, smiling, the fuckin’ guy was lucky they didn’t shoot him, in Beverly Hills, and that some rich liberal had seen what happened and was willing to testify. Christ, he…
The lieutenant had stopped talking and was just standing up there behind the podium looking at Hanson. So was the rest of the class.
“Yes, sir?” he said as mildly as he could. Fernandez was rolling his eyes.
“You seem to find this amusing. Do you have something that you’d like to share with the rest of us?” The lieutenant nodded for him to speak.
Fine, Hanson thought, okay.
“Sir. I’d blame the officers involved more than I’d blame Rose Bird.”
Lieutenant Garber nodded for Hanson to go on.
“It was kind of dumb to…I mean, the primary officer…Sir, cops like this guy keep inviting the court to take police powers away.”
Lieutenant Garber interrupted him by holding up one finger while looking out at the rest of the class. “Our constitutional scholar,” he announced. “Thank you, Officer Hanson, for that insight. The officer in question, a seasoned officer calling on his hard-won expertise and knowledge of the streets, attempting to make an arrest of a suspect who was, in fact, in possession of a quantity of cocaine, is, in your opinion, ‘dumb’?”
I’m dumb, Hanson thought, for saying anything at all.
“I’d call him an outstanding officer for making a legitimate arrest,” Lieutenant Garber said. “I’m no scholar, but that’s what I’d call him. Outstanding. But maybe you’re aware of something here that I’m not privy to. Could you share that with the class?”
“Sir, you know, it’s kind of a game sometimes, a—”
“A game? Is that what you think? The game of law enforcement? The game of protecting citizens from predators out there,” he said, gesturing out the seventh floor window toward East Oakland, way in the distance. “I don’t know anything about a game. And for the politically correct, I’m not just talking about Tyrone. This isn’t about race, as it clearly is, obviously, to anybody honest enough to see it. It’s about the law.”
“Sir, I’m not trying to argue here, at all, but…why not just go up to the guy, the suspect, say ‘How you doin’,’ talk to him, and see…”
Lieutenant Garber held up his hand and Hanson stopped talking.
“Class is dismissed till Monday morning. Hanson, you are not dismissed.”
“Sir,” one of the recruits began, “are we still gonna have the search warrant quiz on Monday, or…”
“I don’t know, Parker. I don’t know. Study for it.”
Hanson got to his feet, stood beside his desk. The rest of the class left, looking straight ahead. Lieutenant Garber gripped the lectern he was standing behind.
“What are your intentions, Hanson?”
“Intentions,” Lieutenant Garber almost shouted. “What are you doing here? We don’t get a lot of thirty-eight-year-old recruits with degrees in literature. You writing a book?”
“No, sir,” Hanson said, keeping his expression neutral.
“Maybe a career in social work, then? To help the downtrodden? Or perhaps law school? You’re not too old for that if you get started soon. Get a job with the ACLU.”
Hanson didn’t say anything, waiting Lieutenant Garber out.
“The reason I’m asking, Hanson, is because you don’t seem to fit in very well here at the OPD. Your classroom work is satisfactory, more or less, but that’s only a small part of preparing for the street, as a police officer, here in Oakland anyway. Sergeant Jackson, for instance, tells me that you and he have had some problems in the area of physical proficiency and self-defense, which I, for one, consider a very important part of your training.”
Hanson nodded to show that he was listening.
“Very well, Hanson. You need to work harder then, to show us that you want to learn the kind of law enforcement we expect from our officers, and no one is going to make this training any easier for you. Think about it.
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Hanson said, and left the classroom.
On the way down the hall, he passed the open door of the Training cadre office, where Sergeant Jackson stood watching him from the doorway. Sergeant Jackson was the senior physical training cadre. He was a few years older than Hanson, and he’d been on the street for sixteen years. The word was that as a young officer recruited from somewhere in the South, he’d married a rich, beautiful, politically connected woman and didn’t need the fifty thousand dollars a year the Department paid him. He came to work because he liked the job. He told lieutenants and captains when they were wrong and seemed to do whatever he wanted to on the street, no matter how brutal or outrageous.
Sergeant Jackson was tough and smart, fluid and fast. He had a temper but used it to his advantage. He fucked with Hanson every chance he got. “You,” he’d say, when he needed a volunteer, pointing at Hanson as he sat cross-legged on the mats, taking a break with the rest of the class. Hanson would stand up, soaked with sweat, and walk up to Sergeant Jackson, who would jam his arm or wrist into a painful come-along hold or use him to demonstrate a take-down, faking a move in one direction, then pivoting to sweep Hanson’s legs out from under him, all the while calmly and never out of breath explaining to the rest of the class what he was doing. Hanson never changed expression when Sergeant Jackson slammed him to the mat or levered a carotid choke hold on him till his vision closed down to black tunnels. Hanson was able to step outside himself and watch it happen, refusing to give Sergeant Jackson the satisfaction of any emotion at all. He couldn’t afford to get angry.
The following Monday marked the beginning of the fourth month of the Academy. By then, half the class, the 106th Recruit School, had quit, dropped out with injuries, or been terminated for poor performance. Two were fired because of something their initial background checks had missed. Another resigned after being arrested for assault in a downtown bar. Trainees who’d gone through it together called the five-month Oakland Police Academy the OPD Street Combat Course. The cadre wrote out permission slips for the trainees—and a buddy to drive them—to go to the Alameda County Hospital emergency room. Broken finger, broken nose, cracked rib, and concussion were the most common excuses. Trainees limped to their cars after twelve- and fourteen-hour days of five-mile runs, nightstick katas, one-on-one choke holds, take-downs, handcuffing, and come-along drills. The recruits all wore Department-issued white T-shirts with an Oakland PD badge printed on the front and a red, orange, and yellow woodpecker on the back. The woodpecker’s beak curled into a snarl, and above him were the words TOUGH AS WOODPECKER LIPS. That afternoon they were sitting in a half circle on the floor of the gym, listening to Sergeant Jackson.
“Anybody who will fight a police officer will kill a police officer,” Sergeant Jackson told the class. “Your badge and gun don’t mean anything to him, because he doesn’t have anything to lose. People. When you stop him on the street this type of individual will lie, interrupt, and argue. If you allow him to do these things, you are giving him permission to kill you, because he thinks you’re weak. He will curse you and walk away if you tell him he’s under arrest. When you reach out to handcuff him, he’ll resist, fight back, and kill you—with your own gun if he doesn’t already have one. Don’t expect anybody out there to obey the law like we have to do. They live by the law of the jungle.
“He is not like you. Do not believe that liberal happy talk about how, down deep, we’re all the same. He is a different kind of animal than you are. And when you find yourself in a fight on the street, you have no friends out there. You can’t just give up, you can’t quit, because if you do, he’ll kill you. He damn sure—excuse me, ladies—he isn’t going to simply subdue you, then go home to the wife and kids.
“Winning the fight is the only option you have, and that means the second he looks at you wrong, sasses you, back talks, or raises a hand, you knock him on his ass, hurt him, and keep hurting him till he stops trying to get up, then you arrest him and cuff him and think of something to charge him with later. If it goes bad and you think he’s going to overpower you, then you shoot him and kill him. Do not hesitate to kill him if you have to. We are spread way too thin out there to hesitate. If Tyrone forces you to kill him to save your own life, the Department will back you up.
“In my years working the street, no officer who has had to kill a citizen in self-defense had to face anything worse than two weeks on administrative leave with pay. Oakland is the ex-con capital of California. These individuals do not fear the courts or prison. The courts are backed up two and three years with felony cases waiting to go to trial. The prisons are full. He knows this. If he has to go back to prison, he’s at home there, anyway. That’s his real home. He was born in prison. Prison was his home before he was born.
“He doesn’t fear the law, the courts, or prison. So I’m here to tell you that he’d better fear you. You are the law out there on the street. You’re real. You can hurt him now. Many of you grew up thinking it wasn’t like that. Now you know.”
- A 2019 LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE FINALIST
- On Sale
- Mar 12, 2019
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Mulholland Books