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An explosion of whoops and cheers rolled over me and crashed against the walls of the banquet hall at the Austin Convention Center as each name was called and a trophy was presented to each of a hundred officers for outstanding duty, perfect attendance, aboves and beyonds, and he waddled up to the podium on fat legs and waved to his thousand friends, blushing with gratitude for the career that saved him from life as a laborer or a thug.

“Carl Milsap!” Sergeant, Narcotics. Cheers.

I made it through the crowd to the right of the tables, to the bar, run by half a dozen young actresses in tuxedo shirts and vests, mixing drinks and smiling with apprehension at the cops’ advances. Someone was bragging about an arrest, the kind of conversation he couldn’t have with his wife. “We got these two mullets,” a funny word for junkie, “in cuffs and one of ’em screechin’, ‘You cain’t do that, I got my rights!’ So I kick his legs out. . . .” I ordered another margarita for myself and a kamikaze for my girlfriend and noticed James Torbett standing by the wall just beyond the bar, surveying the room. We’d worked together on Homicide for a few years and forged something like an alliance. I took my drinks and joined him.

Without glancing at me, he said, “You shouldn’t drink with both hands, Reles.”

I weighed the two drinks. “I can never decide.” I scanned the room for Mrs. Torbett, but the only other African Americans I spotted were a few patrols and their wives. “Where’s the missus?”

“I don’t bring her to these things.”

I spotted my girlfriend, Jessica, sulking at our table. She came along for the event, mostly because she thought I didn’t want her to. But the absence of a female companion would have looked more suspicious than the presence of an unusual one, even Jessica. I’d had a few too many free margaritas and didn’t care one way or the other.

“Luis Fuentes!” Sergeant, Homicide. Cheers.

I tried to imagine what some of the awards were for. Most improved? Fewest prostitutes solicited? Least weight gained?

“How do you figure they make these decisions?” I asked. Torbett deadpanned me. We knew how. We just weren’t allowed to say it. The Family.

The Family was a secret affiliation of powerful crackers, a controlling force in the department helping its own to secure promotions and avoid prosecution. Hardly anyone got promoted who didn’t have a Klan pedigree and a lip full of chewing tobacco. You couldn’t fight the Family, you couldn’t even prove it existed. But I knew I wasn’t a member and neither was Torbett.

I shrugged. “What are ya gonna do?”

Torbett wasn’t the type to give much away, but I saw a shift in his face.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “Just . . . thinking.”

The dais table at the front of the room framed the upper brass as a modern Last Supper, only with no Jews. (God, in the form of Chief Cronin, hovered invisibly—he didn’t show up, he was nowhere and everywhere.) The rest of the crowd sat at a hundred round tables with twelve chairs each, forcing social interaction a lot of us could have done without. I moved back to Jessica, now dipping her feet into a conversation with husky, thirtyish Jeff Czerniak (pronounced CHER-nik) from Organized Crime, to her left. Czerniak, a high school wrestling champ with muscle under his fat and a hyperpituitary jaw, was half smashed and absently holding his neglected wife’s hand. He followed along Jessica’s reasoning as if she were flirting. She wasn’t.

“What made you become a cop?” she asked, her voice high-pitched enough to have a doll-like vibration that made people think they were speaking to a child, but a lack of highs and lows that made her sound like a child at her parents’ funeral.

“Fight crime,” he said. “Keep creeps off the street!”

“Define creep.”

Liquor had put to rest the part of Czerniak that kept him from panting at another woman’s breasts in front of his wife. The hurt in young Mrs. Czerniak’s face told me it wasn’t the first time she’d been through this. Czerniak didn’t have the looks or the smoothness to score with every woman who crossed his path, but he was a drooler.

The front tables where we were, closer to the dais, were infested with administration, detectives and their wives. Farther back, the blue knights crowded closer together in full dress uniforms, bloated faces reddened from the department-funded liquor. The banquet wasn’t a regular event but a major public relations turnaround, an orgy of self-congratulation meant to jolt the department from the inside, radiating outward as far as the press—and, God willing, the public—to counteract the bad hype that came down in the aftermath of the Salina Street incident. Responding to a bogus call about gang activity, eight cops busted into a children’s Valentine’s Day party, manhandled children and beat and arrested adults, some still pending trial.

“Harland Clay.” Lieutenant, Organized Crime. Cheers. Greasy hair, ruddy face, tobacco juice staining his drooping mustache, Clay had made his name in Narcotics, blending in with the suspects.

I spotted Torbett loping grimly across the fl oor. I knew that, from a back injury he’d sustained at the hands of another cop, each step caused him pain. And I knew his wife wanted him off the force. Pressure from every side. I saw him greet a younger black detective—Torbett had been the first—talk briefl y with him and shake his hand.

The speaker called out several more names, none of them mine. My record had been clean for years, sometimes outstanding. But it had a few old minuses on it. If they gave me an award, that was bad news. It would mean they wouldn’t read my name on the list of promotions.

Czerniak was explaining crime to Jessica, his reddened eyes drifting again in the direction of her blouse. “Without the police you’d have anarchy.”

She said, “What do you have with the police?”

“How’s that salmon?” I asked, tapping her bare shoulder. “Any good?”

I didn’t blame Czerniak for the path of his eyes. A young twentyfive, Jessica still had a youthful tone. She dyed her natural blond hair Cadillac black to keep from being exploited, she said, surrendering the social advantage of blondness for the emotional distance of a young Lizzie Borden. But her thin hips and waist ballooned out to an ample bosom. She wore outfits that stretched the bounds of what most people called decency, low-cut silks and knits that obscured the color, but not the shape or detail, of her nipples. What passed for her blouse tonight had probably been designed as underwear, a white silk tank top with lacy trim, highlighting pale, baby-soft skin. Men stared and she insulted them, and often as not I had to swoop in to save her. I blamed this on the age difference. When I joined the force back in ’77, Dark Jessica was in grade school. Even now the years between us as well as the size differential made our pairing look like a computer mistake. Luckily her screaming and crying jags and suicide threats were growing to dominate our relationship, and our sex life added up to slightly less than never.

“And now to announce promotions . . .” A wild roar rose up and shook the light fixtures. “Assistant Chief Ron Oliphant!”

Again cheers as the black assistant chief, hired from out of state, took the podium and smiled with pride. If he’d ever been shaken down by a white cop, it hadn’t happened in Austin. “Every day,” he began, “a police officer risks being shot, stabbed, busted or sued.” He babbled about pride in the department, inclusiveness and the new East Austin substation—the branch police office in Austin’s Spanish ghetto. It was April 11th, so he made a joke about taxes. Ha ha ha, sir.

“I want to remind you,” Oliphant went on, “of the memorial service for those killed in the Waco fires. I know some of you are driving up. Keep in mind that you’ll be representing the police department. You should be on your best behavior. We had some incidents last year, a few officers brought their guns, they were drinking. . . .” He trailed off. The chatter didn’t raise or lower in volume. “Now for the promotions!” he said. More whoops and cheers.

Lieutenant Pete Marks, who had headed Homicide since before Czerniak and I got transferred off, approached our table and stood over Czerniak and Jessica, a hand on each of them, most notably on Jessica. Not having that many opportunities to touch Jessica’s bare skin myself, I wasn’t inclined to afford the opportunity to Marks. I jumped up to greet him, putting my body in the space where his had been and forcing him to step back.

“Marks! How the hell are ya?” I pumped his hand. “Hey, looks like a lot of your guys were in for honors tonight.”

Before Marks could respond, something like a bird chirped from his jacket pocket. He unearthed a phone and clicked it on. “Yup.” Jessica asked, “Can we go?”

At twenty years on the force, you have the option of retiring. For its long investment, the department has reason to offer you something to keep you there: a promotion, a command, even an interesting transfer, say, to Organized Crime. At eighteen years and counting, I was shooting for a promotion. I’d been senior sergeant for a while, a nominal promotion from sergeant, while others leaped over me to lieutenant and commander and more. I wasn’t a Texan or even a southerner, and I didn’t fit the mold. What I was, was a six-foot, New York–born, ex-boxer Jew, with a Mafia grunt father whose thumb-breaking career had kept me out of the FBI. I’d kept my boxer’s physique, but my already prominent schnoz had been busted twice in fights, and I’d collected an assortment of scars and other injuries in the course of my career. While I might have fit right in in my home town of Elmira, New York (if not in the mob hangouts, at least in the prison), all my years in Texas hadn’t made me one of the boys.

But I couldn’t drop the idea that, in the midst of all the dirty promotions, rewarding insiders for doing anything besides what they were being paid to do, there had to be room for me. It wasn’t because I deserved it. It was just that, besides my job, I didn’t have anything else. I needed it.

Marks said to the phone, “Of course it’s an overdose. File it. We ain’t leavin’ the banquet.”

I scanned the room. A hundred white tablecloths, a thousand cops in various states of intoxication. A thousand spouses. Food, waiters in white jackets, girl bartenders, more class than the rank and file had ever experienced firsthand.

Jessica was arguing with Czerniak, in her dark monotone. “You barrel into a room like you own the place, you have no sense of people’s humanity . . .”

Oliphant announced, “Sergeant . . . Charles Pickett!” Street Response Unit. Cheers as a young patrol paraded his uniform down an aisle for the last time, waved and smiled.

I murmured, “Reles. Me. Reles. Dan Reles.”

“Sergeant . . . Donald Boyum.” Sex Crimes. Cheers.

Reles. Rhymes with jealous.

Jessica: “Lots of jobs are more dangerous than yours. More bus drivers were killed in the line of duty last year than cops. You shouldn’t think of yourself as a hero.”

Rhymes with tell-us.

“And finally a man who has served the department long and faithfully. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant and taking command of the Division of Internal Affairs . . .”

My breathing halted. The crowd hushed. Everyone wanted to know who the new IA head was. Who polices the police?

Reles, Reles, Reles . . .

Oliphant said, “Lieutenant James Torbett.”

A thousand jaws dropped as the first black detective became the first black lieutenant of Internal Affairs. Not one of the boys. Not a team player. A straight arrow. Torbett crossed the room, buttoning his jacket, greeted Oliphant with a solemn handshake and took his plaque, then turned to the silent audience.

Somewhere in the machinery of upper administration, there was a decision maker who wasn’t corrupt. Or so I thought.


The comedy of the convention center wasn’t that it was built to serve thousands in the middle of downtown but that they forgot to account for parking. It was symbolic of Austin’s growth. Bigger! Newer! More! Never mind that the streets and the highway can’t accommodate the number of cars. Never mind epic traffic jams. Don’t worry about pile-ups at the airport; it’s a beautiful town, it’s worth circling over for a few hours. By the mid-nineties our growth was unparalleled. Motorola reported a 25 percent growth in first-quarter earnings. The Austin-based Schlotzky’s sandwich chain was planning to go public. And with the new governor in place, decades-old environmental protection laws disappeared by the dozen, treating the city to a plethora of unfamiliar industrial sounds and smells.

I wore a lightweight wool-blend suit, dark blue, that had been tempting moths in my closet between formal occasions for some timebut was just about right for the cool evening. Jessica and I walked side by side, two steps apart, up Red River Street, looking for my car. I favored my right leg, owing to a knife injury to the left. It was something I tried to hide, except now as I loped along, fuming. I couldn’t blame Torbett for getting promoted when I didn’t. I couldn’t say he didn’t deserve his promotion, because he did. I just didn’t think he’d get it.

Jessica stepped next to me, nearly a foot shorter and seventy pounds lighter, in a ratty, oversize sweater she’d pulled on over her tank top, and a vintage-store striped skirt, a suicidal poet. Jake Lund said she looked like someone I picked up in Germany between the wars. Couples passing us on the sidewalk looked back and forth between us, the boxer and the waif, wondering what the hell we were doing together. It was a legitimate question.

I stewed over Torbett’s promotion.

“How can you deal with that awful man?” she asked.

“Who? Czerniak?”

She said, “You’re not paying attention.”

“No, it’s just . . . I been there eighteen years. I lost . . .” I was thinking about Rachel, but I didn’t say so. I just kept stewing: I’d been there eighteen years. I’d lost my best friend and my girlfriend. I’d been blackmailed, set up, shot at, stabbed and bitten, and half the time by cops. I didn’t have anything to show for it. I said, “I just want my fuckin’ promotion.”

She said, “You should quit.” I must have chuckled, because she said, “What? You think I’m stupid?”

“No, it’s just . . .” I knew it was a mistake when the words escaped my lips: “Someone has to pay the rent.”

That was all it took. Between the tears, mostly all I heard were the words “I can’t.” “I can’t work! You know that! You don’t understand!”

I have historically displayed what people describe as a rage problem, which has resulted, over the years, in several bodily injuries to others and, arguably, one or two deaths. My temper or my work as a cop (it’s hard to separate the two) also caused the end of my relationship with Rachel. I’d had four years to think about that, whether it was the moodiness or the late-night calls from HQ or a few other unfortunate incidents that drove her away. But I swore to put a lid on my temper and keep it there. I’d be generous and caring, no matter what, to make up for how I screwed up with Rachel. I’d live a life of atonement, at least as far as women were concerned. And the next woman who showed up in my life after Rachel would get the devotion and concern and patience I should have shown Rachel, who deserved it. Jessica got away with a lot.

I allowed myself one angry breath through my nose. “No, baby,” I said, low and without integrity. “I understand.” I reached for her. She pulled away.

“You don’t. I was abused and mistreated—”

“I understand. It’s okay. You don’t need a job.” I still felt my insides bubbling.

“You go do your important work—”

“Jessica, please.” I got my arms around her. “You can stay home and . . . write.” She talked a lot about her poetry, but I’d never known her to actually work on it. “And, you know, be a . . .” I tried to think of the right word. Housewife? Stay-at-home mom? No wedding ring, no kids. “Kept woman” mostly fit the bill. But that would imply sex. “You could stay home and take care of the house.”

At this she broke away and stepped off the curb, into the path of traffic. Two women came out of a bar and witnessed Jessica shouting, “All you want is a maid who puts out!”

I would have settled for a roommate who did her own dishes.

I yelled, “For Christ’s sake, Jess, get out of the street!”

“Don’t tell me what to do!”

“Miss,” one of the women said, “should we call the police?” Jessica went on. “I don’t want to see you or talk to you . . . or . . .” Her imagination failed her. She snorted and walked northward, against traffic. She would at least see the cars coming.

I said, “Where are you gonna sleep?”

“You can come with us,” the other woman said.

Jessica said, “Fine!” She joined them, and the three of them passed me, heading south with a dirty look in my direction, me the wife beater. I tossed up my hands and watched, marveling, as Jessica walked down the street between two strangers who had earned her trust more than I had.

Still shaking my head, I looked up to the sky. Between battered clouds a moon shone, waxing at 80 percent. A nearly full moon and most of the police force including me was drunk. It would be an eventful night. Jessica had suddenly dumped me. I’d screwed up on the atonement front.

I found my car, a rebuilt ’83 Chevy Caprice I’d had painted a cool blue for a fresh start, one I needed. I drove under the overpass at Fifth Street, then headed up the raised level of Interstate 35 with the windows down and the cool breeze blowing through the disappointment of my career and my personal life as I rode past the dome of the capitol building.

In the early 1990s, the lady governor of Texas conducted a noncommittal first term, marked more than anything by her veto of a concealed-weapons bill. The bill would have allowed you to carry a handgun nearly anywhere in the state. Undaunted, maybe excited, by the prospect of gunfights at Wal-Mart, Texans voted to replace her with another professed ex-drunk like herself. He shook hands, kissed babies, posed in cowboy hats, wrapped himself in the flag; he ran on a platform of more jails, longer sentences, less government, less welfare and more executions. But where the lady governor had been saved from drunkenness, famously, by an anonymous program she mentioned to the press every chance she got, he had been saved by Jesus—through His personal messenger, the founding televangelist Billy Graham—christening, in an unholy manner, the most prominent of open marriages, a sanctioned three-way between Jesus, politics and television.

Riding into town from the Northeast on a horse paid for by his father’s rich friends, the new governor boasted an impressive résumé: He struggled in school, barely worked an honest day in his life and never ran a business without running it into the ground. Not long after his 1995 inauguration, Texas, formerly distinguished by its social programs and environmental protections, would lead the nation in toxic releases, cancer risks and percentage of residents without health insurance. Talk about growth, we got growth. Highways were packed, small businesses were driven out by chain stores, and as the punchline, the capital city of Austin expanded its borders in anticipation of the 2000 census, just to make a sudden jump in population and the audacious claim, “Now we’re bigger than Boston!”

Austin won favor with prominent national magazines, earning placement on their “Top Ten Places to Live” lists, prompting an influx of the mildly discontented. Like the post-WWII outpouring of pilgrims from the cities to the suburbs, only slower and more polite, people traveled from around the country, from New York and Orlando and St. Louis, to Austin, for the promise of a fresh start, new homes and clean air. Two out of three ain’t bad.


I rolled off the highway at Airport Boulevard, thinking about Jessica and the two women from the bar and, if they decided to spend the night together, the disappointment that was in store for all three of them. And I realized that, with Jessica leaving, my life would be losing roughly nothing.

Winding through the confusion of traffic under the half-built Koenig Lane overpass, I turned right, away from my own house, and headed toward the address I had memorized and tried to forget, on lonely nights. A place where I thought I might get a little comfort, or not, thinking what a bad idea it was as I crossed the tracks of the Austin Northwestern Railroad and pulled in front of the house on Hammack Drive and parked. What the hell. I was single. By the time I reached the front door, she’d opened it, significantly filling out a floorlength green silk robe. Her eyes were still the same burning green, her hair still black with unlikely red tips. The years had been kind, but not too kind.

“How’d you find me?” she asked. She knew how. I was a cop.

“What do you want?”

I didn’t answer right away. Finally I said, “A friend?”

She’d have been within her rights to curse me out. I saw her chew it over. She said, “Same price either way.”

It made me sick that the only way I could get sex, or even comfort, was by paying for it. But I nodded. She turned and walked into the house, dropping the silk robe to the carpet behind her, where it trapped a puff of air like a parachute, and she swayed, nude, out of the living room.


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