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Sergeant Jeff Czerniak planted his wife at home after the banquet, changed out of his suit and left the house again without even bothering to apologize. He couldn’t stay in at night anymore. Once he got the itch to go out, there was no fighting it. He thought for sure the banquet would be enough excitement for one night. His feet told him otherwise.

He drove down I-35 and into East Austin and turned in and out of the blocks around the club, then parked two blocks up Poquito and walked back. He was wearing his deliveryman jacket and matching pants. He figured that, if spotted, he’d look like a working stiff on the prowl, and not like an off-duty cop trying to make rank. The truth was somewhere in between.

These night crawls had become Czerniak’s regular pattern. It wasn’t that he was such a great cop or so dedicated. The chase gave him a rush. So on a free night, between staying home with his wife, going out with his buddies, and the chase, he always went for the chase. Like it was up to him.

He’d made some easy collars: a john in the act of making a deal with a whore, possession of a few joints. These weren’t even worth the booking and the paperwork, hours of anticlimax on a night off. He’d get their license information and use them for stoolies if he could. But he’d caught a few bigger ones. Back when he was on Criminal Investigations, he witnessed a drug deal, a transaction in the street where he was parked. He radioed for backup. Chase the seller or chase the buyer? Can’t get both, and there’s no law against walking around with money. But a dealer is worth more. He climbed from the car, raising his badge and gun and shouting “Police!” then chased the dealer a block, finally tackling him. Czerniak’s bulk threatened to crack the dealer’s ribs and made him more willing to submit to handcuffs. The arrest made Narco look dumb, but Pete Marks noticed and mentored Czerniak onto Homicide.

Now Czerniak was on Organized Crime. His prowling could get him promoted. If it went right.

He’d put on weight as a cop, over a naturally big trunk that he’d built up in his football days. His ruddy complexion made him look drunk most of the time, though he was actually pretty drunk now.

He didn’t see the surveillance van anywhere in the area. It should have been there. A months-long investigation wasn’t taking a night off just for a banquet. Tonight especially, while most of the department was celebrating, while only the lowest of the patrols were out on the street. It was like turning off the lights and letting the roaches have run of the kitchen. Someone should be there.

The one-story brick building housed the club, a gun store and a liquor store. A neon martini glass, fifties style, hung in the club window and lit up the cars in the front lot. Neon spelled out the name of the bar in glowing green script: Sueño. Dream. The operation was code-named Mal Sueño, Bad Dream. Boyle, the club owner, was suspected of running drugs and whores out of his club. A bust under the RICO Act required a long investigation and a warehouse of evidence. Czerniak breezed by the liquor store and gun store and glanced into the bar window deep enough to see he’d be the only white man in the club if he went in. He kept walking.

He sauntered past a cheap furniture store and turned, walked around the back of the darkened store and scoped the side of the bar. His heart pounded.

Think hard, Czerniak. Get yourself sighted and blow a big, long case. Lieutenant Clay will bust you down to patrol. Go home now. You’re drunk. This ain’t the time to make points.

But his feet wouldn’t listen. And where was the van? Should he call Clay now? Risk pissing him off after the banquet?

He noticed a Dumpster behind the club. No cars in back. A back door. The bartender would come out to dump bottles now and again. People would come out the back way to smoke a joint. He crossed the alley and stood behind the club.

No windows. Music, laughter. Heart pounding, Go home, Czerniak. You got no audiotape, no video. The back door, a fire exit with no alarm, not quite latched. Czerniak listened, then pulled the door open.

No one was there to notice as he peeked in. He stood at the end of a dark brown hallway; at the other end, he could see the neons from the front of the club. Jukebox music, R&B and laughter. Like any bar, the unreal lighting that set up a different universe. All rules of normal life are suspended. Back here another door, maybe the crapper. And a staircase leading down. He headed down the steps.

Stupid, stupid, what are you doing? he thought as he dropped down the steps as softly as his two hundred–plus pounds would let him. No cameras, no microphones. If they find you, you blow everything. And still he couldn’t turn around, drawn by a pulse in his heart and another in his feet, his stupid fucking feet. A faint light at the bottom of the stairs, another hallway. At the end a single bulb, maybe forty watts. And to the right of that, a single door, a kitchen-type swinging door with a round window at eye level. Czerniak could hear chatter down the hall and more music, something in that room.

As his heart pulsed, Czerniak felt something else, not the excitement of nearly catching a crime in progress, not the fear of fucking up a big case, of getting found out as a cop, maybe killed. It was the same jolt he felt the first time he went into a porn parlor at fifteen to look at girly mags. The ammonia smell of the floors, the perverts in raincoats and the endless supply of squack, the mother lode of miles and miles of naked women. Czerniak was a divining rod for it. He could find anything that had shadows around it: He could sniff out porn hidden in a church library or a crap game in a small town miles from the interstate. He could find drug dealers in an underground club in a strange city in his first hour. He just couldn’t stay away from them. The arrests were just an excuse.

He contemplated this, the refusal of his feet to listen to his brain saying, Get out, get out now! as he stepped to the end of the hall, stood back from the window and adjusted his stance to peek through the dirty glass without being seen, he hoped.


Czerniak swallowed hard. Two white chicks in G-strings tongue-kissed each other, standing between two men, one clamped to the back of each of them. A heavy white man, Boyle, the club owner, sat laughing in a chair. He held a mirror for a third stripper, a smallchested brunette with freckles. If she wasn’t underage, she would do till underage came along. She snorted two lines, wiped her nose, hawked it back and swallowed. Then she unzipped Boyle’s pants.

Czerniak’s heart pumped. His throat buzzed down to his crotch.

While the freckled girl was bent at the waist, a man in a black suit pulled her G-string down and mounted her from behind. Czerniak clapped a hand to his mouth. His knees wobbled. The man leaned forward over the girl, slobbering on her, with his slicked-back hair and drooping mustache, and the man turned toward him, the cockeyed smile freezing on his face as he caught Czerniak’s eyes in the round window and Czerniak realized that he was looking into the face of his commanding officer, Lieutenant Harland Clay.


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