Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

‘Atonement’

I placed my gun and badge on the table. The commissioner looked at me, shocked.

“There’s no need for that, Hulce,” he said. “You have been exonerated.”

“I quit,” I said. “Don’t you understand? How can I live with myself it I didn’t? Could you?”

“Of course.”

“Well, that’s where we’re different. Sorry, sir, but your acquittal doesn’t alleviate my guilt. I can’t do it anymore.”

“I think you’re making a mistake, Harmon.”

“It’s my mistake to make, sir.”

I walked out of the room. My partner was waiting for me. He saw me smiling and smiled back. I wasn’t smiling for the same reason he thought, however.

“You’re not in trouble?” Julius said. “All’s well that ends well?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Yes, they let me go. So I quit.”

Francona nodded. “Want a drink?”

***

Napoleon Fish watched the most beautiful woman in the world get dressed. He ached inside whenever she did this, because he was always convinced she would never let him see her naked again. She pulled a red sweater over her head and peeked out of the neck hole. “Stop it,” she said.

Napoleon laughed. “I’m not doing anything.”

“You’re doing that weird looking-at-me thing you do. It’s freaky.”

” ‘For here is the eye, here is the jewel, here is the excitement the nipple learns.’ ”

Sophia pulled her head through the hole and wagged her index finger at him. “And don’t go quoting Sexton at me, you rake. Learning female poetry just to get me into bed. The nerve.”

” ‘Women’s modesty generally increases with their beauty.’ ”

“Oh, that’s clever. Who said that?”

“Nietzsche. I just read it yesterday. Thought you’d like it.”

Still in her panties, Sophia crawled across the mattress toward him. She kissed him lightly on the nose and grinned. “Ooh, German philosophers with master race aspirations. Nothing gets me hotter.”

He reached under his head, pulled the pillow away, and hit her in the face with it. “If you’re going to denigrate my impressive memorization skills, get thee gone. I will find someone who appreciates me.”

Sophia rolled away and grabbed her cargo pants off the chair next to the mattress. “I could die today, you know.”

Napoleon felt sick. “Don’t say that.”

“It’s true. This is a big thing. No one should get hurt, but you know how the cops are.” She held up her left hand and prominently displayed the stump of her pinkie. Napoleon leaned over a kissed her palm.

“Just be careful,” he said. “You sure I’m not wanted?”

“This is my fight, darling. You need to write the story, while I need to make the event. That’s the way it is.”

Napoleon wanted to grab her, drag her back to bed, make wild love to her, chain her to a chair, anything to keep her from going. He knew it wouldn’t work. She loved him, but her politics were always bigger than any relationship he had. He knew it when they got together, and he knew it now. It didn’t make letting her go any easier.

He still tried. “There is a philosophy that love will make the world right,” he said. “Sex as the great social change, fucking the world into shape. I’m not sure why you never gave that a try.”

Sophia touched his cheek softly, like a memory. He closed his eyes to freeze her image in his head. Shoulder-length hair dyed dark red, angular nose, one green eye and one blue, a genetic anomaly he found devastatingly beautiful. He didn’t deserve her, he knew, and he might lose her today.

“Is this really necessary?” he whispered.

“Of course not. Nothing we do is ever necessary. But we do what we must.”

***

Julius ordered Scotch for both of us. A good partner knows what drinks to buy. Except for the woman who served us, there was no one else in the bar. We sat silently, sipping our drinks. Mine: neat. His: rocks. Same brand: Laphroaig. Simple men, we were, in the end. Alcohol and guns and justice.

Julius was a good partner. We knew little about each other, but just enough to know we cared about the same kinds of things. It’s what made us good partners == do the job, don’t worry about what happens when we go home. We’re both unmarried, and rarely spend time with each other outside work. Yet he’s my best friend.

I finished my drink and signaled for another one. What was I feeling? I had killed before — I’m not proud of it, but there is it — yet this one felt worse than any of the others. Maybe I was just tired. Maye I shouldn’t have quit.

“She was guilty,” Julius said. “Never forget that.”

“She was a confused girl.”

“That ‘confused girl’ had quite a rap sheet. I believe the cliché is ‘as long as my arm.’ I’m just saying.”

“You didn’t kill her.”

“Self-pity. I was right there. I saw it all. What’s this really about?”

“How many times have we sat up with the vets — Breasket, McKone, those guys — and talked shop? How many times have we told the same stories? The sick freaks all over the place, walking down the street, shopping at the malls, cruising the schoolyards looking for pre-teen girls? This is no longer a sane society. Maybe, just maybe, the wrong person got killed in this confrontation, no matter who was ‘guilty.’ ”

Julius shook his head. “Self-pity, as I said. You were always a little too sensitive. I’m amazed you made it this far.”

I wanted to shake him, slap some sense into him. I stared for a long time into my newly filled glass. “Remember that guy who took the people hostage at the 7-11? Breasket caught that one. That guy was articulate, intelligent, handsome — and he had a beef with the world. Yes, he broke the law and he took him down. He made over a million dollars last year in book sales. And he’s still angry. I never understood him. I still don’t. But you can’t deny there is something fundamentally wrong with society when people like him — and people like Sophia — act the way they do.”

“I can and do.”

“That’s what I like about you, Julius — you’re simple.”

“Anything to keep you grounded.”

***

Sophia didn’t want to use guns. Guns were a symbol of the oppressor. But Camden, with his phallophobia (a word she had coined just for him), always had to have a bigger dick than anyone else. He and Trina and Max loved their guns. As leader of the cell, Sophia reserved the right to not carry one.

The operation went smoothly. By noon they had emptied the vaults, spray painted their messages on the marble walls, and dressed the bank manager in a clown suit. They were gone before the police knew the bank was being hit. Sophia marveled that in downtown Portland, four anarchists could hold up a bank in the middle of the day and no one noticed. They were in and out in less than fifteen minutes. They split up, each with a duffel bag full of cash, and went separate ways out of the city. The cops arrived at fourteen minutes after noon.

At twenty-six minutes after noon, Sophia entered a small house on Harvard Street. She dumped the duffel bag and sat down, shaking with laughter. Now they were in business. She pulled off her gloves and ran her hand through her hair. All she had to do was wait for the others to call. While she waited, she opened the bag and inspected the contents. Stacks of hundreds, wrapped in plastic and ready to be shipped out. They had hit the bank on the perfect day, just like Max said. He had a sharp mind. She couldn’t even imagine how much the haul was. The money was traceable, but it didn’t matter: they had a laundering system already in place, and soon, they would have enough money to strike deep at the heart of governmental corruption.

Sophia rarely felt this alive. She decided to stroll around the neighborhood while she waited for her phone calls. It was summer in the Northwest, and the foliage was in full bloom. She walked out to Willamette Drive and toward the university. Trees hung limply in the still air, shading well-manicured lawns and homey front porches. The eyesore of Swan Island lay below her, but she deliberately looked past it toward downtown. The city swam in the haze, unaware of the great change Sophia was planning for it. She pictured the Big Pink falling, collapsing under its own weight with help from carefully planned explosives. And the KOIN tower, the ziggurat of greed and wealth, gently dying like an autumn leaf. So much to do, and so little time,

She stopped for a moment and placed her hands on the guardrail protecting walkers from the cliff leading down to Swan Island. She loved the city so much, and wanted it to rise to its full potential. She remembered every indignity the government had committed against her. After her first arrest, the policewoman searching her had probed too deeply with her nightstick. During a protest at Portland State, the cops had ridden in on horses, and she had been kicked in the chest simply for standing on public ground. She remembered broken promises by the legislature and governor, the empty eyes of drug addicts with nowhere to go, the octopus-like reach of the shoe company in Beaverton, attaching corporate logos to every blank wall it could find. And everywhere, the green smear of money. Now, she and her friends had the money. And they knew how to use it.

She was so blissful she didn’t notice the car coming down the street. She was so blissful she didn’t realize she had stepped out in front of it. She heard the squeal of brakes and felt a dull wet thud somewhere on the lower part of her body. She felt the pavement shriek up at her. She saw a black curtain descend over her eyes. She did not hear the concerned shouts of the driver of the vehicle, a man named Harmon Hulce.

***

I held the girl in my arms and rocked her gently. I checked for head injuries first, but she didn’t appear to have any. I checked her body for broken bones, but, again, she was lucky. I had only stunned her, and I hoped she would wake up soon.

Selfishly, I thought what she would do when she found out an off-duty cop hit her. I was facing a suspension, probably. Maybe worse. It didn’t matter that she stepped into the street without looking. It didn’t matter that I was driving under the speed limit. I knew I shouldn’t be thinking it, but there it was.

She moaned and her eyes fluttered. I said, “Miss, can you hear me?” and brushed her cheek. Her eyes opened more and stared into mine. She had one green eye and one blue eye. It was disconcerting.

“Miss, can you tell me your name?”

I thought she was drifting back into unconsciousness, which I didn’t want, but then her eyes focused and she said, “Sophia.”

“Pretty name. Sophia, I hit you with my car. I don’t think you’re hurt, but I still should call an ambulance. Will you be all right here for a moment?”

Sophia twisted in my arms. She was fully alert. “N-no, um, no. No, I’m … fine. Really. Don’t go through the trouble.”

“It’s no trouble. I think it would be a really good idea. Just wait here.”

She pulled away from me, fear in her eyes. I didn’t think I looked like some sort of sexual predator, if that’s what she was thinking. “I’m fine. A bump on the head, maybe. Ambulance? Ha. I … should go.” She lurched to her feet, obviously still woozy. I backed off to see if she would keel over, but she steadied herself and smiled. A sweet smile. “Thanks, thank you. But I’m okay. Okay. Really.” There was still fear in her eyes. My police gut began to pull at me. She wasn’t afraid of me. She was afraid of the hospital. If she was afraid of a hospital, maybe she was afraid of someone finding out who she was.

I let her go, watching as she staggered a little toward Harvard. I kept my eye on her as I pulled my car to the side of the road. I marked the house into which she walked, and then logged onto the computer. I had a description and a first name. It took about five minutes. A minute after that I was on the phone with my partner. He was quickly on his way.

***

Sophia was still dazed, but she kept her head together. Someone had seen her, up close, and that meant the timetable was pushed up. She cursed her stupidity, but didn’t dwell on it. Sophia had learned to be flexible.

She got off the phone with Camden, who agreed to meet her earlier than the agreed-upon time and figure out what to do. Camden was not as committed to anarchy as she was, but he was good in a crisis. She thought about calling Napoleon. After mulling it over, she decided against it. He knew what she did, but wasn’t a part of it. She wanted to keep it that way. What she said to him when she left him was true — she might die any day. That was true of anyone, she knew, but most people didn’t act the way she did. She was fully prepared to die for the cause, and didn’t think Napoleon really understood that. The success of this robbery meant that she would have to go underground for a while, and she wasn’t sure when she would see Napoleon again. She sat down, took out a spiral notebook, and began writing a note to him. She had some time before she had to meet Camden, and she wanted Napoleon to know why she had to leave.

She hadn’t finished when there was a knock on the door. Sophia froze, her pen halfway to the paper. Then, slowly, she placed it on the table and stood. It was probably just the guy who hit her, wanting to make sure she was all right. She couldn’t figure out why he looked familiar, since she rarely came up to this part of the city. The house she was in belonged to a friend of Camden’s, and she had never been there before. But something bothered her about the man who struck her, and she couldn’t place it.

She went to the door and asked who it was as pleasantly as possible. “Sophia?” a voice said on the other side of the door. It was the man from the car. “Sophia, are you there?”

“Listen, sir, I really appreciate your concern, but I’m fine. Really.” Sophia didn’t want to have to open the door. “I can’t talk right now, sorry. Sorry.” She hoped she didn’t sound as desperate as she felt.

“Well, Sophia-with-the-pretty-name, ‘sorry’ just doesn’t cut it. I’m what you would call a Samaritan. I can’t just hit a person with my car and walk away. Heh.” The man was amused by his joke. Sophia begged him silently to go away. “I really think you need to go to a hospital. At least let me give you my address so that you can sue me if you want.”

Sophia said, “Just a minute.” If all he wanted to give her his address, she could oblige him, and she didn’t think he would go away any other way. She pushed the duffel bag full of money into the kitchen, out of sight of the front door, and opened the door. The man stood smiling at her.

“Ah, you fell for my charms,” he said. “That must be why I get all the chicks. Hang on, I have a business card here somewhere.” He reached into his back pocket.

A memory stirred in Sophia’s head. Something about the man saying he was charming. She remembered one of her arrests. She had been taken into the downtown station and interrogated. As she was being led to a holding cell, the cop escorting her had seen one of the detectives. “Hey, Charmin’,” he said, waving. “Got a fun one here. Anarchist.”

The detective had glanced over and smiled. “Aren’t they all fun?” he said. “Give me a good anarchist over most of the pervs we get in here.” Then he turned away. That same detective was standing in front of her, smiling.

***

Sophia remained calm when she realized who I was, I’ll give her that. Plainclothes cops can always tell when people “make” them, I’ve noticed. Their eyes shift slightly, guiltily, even if they’ve never done anything worse than jaywalk. It’s fascinating, and I’m sure some sociologist somewhere could write a book on it. Sophia, who had more experience with police than most people, was good at hiding the recognition, but not perfect. I knew that now that she knew, she would be extra careful. And, of course, I had no warrant. What she didn’t know, however, was that my partner, always thinking, had gotten the paperwork started on an arrest warrant. Sophia was wanted in conjunction with more than one crime.

She watched as I reached into my back pocket. I had to stall her, maybe get her to do something stupid. I spotted Francona as he pulled up down the street in my peripheral vision and knew I had backup. As I made excuses for not having a card handy, she said, “Would you excuse me for a second, please?” and pushed the door to just a little. I heard her stumble back into the house, rummage through a drawer in the kitchen, and then I heard her footsteps on the hard wood floor. Then, silence. I bumped against the door — it was completely accidental, believe me — and saw the living room was empty and the back door was open. “Julius!” I shouted. “Back yard!” Throwing legalities in the trash, I bounded into the house and through the back door. Sophia was in the yard to the right, running fast. I shouted, “Freeze!” just for appearances’ sake, but was already in pursuit. Julius was somewhere around, and I hoped he heard me. Sophia was fast, but I’m in pretty good shape, and I rapidly narrowed the gap between us. I had my gun out, although I was certain I wouldn’t need it — from what I recalled, Sophia had never committed and violence to a person. She turned a corner and I heard her swear. Julius must have cut her off. She came darting back toward me, but the space between us had shrunk to less than ten feet. She jumped a fence to her right and stumbled as she landed. I heard Julius behind me, grunting and breathing heavily. I cleared the fence as she tripped over a toor near a large maple tree. She went down hard, and I knew I had her. She turned back to me, holding her ankle with her right hand. I couldn’t see her left hand.

Gun leveled, I said, “Okay, Sophia. You know it’s over. Hands where I can see them.”

She bent backward just a bit, and for some reason, I relaxed. I don’t know why, nor do I know precisely what I was thinking in the next few seconds. As I explained at the hearing, she hissed furiously, and she appeared to be pulling something out from her waistband. She spun and tried to get up, brandishing a dark object. I fired.

***

Napoleon Fish was sitting on a bench in Waterfront Park, gazing out at the Willamette River. I had seen him at the inquest, but had not dared to speak to him. Now, after everything, I felt I had to. I owed it to Sophia.

I walked in front of him, blocking his view. He didn’t react. I said his name, but he stayed silent. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me, so I finally said, “I’m Harmon Hulce.”

“I know who you are, motherfucker. Get out of my way.”

I obliged, sitting down beside him. I could see he was trying to decide what to do — hit me, get up and leave, or just act like it didn’t bother him. In the end, he stayed cool and tried to ignore me.

“I have something for you, Napoleon.”

He didn’t answer, so I continued. “It’s from Sophia.”

He spun toward me in his seat, his eyes full of hate. “You don’t get to say her name. You don’t get to think it.”

I wanted to get angry at him. I killed her, I knew how it felt, and I would carry that around forever. He got to feel morally superior to the pig who killed his girlfriend. I kept my temper, however. There was no need for anger.

“I can’t say anything to you, Napoleon, except I’m sorry. I quit the force, even though they said I wasn’t guilty. I know I was wrong, deep down. But I still have to give this to you.”

“It was a rock, you asshole. A fucking rock. Sophia was desperate. Didn’t you know she wasn’t violent? Didn’t you know she would never hurt anyone?” Napoleon was crying now, and I sat quietly, sensing he didn’t care who heard him, as long as someone did. “She loved everyone in this world, even the cops who abused her. Do you know what they did to her? You assholes like, I don’t know, murderers more than you like people like Sophia, because killers fit into your little cops-and-robbers game you have to play to give your lives meaning. Sophia was working toward a society where you wouldn’t be necessary, and that’s what pissed you off about her. That’s why they did things to her in jail. You pieces of shit.”

“I know what they did to her. I read up on it.” I shook my head sadly. “I can’t condone it, or even justify it. We … don’t understand people, sometimes. We’re trying our best.”

“Fuck your best.”

“Here.” I gave him a piece of paper. “It’s a note from Sophia. She wrote it just before … it happened.”

“Before you killed her.”

“Yes. Yes, before I killed her.” I stayed calm. “Anyway, it’s for you.” I stood up. “Nothing more to say.”

“Then get the hell out of here.”

I shook my head. “Actually, one more thing to say. You say Sophia loved everyone. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. She certainly didn’t act like it sometimes. But … if she did, then wouldn’t she even love me? And if that’s true, don’t you think maybe you should try to live like her?”

If he was listening, he gave no sign. I left him there, reading her note. I knew what it said, and hoped he took it to heart. Maybe Sophia wasn’t so crazy. I walked back toward downtown, thinking about a future with no police, because cops weren’t needed. Crazy. But a nice thought.

**********

[Ah, Sophia. You were too out-there to live. I didn’t plan to kill Sophia when we first met her – I wasn’t even sure if I was going to use her again – and I didn’t plan to kill her the second time we saw her, but the more I thought about her, the more I realized that her utopian outlook on life was far too much at odds with the way things were, and that would probably get her into trouble. I hope nobody sees this as an example of “fridging” – yes, she’s a woman, and yes, she dies, and yes, the men react to it, but I hope she was a good enough character that her brief life and death were more than just fodder for the men to emote. You may disagree.

I like Hulce, so I’m a lot easier him as a cop who killed someone than I probably would be today, when I think cops need to be reined in a lot more than they are. Despite my belief that Hulce is a decent fellow, it’s depressing that when I wrote this, two decades ago, a cop who did what he did probably would get exonerated, and things haven’t changed one bit. He shouldn’t really have gotten away with killing Sophia, but I have no doubt that he would have. At least he had the decency to resign.

So that’s Sophia’s story. Will we see Hulce and Napoleon again? Only time will tell! In the meantime, come back next week for another one of my less conventional tales. Those are always fun!]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.