Author’s note- In order to protect the privacy of the victims, some names and details have been omitted or changed.
Part One of this story can be found here.
In police work it’s never a question of what you know. The only thing that matters is what you can prove. The Nurse hadn’t straight up stolen the car. A couple of days after he’d refused to put her in for the theft of his wallet, the Old Man had let the Nurse back into his life. At some point, he’d willingly given her the keys and she’d hung around until just before the son arrived to pick up his father before clearing out with the Camaro and God only knew what else.. That meant that the most Chris could charge was a misdemeanor, Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle, normally used to deal with kids who don’t bring back their parents’ cars before curfew instead of hitting them with a felony.
Chris worked it anyway. He tracked down the Nurse’s mother and kept at her until she gave her daughter’s location up: Baltimore. I’ve watched every episode of The Wire three times. The Camaro had probably already been traded for a handful of yellowtops and pressed into service as the getaway vehicle of choice for drive- by shootings.
Chris got the Nurse’s cellphone number and the address where she was supposedly staying. He called her a dozen times a day, threatening her with a Grand Jury indictment and prison time. He figured out what district she was living in, called the BPD shift commander in charge, and invoked the brotherhood of the Thin Blue Line to get a couple of uniforms sent to give her a little face to face encouragement. The Camaro wasn’t at the house when they visited, but BPD promised to find a reason to hook it if they caught it on the street. That would have gotten it out of the Nurse’s clutches, but it would have created new problems for the owner in that the car would be collecting impound and storage fees on the other side of the country for as long as it took for him to arrange to get it back.
The best solution, the only solution, was to get the Nurse to bring the car back herself. For over a week Chris made the Nurse the center of his universe whenever his other cases gave him time. He coaxed, threatened, flattered, and raged at her and everyone he could find in her immediate orbit. It was a majestic performance in the dark art of the projection of perceived police authority instead of actual police authority. The truth was that the case would be a weak prosecution at best. Even if Chris managed to slide a warrant for Unauthorized Use past an inattentive judge, no Assistant County Attorney was going to sign off on extraditing the Nurse from three states away for a misdemeanor, the city budget being what it is.
In the end it worked. A couple of days after BPD paid the Nurse a visit, she called Chris. The Camaro was back in Lexington, left unlocked on a quiet street with the keys in the console. She was back in Baltimore. Chris and I headed out of the office to retrieve it before somebody else stole it. The exterior was filthy, but undamaged. The latch for the rear hatch was broken, making it impossible to secure.
The interior was trashed. Candy wrappers, empty cigarette packs, and Big Gulp cups littered the floorboards. It reeked of eau de criminale, a olfactory combination of stale sweat, spilled beer, greasy food, desperation, and various “flavors” of smoke that any beat cop with more than ten minutes in uniform would instantly recognize. Mostly smoke in this case. The ashtray was stuffed full of both cigarette butts and “roaches.” I brushed a small pile of stems and seeds into the street before settling down behind the wheel, wishing I’d thought to grab a pair of latex gloves from the trunk of Chris’s Crown Vic.
It fired up the first time, although the fuel gauge needle was way past the “E” and the warning light glowed menacingly. Chris needed fuel for his Crown Vic as well, so I followed him gingerly to the closest gas station that accepted our fleet credit card. While I filled the Crown Vic, Chris went inside to pay for $5 worth of low grade for the Camaro, knowing that he wouldn’t bother to submit a request for reimbursement.
We stashed the Camaro in the municipal garage next to headquarters, thinking that the son would make plans to retrieve it by the end of the week. He didn’t and one morning Chris stopped me as I walked into the office. He pulled me into the breakroom for a secure conversation.
“He doesn’t want to come back to Lexington. The Old Man’s taking a turn for the worst. He’ll never drive it again and the son doesn’t want it. He’s asking me if he can just give it to us.”
“Us as in the department?”
“No, us as in you or me. I told him we couldn’t do that and he said to make him an offer if we need to feel better about it. I think you could offer him a hundred bucks for it and he’d say okay. I don’t want it, but I said I’d ask you.”
Ethical temptations present themselves from time to time in police work. And they wouldn’t be called temptations if they weren’t, in fact, tempting. If I was going to make an offer, it would have to be fair. I checked the NADA website. The average retail price was north of four grand. I couldn’t afford “fair” and I wasn’t going to do it for “not fair.” Besides, between the Camaro I already owned, my pickup, my wife’s minivan, and the city’s Crown Vic, my house already looked like a used car lot. Bringing home an orphan Camaro that smelled of dirtbag wouldn’t do my property values or my marriage any favors.
Chris told the son that he’d help him dispose of the car legitimately. The son struck a deal with a local used car superstore. I strolled the lot while Chris found the manager that the son had been working and turned over the keys. The Camaro was at least fifteen years older than the next oldest car on the lot. I figured it would be headed for auction a couple of hours after we left the lot, which we did without looking back.
So what’s the moral of this story? The Nurse went unpunished. Karma will probably catch her, but neither Chris or I will get the satisfaction of hearing the bracelets ratchet shut around her wrists. The Old Man would be dead before the end of the year. At least he and his son reconciled before he died.
What matters is the job and the way you work it, even when it doesn’t matter. Every detective works the cases that matter as hard as he can with the facts and resources he has at the time. It’s how you do your job when the case doesn’t matter, when the bosses aren’t watching, and when you know that your efforts are most likely in vain that ultimately defines what kind of a cop you really are. And in this case a detective pulled every trick he knew to get back a lonely old man’s car, even though the Old Man would never know. In the end, that’s enough.
It has to be.