I want to set the record straight about one thing. I’m not superstitious. I mean, sure, I believe in luck. I also think a good cop learns to trust his instincts. I’ve made some righteous busts when I’ve followed up on hunches. But that has nothing to do with superstition. What I’m saying is: I don’t worry about black cats or walking under ladders. I don’t believe in good luck charms or omens or any of that crap. I’ve never known a cop who did.
As far as Charlie Kim’s grandfather is concerned, I don’t know what I believe.
But I’d sure like to talk to the old man again. I’ve got some questions I’d like to ask him. Most of all, I want to thank him. I think he’ll know what I’m talking about even if he says he doesn’t.
See, the way I’ve got it figured, that old man saved my life.
My report, the official one with my signature on the bottom, only tells part of the story. None of the witnesses had a clear view of what was happening. There were fourteen people in the bank that day and the five who appeared at trial all swore that I disarmed and overpowered two gunman trying to hold up a Bank of America. That’s what my report says. That’s the way I testified. The jury must have believed us since they brought in guilty verdicts and two more scumbags are going to spend the next fifteen to twenty years stamping out license plates.
I got a commendation. My picture was in the paper. Everything worked out great … except that the official version of events isn’t the way things really went down. I’ve never tried to tell anyone what really happened or, at least, what I think happened.
It started on a Tuesday. I was working mids, the 2:00 PM to midnight shift. My partner was taking a vacation day so I was driving a one man unit. It was about eight o’clock and I was heading north on Fifth Street and thinking about going code seven for lunch when the call came in.
Five-boy … man down … southwest corner Willimanset and Second.
“Five-boy … roger.”
My stomach was grumbling and I remember feeling annoyed. Most of the man down calls we get are drunks or, occasionally, transients or druggies sleeping in doorways because they have no place else to go. If I had to hook this guy up and haul him back to the station on a public intoxication charge it would be another hour before I could get anything to eat. I turned on the rotaries and made a left on Willimanset. When I was still a block away, I could see the crowd of gawkers on the sidewalk in front of the Black Hole, an underage dance club and teen hang-out. That’s when I started to figure the call might be more serious than a passed-out drunk. I punched the siren then swung into the oncoming lane and parked on the wrong side of the street next to the curb.
Any time you respond to a call and you’re not sure what’s going on, it’s a good idea to spend a couple of seconds looking things over, getting your bearings before jumping into the middle of a situation. It helps you keep a clear head when the citizens you’re supposed protect and serve are screaming and crying or just behaving like jerks. That’s why I took my time turning the car off and calling in.
“Five-boy, code six, Willimanset and Second.” I let the mic drop on the seat and got out of the car.
“Get back. Get away from him,” I .said as I pushed my way through the onlookers and bent over the small body that was curled into a fetal position on the sidewalk.
He was just a kid, seventeen, maybe eighteen years old with jet black, shoulder length hair that partially concealed even, oriental features. He was dressed in Levis, a pair of Nikes that looked new and a white tee-shirt with a dark, wet-looking patch staining the middle of his chest. What scared me was the soft, whistling sound I could hear coming from the wound. I didn’t need to check vital signs to know I would have to call for an ambulance and a couple of guys to work crowd control. As I reached down with my left hand and rolled the kid on his back, my right hand was already raising the handy-talky.
“Five-boy, request an RA and backup, this location,” I said, then dropped the hand-held back into my belt.
It was a stupid thing to do, I admit it. I’ve been a cop for nineteen years and when I went through the academy in ’75, we didn’t know about AIDS or HIV. Some would say life was better back then. It was simpler, anyway. If you had a victim with a sucking chest wound, you got a sterile gauze pad or a clean rag and applied pressure to the chest. If you didn’t have a pad or a rag, you used the palm of your hand. The most important thing was closing the wound. If you didn’t, your victim’s lungs could collapse and he’d be dead before the paramedics ever got there.
I had a first aid kit in the trunk but I didn’t want to take the time to go to the car, unlock the trunk, find the kit and then come back. I figured seconds could make a difference so I put my hand over the kid’s chest and pressed. I could feel the wound through his tee-shirt, pulling on my palm, but the whistling noise stopped. The gawkers stood in a circle around us, silently watching, caught up in the drama being played out on the sidewalk. I kept pressing down on the kid’s chest and talking to him, telling him everything was going to be alright. He probably couldn’t hear me but it’s one of the things they tell you to do. I could hear sirens
in the distance. It wasn’t more than three minutes from the time I called until the ambulance arrived and paramedics took over. A few seconds after that, two more black-and-whites showed up. That’s when I started to get the shakes, looking at the blood on my hand and thinking about the risk I’d taken.
One of the medics gave me a plastic bowl of something, an antiseptic of some kind, and I soaked my hands while I watched the other officers moving through the crowd on the sidewalk, taking names and interviewing witnesses.
We got essentially the same story from four different people. The kid’s name was Charlie Kim. He was a regular at the Black Hole. Tonight, he’d either been alone or had arrived with someone who didn’t want to come forward and talk to us. Either way, he was alone when he approached a girl sitting at a table on the edge of the dance floor. He’d said something to her; she’d said something to him, and then her boyfriend came up and said something to both of them. There was an argument and the boyfriend stuck a knife in Charlie’s chest. Girl and boyfriend disappeared in the confusion while Charlie staggered out the door and collapsed on the sidewalk.
It’s the kind of story we hear with depressing frequency. Twenty-five, thirty years ago if someone made a pass at your girl, you took him out back and put bumps on his head, or he put bumps on yours. When it was over, you both walked away. Today the rules are different. Ask the wrong girl to dance and you risk a bullet in the face or a knife in the gut. Nowadays, street cops see this kind of thing so often it becomes almost routine. On a personal level, we don’t feel the same sense of outrage, of waste, we might have felt a few decades ago.
And that’s why I didn’t give much thought to Charlie once the ambulance drove off and I went code four from the Black Hole. A few minutes later I was rolling on a prowler call and right after that I hooked up a drunk and disorderly. By end of shift, I had made three collars and never did get a chance to have lunch.
I was supposed to have the next two days off but was scheduled to be in court both days, testifying in criminal trials. When I came to work Friday afternoon I had almost forgotten about Charlie Kim and the incident at the Black Hole. I changed into my uniform and got to roll call a few minutes late. My partner, Bill Peterson was sitting by the door in the back of the room and I sat down in the empty chair next to him, ignoring the dirty look I was getting from the watch commander who was already halfway through the car assignments.
“Sarge was nice to us, Jim,” Peterson whispered as I settled into the chair. “We got x-ray-twelve,” I smiled. It would be an easy shift. X units are unmarked cars that aren’t assigned a specific patrol area. We’d spend the next eight hours answering backup calls and goofing off. Working an X unit also meant we’d get home earlier. It’s the responding unit, the first officer on the scene who has to write the report. Working a backup unit meant we wouldn’t have any paperwork to do before leaving the station at end of shift. I was feeling pretty good about life when I heard my name called.
“Taylor … see the desk officer before you leave. You got visitors waiting for you in the lobby.”
Bill poked me with his elbow and raised an eyebrow. I answered his unspoken question with a shrug. I had no idea who it was. As soon as we were dismissed from roll call, I walked to the front of the station while Peterson went out the back door to get our car. Martinez, the rookie working the front desk, nodded to me as, I approached and then buzzed me through the door into the lobby.
They were Asian. The younger of the two, a guy about my age in a dark blue suit and tie, looked up as I walked in. His companion, a white-haired old man was dressed in a style you don’t see much outside of Koreatown. An off-white caftan of rough cotton hung loosely from frail looking shoulders, dropping below his knees and covering everything except the legs of his baggy, gray cotton trousers. Both men stood up as I walked across the lobby.
“I’m Officer Taylor. What can I do for you?”
The younger man bent forward in a slight bow as he held out his hand.
“I’m Victor Kim,” he said. “I’m Charlie Kim’s father.” He nodded toward his companion. “This is Dong Hoon Kim, my father and Charlie’s grandfather.”
For a moment I went blank, then I remembered the stabbing victim from the Black Hole. I shook the younger man’s hand, keeping my expression neutral. I hadn’t thought about Charlie Kim since he’d been carried away in the ambulance. I couldn’t tell from the man’s face whether to offer condolences for the son’s death or congratulations on the boy’s recovery. “I’m sorry, Mr. Kim. It was a terrible thing to happen.” I said.
“It is,” Victor agreed, “but Charlie’s going to recover. We’re very grateful.”
“That’s good news,” I said, finally smiling. “How can I help you today?”
“They told us at the hospital that you saved Charlie’s life. My father and I came here to thank you.”
I hesitated, not sure what to say. I’ve never been comfortable being singled out and taking credit for the work of other people.
“I appreciate it, Mr. Kim, but you’ve got the wrong man. I just called for the ambulance. It’s the paramedics who saved his life. You should be talking to them and to the doctors in the emergency room. They’re the ones you want to thank. Not me.”
“Yes, yes.” the younger Kim brushed aside my protest with an impatient wave. “We talked to the doctors. They said he would have died. They said you kept him alive until the ambulance got there. My father and I are very grateful to you, Officer Taylor.”
“I appreciate your coming in, Mr. Kim, but you should know that I was just doing my job. Any officer taking the call would have done the same thing.”
“Perhaps so, Officer Taylor, but any officer didn’t take the call. You did. My father and I owe you a debt.” The older Kim said something in Korean and the younger man turned away from me and answered his father, also in Korean. When he turned back, he was holding something in his hand. “My father wants you to have this,” he said and held the object out to me.
It was about half the size of a pack of cigarettes, a small teakwood box inlaid with silver. It looked valuable and I shook my head, smiling and trying to think of a way of refusing the gift without giving offense.
“Thank you, Mr. Kim. Please tell your father that I’m very grateful for the thought but the department doesn’t allow us to accept ….”
The old man must have understood what I was going to say. He grabbed the teak box that his son was still holding out to me and shoved it into my hand.
“You take,” he demanded in a stern voice that left no room for argument. “Protect you. You carry with you all the time.”
“Mr. Kim,” I said patiently, “it’s very beautiful but the department won’t let ….”
“We go now,” the elder Kim interrupted me a second time. “Carry in your pocket. Keep you safe.” He took his son by the arm and before I could say anything, they were out the front door, leaving me standing in the lobby, holding the teakwood box.
It was a beautiful piece of work. The little carved box was so highly polished it almost glowed in my hand. A delicate silver filigree outlined the edges then looped and whorled over the top and sides in a complex pattern that accented rather than covered the dark grain of the wood underneath. It was clearly too valuable to keep. I put the box in the pocket of my jacket and went to find my partner, fully intending to turn it over to the watch commander and explain how I got it, when my shift ended at midnight.
Peterson had the car warmed up and was waiting by the back door when I came out. I told him about the Kims and followed up with an abbreviated recap of the stabbing incident at the Black Hole. Before I could show him the box, we had to roll on a TA at University and Park. We spent the next forty-five minutes directing traffic around the tangled remains of a Honda Accord and a Buick Skylark that had tried to occupy the same space at the same time. By the time we had both vehicles towed away and went code four from the scene, I had forgotten all about the box. It wasn’t until we stopped at a Burger King for lunch around eight-thirty that I thought of it. We had both ordered burgers and were waiting for our food in a booth near the door when I took the box out of my pocket and handed it to Peterson. I could tell by his expression that he was impressed as he turned it slowly in his hands, examining it from every angle.
“So what are you going to do with it,” he asked.
“I don’t know. Give it to the sarge, I guess. Tell him what happened.”
Bill frowned as he continued studying box. “I wouldn’t. It’s only going to wind up packed away somewhere for a couple of years and then sold at a police auction for ten bucks. I’d hang on to it.” His eyes narrowed. “Hey, look at this.” He held the box out to me. “This little bump right here,” he pointed to a tiny bead of silver in one corner. “I think it’s a latch.” He pressed the dot with his thumbnail and suddenly, the top of the box popped open. I leaned forward as Bill turned the box over and something fell out. He gave a soft whistle of surprise then reached across the table and dropped it into my hand.
It was a flat, silver disk. Mounted on one side was a chunk of jade a little bigger than a half dollar. What got my attention though, wasn’t the size of the stone. It was the pattern of tiny lines that were etched into the surface of the jade.
It was more than just a picture. The tiger was so finely drawn and detailed, you could almost see the long tail lashing back and forth and hear the low, rumbling growl as the animal stalked some unseen prey. I could imagine the months or even years of work that had gone into crafting the piece. “My god, it’s beautiful,” I whispered, as much to myself as to Peterson.
“Still going to turn it in,” Bill asked quietly?
“I don’t know,” I answered, just as softly. There was something hypnotic about the stone, something that discouraged conversation. Bill and I continued staring wordlessly at the little talisman until I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. I scooped the disk off the table, returned it to its teakwood box and slipped the box into my pocket just as the waitress arrived with our food.
I never did report the gift. I intended to. I had the box in my hand and was on my way to the watch commander’s office when I suddenly changed my mind. I slipped it into my pants pocket and walked out of the station. When I got home, I opened it up and took out the silver disk. I looked at it for a long time, turning it this way and that, watching the light dance and sparkle within the polished jade, admiring the exquisite, delicate lines of the tiger. At last, I dropped the little disk back into its teak box and slipped it into the top drawer of my dresser.
And that’s where it stayed.
The days went by and became weeks that slowly turned into months. At the end of June, Peterson rotated to day shift while I remained on mids, sometimes assigned a partner but usually driving a one man unit. Temperatures began to hit triple digits during the day and fall off only slightly once the sun went down. Hot weather seems to bring out the worst in the citizens we protect and serve. Tempers fray, alcohol consumption goes up and violent crimes escalate.
The night of July 15th was particularly bad. On top of the usual domestic violence calls, loud parties and bar room fights, we had to roll on two shootings and at eleven-thirty, one of our units was broadsided by a drunk in a Mercedes who ran the stop sign at Third and Maple. It was two o’clock in the morning by the time I got in my car and drove out of the station parking lot.
I had my paycheck in my pocket. Usually, I drop it in the night deposit box on my way home but on this particular night I was too tired to make the three block detour to the bank. I tossed the check in the glove compartment and went directly home where I had one beer and then slept the sleep of the exhausted until my alarm went off at two o’clock that afternoon.
Some days it’s hard to get moving. This was one of them. I looked at the clock when I got out of the shower and was surprised to see it was almost three o’clock. I threw on the same clothes I had worn the day before and then tore the house apart looking for my check before I remembered it was still in the car.
There were a half dozen cars waiting at the drive-in window when I got to the bank. I pulled around them and found a parking spot near the side door and sprinted inside. I was standing in line behind three other customers and filling out my deposit slip when a single gunshot exploded behind me and people started screaming.
“Everybody … On the floor … NOW!”
I dropped to the floor along with everybody else. From where I lay, I could see two men in ski masks near the front door, guns held at arms length in front of them, knees bent in the classic shooter’s stance. I thought of the snub-nose Smith and Wesson strapped to my ankle and quickly decided against playing the hero. Two of them and one of me in a room full of people didn’t make for good odds. Even if I could take them both out, which I figured was no better than an even money bet, there were too many innocent targets in the bank to risk an exchange of bullets. One of the gunmen began moving down the center aisle, his gun sweeping back and forth in a threatening arc while his companion remained by the front door, watching the street. Somewhere to my left, I could hear a woman crying. The gunman produced a laundry bag from under his shirt and strode to the counter.
“SHUT UP … Everybody. You .. Yeah, you, the blond bitch by the desk. Get up. Here, take this.” He tossed the laundry bag and I heard it hit the floor on the other side of the counter. “Pick it up, goddamn it. Now, you start filling up that bag with money. Okay, all you people on the floor. My buddy over there is gonna come round with another bag. Take out your wallets and get ready. Wallets and purses in the bag. You got a watch on, it goes in the bag. Rings, jewelry, that goes in the bag too. That bag ain’t full when he gets back here, somebody’g gonna get hurt. YOU PEOPLE HEAR ME?”
The guy near the front door produced a second laundry bag from somewhere and moved to the end of the counter where the first customer lay prone on the floor. He said something I didn’t hear and the man on the floor sat up and pulled a wallet out of his back pocket that he handed over. The gunman shook the bag impatiently and the wallet was followed by a watch. Satisfied, he moved to the next customer in line and then the next until he was standing next to me.
“Okay, buddy. In the bag,” he said.
I already had my wallet out. I reached up and handed it to him, praying the whole time that he wouldn’t notice the bulge where the .38 was strapped on my ankle.
“The watch, too. Drop it in the bag.”
Wordlessly, I slipped it off my wrist and dropped it in the bag. He started to turn away and then stopped and looked back. “What’s that in your other pocket,” he snarled?
“Just my bankbook,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady as I realized what he was looking at.
“Give it here.”
There was nothing I could do. I pulled the leather badge holder from my back pocket and handed it to him. “Just be cool, partner,” I said. “I’m no hero. Nobody has to get hurt.”
He had opened the case and was staring at my badge. When he looked up, I knew I was in trouble. His eyes, behind the ski mask, were wide with fear as he dropped the laundry bag and brought his gun up with both hands until the muzzle was a bare six inches from my face.
“Bernie, this guy’s a cop,” he screamed.
I heard a curse and then rapid footsteps. Bernie appeared next to his partner and now there were two guns pointing at my head. For a single, panicky moment, I almost considered making a grab for both of them and then abandoned the idea as worse than useless. I could feel my heart thudding painfully against my chest and my mouth was dry. I swallowed nervously before trusting my voice. “Chill out,” I said as calmly as I could. “There’s the door. You got the money. Take it and walk out of here.”
It almost worked. The guy named Bernie seemed to hesitate for a moment and then he relaxed, lowering his gun a couple of inches and glancing at his partner. “He’s right. Let’s get outta …” He stopped abruptly. We all heard it at the same time, the undulating wail of sirens racing in our direction. Some one must have hit the silent alarm. The Marines were on the way.
With an angry curse, Bernie kicked me in the side and then grabbed a handful of hair and yanked my head back. He shoved the gun against my throat and held it there, his face so close to mine, I could smell the sour reek of his breath and see his tears of anger and panic through the holes in his ski mask. The sirens were louder now, filling the room with a banshee wail. Bernie was sobbing.
“You’re a dead man, you sonofabitch. We’re goin’ down but you’re goin’ first,” he screamed. I could see his knuckle turn white as he began to squeeze the trigger.
I felt a calmness descend on me as I realized I was going to die. The moment seemed to go on forever though it could only have been a fraction of a second. I remember wondering if I would hear the shot before the bullet slammed into my face and ripped the back of my head off. I thought of Bill Peterson and wondered what he’d think when he heard I’d been killed depositing my paycheck at the bank. All these thoughts flashed through my mind … and then I heard a soft rumble that suddenly exploded in a savage, ear-splitting roar. I felt something slam into us and knock me sliding across a floor that all at once seemed to give way beneath my feet.
A sensation of falling. The air around me was suddenly cold and damp. My eyes flew open but all I could see was a thick, green fog, misting and swirling. The smell almost made me gag, a cloying, rancid stench of rotting meat and decaying vegetation. I pushed myself upright, feeling the spongy dampness of the ground under my hand. Something nearby, something hidden in the fog, was snarling and I could hear Bernie, or his partner, or maybe it was both of them, screaming in terror and pain … and then the screaming stopped.
I closed my eyes and opened them slowly. I was in the bank, standing in the middle of the lobby. The mist was gone. Bernie was laying unconscious on the floor and from the way his arm was twisted under him I was pretty sure it was broken. His partner was crouched under a marble table, ten feet away from me, his face buried in his arms, sobbing hysterically. I grabbed the .38 from my ankle holster and that’s the way the police found us when they hit the doors just a few seconds later.
No one in the bank saw the green fog. No one heard the snarls or growls … or that last roar as the thing launched itself through the air.
And that’s the whole story. Or, almost the whole story. There is one other thing I should mention.
The first thing I did when I finally got home was go to the bedroom and check the top dresser drawer. My gift from the Kims was still there, right where I had left it. I picked it up and pressed the tiny latch. The lid popped open and I saw the silver disk inside. As I took it out of the box, my hands were shaking so hard and I almost dropped it on the floor.
The jade stone glowed and sparkled, reflecting the overhead light, its surface smooth and unbroken.
The tiger was gone.
I’d give a lot to talk to that old man again but I haven’t been able to find him. I found the house they lived in but a neighbor told me they moved away right after Charlie Kim was released from the hospital.
I carry that silver disk with me everywhere I go. I don’t think it’s magic. I don’t believe it’s going to bring me good luck. I’m not superstitious. I’ve never known a cop who was. I just figure, what the hell.
It can’t hurt.