I saw plenty of cops come and go, but none more interesting and engaging than Dexter Hanley. The grizzly veteran was the oldest guy on the force by a good decade and most of the surface dwellers in the precinct didn’t bother digging any further than a first impression. Based on first encounters Dexter was an odd bird, but I’ve always believed there is a certain percentage of genius even in those labeled bat-shit crazy. More than anything I suppose a bad left eye and a few ticks spooked most people off, but if you weren’t afraid to ask a few questions and took time to listen to the answers you’d discover a loving and dedicated husband, grandfather, and exemplary officer. I’m not saying Dexter couldn’t have done more to bolster his image among his peers, but he didn’t seem to care much about what others thought and said of him. Like water off a duck’s back most days with the exception of one occasion that’s as fresh in my mind as yesterday.
Dexter arrived back at headquarters and as he strolled past the break-room caught a glimpse of the new rookie doing a bad impression of him. The kid was pretty buff, but definitely full of himself; the kind that poses in front of a mirror and honestly believes he’s doing the mirror a favor. The boy’s whole demeanor changed the moment Dexter hoisted him up like an empty milk jug, pinning him against the wall, leaving his feet to dangle like a paper-doll on a windy day.
While I can only assume Dexter’s insides were on the brink of boiling in their own juices he never lost his composure; his voice as smooth and rich as any high-paid news anchor that ever lived.
“There’s a difference between gym-tough and street-tough.” Dexter began. “I’ve yet to have a criminal challenge me to a curlin’ or bench-press contest, so probably best if you save that shit for your puffy-chested cronies at the gym—you know, the one’s starin’ at your ass in the mirror when you ain’t lookin’!”
The room erupted into a chorus of laughter and jeers as Dexter dropped the boy like a hot-rock. The punk folded into a pile at the baseboard like a dirty pair of socks and boxers at a bachelor pad, and was still quiverin’ like a bowl of half-set Jello as Dexter leaned down to offer some parting advice.
“Two rounds from a .45 in a dark alley will change your life—one in the back and one in the skull, so all things considered I’m mighty blessed to walk away with just a lazy eye. Son, I was walkin’ a beat in the nastiest part of Philly when you was still nuzzlin’ your momma’s teet and fillin’ yer diapers with green puddin’. That don’t make me better than you…just smarter, more experience of knowin’ when to keep my yap shut!”
Dexter’s outburst put an end to the jokes around the station and as I look back marked the beginning of our friendship. Neither of us were the type to make friends easily but I suppose we each saw something in the other we identified with. On the surface we were night and day. Dexter was African-American, thirty years my senior, and grew up in the projects of a large city. I couldn’t imagine quitting school in the fourth grade and going to work to help your mother support your seven brothers and sisters. Despite experiencing the harsh reality of a cold and cruel world at such a young age Dexter navigated the choppy waters and not only emerged on the other side, but arrived there a much tougher and smarter breed than most. Quite admirably he appeared to harbor no animosity towards anyone. On the flip-side I came from an upper-middle-class exclusively white neighborhood and breezed through private school on my parent’s dime. They wanted me to pursue a psychology degree, but all the money in the world can’t make a square peg fit a round hole and that’s how it had been for me socially since grade school. Out of respect I began working towards a psychology degree but silently resigned myself to a life of misery. Midway through my sophomore year I was walking home drunk from a party and had the fortunate experience of getting mugged and severely beaten; fortunate because I used the recovery time to formulate a plan for escape. Eventually I convinced my parent’s the world would not suddenly quit spinning if one kid changed his degree to criminal justice.
I likened Dexter and his beautiful brain to a tightly wound ball of yarn. Locating the loose end proved difficult, but once identified, tugging on the fray unraveled an avalanche of knowledge that often flooded my brain to the point of overload. I can honestly say I continued to absorb information right up until the night he was killed in the line of duty.
Dexter failed to respond to a radio call and the search began. We found his squad car in an empty parking lot, driver’s side door riddled with bullet holes, and the front seat drenched in blood. The only thing missing was Dexter, no body and not a trace of it being removed from the vehicle. I knew he had been working an angle on something, but despite my inquiries he remained tight-lipped about the details. Like an older brother to me, I took the loss personal and worked on the mystery for more than a month. With little evidence and no leads, the higher-ups ‘encouraged’ me to quit chasing ghosts and let the past pass. Threatened with the loss of my job the case went cold, but I could never quite shake the feeling I’d let my friend down. More than anything I hated it for his family. Navigating the grief process is nearly impossible when you can’t even lay your hands on a body to bury.
Nothing about Dexter could be remotely classified as conventional. Some of his techniques fell a good distance outside the lines, but the damndest thing was they always worked. I remember laughing out loud when he suggested I could essentially train myself to have a photographic memory, turn it on and off like a light switch. At the time I wasn’t even sure such things existed, but certainly if they did I figured you were wired that way or you weren’t. Turns out the old man couldn’t have been more spot on.
Despite the distraction of a world moving at full speed, I took a deep breath and forced my mind into a state where everything crept like cold molasses over a frozen rock. I focused hard on the cigarette, able to make out the Phillip Morris label during each revolution until it covered the length of the interrogation room table. I followed it up with a lighter skidding along the same path until it dropped into the suspect’s hands.
“You got the smoke you asked for, let’s get down to business.”
“Knock yourself out—it’s your story, you tell it.”
Right out of the gate I didn’t like the guy’s attitude, but I supposed he had his agenda and I had mine, so I forged forward with my rendition of what I believed took place that night.
“I’m guessing it was around midnight when a pretty, little, brunette rounded the corner and started up the alley. You were probably pretty stoked to see a working girl that either wasn’t afraid to take the shortcut, or maybe she was too high to care. Don’t suppose it mattered to you either way as long as she moved away from the streetlights and into the shadows. That’s kinda where guys like you do their best work, isn’t it Rodney, under the cover of dark?”
I didn’t expect an answer, but paused on the off chance he might tip his hand. Instead, Rodney leaned back in the chair, sparked the lighter, and took a long drag. Veiled by a cloud of smoke I could still see that smug expression. If this punk wanted to play games I was definitely willing to turn up the heat.
“Some women run around in primer, best suited for tooling around town and running errands. Not this shiny vixen; she was built for speed and lived for the thrill of the open road. It was those stiletto heels that set everything in perfect motion; banana curls dancing against the apples of her cheeks, tender breasts licking against the delicate lace of a thin teddy. Each step sent them heaving against their restraint, flirting with the brink of spilling over. All that visual temptation put to the sweet music produced by the rhythmic swishing of a leather skirt rustling against her thighs. Suddenly it didn’t matter that she wouldn’t give you the time of day because with each delicious step she unknowingly moved closer to the lion’s den. Then she’d have no say in anything. You’d bring her down, satisfy your own desires, and take what you wanted. Isn’t that what you were thinkin’, Rodney!”
The boy didn’t have to say a word; his pasty white complexion and the line of sweat-beads across his brow told me my rendition hit dangerously close to home. Just when I was set to take another bite out of this punk the Lieutenant nearly busted the door off the hinges.
“You damn renegade! Just what the hell do you think you’re doin’?”
After leveling the accusation of wrong-doing in my direction, the Lieutenant addressed my suspect.
“Rodney, gather your things and get back out on your beat, your partner’s waiting on ya!”
With the arrival of unexpected company the pressure in the room skyrocketed. I felt like I was trapped in a sauna with a broken thermostat running wide open. Calculated risk was a part of the gig but I had determined getting to know Rodney outweighed the potential repercussions of getting caught doing it. Now that my plan had fallen apart I hoped a cool down period would benefit my cause. I attempted to sneak out of the room on Rodney’s heels when the Lieutenant caught me by the collar.
“You crazy, unethical, son-of-a-bitch, that’s a fellow officer you’re interrogating like he’s Charlie Manson’s brother. You do understand if he has an ounce of sense he’ll make a phone call and in a flash the D.A. will be so far up my ass I’ll have trouble breathin’. Thank you for brining a fresh pile of shit to my doorstep, Officer Tanner. It’s like a bad infomercial…but wait there’s more. As if this steamy pile wasn’t enough, you placed a bright, shiny turd on top. Not only is Rodney a fellow officer, but more importantly my wife’s nephew! Hand me your weapon and badge. You earned yourself a month off without pay, starting now!”
After a few moments of silence the idea of being suspended unjustly boiled in my gut until it spilled over into angry words.
“You’re making a big mistake, Lieutenant. I understand you’re worried about the bad press associated with exposing a rotten apple from within. But for my own curiosity—is there a particular number of mutilated, young girls before you start losing sleep? Obviously three isn’t enough. And just how brutal do you think the press is going to be when they suspect more blood was spilled by your attempt to protect your reputation and family instead of doing your job?”
I thought my bosses head was going to spin off before he sputtered his next words.
“That’s an extra week of suspension for gross disrespect!”
I moved into his personal space until I was certain I could feel the pulsing of the bulging vein in his forehead.
“That’s a physical impossibility, Lieutenant. By its very nature disrespect would indicate a prior level of respect, and the only thing gross in this whole situation is your level of negligence!”
Perhaps the most important single lesson Dexter taught me was that the loneliness associated with operating and thinking outside the lines is not a bad thing. We were working together one night, sitting at a stop light when it turned green. As I pulled through the intersection Dexter said he was going to ask me a couple questions. He stated there may or may not be correct answers, but the most important thing was to refrain from analyzing my replies and just respond instinctively. I suspected it was another of his tests so I laughed and agreed.
“What was the model and make of the car following us that turned North on Culvert Ave?”
“Rust colored 69 Impala, black hardtop, looked to have a good sized dent in the driver’s front quarter.”
“Damn, I missed the dent completely.” He exclaimed. “You’re warmed up now, boy. Let’s go for broke.”
“How many steps across the cross-walk, one curb to the other?”
“Size ten and a half, six foot male, normal stride, sixteen steps”
Dexter giggled like a school girl at her first dance, completely unable to suppress the excitement in his voice.
“Ok…OK, how many LED’s were in that green stop lamp?
The old man slapped the dash, “Nice try, but I gotcha—there’s 285.” He exclaimed proudly.
I turned at the next block and we circled back the original intersection.
“Check it out, Dexter, third ring from the center on the left side two are burned out, so makes 283.”
“Damn, boy, you’re unbelievable! But that’s what I’m talking about—most people don’t see things in that kind of detail, and even if they did their minds don’t process quickly enough to make it useful. You and I, we got a special gift and an obligation.”
The tone of his voice changed decidedly, “Son, you gotta promise me you’ll never move to the dark side.”
It was those words that haunted me ever so slightly, but I hoped Dexter could see in this case there was a thick, murky band of gray rather than a distinct fine line separating the two. Dexter was right about the keen insight we shared. While the majority of the officers appreciated Rodney’s sense of humor, I’d always had the ability to read people and was certain a rotten core lurked beneath the goofy exterior of Rodney Allen Kelly, and I aimed to prove it, with or without the backing of a badge and a legal weapon.