Friday, June 7, 2013

The Owl

The shrill voices buzzed in the headphones –

"I'm telling you, we gotta tag cop cars!"

"And I'm telling you we'll get tased. We're not going for someone shot here."

"Yeah, this isn't the Martyr's Brigade —"

"Hey watch it!" and a chorus of pious reprimands muttered back and forth. "Don't judge!" and other self-righteous prattle.

Pendrick mechanically transcribed the hollow argument. This happened everytime one of them laughed at South Park, the others immediately shushing and scolding such "ignorant" behavior. "I'm sorry! Jesus!" the offender always apologized.

"But we still can't tag cop cars. We'll just get caught."

"Alright, what about banners again?"

"Can't. No money for supplies."

"Why not giant puppets of —"

"For the last time, no fucking puppets!"

Pendrick couldn't help but chuckle. He wrote down in the margin - Puppet Dude shot down again.

"Okay, we've pretty much exhausted the performance art angle... what about film?"

"Yeah, we can have the president dancing around in a tutu!"

Snickering and "That'll piss off the old people!" ensued. Pendrick just rolled his eyes.

He packed up the listening equipment, plenty gathered for the prosecutors. Some clever mixing back at the station and the kids would be laughing about "Doing cop cars!" — whatever that could mean. He'd leave the specifics up to the prosecutors as usual, they always had so much imagination. That would be enough to keep the CTU's pants on for another week, maybe even slip Ol' Pendrick a raise.

His old car thankfully — and uncharacteristically — didn't stall out on him on the long drive home. The local county didn't have the manpower for these sorts of operations, so they'd outsourced to Pendrick's hometown some twenty miles north. Why anyone would be plotting anything anywhere in Kansas — other then how to get far, far away — he didn't know but his mortgage and credit card bills convinced him not to argue.

Lights were still on in the split-level as Pendrick pulled in a little after three-thirty. Damned Kathryn must have fallen asleep reading again. Going on six years now and Pendrick found he really didn't understand this woman he'd married. He burned himself out on these long recons so he could bring home the fat paycheck that paid for their house, their stereo system, their plasma screen TV, their many laptops — and all she ever wanted to do was read. Well, that's what he got for marrying a teacher.

Sure enough, she was on the living room couch, some paperback having fallen out of her hands and onto the floor. Pendrick didn't wake her, just went around turning out the lights before going to bed alone. He didn't pick up the book.

Pendrick found himself called into Lieutenant Warner's office the following morning — too damn early, he felt. Already had a new assignment.

"A Ms. Carol Scherer," he said, handing the case file over to Pendrick. "Her son's in the National Guard — well, was. He bought it in Wherever-stan about a month ago."

Pendrick leafed absently through the file. Initial report of seditious activity looked like an anonymous tip from her office — something about "unpleasant words," but none of the words themselves. "So what kind of case are we looking to build?" Pendrick asked.

Warner waved it off, "No, nothing like that. Just monitor for a week. If you hear anything, we'll move on it, if not..." Warner just shrugged. "Figured you could use some down time."

Pendrick wanted to scowl at that remark but had the sense to wait until he was out of Warner's office — and out of sight of anyone else. Shit flows both ways these days.

Ducking down into his cubicle, he looked more closely at Ms. Scherer's file. Married young — knocked up first — no college, divorced ten years ago, downsized five years ago — so that's why her boy signed up. He'd been sending most of his pay back home to her up until he got zapped. The Pentagon had charged her for the funeral services.

Her "office" as the file described it sounded like anything but. A windowless maze of cubicles in the upper floor of a factory — there's a word Pendrick hadn't seen in quite some time! They built the machines that built eyeglasses — she held a temp position with their accounting department. That's where someone overheard and reported her little seditious outburst — "Just what the fuck are they fighting over there anyway!?"

Seems she'd taken the rest of that day off and kept quiet ever since. Probably just a little emotional outburst — Pendrick didn't expect any less from a woman. And a pretty one at that, he thought after flipping to the ID photo her company had readily supplied. This assignment was looking up...

That afternoon, Pendrick took a quick drive by Scherer's apartment. Seems all the divorcing and downsizing had cost her a once comfortable tract home, sending her to one of the many and spreading low-income, low-rent apartment complexes. Garden style with dead grass and shrubs garnishing the sides. The parking lot didn't have many cars, though there was a bus stop a convenient three blocks over. Pendrick almost got out for a closer look but he didn't like the look of those hispanic kids hanging around the front door. Bad part of town.

He got back on the parkway — just in time for rush hour. The old clunker stalled out on him twice before he could get home, the engine idling roughly, then slowly, then not at all. Still, Pendrick was in a passable mood when he walked through the front door.

"You're early," Kathryn said, without looking up from her book — a new book this time. "Is that good or bad?"

"Oh! Uh, good," Pendrick said, ducking into the kitchen to grab a beer. "I closed that case I was working on last night — the one out of town?"

"Congratulations honey," Kathryn said, still not looking up.

Pendrick slumped into the neighboring chair — Kathryn had stretched out across the couch and he knew better then to try and move her feet. "I got a new assignment," he said while kicking off his shoes. "Local this time. Low key. I might be home around this time from here on out."

"Mm-hmm," Kathryn said.

"I mean, if I'm lucky."

She turned a page, clearly much more interested in the book.

Flashing back briefly to the file on Scherer, Pendrick wanted to add more but...

"Well... Um... What d'you want to do for dinner tonight?"

Kathryn finally peeked out from behind the book. "Chinese?"

Pendrick was up bright and early the next day, sucking down a McDonald's coffee so Kathryn wouldn't complain about him not cleaning the pot when he got home later. In the trunk, he had all the standard gear — directional mic, headphones, laptop with a couple thousand dollars worth of voice recognition software he'd never used. All packed tightly into an innocuous duffel bag. "If you see us then we're not doing our job," as the popular motto goes.

The department had arranged ahead of time for Pendrick to have the neighboring unit — all it took was a quick call to the local immigration office. They weren't picking up the cable bill though, never did. The official line said it was an unjustifiable expense but Pendrick knew they were just being cheap bastards.

Scherer was already gone by the time he pulled into that parking lot — and so were those hispanic kids, much to Pendrick's relief. Still, he checked and re-checked the locks on his car before finally going in. The clunker still had some value, if only in getting him home at night.

Inside the building, the air was stale with that faint hint of asbestos Pendrick had quickly gotten used to in this job. He never got assignments in penthouses, only the ratty parts of town. He sometimes wondered if all these "subversives" would calm the fuck down if they just had a bigger TV. Not that he would ever say such a thing to anyone.

Apartment 2D — right nextdoor to Scherer's 2B. Full range and microwave but no furniture. Pendrick made a mental note to run back out to the car for his folding chair. The air inside was just as stale as the rest of the building, if not more. Dust particles danced in the scrap of sunlight coming through the solitary window and the carpet still showed stains here and there from some long-gone tenant’s dog.

While setting up his equipment with practiced detachment, Pendrick idly wondered if Scherer's apartment was any different. They'd never had the budget for those minicams — so the story went — always leaving Pendrick to guess at the layouts from whatever bits of background noise leaked through. He liked to flatter himself, imagining he'd developed the echolocation of a bat from so much time just listening to people in their most private moments...

Pendrick had everything in its right place when Scherer got home that evening — around 6:30, much later then projected based on what information her employer had provided. Pendrick knew she probably just got stuck working overtime like everyone else but marked it down anyway, procedure being procedure and all.

What followed were the little sounds he'd heard before — Scherer quietly shuffling back and forth, flipping through TV channels, the happy little ping of the microwave, all those background noises so common to people living alone.

Damn, thought Pendrick, a quiet one. Without any chatter coming from his target, things got very dull very fast. He couldn't turn on his own TV — even if he had the cable — or radio to relive the monotony — and even if the cheap apartment was wired for it, he didn't dare use the laptop's wireless feature. Everyone knew the browser history went straight back to the department. He strained to hear Scherer's TV, a fuzzy sounding thing tuned first to "Law and Order" then one of those home repair or gardening shows.

Very dull. Very fast.

Pendrick found his mind wondering. Might those kids be outside trying to break into his car right now? He knew the way requisitions worked — if he'd ever wanted a department car, he'd be taking the bus until retirement. Maybe they'd been plotting some home invasion and the next thing he'd hear would be Scherer's door crashing in followed by screams and the wet thumping of a baseball bat splitting open a skull. Then he could go home.

He scribbled crude, geometric patterns on his notepad — mostly dongs, stick figures with dongs, dongs with stick figures — tried bouncing his leg in time to the laptop's screensaver... He blinked his suddenly heavy eyelids and saw three and a half hours had just passed.

"Fuck... Kathryn, late," he mumbled his mouth feeling like a wet towel. Not a sound came from Scherer's apartment, not even the TV. "Must've gone to bed." He could review the audio tomorrow while waiting for her — Scherer — to get back from work.

Kathryn was asleep again when he got home. She didn't bother asking about his day the next morning...

During the long wait for his mark to show up, he loaded up the audio files starting about an hour before — he guessed — he fell asleep. Long stretches of TV chatter with a brief interlude of dishes being washed. Pendrick irritably tried skipping back and forth in the file, trying to find something but not a word — except from the TV. Good thing he didn't have to build any case this time — last time he had a situation like this, everyone found out real fast that the public doesn't get to interested in copyright infringement cases. Can't justify the money going from public works into security if all they had to show for it were a handful of illegal MP3s...

Scherer got home even later that night — nearly 8. Pendrick dutifully marked it down, grateful to finally have something to do with himself. She went through the same routine as before with the TV, microwave — Pendrick managed to stay awake for the night's dish washing this time. When the faint click of light switches signaled she was going to bed again, Pendrick prepared to pack things up for the night. But before he took off the headphones, he briefly caught what he could only describe as muffled sobbing.

He didn't put that in the log...

It gnawed at him the next morning though. Damn if he didn't hate bringing the work home with him like that. Pendrick said to Kathryn while she rushed through the kitchen, "So... about what we've been, uh, discussing..."

She didn't say anything but seemed to stiffen a little.

"I mean, um, what we've —"

"I know you're worried about having kids," she said, sitting down across the kitchen table from him. "I am too, but it's something we did agree on —"

"I know!" Pendrick quickly composed himself. "Uh, I know. It's just, um, I don't know how I feel about a kid in this... environment —"

"Oh Jesus, George!" Kathryn leaned back, exasperated. "First money and now 'environment?' This can't be about your job. You yourself told me those kids are so harmless they just get probation."

Pendrick swallowed. He never much liked telling Kathryn that little comforting lie.

"I'm thirty-five, you know," she continued. "I know you don't want to adopt so we're getting down to the wire."

"Well..." And that made him thirty-seven — something he didn't like contemplating even on a good day. "That's just my experience, y'know? I mean, other departments... Maybe —"

"Look, can this wait? I've still got papers to grade before I go in today."

Pendrick nodded, putting on his best fake smile. "Sure thing." Later, they could talk about the pros and cons of having a child that would be shipped back in a coffin within eighteen years — assuming he or she didn't go to the wrong puppet show and get arrested.

Pendrick didn't pack up right away when Scherer went to bed that night. He pulled the picture of her out of the file while she quietly sobbed again. The thought of that pretty face and reserved smile contorted and in tears...

He tried something a little different the following day. He staked out the parking lot — well, "staked out" as in "sat in his car, waiting for her to get home and eating M&Ms." Those hispanic kids were milling around the doorway again, making him dig out the hypertension pills. He didn't like using them — sixty dollars per refill was hard to manage on a civil servant's salary.

They were still milling around, chattering to each other in Spanish or whatever when Scherer pulled up. Pendrick didn't look forward to playing hero in this situation but found himself climbing out of his car and trotting across the parking lot anyway.

Scherer had grocery bags this time. Awfully full-looking for a woman who lived out of her microwave.

Pendrick decided to ignore that detail for now. "Hello — Excuse me? Hi!"

Scherer's wary look made him feel suddenly like a real jackass.

"I, uh, I'm new here, just moved — can I help you?"

She hesitated for a moment... Then that hard gaze of hers softened — just a little. "Sure," she said without much interest.

She shoved the bag she'd been handling into Pendrick's arms — damn it was heavy! Must've bought a lot of fruit. Peeking over the bag, Pendrick saw the Hispanics still there in the doorway, still talking to themselves about — well, even if he spoke their language he was too far away to hear. This might turn a bit difficult...

As the approached the group, the boys suddenly smiled and said happily, "'Evening, Ms. Scherer!" One of them hurried to open the front door for her.

"Thank you, Paolo," she said sweetly as they passed.

"You need a hand with that, sir?" another asked Pendrick.

Pendrick tried not to look too shocked. "Uh... no. I — oof — got it."

He followed Scherer up the stairs, enjoying the view with only a twinge of guilt. She had a nice ass for a woman who'd already popped out a kid. Up close, she even looked a little younger — granted, she was only a few years older than him...

"Thanks," Scherer said at the door to her apartment. "I can get it from here."

"Oh! Of course." Pendrick let her take back the heavy bag. "I'm George," and he thrust out his hand — then winced because her hands were now full.

She smiled tightly, "Carol." And shut the door.

That could have been better.

Their brief encounter didn't seem to have any effect on her. Pendrick still heard the TV, the microwave, the crying — he pulled off the headphones with disgust. This just didn't seem right...

"I don't care if you think it's right," Warner said to him tomorrow when over the phone.

"But — I mean, she's just not the, uh, seditious type," Pendrick protested. He'd wondered if calling Warner would do any good, maybe get her taken off the surveillance list. Should've known better. "She's no true believer, yeah, but she's not building pipe bombs and ululating."

"Doesn't matter. Her file came to us, we watch her. Remember, 'We are the owl —'"

"'We take out the fowl,'" Pendrick completed the department's unofficial motto Warner made them all memorize at the last Christmas Party. "Yeah, I know."

"Good man," and he hung up.

Pendrick didn't like to think of spending another night listening to some poor woman cry herself to sleep. Maybe talking to her again — maybe just telling her the truth, "I'm a police officer sent to spy on you. And I think you're pretty." That would never work.

It was halfway through some home remodeling show that he decided to do... well, something. "I'm out of paper towels," sounded like a good enough excuse. Just enough to open up a dialogue.

Still, Pendrick hesitated. Did he just want to warn her? Honestly, no. Not that he wanted to think too much about that. No better to just see how things go...

But definitely warn her at least. She didn't deserve this. Pendrick knocked twice on Scherer's door —

And it burst out of the frame, knocking him against the opposite wall and sending splinters into his palm and face. Pendrick coughed, then winced at what must have been a cracked rib from just the concussive force. That asbestos in the walls billowed about with all sorts of other debris.

Pendrick stood slowly, every moment revealing a new little injury. He staggered into the ruined apartment, ears ringing from the explosion. Scherer's apartment was a wreck, walls busted out and spilling their wires. What furniture she had lay scattered in pieces — Pendrick noticed the apartment did follow the same layout as his own.

He found what was left of Scherer in the bathroom. He heaved across his own shoes.

"You don't look so bad," Warner said later.

Pendrick sat on the curb, holding an oxygen mask to his face while a paramedic bandaged his arm. The first responders had been plainclothesmen in unmarked cars — waiting just outside in the parking lot. Either this operation was much bigger then he'd been told or Warner had him followed.

Judging by the sadistic twinkle in the bastard's eye, it wasn't the former...

"Some of her neighbors weren't so lucky," Warner went on, unperturbed by the now wrecked building and its displaced, traumatized residents. "A hunk of her tub fell on some kid one floor down."

She'd been building explosives in her bathroom. The sound of it never reached Pendrick — even if he'd known what it sounded like. Probably got spooked when he knocked on her door, her hand slipped...

"Anyway," Warner continued, "I think you should... take some time off."

Of course. Warner would know he broke protocol too, made contact with the mark. Pendrick counted himself lucky Warner didn't decide to just toss him into the system.

What Scherer — no, Pendrick corrected himself, Carol — had been making bombs for specifically no one could say but he knew her "target" would be clearly identified in tomorrow's paper. Everyone would be reminded of the brave men and women working day and night to protect them from the horrors of the world — and that they should shut their fucking mouths and behave.

"So are we done here?" Pendrick asked in a scorched voice.

"Oh sure..." Warner smiled without a shred of empathy. "Go home to your wife," he said with a wink. "She's been missing you."

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