I’m usually willing to help out at Manna House, the shelter for homeless women where my wife works as a cook, but their idea of a Valentine’s party is seldom as kick-back comfortable as watching the Super Bowl had been with my Yada Yada Brothers. So when my iPhone sounded its Law and Order ring, I welcomed the opportunity to leave my plate of tasteless white cake—definitely not something Estelle had baked—and slip out into the lobby.
I didn’t recognize the number on the screen, but it was a Chicago area code, so I answered with a roll of my eyes. “Yeah, Bentley.” Estelle bugs me about my gruff greeting, but soundin’ like the cop I once was has knocked more than one telemarketer off his game.
“Hey, bro. How’s it goin’?” The nasal twang was definitely not that of a brotha, but it sounded familiar.
“Uh . . . Okay, I guess.”
“Great! Roger Gilson here. Might have somethin’ for ya.”
Gilson . . . Roger Gilson. Of course. “Ah, yes, Captain Gilson.” “But not with the CPD. Moved over to Amtrak.”
“Amtrak . . . as in trains?”
“Oh yeah. I cover from here all the way to the West Coast . . . along with one other captain, that is. Can you believe it?”
“What happened to the CPD?”
“Ah, you know. Budget mess. The police pension fund doesn’t look so secure anymore. But then you already know that, and that’s why I called.”
Gilson’s Internal Affairs had helped me nail my corrupt boss about a year ago. But it’s hard for any cop to like Internal Affairs, and I still wasn’t sure I trusted Gilson. So I cautiously asked, “What’s up?”
“Like I said, I’m at Amtrak now, and we’re in a bit of a tussle with the TSA. They’re all over us to tighten up security or they’ll take over. But with the mess they’ve made of the airlines, nobody wants them running the nation’s trains. Know what I mean?”
Sounded like Gilson had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. If the Transportation Security Administration took over security for Amtrak, Gilson might lose his job. “So . . . why’d you call me?”
“You had some trouble with your eyes, right? Went blind for a while?”
“Yeah, I had a problem.” A problem that’d scared me spitless because it might’ve been permanent. Had surgeries, wore eye patches for a while, even had to remain face down 24/7 for two whole weeks. It was a horror movie from which God alone had rescued me—but I didn’t want to get into all that with Gilson.
“Anyway, I’m lookin’ for a few men I can trust to work under- cover. Know what I mean?”
He waited while I coughed off to the side to keep from laughing at him continually saying, Know what I mean? “Yes, Gilson. I know what undercover is.”
“Well, we place undercover officers just about anyplace—in a station restaurant having coffee, sitting next to other passengers on trains, or in bathrooms mopping up.”
“Ha! So you’re lookin’ for a black man to work undercover as a janitor. I don’t think so—”
“No, no, no. You don’t understand. I was thinkin’, with you having been blind . . . you can see now, though, can’t ya?”
“Good enough.” I could see just fine, but the man wasn’t listen- ing, so why explain?
“Great! Then here’s the deal: you could work undercover as a blind man, wander anywhere . . . even up and down the aisles of a train. I can see it now.” I could imagine Gilson waving his hand through the air like he was painting a panorama. “You staring blankly here and there from behind a pair of wraparound shades, but actually seein’ everything. Nobody would even notice you. Know what I mean?” He stopped.
The idea galled me. What was the civil rights movement about if it didn’t include helping black people be noticed as valuable, con- tributing members of society? Finally, I said, “Yeah, I know what you mean, but like Jesse Jackson used to say, ‘I Am Somebody!’ But you want me to pose as a nobody.”
“Ah, come on, Bentley. Don’t play the race card on me now. We’re talkin’ undercover, and I’m tryin’ to offer you something.”
I snorted. “Gilson, you oughta be selling used cars, but this isn’t for me.” The doors from the shelter’s multipurpose room swung open, and I was glad to see Estelle out of the corner of my eye. “Oops, here’s the wife. Gotta go, Gilson. But thanks for thinkin’ of me. You take care now!”
I didn’t wait for his response. Just touched the red End bar on my phone. “Whew!” I turned to see Estelle’s eyebrows arched high in question.
“Ah, just a guy from back in the day with the police department. Wanted me to come work for Amtrak.”
“Hmph. Been askin’ all over for you. But it’s like the ladies don’t even recognize you since you shaved your gray horseshoe beard.”
“Whaddaya mean? Handsome black man, bald head, just about this tall, seen hangin’ around here all too often, and they don’t rec- ognize me?”
“Well.” She folded her arms and studied me dubiously. “With that little beard you got goin’ on around your mouth there, they say you look more like Louis Gossett Jr.”
“And that’s bad? Come on, now . . . Della Reese!”
Now she laughed. “Hey, you know I can’t sing like her.”
“But you sure can touch me like an angel.” I winked, big.
She grabbed my arm and gave me one of those light-up-my-life grins. “Oh, come on, you. We’re outta here.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “Let someone else clean up the kitchen for once—we still got groceries to get, remember?”
I sighed. But with snow still piled high after one of Chicago’s heaviest snowstorms, I didn’t want to chance her getting stuck.
“Yeah, I remember, babe. Let me get our coats.”
Twenty minutes later we were in the Jewel, and I was driving the grocery cart behind Estelle. We were paused in the produce section while she carefully examined each item before putting it into the basket when my phone rang. Gilson again. I was tempted to send him straight to voice mail, but I’d learned not to burn my bridges. Couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice though.
“What now, Gilson?”
“Ah, good. Now don’t hang up on me again, Harry! I’m just tryin’ to get you on the team here. And I’ve come up with a better idea. You worked K-9 for a while, didn’t you?”
I hesitated. “Yeah . . . I’m still certified, but that was before I
joined Fagan’s unit.”
“Great, then you know how to handle dogs. We’re trying to expand our K-9 unit. Had a young officer complete her training with the smartest dog I’ve ever seen, but now she’s on maternity leave and not likely to return since her baby has severe birth defects. So we have a dog—cost us thousands—without a handler. How
I frowned. “How ’bout what? You wanna team me with someone else’s dog?”
“Corky’s young and like I said, smart, very smart. She could make the transition.”
“Wait a minute. Handlers are what? Officers? Sergeants? You’d bust me down from a detective?”
“Oh, c’mon. We can work somethin’ out. Meet me halfway here, Harry. I’m tryin’ to reel you in. I’m sure we could—”
“Gilson! Would you shut up a minute?” The man sounded like he was on too much Vicodin, and it felt good to tell him to shut up. I was a private citizen now who didn’t have to kowtow to anyone.
There was silence . . . for five seconds. “Sorry, Harry. Just gettin’ into my creative mode. I’m a creative guy, ya know? That’s what I love about this job. But seriously, we’d like you to come on board . . .
like all aboard.” He laughed at his stupid joke. “It doesn’t have to be K-9, but I’m puttin’ together a team, and they have to have integrity. That’s why I thought of you. You proved yourself when you stepped up to nail Fagan.”
Matty Fagan had been my boss, corrupt as they come, shakin’ down drug dealers and stealing their guns and dope to resell . . . until I blew the whistle on him.
“Hey,” Gilson continued, “how much were you makin’ before we asked you to take early retirement?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m not interested.” Of course I could use the money, but . . . “Sorry, Gilson. Don’t think I’m up to travelin’ all over the country. I like trains and all, but I’m a family man now.”
“Ah, but that’s the thing! Sure, you go out on runs, but then you’re home for several days where you can focus on—hey, I didn’t know you were married! And kids too? Man, you work fast. But you’ll actually get more time with the family. Plus the benefits are great, free rail privileges for you and the family. Think about that.”
“Harry!” It was Estelle, twenty feet ahead of me with a gallon of milk in her hand. “What good’s the cart if I gotta hold this?”
“Sorry, Gilson. But I really can’t talk now. I’m in the store helpin’ my wife with shopping. Like I said, family man!” I shut the phone off and hurried to catch up.