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“When Your First Bust Is a Santa Claus” by Courtney Sherwood

Congratulations to Courtney Sherwood for winning in the 2012 Individual category!

***

Character: Police station clerk
Action: Tightening a knot
Setting: A meeting for a subversive group
Prop: Decorative songbirds made from vinyl records

***

When Your First Bust Is a Santa Claus

by Courtney Sherwood

When your first bust is a Santa Claus, it can be hard to believe in what you’re doing.

I remember the little boy’s dusky tear-streaked face, his bold older sister as she crossed her arms and furrowed her brow in defiance. “It’ll be OK,” she asserted, as though she knew anything. Ages four and eight, the file said. How much harm could a little magic cause? I wondered, then stifled the thought.

“You’re right,” I lied to the children, knowing they’d never see each other or their parents again. “It will be all right. Don’t worry.”

The boy sobbed. His sister eyed me warily. And then, as Protective Services arrived and took control of the children, I snapped to attention and got back to business.

It can be hard to believe in what you’re doing, but why was I worried about what I believed? I was a Belief Detective. I didn’t have to believe anything. I just had to look at the facts. And the facts were clear. Faith kills. Santa Claus and magic may seem innocent enough, but they’re just the first step down a slope so steep and slippery that anyone is bound to lose his way. Start allowing Santa, and soon you’ve got people worshipping Jesus, Muhammed, God, Vishnu, Allah, pretending like Buddhism is a philosophy not a religion so they can take the words of their prophet on faith, as though they deserve some kind of special dispensation. Spiritualists and Pagans start popping up. Soon you’ve got fights about right and wrong that have nothing to do with facts and everything to do with belief.

Most people understood this. Understood that faith and belief were dangerous twins that had fueled crusades, downed planes, left children to die when medicine could cure them, kept otherwise rational leaders from coming together and putting America on the right path.

Back when the century was young, the country had almost collapsed: two decades of political gridlock, busted budgets, crumbling bridges, dishonest discourse, fights over sex and marriage and bodies and morality. Then the forces of logic and reason finally rallied to save America. Say what you like about freedom of speech, some things should go unsaid. And freedom of religion? It’s hard to understand how our founders sanctioned religion at all. The First Amendment was their first mistake, and we were all better off when that mistake was undone.

But somehow, pockets of belief survived. That’s where I came in.

That first bust was rough, though, separating the kids from their parents. The dad, a hefty man who’d donned a red suit and stuffed a pillow in to enlarge his belly, was a goner for sure. He’d spend the rest of his life atoning for the magic he’d tried to instill in his kids. The mom was a trickier one. Sure, she’d allowed her husband to inculcate her children with beliefs. But had she encouraged his actions? That was for the prosecution to determine, but it was hard not to wonder.

Snow never fell in December in this town, but on the day of that first bust it swirled around us. As the little boy sobbed and his sister crossed her arms, as I cuffed Santa and eyed his erect wife, a strange tingling moved through a part of myself that seemed separate from my body yet innate to who I was. I fought it back. Cleared my throat. Frowned as I forced myself to think about the paperwork I’d have to fill out later.

Wanting to believe in my job, when “belief” was as bad as it got, wondering about these criminals, facing these feelings that seemed separate from my physical being. These weren’t good signs. Even from that first bust I knew there was something not quite right about me. But I did my job and tried not to let it show.

That was three decades ago, and I’ve been tamping down my nature ever since. I’ve put away hundreds of illegal believers over the course of my career. But the memory resurfaces every time we arrest parents trying to secretly teach their children, every late December when we beef up patrols in search of well-concealed jolliness, every time it snows. I remember the “ho ho ho,” a snatch of unfamiliar song, the scent of fir that pervaded the air in the half second between when I opened the door and my SWAT team swarmed the house. And lately, since my retirement request was approved, I’d been re-living it every night in my sleep.

I wondered what happened to that bold little girl. But I didn’t expect I’d ever find out.

In a little over a week, I’d close the door on this long chapter, hand in my gun and handcuffs, and re-enter private life.

It was hot and sunny as I mulled this over. Summers are slow and quiet in Portland. If I was lucky, my last days as a detective would pass uneventfully. If I believed in luck, that is. If luck were legal.

My boss seemed to read my mind. A fanatic for efficiency, she was always on patrol for wasted effort, unnecessary contemplation, badly focused use of time. She’d emerged from her office with an empty coffee mug and saw me staring out the window. If I had nine days left on her payroll, I wasn’t going to be allowed to spend them reliving the past.

“My office, now, detective,” she said, abruptly, tapping my desk with her left hand as she walked to the coffee station. “I’ll meet you there.”

At not yet 40, Jane Orcinus was among the younger captains on the force. Most cops try several divisions – vice, homicide, you name it – before settling on a career trajectory. Like me, though, she’d been with the faith patrol since Day 1.

I sat in the chair facing her desk and waited as she closed the door behind me, then started speaking even before she took her seat.

“You’re retiring in, what, 10 days, detective?” she asked she circled my chair, her desk.

“Nine.”

“Nine,” she said, sitting, blowing the steam from her coffee, furrowing her brow as she collected her thoughts. “That’s not enough time to put you on a major case, and I don’t want to waste your talents on foot patrols. How would you feel about looking in to some recent chatter the feds picked up? It could be nothing, of course, but you’ve proven yourself good as sussing out the facts in situations like this.”

“Chatter?” So much for a lazy exit from a long career. I tried to look interested, to stifle my disappointment. “Sure, I can follow it up. Who will take over if it turns out there’s something real underneath this chatter?”

“Just bring it back to me, and don’t discuss it with anyone else at the station,” she said. Orcinus was a desk jocky – you had to be to move up the ranks at any decent pace. But I’d known her to step out into the real world once or twice a year when a case really interested her. If this chatter was something she wanted to hold on to, perhaps my last few days on the job would be more eventful than I’d anticipated.

“What do I need to know?” I asked.

“We don’t know much,” she answered. “The feds have spotted strange emails and phone calls between a night club and a fancy junk shop. It could be nothing – quirky hipsters just talking about decorating techniques. But surveillance software flagged patterns that hint at subversive religious activity. I’d like you to spend a little time at these businesses, see if anything strikes you as odd, and then report back to me. Only me. Don’t let anyone else around here know what’s going on.”

Keeping secrets from a room full of a detectives sounded tricky.

“People will notice when I head out the door in the middle of the day and start roaming Portland’s streets. What am I supposed to say I’m doing?”

“You don’t have to say anything,” she answered. “Officially, I’m letting you relax for your last nine days on the job. Go home, grab a drink at a bar, do whatever you like. You’re on call, but you’re not on the clock. Maybe you’re filling out your exit paperwork for HR, for all I know. Report back to me outside of office hours. If this turns out to be nothing, I don’t want anyone else in the station to get riled up.”

Orcinus was a by-the-books sort, and this hush-hush business was out of character. I could only guess that the feds had asked her to keep this low key.

“I’ll do my best,” I said. “But people are going to notice when I walk out of your office with an arm full of case notes and don’t come back until my retirement party.”

“They’ll notice what I tell them to notice,” she said, standing up and walking toward the door to her office. I stood, too, and followed her.

“You’re on call for the next  10 days, but I don’t want you taking up space and distracting the rest of us if I don’t have anything for you to do,” she said loudly and firmly as she opened the door.

“Nine days.”

“Nine days, then. Cindy has your HR paperwork. Pick it up, take it home, keep your phone charged. We’ll call if we need you. Otherwise, get the forms filled out and we’ll see you off with cake and beer in nine days. Consider it a head start on retirement.”

I was a bit confused by Orcinus’s tactics, but she’d asked me to stay mum around the other detectives, so as she ushered me out of her office I thanked her, grabbed my phone, and headed toward the door.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Cindy, our station clerk, shouted after me. “You’ve gotta fill out these forms if you wanna collect your pension?”

I tucked the thick folder under my arm, took the marble stairs of the ancient main police station two at a time, and breathed deep as I escaped the florescent lights and recycled air for the sharp-angled rays of a late afternoon Portland sun.

I should have set right to work on my mysterious assignment, but I’d already had plans before Orcinus threw her wrench into my day. I pretended not to guess that the details of this mysterious “chatter” were likely hidden amidst by HR forms, and went about my business.

At 55, I’d earned my pension and the right to retire, but I felt too young to merge with my recliner and face into the obscurity of old age and loneliness. My particular set of skills and experiences was in high demand in the private sector. I could work security, conduct background checks, ferret out corporate moles. Maybe even teach.

So I headed to Portland State to discuss the school’s plans to expand its criminal justice offerings. Once upon a time, this university taught young adults how to understand religions of the world. Now maybe I’d teach students how to track down and destroy those faiths.

Thursday.

The next day I woke up same as usual, when it hit me. I had eight days to retirement, but my life as a Belief Detective might as well be over. I had some kind of secret assignment that I hadn’t even read up on yet, but I was done reporting to the Portland Police Central Precinct. For all I knew, Orcinus had really just wanted to get me out of her way. Some new guy was probably already sitting at my desk. This “chatter” was probably just a made-up distraction.

I sat down at my kitchen table and stared at the HR file, and briefly considered chucking it out the window of my fourth-floor condo, saying “fuck it,” and taking the day off. But I’ve never been the “fuck it” sort, so I ripped the large manila envelope open, grumbling at myself for giving a damn.

The chatter didn’t amount to much. Something about a twisted vinyl bird, a tightening knot, a junk shop, a bar. No names, nothing about the people involved at all. But the feds had been analyzing subversive groups for years, and something about the words used, the patterns of calls between these businesses, had triggered some algorithm in the national telecom surveillance system.

I’d checked out triggered algorithms like this before – though usually with a partner, working on the record from my desk down at precinct. My last partner had been reassigned a week ago to someone not on the way out the door. And this assignment was hush-hush, for reasons I still didn’t understand. Experience told me that “chatter” was usually a waste of time. Usually, but not always. And Orcinus was not the type of captain to jerk a guy around for no reason.

I decided to play the part of the aging hipster and see if anything at the junk shop caught my eye.

I like donuts and pizza too much to pull off skinny jeans, so I dug out some plaid slacks from the back of my closet, donned a button-up shirt and suspenders, mussed my hair and rode the twelve blocks to East Burnside on my bicycle.

When I entered Rhino Repurposed, I was confronted by a gold-plated wall covered in door handles – knobs and levers in every color from every historical era I could imagine, each dangling a hand-lettered paper price tag. To the left was a room filled with toilets. To the right were the ceiling fixtures. From behind me, a mellow voice called through the hushed music that permeated the air.

“Can I help you find anything,” she asked.

I held back a smile as I briefly considered divulging my mission: “I’m a detective? Got any religious contraband you’d like to disclose?” That sort of thing worked with some people, sometimes. But it was a gamble, and if there really was something illegal going on here I’d better be careful not to take too many risks. I thought about the chatter from the federal file.

“I’m trying to spruce up my condo,” I said. “But I don’t need doorknobs. I’m looking for decorations, not functional objects. Thought maybe I’d put a bird on a few things, you know. Got anything like that?”

She snapped her gum. “First floor is fixtures. Tchotchkes are upstairs. Go right and then left for the staircase. We’ve got a lot of birds on things.” And then she looked down as though I’d already vanished and she resumed reading  a book she’d stowed behind the register.

I wandered slowly toward the staircase, marveling at the variety of ceiling fans, chandeliers and simple hanging lamps on display, hundreds crammed onto shelves, dozens dangling from above, a visual cacophony

The first room at the top of the stairs was labeled  “Vintage Attire” – it looked like the owner of Rhino Repurposed had raided Goodwill for its most eccentric cast-offs, then combined plaids, stripes, laces and frills in fashionable arrangements for three times the thrift-store price. I scanned the shoppers – mostly women and a man with a well-waxed mustache – then stalked through to “Home Décor.”

She hadn’t been kidding about tchotchkes. Or birds. Every ugly piece of Americana imaginable was crammed onto wall-to-ceiling shelves that circled and filled the room. I saw Russian nesting dolls, Chinese meditation balls, lawn flamingos in pink and green and blue, oil paintings of burbling brooks, framed cross-stitch images proclaiming “Welcome To Our Home,” coffee mugs with messages and with faces and in unusual shapes or larger or smaller than the norm, glass eggs, glass bunnies, glass birds, leather satchels, pewter miniatures of every major tourist attraction on the planet, American flags, posters of American flags, magnets of American flags. The jumble appeared to be vaguely arrayed by color groups, rather than by category of object, so that a purple “Crazy Cat Lady” mug nestled against a violet “I love shoes” cross-stitched pillow and a similarly hued ceramic ballerina, while a sibling pink “Crazy Cat Lady” mug peeked from behind a giant “Will You Be My Valentine” heart-framed mirror.

I tried to scan the room for signs of illegal religious icons –crosses, stars of David, stars with crescents, Buddhist pinwheels, but it was impossible to pick out discrete objects in the chaotic jumble.

So I methodically walked up and down the aisles, scanning the shelves for anything that made sense. A twisted vinyl bird, a tightening knot, a bar, and this jumbled up second-hand store were my only clues. As I moved from mostly green kitsch to blue, indigo, purple, I came across a case filled with black objects. One one shelf,  a half dozen old vinyl records were for sale. Below them: sculptures made from other records, presumably scratched or unpopular musicians. A vinyl ash tray. An Eiffel Tower. A bird.

My heart skipped a beat. A twisted vinyl song bird. Maybe the chatter was just a conversation about inventory. Maybe the feds had bad intelligence, maybe their algorithm was off. I wasn’t working with much, but this definitely looked like a clue. I picked up the bird and marveled at the control that went in to shaping this old “Louis Louis” album into such a delicate creature. Someone must have heated the vinyl just enough to make it soft without melting. The lines a needle would have traced were warped but still visible, until they vanished where the artist had cut the record to create open wings. The bird’s beak was slightly open, its wings were spread, as though it were about to take flight.

I pulled out my cell phone and photographed the bird on the shelf, then picked it up and continued my long, slow examination of the shelves.

By the time I approached the register, the day was halfway over. I’d eyed every shelf in every room at Rhino Repurposed, but nothing else had stood out. As I headed toward the register, I grabbed a crystal doorknob and presented it, along with my vinyl bird, for purchase.

The clerk had made visible progress in her book while I shopped. She shoved it down behind the counter and seemed flustered as I placed my selections in front of her and reached for my wallet.

“Oh no!” she said, in a strangely frantic voice. “I can’t sell you that!”

She picked up the bird and placed it behind her on a small table.

“What? Why not?”

Rather than answer, she looked me in the eye for the first time. “Who are you?” she asked, with some suspicion. “Why are you here?”

“I live nearby,” I answered. “I want to decorate my condo. I like the vinyl bird. If it’s mis-priced, I can pay more. What’s the problem?”

She stared for a moment longer, then blinked and made her face neutral.

“Look, man, I don’t know what the deal is with putting birds on things all of a sudden, but we already sold this one. It shouldn’t have been on the shelf. It was a special order,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of other vinyl art. If that doesn’t do it for you, I can pass your info along to the artist. Maybe you can commission another.”

I gave her my cell number, stepped outside, climbed on my bike and rode away. But I didn’t go far. I parked down the block and headed to a coffee shop with a clear view of Rhino Repurposed to wait and watch.

Friday.

The next morning, I was full of doubt. Was this what retirement would be like? Seeing clues and signs everywhere, and not knowing what to do about any of it?

I reviewed the previous day. A 30-something man with tight dark curls had drawn my attention when he’d emerged from the junk shop with a distressed look on his face and stalked off in a hurry. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place his face and he didn’t seem to be carrying anything. When I’d walked by and looked through Rhino’s window, the bird had still been behind the register.

I woke early. I had one week til retirement. I decided to call on an old friend.

I met Sid Revati not long after the Santa Claus bust, when he fell under suspicion. He was part of a fringe group that argued in favor of legalizing faith. But we’d never been able to prove he was anything but an atheist himself. As we were the Belief Police, not the Thought Police, we ultimately had to let him go. Most of mainstream society scoffed at people like Revati. He struggled to hold down work, moved often, lived just on the edge of poverty and homelessness. But for some reason I liked him. He seemed to feel the same way about me.

From time to time I’d buy Revati breakfast and ask for his help on a case. I was pretty sure he was in close contact with believers, even if he wasn’t one himself.  Mostly he pointed me in the wrong direction, but twice he’d tipped me off to devil worship groups. One of those tips had been a real career maker for me. I wasn’t sure what I hoped to get out of him this time.

“A vinyl bird, huh?” Revati mumbled as he shoveled scrambled eggs and fried potatoes into his mouth, and took my phone to examine the photo I’d snapped. “I dunno. Didn’t the ancient Egyptians have some kind of bird god? Doesn’t make much sense to me.”

“What about Rhino Repurposed? Knots? This bar downtown – The Necklace Incident? Anything ring any bells?”

He kept chewing, a neutral look on his face as he examined the wreckage of his meal. Then he put down his fork and looked up at me.

“So you’re retiring in a week, right?” he said. “What happens if you don’t solve this by next Friday? Are you gonna keep digging and trying to shut whatever it is down? Or will you let it go?

“At 5:01 p.m. Friday, my detective days are at an end,” I said firmly. “I solve this by then, or I’m done.”

“What if you find something you don’t like? Or maybe you find something – or someone – you do like before, and you don’t wanna put them away?”

He’d asked me this before, and my answer had always been the same: There were things about my job I didn’t like, but you can’t argue with facts. The fact was, religion had been the leading non-natural cause of death on earth for centuries. We’d virtually killed it. Would an epidemiologist ignore a small pox outbreak? No. And so I had to do what was right, even if it didn’t feel right in the moment.

That’s what I’d always said before, but now I took a moment to reflect on the question as though I were hearing it for the first time.

“I don’t know,” I said. I shivered with surprise at my own words. How could I doubt the fact that religion was a scourge? How could I question reality? That self-that-was-separate-from-my-body seemed to shudder with doubt and confusion. “I don’t know.”

Revati suppressed a grim smile. “Send me a copy of that picture and I’ll tell you what I learn,” he said. “No promises.”

Saturday

Sometimes I think I’ve been too old for bars since the day I was born.

I’d hoped to avoid The Necklace Incident, but Captain Orcinus made it clear that wasn’t an option when she stopped by my condo with no advance warning on Saturday afternoon.

She frowned as I briefed her on my progress, growing alert briefly and touching her own curls when I told her about the curly haired man I’d seen stalk out of the Rhino Repurposed. Her frown deepened and her forehead furrowed in confusion when I showed her my photo of the vinyl bird.

“It’s a clue,” she said. “But what kind of clue? Where does it lead?”

I shrugged.

“What about the tightening knot from the chatter?” she asked. “And what about the bar? Did you see any vinyl birds or conspicuous knots there?”

“What happens if I don’t solve this thing by the time my retirement rolls around?” I asked, hoping to change the subject.

“Then you retire and it becomes somebody else’s problem,” she said. “But until then, you’re working this case. So what did you find at The Necklace Incident.”

“I, ah, I haven’t actually been there yet,” I confessed.

“You aren’t retired yet,” she chided. “What have you been up to?”

In truth, I’d had another job interview, seen a movie, slept in late. These final days on the force felt like a rehearsal for life after next week, when nobody would grill me over how I spent my days.

“I’ve been thinking, questioning the experts, trying to see some kind of pattern here,” I said.

“You’re going to The Necklace Incident,” Orcinus said, in a commanding tone that left no question about who was in charge. “Tonight.”

I groaned, but at 7 p.m. I found myself blinking hard to adjust to the tight, dark cave I’d just entered. It would be an hour or more until sunset outside, but The Necklace Incident, with its blacked-out windows and dim flickering chandeliers, appeared to exist in a world of perpetual night. A purple glow illuminated rows of top-shelf liquor behind the bar, where six empty stools were arrayed. At the back of the long, narrow room a tall, dark man took orders from his only customers, who I could not make out in their tall-backed booth. Three other booths, all upholstered in bright red, were empty, as were the half-dozen black-and-red checkered tables at the front of the bar. Slow Saturday night.

The waiter ducked behind the bar and began to mix, and I was surprised to realize he was the same curly haired man I’d exiting Rhino Repurposed two days earlier. He looked up at me blankly as he rattled a shaker full of ice. “Sit anywhere you like, and I’ll be with you in just a moment to take your order,” he said.

I perused the bar’s “Signature Cocktails” menu while he served his only other customers. Nothing jumped out at me – no “Jesus Juice,” no “Mohammed Mojitos,” no signs that this bar could be harboring illicit worshipers.

I frowned. I’d expected my last week as a cop to be a waste of time, but for some reason wasting time at my desk seemed more appealing than following a series of disjointed clues spit out by some fancy federal computer algorithm. What was I looking for? Rhino Repurposed, the vinyl bird, the Necklace Incident, a tightening knot.

“Excuse me, what did you just say?” the bartender was back, and he’d clearly heard me whispering to myself. He looked alarmed, frightened, his dark face blushing darker as he struggled to gain control.

Shit. Had I given myself away? I groped for an explanation, an evasion of some kind. “The Necklace Incident,” I said. “This is a tight little spot you’ve got here. Not a lot of space. Pretty small. Is this your bar?”

The bartender visibly relaxed at my flimsy cover story, though I could still hear suspicion in his voice. “Yep, it’s been my bar for the past four years. Not very big, not a lot of business, but somehow we manage to get by. What can I get for you?”

I ordered a tall glass of water and a cocktail made of lavender-infused something and a few other hip-sounding ingredients. Sip the water slowly, splash most of the drink on the counter, nobody – not even an attentive bartender – will notice how little you’ve tossed back.

“Four years?” I said, trying to draw him out as he bent behind the bar to gather his ingredients. “You don’t look a day over 30. Inherit this place from a rich uncle or something?”

“I’m 34, and I don’t have any rich uncles. No family at all, to speak of. I worked hard to make this place happen. I’m still working hard.”

As if to prove his point, he handed over my drink and picked up a broom, started sweeping. I watched him work up and down the length of the bar, taking a second order from the booth as I spilled half my beverage. He avoided eye contact as he mixed and delivered the second round of drinks, answered a few more questions with vague or distant responses. Pretended not to hear when I asked him his name.

Eventually I got the message and nursed my drink at a table to give the man some peace. The décor here was black and red, with faux-pearl necklaces wrapped around the glass candle-holders at each table, faux-diamond necklaces dangling from the chandeliers. It was a strange theme, but not any stranger than a lot of other Portland haunts. Nothing at the Necklace Incident stood out except its owner.  And he wasn’t talking.

Sunday

So much for spilling half my drink. I woke at noon with a jackhammer inside my head and an abrasive ring emitting from the phone on my nightstand. I’d stayed at the Necklace Incident until closing time, and before long I was enjoying my drinks. As the night wore on, patrons had trickled in and out, the mysterious bartender had manned his till, and by the time I placed my final order I was slurring my words.

“I think you’ve had enough, friend,” the bartender had told me. “We’re closing for the night.”

And I’d stumbled out his door and into a cab.

Now Orcinus was calling to check up on me.

“Nothing happened. No clues,” I mumbled into the phone, grimacing at the effort. “Except for the bartender. I swear I saw him at Rhino Repurposed a few days ago. He wouldn’t tell me his name.”

Orcinus promised to look him up and get back to me—though that would have to wait until the records office opened Monday – and I hurried to get her off the line so I could sleep off the rest of my hangover.

Revati had other plans. Almost as soon as I got rid of Orcinus, the phone began to blare again. My old friend said he had big news. “I’ve gotta see you in person,” he said, a nervous, excited tone in his voice. “When can we meet?”

I groaned inwardly and tried to keep the raggedness out of my voice. “I need eggs,” I said, “And bacon. And coffee.”  So much for sleep. I named a diner near my condo and asked him to meet me there in half an hour.

I was halfway through an omelet when Revati joined me, jittering with excitement in a way that made my head hurt even more. He took in the haggard expression on my face and shook his head in sympathy.

“I can’t cure all your problems, but I can help you with the case of the vinyl bird,” he whispered, looking around as though he were afraid of being overheard. “This is not a Louie Louie record. It’s a secret message. I can’t tell you what it says without the whole bird, but from what’s visible in the picture you took someone I know” – he looked around again – “was able to reconstruct part of the recording. There’s some weird stuff going on here.”

“Weird, how?” I asked. “Weird as in illegal? Weird as in religious?”

My voice came out louder than I’d expected, and at “religious” I could hear a ripple of surprise ruffle through the tables around us. Talking about religion in public was about as appropriate as talking about fucking to a group of kindergarteners. Someone was probably reporting this conversation to the police right now. I wondered if Orcinus would connect it back to me.

“I don’t know if it’s … you know,” Revati whispered nervously. “There’s not enough to understand what it’s about at all. You’d need the whole bird to hear the whole message – or at least, pictures that show all of the bird, so we could re-create those sounds. This sounds like nothing, to me. Random words. Nothing obviously illegal.”

“Look, I gotta get outta here,” he said. “You said the ‘R’ word, and if your buddies from the station show up I can’t get found.” He slipped something under his napkin and pushed it across the table. “Listen for yourself.  And don’t call me for a while. I’m trying to stay out of trouble, remember.”

Not two minutes after Revati walked out the door, a Ford Crown Victoria parked illegally in front of the diner and two familiar faces climbed out. Not a year out of training, still stuck working weekend duty.

“Thompsen, Lincoln, over here!” I shouted, my head pounding at the sound of my own voice. “I’m afraid I’m the one responsible for the calls you’ve been getting.”

Lincoln frowned as they approached the table. But Thompsen smiled. “Aren’t you supposed to be retired? Not stirring up trouble amongst the citizenry,” she asked.

“I’m still officially on the clock til Friday,” I said. “But, yeah, Orcinus has got me killing time at home until the big goodbye shindig. I got so bored I started doing stupid stuff. Using words I shouldn’t   use. Guess I stirred things up a bit around here by talking about what I do for a living – what I USED to do that is. Right now ‘retirement’ feels like a scarier R-word than ‘religion.’”

“Watch what you say,” Lincoln growled, still frowning. “We work hard to keep the people of Portland safe. They don’t need to know the details.”

“You’re right, you’re right,” I said. “I’m an idiot. I’m sorry to have wasted your time. Since you’re here, would you like to join me?”

Thompson smiled and sat down before her partner could say no.

I finally sat down to examine the file that Revati had extracted from the vinyl bird late that night, but the sounds that emerged from my computer left me with more questions than answers.

This wasn’t “Louie, Louie,” true, but it seemed to have been some kind of song once. The words were clearly being sung, but the snippets that came from my photograph were jumbled and hard to make sense of: “my true love … gold rings.. ooo love .. my true .. pear .. me ..drumming, my true love.”

A lot of true love, and nothing clearly illegal. But who knew what was happening in the gaps between the words? I attached the file to an email and began typing a memo to Orcinus, but stopped myself before clicking “send.” I didn’t want a note to my boss to trigger any fresh federal law enforcement algorithms.

Instead I sent her a quick note: “Let’s get lunch.” No attachments.

Monday

“Your bartender is a nobody as far as I can tell,” Captain Orsinus told me as she took a seat opposite me. “Phillip Muth – odd name – no criminal record, no known indications that he dabbles in the world of faith.”

“Put these on,” I handed her headphones, pushed play.

At first Orcinus’s face reflected the same confusion I’d felt. But then she smiled as if in recognition. “Play it again,” she whispered. As I re-played the disjointed snippets of audio, she started to hum, then stopped herself. She took off the headphones, took a deep breath, blinked as if to fight back tears, and looked at me carefully.

“When was the last time you visited your parents?” she asked.

“My dad died about 15 years ago, but I get together with my mother every few weeks, if she can spare the time for me. She’s a busy lady. Why? When was the last time you visited your parents?”

“I don’t have parents,” she whispered, leaning in close even though the café was nearly empty. “But this recording reminds me of a time when I did. Who else has heard this?”

“Only one other person,” I said, as a strange feeling began to tug at my subconscious. “I can’t tell you who, but I trust him.”

“I – Do you – In your investigations, have any evidence of illegal activity? Religious ceremonies? Faith? Beliefs?”

“No,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “Delete this recording. Destroy all copies of it. Re-install your operating system or smash the hard drive. Do whatever it takes, but make sure it’s erased so thoroughly that nobody will find it. And never mention it again. You’ve done good work. I’m convinced. There’s nothing to this. The feds have a lot of false alarms, and this is just one more to add to the list. Do you understand?”

Something in her voice, in the wary look in her eye, triggered a sense of déjà vu. I searched my mind, but the memories danced away.

“I understand,” I said.

I did not understand.

Tuesday

It had been bad enough to pretend to retire a week before I was really done. Now that Orcinus had called off even this strange investigation, I really had nothing to do.

I decided to head over to Rhino Repurposed, a leisurely two-mile stroll on a warm summer day. I’d deleted the audio as instructed, but I couldn’t get the snippets out of my head. Or the captain’s teary-eyed reaction, the bars she’d hummed. They were like nothing I’d ever heard, yet I was sure I’d heard them before. It didn’t make sense.

I started humming them to myself, the same three bars, over and over. I was still humming as I pushed open the junk shop door and turned to see if the vinyl bird was where I’d left it.

The bird was gone. The same shopkeeper was there, a shocked and frightened look upon her face.

“What are you doing!” she gasped. “Somebody could hear you! Are you trying to get us all arrested.”

That was unexpected. I stopped humming as she stepped around the counter and grabbed hold of my harm.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t remember the rest of the tune. I can’t even remember where I heard it.”

“Like Hell you can’t remember,” she whispered into my ear, tugging me in to a small office at the front of the store.

It had been decades since I’d heard anyone refer to hell. A mythical land that many religious adherents believed in. The fools thought our souls lived on after death, that people who followed the rules would be rewarded. That people who broke the rules …. “You’re going to Hell!”

It had been a long time since I’d heard that curse. A handful of the people I’d arrested over the years had hissed or shouted it as I cuffed them and dragged them away. Odd, to hear the word again today.

“Like Hell, I can’t remember,” I said to the shop girl as she shut the door behind us. “I remember the tune, but the words are stuck. I can’t remember the words.”

“Are you a cop?” she asked.

I didn’t feel like lying.

“I used to be,” I said. “Now I’m retired. Well, practically retired. I’m not working. I’m not here to bust you. I have a tune caught in my head. I wanted to see if you still had the bird. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Oh, I think you’re looking for a little bit more than that,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Redemption? Forgiveness? Salvation?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Do you know why the caged bird sings?” she asked, as she opened a small cupboard and removed a vinyl bird. “It sings because it has a soul. Because there’s beauty beyond reason. Because there are things that can’t be stifled. Listen to the bird. Find your song. Maybe it will tell you what you’re looking for.”

Wednesday

Revati looked annoyed when I knocked on his door, but that quickly turned to a mix of fear and curiosity when I showed him the bird I’d tucked inside my sports coat.

He stepped back, opened his door to let me in, and quietly bade me follow. I’d never visited him at home before. He rented a small room in a big house, and he didn’t speak as he led me up the stairs until he’d closed the door to his private quarters. A bed, a chair, a laptop. He sat on the bed. I took the chair.

“Can you read this?” I asked. “How long will it take?”

“Not long.”

The song that emerged was not particularly beautiful, if anything it was repetitive. But it was so unlike anything allowed in my world that I had him play it three more times. “’Twas the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree. ‘Twas the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”

What was the point? Except for the mention of Christmas, there was nothing overtly religious here. The singer, a woman, got a lot of silly presents over the course of twelve days, and seemed especially pleased with the rings she’d received. There were no exhortations to prayer, no calls to convert or destroy any infidels, no words about faith or any other forbidden ideas. It was strange, and I didn’t know what to make of it.

Revati looked just as stunned.

“I’ve heard of these,” he said. “They’re called ‘carols.’ People used to go door to door singing them at Christmas.”

“Why?”

“To get in the spirit of the season, I guess,” he shrugged.

It didn’t make any sense.

I picked up the bird.

“Don’t tell anyone I was here,” I said. “Delete any copies you’ve got of this file. Forget you ever heard this song. You may even want to forget we’ve ever met.”

“What are you going to do now?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

Thursday

It had been a hot day, but that night I shivered as I dreamt about cold snow, about pear trees and partridges and “maids-a-milking.” Then I dreamt of Santa Claus and Christmas carols, of hell and bloody war, of magic, of families ripped apart.

When I woke up, I knew what I had to do.

I put the bird in a paper bag and rushed to the Necklace Incident. The door was locked – the bar would no open for many hours – but I knocked hard and loud until I heard somebody moving inside.

“Phillip Muth,” I said, when he opened the door.

“That’s what they call me.”

“What kind of name is that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “The government gave it to me when I was taken into foster care. How the fuck did you learn my name?”

“A little bird told me your name,” I said.

That got his attention. He looked up and down the street, then let me in and locked the door behind me.

“You bought one of these at Rhino Repurposed, didn’t you?” I asked. “What’s going on? I’ve heard this song before, but I don’t know why. I can’t remember.”

“Which song is it?” he asked.

Almost as soon as I started singing he cut me off.

“Don’t. Please. It’s too painful,” he said. “My mother was singing that song the last time I saw her. It’s all I remember of her…”

“Is that what this is about?” I asked “Remembering believers?”

“It’s about remembering the culture of belief,” he said. “Every bird is another song. Christmas carols. Queranic verses. Hasidic folk songs. For centuries, sometimes millennia, people found comfort, community, solace and salvation in these songs. We’re trying to keep that from dying out.”

“We?”

“I don’t know who else is in the chain,” he whispered. “I buy get the birds at the junk shop, I listen and appreciate the music so that it is not lost. Then I put them in canvas sacks, tighten the knot, and pass them off to the next person in the chain. There are dozens of us. Hundreds, maybe. Some day the laws will change. People will want to believe. And we’ll come forward with the scraps of culture and music that we’ve preserved.”

I stood, quietly, and thought about what I’d heard.

“I think I arrested your parents,” I said. “My first big bust, 30 years ago. Santa Claus, a wife, two kids.”

A look of terror crossed his face.

“Are you here to arrest me?”

“No,” I said. “I’m done with that.”

“Do you know what happened to my parents? My family?”

“You’re dad’s still in prison, unless he’s dead,” I said. “I don’t know what happened to your mother.”

“And my sister?”

“I’m not certain,” I said. “Children’s records are sealed when they’re taken in by Protective Services. But I have a funny feeling.”

That night I finally filled out the HR paperwork Cindy had handed me eight days earlier. I was expected at the station in the morning for a final exit interview with my boss, and a round of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” with the other detectives. Then on to the next thing, whatever that might be.

Friday

I woke confused and troubled on my last day as a cop.

I thought about the silly Christmas carol, all the faithful I’d arrested, the subversive groups that seemed to threaten America with their prayers for freedom and for peace.

Meeting believers had not made me one. But perhaps hatred of religion, blind conviction that all faith was wrong, was as misguided as evil faith put to bad use. Perhaps there was room for a world with Santa Claus after all.

But today was not the day to say such things. Today I had to be feted by folks dedicated to imprisoning those who prayed, repelled by the thought of faith.  I had to pretend I’d never heard the vinyl bird sing.

And I had to talk to Orcinus about the tune I’d heard her hum, about her earliest memories, about a young cop who’d ripped her childhood apart three decades back. I had to tell her about her brother.

© 2012 Courtney Sherwood

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