The Plot to Blow Up Reason (Part 5)
"Chris was contemplating this question, wrist-deep in meat, when the doorbell rang."
You’re reading Dog Jail, a fiction newsletter about cops, ghosts, and the humanimal inside us all. This is Part 5 of The Plot to Blow Up Reason, a serialized novel. Read previous chapters on this page or subscribe to Dog Jail here.
8: THE SECRET PROMOTION
Even after finding what felt like a stable career, Officer Chris Hernandez had resisted moving out of the house on Columbia Court, the ranch-style two-bedroom where Gloria had raised him. It's true, their home had become cramped for two adults. Gloria, raising a child by herself on a receptionist's salary, was reluctant to throw anything away, packing the garage, half of her bedroom, and growing portions of the living room and kitchen with junk. But if Chris were to get his own place, it would just mean an extra half-hour driving to and from Columbia Court to cook Mom dinner every night.
To make room for the ground beef he needed to season, Chris moved a stack of crossword books (completed, but not discarded) from the kitchen counter onto the floor. Tonight, Chris was making meatloaf for three, with Gloria's long-time boyfriend making the house feel even smaller than usual. Chris needed to focus, something Todd wasn't making easy.
"Meatloaf, eh?" said Todd, who was watching basketball with Chris's mom on the couch. "Doesn't that remind you a bit too much of work? Like the homeless guy's head you probably smashed in today?"
"You don't have to eat it," said Chris. "If you wanted to just go, I wouldn't be mad."
"Don't start, you two," said Gloria. "We all know what a hard time Chris is having at work right now. Be nice."
Gloria blamed many of Chris's difficulties on the lack of male role model in his life, an observation she felt the need to share with her son regularly. Ten years ago, she had presented Todd as a solution to this problem. But as well as Gloria and Todd got along, her boyfriend and her son had always been a poor fit. In Todd, Chris only saw an ex-hippie whose primary activism seemed to be a sense of smug superiority. To Todd, Chris was the overgrown teenager who needed to stop causing his mother grief and let her get on with her life. Oh, and how happy had Todd been when Chris signed up with the police? Yet another subject he could use to elevate himself over Chris by doing nothing at all.
"Hey, I'm just trying to make conversation," said Todd, "talk to your son about something he's passionate about: the systematic use of state violence against the impoverished and mentally ill."
"Look at my face, Todd," said Gloria. "I'm making my upset face. It might get stuck that way if you don't cut it out."
"Alright, alright," said Todd. "Jesus, Glor, I'm just kidding around."
"Yeah, you got plenty of time for that," said Chris, mashing chopped onions into the beef. "I sure wish I could sit around, kidding, watching other people's cable and eating other people's food."
"Oh, Chris, please, this is my house and I invited Todd over. That makes him our guest. Now, would our guest like anything to drink?"
"I wouldn't say no to a beer." Todd slapped both of his knees and stood up. "I'll get it myself. Is that okay, officer? You're not going to Tase me, right, if I get up and get myself a beer?"
“Is that okay, officer? You're not going to Tase me, right, if I get up and get myself a beer?”
Chris decided to be the bigger man and just drop it. There was no winning with Todd, nothing Chris could say that would pierce the thick armor of self-regard he wore everywhere. A lot of older guys seemed to be like that — whether they had gone to school for something or not, worked their whole lives or been bums — incapable of doubting themselves. Was it a generational thing, he wondered. That wasn't how Chris felt, that's for sure. Then again, there were a lot of ways Chris was different, even from people his own age. Maybe he was the one who was weird for the uncertainty he struggled day and night to keep under control.
Chris was contemplating this question, wrist-deep in meat, when the doorbell rang. "Uh oh," said Todd, closing the fridge. "It sounds like your son called in backup."
For once, Todd was almost right. On her doorstep, Gloria found the usually genial Chief Wyatt looking grave (and a bit underdressed for the weather).
"Good evening, Mrs. Hernandez," said the police chief. "Sorry for dropping by so late, I hope I'm not interrupting anything."
"No need to be so formal, come in, come in." Gloria stepped aside and waved Chief Wyatt into her home. "And it's Miss Peters — me and Chris' dad never married — but 'Gloria' is fine."
"Heh, sorry. Force of habit, I guess. Is Chris around? I need to talk to him. Privately, you understand."
Todd cracked a beer and patted Chris on the back. He shook his head. "You hear that, kid? Maybe this whole cop thing wasn't for you after all." Somehow, when it came from Todd, sympathy felt about the same as disdain.
Chris Hernandez led his boss to his childhood bedroom to learn what future, if any, he had in law enforcement. It only made sense to give Chief Wyatt the desk chair while he sat on the twin bed (which he had really been meaning to replace with something more adult). Laundry day, however, meant that Chris would have to hear the news while sitting on the hip-hop Bugs Bunny blanket he got from Santa on Christmas Day, 1998.
"Look, Chris, you're not fired," said Chief Wyatt. "I want you to know that straight off. But for the sake of, um, informational security, we need to make it look like you're not a police officer for a while. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," Chris lied.
"Good, good. Because, well, it's a bit complicated, the situation. This is a 'need to know' sort of thing and there are very, very few people who do. For the sake of simplicity, let's keep this between me and you. A special project you and your friend Robert are working on — but for the sake of everyone. Real important, get it?"
"Of course." Chris smiled. He liked the sound of "friend." "Anything you need me to do, sir, I'll be proud to wear the uniform."
Chief Wyatt leaned forward and narrowed his eyes, making the face of man trying to read a restaurant menu in another language. It was a look Chris had seen a lot in his life. "Well, you won't be, that's what I'm trying to tell you, son. Wearing your uniform, that is. You won't be a cop."
"But I'll still be working for you?"
Despite his varied work history, most of what Chris knew about employment still came from what he had seen on TV. He remembered an old show about a rich, Bruce Wayne-type who fought crime in secret with the help of his closest companion, an Asian guy who worked in his house. "So... like as your butler or something?"
"My, what?" Chief Wyatt rubbed his forehead. "Let's, let's try this again. Chris, I'm putting you on indefinite administrative leave. That means you'll have to return all department equipment — everything. On the books, this will be so we can assess your fitness as an officer in light of recent reprimands. Off the books, you'll be working on a special assignment for me. You can think of it as deep undercover, it that helps."
To the relief of both of them, it did. "Oh wow," said Chris. "A covert mission. So almost like a promotion."
"Sure, you could say that. A kind of, uh, secret promotion where your pay is the same and everyone thinks you're about to be dismissed for incompetence. Now, if we're on the same page on this, I want you to listen to the next part very, very carefully." Chief Wyatt lowered his already deep voice to a rumble. "Tell me, Chris, what do you know about extremism?"
“Oh wow,” said Chris. “A covert mission. So almost like a promotion."
After a few more false starts, Chief Wyatt managed to explain the situation in a way Chris could understand. Thinking about the bomb threat itself disturbed him deeply. It was hard to imagine there were people like that out there in Reason, trying to tear down what everyone else had built up. But if he was being honest about it, this new assignment — as confusing as it was — sounded pretty nice.
For years now, Chris had been pretending to be cop, not always successfully. Maybe pretending to be something else for a while would be the break he needed. Even better, the Chief seemed to have no idea what one of these terrorists Chris would be impersonating looked like. When your boss wasn't sure what you were supposed to be doing, Chris had learned, it took a lot longer to fail.
"While we're working on this project together, you're going to have more independence than you might be used to, but that doesn't mean you'll be alone. Here," said Chief Wyatt, handing Chris a cell phone and charger from inside his denim jacket, "I want you to call me on this twice a week. My personal number is already saved in there."
"Will do," said Chris. His personal number. No one he'd worked for had ever given Chris that. "I'll get right on this. Um, if it were you, though, sir, how might you start getting on this?"
"Well, the first step is going to be recruitment. To become one of these people, first you'll need to find out where they, uh, congregate and then invite them to join you. Do you think you can do that?"
"You can count on me, sir." Chris jerked his chin toward the Garfield alarm clock sitting on his nightstand. "I got that in the seventh grade for selling the most magazine subscriptions at school." Technically, Chris had traded Mikey Fischer a copy of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 for the prize, but the chief didn't need to know everything.
"You got the — what now?"
"The clock, sir," said Chris. He was glad to finally discuss a subject he had some expertise on. "The one shaped like the cartoon cat Garfield. Loves lasagna, hates Mondays. He's very popular."
“To become one of these people, first you'll need to find out where they, uh, congregate and then invite them to join you. Do you think you can do that?”
"Ah, yes, I see. Well, you should be prepared for something a bit more challenging than selling magazines. We've discussed this at a leadership level and believe this special assignment is our best bet. For identifying the individuals behind the threat, understand? What I'm saying is a lot of people could get hurt, should you not succeed. We're all," the chief paused, making a face like his own words surprised him, "depending on you."
"I won't let you down, Chief. I promise." Chris reached forward to shake Chief Wyatt's hand. The chair, however, was too far away from the bed for their hands to meet. Thinking quickly, Chris stretched out his other arm and gave the chief a double thumbs up. Chief Wyatt didn't seem to notice. He was tugging on his mustache and looking at the ceiling fan.
"Good, good. Very good. And I don't think I need to say this, Chris, but your performance here will determine how we proceed with your employment status, post-leave."
"Your job, son,” said Chief Wyatt. “You find the bad guys or you're done."