The first police force in Little Aleppo was made up of criminals. The Town Fathers, all of whom had mustaches and hats, figured that no one knew crime better; besides, when the Town Fathers asked the criminals, all of them promised–put their hands on the Bible and swore–to take their jobs seriously and fight the scourge of lawlessness that had plagued the neighborhood (that they had caused). The Town Mothers universally thought this was a boneheaded idea, but no one asked them, and–as is so often the case in Little Aleppo–the exact thing everyone thought would happen, happened.
Little Aleppians take a dim view of most authority figures, in that they view most authority figures to be dim. The local slang for cops was “bulls,” and that sobriquet was not borrowed form the British. A bullfighter didn’t actually fight the bull. You can’t fight a bull. What bullfighters do is dodge the bull until it gets tired and quits. This is not to say that census takers sent into the neighborhood were not occasionally eaten, but for the most part the residents of Little Aleppo relied on the the three D’s when interacting with The Man: distraction, discombobulation, and dummying up.
Dummying up was a proud tradition in Little Aleppo, where no one had ever seen anything, unless he was part of an insurance scam, in which case he could describe the entire incident in detail, and possibly draw diagrams if that would help move the case along any faster. A cop had once attempted to play Peek-A-Boo with a baby.
“Peekaboo! I see you!” the officer said, removing his hands from over his eyes.
“Okay, whatever,” the baby replied. “You see what you see. I don’t see nothing.”
People were so impressed by that baby that she was elected mayor the next year
Discombobulation was fun, but it was like spinning plates in the air: tiring, and you only had to fuck up once to ruin the whole act. Some people enjoyed denying that they spoke in English, in English. “Pretending not to know English” is the number one reason for taking the Urdu classes offered by the Learning Belfry. A few weirdos carried around ventriloquist’s dummies just so they could harangue cops from two directions, but that never caught on, as it was collectively understood that the only thing less dignified than running from the cops was walking around all day with your hand up a puppet’s ass.
Sometimes, though, you just had to run from the cops, and for that you needed a head start, and that requires a distraction. A popular method in the fifties was pointing while yelling “Look! Communism!” and then hightailing it, but that rarely worked nowadays. Luckily for the miscreants, Little Allepians looked out for each other (when they weren’t scamming one another or having block wars), and someone would notice your plight and toss a garbage can through a window, or fire a couple rounds into the sidewalk.
(Shooting a gun into the air in Little Aleppo was one of the few things guaranteed to get your ass kicked, and swiftly. Bullets come down. When locals felt the need to squeeze off a round or two in public–and they regularly did–they aimed at the ground. I cannot lie: foot injuries were common.)
If things got hot, if someone was up against the wall and the cuffs were about to go on, then you’d hear a whistle go up the street, starting down low and ending three ocatves above, woooooPHWEEEEEEE, and then Spider-Pooper would save the day. A cop could have Jack The Ripper in his grasp, but if a naked guy in a Spider-Man mask takes a shit in the middle of the street, then the cop is going to redirect his attention. Most of the time, Spider-Pooper was a guy named Leslie Westerbrook who owned the sock rental shop, but when he heard the call–even if he was in the middle of a fitting–then he would pitch in. Leslie loved his neighborhood, and figured that sometimes you had to take a shit for the team.
There was very little actual violence between the cops and the residents. Little Aleppians play dumb, but they’re not stupid; no one’s ever won a fight with a cop. You might take a round, but not the match, and the decision would always go to the judges. If you made it to a judge. In the old days, you wouldn’t.
For some reason, Mr. Venable had the original charters for the LAPD, No, Not That One. (That was the office name of the force, due to a lawsuit from the far more well-funded Los Angeles Police Department. A bearded and charismatic young vice cop once asked why not just change the name to PDLA, and that young vice cop was named Officer Serpico, and things got very dramatic for him.) Mr. Venable wondered why there were important legal documents in a box in his basement, and thought about bringing them to Town Hall, but quickly decided that the government was not to be trusted with legal documents.
The first station, he noted, was on Peel Street, and the first batch of police officers, as mentioned before, was drawn entirely from the criminal underclass of Little Aleppo, and that was–and is–a robustly Darwinian group. If there were an Olympics for criminals, then Little Aleppo’s team would steal all the medals. Crime is simply more difficult there, as Little Aleppians are terrible victims: they see you coming, and they have several knives, and almost everyone has installed at least one mantrap in their apartments. More intellectual villains do no better: a good half of all scams initiated in the neighborhood end with the con-man getting fleeced.
Mr. Venable played a favorite game of his, and closed his eyes and guessed at what would happen next, and the next yellowing copies of The Cenotaph he pulled from the box proved him right. Initially, locals were thrilled, as crime had decreased by 100%. Almost immediately, of course, everyone realized that only the reported crime had decreased 100%, and that what the Town Fathers had done was arm the criminals and buy them a clubhouse. The firemen came to the rescue, however, by not existing and therefore not responding when the neighborhood burned down the station with all the crooked cops inside.
After everyone told the insurance adjusters what happened (in oddly similar words), the station was rebuilt and new cops hired. These new recruits were stalwarts in the law and dedicated to justice and believers in fair play and only kidding they were just as rotten as the last batch, but they weren’t as blatant about it. Those were the days of graft and extortion: you were allowed to do almost whatever you want, but the cops had to get their ten percent. Sometimes you could negotiate the fee, but other times the cops would hit you with a stick and demand twenty percent, so most folks stood pat at ten.
(Graft was far more prevalent in Little Aleppo than in more respectable places. The traditional payers of graft are illegal businesses, but every business in the neighborhood was at least a little bit illegal. The only thing Little Aleppians are better at than not reporting things to the cops is not reporting things to the IRS. No one much minded: cops are paid with taxes, and since paying those was out of the question, you might as well just pay the cops directly. Gotta pay someone.)
Nothing lasts forever, Mr. Venable thought, except perhaps Tolstoy, and by and by it became unacceptable for the police to send a rookie up and down the street with a slowly-filling sack. Professionalism, he noted; from the Latin: the death of fun. And militarization, which is also from the Latin: the death of the guy over there.
The cops seemed very young lately; the ones Mr. Venable knew well had retired, or gone rogue. Flanagan, O’Sullivan, Kelly, McPotato: no longer on the beat. They were earnest and looked like they could not grow beards, and almost all of them had the audacity to not be Irish.
“To the traditionalist, the dawn is an insult,” Mr. Venable said to the young man with the shaved head and the gun who had just entered the bookstore with no title.
“What now?” said Officer Romeo Rodriguez, who was walking his very first beat in Little Aleppo. He was tall and skinny and God help us all he was still wearing the massive square eyeglasses he had been issued on Parris Island. For a second, Mr. Venable considered stealing his wallet himself, just to save the kid from an actual thief.
Officer Rodriguez was popular in grade school, partially because he would always be the cop when the kids played Cops & Robbers. Plastic badges and cap guns and matchbox cruisers: he was easy to buy Christmas presents for. He had good grades, and an exemplary service record, and C——–a City hired him off his first application.
What he didn’t have, unfortunately, were any connections. A captain’s kid could get assigned to Taker Heights or Gated Gates or Smooth Harbour, but if you didn’t know anybody, then you went where you got sent. Little Aleppo was not the worst posting in the force–someone had to sit in the Dunk A Cop tank at the carnival every summer–but it was not glamorous and it was more than a little weird: no other assignment required sitting through a training video called What To Do When The Turtlemonsters Come Back. Officer Rodriguez did not think it was a good sign that the title contained the word “when” instead of “if.”
For two weeks before his first shift, Officer Rodriguez had walked Little Aleppo, from the Salt Wharf to Boone’s Docks, and down to Paul Bunyan High School (Go Blue Oxen!) which was built on the site of the first police station where all those criminals in uniform burned; due to this fact, the school is haunted as fuck: the volleyball team had three possessions this season alone. He went to Valley Point, and was very confused as to what his view might be from there. All of the ignored geniuses and problem children in the Morning Tavern made him for a cop the second he walked in, but they were nice about it. Everybody’s got something wrong with them, they all figured. Creepy Ernie measured his inseam. He got to know the neighborhood.
When Officer Rodriguez smiled, he only did it with the left side of his mouth, but he simultaneously displayed a deep dimple in his right cheek, and all the whores down on Eighth Avenue found that appealing, and when they learned his first name was Romeo, then the deal was done; he was offered many freebies, which he refused politely, and even blushed a little bit.
The LAPD, No, Not That One had many specialties–the specialest, as a matter of fact–but first you walked the street. There was no undercover department any more: Little Aleppo just wasn’t that big a place, and everyone knew what all the cops looked like. The police have their pride, too, and you only get psyched up for a deep cover operation so many times to have it end in ten seconds when the the suspect says, “Stan, we all know it’s you.” The criminals were laughing at them. No more undercover work.
But there was the Airborne unit, which had a hot-air balloon and could only respond to crimes occurring in the direction of the wind. One of the prize assignments was Bell Lake, in the middle of the Verdance; it was both easy and relaxing to keep a lake free of crime, plus there was a guy with a cart full of Italian ices right there, the kind in the paper cup with the paddle-shaped wooden spoon. If you wanted action, you could join the S.W.A.T team. (Strategic Weaponry Against Turtlemonsters.) That was for the veterans. Rookies walked the beat for a couple of years.
Before stopping in the bookstore with no title to meet Mr. Venable, Officer Rodriguez had walked up and back Main Drag showing his face, with its warped smile and incorrectly-placed dimple and regrettable glasses. He had met a lot of people so far, but not in his uniform, and he wanted to present himself officially. Many of the shopkeepers acted as if they had never met him before, which he credited to the change in clothes, but can also be ascribed to the reflexive lying that Little Aleppians do when they talk to cops.
Everyone was very nice to him, though. Had Officer Rodriguez been a bit more scruffed up by the world, he might have attached “suspiciously” to the beginning of the word “nice,” but he tried to assume the best of people. He got a free coffee at Java’s, and a smoothie on the house from Guava’s, and he tossed the latter cup in the trash before he opened the door to the bookstore, which made a little bell go TINKadink.
“To the traditionalist, the dawn is an insult.”
“What?” he said to the uncombed lump behind the book-conquered desk on a raised platform on the left side of the store. He said his name was Mr. Venable, and when Officer Rodriguez asked if he had a first name, Mr. Venable said, “Of course I do,” and then started talking about something else. They talked about cop books–Ed McBain and Joseph Wambuagh and Moses Wendler–and then he asked Mr. Venable if was aware that several of the volumes on the shelf were glowing, to which he replied, “Of course I am,” and then said that the store was closing and to get out.
Two more stores and then an Italian ice, he thought, and went into the sock rental place run by a guy named Leslie Westerbrook, where there was a young man with a shaved head and a gun, who was so surprised to see a cop walk into the store he was robbing that he shot Officer Rodriguez in the head.
That night, the Main Drag swelled and the Salt Wharf emptied, no freight accepted. Leslie Westerboork knew that Officer Rodriguez’ glasses were evidence, but they had slid under the counter and the cops investigating the scene had not found them; the right arm had broken off. Leslie put them in the window of the sock rental and it was not long before all of Little Aleppo turned up. People would walk through the crowd, everyone was polite and quiet, and put a token on the sidewalk–flowers, a few counterfeit pennies–and then they’d fade back into the crowd and though the Main Drag was wide and there was room, people stood so that their shoulders touched, to a friend or a stranger. We are at our most human when we are together; we are most savage alone.
Later that night, when he saw that the crowd had thinned, Mr. Venable opened the bottom drawer of his desk, where he kept the black tie he wore to funerals. It was still knotted, and he slipped it over his head, and tried to comb his hair with his hands. As he walked around his desk, he picked up a paperback copy of Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man by Ed McBain. Officer Rodriguez had named that one as his favorite of the 87th Precinct books, and Mr. Venable noted that it was an odd choice. The bad guy gets away.
Mr. Venable slipped the book into the waist pocket of his black jacket and fidgeted with his tie, and then he cursed God, and then he tried to comb his hair with his hands again. The door went TINKadink as he left, and he thought that maybe if he got a stronger lock, then he could cage all the unhappy endings, shut them up in the bookstore with no title, and then he could burn it down with all them inside.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the windowpane, but pretended that he didn’t, and then he turned up his collar against the chill and walked the beat on the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America