Saturday, March 16, 2013

Serial Saturday: "Protective Custody", Part 9

            When Alex awoke the next morning to the chiming of his alarm, the sun was just beginning to peek around the corners of the building, almost all the heirlooms were safely stowed in the attic, and things were really looking up for him. As he progressed through his normal grooming routine, Alex pondered over the best way to present them to the couple. He finished getting dressed and looked at himself in the mirror.
            It had been more than a week already since Ted and Marlo first appeared; he was already growing accustomed to their intermittent presence in his daily life. Going to work, he admitted to himself, just would not be the same without them. He dimly wondered if their unfinished business was completed yet; he was certainly the better for their influence!
            He met Ted and Marlo at the front door.
            “Nice to see you looking so good, Alex,” Ted commented as the trio walked down the lane toward the police station.
            “I feel good today,” Alex replied with surprising energy.
            “Oh, did you have a nice date last night?” Marlo queried.
            The memories of the previous night caused the young man’s smile to dim. “Well…” he sighed, “I guess you could say that—in a way,” he admitted slowly.
            “What happened?” Marlo looked sorry that she’d brought it up, but confused as to why she should be.
            “I found out who she really was… and I dumped her.”
            “Oh, Alex!” As much as they disliked Adelaide and disapproved of Alex’s pursuit of her, Marlo was quick to sympathize with a severed relationship. Alex wondered how many guys fought over the rich Staten baby sister before she found Ted. “I’m so sorry,” she looked very much like she wanted to hug him, but they both knew it was not possible.
            Alex shrugged, “It’s okay; she was acting all strange last night anyway, and I would have just stopped seeing her over that, but then Daphne—“ He stopped.
            Ted was in his face, “Yes? Daphne?”
            “Never mind,” Alex muttered.
            Marlo giggled, “Oh, stop it, Ted, you’re making him blush!”
            “Marlo, honey, it’s his fault for going out with Daphne when he’d like us to think it’s Adelaide.”
            “I never went out with her!” Alex snapped.
            “Oh? Let me guess,” Ted persisted, “you just happen to bump into her all the time.” He rolled his eyes. Marlo chuckled.
            “It’s not serious!” Alex protested, but by this time, he was at the door of the station, and no further conversation was possible.
            Ted couldn’t resist one last jab, for Alex’s ears only. “You know, there’s no reason why it has to be. Why wouldn’t you get serious with a girl like Daphne, instead of chasing miniskirts like you always do?”
            Alex ignored him and greeted Marnie. “Hey, Marnie, how’s it going?”
            Marnie grinned at him, “Aw, it’s going great, Alex; how about yourself?”
            Alex checked his stack of the day’s cases, noting that they were varied, but kept in fairly decent vicinity of one another. “Well, it’s a lot different than I have been in the past, but I have to admit, I kind of like it.”
            He left on his beat right away, performing his duties like any decent cop—like a cop who actually cared about doing his job right. He noticed that the Brendons didn’t seem to talk much, except Marlo. She chatted endlessly about the different perpetrators he arrested or the accidents they saw, but it was all directed to Ted, not to Alex.
            Still, that didn’t bother him; he was almost glad that they didn’t talk to him much, because he couldn’t seem to shake off the last comment Ted had made about Daphne. In fact, Alex found himself thinking about Daphne more that day than he had ever before. He thanked the fates that Ted and Marlo couldn’t read his mind; he did not want help sorting out these thoughts! For once, she never appeared on any of his routes, but for Alex this was almost worse than thinking about her and then seeing her, because the more he didn’t see her, the more his mind ran wild with memories and thoughts about her. He had never met a girl quite so intriguing. He’d had two conversations with her, and she’d told him more about herself than any previous girlfriend had in a month of dates. Yet still there was so much he didn’t know about her. Did he want to know more about her? Why did he want to know? Would she ever tell him, or would he end up with someone completely different, and she would always be the “really good friend”? Alex shook his head as Marlo was making comments about the fashion sported by the delinquent in the back seat. Their hints and comments had already got him thinking about Daphne as a friend. He didn’t even know her full name, much less where she lived or how to contact her, for crying out loud!
            He returned to the station in time to fill out the paperwork before his shift ended, but no sooner had he reached his desk than Captain Prosser’s grating voice boomed out, “DAVIS! In my office, now!”
            Instantly, everything Alex had done that day—in fact, everything he’d done in the past year—flashed through his mind as he thought about the corner-cutting, the lack of follow-through, the “choosiness”… in short, every time he had failed. Perhaps it was his past choices now catching up to him; he’d had his “playtime”, here came the consequences. Fighting the shaky feeling in his hands and the weak feeling in his knees, Alex approached the foreboding orifice. He noticed that Ted and Marlo didn’t enter with him; he’d have to face the music alone.

            Sure enough, Chief Prosser sat at his desk, the familiar frown on his face as he looked over some papers. He did not lift his eyes from the paper.
            “Sit down, Davis,” he ordered gruffly.
            Alex took his seat, but his gut lodged in his throat while his heart sank down through the floor. He’d seen this happen from afar. Prosser, sitting at his desk, viewing some papers; the subject sits down, and Prosser pounces, shouting and spitting at the subject until they scurry from the office and out of the station, completely cowed. Alex braced himself for the shouting.

            “How long have you been on the force, Davis?”
            Alex was so worried about what he thought was coming that he almost completely missed the question. “Sir?” he asked.
            “I asked you how long you’ve been here, officer,” Prosser laid the paper down and clasped his hands. Alex had no idea of his expression because he dare not look the Chief in the face.
            “Um, about s-seven years, sir,” Alex responded.
            “How many calls would you say you have taken in that time?”
            Alex blinked; he never kept record of how many calls he took; he knew Barelli kept a running tally, but certainly Alex never thought of doing the same! “I don’t know how I could keep track, sir,” he replied honestly.
            “Of course you do, you just never have,” Prosser scoffed. “I had Marnie pull the records for your patrol car over the last six months,” he stated, shifting the documents and pulling up the one in question. He turned it around and pushed it toward Alex. “Would you mind explaining this to me, officer?”
            Alex glanced over the page. The six months previous showed a steady, low volume of reports going in and out; he remembered when he developed the trick of hanging out at locations for extra time, and not reporting in till he felt like it, so the dispatcher would think that he had actually taken that long to deal with the issue.
            All that changed within the last two weeks, showing continuous report-ins, and a high volume of calls taken. He had driven more in the last two weeks than he had in the last three months combined.
            “Would ya look at that!” Alex squelched the urge to jump as Marlo’s voice breathed in his ear. The Brendons were standing on either side of him now, gazing at the chart. Alex shook his head; how was he going to explain to Prosser that the sudden change had come about because of two ghosts from a certain call he didn’t take?
            Prosser was still waiting for an answer. “Well?”
            “Sir, I, uh,” Alex tried to be as coherent as possible, without seeming dishonest, “I guess you could say that I sort of woke up one weekend and decided that I wasn’t happy with my life, and I wanted to change it.”
            Prosser blinked; he’d never had a lackadaisical cop turn around this fast, and with no sign at all of any ulterior motive nor evidence that said that as soon as he got what he wanted he’d go back to the way he was. Once a lazy cop, always a lazy cop—but there was Alex.
            The gruff police chief cleared his throat and pushed some more documents around. “I’ve gotten a few e-mails in the last week, Davis…about you.”
            Alex gulped, “Me, sir?”
            “Are you a parrot?” Chief Prosser snapped. “Yes, of course, you. This one’s from Officer Derby, who I’m promoting to Sergeant at the end of the month: ‘Alex Davis has always been like a son to me; I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but lately I’ve seen that son grow into his own man. If you’re considering anyone for promotion, I think it should be him.’
            Alex glowed at the praise from his mentor.
            Prosser picked up another paper, “Here’s one from Marnie: ‘I was thinking about quitting a few weeks ago, sir. I had no satisfaction in my job, and I felt taken for granted by everyone, just another potted plant in the lobby. Alex Davis changed all that when he turned and told me Good Morning. He’s greeted me like a real person ever since, and made me feel like my job is worthwhile. I wouldn’t be here without him!’”
            Prosser set the paper down as Alex squirmed; he’d never received such praise from anyone before. He’d gotten by with just doing the minimal, exactly what everyone expected of him. Prosser stared at him; Alex felt his whole face burn. He bent his head in an attempt to hide the flaming-red color without being rude.
            “Those were two e-mails I wasn’t surprised to get, not after seeing your records. This morning I received a third e-mail, from the last person I ever expected to recommend you.” He picked up a third paper and read,
            “Dear Chief Prosser—Three months ago, you couldn’t have paid me to write this letter. One month ago, this note probably would have said the complete opposite of what I’m saying now. In fact, I don’t know why I’m writing this now, but I want to send it off before this mood leaves me and I end up deleting it.
            “I’ve never said this before, but Alex Davis is a really good kid. Sure he’s a world-class idiot sometimes, and he’s a total jerk the rest of the time, but lately I think I’ve seen a side of him that I never expected. He’s shown us on the force what he’s capable of in the last week. I think he should be given a better chance of getting the respect that his abilities deserve. He should be promoted. There, I’ve said it.
-Lt. BreeAnna Munroe”
            Alex’s head swam. Bree Munroe had actually written to Captain Prosser about his promotion? Was the world coming to an end so soon?
            Prosser didn’t say anything for a long time. He merely watched the sweating officer closely. Alex wished he could know what was going on in the stoic Chief’s mind.
            Chief Prosser’s face was a blank mask. His piercing gaze practically nailed Alex to the chair.
            Slowly, the Chief of Police leaned forward and clasped his hands.
            “I have to say, Davis,” he began slowly, “When you first joined the force, I thought you were one of those punks who just wanted to carry a badge and a gun to impress the ladies. I figured that once the going got tough, you would back down, give up, and you’d be the grunt of the force until you quit or got fired.”
            Alex felt a small part of him want to curl up in a deep hole under the earth and never emerge; this was exactly his reasoning behind becoming a cop: because it made for a really cool day-job. Evidently Captain Prosser had seen that from the beginning, and kept him on anyway.
            Prosser continued, “Now, the Mayor has notified me that there’s room in the budget for some promotions, and he told me to select the ones most worth the upgrade. I’m going to send him the list tonight…and your name will be on it.”
            Alex furtively reached under himself and grabbed his chair to keep from leaping out of it in excitement. “Thank you, sir,” was all he could trust himself to say.
            Prosser’s irritable mood returned and he waved his hand impatiently. “Get outta my office. See Marnie about getting a braid for that hat of yours before you leave. Congratulations, kid; you’ve earned it.”
            Alex didn’t remember his feet ever touching the ground as he moved out of the office, past Marnie’s desk, and out of the station. He didn’t doubt Ted and Marlo had to carry him. His senses did not return until he was standing on the sidewalk outside the police station. He barely heard their farewells as they honored the agreement and left him alone for his free time.
            He might have been standing there for most of the night if someone walking by had not saluted him, “Good evening, Officer Davis!”
            Alex blinked; who—A young woman smirked as she walked around him. He turned to follow her.
            “Hey,” he said.
            Daphne stopped under a street light and smiled. “I seem to recall that’s the first word you said to get my attention when we first met.”
            Alex dimly remembered that night; he shook his head. “Oh yeah, that; I don’t think that counts as an official meeting.”
            Daphne tilted her head, “We talked,” she countered.
            “I didn’t even ask your name.”
            “But you wanted to know if I was okay.”
            “Force of habit; it comes with the job.”
            Daphne laughed and twisted a lock of hair around her fingers. “Well, okay then; I’ll see you later.”
            She turned to leave, but Alex reacted on a gut impulse and stepped after her again.
            “Hey, um,” he wasn’t quite sure what to say when she turned to look at him. “Are you—uh, have you had—I mean—“ Where were the coy pick-up lines that always came with girls he knew had heard them all before? With them, he knew that they would know how to respond to any invitation; with Daphne, he couldn’t be so sure, especially with the way she’d suddenly turned sour on him the night before. He felt his cheeks flame brightly, and he decided to forgo proper grammar for the sake of getting his point across.
“Dinner?” he asked.
Daphne laughed; it sounded so much more wholesome than the high-pitched titter Adelaide favored. “Sure, I’d like that, I haven’t eaten yet; I was just about to stop by the taco wagon on my way home.”
Alex sighed with relief, “Here, I’ll get us a cab and we can go someplace downtown.” He escorted her to the main road to do just that.

Alex took Daphne to the Casa Romero, a Mexican restaurant he had frequented with his family.
“My sisters would always get these little one-dish things,” he mentioned to Daphne as they sat in a booth next to the window at the front of the building, “but Dad and us guys would go for the big plates, the two-hand burritos. Their enchilada sauce is awesome.”

Though the restaurant was not as upscale as the ones he’d gone to with Adelaide, Alex found that time actually flew as he and Daphne chatted away over spicy enchiladas and a sizzling pan of fajitas.
“So, Daphne,” Alex busily hacked another bite off the mammoth enchilada, careful to get plenty of chicken inside the tortilla, “I saw the other day that your bracelet has your initials on it; what’s your last name?”
Daphne chuckled, “Oh yeah, that’s right; isn’t the name the first thing you get off a girl, along with her number? I guess you don’t have anything but my first name.” she stabbed a few peppers and onions and deftly rolled them in the tortilla. “It’s Phillips,” she answered casually, focusing intently on her work, “Daphne Phillips.”
Alex nodded; he’d only gotten a glimpse of the spidery cursive engraving, and it wasn’t enough to discern whether the last letter had been a “P”, a “B”, or an “R.” He was glad she replied to his question so he would not have to admit that detail.

Alex felt like they’d only been at the restaurant for twenty minutes when Daphne glanced at her watch.
“Oh man,” she gasped, “It’s ten o’clock. I should get home.”
Alex stood to his feet immediately, “Oh, of course.” He waited for Daphne to walk past him out toward the front of the restaurant. The aisle was narrow, forcing them to do an awkward sort of dance to get past each other. Alex tried to carry the conversation to ease some of the tension. “This was fun, um, I mean, I had a good time tonight.”
Daphne smiled at him, “Yeah, me too; we should do it again sometime.”
Alex paid for their meal and the two of them walked out to the sidewalk to find another cab. One pulled up, but just at that moment, Alex glanced across the street and saw that they were very near an alley he remembered Chad Andrews’ fence mentioning, between the bowling alley and the gas station. He never realized how close it was to this restaurant, nor even that it was on this side of town.
Daphne was already in the cab, waiting for him. “You coming in?” she asked.
Alex couldn’t take his eyes off the shadowy alley, “No,” he said, “I think—I need to check something. I’ll see you later, Daphne.”
“All right; have a good night.”
“Thanks, you too.”

The minute the cab pulled away, Alex dashed to the crosswalk and darted across the street. There was a small out-building attached to the side of the bowling alley. Alex knocked on the door.
“It’s open!” a gruff voice barked.
Alex pushed open the weathered metal door and stepped inside. The room was small, mostly illuminated by black-light, and crowded with metal merchandise, mostly jewelry. Alex knew there were only a few items left on his list, but he followed a system he’d used on other stores and found very effective.
He pulled out a mug shot of Chad Andrews, “Do you know this guy?” he asked the frowning, scruffy man behind the counter.
The man gazed over the rims of his glasses at the photo, and pensively scratched his paunch with gnarled fingers.
“Yeah, been here a couple times; haven’t seen him lately, though,” the eyes darted up to Alex’s face suspiciously.
“I’m not here to make trouble,” Alex promised, “I just want to know: did he sell you anything?”
Another glance; another scratch. “Yeah; small fry. Just one piece.”
Alex felt his heartbeat quicken. “What piece would that be?”
The man pushed away from the counter and turned his back on the young man. Alex worried that he might have blown his last chance to finish reclaiming the heirloom, but the burly man soon turned back, holding a tiny box in his large hands.
“Just this,” he said, opening it and pushing it toward Alex, “A ring.”
A shock like electricity coursed through Alex’s hands as he picked up the ring. He had not previously seen any of the other heirlooms, but he had definitely seen this one before! It was Marlo’s wedding ring; her ghostly form still wore it!
He fought to keep his voice steady as he asked, “How much?”
The man glanced at him; Alex knew he was getting the once-over. Finally, the man crossed his arms and pushed his glasses up his nose. “One-fifty,” he rumbled.
Alex shook his head. “Seventy-five.”
The man leaned his paunch and both hands on the counter. “One-twenty.”
Alex adopted the same stance, sans the overextended belly, “Eighty.”
“That’s real gold, a real stone,” the man insisted, “I ain’t going lower than hunnert, take it or leave it.”
Alex shook his head and pulled out his checkbook. Chad had probably sold him the trinket for something like eighty dollars, but he would rather spend the money than risk losing the ring. “Fine, one hundred it is,” he responded.
The man replaced the ring and closed the box. He sneered at Alex. “Want a bag for that?”
Alex knew perfectly well there was no bag in the store. “Nah, I can carry it.” He turned around and left the room.

Alex arrived in his apartment, but he didn’t go straight to the attic just yet. In fact, the more he looked at the ring, sparkling so innocently in its box, the more he remembered the way Marlo would constantly be twisting it and playing with it, and the less he liked the idea of just dropping the box somewhere amid the jumble of heirlooms already in the attic. Something this small wasn’t meant to sit in a storage crate.

Ted’s jibe from that morning returned to him.
“Why not Daphne?”
Alex thought about the date he’d just left, the casual congeniality of Daphne—the way she rarely talked about her family. When they had been sharing personal stories over dinner, he’d rambled on an on about how one time his older brother and sister did such-and-such, or how his sisters always liked to go here or there, or his brothers’ favorite activities. Daphne had laughed and engaged in his family—but she never volunteered any tidbits about her own. Could it be that she didn’t have a family?
“Why was she going to all those pawnshops, then?” Alex asked aloud. This Daphne sure had a lot of mystery surrounding her.
In spite of all the unanswered details, Alex knew one thing was certain as he looked at the small, delicate ring between his fingers. He hadn’t given it much thought over the last few years, but with the promotion coming, Alex keenly felt the weight of responsibility on him, and he found within himself a new resolve. Daphne may not have been his best date ever, nor was she the prettiest girl he ever dated, but if he could spend the rest of his life with a girl like her—if not Daphne herself—by his side, he would be happy to the end of his days. What was more, he would appreciate the opportunity to be her especial protector, not just as a cop, but also as a husband.
He put the ring back in the box and tucked it in the back corner of the drawer of his bedside table. It looked sort of funny, seeing a ring box next to his Glock pistol and badge. Alex grinned as he lay back in bed and turned out the light.
Wouldn’t that be a nice surprise for Ted and Marlo Brendon, to see their young protégé finally taking his last steps to maturity after almost two weeks of intensive monitoring?

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