Black & Blue
Our new target was local. Considering he was responsible for dispatching close to a dozen of us, motivation was not in short supply. Nor wrath and fury, though we tried to keep our emotions in check, focusing instead on our endgame: we had to avoid scaring Sgt. Robert Ray to death. We didn’t want any heart attacks, strokes, or accidents, and while it might have secretly satisfied many of us, suicide was not the point. We’d already seen far too much death.
So while we showed up en masse, it wasn’t the witching hour. Instead, we arrived on a bright spring morning, mockingbirds warbling from the branches of mature pecan trees. Yellow bells and globe mallow bloomed in the flower beds. The streets were empty. And a good thing, too: our faces looked ashen in the new sunshine.
Although we doubted Sgt. Ray would answer, we rang the bell and quietly waited. Some of us had already begun snooping around the side yard when the door opened. He wore his uniform pants and a tight white t-shirt and held a coffee mug, grinning menacingly through the glass. He unlocked the storm door and pushed it open.
“It’s about time,” he said. “What took you so long?”
* * *
Things started going wrong almost immediately. The first one caught a bad break, and it went downhill from there. It’s not what we wanted. We never intended one-time visitations, since we were in this for the long haul. It’s not like we had jobs or family responsibilities to worry about. We didn’t have social engagements to keep. Not anymore.
When we greeted Officer Dave Wilson from the top of the stairs, we were friendly about it.
“Lovely evening,” we said.
“Stars are out,” we said.
“Look at the moon,” we said.
The officer paused in the darkness. “Who’s there?” He clutched a bowl of ice cream in one hand, a glass of bourbon in the other.
We could taste them. Almost.
Tamir stepped into the moon glow. This was his show. In time, we realized we had strength in numbers—which were swelling by the day—but we just went along on that inaugural visit to lend a hand. Tamir was only ten.
“Remember me?” he said.
The cop breathed heavily in the silence.
“Because of you, I don’t get to eat ice cream anymore.”
We nodded and licked our lips. A dog in the neighbor’s backyard howled.
“Who are you people?” Wilson asked. His eyes must have adjusted.
“How could you forget me so quick?” Tamir made a gun with his thumb and forefinger and pointed it at the policeman. “Pow pow,” he said, then shook his head. “Do you shoot lots of kids?”
The officer’s eyes bugged in the moonlight. “Okay, joke’s over. I want you people out of here. Now.”
Tamir took half a step forward. We filled in behind him, folding our arms across our chests. At that point, we were already two-dozen strong.
The cop climbed up a couple steps, then stopped. His breathing sounded ragged in the still house.
Tamir watched him for a long moment, smiling. Then he said, “Boo.”
There was no real malice in it, but it startled the officer enough so he lost his balance and tumbled down the stairs. The glass and bowl clattered against the hardwoods, but neither broke. Bourbon pooled. Ice cream melted. Dave Wilson’s head made a hollow thunk when it hit the landing, and he lay there, limp and unmoving. We held our breath, listening for sirens. Then we slipped out the back door into the night.
* * *
That’s the way it went for a while. Without the uniform and badge and gun, they weren’t nearly as tough as they liked to pretend. A Baltimore cop, spooked, ran out into traffic and got hit by a seafood delivery truck. A Dallas policeman soaking in his hot tub took one look at us, hyperventilated, and drowned. When we barged in on one of L.A.’s finest, he grabbed a nine mm from under his pillow and started shooting, pumping four rounds into his sleeping wife before realizing what he’d done. He took a few potshots at us through his grief, then put the barrel to his temple and squeezed.
It was one messy scene after another and not at all what we’d intended. We began to think maybe were going about this all wrong. We were new at this, so we tried not to get discouraged. We weren’t out to hurt anyone. Scare half to death, yes. Put the fear of God into, definitely. But we never intended bodily harm, and we certainly never wanted anyone to die.
But we never intended bodily harm, and we certainly never wanted anyone to die.
* * *
We regrouped at Oakwood Cemetery. That was home base, so to speak, where we all met up for the first time after word got around about Michael and Eric. They’d come to the idea separately. In fact, they’d never even met. Although Michael couldn’t get ahold of a gun, he visited the beat cops who riddled his body with bullets, one by one, and pitched Black Cats into their cookouts and pool parties. Eric was more direct. One night, he snuck into the house of the lieutenant who left bruises on his neck and covered his face with a pillow, just long enough to scare the bejesus out of him. Some of us were skeptical about those stories, but most of us were impressed. So we rounded everybody up and hatched our plan.
Now here we were again. We’d barely gotten started, but everything was going sideways. We sat under a huge old live oak and hashed things out.
“Maybe we’re tougher than we think.”
“No way. Those were just freak accidents.”
“Plus, we got women and children.”
Crickets chirruped. Moonlight pulsed. From I-35 came the dull roar of traffic.
“Y’all can’t be serious.”
Some of us shifted where we sat in the grass. Others leaned against tombstones.
“Take a good look at us, folks. We’re dead.”
Silence swelled. A cat darted among the shadows.
Talk about stating the obvious. Someone chuckled, then we all burst out laughing.
In the end, we agreed to dial it down.
* * *
Yet somehow that didn’t stop us from killing some more of them. It really wasn’t our fault. We made a few tweaks to our visitations, so it’s not as if all of them croaked. For one thing, we stopped appearing in the dead of night, instead trying to catch those cops on their days off. That seemed to help. For another, we put an end to skulking. Up until then, we’d made a point to sneak up on the boys in blue, but now we just strolled up in broad daylight, right out in the open. Since our numbers kept swelling day by day, we decided only the victim and a small handful of others would approach those cops, while the rest of us would hang back, in plain sight but at enough distance to keep from overwhelming them. And we saw some success with our new approach, from Seattle to Chicago, Detroit to Boston, Tallahassee to Tucson. We even managed to haunt some of them more than once—our plan all along.
Yet we were still a horror show, despite all our efforts. Nowhere close to zombies, mind you, since we were all clean and well-groomed and gussied up in our Sunday best. But the wounds were still visible, the bruising and discoloration, the holes in our heads and chests and backs, the finger marks around our necks. Cops across the country had heart attacks on the spot. We tried to resuscitate a few of them, but it was no use: we couldn’t touch them. We hollered for help, but it always came too late, if it came at all.
Mostly, though, there were lots of suicides. Those usually happened after a couple visitations, once their defensive aggression had dissipated and they were left alone with their guilt and shame. Their methods ran the gamut: they drank bleach and jumped off bridges, swallowed pills and inhaled carbon monoxide, opened their veins and hung themselves in the garage. Yet most popular of all, from Charleston to Cleveland, New York to Portland, was the police-issue sidearm. It was quick and mostly foolproof. Irreversible, too, a one-way ticket to oblivion.
It’s not as if we just stood by while the Grim Reaper swung his black scythe. We’re not like that. Maybe some of us harbored ill will in our hearts, so we weren’t exactly sorry to see awful things come to pass. That’s just human nature, right? But we never set out to bring that blackness to anyone. No, we were just trying to get into their heads, to shake them up, to force them to reckon with what they’d done.
So we tried to talk them down—in the beginning, anyway. Some of them.
For instance, we tailed Memphis PD Lt. Dale Jones from his home in the Frayser neighborhood to the New Bridge over the Mississippi River. He was weaving down the road, narrowly missing pedestrians and other vehicles. He parked his F-250 on the shoulder and got out without shutting his door, then staggered to the railing as if he were going to be sick.
“What are you doing, Mr. Jones?”
“Lieutenant,” he said, slurring. His breath was rank with Jack Daniel’s, a half-empty bottle of which he carried by the neck.
“You’re drunk, Lieutenant,” we said. “Why don’t you let us escort you back home?”
He started climbing up the guardrail. “Leave me be.”
“That’s no way to act.”
He tottered in the breeze. “What do y’all know about it?” he said. He almost lost his balance and went careening into the river.
“Would you please just get down from there?”
He finished the JD, whiskey dribbling down his chin, then hurled the empty bottle into the swirling brown waters a hundred feet below. “Can’t stand the guilt. It’s just too much.”
We exchanged glances.
“Plus, y’all are gonna haunt me to my dying days, right?”
We bit our tongues, listening to the wind. Then we said, “Is it really worth doing yourself in over?”
“How else am I spozed to forget?” said the lieutenant. “My wife’s sick to death of hearing about it. Therapy’s a joke. The booze stopped working a long time ago.”
“Look, Mr. Jones. We don’t have all the answers. If we did, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”
He spat into the darkness.
“Did you ever consider just apologizing?”
He shook his head. “Sorry doesn’t change a thing.” Then, slowly, he leaned back into the breeze.
* * *
We filed inside. The stench of stale coffee and old garlic made our eyes burn. Sgt. Ray’s golden retriever stopped halfway down the carpeted stairs, ears pricked, sniffing the air, then stole away to safety. A few of us took pride of place around the breakfast table. The rest of us crowded into the kitchen, huddling into the breakfast nook or leaning against the counters. We waited, silent and leery.
The sergeant took his time. He let us get settled, then gazed our direction for a long, awkward moment. A cop tactic, no doubt. After gawking at us for a while, he strode across the linoleum and refilled his coffee cup. We would’ve assumed a guy like him would drink it jet black and viscous as motor oil, but we were wrong. Sgt. Ray fussed over his Coffee mate and sugar, pouring, stirring, and tasting until he got it just to his liking. Only then did he amble over and take his place at the table.
A cop tactic, no doubt. After gawking at us for a while, he strode across the linoleum and refilled his coffee cup.
“Y’all are just in time for breakfast,” he said. “Can I get you anything?”
We traded looks. It hadn’t dawned on us until now that hunger was a thing of the past.
“It’s Tuesday, right? That means bacon and eggs and hash browns. The missus will be down in a minute to whip it up. I’m sure she’d be glad to make extra.”
We studied him as he skimmed the headlines of the folded lie. He seemed perfectly comfortable in our presence—which, in a sense, was also an absence. We’d seen others put on a strong front, though it never lasted long, but our unannounced visit didn’t seem to disturb Sgt. Ray at all. In fact, he almost seemed to be enjoying it. What was with this guy?
* * *
We found our way back to Oakwood. None of us could figure out what went wrong. Or, rather, we knew exactly what wasn’t working, but we couldn’t figure out why. Maybe this was a bad idea from the beginning. Though we talked a big game, it was clear none of us had a knack for the visitations. We had passion, no question. We were motivated and enthusiastic. We’d even picked up a thing or two from movies we’d seen back before everything happened. Try as we might, though, we couldn’t seem to make any of it work for us.
The moon shone. Shadows danced. An owl hooted from the low branch of a live oak. Then one of us said:
“We got a problem.”
“How can you say that?”
“Payback’s a bitch.”
“We’re not out for revenge.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“This is about reconciliation.”
“After we scare the daylights out of them.”
“See, that may be the problem right there. We’re pushing too hard too fast.”
“Trying to accomplish too much too soon.”
“It’s driving them over the edge.”
The owl hooted again. A wispy cloud veiled the moon for a moment. A dank, loamy stink drifted on the breeze.
“What if we’re going about this whole thing all wrong?”
“We’re not getting the intended result, for starters.”
“Those cops keep dying.”
“While our numbers keep growing.”
Some of us shook our heads in dismay. Those leaning against tombstones stood, while those standing leaned against tombstones. In the distance, a hound bayed.
“Well, like they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
“Slow and steady wins the race.”
“Plus, win some, lose some.”
“Ups and downs.”
“Highs and lows.”
“Clichés and platitudes?”
“Well, we’re making strides.”
“How you figure? We set out to make them suffer, but if they don’t die of fright, they off themselves. Is that really what we’re after?”
“No problem here.”
“Yeah, at least we’re making them pay.”
“An eye for an eye.”
Wings fluttered in the darkness. A cat hissed. The moon shone pale yellow.
“We need a fresh approach.”
“Everything we’ve tried so far has failed.”
“From a certain perspective.”
“They’re still killing us in cold blood, right? That’s failure with a capital F.”
“Depends on how you look at it.”
“Listen, we all got bloodlust. And we killed a bunch of them already, but nothing’s changed.”
“We didn’t kill anybody.”
“We drove them to it. Amounts to the same thing.”
“Love and forgiveness.”
“We gotta love them like they’re our brothers. We gotta forgive them and move on.”
The moon brightened, and for a moment, the gloom lifted from the cemetery. Frogs croaked in the half-light.
“That’s a pretty theory.”
“The world doesn’t work that way.”
“Anyhow, where we gonna move on to?”
* * *
For a few days, we accomplished almost nothing. During daylight hours, we idled out of sight. At night, we moped and bickered, rehearsing the same old arguments until we were overwhelmed with frustration. We grew listless. Nobody knew what to do, but we all knew we needed to do more than we’d done.
Days stretched into a week. Restless, a group of us tried a couple of visitations, but they ended in the same way as the others. Secretly, some of us hoped that Michael and Eric would show up and light our way. They were models for us all, though we never managed to live up to their example, hard as we tried.
To our disappointment, they never appeared, so a few of us took the initiative ourselves, gathering everyone together. Something had to give. We were more than a hundred strong by now. We gave ourselves a pep talk intended to set us on the right course. And in a sense, it did. Things just didn’t turn out quite as we’d hoped.
* * *
Sgt. Ray sipped his coffee, only occasionally glancing up from his morning paper. Something about him seemed, well, smug. It was tough to put our finger on. Maybe it was a combination of that ugly excuse for a grin he kept flashing us, coupled with the plain fact that our visitation hadn’t disrupted his routine one iota. Hard to say. It was clear, though, that this cop was eating the whole thing up. He was relishing every minute of it.
“Y’all gonna tell me?” he asked, flipping to the local section. “Or do I have to guess?”
“You already know.”
“We shouldn’t have to spell it out for you.”
“You’re not as dumb as you look.”
He rattled and cracked his newspaper. “Good one,” he said. “Original. I’ll have to file that one away for a special occasion.”
Even the kids chafed against his sarcasm.
The sergeant sipped coffee and perused the headlines in silence. From upstairs, footsteps. A door closing. Water running in a sink.
He gazed up from his paper. “Time’s a-wasting.”
We exchanged glances, then said, “We want to give you a chance to apologize.”
Sgt. Ray sneered. “For what?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“I’m afraid not.”
We shook our heads. “After what you did to us?”
He folded his newspaper, pitched it aside, and leaned back in his chair. “I’ve never seen most of you a day in my life.”
Out front, a trash truck clattered and growled.
“Of course,” said Ray, smirking, “some of y’all are hard to forget.”
He shook his head. “You asked for it. You only got what was coming.”
We bit our lips, chewed our cheeks, mumbled epithets under our breath. Some of us could still feel the bite of rope around our necks.
Some of us could still feel the bite of rope around our necks.
More footsteps overhead. “Now it’s time for y’all to be going.” Ray eased from his chair, then politely drove us from the kitchen out the door into the backyard.
We crowded into the corner. “Last chance, Sgt. Ray.” It didn’t sound threatening, even to us.
“You’ll be sorry.”
He snickered. “Like all those other officers you murdered?”
“Take that back.”
“It wasn’t our fault.”
“We didn’t kill anyone.”
“Honest, hardworking men you drove to an early grave?”
“Talk about the pot calling the—”
“Because if that’s your plan, you’ve got another thing coming.” He listened as his wife called his name. “I’m hale as all hell, and I’d as soon hound y’all to the ends of the earth as turn on myself.”
We shuffled in place. Nearby, a dog barked.
Now he sneered again. “Far as I can tell, y’all should probably quit while you’re ahead.”
“We’re dead, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Ray snickered. “You can’t haunt everyone, right?”
“Sure, we can.”
“We’re off to a good start.”
“No,” he said, wagging his head, “I mean everybody, not just cops.”
He let us chew on that, driving us further into the corner.
“I mean, sure, officers of the law. It’s a natural place to start. But what about the guys in Internal Affairs responsible for the cover ups? What about juries that fail to convict or judges that let us walk? What about legislators who cow to the might of the policeman’s union?”
We said nothing. A sour feeling overwhelmed us.
“Y’all got your work cut out for you.” Sgt. Ray snickered again. “Now I got bacon and eggs to attend to. Don’t let me see you around here again.”
* * *
For a while, we were dumbstruck. We retreated to Oakwood, moping in the shadows. We didn’t know what to do. While we tried not to admit it, Sgt. Ray had a point. Any way we looked at it, nothing was going to plan, and now this snide, sneering cop had handed us an unwelcome truth. We kept to ourselves, cussing under our breath.
Yet even after days of mulling and stewing and sulking, we never came up with a better idea. How could we possibly track down everyone involved, even with a single case? There would be dozens, if not hundreds, of responsible parties. We had the time but lacked the wherewithal. It was simply too much to tackle.
With no better option, we stuck to our original plan. The whole thing was flawed, that much was clear, but it was the only path forward we could agree on. It was the only thing left for us to do.
And still our numbers grew and grew.
J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Threepenny Review, and many other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (three times) and the Best of the Net Award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from the University of Oxford. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.