Excerpt: Side of the Road


For Chris Spell and Sam McCannell, it had all come apart last January. For Spell, especially, it was all gone: career, friendship, the whole thing. For the others—Mary Boor, Sandy Janus, and Joe Mendoza—it had been a painful time, a horrible time. But that was the nature of the job and they were expected to get over it. Herbert William Jamieson, the Mission District Monster, was the only one who had come out a winner—or so it seemed. He had walked away from it all. He had gotten away with murder and that wasn’t the way things were supposed to work for the homicide team. Each of them knew that, even though they never discussed it openly.

For Spell, the news about his friend was even worse than the murders. Jamieson had utterly destroyed McCannell. He had left the San Francisco Police Department psychologist curled up on the sidewalk, catatonic and whimpering—buried so deeply within himself that he seemed more like a vegetable than a man. None of this was good for Spell’s head. None of it made any sense. The two men had been friends far too long for it to end this way. It didn’t matter to Spell that McCannell’s lies and secrets—and, yes, his incredibly bad blunders during the murder investigation—were at the root of his self-implosion. Friends rarely see things for what they are, and friends who happen to be cops almost never do. From Chris Spell’s point of view, Jamieson had claimed five victims, not four. To his way of thinking, the one victim who had survived Jamieson’s handiwork was in the worst shape of all.

It had all come apart in January and Spell couldn’t let it go. He didn’t want to let it go.

Just a month after Jamieson had disappeared from his Bernal Heights flat and McCannell had been unceremoniously shunted off to the state sanatorium in the valley, Spell resigned from the force. He said nothing to Captain Markley. His resignation letter was only one sentence long and he hadn’t even bothered to deliver it in person. There was no ceremony. He just handed over his Lieutenant’s shield, his weapon, and a set of keys to the Watch Commander and asked for them to be delivered to the Captain. He went straight back to his disheveled office, stuffed a few papers and two or three wrinkled photographs into an overused brown paper bag, took the phone off the hook, and walked away from the Mission District Station, just like Jamieson had done. That night, he went to Mary Boor’s house in the Bayview District and drank Valpolicella until his eyes crossed and he passed out dreamlessly on her couch. There was nothing else to do. There was no one else waiting for him.

Markley never bothered to call Spell. It was a simpler thing to just let the Lieutenant go. The Jamieson affair had left the Captain and the Homicide Division with a noticeable black eye and Spell had put himself in just the right posture for a fall guy. As soon as he received the resignation letter, Markley telephoned Jane Riordan at the San Francisco Call and told her the hot news about Spell. She had covered the Jamieson investigation and had been good to Spell in her articles. However, when Jamieson disappeared and left the Department with egg on its face, Riordan had jumped on them with both feet. Now, Spell had given the Captain a way to spin some good news out of the bad. Hell, it was the way things worked and the Captain wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip by. When he spoke with the reporter, Markley was tactful but managed to get his point across. Spell had fucked up and that was why Jamieson was loose. It was a simple, ugly story. However, Markley assured the reporter that his new Lieutenant would soon set things right.

After he called Jane Riordan, the Captain summoned Joe Mendoza to his office and told him to meet with his ex-boss and personally relay Markley’s best wishes:

Sorry to see you go . . . I understand . . . Great loss to the department . . .

When the two detectives met, Mendoza really couldn’t remember much about what Markley had said. For his part, Spell didn’t care anyway. That night they drank at Spell’s house, just the two of them, pretending to be closer friends than they were. However, for Chris, Mendoza was no replacement for McCannell. He was too tall, too good-looking, too preoccupied with sex, and, well . . . just too unpredictable.

For the first few months after he quit the SFPD, Spell would visit McCannell every other week. He would make the three-hour car trip on a Friday morning, working his way south, out of San Francisco, through the interminable chaos of the Peninsula and finally into the steamy, flat Central Valley. He would arrive at the state hospital by ten in the morning, when visiting hours officially began. Spell would sit on a flat, backless wooden bench in the stark white waiting room, watching the attendants shuffle by and grumbling under their breath. They never seemed to notice him waiting on the bench and he learned to hate them without even knowing their names. Spell would wait nervously and listen for his name to be called—sometimes for nearly an hour. Eventually, a speechless, sickly-looking attendant dressed in white would lead him down the chilly, endless, impersonal hallway to McCannell’s room.

Each time it was the same—or worse. On good days, McCannell would sit on his cot, hunched up against the mottled beige concrete blocks of his meager, perfectly square chamber. His knees would be pulled tightly up to his chest and his arms twisted uncomfortably around his shins. The Red Man never looked at his old friend. In fact, his eyes never seemed to move at all. They just stared down at his thickly socked feet, unfocused and unseeing. From time to time, a sharp shudder would race through McCannell’s once pudgy arms and legs, rippling them in quick spasms—shocks emanating from somewhere inside his tortured soul. Still, his eyes would never move, even when the rest of his body trembled uncontrollably. The whole scene sickened Spell and reminded him of the one fear that he had never been able to shake: having to look into the faces of all those murder victims. Sometimes their eyes would be open, unseeing and unfocused—just like McCannell’s were now.

On the bad days, Spell would find his friend tightly buckled down to his meager cot with fat, white leather arm and leg restraints, his body rigid and racked with the same tremors. On these days, the shaking was more intense and more frequent. Still, McCannell’s eyes never moved and he never spoke a word. In all those long, depressing trips, Spell never heard a sound from his old friend, and their eyes never met.

By the end of summer, Spell hadn’t seen McCannell in three months. There was no point. He forced himself to not think about it anymore. In his mind, he repainted and rearranged the Red Man’s face with dozens of others he had met, blotting out what McCannell had looked like when he was truly alive. He had forgotten the singsong play of McCannell’s teasing voice and the aura of fattened redness that began at his friend’s crown and seemed to permeate his entire frame. Spell had relegated his old friend to the dead and made him just another one of Jamieson’s easily forgotten victims. He had built his belief carefully and tenaciously and, for the most part, it worked, except very late at night.

After he quit the Department, Mary Boor had taken Spell’s old job and his old office. She held the Homicide Division Lieutenant’s shield now, and his small cadre of detectives had become her flock. True to her nature, Mary had made immediate changes. The aging, cluttered office had taken on a more austere, streamlined façade. For Boor, there would be no junk, no waste, and nothing without a point. Everything would be straight ahead, just like the new Lieutenant herself. These were good changes, and Spell approved. Next to McCannell, Mary was his oldest and most trusted friend. He was genuinely happy for her and he told her so. From time to time, when she worked her way free of the Station for an evening, he would even show her that he cared.

The Jamieson investigation had made heroes and villains out of nobodies, like most sensational murder cases do. Sandy Janus had made her mark during the affair by confronting the murderer in his lair. Now she reaped the reward. Janus was made a full-fledged detective, free of the droll life of a beat cop that she had so desperately wanted to shed. Of them all, Sandy had been the biggest surprise to Spell. Barely an adult—or so it seemed to him—she had been the only one to directly deal with Jamieson and get out intact. Only she had rubbed up against the real horror of what he had done. That encounter had not only made her career, it had changed her for the better. To Spell, she seemed to instantly grow older and wiser. After Jamieson had disappeared, Sandy took on a pleasant seasoning that was well beyond her years. Almost unnoticed by everyone at first, an aging but graceful soul made its presence known from inside the nearly pristine body of a woman only in her twenties. Spell found it alluring and secretly envied Mendoza’s ability to get into her pants at will.

It was a bizarre twist, Spell thought. McCannell had become a vegetable and Janus a heroine. Strange and unfair, he thought. Spell hadn’t seen Sandy as clearly as he should have, or even his old friend McCannell for that matter. Only Mary had seen it all accurately, and he hadn’t listened carefully enough to her advice. Stupid, senseless, twisted history.

For his part, Mendoza still spent his free time chasing Sandy around his bedroom—or hers. They seemed to genuinely care for each other, although Spell could never bring himself to understand the attraction. Sure, there was the physical thing. They were a matched set of bookends, straight from a glossy, six-dollar magazine cover with their good looks and perfect bodies. Still, it seemed like there should have been something more for a woman like Janus. Mendoza was a solid, intelligent cop but, off the job, he was strictly ruled by his penis. She had much more going for her than that, or so it seemed to her old boss.

They had been a tight group, his team of detectives, and he missed each of them. They had been friends from the start, made close by the mayhem and horror they shared each day. Now that Mary was ruling the roost, the Homicide Division seemed to settle down and even out. There wasn’t much talk about Jamieson or McCannell anymore. Spell was rarely a topic in the Division. Mary had brought more focus to the team—a stronger emphasis on organization—and it showed almost immediately. Things were settling into a new routine at the Mission District Station and memories were beginning to fade.

However, for Chris Spell, not much was right with the world, despite Mary’s success, Sandy’s unexpected promotion, and the passing of time. McCannell was worse than dead and Spell was out of the mix forever. Now, the Lieutenant was nothing more than a forgotten, tainted ex-cop with no reason to get up in the morning. He was bored, alone, often depressed, and angry more days than not. Jamieson had walked away from it all and even the indefatigable Mary had admitted more than once that there was nothing left to chase in the case. Joe and Sandy fucked their brains out when they weren’t working, and that should have made things somewhat right with the world. Still, it didn’t help Spell. Nothing did.

To this displaced, middle-aged man, everyone he knew and cared about seemed to be acting very strangely. They all seemed to be waiting by the side of the road—waiting for something they couldn’t recognize or that may have already passed them by. There were days when all his friends seemed like they had quietly slipped into the same frigid abyss that imprisoned McCannell. The only difference was that they managed to crawl back out again the next morning. The Red Man never did.

To make things worse, Jamieson had walked away from it all, and that was making Chris Spell crazier by the day.


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