Friday, April 2, 2021

FREE FICTION: TO SERVE AND PROTECT BY AUSTIN S. CAMACHO


To serve and protect
By Austin S. Camacho

Audio narration by Mark Bielecki

Click to listen to the audio version.

There’s a good reason that nobody should be sitting in their office finishing some paperwork on a Friday evening. I should have been across the hall in my apartment, getting ready to take Cindy to a late supper. Then I wouldn’t have been behind the desk when Buster came rushing in. I know I looked irritated when I saw him because he answered my question before I could ask it.

“Hannibal, I need your help. Somebody pried the store safe open and took off with the money. It’s the whole week’s receipts.”

I’ve known Buster since I moved into that little flat in Anacostia. He’s the bald, fiftyish black man who runs the little grocery store on the corner, barely making a living supplying his neighbors with the bare necessities. He used to let people move drugs through his place, but I put a stop to that. Since then, it’s been tough for him to make a living, so maybe I did owe him a hand if he got robbed. I gave Cindy a call, letting her know I’d be picking her up late, and followed Buster out into the crisp autumn air. He was still out of breath, and I could see his chest heaving even in the dim twilight. When we got to the store, he took me into the backroom to show me the damage. His safe was sitting under a desk in the back. It was small, weak, and light – more a place to store money than to protect it - and it was obvious that someone had ripped the door open with a crowbar. We went back through the door to the front of the store, and while I looked around, I asked him what happened.

“They were just waiting for their chance at me,” Buster said, shaking his head. “You know Suzanne quit the other day, so I have to run the place all by myself. It ain’t easy, man.” “I know, Buster,” I said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Just tell me what happened.” Buster looked at me for a second and then pointed toward the cooler doors on the other side of the store.

“Well, it was close to closing time, and I was over in that corner there, stocking shelves, when I heard this loud noise in the back room. I ran to the door, but this kid rushed past me, almost knocking me over, and shot out the front door. I could see my blue deposit bag in his hand with the whole week’s receipts.”

I leaned back against the counter. “You haven’t been to the bank all week?”

“I don’t like to go alone,” Buster said. “It ain’t safe. So, every Friday night one of the cops comes by on his patrol and walks me over there.”

“But he wasn’t here yet?”

“Nope, so I took off down the street after the thief, but he was too fast for me. I chased him for a few blocks, right past your office, but then he turned a corner, and I lost him. I was whipped and bummed out. But on the way back, I realized you might be able to help.”

I didn’t want to be cold, so I forced a smile. “I think I understand, man, but I don’t think I can…”

We both looked to the door as a patrolman walked in. The cop was younger, taller, darker, and more cheerful than either of us. I recognized his easy smile. It was the one I used to wear back when I was a rookie cop, before I found out that most citizens didn’t really want me around to protect and to serve them.

Buster said, “Billy, am I glad to see you. I just got robbed. I already told Hannibal here all about it.”

“You’re Hannibal Jones?” the officer asked.

I lowered my voice and turned to my neighbor. “Don’t do this, Buster. Don’t pull me into this.”

“What do you mean, man?” Buster asked, his palms spread wide. “Hannibal, I need you. You can back me up with the timeline and stuff. The cops will believe you.”

“You’re THE Hannibal Jones?” the cop asked. “The guy I’ve heard about?”

“This is him,” Buster said. “Go ahead, Hannibal. Tell him what I told you.”

I turned back to the cop and turned up the charm. “Officer, can I talk to my friend here in the back for a minute?” The cop shrugged. I gave him a wink, and then I took Buster’s arm and walked him into the backroom. When we got to the middle of the floor, I dropped the smile. I didn’t need it anymore. I just stood there with my hands on my hips, staring down.

“I don’t understand,” Buster said. “Why won’t you back me up, man?”

“Do you want to go to jail for fraud?”

“What?”

“Buster, please.” I was trying to keep it soft, but my voice came out as a hoarse stage whisper. “You told me you saw the thief come out of the backroom, right? You chased him, and when you lost him, you gave up and came to my place.”

“So?”

“So, you never came into the back room until I came back with you. How did you know the thief pried the safe open?” Buster hesitated, his eyes flashing side to side the way I’d seen so many times before.

“He had my deposit bag…”

“I saw the safe, Buster. A thief could just as easily pick the lock, pop the hinges, or just bust it open with a hammer. But you said pried, which you could not have known unless you did it yourself. Now go tell our young friend out there that it was a false alarm, that you found your money in here.”

“You ain’t going to turn me in?” Buster asked.

“Can’t hang around to talk to the police, Buster. I got a date.”

Of course, I wasn’t going to turn him in. As much as I resented Buster trying to play me, he wasn’t a criminal, just desperate. More importantly, it was too soon for that boy out there to get disillusioned about the people he was sworn to protect. Let him think we all appreciate and respect him, at least for a little while longer.

###

Hannibal Jones is an African American private eye working the mean streets of Washington DC. You can order copies of all the Hannibal Jones novels right HERE.


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