the eighty-eighth key

88th key cover image

Once upon a time in a city by the bay, lived a man named Harry Callahan…

…this is his story…

+++++

the eighty-eighth key

part one

chapter one

Thunder in the distance, thunder like a broken promise. Thunder and rain, the strained promise of rain, rain in the air, rain – like an uncertain release after the warning wind – stains the night. Winds now both old and new, winds sifting through old pines outside his window. His mother downstairs, waiting in the dark. Nervously waiting, waiting inside the promise of rain.

He heard her playing as he watched the pines sway, dancing in the expectation of uncertain renewal – her song at once familiar yet strange. Without knowing the how or the why of his feelings, he too felt that soft, waiting renewal, not knowing the hidden currents of such things. Almost…he could almost feel a stirring in his gut…close now – but not touching. Never touching. Like such music the wind played was forbidden fruit.

Yet he could hear her song so clearly in the gathering storm. Even as deep thunder and her inevitable renewal came to the night once again. 

Even now, before he truly understood that she was lost to him.

+++++

“Another rough night, Callahan?”

“No? Why?”

“Crying in your sleep again,” his dorm-mate said, stifling another yawn.

“Bullshit.”

“Something about thunder – and maybe a song, I think?” Al Bressler added through his own early morning yawn.

Harry Callahan sat up on the edge of his bunk and rubbed his eyes, tried to squeeze the memory out of consciousness…yet he still heard the wind in the trees…still heard her lingering music as he slid out of bed onto the cold tile floor. He slipped into his flip-flops and walked down the hall to the bathroom, stood at the urinal draining the night away before he returned to his room. Bressler was making his bed, getting ready for morning inspection, and apparently done with small talk…

“You ready?” Bressler said, the worry in his voice clear to anyone who knew what their common uncertainty really meant.

They’d been up ‘til two in the morning working their way through the California Penal Code one last time, memorizing statute numbers for all the major crimes – and the relevant mental states for each – yet now the acid-drenched day stretched ahead in all its agonizing uncertainty. This was it. The last day of academy, and Callahan knew his own mental state was perilous.

If only because so much was riding on this day.

Bomb the test and that was it, the end of the road. Anyone failing would be shown the door and six months of life would be wiped from the ledger. A low passing score would get you into a shitty precinct with a burnt-out FTO, which was almost as bad as washing out – if not more dangerous. A high score, on the other hand, would see you in to your choice of precincts and your future in the hands of an experienced, even a talented Field Training Officer, so to say this was a momentous day in the life was an understatement.

But why had the dream come again? Was she trying to tell him something? Even now?

“You better comb your hair again, Harry. You look like a toilet brush.”

“Yeah? Well, you smell like one, Meathead.”

They both tried to laugh as they finished up their room, then Bressler ran for the toilet. He didn’t make it.

+++++

Walking to the dining hall after the written exam, Callahan was sure he’d bombed the test and thought he should feel despondent. Bressler, his hands habitually in his pockets, walked alongside scowling at the clear blue sky, whistling a show-tune while doing his best to hide his anxiety. 

“How’d you do?” Bressler finally asked as they walked into the dining hall.

Callahan shrugged. “Who knows? You still worried about this afternoon?”

The second part of the final exam was one last physical agility test, and it promised to be a bear. Carry a hundred and eighty-pound dummy twenty yards then drop it, get over three progressively higher fences, sprint a half-mile through hills and trees around the academy grounds before going up and down an exposed four-story stairway, then finish the course, after a last brief sprint, by swimming one lap in the training pool – while towing a flailing academy instructor to the finish. All in uniform, and all in under eight minutes. In practice sessions earlier that week almost half the class had failed, and tensions were running high.

“I think I’ll manage,” Bressler sighed.

“Not if you eat a big lunch,” Lou Valenti added, joining them in the food line.

“Fuck that,” Bressler said. “I’m going to drink about ten glasses of water.”

“A gallon is about eight pounds,” Valenti said, grinning. “Sure you want to carry the extra weight?”

“Fuck.”

“Well, at least they’re going to post the written scores first,” Valenti said, scowling. “If you don’t cut it you can just slip away without adding insult to injury.”

“I passed,” Bressler said – a little too defensively.

“Yeah? Harry, how’d you do?”

And once again Callahan shrugged, turning the question away unanswered. “I think,” he managed to say as he stared at Bressler’s pooling uncertainty, “that I really don’t give a shit anymore.”

“That’s our Harry,” Valenti said to Bressler, smirking as he cast a sidelong glance at Callahan. “Always got to play it cool, don’t you?”

+++++

Test results were posted, as promised, on the bulletin board just inside the academy gym promptly at 1330 hours, and the 35 members of class 421 stood in academy blues reading down the list of names, looking for their futures. Callahan’s name was, not unexpectedly, at the top of the list; Bressler’s score was fifth best. Seven cadets looked over the list and crashed, their journeys over for now, and this glum little group trudged off to the admin building. Callahan noted a gaggle of the academy’s drill instructors lurking in the shadows by the locker room doors, then he saw the director walk in the main doorway and head over to their sea of smiling faces.

“Everyone ready?” the Old Man asked as he came up to Callahan.

Everyone, apparently, was.

“Okay,” the Old Man said, “let’s get this over with.”

The group walked through the locker room and out to the oval track, and almost everyone’s eyes seemed to drift nervously between the drill instructors and the course they were about to run as they approached the starting area.

But not Harry Callahan’s.

He’d been a runner all his life, had grown up playing baseball or running track and so was no stranger to hard work and the lonely road. Any softness had been drilled out of his body by the United States Army’s basic training – and two subsequent years stationed in Germany – so Callahan had breezed through all the Department’s various physical training programs without breaking a sweat. Still, a sprained ankle could ruin your day out here, so this was no time for complacency. 

One of the DIs explained the course – one more time – and pointed out that instructors would be posted at key points along the route to call out times, then each cadet was asked to verify their understanding of the route – one last time. All the cadets were stretching now; a few were already about to puke.

“We’ll run alphabetically, two at a time,” the DI manning the start called out. “Adams and Baker! On the line…NOW!”

Carol Adams and Stanton Baker walked over to the starting line on the track, both taking deep breaths while they looked at the DI… 

…who then yelled “GO!” before they had a chance to think about their anxieties for another second… 

Carol Adams leaped ahead of the much heavier Stan Baker, and she was at the huge, canvas dummy well ahead of him; she struggled, lost time heaving the weight onto her shoulders before she took off running, with Baker a second or so behind. She stumbled once, lost a step, but was still ahead as she cast off the dummy and made for the first fence – a four-foot-high picket fence with pointed slats. She and Baker leapt over in unison, making for the second – a six-foot-tall chain-link fence – and this one required coordination and dexterity to tackle without injury. Baker took the lead when he came down, and he sprinted for the next obstacle…an eight-foot-tall concrete-block wall.

Timing was everything on this last fence. You had to really time your jump on the short approach in order to leap high enough to get both hands on top of the ledge; then you had to pull yourself up and make the jump over the top and down, all without killing yourself – or breaking a leg – in the process.

And Baker missed his jump, slid down the wall and had to backtrack, make the leap a second time, and Adams passed him then, made her jump up and over in one fluidly ragged motion. Someone called out her time but she was too stoked now to hear the words.

By the time Baker made it over, Adams was twenty yards ahead and well into her half-mile run through the trees. Trees, and short, steep hills, much of the track here in coarse, rocky scree. Even so, Carol Adams seemed to pull ahead even more, and she was bounding up the third course of stairs before Stan Baker made it to the first. She passed him on the way down and saw the panicked look in his eyes, tried not to smile as she made her way down and to the hundred-yard sprint to the Olympic sized pool.

The drill here was to dive into the deep end, take your drowning victim in tow by the approved method, then get them to the far end without drowning. Because most “victims” would – out in the real world – be panicking, the academy’s instructor/victims would be flailing and kicking and screaming like any other freaked-out drowning victim.

Adams dove in and approached her flailing victim, who promptly tried to climb on top of her, so she ducked under, surfaced, then balled her right fist and slammed it into her victim/instructor’s nose. With enough force to give the former marine a bloody nose. Then she towed her victim to the shallow end of the pool and to the hypothetical finish line.

She heard a fragmented, disjointed voice call out “Seven minutes and twenty-three seconds…” as she stumbled out of the pool. Then the flood of lactic acid hit her gut and she went to her knees, retching as she fell.

“Baker, you got thirty seconds left! Move your ass!”

Yet Adams stood and started cheering her classmate on – “Come on, Stan! You can do it!” – and her classmates joined her…from a quarter-mile away. All but Harry Callahan, that is. He and Bressler moved to the starting line just then, the wait now becoming almost unendurable. 

Callahan heard a cheer from the pool, assumed Baker had just crossed the line in the allowed time, then he heard a loud “GO!” and looked at his dummy.

He was surprised how dry his mouth was, how anxious he suddenly felt, and then – in a flash – it dawned on him: he did care. Passing these last tests mattered. Becoming a cop mattered. But being the best mattered most of all. In an instant he felt the adrenaline rush as he watched Bressler get a jump on him, but by the time he scaled the third fence, the eight-footer, he found his pace and pulled steadily ahead… 

…and then he felt the distant peeling rip of deep thunder somewhere out over the Pacific… 

…and he saw his mother’s hands once again – working towards the eighty-eighth key… 

+++++

She had appeared to most people – when she first arrived in San Francisco, California – as a stern woman, perhaps even an unforgiving soul. And, if indeed eyes are windows to the soul, what most people felt when they looked into Imogen Callahan’s eyes left them profoundly unsettled. Her eyes were the deepest cobalt, her close-cropped hair a brilliant blond that bordered on white, and she was disconcertingly tall. Some people took the expression on her face, and in her eyes, as a sort of upwelling – of anger, perhaps – or hints of profound despair – yet nothing was further from the truth. She was a serious woman, true enough, a musician and a teacher, yet most people adduced she was a woman of uncertain passions.

Yet, she was a woman dedicated to the truth of the world.

Lloyd Callahan had first laid eyes on Imogen Schwarzwald in early Spring, 1945, and when he saw her his first unyielding impression was that he was looking at a ghost. Except this ghost was playing a piano…a battered concert grand piano…and she was seated inside a barren cafe-like building located in a far corner of a hastily cobbled together passenger terminal inside a run-down seaside wharf in Copenhagen. 

And inside that crystalline moment, he had been caught like a fly in amber, mesmerized, unable to move as the ghost’s fingers danced across unimaginable chords, working into the deeper registers, an impossible, soaring sadness echoing off the tattered building’s barren walls. Unaware he was walking through scattered rubble, he made his way to her side, saw her tear-streaked face, the long, almost skeletal fingers working at the ends of her emaciated arms…and he had wondered how such stark beauty survived the ravages of prolonged war. 

He had never known anyone that looked even remotely like her, and he had never known such an accomplished pianist. He learned she had been, at a very young age, an accomplished pianist, reputedly a composer of some import as well, yet he was surprised to learn she was not a professional musician.

It was in those first days together that he learned she was a physicist. And a jew.

And when for some reason she latched onto him he suddenly felt an exhilarating – and solemn – obligation to take care of her, and even though she wore the trauma of her recent existence like a deep shadow, even during the near-catatonic spells she endured almost daily, she fell into the solidity of this big man’s sheltering eyes. In time she fell into the brighter sunlight of his very existence.

He was a deck officer on a hospital ship, part of the British expeditionary response looking into claims of terrifying abuses at recently uncovered camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt, yet what this force soon learned about the killing camps in Poland was beyond horrific, and all this destitute horror only served to wrap Imogen Schwarzwald deeper into his protective embrace. 

As the European war drifted away, he took Imogen to Vancouver, Canada, and then on to Northern California, where he had enrolled in the state’s merchant marine academy. He bought a small house in the Potrero Hill neighborhood on the south side of San Francisco, a property with a large back yard, and with room enough to plant a small stand of lemon trees. When he wasn’t tied up with his maritime studies he helped Imogen with her English, and to help her advance her own academic work.

With his wartime experience, Lloyd quickly graduated, and he soon began working for a passenger line carrying tourists between California and Hawaii. He was, unfortunately, away for long stretches of time, though he was home for even longer periods. And after one very long time away he bought Imogen a piano, and music returned to their lives. 

And with music came a son: Harold Lloyd Callahan.

Life took on a sudden, fresher intensity after Harry’s arrival, and music seemed to be the focal point of all the family’s time together. Harry started to play almost as soon as he could walk, and by the time he finished elementary school he was considered something of a prodigy – but then he fell in love with baseball and all thoughts of a career in music seemingly fell away beyond the lights. Not long after Imogen began to fall away from music, too.

She grew restive and depressed when she was not at her teaching job in Berkeley, then took to composing dark, ominous pieces that seemed to Lloyd like the distant echoes of her time in the Theresienstadt ghetto. There were times in high school when Harry came home after school and found his mother frozen at the keyboard, lost in unheard memories that left him dazed and confused.

And yet, what pulled her from these minor-key fugues was Harry’s playing. He’d somehow fallen back in love with the piano during his senior year, only now he played Gershwin tunes, punctuated by intense ragtime rants that poured out of the little house like sunstreams through dark clouds – and these new forms enthralled Imogen almost as much as she loved watching her son play again. Their last Spring together was, therefore, a magical time for her, but then – out of the blue – he joined the Army and was soon on his way to flight school, and a year later he was flying helicopters in Germany near the Fulda Gap. Soon enough she found Harry in her dreams, but the uniform he wore wasn’t American. She dreamt in blacks and silvers, his red armbands dripping with mercurial zephyrs that colored these interludes as shivering cold passages of fear.

With the increased American involvement in Southeast Asia, Imogen’s soul seemed to fracture along ever deeper faults, and she fell into that darkest space within the deepest chords of her fear. And with Lloyd still away weeks at a time – now sailing to Hawaii, but occasionally as far away as Japan – she drifted on solitary seas of her own design. Lloyd assumed that – perhaps – these near catatonic spells had something to do with Harry being in Germany, but she remained distant and utterly uncommunicative about these inward flights. Yet when Harry wrote long letters about the German people, about how freedom-loving they all seemed, not to mention how beautiful the towns and villages were, this only served to deepen her isolation – and for perhaps the second time Lloyd began to understand what was happening: Harry was bringing her past into the present, and so once again his future fell into Imogen’s searing chords.

And soon enough Imogen only composed for the piano when violent thunderstorms approached, and it was then that Lloyd noted a further pattern emerging in her music. As these storms approached, as the sturm and drang of thunder and lightning drew near, her music seemed to mimic the deep low-pressure waves deep within the air – as if natures’ kinetic kaleidoscopes were a crucial guide informing each new, shattering crescendo she crafted. 

And true enough, each new storm left her ragged and spent, leaving only the warped, fragile shell of her distorted soul to stand guard. She seemed to cave inward after these floods of emotion, to turn away from the visions that constantly came to her after each new composition, but Lloyd felt these fallings-away were now somehow different. Deeper, more introspective and less predictable, he began to worry that perhaps one day she might not find her way out of the darkness.

After Harry’s return from Germany, he came back to the little house for a while, but Lloyd felt that his boy was adrift. Harry whispered that he had thought about studying music again, but one day – while picking up supplies at the local co-op – he witnessed an armed robbery at a gas station across the street. Police arrived, a minor shoot-out played-out in the street and between cars on a nearby parking lot, and after the dust settled he gave a witness statement to one of the patrolmen. 

And then he asked this man what it was like ‘out there’…doing the whole ‘cop’ thing?

The cop was an older man, maybe 35 or so, but he’d been on the streets long enough to know the score. They talked about the life some, and then Harry rode along with the cop a couple of times over the next few weeks, picked up a feel for what his world might look like if he took that next fork in the road. Lloyd watched the budding interest and wondered where it came from; Imogen could feel the change in her son, too, only a new fear became palpable in her music when she imagined her son as a policeman.

And so, when two weeks later Harry Callahan submitted his application to the San Francisco Police Department, she felt herself coming undone. Not quite knowing what else to do, she drove north to the city to a synagogue, and after wandering through the tangled cobwebs of memory she, at last, walked inside. 

She had, years ago, sworn this was the one thing she would never do again – yet as she walked into the heavy air of the musty old temple she was overcome with lightness, as if all the burdens of the past twenty-five years had quite suddenly slipped ever so softly away.

She saw a man in the temple, a man at once ancient and eternally young, a man who seemed to reside inside blue pools of deep wisdom. She walked towards the man, not sure what she expected, but she recognized something in the shape of his still waters, a sudden memory both vital and unexpected, and as she made her way up to him he turned and smiled at the surprise in her eyes.

Surprise turned to recognition in her eyes just as a sudden cold darkness reached up for her, and she felt herself falling into the music once again – as the clouds of that looming storm came for her out of the darkness.

 

chapter two

The violence of San Francisco came as a surprise to Harry Callahan.

Growing up in a quiet middle class neighborhood, even in an enclave nestled between the bay and the city, had left him unprepared for the reality of a San Francisco he had never really known. Homeless men and women sleeping in boxes, children selling their bodies to strangers for the price of a hamburger, predators everywhere lurking in the night. Everything, it seemed, was available for a buck. The city was an ocean of broken dreams lapping at the shores of extraordinary material wealth, two worlds in perpetual change, and conflict, and all in a way that left him speechless.

His first homicide left him reeling. 

In the early part of his rookie year, riding with a grizzled old FTO, they were the first to arrive at a massive house out beyond Golden Gate Park – and he was not prepared for the questions he felt he needed to ask…but couldn’t.  

A middle-aged man. White. Affluent, if the Mercedes in the driveway was any kind of indicator. The man’s house was palatial, like an Italian Renaissance villa, all framed by views of the Pacific and the Golden Gate. Earlier that morning, the man had been stretching, getting ready to go for an early morning run – something that Callahan did routinely. And just then a kid, maybe ten years old, a black kid as it happened, walked by and shot the man in the face, then simply walked off into the morning. Two witnesses, same story. Homicide detectives got to the scene a half hour later and did their thing while Callahan and his training officer gathered witness statements on the sidelines.

Callahan had a hard time shaking the apparent senselessness of that murder. The man was a lawyer, had been a juvenile court judge for years before returning to private practice. By all accounts a good man, so was it simply hard luck? Or retaliation? 

Did it matter why? Really, he asked himself, in the end…did it really matter?

A life meaningfully lived, snuffed out in an instant.

The kid apprehended. Nine years old, so not even prosecuted. No links to ulterior motive, so in the end just another truly senseless death. One of three that day, as it turned out.

Yet…how could such senselessness not matter? But could you measure it? Weigh it on a scale? Were there, he wondered, degrees of senselessness? A year hence, would any besides a handful of people even remember the man with the shattered face? Like a faucet with a slow drip, could you measure the sound made by just one drop of blood? Was that, in the end, how senselessness reduced the passions and essence of one man’s life? Blood  on a sidewalk?

Yet Callahan kept hearing about something called the wall, the wall cops erected to protect their sanity while living and working in a world awash in senselessness. The whole idea of such a wall had seemed kind of preposterous at first, but not after that first year on the street, and not after looking at the lawyer’s blasted ruins of a face. Yet, how could a nine-year-old kid do something like that? What did that kid’s actions say about the state of their world?

His last FTO didn’t have an answer to that question, either. In fact, the old man seemed to get off work and head straight to a favored watering hole after almost every shift, and Callahan went with him more than a few times during the waning days of his “rookie” year. Cops congregated in darkened back booths and shot the shit while tossing back frosted schooners of Anchor Steam and shaking hands full of salty peanuts, yet it was here in these barely hallowed halls that Callahan first saw that ‘the wall’ was palpably real…indeed, it was a vast impenetrable veil of carefree carelessness that wafted in settled swirls within those smokey limpid eyes. Nothing got through the veil, he soon saw. Nothing. Not even senselessness. Especially not senselessness.

Until the beer and waking nightmares soaked through, that it, because then quite suddenly these old men grew wide-eyed and distant, their lips curling down into clinched fists. He watched the crumbling wall more than once those last few weeks and walked home in an early morning fog to his small apartment – where the walls seemed to grow uncomfortably close as he thought about those eyes – and what they meant for the future.

He was cut loose soon after that year with all those Training Officers, assigned to evenings in the Tenderloin. He had his own evening beat, a walking patrol on the other side of life, cutting through a tidal surge of peep-shows and streetwalkers, wading through discarded scraps of senselessness that lined the filthy streets. He watched marching columns of middle-aged men in worn three-piece suits who filed out of office towers at five o’clock, vacant eyes on the prowl for a cheap pop before heading home to an empty apartment and another frozen dinner. Callahan walked and worked along the fringes of lust and hormones, where predators circled in the shadows, waiting.

Within a few months Harry Callahan knew all about the wall. He looked at his eyes in passing mirrors and tried to run away, but really…there was nowhere that far away.

+++++

He’d found that room not far from Fisherman’s Wharf, a so-called efficiency apartment that was furnished with a bed, a desk, and a pitifully small room off to the side that was supposed to be a kitchen. He had picked up a second-hand sofa and called it home, though his mother never came by for a visit.

Harry got off work at midnight, but by the time he finished his shift’s reports and changed into street clothes, it was usually closer to one. He’d hop one of the last cable cars of the night and get home a few minutes later, then shower and crawl between the sheets, hoping that the wall would wait until he was asleep before it came crashing down.

There was an old bar across the street, a jazz bar, and musicians usually kept at it ‘til three or four in the morning. Tourists from the glitzier places down by the wharf would wander by during these foggy pre-dawn interludes, and a few would take note of the music and drift inside. And quite often Callahan would watch the action if he couldn’t sleep, watch the predators in the shadows as they sized up the passing prey.

One night he watched an older platinum-blond woman coming down the walk, her steps tentative, not quite full-blown drunk, and he quickly sized up the opposition: two kids lurking in the darkness just off an intercepting alley.

“Goddammit,” he sighed as he grabbed his .357 and made for the street.

He made it to the intercept in time to hear the woman scream once, because by then the inevitable struggle was well underway. By the time he found them, the boys had ripped most of the woman’s clothes off and one was attempting penetration while the other held their terrified victim down on the grimy asphalt, a gloved hand over her powdered face.

“Looks like you’re having a little bit of trouble,” Callahan said to no one in particular as he walked upon the scene. Both boys looked up, startled at first, then angry.

“Get the fuck out of here,” the kid on top snarled, “or else…”

“Or else, what?” Callahan replied casually.

“Or else I’ll cut your fuckin’ face off,” the other kid said, standing now and pulling out switch-blade. 

Then he stepped towards Harry Callahan… 

…who pulled the Smith & Wesson from inside his windbreaker and leveled it at the kids face… 

…and then the kid rushed at Callahan, knife drawn… 

Callahan fired once, the semi-jacketed hollow point striking the boys face just under the left eye. The result was immediate and catastrophic. 

The kid fell to the ground while the other would-be rapist stood up and started to turn and run.

“Don’t do it, punk,” Callahan growled. “You can’t outrun a three fifty seven.”

“You a pig?” the kid sighed, eyeing Callahan warily but now clearly resigned to his new reality.

“Yup.” 

A small crowd had gathered at the entrance to the alley, and Callahan asked someone to call the police department. A few minutes later the first squad car arrived.

The pool of blood at Callahan’s feet was massive. People stared at the scene, then at the pistol in the cop’s hand before scattering into the night.

+++++

The interrogation room used by Internal Affairs was wired for sound, the room dimly lit and physically uncomfortable. Two detectives and a watch commander questioned Callahan about the sequence of events for the third time, trying to uncover inconsistencies in Callahan’s statement, but by midday they broke for lunch and told Harry not to come back.

“Should I report for my shift tonight?” he asked.

“Take the night off,” the watch commander said. “Unless you hear different, come in tomorrow.”

“Yessir.” Callahan turned and started to walk off.

“Callahan?” Lieutenant Neil Briggs growled.

Harry stopped and turned, looked at the lieutenant. “Yessir?”

“Good job.” The lieutenant turned and walked towards the division commander’s office.

Callahan nodded his head and walked out of the building.

He hopped on the cable car and sat near the rear, watched the city rumble by as another sodden breeze filled in, as always coming straight through the Golden Gate. He drifted on echos of the night before, reliving each instant again and again, the cable car’s clanging bell the only thing holding him to the present. He was almost two blocks past his stop before he knew it had passed, but he hopped off and began walking back up the hill to his street.

And he wasn’t so surprised when he found his father sitting on the steps outside of his building. The look in his old man’s eyes was something else entirely.

+++++

He’d never seen such a troubled look on his father’s face. But troubled wasn’t exactly the right word, he thought as a walked up to his old man. Lost was more like it.

“Dad?” Callahan said. “You okay?”

“Oh, hi Harry.”

“Dad?”

“Can we go upstairs? We need to talk.”

“I’ve got coffee, juice and water,” Harry said as he closed the door behind them.

“Nothing right now.”

“Something wrong?” Callahan asked, his voice suddenly uncertain. “Is it Mom?”

“She left last night.”

“Left? Where’d she go?”

His father walked over to the same window Harry had looked out the night before, and he even looked in the same general direction where the rape had gone down.

“Strange, fucked up world,” Lloyd Callahan whispered.

“Dad? Where’d she go?”

And a father turned and looked at his son, not knowing what to say, or even where to begin. “Israel, Harry. She went to Israel.”

+++++

They talked through the rest of the afternoon, and then long into the night. Lloyd told his son about his mother’s wartime experience: being among a group a Danish physicists forced to Peenemunde to work on Nazi rocket projects; her eventual refusal to be complicit in the results of the program; and her forced relocation to the Theresienstadt ghetto in late 1944.

Harry listened in astonished silence, this part of his mother’s vast journey a complete surprise. He became confused, then angry at both his parents for their silence, but Harry saw his father wasn’t having any of it… 

“When you graduated, went off to Germany, she came undone. The letters you wrote describing Germans as freedom loving…”

“But they are, Dad. That’s a fact…”

His father shrugged his shoulders like a tired boxer, looked down at his hands as he steepled his fingers, cradling another forgotten memory. “Maybe. Maybe not, but that really doesn’t matter, son. To your mother, Germans will always be the epitome of evil.”

“But, that’s so – unfair,” Harry sighed.

“Of who, son? Based on her experience, who’s being the most unfair here?”

Harry looked away, shook his head, sighed before whispering: “I can’t even imagine…”

“I followed her up here a few weeks ago, on a Monday. To a synagogue. She returned the last two Mondays, disappeared inside. I followed her up a few days ago, waited and waited. She never came out. Yesterday this came in the mail…”

Harry looked at the envelope in his father’s trembling hand, willed himself to reach out and take it, then he took out the letter and began reading. Soon his hands were shaking too.

“This came for you at the house,” his father added, holding a second pale yellow envelope in the fading light.

The letter was from the Department of Defense, he saw, and he tore it open then stared at the words on the paper.

“Harry? What is it?” his father asked, and not knowing what to say Harry passed the notice to his father. 

“Vietnam?” his father whispered, his hands starting to shake. “My God, what will your mother say?”

+++++

He’d been “in-country” for a week and still had no idea what was going on, or where he was supposed to be. No one did, or so it seemed, but Saigon was interesting, the bar at the Caravelle even more so. Lots of “round eyes” in the bar, for the most part old men in straw fedoras, and Callahan quickly picked up that things in that bar were not always as they seemed. Not on the surface, anyway. Too many hushed whispers and sidelong glances, not enough hookers.

A harried-looking kid in muddy fatigues came in and took a seat at the table next to Callahan’s; he saw splattered blood and vague bits of errant tissue on the back of the stranger’s neck and so looked him over a little more closely. Blood on his boots, on the tops of both hands, a medical corps insignia on his lapel, the look was topped off by shaking hands and a vacant stare.

“Hey man, you okay?” Callahan asked.

“I’m tactical,” the man said, waving a waitress to come over. When the elven angel drifted by and hovered overhead the man ordered a double Scotch – neat – then turned to Callahan: “Need anything?”

“Another Budweiser,” Callahan said to the waitress, now clearly mesmerized by the woman’s exotic beauty. She floated away, and Callahan noted the man hadn’t once looked at the waitress.

“Who are you?” the stranger asked.

“Callahan,” Harry replied while taking the strangers offered hand. “You?”

“Parish.”

“Looks like you’ve a fun day,” Callahan added.

“Fun…? Yeah, fun. That’s the very fuckin’ word I was lookin’ for. Fun. What a good fuckin’ word. I like it…” he said as he took his first cocktail from the waitress, who he still ignored. “Let’s drink to fun,” he said before he downed the drink. He finished, his eyes now focused on some faraway place deep within the cracked paint on the ceiling. 

The waitress shook her head knowingly as she took the empty glass and walked off to the bar, and while Callahan took a long pull on his Bud, Parish seemed to recoil from something or someone hiding in distant shadows. 

Callahan turned and looked at Parish again. “What are you doin’ here, man?” he asked. “Maybe you should go wash up.”

Parish brought his hands up to his face and looked at the plastered human debris there. “Smart kid. Sniper got him, I think. Took a round right outside the OR. Tried to save him, ya know? Nothin’ there man. Nothin’. But we got a pulse, got him on a Huey, and I got some more plasma in him, some D5W, on the ride down. He bit it about five minutes out, didn’t come back this time. Good kid. Working as a scrub tech, wanted to be a doctor. When he grew up, I think he used to say.  Well, he’s all grown up now…” 

“You a doc?” Callahan asked quietly.

“Me? No way, man. I’m the boatman, I carry all these kids across the river,” Parish said as he took his next cocktail from the waitress. “Purgatory, ya know? I help ‘em on their way.”

“Where you based?”

“Who? Me?” Parish sighed after his second scotch disappeared. “Nowhere, man. I’m a real nowhere man.”

Callahan nodded, saw blood running from an open wound under Parish’s shredded tunic. “You know you’ve been shot?” Harry said, looking at the stuff dripping on the floor.

“That?” Parish said absentmindedly as he poked at his belly. “Oh, that’s nothing.”

“It’s bleedin’ a little bit more than nothing, man. Can I take a look?”

“Nope. You can get me some more fuckin’ whiskey, though.”

An army kid in starched khakis walked in the bar and looked around, then walked up to Harry. “You Callahan?” the kid said.

“Yup.”

“I got your papers,” the kid said as he tossed an envelope on Callahan’s table. Before he could open the sealed orders the kid had turned and disappeared.

+++++

Almost three years later Callahan took the sergeant’s exam and scored first; after sitting for the review board he was given his stripes and assigned to ‘Deep Nights’ in the Mission District. ‘The Mission’ represented the City’s soft underbelly – rundown residential areas situated next to industrial warehouses lining the 280 and 101 – and the entire nature of policing was completely different here, radically different from the easy predatory byways of the Tenderloin. Family disturbances – most very deadly affairs – were the norm on ‘deep nights,’ but so too were armed robberies and homicides. Broken dreams and drunkenness were a plague on these mean streets, so fractured teens took to the streets to console one another with random acts of violence. All in all, violence was – on the surface of this underbelly – appallingly bad day or night, but on ‘deep nights’ it tended to the ferocious.

And the cops assigned to work ‘the Mission’ were all considered somewhat ferocious, as well.

Yet Callahan’s job was fundamentally different now, too. He no longer answered calls, was no longer assigned a beat. He responded as a back-up unit on ‘hot’ calls, or assigned other free, unassigned units to respond as a back-up unit on certain types of ambiguous calls. Several times a shift he had to meet up with squads and review paperwork, and units working complex events called him to the scene to ask questions or seek advice.

And in very short order Harry Callahan knew working ‘the Mission’ was a more hands-off proposition, and he hated it. When hot family disturbances came out he was often first on scene, and when these incidents resulted in extreme violence, notably homicides, Callahan often did a lot of the preliminary investigative legwork. 

And while this did not sit well with Callahan’s immediate supervisors, several inspectors in Homicide took note. One in particular saw something interesting in Harry Callahan, a familiar resilience perhaps, and this detective began quietly asking discrete questions about the new sergeant working nights in ‘the mission’.

His name was Frank Bullitt.

+++++

So, here ends the first part of the tale. I’m moving slow these days, slower than I’d like, slower than I’m used to. Words don’t come like they used to, either. Ideas? No problem there. Getting those bastards down on paper is another thing entirely. They’re low-down-squiggly and now they can run faster than I can. C’est la vie-vie.

Oh, yeah, I know you see gaps in the timeline. Don’t worry,  that’s what flashbacks are for…

This part of the story (c) 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw

3 thoughts on “the eighty-eighth key

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