Benefit of the Doubt

Paperback Spotlight: Benefit of the Doubt

Benefit of the Doubt by Neal GriffinOnce a month, we’re spotlighting a Tor/Forge book that will soon become available in paperback. Today, we’re featuring Benefit of the Doubt by Neal Griffin, coming out in paperback December 29, 2015.

A gripping thriller, Benefit of the Doubt exposes the dark underbelly of policing in small-town America, where local police departments now deal with big-city crimes and corruption. Please enjoy this excerpt.

ONE

The digital timer on the treadmill hit forty minutes and Ben Sawyer fought the nagging urge to quit. Tempted to slow to a brisk walk, Ben cursed himself through clenched teeth. He cranked the speed half a point higher, increased the incline, and gave himself a silent ration of shit for being weak. He despised artificial exercise, but the alternative meant dealing with the slush, soft ice, and bone-snapping potholes that scarred the roads every spring. To make matters worse, Ben knew that after a short respite, summer heat would blanket the countryside with a muggy hatred for all things human. The wet, sticky air would be thick with dragon mosquitoes patrolling the skies like military drones in search of easy targets. An endless parade of miserable seasons. If he spent the rest of his life in the earthbound purgatory of Newberg, Wisconsin, he’d use his last breath to curse the goddamn weather.

In the cramped storage room that doubled as the gym of the Newberg Police Department, Ben ran in place while half a dozen patrol officers held what amounted to nothing more than a circle jerk disguised as a workout. He couldn’t help but overhear as one officer held the group spellbound with his firsthand account of a bizarre dead body call at an all-night grocery store.

“I’m telling you, fellas, we break the office door down and find the guy slumped over dead, pants around his ankles, and the most imaginative collection of kinky shit I’ve ever seen outside a porn store.”

Graveyard cops are all the same, Ben thought. Young. Aggressive. Mostly male and inevitably vile natured and foul mouthed. As a veteran sergeant, Ben knew they might be crude and tasteless, but street cops from any department had to be allowed to blow off steam.

The officer went on, “And he had this … this … I don’t know what you’d call it … this rubber ass thing. I’d never seen one before. Flat on one side so he could prop it up on the desk, two holes in it. And man, I’m not lyin’ when I tell ya this. He was buried in that damn thing right up to the hilt.”

Expressions of disgust and disbelief were met by a raised hand signifying there was more.

“I bullshit you not, but check this out. The body snatchers show up, right? But they say they ain’t gonna take the guy with the man-made attachment. So I draw short straw and I gotta separate him from his…”

The officer seemed perplexed, wondering how to explain, but plowed ahead.

“Well, shit … I had to yank it off him. I swear it popped off like a champagne cork. And I’ll be damned if there wasn’t something sloshin’ around in there.”

This was more than the audience could stand. Profane objections rang out and the crowd backed away, giving the storyteller a wide berth.

“Fuck you guys, I double-gloved. But I’m tellin’ ya, the damn thing had some heft to it, must’ve weighed four or five pounds. Anatomically correct, sure as shit. It was like … like a desktop piece of ass.” A sweeping gesture of the hand accompanied the last line, followed by gales of laughter, then a question from the audience.

“So was he working or just hanging around to get his rocks off?”

“Oh, he was working all right. Just threw his green apron over his shoulder, lubed up, and got at it. Dropped dead of a heart attack so fast he couldn’t even put his junk away, poor bastard.” The officer feigned sympathy, then went for the showman’s big finish.

“Ya know, I’ll bet before he croaked out he was looking through the one-way glass, puttin’ it to that ass contraption of his and all the while dreaming about having at one of those sexy little checkout chicks. You think about it, that ain’t a bad way to go. I saw a couple I wouldn’t mind bending over that desk.” A dramatic thrust of the hips emphasized the final point, which was followed by even more laughter. Ben saw high fives go around for everyone but the man in middle, whose objections were met with a hard dose of cop-world reality.

“Dude, it don’t matter if you triple-gloved. Your ass is quarantined for life after handling that shit.”

Ben shook his head and smiled in spite of himself. Rough crowd. But he had to admit it was the perfect cop war story: sex, death, and some no-count civilian schmuck to ridicule. Most candy-ass civilian types would no doubt disapprove of the officer’s graphic storytelling. But Ben knew for a fact none of these guys gave a damn that their private conversation about a dead man not yet in the ground might offend the churchgoing populace. Cops figured anybody who didn’t want to hear it, didn’t have to listen. Ben was in complete agreement.

Okay. Four more minutes. Forget the damn shop talk and get at it.

To fight the monotony, Ben conjured up a mental picture of the sandy shoreline of Crab Cove back in Alameda, when low tide and sunrise came together to create perfect running conditions. The taste of sea salt drifting in on the light breeze, the surf breaking a hundred yards out. He’d do six miles, ending up at the South Shore Café, where he’d spoil himself with a well-deserved twelve-hundred-calorie breakfast and the sports section of the Oakland Tribune.

You really know how to screw up a good gig, Sawyer.

Ben was honest enough to accept the blame. He’d been a thirteen-year veteran of Oakland PD. A sergeant in charge of the prestigious Gang Suppression Unit. His star on the rise, lieutenant bars in his future. High-ranking bosses threw his name around as a future commander, maybe even chief. Then it happened. Shitcanned back to Newberg, his childhood home. A place that on the law enforcement career ladder came in about six rungs below mall cop.

Oh, let it go already.

Ben put in his earbuds, turned up the volume on his iPod, and notched the speed up another two points. The rhythmic hum of the treadmill fell in sync with AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” and the antics of his fellow officers faded away. Ben did his best to drown out the internal critic by concentrating on the opening guitar riffs, but the usual insults ran amok in his head.

You’re lucky to have any kind of job. How about a few years in prison, you ever think of that?

He counted the impacts of his left foot on the moving rubber surface. Anything to keep his mind a safe distance from the past—but he couldn’t stop the emotional drift. Memories flooded over him in relentless, violent waves. Years of street work in Oakland. A band of brothers. Human bonds that could stand any test. Any test, that is, other than twenty seconds of insanity and a convict-turned–urban folk hero named Hector Espudo.

The past took form in a series of staccato sounds and still images, flashing in his mind as isolated moments. Shifting angles and light. A rookie officer’s sudden and frantic call over the radio.

“Foot pursuit of 187 suspect. Westbound on Fortieth approaching Broadway.”

The crime and location said it all. Every cop in Oakland knew the suspect was Hector Espudo, a convict put back on the street through the governor’s bullshit early-release program. A made member of the Nuestra Familia inside the walls and a high-ranking lieutenant of the Norteños street gang on the outside, Hector had been on parole less than three weeks when he got into a beef with an adversary from a rival gang. Hector went at the man with the ass end of a table lamp, and by the time he was done, his victim’s face was mashed flat into the orange shag carpet of an Oakland crack house like a pile of stepped-in dog shit. The rival gang put a bounty on his head, and the state of California officially reneged on the early out. Every cop in Oakland was on the lookout for Hector … not to mention a couple thousand gang members hoping to get famous.

The next radio transmission was a hysterical call for cover that caused a hundred sirens to scream out at once from all over the city. It was clear the Rook had made contact and the fight was on. Sergeant Ben Sawyer was two blocks away and on scene in thirty seconds.

The hell with it, Ben thought. You really wanna go there? Let’s go. Ben dug deep and pushed the speed of the machine to seven-minute miles. The sights and sounds of Deep East Oakland came clear in his mind.

Ben jumped from his car before it stopped rocking on its chassis. Visible waves

of heat blasted up from the asphalt; sirens wailed from all directions, growing closer. Just ahead, an officer lay prone on the sidewalk with Hector’s hulking figure on top of him. Hector wore a tight wife beater T-shirt over a tattooed physique that marked him as a recent graduate of the California penal system. He outweighed the cop by sixty sculpted pounds. As Ben closed in, he could hear the cop’s panicked voice, shrill and full of fear.

He’s got my gun. He’s got my gun.

The music kicked in full force, and Ben opened his gait, taking longer and longer strides, arms and legs moving in a smooth but furious motion. The nearby crew of Newberg officers turned to gawk, but Ben saw only the face of Hector Espudo. Brown, full of hate and determination. Prison-green tattoos of two teardrops inked beneath one eye and the name of his barrio pulsing on his neck, all outlined in a sheen of sweat. As Ben closed in, he saw that Hector’s hands were wrapped around the grip of the officer’s gun, the barrel pointed directly into the man’s chest. The rookie, true to his training, had both hands tight around the slide of the semiauto and his finger shoved behind the trigger, making it temporarily impossible for the gun to fire.

Ben’s chest burned and his breath came hard. With any luck his heart would explode and kill the memory forever, rid him of this constant reminder of lost honor and betrayal.

Ben wasted no time, grabbing the thick, greasy ponytail that ran ten inches down Hector’s back, wrapping it tight in his fist and jerking hard. Hector’s head snapped back until his face pointed to the sky, blinding him in the intense sunlight. His mouth spewed spit and profanity. The odor of Mad Dog 20/20 mixed with the chemical smell of meth radiated like red heat off Hector’s muscular frame.

“Hijo de puta, pig motherfucker. I’ll kill both your asses,” Hector shouted in a coarse, rage-filled voice.

In one fluid motion, Ben slid his gun from the hard plastic shell of the tactical holster he wore and shoved the barrel against the side of the man’s head. Ben made sure the contact was hard enough that there would be no mistaking his intentions. A contact shot to the temple or through the top of the skull was justified, but Ben didn’t pull the trigger.

“Your choice, Hector: hands off the gun or die.”

The second syllable wasn’t spoken before Hector’s hands came off the cop’s gun and went high over his head in a clear display of unconditional surrender. His eyes filled with terror as he looked awkwardly toward the gun that was still poised at the side of his head. His expression said it all. Hector knew this cop would not hesitate to kill him.

It could have ended there, and if it had, Ben figured he probably would have received a commendation for lifesaving. Hell, not only for saving the cop but he even managed to keep Hector alive. Ben knew most cops would have shot Hector on the spot, but avoiding an officer-involved shooting always gave the department brass something to brag about. Yep. It could have been a great day for the Sawyer legacy. A hell of a war story for the locker room: how Sawyer almost performed a gangbanger street execution with his forty-cal. But it didn’t end there. Ben was just getting started.

Ben smashed the Stop button on the treadmill in defeat, his heart pounding defiant and strong, signaling there would be no easy exit. The intense whine of the machine slowed to a steady drone, then went silent. He bent at the waist and drew deep breathes. Large drops of sweat fell from his face to the floor. The reality of Newberg returned.

Two minutes remained of his self-imposed physical torture. Ben restarted the machine and finished his run at a slow jog, emptying his mind of everything but the motion of his arms and legs and the steady thump of his heart. Done, he headed for the showers. An arriving officer looked Ben over and gave nothing more than a nod of his head and a look that said it all. No greeting of respect or friendship. Ben avoided eye contact. He gave no indication he would even want to stop and shoot the breeze. Ben had come to accept his place in this new strange world. Outsider. Nonplayer. Chief’s boy.

Ben listened to the newcomer join in with the officers already present. He heard the exchange of curse words, insults, and bravado: standard greetings for cops sheltered from public view. He felt the familiar pang of isolation.

In the crude shower room, Ben cranked the water hot as it would go. Steam filled the stall, and he worked to lose himself in the mist. Ben pushed his head under the water, and a thousand hot needle pricks scalded the back of his neck. He forced himself to relax. It was time to put it all away again. Try to be normal for the entire day that lay ahead. He closed his eyes and spoke in a low voice to the only person that was the least bit interested in hearing anything he had to say.

“Forget about Oakland, Sawyer. This is Newberg.”

Copyright © 2015 by Neal Griffin

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