H Is For Homicide Page 21

A table opened up and I snagged one of the empty chairs, putting my jacket across the back of the chair beside me to ward off any poachers. By the time I looked back at the dance floor, I'd lost sight of Bibianna, but I caught a flash of her red dress in the pulsating mass of dancers and occasional glimpses of her partner's face. I had known him in another context altogether, and I couldn't quite reconcile the incongruity of my past perception of him with the setting in which I now saw him. His hair had been shorter then and the mustache was new, but the aura was the same. Jimmy Tate was a cop - probably an ex-cop by now if the rumors were correct. Our paths had crossed the first time in elementary school - fifth grade, where for half a year we were soulmates, bound by a pact we'd sealed by touching tongues. Solemn stuff. Jimmy was into what they call ’’acting out.’’ I'm not sure what had happened to his parents, but he'd lived in foster homes all his life, getting kicked out of first one, then another. He was a kid who'd been labeled ’’incorrigible’’ by the age of eight, rebellious, prone to fistfights and bloody noses. He was frequently truant, and since I was given to truancy myself back then, we formed an odd bond. In many ways I was a timid child, but I had a wild streak of my own born of grief at the loss of my parents when I was five. My mutiny originated in fear, Jimmy's in rage, but the net result was the same. I could see that under his defiance, there was such pain and such sweetness. I may even have loved him in my own innocent, prepubescent way. He was twelve years old to my eleven when I met him, a bewildered boy who had no concept of self-control. More than once he came to my defense, beating the snot out of some bullying fifth-grade boy who'd tried pushing me around. I could still recall the exhilaration I felt every time we raced away from the schoolyard, giddy with freedom, knowing how short-lived our liberation would be. He introduced me to cigarettes, tried getting me high on aspirin and Coke, showed me the difference between boys and girls. I can still remember the mix of mirth and pity I felt when I realized all boys were afflicted with a doo-dad that looked like an ill-placed thumb stuck between their legs. Eventually, Jimmy's foster mother declared him out of control and sent him back to wherever it was unwanted kids were sent in those days. Juvenile hall, I guess. I didn't see him for eight years, and then I was astonished when he showed up my first day at the police academy. By then, his toughness had a manic edge. He was a pretty boy and a boozer, out until all hours. How he got accepted into the academy, I'll never know. Candidates are put through rigorous psychological evaluation, at which point the unsuitable and the unstable are quickly eliminated. He must have eluded the wily probing of his examiners, or maybe he was one of those rare individuals whose personality flaws don't show up under scrutiny. His academy grades were usually borderline, but he never missed a class and his competitive nature kept him in the game. He was savvy enough to turn the heat down when he had to, but he never kept himself in check for long. He did manage to graduate with the rest of us, but he was always skirting disaster in some form. I'd kept my distance, too invested in my own career at that point to risk the taint of his reputation.

He'd applied for a job with Santa Teresa Police department at the same time I did, but he'd been turned down. I lost track of him for a while and then I heard he'd joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Word of his exploits started leaking back to us. In bars after hours, the talk would start, cops trading tales about the crazy things Jimmy Tate had done. He was the kind of officer you wanted next to you any time there was trouble. In a pinch, he was absolutely fearless, oblivious of danger. In a pissing contest with the ’’bad guys,’’ he was right out in front. His aggression seemed to generate a force field around him, a protective shield. Other cops had told me that watching him under fire, you became aware that in his own way, he was as dangerous as ’’they’’ were - the bank robbers, the dopers, gang members, snipers, all the lunatics who had it in for us law-and-order types. Unfortunately, his ferocity pushed him across the line more than once. I gathered he did things you didn't talk about later - things you pretended you hadn't seen because he'd saved your life and you owed him. Eventually, he was tapped as part of a special investigating unit put together to monitor the activities of known criminals. Six months later, the section was disbanded after a series of questionable shootings. Twelve officers were suspended, Jimmy Tate among them. All were reinstated after review by the police commission, but it seemed clear it was only a matter of time before something blew in a big way.

Two years ago, I'd come across his name in the L.A. Times. He'd been reassigned to a narcotics unit and had just been indicted, along with six other deputies, in a money-skimming scandal that was rocking the department. The details were spelled out day after day during preliminary hearings. Five of the six were bound over for trial and one of those blew his brains out. I followed the court proceedings in occasional copies of the L.A. Times, though I never heard the outcome. It wouldn't have surprised me to learn he was guilty as charged. He was reckless and self-destructive, but as odd as it sounds, I knew if I'd had a brother, I'd have wanted him to be exactly like Jimmy Tate, not for his conduct and the dubious underlying morality, but because of his loyalty and his passionate commitment to survival. We live in a society piously concerned about the rights of criminals when their victims'lives have been trashed without any consideration of the price in pain and suffering. With Jimmy Tate in charge, believe me, justice was served. There simply wasn't much attention paid to the technicalities involved.

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