By Walter Giersbach

Mullally slumped behind the wheel of the Crown Vic. His eyes were on the down-at-the-heels garden apartments but his mind was in some other place, rethinking last night's snafu. Being embarrassed, bewildered, even a bit scared. It had nothing to do with Gerda, the dental hygeinist. God, she was good looking, bright and bubbly. German immigrant 29 or 30 years old. Still lived with her mother, which wasn't good but not a roadblock to a healthy relationship. So why hadn't he been able to make it the first time they went to bed at his apartment? He got right to that point of her moaning and he couldn't get it up. There was that moment of sudden realization, horror — utter ridiculousness — as he hovered over her body before rolling off in disgust.

He was infuriated that his body wouldn't respond. Humiliated that his willy wouldn't stand up and salute.

Later, they were watching Mitchum in The Big Sleep. Gerda said, "What is the other word for detective? Dick?"

It came out unintentionally. He could have slapped her for saying dick. Now he was stuck in Montclair, which could have been a million miles from Newark — and Gerda.

José Rivera took the DeCamp 33 bus from Port Authority through the Lincoln Tunnel to Jersey and out to Bloomfield Avenue. Elisa lived in Montclair, which was why he left the city. José was like a small animal who lived in a burrow — in the borough called The Bronx.

He waited under a store awning off Bloomfield, ignoring the big Ford with the man sleeping behind the wheel if he even noticed it. He saw Elisa leave her apartment building. The minute he stepped out a pigeon shit on his shoulder. Wiping off the bird crap he ran across the street, through the unlocked lobby door — stupid Americano white people — and up a flight of stairs. His pocket knife made her door open in less than a minute and then it went to work snip snip snip on the couch.

The couch smelled like sweat. It was a reject from the Salvation Army, a curbside find. That fit. Elisa was a curbside reject, but she was his reject. He had paid her ticket up from San Juan, paid for her guitar lessons, paid for that German shepherd dog that disappeared a week later.

When José finished, he had a cubbyhole inside the couch. He piled the stuffing and strange couch padding underneath. He had room to curl up and wait.

An hour later he heard Elisa come home and plop down a paper bag. She was on her cell phone, probably to some new boyfriend. Blah blah blah, oh how beautiful your eyes are, like she had told him. Oh, I love to tangle my finger in your dark hair.

He would kill the man who stole Elisa. Mierda, a stab of anger shot through him. He had forgotten his knife on the coffee table.

He felt Elisa sit down on the couch, on him, and he involuntarily gave an Ooof! She got up, threw the cushion to the floor and looked into José's black eyes.

"You! You followed me here, to spy on me. Damn you!" She reached for the first thing in arm's length — the knife — and plunged it into José's neck.

Mike Mullally had been given the NYPD alert that the Spanish kid was leaving New York for Jersey, got up here in thirty-five minutes in time to see him go in Elisa Obrador's building. A stake-out was a stake-out, but this was a step up, being assigned to a county-wide task force. Being in Montclair instead of the streets of Newark's 2nd Precinct. If he played it right there could be a commendation. Promotion, transfer. Something in it for him while cutting the homicide rate in Essex County.

A black Suburban pulled up next to him and the passenger side window went down. "You the Newark guy?" A plain clothes cop looked him over.

"Detective Mullally, Newark P.D. What's it to you?"

"You're relieved. Go on and get out of here."

"I'm relieved when I get a call from my captain. Not till then or I feel like it." These guys looked like they handled traffic when church let out.

"We're Montclair Police. We're taking over. Turn around and go back down Bloomfield. You don't even want to make me get out of this car and tell you again."

Mullally stared back for a full minute. He could do this the hard way or the easy way. Deciding on diplomacy, he turned on the ignition and drove slowly back to the avenue. Around the corner, he pulled up to the curb and picked up his radio.

* * *

Mullally got up to Montclair at seven a.m. the next morning to relieve the task force officer from Nutley, expecting to meet the two cops — even anticipating it. Captain Broome had been so pissed he was red-faced. Coronary material.

"This is a county task force, goddammit, Mullally!" Broome had shouted. "The Essex County Prosecutor is running for re-election and wants to cut these homicides. I've had to assign six men to this deal. I'm losing bench strength, so I'm not letting any goddamn Montclair cops tell you to go home. Now, get your ass back there first thing tomorrow. If those bums stop you, you tell them to arrest you and use your dime to call me. I'll have County Prosecutor Alonzo fucking Harrington down on their asses so fast..."

That was the funny thing about old guys, even old cops. obody used dimes at a pay phone anymore.

Captain Broome said one more thing. "The Spanish kid is running heroin with the Bloods. His old lady — one he went to see, Señorita Obrador — is a butcher."

"Killer?" Mullally asked.

"A meat packer. We're waiting for a court order to go into Obrador's apartment, but the damn judge isn't convinced a crime's been committed."

Elisa came out at 7:30 carrying packages and squinting into the sun. Small packages wrapped in butcher paper. Earlier, she took out the garbage — bags that went into the trash cans at the curb.

The meat lady brought almost 30 pounds of ground round and sausages to the carniceria on Elm Street. Guzmán greeted her with an "¡Hola!" and waved her inside.

"Special today for you, Señor Guzmán. Chorizos. Ten pounds. Fresh made." She breathed heavily from walking in the heat, brushed back her long damp hair from her face.

"Ah, I love your sausage, Elisa. I give you two dollars a pound — more than before. My customers keep coming back. Now, what else you have?"

After concluding her deal, Elisa shared a café con leche with Guzmán. She tucked almost sixty dollars into her purse. Now, there was shopping to do — salt, vinegar, and more garlic and oregano. And especially the paprika, cayenne and black pepper.

The list was in her head since she had never mastered the art of writing. José had been only a small problem — maybe three-quarters of a problem disposing of the bones and body parts in Hefty bags. The rest of him had netted her sixty dollars. This evening she would go and dance all night.

Patiently, Mullally followed the señorita on foot through the Fourth Ward, staying a block behind her. Her swaying butt was a navy ship wallowing in the waves. What an ass. And a meat packer. She could pack a man's meat... He dropped the thought, thinking of Gerda.

Maybe he needed a script for Viagara. Or that other one where you call your doctor if you go blind or your hard-on doesn't go down in four hours. He didn't have to tell anybody, certainly not Gerda. But he was scared. What if the doctor suggested he had a prostrate condition? Cancer?

Think positive, he told himself. You're here to do a job.

Mullally's cell phone vibrated stopping him in mid-step. The señorita was more than a block ahead on the other side of the street, turning into Nishuane Park on High Street. "Yeah," he said.

"Mullally, we got a dog's breakfast on our plate." Captain Broome exhaled loudly, a whale breaching. "C'mon in. Problems with the task force. Montclair's chief is all over us like shit on a shoe."

"In a while...sir. Something's up. I'm tailing the meat packer."

"Now, goddammit. We'll talk later."

* * *

The president of the United States could lock up anyone that he wanted in Guantánamo. Captain Broome wouldn't ask for more than an apology if he stayed on the case until he was relieved. He wasn't the President.

Crime in this part of the county was up 20 percent. Mullally knew the stats. Forty-eight incidents per thousand citizens. Statisticians always come up with scary figures when there's an election. A hundred and some cops in Montclair, a third black — which was admirable — and just nine assigned to handle street crime. Too bad none of them had joined the county to help figure out what was going on in these streets.

Before entering the park he bought a container of coffee. No murders yet to break the serenity of people going about their business. Just kids on skateboards, women pushing baby carriages.

Derek van den Hoeval was in a melancholy mood, his usual state when he was considering a new project. Nishuane Park was almost empty. Sitting a dozen yards away was one of his bronze figures, this one a commuter dialing a cell phone. This statue and the many others — generically called Dereks — graced city parks and avenues across the country. They appeared so real that passersby couldn't resist photographing them, falling in love, posing like children next to them. Derek loved them too, his bronze children.

His cell phone rang. "What's next, old man?" his agent challenged him. "You've done them all, Derek. Housewife, businessman, children. Geldzahler called the last one 'unfinished.' And 'self referential," whatever that means. Now what? What're you going to do to make us some money?"

Beauty. The answer was beauty, he realized putting away the phone as the woman came down the asphalt walk fiddling with her cellphone. Passing him was the most remarkable woman he'd seen in years — black hair tumbling in a midnight waterfall. Shoulders that might have come from a Greek statue. Dark eyes set deeply into the crême caramel of her face. Fingers long and supple and made for grasping a man's desire. Beauty that no one, least of all Geldzahler, would call unfinished.

She stopped in front of Derek's Commuter, staring first at the statue with the cell and then to her own mobile phone.

"That's mine." Derek spoke without getting up. "Do you like it?"

"Huh," she said noncommitally. "How comes he's yours?"

"I made him. Sculpted him in plaster. Made a mold. Cast the bronze in the mold." He tried to make the mystery of art as simple as he could. He patted the bench next to him and she sat down. "I could make you mine. Immortal. Like my Commuter."

She immediately grasped the fundamentals of what he described — to cast her as a barbarous free spirit experiencing the sophisticated civilization of America.

It wasn't until Elisa was wandering around his studio touching everything that was unfamiliar to her that he realized he could never copy her savage beauty. Never accurately model her curves and capture her vivacity. He had to have her.

"Sit, Elisa. Just sit naturally, perhaps with your hands in your purse looking for something."

"For what?"

At that moment, he used his wooden mallet to dent her head, just enough to kill her with no damage that could be seen. It took the rest of the afternoon to cover her in a veneer of polystyrene. Tomorrow, when Elisa was dry-cured was the word -- he'd paint her.

Another weird situation. That was how Mullally saw it. Trailing the woman till they found the Spanish kid.

He had gone back for the Crown Vic and pulled it down to the industrial area — junk yards and lofts — where the old guy had gone with the señorita. He sat, waiting for something to happen, sorry he'd given up smoking, sorry his ass hurt. The old guy was pegged as some kind of artist. Dutch guy, he was told when he called in the address to the Precinct. He and the girl had gone into this loft hours ago. Now the Dutchman was walking out — by himself — with a big smile plastered on his face. Like he had been playing with himself or looking for a place to do it.

Mullally was patient enough not to curse. No gain in getting pissed that the task force wasn't getting local support, pissed at the judge who didn't want to open Obrador's apartment. Pissed at the doctor who wouldn't call in a script for hard-on pills and insisted he needed a full exam. Jersey was dysfunctional. Maybe the whole world too.

He called the Precinct again. "Tell Captain Broome my suspect is walking again and the meat packer hasn't appeared. I need a man to cover my post. Right now."

"Jesus Christ, Mike!" It was Marian on the desk. "Think. Your partner's off today. This is Newark and it's quitting time. And the Captain wants to know why you're not here." He could feel the disgust dripping in her voice. "It's quitting time here."

"I know," Mullally said. "Just when the bad guys are waking up. Okay. Pass my request on up. I'm going after the Dutchman. Someone needs to stake out the loft, see if the lady comes out."

* * *

Be patient, he told himself. That's what he needed with Gerda when he saw her tonight. If she'd still see him. Patience was what fifteen years duty taught him. But now the Dutchman was turning into a hole-in-the-wall bar. Quitting time for him too.

There'd been no run-in with the Montclair Boy Scouts since the day before. Sorry. He really wished they'd gotten on his case so he could bust some chops. A county order beat a municipality like a full house beat three of a kind.

Fewer people on the street now. Lunch-bucket workers heading home, kids banging each other with their school bags, last-minute shoppers catching something for dinner.

Serena had a few small questions about her religion. For example, if the Prophet, blessed be his name, said an infidel should die, why did the Imam at her Mosque say the subject was more complicated? Not something to speak about with her father or mother. Basically — she loved that American expression — basically, she was faithful to the Prophet, blessed be his name. And for that reason, she had to confront this artist who had defamed the Prophet with his art.

Serena at 16 still modestly wore her hajib head covering, never put on makeup or fingernail polish. "A woman doesn't need paints and colorings to be beautiful to her husband," her father said. " And next year I will take you back to Jordan to marry."

The infidel artist who had made the sculpture of the Muslim man now was going to a bar to drink. That figure he had made — who resembled her brother so much that it brought tears to her eyes everytime she saw it on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn — was a curse to her. Her brother was dead in Iraq and the caricature stood on Atlantic Avenue.

She shrugged the coat tighter with one hand, disregarding the heat of the summer evening, feeling pleasure in the automatic pistol in her other hand.

Mullally was two doors down, looking in the window of a candy store and sweating as he resisted going in for a pack of Camels, when he saw the Muslim chick. Why the hell was one of the faithful going into a bar? Something was wrong. Impulsively, he turned to go after her.

Inside the doorway, his hand inches away from grabbing the woman's coat sleeve when he felt the cold metal of a gun under his ear.

"Stop right there," a voice whispered behind him. "Don't move. Don't breathe. Just stand back." It was a white man's voice, a voice of authority and not a street punk.

Mullally slowly raised his arms until they were stretched at a forty-five degree angle. "We're cool. We're cool." The dark bar showed only the backs of locals hunched over the glasses of beer. No one looked up as the girl continued walking ahead.

"Now I want you to take a step back and then we're going out on the street."

On the street, arms still away from his body, Mullally said, "Detective Michael Mullally, Newark Police. Essex County homicide task force. My badge's in my jacket pocket."

"I know. I recognized you. There was a thing last year. Your picture was in the paper."

Blind fury washed over Mullally but he didn't turn. Patience. "Then," he said slowly, "what the fuck are you doing with a piece in my ear?"

"I'm Special Agent Marshall Pingston, FBI. You're in the wrong place. That woman is a person of interest to Homeland Security."

Mullally turned and faced a white guy about 40, coat and tie. He looked like a Fed — or somebody impersonating an insurance salesman.

"If I was you, I'd get my ass into that bar," he said, staring into the man's blue eyes. "You don't often see a Muslim chick ordering a..."

They both heard the shot, followed by a second shot.

Inside, the customers were separating to the right and left, falling over each other to get away from the woman in the middle of the room. The Dutchman lay with his head on the bar, beginning to slide off the stool and onto the floor.

The woman turned to stare at Mullally and the man with him. "Allahu Akbar," she screamed, then put the pistol to her temple and pulled the trigger. She was smiling before the gun went off, spraying her brains in a rainbow over the bar.

* * *

Add three more homicides and a suicide to the Prosecutor's tally. Let the Mayor and Police Chief and judges sort it all out. He was tired after giving Captain Broome his report.

"I'm in the wrong business," he told Gerda that night as they sat in the back of a Brazilian restaurant in Newark's Ironbound Section. "I'm very, very good at what I do — but maybe I'm in the wrong line of work."

She put a hand on his arm and squeezed. "Whatever you do, Mike, it's alright with me." It wasn't her smile that told him things would get better. It was the look in her eyes that said she was patient and could ignore certain things.

Walt Giersbach's fiction credits include short stories in Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, Mystery Authors, Everyday Weirdness, Every Day Fiction, Lunch Hour Stories, Mouth Full of Bullets, The Written Word, and The Opinion Guy. A collection of stories in two volumes, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, has been published by Wild Child (

His career also spanned more than 30 years directing communications at Fortune 500 companies.

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