The Worst Day

Brian Thiem 3-21-19: I sat at my computer this morning to draft my blog post for this Sunday. I first went through my normal routine of checking the world news to make sure a huge meteor was not on its way to wipe out the planet or WWIII hadn’t broken out, then scrolled through my emails and deleted 90% of them and briefly visited Facebook OPD Memorial Walland Twitter. My friends and colleagues were sharing their feelings of painful memory.

Today is the 10-year anniversary of the worst day in the history of the Oakland Police Department, the day when four officers were killed in the line of duty. That day, motorcycle Officer John Hege and Sergeant Mark Dunakin stopped a motorist for a traffic violation. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the motorist (I’m intentionally not using his name because he is not deserving of notoriety) was responsible for a recent string of rapes and was wanted on a parole violation warrant. The suspect shot both officers and then stood over them and fired additional bullets into them as they lay on the ground.

Several hours later, the suspect was located in a nearby apartment. An entry team of the department’s Tactical Operations Team (SWAT) entered the residence. The suspect opened fire with a semi-automatic SKS rifle, killing Sergeants Erv Romans and Dan Sakai, before other officers killed the shooter.

Although I had been retired for four years and living in Connecticut, the murders of these four officers hit me as hard as the ten OPD officers previously killed during my 25-year service. Times Four!

I knew these four officers well. I still picture John’s smile as he strolled by the watch commander’s office on his way to the locker room every evening during my final year as a watch commander. I can see Mark’s boyish grin as he sat at his desk in homicide when I commanded the unit. And I visualize both Erv and Dan with their game faces on, dressed in their black BDUs on countless SWAT callouts when I was the tactical commander and commander of Special Operations. OPD Memorial Wall 2

When the news hit ten years ago, I poured over the news reports of the incident from 3000 miles away and spoke to countless OPD brothers and sisters by phone over the next few days. Finally, my wife said, “You need to go back.”

I made my arrangements, retrieved my gold badge from my gun safe, stretched a black band across it, and flew cross-country. I attended two of the wakes on my day of arrival and then spent the evening at the local cop bar, where I got to share my grief with hundreds of brothers and sisters who understood what I was feeling.

The next day, I sat in a special area reserved for retired officers in the Oracle Arena along with 21,000 other people and heard countless speakers talk about the four men who gave their lives protecting and serving citizens and a community that seldom expressed gratitude. I fought back feelings of anger, trying my best to replace those feelings with pride for the way those officers lived their lives and their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Today, ten years after that tragedy, I’m reading a newspaper article of a church service remembering and honoring these officers, another story about one of their wives who remarried and found happiness, and updates about their children, now young adults, doing okay. But the pain of the officers’ senseless deaths still lingers among my brothersOPD Memorial Wall #2 and sisters in blue, the officers’ families, and parts of the community they served and gave their lives to protect.

Writing this today, I accept the pain I feel from losing a fellow officer to a line-of-duty death will never go away. And I’m convinced it never should.

Face Crimes and Mean-Mugging

During the last week or so, I was fascinated with the mainstream media reporting and social media hubbub over a young man’s facial expression at the Lincoln Memorial. Not because I want to get involved in the national debate over who’s right and who’s wrong smirk emojior when a smile is a smirk (BTW, I refuse to get involved in divisive political debate in this blog or elsewhere in social media).

I followed the reporting because, as a police officer and detective, I have studied body language and facial expressions for decades to figure out what was going on inside people’s heads, and today I try to use it in my fiction writing.

Although high-level detectives (such as homicide detectives who spend thousands of hours interviewing people) are better than the average person at “reading” people based on their expressions, most of us would admit, it’s often guesswork. Even when we feel someone is lying, it’s nearly impossible to identify specific eye, face, or body language as proof.

Many of us young cops in Oakland had been accused of committing “face crimes,” as one of my early sergeants termed them, based on George Orwell’s novel, 1984:george orwell 1984

A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: FACECRIME, it was called.

Citizens complained if we smiled and wished a motorist a nice day after issuing them a traffic citation. Although we were trying to be polite and friendly, a smile was sometimes viewed as us taking smug pleasure in the motorists’ misfortune. Other motorists complained if we remained stone-faced during the encounter because it conveyed a “storm trooper” and robot-like mentality that lacked humanity.

I remember being counseled for allowing the expression of the rage I was feeling to show on my face when I once arrested a man who had pressed his son’s hands on an police at protestelectric stove’s burners. Control my emotions, I was told. Another time I had to respond to a complaint for appearing dispassionate toward a sexual assault victim, whom I spent hours interviewing while holding in my emotions to avoid crying along with her.

I also saw a “face crime” turn deadly when investigating a murder where a young man was shot and killed by a street-corner drug dealer. With overwhelming evidence showing he did it, we arrested and interviewed the suspect. Our main question was why. The shooter explained that the victim never said a word to him, but walked by his corner and “mean-mugged” him.

Statisticians at the city and state level mandated we classify every homicide by motive. Some were clear-cut, such as murders committed during a robbery or when a husband killed his wife (domestic), yet my fellow homicide detectives knew many of the senseless murders we investigated defied classification. Still, there was no category for “mean-mugging.”

There was no indication the victim intentionally meant to disrespect the drug dealer (and even if he did, it certainly didn’t justify the killing), and friends and family believed the victim was attempting to appear confident so the local dealers didn’t mess with him. A look of confidence to one person can appear to be arrogance to another.

Detectives have been trying to discover methods to ascertain deception in people for years, hoping for insight into a subject’s mind and true thoughts. I attended training mona smirkabout eye movement, where the instructors said a subject’s eyes move up and right when they lie. Another training course described micro-expressions that supposedly indicated deception. However, recent studies indicate none of these methods is much more accurate than a flip of a coin.

Despite its inherit unreliability, it’s human nature to try to read people’s thoughts based on their body language, so in my novels, I try to incorporate characters’ facial expression with their actions and dialogue to better bring them to life. In my next book, I know I’ll have to make a character smirk to see how the characters around him react.

Christmas on the Streets

By Brian Thiem

Christmas Day 35 years ago, I was working the 3-11 shift in Oakland. I had been recently reassigned back to patrol from the elite special operations section and was anxiously awaiting my transfer to Vice Narcotics. I knew when I signed on as a cop, I’d often work weekends and holidays during my career, but as hard as I tried to capture the holiday spirit, it wasn’t working.Christmas 1

Day Shift had been swamped, and calls were stacked, so right out of the chute, the dispatcher sent me to take a report on a cold home burglary. I interrupted the family’s Christmas Dinner and they were irritated with me arriving four hours after they had called. But I put on a smile (which, with the mood I was in, may have looked like a smirk) and tried to empathize with the couple whose day was ruined by a burglar who smashed a window and stole nearly every gift under their tree when they were at church.

On my way to take another report, this one on a car break-in, I stopped a motorist for driving 50 in a 30. After I checked to ensure he had a valid license, I wished him a Merry Christmas (we were allowed to say that back then), told him I’d let him off with a warning, and then bit my tongue as he muttered something about “f—king cops” as he rolled up his window and drove away.

Before I could finish the auto burglary report, I heard the broadcast of a hit and run accident. On the way to the scene, I spotted the responsible car (with a crumpled front quarter panel) and pulled him over. The driver was so drunk he fell down when I had him exit the vehicle. I called for the prisoner wagon, and after enduring his tirade of obscenities for ruining his Christmas, sent him off to jail.

I ran from call to call for the next several hours: family fights, drug dealing on the corners, and an accident with five injuries. Finally, more than halfway through my shift, the radio quieted, and the dispatcher released the first two units in my district for their meal break.

Although volunteers at the police officers association had cooked a beautiful dinner for officers, with only two units per district permitted to be out at a time, I resigned myself to the reality that my turn would not come up before the end of my shift.

As I drove across the district in search of joy and peace, I couldn’t help but dwell on my night’s activity. Every citizen I encountered blamed me for the crime, and the ones I arrested blamed me (big surprise) for ruining their Christmas.Christmas 2

I turned on Picardy Drive and crept down the street famous for its Christmas decorations. Although only a few blocks from Foothill Blvd., where open-air drug markets and shootings were common, Picardy was a sort of oasis. The Tudor-style houses were built in the 1920s. With their steeply peaked roofs and mini-turrets, they looked like tiny castles, and the entire street was lit up with Christmas lights.

I pulled to the curb, pulled a granola bar and bag of nuts from my pack, and tried to chase away the feeling of despair and hopelessness that had enveloped me. As I munched on my makeshift dinner, I spotted movement in my rearview mirror. A man was approaching my car with something in his hand. Since cops never know the intent of someone they encounter, we avoid allowing anyone to come up on us and trap us in our cars, where we’re unable to access our weapons and defend ourselves should it be an attack.

I opened the door and stepped out. The older gentleman continued toward me. “Is there something wrong in the neighborhood, officer?” he asked.

Since most citizens in major cities only see cops when something is wrong, I couldn’t fault the man for his question. “The radio was quiet for a moment, so I thought I’d take a break.” I immediately regretted my confession and braced myself for a comment about lazy cops or a question about why I wasn’t out fighting crime.

“This is a peaceful street to do so.”

I nodded.

“You like hot chocolate?”

He handed me a Styrofoam cup. I popped the lid and saw steam rise through a layer of tiny marshmallows. I took a sip. “Thanks.”

“How’s your night going?”

I shrugged. “We tend to only see people at their worst. Tonight’s no different.”

“My first Christmas away from home, I was in the South Pacific,” he said. “Feeling sorry for myself. Scared of dying and having to kill Japanese soldiers I had no ill will against.”

The man appeared to be about the age of my father, who was also a WWII vet. “Thank you for your service,” I said. “I’m glad you made it back home.”

“My unit commander told us a million times why we were fighting, but not until I truly embraced who we were fighting for, did the war get easier. When people call the police, we’re too focused on our problem to thank you. But we’re grateful.”

I smiled. A real smile for the first time that night.

“I’m visiting my son down the street and we were just getting ready to sit down for some pie if you’d like to join us.”

Before I could come up with an excuse to decline, the radio crackled with a report of multiple shots fired about a mile away. I keyed the mic and acknowledged with my call sign.

I thanked the man for the hot chocolate, and as I climbed back into my car, he said. “Don’t forget that even when they don’t tell you or don’t even fully realize it themselves, thousands of people are grateful for what you and your fellow officers are doing tonight.”

I wish I could say the people I encountered the rest of that shift were more appreciative, Christmas 3but that would be a lie. However, I was different. I knew what I was doing was important to a lot of people. It didn’t bother me when the next bad guy I sent to jail cussed me out, because I knew there were other good citizens who would not be victimized by him that night, and maybe—just maybe—that arrest was the necessary kick in the ass that guy needed to turn his life around (although the cynical cop I was doubted it).

This holiday season, as in every one past, my thoughts are with the thousands of law enforcement officers who are working. May they know that what they’re doing is valuable, and even if no one says it, there are many citizens who are immensely grateful for their service and sacrifice.

Saint Nicholas

Several years ago I penned a tale titled Saint Nicholas, which I post every year as a holiday greeting to friends near and far. Knowing that many folks find the holidays a bit overwhelming, I wrote this seasonal short story to remind us all what is truly important and to provide an emotional lift to those in need. If I’ve done my job well, this story will put a smile on your face and some warmth in your hearts. Feel free to share if you think it might mean something to others. Here’s wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday season.

Bruce Robert Coffin

I’ve always believed that it’s part of the human condition to focus on the negative. Maybe it has something to do with our upbringing, although upon reflection we are all raised very differently so perhaps not. Whatever it is, it definitely exists in each of us. How else can we explain the age old news reporting axiom “if it bleeds it leads?” Police officers are even more inclined to focus on the negative. Being exposed to it day in and day out tends to make one jaded. But, I’m getting way ahead of myself. I should probably begin by telling you a little bit about me before I tell you my story.

My name is Crispin Mallory and, in case you haven’t already guessed, I am a police officer. I’ve been with the same department for thirty years, pushing a cruiser around, investigating motor vehicle accidents, breaking up domestics, chasing down criminals, and writing the occasional traffic citation.

One day, several years back, I was working a double shift. Cops aren’t paid all that well and when an overtime opportunity presents itself most of us are quick to say yes. It was December twenty-fourth and I had just finished my first tour. I’d returned to the station to attend roll call before heading back out for another eight hours. I was tired and not in a particularly festive mood, mostly due to the fact that I had to work on Christmas, which meant my wife and two children would be celebrating without me. Another holiday missed. Such is the life of a cop. Anyway, the sergeant held me back after the briefing, said he had a task for me. I was instructed to return some valuables to a local home for the aged. Apparently one of the nursing staff had confessed to stealing jewelry from some of the residents at the home, to support her drug habit. See what I mean? All negative. The sergeant provided me with the name of the medical administrator and asked me to deliver the items to him.

After checking out a squad car and loading my gear, I got on the radio and requested that the dispatcher show me 10-6 (busy) on assignment. I drove toward the nursing home, stopping long enough to grab a drive through coffee along the way.

I parked in the lot and made my way inside. The receptionist was talking to one of the orderlies and they both turned as I entered.

“Hello officer,” the receptionist said. “Merry Christmas.”

I returned the greeting.

“What can I do for you?” she asked.

“I’m looking for Mr. Ashby,” I said. “I’m supposed to deliver something to him.”

“I’ll try his extension.”

I wandered around the lobby as she tried to locate Ashby. Everything was brightly painted and decorated for the season. In one corner stood a small lit Christmas tree from which emanated the pleasant scent of balsam. I wondered if the employees were still allowed to call it a Christmas tree.

“Officer,” the receptionist called out.

“Yes.”

“Mr. Ashby will be right out.”

I thanked her and continued to look around. Ashby walked up to me and introduced himself as the facility’s head administrator. I explained my purpose for being there and he led me back to his office so we could talk in private.

Once we were seated, I handed him the package and an evidence slip explaining that he needed to sign for the items.

“I am so pleased that your detectives were able to recover so many of the things that our former employee took. I’m sure you can imagine how much these items mean to the residents here. Some of these pieces of jewelry aren’t all that valuable, but they represent gifts from and memories of loved ones. As I’m sure you know, some things are worth far more than money.”

I agreed. After going through each of the items he signed for them and returned the evidence sheet to me. I stood, preparing to leave, when he stopped me.

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to do me one small favor, would you, officer?”

I wondered why I would need to do another favor for him. After all, I’d just returned a number of stolen items. Shouldn’t that have been sufficient?

“I really do need to get back on the road, Mr. Ashby,” I said.

“You’re right. I shouldn’t impose. You’ve got places to go I imagine.”

Now verbally he was letting me off the hook, but his tone and facial expression told another story. I knew he was attempting reverse psychology on me. Something my wife and I did to our kids daily.

“What do you need?” I asked.

“It’ll only take a second. I promise. But it will mean so much to her.”

Ashby proceeded to tell me about an eighty-one-year-old patient named Ruth Perkins. Mrs. Perkins was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“She’s all alone now,” Ashby said. “Her husband passed last year. They had one son, Nicholas, and he was a police officer. Nicholas was killed during a shootout many years ago. Apparently, he would visit her every Christmas, whether he was working or not and it meant the world to her. Her Alzheimer’s is advanced but she still manages to put several good days together each month. I have no idea how she does it, but she does.”

I sat down again as he continued.

“Every month since the death of her husband, just prior to the twenty-fifth, she gets it into her head that Christmas is approaching. She gets so excited and makes a point to tell all of the staff that her son is coming to visit. She even has a lighted ceramic tree that she makes us put up in her room. Of course when the twenty-fifth passes and Nicholas doesn’t show up her condition quickly worsens and she reverts back to her former state. It really is quite sad.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked. “I’m not her son.”

“I know that, but I thought it might cheer her up to get a visit from an officer in uniform. If you could just stop by and wish her a Merry Christmas.”

I only wanted to get back to my comfort zone. Back to my cruiser. I really wasn’t enjoying the idea of popping in on an already confused old woman, possibly making her situation worse. But Ashby’s attempt at reverse psychology must have worked because I found myself saying okay.

He told me that he’d introduce me, then he led me down the hall to her room. I followed, amid the stares and whispers of the other residents. Each of them probably wondering what the cop was doing there. At last he stopped and entered a room. The sign on the door said R. Perkins and a white ceramic tree stood on the table under the window. As I rounded the corner I saw her sitting up in bed, wearing a festive green robe over a red sweater. She was wearing makeup and it looked like she had just paid a visit to the hair dresser. She looked dignified and radiant, like someone waiting to be called upon, not at all what I had expected.

“Mrs. Perkins,” Ashby said. “I’ve brought you a visitor.”

She turned toward me and her blue eyes lit up instantly. “Nicholas,” she cried out. “My Saint Nicholas, I knew you’d come. Didn’t I say he would come? Oh, this is the best Christmas ever.”

She held her arms out to me as I approached the bed. Awkwardly, I bent down toward her. She hugged me tightly, even kissed me on the cheek.

“Merry Christmas,” I said, as I felt myself blushing.

“I should leave the two of you alone now,” Ashby said, as he left.

I sat down in the chair beside the bed and she began asking me all sorts of questions. I was afraid that I might say the wrong thing, but as time passed it became obvious that nothing I said would lessen her faith that I was her son. We talked for close to an hour. I told her all about my family and about my work. She asked if I remembered this thing or that and of course I told her I did. The smile never left her face.

I stayed with her until she began to tire. All the excitement had worn her out. She hugged me again and made me promise to return the following day. Christmas Day. I promised that I would and kissed her on the cheek. I returned to my cruiser and radioed that I was back in service. My heart was full and I was happier than I’d been in a long while. It was clear that my visit to Ruth Perkins had had a positive effect on both of us. I no longer cared that I’d be missing this Christmas with my own family. Don’t get me wrong, I still wanted to be with them, but after visiting a lonely old woman I realized I had no right to complain. There would be other Christmases to spend with my family. Mrs. Perkins’ family was gone leaving her with only memories.

I returned to work the following day. Christmas Day turned out to be busier than any of us had imagined. A light snowfall had left the roads slick resulting in many accidents. The calls for service were already piling up by the time I hit the street.

It was nearly one in the afternoon before I was finally able to take a lunch break. I grabbed a sandwich and a couple of eggnogs at the local market before heading over to see Mrs. Perkins. I was excited about being able to keep my promise to her and looking forward to seeing her face light up at the sight of me.

I parked in the nearly vacant lot and headed inside. The receptionist was a different girl than the one I’d spoken to the previous day. Holiday help I assumed. She asked if she could help me and I politely declined. “Thank you but I’m all set. Just visiting someone.”

I walked down the corridor to her room, stopping as I reached her door. The room was empty. Her personal belongings were gone and the nameplate was missing from the door. I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me.

“Can I help you, officer?” a soft female voice asked from behind me.

I turned and saw a young orderly. “I’m looking for Mrs. Perkins. Ruth Perkins. Has she been moved?”

“Are you a relative?”

I pondered her question before answering. “Sort of. I just visited her yesterday.”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Perkins passed away last night.”

*****

Many years have passed since that Christmas. I’m still a police officer with the same department. Heck, I’ve been on so long now that I get every Christmas off. I’ve never forgotten Ruth Perkins or her gift to me. Oh, I know what your thinking. That it was I who gave her one last visit with her son. But I think of it a it differently. I believe Mrs. Perkins is the one who bestowed a great gift on me. She restored my faith in humanity, helped me appreciate what I have. Her belief that I was her son was so strong and so real that I couldn’t help but feel the same love for her in return. Her faith and her love changed me forever. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

It’s Done–Almost

by Brian Thiem

A few days ago I sent the completed manuscript for the first book of a new series to my agent. Now I wait.

People often ask what it takes to publish a book. Writers have different processes, and mine has changed since I began writing. And the first book of Spartina Island Manuscripta new series is different than a second or third book or a stand-alone novel.

Spartina Island (the working title, which may—probably will—change when a publisher gets involved) began as an idea about two years ago, shortly after I finished the third book in the Matt Sinclair series. I brainstormed a premise, main characters, and a unique setting with friends, fellow writers, and my agent. I jotted down pages of ideas.

Once my agent gave me the thumbs up, I began creating my story, writing out plot points and other details on a hundred index cards. I shuffled them, resorted them, and continued to rearrange them until the story seemed coherent.

I then wrote a detailed synopsis. The synopsis consisted of the step-by-step plot, subplots, character conflict, and bits of backstory weaved into the story. Writing a synopsis (sort of a readable plot outline) is tough. It requires a lot more thinking than typing, but it makes the subsequent writing so much easier.

My agent read it and sent me some suggested changes. I redid it, and she reviewed it and gave the go-ahead.

I then went into writing mode, where I sat my butt in my desk chair and IMG_0639wrote a minimum of 1000 words a day—well, almost every day—for the next four months.

When the first draft (just shy of 90,000 words) was finished, I took a break to distance myself from it for a week. I then read it and took notes of what I needed to change, delete, and add.

With my notes beside me, I dove into a rewrite. I added scenes, deleted scenes, added descriptions, improved dialogue, made characters more sympathetic, and upped the action.

After a break of a few days, I printed it out—all 320 pages—and read it with a pencil in hand. Four days later, I propped up the binder beside my computer and went to work making the changes from my edited copy. After two long days, I had spellcheck go through it again, and sent it to my agent.

I know it’s far from done. My agent will undoubtable suggest changes—maybe minor or maybe major. She’ll then send it off to publishers who’ve expressed interest, and if we land a contract, their editors will read it and request other changes—maybe minor, but probably major. I know from experience that every change these experts suggest make it a better book.

With luck, Spartina Island could be available in bookstores a year from now. Fingers crossed.

Police Corruption

Brian Thiem Blogging Today:

I opened an email a few days ago and felt like I was punched in the gut. A brother police officer who I’ve known for nearly forty years plead guilty to federal corruption charges. Harry came on Oakland PD a year after I did and worked with me in patrol and investigations. He was the gang unit sergeant under me when I commanded the Special Investigations Unit, was assigned to FBI organized crime task forces, and was one of the nation’s foremost experts on Asian Organized Crime. He was so well respected that when he retired from OPD ten years ago, the DA’s office hired him as an investigator.police corruption

A few years ago, Harry began accepting gratuities from a man linked to Asian organized crime, and in exchange, protected him from prosecution.

Many crime novels and movies include crooked cops, and that leads the public to believe corruption among police officers is rampant. However, in most modern police organizations, it’s extremely rare. And when it does occur, organizations seldom turn a blind eye as occurs in fiction and film.

I’m reading a fellow author’s crime novel manuscript right now. The premise includes a team of corrupt cops who steal money from drug dealers and commit kidnappings and murders to cover it up. Although that scenario is a work of fiction, the plot creates wonderful conflict for the story’s hero to overcome.

But I hate reading about it. I hate it because it reinforces a belief by too many people that police corruption is common. And I hate it because it sometimes happens in the real world.

I wonder why a law enforcement officer would take bribes in exchange for helping a criminal. Why would they go against everything our profession stands for? And why would they risk losing everything—their freedom, family, life savings, reputation—for dirty money?

The temptation was always present when I carried a badge for a living. When I worked Vice Narcotics, I recovered huge stashes of money on drug raids, and could’ve easily grabbed tens of thousands of dollars without anyone knowing. I could’ve negotiated huge payoffs from drug gang kingpins when working Homicide to steer investigations away from them. But it never crossed my mind.

What causes some officers to fall to the temptation? Were they unethical before they were hired, or did the job change them? Did they see the limitations of the criminal justice system, with bad guys living lavish lifestyles from the proceeds of crime and decided they deserved the same? Did they rationalize it by watching politicians and corporate executives receive “perks” as accepted “rewards” for their positions? Or does it just come down to the innate character defect of greed inside all of us, fighting to get out? Why do some succumb to it while others don’t?

I’m deeply disappointed that my friend and brother tarnished the badge and the reputation of the profession so many of us hold in such high regard. It might take a while for me to recover from that punch in the gut, even though I understand that every profession includes some bad apples and that good men and women occasionally fall victim to their human desires and weaknesses. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much when it’s a brother cop who I liked and respected.

 

Remember This Day

Bruce Robert Coffin: As I prepare for the rapidly approaching October 30th release of my third Detective Byron Mystery, Beyond the Truth, I can’t help but wax nostalgic. Join me now as I look back to a blog originally published in 2016 for the Maine Crime Writers describing the excitement of how it all began.

“Remember this day.” That was Paul Doiron’s advice to me the day I received paperback copies of my first novel.

It was Saturday morning and the sun was shining and the temperature was nearing eighty as I loaded my pickup with trash, returnables, and a full recycling bin. It was getting close to eleven and I hadn’t really eaten anything you’d likely call breakfast. My plan was to hit the town dump then head back into North Windham to drop off the bottles and cans at Hannaford’s. After that I figured I’d swing by the post office, hoping for something other than bills, maybe even a bit of positive cash flow, before grabbing lunch at a fast food joint.

I held the door for a polite young woman then headed into the gloomy interior of the postal facility hoping for good news. Upon opening the box I discovered a new registration certificate for my wife’s car, a single piece of junk mail, and a yellow slip informing me that I needed to see the desk clerk for an item. Now I’ve seen these slips before. Usually deliveries are only kept at the counter when they’re either too big for the package bins or when all the bins are full. My mind raced. What could it be? Being early September, I surmised a pre-holiday fruitcake was probably out of the question. I hadn’t ordered anything recently and I couldn’t remember Karen telling me that she was waiting on anything. Although, maybe she had but I hadn’t been listening. Maybe she’d mentioned the purchase of some latest fashion, and instead of listening I’d glazed over like she does whenever I try and explain the inner workings of something mechanical, like the stereo remote. It was possible. The only thing I could imagine was the case of novels my publisher had promised to fulfill their contractual obligation. My pulse quickened. What was waiting for me behind the post office counter?

I dashed back to the lobby with my yellow card. Two clerks were working the counter, but the line was out to the door. My heart sank. What time does the North Windham Post Office close on Saturday? Damn. I couldn’t remember. Noon? That sounded right. I checked the time. 11:35. It was gonna be close. One by one I watched in horror as the two employees waited on my fellow Mainers. Each had a package or letters needing special handling, and wrapping, and weighing. And stamps! A collector was buying sheets. What the hell?

“Oops, hang on. That one needs another piece of packing tape,” a clerk said to one of the customers.

I was sure of it now. They were trying to kill me.

I checked my phone again. 11:40. OMG. I looked down and caught myself nervously tapping my right foot on the linoleum. I stopped.

“Yes, it has been a very dry summer, Mrs. Smith. How’s your garden?”

How’s her garden? Who cares? Jesus, if you’d just hurry up I’ll drive you to the grocery store myself and buy you all the vegetables you could ever want!

11:43.

I examined the yellow card in my hand. Read it again. I realized there was something familiar about it, this yellow card. Ah ha. I had it. The Yellow Card Man, from 11/22/63. Stephen King’s novel about the Kennedy assassination. My only hope was it didn’t foreshadow that I was about to step through some portal to the past, where I’d never find out what had been delivered.

11:46.

A customer finished at the counter and the line inched forward. I took one step. I thought again about the possibility of it being my novel. Was that even likely? I’d been in constant contact with both my editor and my publicist all week, and neither mentioned anything about the books being ready. Wouldn’t they have known? Of course they would. Maybe it wasn’t the books after all. Maybe I was being silly. How long does fruitcake keep? I looked down at my foot again. It was moving a little. I willed it to stop.

11:50. Another satisfied customer peeled off and walked past me. One of the clerks looked at her watch.

Oh, no you don’t, I thought. Nobody leaves until I get my package.

The next customer shuffled up to the counter in slow motion.

I was due to be next. I glanced left and right, watching each transaction closely. Who would finish with their customer first? The male clerk on my left or the female on my right? People read left to right. I was betting on left. Come on, come on.

11:55. I was beginning to feel a little like Oswald.

Finally, the customer at the window on my left was done and the male clerk waved me forward. Hot damn! I was working hard to hide my angst.

“May I help you?” the clerk asked.

“Yes,” I said, my voice cracking. “I received this slip in my mailbox.”

He took the slip from me. “What number?”

“What?” I said.

“Your box number. What is it?”

I couldn’t remember! I’d just emptied it and now I couldn’t remember the number!

I stared at the clerk. He stared back at me. What the hell? I couldn’t leave the line to go look. There were people behind me. They’d close before I ever made it back to the counter. I looked down at what I was holding in my hand. Mail. Ha! Correspondence from the state that had my address on it!

I recited my box number to him, fighting to stay calm. He repeated it back then walked out of sight. If this turned out to be clothes for my wife or a fruitcake, I’d be tying one on. Without question, the Yellow Card Man had reached his limit.

I watched in astonishment as the clerk rounded the corner with a large nondescript cardboard box. He had it on his hip and was struggling a bit with it’s weight. It certainly wasn’t a fruitcake. Too big for that. And clothes wouldn’t have been nearly as heavy.

Remain calm.

I watched him set the box atop the counter. A piece of paper was taped to the backside, but I couldn’t see what it said. I lowered my voice an octave trying to project cool. “Does it say who it’s from?”

He bent down to look. “Um, says it’s from HarperCollins, the publisher.”

My publisher! It was my books! Hallelujah!

“Man, I’ve been waiting for that,” I heard myself say from outside of my body.

I heard murmuring from the line behind me. Most likely someone thinking about driving me to the local bookstore to buy me some books if I’d only get moving.

“What is it?” the clerk asked.

I dropped yet another octave, moving from cool to nonchalant. “Oh, it’s just a bunch of copies of my debut novel, Among the Shadows.”

“What’s it about?” he inquired.

More murmuring.

“It’s a mystery,” I said, smiling proudly as I lifted the box and headed for the door.