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U is for Ululation…

(Author’s Note: …defined as a long, wavering, high-pitched vocal sound, resembling a howl, usually with a trilling quality. Mournful. Could it be used to describe the wail of a siren? Maybe. With so many fires ravaging California and Australia, along with other parts of the world, I reflect upon how lucky it is to live where I do. Our fire team has the highest rating in response time, training, and effectiveness as a team can earn. This is a story about celebrating with those men and women who tirelessly fight to keep us safe.)

Mercy tilted the cooked vegetables back into the cooking pot and reached for the butter. A siren’s ululation stopped her heart. Jaw clenched, she followed the sound, marking her mental map of the little city. It wasn’t going toward Mother’s house. But, she knew this.

Her mother passed a few years ago. Yet, Mercy’s body responded, like it did each time a siren wailed, preparing to leap into the car and race across town to meet emergency personnel trying to save her life. She supposed that ten years of awakening in the night to be with someone suffering from congestive heart failure set up a pattern.

Was the sound closer? She froze again and listened. Oh god, where was the fire? And at this time of year? What a shame. It seemed like every week another fire broke out in California.

Her thirty-three year old daughter, Jenna, who came weekly to visit and wash clothes, was in the living room folding them. Suddenly she yelled, “Santa!”

Santa? Oh my word. Of course. The ululation grew louder. Underneath it was a familiar Christmas tune blasting from loud speakers.

“Santa is here.” She appeared in the kitchen, then, she was gone.

Mercy followed, carrying the hot pot from the stove. “Oh my gosh! I have to get the butter on the vegetables while they are hot!”

“I can’t see the lights yet,” said Jenna. “I think you have time, Mom.”

She watched Jenna throw on her coat. It was too big, but it was the only coat hanging over a chair in the living room. She slipped her bare feet into her mother’s warm, cozy boots as well. Mercy shook her head. Kids.

“You want a candy cane?” said Jenna.

“Sure,” said Mercy, taking the vegetables back to the kitchen. She could add the butter later and zap it in the microwave.

“I see the lights,” Jenna yelled from the front porch.

The ladder truck was pulling into the neighborhood. As it approached the corner, it slowly edged around the turn, ridiculously decked out with hundreds of lights wrapped around its frame.

Santa sat on top, directing the parade of firemen and women with a “Ho, ho, ho.”

Mercy reached through the open door and grabbed a comforter from the back of a chair to wrap herself with warmth.

Her daughter skipped down the stairs and waltzed to the street, where she met a firefighter following the spectacle that passed right in front of their house. Children following their brave parents waved up at her. Santa waved. Mercy waved a small thank you back to them.

As the woman passing out candy canes and her daughter exchanged friendly words, Jenna nodded. With a huge grin on her face, she came back to the porch, two canes in hand.

Mercy looked around for her neighbors, feeling the spirit, wanting to wave to everyone. Where were they? Why were they ignoring this lovely display of riotous lights? Couldn’t they hear the joyous racket, a blasting siren, Christmas carols echoing off their houses? Didn’t they want to see the children of courageous men and women marching in a Christmas pageant with their parents? She waved at another child who was lagging behind as he waved at her.

Mercy gazed fondly at her daughter who continued to wave at Santa and his crew. She was glad they dropped their tasks and stepped out to enjoy the merriment. The brave firefighters of the city spent a lot of time preparing this conspicuous visual feast. They obviously wanted to share joy instead of terror with the community they so willing served. Mercy felt that to witness it and share a different kind of giving was the least she and her daughter could do.

“Ho, ho, ho,” said Santa as the ladder truck pulled out of sight.

Happy 2020 to all of you.

And…

Thank you to all of the firefighters who battle around the world to save lives and property!

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Q is for Quidnunc…

and her husband, Jeff, was not the first to sling that word at her. Yes, she was inquisitive, but a gossip? People needed to know what was what, especially if it was important. She wasn’t sure if this was important, not yet anyway. Her husband, Jeff, didn’t think so, and told her to mind her own business. This was her business. She lived here. What went on in her neighborhood affected her. It affected the whole block. What did he know? He was at work all day.

Millie pulled her threadbare, velour housecoat around her while she sat at her dining room table nursing her morning coffee. She watched the house across the street as she had every morning since the young couple moved in last week. In fact, she watched the house all day long as a regular stream of people came and went. People just didn’t have that many visitors unless they were up to no good. She decided two days ago that they were running some kind of “sales operation.”

She couldn’t wait another day. She had to get over there to meet these people. A homemade welcoming gift was the perfect door opener. She leaned back in her chair and peered into her oven. A meatloaf nestled on a bed of seasoned potatoes and carrots was beginning to brown on top. Who could resist that?

The first customer of the day pulled into her new neighbors’ driveway. A well-dressed older man popped out of his shiny black sports car, strode up to the porch and knocked. The door opened, he disappeared inside, and three minutes later, he exited. His tires squealed as he backed onto the street and made a quick get-away.

Oh, she hoped a drug operation hadn’t moved in. It was her biggest worry with all the news about cracking down on drugs in the city. This had always been a quiet, safe as can be, doors always open, friendly neighborhood. If a bad element had moved in…well, she would call the police the minute she knew what was going on. First, she had to confirm her suspicions.

Her lovely meatloaf had another nineteen minutes. She went to the bedroom and put on a dress she hadn’t worn in years. The bodice still fit her, though she struggled with the back zipper. The blue field of flowers set off her eyes and pulled a lovely silver sheen from her mousy brown curls. She found her light blue pumps in a box on the top shelf of her closet. She couldn’t remember the last time she wore them, but surely they hadn’t pinched her toes like this. The pain was worth the picture. The skirt flared around her calves just as she remembered.

As she stroked the last coat of mascara on her top eyelashes, the timer on the oven buzzed.

The meatloaf pan was hot. She put it in a serving basket and covered it with a cheerfully checkered cloth napkin. Satisfied with the presentation, she waltzed out the front door, down her walk and across the street. At her new neighbors’ driveway, she hesitated a moment as a sudden chill of fear paralyzed her. She was an unexpected guest. What would she do if one of them came to the door with a weapon?

She would throw the meatloaf. The weight would catch them off guard giving her time to run around the corner.

What was she thinking? She should turn around right now and abort the mission. No, no. All she had to do was act neighborly. She walked straight to the door, and knocked. From inside, she heard a female voice sing, “Just a minute.”

Footsteps clattered on hardwood flooring. Millie’s heart pounded what if, what if, what if.

The door opened and a very pregnant young woman dressed in a flowery sundress answered the door. “Hello. Can I help you?” she said.

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” said Millie. She lifted the basket toward the young woman. “Do you like meatloaf?” As an afterthought she said, “I live across the street. Matilda Whoosits, folks call me Millie.”

The young woman said, “Millie, how lovely. My husband will really appreciate a home cooked meal. I haven’t had the stomach for cooking in so long.” She rolled her eyes and hugged her belly. “My name is Susan.” She held out her hands for the basket. “Would you like to come in?”

“Yes,” said Millie, handing it to her. A feeling of dread fluttered under a wave of giddiness. “You have a lovely home.” Dozens of unopened packing boxes cluttered the middle of the room. There was no furniture except three fold out chairs and a bistro table cluttered with paperwork squashed by an opened, over-sized box on top of it.

Millie looked down the hallway to her left wondering if Susan was unpacking rooms at the back of the house first. She said, “It will be glorious when you are unpacked.”

Susan sighed. “Yes. My husband’s new job keeps him busy, and I am desperate to establish a new client base before the baby comes.”

Millie was shocked at her openness. “Oh?” she said. “A client base?”

“I sell essential oils. Do you use them?”

“No,” said Millie, never having heard of such a thing. Was it a catchword for marijuana or some other drug?

“Let me show you,” said Susan.

Dear god, what had she stepped into. She backed up a few steps toward the door, pretending to look around.

Susan grabbed a brown vial from the box on the table. She said, “This is Wild Orange. Here, hold out your palm. I’ll put a drop on your hand. Rub it in and smell. It’s delightful.”

“Uh…,” said Millie.

“It’s okay. It’s completely natural,” said Susan.

Timidly, Millie held out her hand. The drop didn’t cause any weird tingling. The light in the room didn’t fill with strange lights or colors. She sniffed. Nothing happened. She rubbed her palms together and sniffed again. The heady scent of Wild Orange filled her nose. “You’re right. It is lovely.”

“It’s great for cleaning. I put a few drops in a spray bottle of water and clean counters, the stove top, the refrigerator. It works like a charm and everything smells fresh. Because it’s natural it won’t hurt the baby. Or anyone else. Here.” She grabbed a small mesh bag out of the box and handed it Millie. There was a tiny brown vial inside it, a smaller version of the one in Susan’s hand. “Take that sample home and try it. If you like it, it’s only $13.99 for one this size.” She held up her vial. “And it will last you for months.”

“Thank you,” said Millie, not at all prepared for the charm of Susan’s cheerful delight in her product. Surely there was more going on than this.

There was a knock on the door.

“Oh, my distributor is here.”

A distributor? Millie timidly followed. Susan ushered in a young woman with a baby in her arms. She had a large bag slung over her back, but she was very clean, well dressed and didn’t look at all like Millie imagined a drug dealer would.

Susan introduced them.

Millie was too nervous to catch her name so she muttered, “Well, enjoy your meatloaf, dear. I will leave now and let you attend to business.”

Susan held the door for her, but placed a warm hand on her forearm as Millie stepped onto the porch. “Thank you very much for the meatloaf. It was so nice to meet you. Please come again. Oh, and enjoy the oil.”

She handed Millie a business card. Then she and her distributor disappeared behind the door as she closed it.

Millie stood on the porch, a little stunned. She pulled out the minuscule bottle of essential oil and opened it. She sniffed. Was this the cause of all the comings and goings? It really did smell refreshing.

She stepped off the porch, and wandered down the short sidewalk to the driveway. She drifted across the street, sniffing the Wild Orange in the small sample bottle. This was such a lovely neighborhood. The trees sang with birdsong, flowers waved in the soft breeze. She walked to her front door. The red paint she and Jeff had decided upon was very pretty. She sniffed the Wild Orange again. If she started right away, she had time to vacuum the house, polish the windows, change the sheets, clean the bathroom, and make a second meatloaf. Jeff would love that.

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P is for Pimp…

(Author’s Note: Alternate point of view from BROKEN, a work in progress)

 Charlie Marchesi polished the counter in his bar. He’d long since removed every fingerprint and smudge left by the evening patrons, but he needed time to think. One of his studs had worked a rival’s territory today and a brutal beating was his payment. The kid was useless until his face healed. Charlie’s loss amounted to $5,500 with medical bills and lost revenue. He loved this bar with its rich ambiance of masculinity, but it would not cover the loss. He needed another experienced stud because the rest of the colts in his stable were too green to make that kind of money.

He glanced around his man cave checking that all was in order before he locked up. The back wall had pictures of his kids, wayfarers that had stumbled in looking for a way out of whatever they were running from. He flicked off the front light. The big picture window framed the corner across the street, a bright spot for his eyes to rest. The rain had stopped and the pavement glistened with diamonds.

A man stepped into the halo from the street lamp, illuminated as if the spotlights had just turned on over center stage. He was tall and stood with strength, even though Charlie could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was shirking from his current situation. His dark hair and arched eyebrows stood out against his paler skin. The scruff of his beard outlined a strong jaw. He looked the part of a young god unsure of where he was, or what he was about.
Serendipity had handed Charlie a card. He was looking at his replacement.  “Come this way, mister,” he said. “I have time for one more.”  He flipped the polishing chamois over his shoulder and walked closer to the window to get a better look at the man. “Come on. It’s warm in here. Get out of the cold.”

As if the man heard him, he turned and looked at the glowing sign in Charlie’s dark window. His eyes were wide-set, though from this distance Charlie couldn’t read them. He could only read the man’s body movements, and something about the way he adjusted the pack on his shoulders said ‘mature teenager’.

Serendipity rose, a questing snake peering over tall grass. The youngster just needed to come in. That’s all. Charlie would wrap him with something beneficial to both of them. “Come on, it’s open. There isn’t anything else. I bet you just got off the bus, didn’t you.”

The young man resettled his pack upon his shoulders, flipped up the collar on his jacket and strolled across the street toward Marchesi’s Bar and Grill.

Charlie moved to the far end of the counter where it was dark, becoming a simple barkeep cleaning up for the evening. The bell over the door tinkled as the young man walked in. Bold as brass he sat at the counter. It was a move calculated to feign maturity and hide the fact that the boy couldn’t be older than fifteen or sixteen.

Charlie’s breath hitched. God, he was beautiful. He could hardly wait to hear the tale this one was going to spin. He approached. “How can I help you?”

“Something hot,” said the young man, as if he owned the world.

Charlie nodded. He grabbed a white, ceramic mug from shelving under a simple drip coffee maker and filled it. The whole time he did so, he studied the youth. His scrutiny did not go unnoticed. The boy frowned, and hunched his shoulders turning in on himself.

“Cream?” said Charlie.

The boy glanced at him. “Sure.” As an afterthought, he said, “Thanks.”

Charlie was generous with the cream. “Kind of late for you to be out and about all alone.”

Guilt flashed across the boy’s beautiful features. “Got off the bus about twenty-five minutes ago.” His voice had dropped into a full bass rumble, probably because he was tired.

Charlie chuckled. He liked the brassy attitude of this one. “Where’re you from?” he said.

“Stockton. Stockton, California,” said the young man.

Never been,” said Charlie.

“You wouldn’t like it,” said the boy.

“What brings you to Detroit?”

It was just small talk, no need to rush this. If Charlie was reading this right, the boy had nowhere to go, or nowhere he wanted to go. A boy like this could easily end up on the street and be picked up by someone else. Charlie had never lost a gold mine sitting at his counter and he wouldn’t tonight.

The boy took a deep breath, and relaxed his shoulders.

Carefully keeping his voice warm and considerate, Charlie pressed. “You didn’t answer my question. Detroit’s not a place people come to for pleasure. You must have some business here?”

“Just like everybody else,” said the young man. He sipped the coffee, gazing toward the pictures behind the bar. A dip of sadness settled on his mouth for a second.

Charlie said, “Can I help you find someone?”

“No,” said the young man, a little too harshly. He squirmed in his seat. A lie then, there was someone here.
“So you do have a place to go tonight,” said Charlie.

“Not yet,” said the boy, shifting a defiant gaze toward Charlie.

Not willing to give up, Charlie said, “It’s past midnight. It’ll be hard to find a place around here, and folks aren’t going to lease to a minor anyway.”

If looks could kill, the boy’s expression would have dropped him to the ground. Wow. Keeping this one engaged was imperative. Fresh meat like this would attract all kinds of predators.

The young man folded his arms on the counter and leaned into them He turned to Charlie and said, “Why would you assume I am a minor?”

Charlie sighed. How many times had he seen this now? He glanced at the pictures on the wall across from them, his stable of young, lost children that grew up under his tutelage, learned the ways of the street, and lived to tell about it. “Seen a lot of runaways come through here. I guess you look the part.”

“There’s a part?” said the boy. His voice raised three notches as he lifted the cooling cup of coffee to warm his hands.

Cold and scared, that’s what Charlie saw. He chuckled and said, “Name’s Charles. Most people call me Charlie. Charlie Marchesi. I have a room in the back. Forty dollars a night.”

“How much for the coffee?” said the boy.

So he had no money either. Charlie admired the bravado. What did it take to leap into the world with nothing, hoping that it would take care of you? It took a keen mind and a quick wit. Most of these kids didn’t have it. They were scared and lonely, and he took them in and made something out of all that. This kid, though, was different. Charlie pushed a little more. “Coffee is on the house with the let of the room.”

The boy looked him right in the eye. “I don’t have the cash for the room. How much do I owe for this?” He lifted the cup and took another sip.

Tough guy, thought Charlie. He said, “Two-twenty five with a free refill.”

The boy pulled a ten and handed it to Marchesi.

Charlie hesitated. Was he going to let this one walk?

The boy insisted, slapping the ten onto the counter and pushing it toward him

“Tell you what,” said Charlie. “Put down what you have for the room and you can work for the rest in the morning. It’s a rush here, and I can use someone to bus tables and wash dishes. Beats an alleyway somewhere. Especially this time of year.” He glanced outside.

The kid turned and stared out the window.

Why was he hesitating?  Just take it. It’s cold outside and I am offering a room.

The boy continued to stare.

It was about four miles to Downtown. If he walked briskly, he could probably make it in an hour, but there was no guarantee he’d find a warm place to sleep, and he’d run the risk of getting snatched by one of his competitors. Charlie couldn’t have that. He said, “I am offering a room, and a way to pay for it.”

The boy looked down. “I’ll think about it.”

Charlie Marchesi tapped his pointer finger on the counter, twice. “Working the morning kitchen will get you breakfast on the house. For tomorrow, anyway.”

“Okay. Maybe I’ll take it.”

There was no maybe about it. Charlie had found his replacement. He slapped the counter, and said, “Smart man.”

Whipping the chamois off his shoulder, he grabbed the coffee and cream. A little refill should cinch the deal. The boy smiled as Charlie poured warm coffee into his mug. Yep, he’d found his replacement.

 

O is for Oreos…

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He had no idea what time it was, except that it was time to sleep, but he couldn’t. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw red. Could be it was the light over the head of his bed that the nurses would not turn off. Hospital policy, they said. Could be he saw his own blood coursing through his eyelids. Could be the pain meds they doped him with had a weird, visual, side effect. The point was, there was nothing else to do except sleep and he couldn’t. His shitty, I-am-a-pathetic-gimp attitude brewed in the pit of his stomach.

It was either attitude or hunger brewing there. He thought about food all the time, until they brought his tasteless meals, which consisted of differently colored spoonfuls of puree. He ate them because he knew they were calculated to make him feel better but they didn’t fill his need for real food. His hunger never went away. Hospital staff told him to ignore it, that it was probably gastro-reflux from lying down. They raised the head of his bed and propped pillows under him, so he spent his hours of captivity canted at an unnatural angle. His back ached, his butt ached, but when he tried to squirm away from the discomfort, it felt like he was tearing stitches. Of course, that was ridiculous, but he couldn’t stop worrying about it.

Oreos. Crunchy outside cookie, soft, sugary goodness sandwiched between. He smacked his lips. He could taste the grainy sweetness on his tongue. The machine down the hall offered Oreos, regular ones and some with interesting pink frosted centers. The problems were that the Oreos were not on his approved food list and even if they were, he would have to get out of bed, push the damned walker down the hallway to get them, and then find the strength to get back to his room and back into the bed. The whole business was problematic.

He lay in the hospital bed, a stranded snapping turtle with a yen for Oreos. To Oreo or not to Oreo, that was the question. He swallowed, relishing his imaginary treat. “How long are you goin’ to stare at the ceiling, you ol’ fool,” he said. “Grow some balls and break out of here.”

His pain was under control, why was he so afraid to get up?

He shut his eyes, squeezing his face into a grimace. “Just do it,” he thought.

Carefully, timidly if he was honest with himself, he scooted to the side of the bed, the way the therapist had taught him. He rolled to his side and opened his eyes. It didn’t hurt as badly as he anticipated. Encouraged, he pushed himself into a sitting position and let his legs fall over the edge of the mattress. Again, it wasn’t as painful as he expected.

The walker was a few inches to his right, so he grabbed it and pulled it toward him, centering it in front of his body. Slowly, he slid his butt forward until he could place his feet on the cool tile. He sat there for a few breaths, with his feet caressing the floor, his weight held by the mattress. How much did he want those Oreos?

His belly shouted, “Chocolate.”

Pain was quiet, though. He was on enough medication to tranq a horse.

Why hesitate?

Fear. Fear of causing pain froze him in place. How was he going to get along at home if he couldn’t find the courage to get off the damn bed by himself? He gritted his teeth and slowly shifted his weight onto his feet. As he did, the stretch to reach the floor flared against the stitches below his left ribs. He quickly grabbed the walker exacerbating the situation. The aluminum contraption bucked and banged against the floor. Slowly, he straightened until he, and the walker were upright.

A nurse popped her head through the door. “Need help?” she asked.

“No, I’m good,” he grunted. And as he stood there for a few seconds, he was.

She smiled, patted the door sill, and went back to her station. She returned thirty seconds later with grippy socks, which she cheerfully rolled onto his bony feet.

He watched her leave, moving so easily through the world. Sighing, he pushed the walker forward. Then he carefully scooted one socked foot, and then the other, step by step until he crossed the room. He shuffled down the darkened hall toward the softly lit waiting area and the vending machine. Standing in front of it, he knew he was ready; he could do this. Now if he just had change to buy some Oreos.

He really deserved Oreos.

N is for Necklaces…

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…and why Jack wears them.

Junior Inspector Jackson Tyler survived his first major case with Detroit PD. As cases went, it was a major win for the city. No one had so brutally ravaged Detroit since 1920. He felt good about it, being the new man and  not trusted as it were. It was plain ol’ good luck that his OCD fired up and plunged the thoughts of the barbarian into his mind. The killer’s thoughts were so vicious it nearly broke him.

His senior partner held him together. His gentle reassurance coaxed the details out of Jack’s manic babbling, details about the killer’s next move. Manny’s team waited for the killer and took him down with ease.

The fact that Manny didn’t run screaming from Jack’s obsessive behavior or his weird psychic visions was a miracle. He took the information at face value, and it paid off. Jack was grateful. But now Manny was pressuring him to reward himself, except Jack was not a tattoo man. What if germs crawled under his skin during the process? What if he could feel them? What if, when he looked at the tattoo a couple of days later, he hated it?

Senior Inspector Ramon ‘Manny’ Valdez sat on Jack’s desk, his arms folded, his face stern. Jack hesitated at the door to the bullpen, not wanting to face his wheedling. Manny looked at the floor and shook his head. Reluctantly, Jackson approached.

Manny tsked at him. “Come on, man. It’s what we do here. You solve a major crime; you gotta take credit for it.” He pulled off his shirt and flexed his pecs.

Impressive. The tats danced on firm muscles. Not bad for an old man. He had one over his right nipple, a short sleeve on each arm, and when he turned, his back was adorned with one on each shoulder blade. Jack was sure he had more because his career had been long and successful, but he didn’t want to think about where they were placed.

“It’s not for me, Manny.”

“What you gonna do, huh? Forget about catchin’ that slime ball?”

“I won’t ever forget,” said Jack.

“The point is to remember the good part, the part where you won. You need to give yourself a medal of some kind.”

Jack laughed. “You make it sound like a contest.”

“It is. A contest between good and evil, and good won. Get a tat.”

“I’ll think on it.” It was a lie and they both knew it.

“You let me know tomorrow. I’ll hook you up.”

Jack sighed. He slumped out of the precinct and walked home. Good and evil. It wasn’t like he actually had to battle the monster, he just tracked him. And, really, he didn’t even track him; the monster did that himself. Jack was a receiver, like a radio dialed into the Twilight Zone. Did people get medals for receiving? No. They prayed that the abhorrent thoughts would go away, and when they did, they walked home for a nice glass of something intoxicating, like the chilled vodka mojito in his refrigerator.

After dinner, with his tumbler of vodka next to him, he researched tattoos. Some indicated lineage, some religious beliefs, and others solidified cultural affiliations. Tattoos marked conquests, gang kills, and other gang activities like notches on a stick. He leaned against the back of his cushioned chair and sipped his vodka. The police force was a gang of sorts.

Manny’s voice wormed into his mind, “Get a tat.”

Jack shuddered. It would be easier to get a stick and notch it every time he caught a violent criminal. He would be easy to set it against a wall here or at the precinct. An insistent earworm, Manny laughed his head off over that notion.

He punched in another site. At the bottom of it was a link to another article, “The Cultural Use of Gold Jewelry.” Men had been wearing gold chains as status symbols throughout history. Seventy-five thousand years ago, the earliest records indicated ancient Egyptians wore them for good luck.

A gold chain. He could use more luck. He’d moved across the country to put his divorce behind him, literally. Trying to fit into another police force wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. He liked gold. He could get a fine chain, one that wouldn’t interfere with the job. He could hide it under his tee shirts like a tattoo. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. He grabbed his phone to text Manny, but he didn’t punch up his number. He didn’t want to ruin the excitement of his idea or the warmth of the vodka. Manny would most certainly call him a wuss. Nope. First he would get the chain, then he would tell Manny.

Manny was right about one thing. Apprehending a murderer was a victory and he had played a major role in that. It was time to get a medal.

A gold medal.