The Shift: Hard-Boiled Short Fiction By Keith Wright
Keith Wright, author of The Shift, is also the writer of crime novel “One Oblique One” (the UK police radio code word for sudden death). The book was shortlisted for the John Creasey memorial Award by the Crime Writer’s Association (CWA) for best debut crime novel in 1991. His books have received critical acclaim in “The Times”, “Financial Times” and the “Sunday Express” et al.
In “The Shift,” Detective Burden Booth is working his last shift, he just doesn’t know it yet. he narrates the story himself from the grave. The story touches on his background and predominantly follows him around during that day’s shift and we witness his caring approach to the victims of crime, as well as the horrors of the nature of his work and the impact it has.
When he returns to the station there is an unexpected surprise for him. He is suspended. It is a set up. At home the ignominy and shame coupled with a personal issue causes a ‘shift’ in his mental state and triggers him to hang himself. Only afterwards does he realize the effect he was having on people’s lives.
I was called Burden Booth at the age of seven weeks and two days. Quite what they called me prior to this, is a mystery. ‘Baby’ probably. My parents were not in a hurry, and the name was a hint as to how welcome I was.
Dad didn’t hang around too long, once I showed up. He was arrested for trying to rob a convenience store when drunk. I discovered years later, that when he was asked why, he said he needed money and this store was ‘convenient’. I’m guessing Dad gave me the name. When he was released from prison he headed north, whilst we lived down south. That was the last known whereabouts of Charlie Booth until his untimely death.
Mum was different, she lasted longer. It couldn’t have been easy balancing the life of a new Mother with prostitution and drug taking. She managed to keep me around for 8 months until I was discovered alone in the bedsit surrounded by piss and shit by a neighbour, who had been worried about my welfare for weeks, apparently. Mum came back to an empty cot and was found wandering the streets, off her tits on crack-cocaine, looking for me.
As a Detective working the inner city I have been surrounded by piss and shit ever since.
I was fostered and then, thankfully, adopted by a loving couple, June and Samson Mezzo. They did a great job in raising me and allowed me to keep my name. Perhaps they should have changed it, with hindsight. I am forever grateful, of course, but they could never quite fix that hole in my gut that yearned for my own Mum and Dad. Not really my own Mum and Dad, but the fictitious Mum and Dad in my mind. You know, the type who are loving and kind and are totally invested in you. Not the pieces of dirt my own parents were. I guess parents are just people. We are all born to chance.
Rumor had it that Dad went on a drinking spree and totaled a car he had stolen into the side of a lorry. As the car careened underneath the wagon it took his head clean off.
I was fostered and then, thankfully, adopted by a loving couple, June and Samson Mezzo. They did a great job in raising me and allowed me to keep my name. Perhaps they should have changed it, with hindsight.
Mum died many years later in a mental hospital aged 53. The details are sketchy. If I’d known, I would have gone to see her. It is probably for the best that I didn’t. Some things are best left to providence.
Maybe the DNA swirling around me was why I killed myself. Maybe Mum and Dad’s genes managed to overthrow all the decency and sense of justice instilled in me by my adoptive parents. An internal battle of which I was oblivious. The vulnerability gene floating around my system ready to pop up when the time was right.
June and Sam were so proud when I joined the police. Rightly so, they had given me a life that would never have been lived if I had stayed with Ma and Pa. Maybe I should have handled that life better. Maybe I should have treated it with more care. Maybe this, maybe that. That isn’t life, though, is it?
I never figured out how people managed to live a straightforward life. You know the ones; the people who always have a cheery smile, never seem to have any problems, live in nice homes with nice kids and nice cars and nice jobs. Nice. Looking back, I guess you could say my childhood and college years were nice. I did good. I was no academic, but no fool either. Good at sports, and always doing the right thing. I suppose the turning point was becoming a cop.
Kids like me shouldn’t become cops. It was a shock to the system. I had no clue back in the days before crime documentary series, and breaking news, how some people lived or behaved. I was like a lamb to the slaughter. The paradox is that the sort of decent people who want to be cops, have no real business immersing themselves elbow deep in the hidden world of depravity that is the criminal underworld. You have two choices as a cop; the easy way is to treat the low-life’s as a separate entity. The bad guys.
You, of course, are the good guys. Them and us. The alternative way; the harder choice, is when you see them as people; lost, crashing around, trying to survive their previous, unsupervised, ill-judged, bad choices in life. Guess which one I chose? The problem was I always had the feeling that ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’. Their parents were like my blood parents. Their houses like my house. It was tough. Too complicated to make sense of.
I was highly trained. I knew my law, my high-speed driving, investigation techniques and interviewing skills. That’s why I became a detective, I was good. Damned good. People could relate to me. People trusted me. What I wasn’t trained in, was coping. Being taught how to be able to serve justice, but help the ones that were worth helping, before it was too late. I got too involved, I guess. I took the wrong approach. I gave my life to helping people above all else, and then I gave my life.
The day I died was nothing special. I hadn’t been planning anything, particularly. I was down, because of my ex-wife telling me that she and the kids were moving 300 miles away with her latest boyfriend of a few months, but I was resilient, I thought. I would find a way to cope. I would still see them, still be able to shape their lives and mitigate the craziness that they would be suffering, without my weekly, sobering input. I was fooling myself of course. In denial. Deep down, I knew it too. It was too much to process.
The day I died was nothing special. I hadn’t been planning anything, particularly.
I started the shift at 8 am. Weirdly my first call was to a robbery at a convenience store. The guy on the till was shaken up, he was terrified, poor kid. No more than 20 years old, being paid peanuts. It was a shotgun, job. They got away with a handful of bank notes, nothing more, but it left a scar on the victim. I took him to one side. I told him not to be brave, nor to jump back on the horse. I told him to quit his job. To do it today. I knew they would be back. Someone willing to risk ten years in prison for thirty notes, were drug addicts. Addicts with a shotgun and an easy score would be back. Next time he might not be so lucky. He took my advice.
My next call was to a couple, the Harveys, whose son had been murdered in a gangland killing three months earlier. I had arrested the perpetrator and been working with the family. The saddest thing was that their son was not a gangbanger. He had no interest in who’s ‘yard’ he was in, or what colors to wear. He was just a decent lad who couldn’t answer the questions asked by a piece of shit with a knife. He bled to death on the street surrounded by passers-by, none of whom could, or would, help him; for fear that they might be targeted next. Nobody even called an ambulance. Can you believe that?
I didn’t have any official business at the Harvey family’s house, but I wanted to have a coffee with them and see how they were coping. I had been concerned that their other son was so angry, that he was going to go down the wrong path. I spoke with him for hours until he told me that the best way to avenge his brother was to be successful and happy. He thought he was telling me, and so I was pleased to have steered the conversation and his mind set back onto the right path. That was a good day. His parents are still in a living hell of course, but they know I have always been there for them. You can’t just abandon these poor souls to their own fate.
What I didn’t realize was that no-one was there for me. No-one would dream of worrying about me. I was a big six foot-three, hairy-arsed cop. A sports man, competent, a detective, strong, had all the answers. You know the guy. Why would anyone be worried about me? What about that time when we realize, that we don’t have all the answers? That some things can’t be resolved? What then?
I had to run from the Harvey’s house when an emergency call for assistance by a colleague came over the radio. A cop was in trouble ten minutes away. I got there just in time as the guy he was clinging to was all but free of his grasp. I took him around the neck and dropped him backwards.
I held him for some time whilst shouting encouragement to the exhausted young cop who was spitting blood and snot out of his mouth and, between you and me, crying a little bit. I could hear sirens, and so my task was much easier than his, as within two minutes, other colleagues were on scene, and handcuffed the maniac. He was physically very strong; there have been a few times when I have been engaged in a fight when you instantly realize that the antagonist is stronger than you.
I had to run from the Harvey’s house when an emergency call for assistance by a colleague came over the radio. A cop was in trouble ten minutes away.
It is a frightening realization and so I knew how the poor kid felt. He would survive, and he should be commended for his bravery and tenacity but that would be in the lap of the Gods, and his senior officers. The thing that galled me the most about the incident, was seeing a cop car sneaking the opposite way, ignoring the assistance call, too scared to do his duty.
That was inexcusable and arguably as bad as the bastard who had laid hands on the cop. The coward was well thought of by the higher ranks for his submission of projects and input into ‘community and ethnic policing’ and so was destined for great things. I wasn’t. Good men in a bad world make enemies.
I didn’t have time for a sandwich as there was another call I wanted to do, and I was getting behind with it. Jay and Kate Smith, and their son Jaydon who had been raped by a pedophile with a stick. The pedophile was on prescription drugs as part of a voluntary process to stop him being sexually active and therefore allowing him to be free to walk the streets.
The ‘experts’ did not consider that his activities were more about control and power and so, in the absence of a working penis, he used his fingers and a stick. Jaydon was on the road to recovery six months later, but it was his father Jay, that concerned me. He was suffering with depression and unable to support his son. This in turn put pressure on his wife, Kate, and in its wake, Jaydon had become aloof and uncommunicative. He was ‘all right’. He said.
He wasn’t, of course. The boys at school were bullying him about it. It was a big old mess. I couldn’t do much, but I wanted to get involved at the school to stop the bullshit he was having to endure and get the school to get its act together. Sadly, they were out when I called, yet again. I wanted the facts, so the school would have to wait until tomorrow; if I could catch them at home. I would go first thing in the morning.
I wanted to do some door knocking on Slater Avenue about a dodgy rape I had been dealing with. Shirley Crich was a woman in her thirties. Her neighbors were wary of her and were a potential answer to the questions that had been forming in my mind about the truthfulness of her allegations. She had been raped in the alley next to her house and I had dealt with the case. The offender was caught and admitted it. Silly sod. I don’t think he did it.
I was suspicious of Shirley from the get-go. I became worried when she started turning up at the police station asking for me for all sorts of nonsense. I guess I had that effect on people. Certainly, on her. Eventually, I told her, straight, that I was concerned that a lad was in prison because she had made the whole thing up, and she must do the right thing. She was naturally pissed off and denied it all. She said she would complain. Fine.
Now, some days later, the neighbors couldn’t help when I called around. Everybody is always reticent to get involved, understandably, to some extent. Anyway, the alleyway was not visible from their windows and they hadn’t heard anything, which was probably the most significant aspect. Shirley had said in her testimony, that she had screamed at the top of her voice, throughout the ‘rape’.
The shift had passed quickly. There was just enough time to do an hour’s paperwork and clock off. I was surprised, however, when I was met at the station by a Chief Inspector. I didn’t know him. I knew of him. He was an old friend of a Sergeant who had been bullying a black policewoman, making jungle references, that sort of nonsense. The Sergeant was moved to a desk job, after I supported the policewoman’s version of events. I smelt a rat.
Now, some days later, the neighbors couldn’t help when I called around. Everybody is always reticent to get involved, understandably, to some extent.
‘I have to tell you that I am suspending you from your duties as a police officer, pending an investigating into a report by Shirley Crich that you are having an affair with her and have purposely failed to investigate her rape properly. How do you feel?’
That was when I knew it was a stitch up. ‘How do you feel?’ What sort of a question is that? He wanted to know. To tell his friend, so they could all have a good old laugh about it.
‘How do you think I feel?’
My stomach was churning and my heart thumping. Suspension was not necessary, of course. It would turn out that Shirley had staged the rape, as I suspected. She eventually admitted using a hammer shaft to ram up her vagina to fool the police surgeon. She had a shrine to me upstairs. Framed newspaper clippings of my cases and candles either side. She and I were totally in love, apparently, and she was pregnant with my child.
It was too late for me that they discovered that she suffered from a serious case of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and had a hysterectomy years before. She suffered with personality disorders too, all of which were piled on top of ‘normal’ emotions such as loneliness, poverty, desperation and depression. She needed attention. She was well looked after though, which was good, as she was clearly mentally unwell.
Once home I had a thousand things going through my mind: What would become of the stitch up suspension? How do I tell June and Sam that their ‘son’, of whom they were so proud was now suspended? They did not know about police internal politics, and all the nastiness in that world. They thought all cops were heroes. Apart from their son, now branded as corrupt, and facing dismissal at best.
Other matters surfaced, such as what the point of being a cop was? Why do it? What good was I doing to the people I was trying to help? It was a waste of time. To give everything for your fellow man and be publicly shamed like this, because of pettiness by some old sweat. Those sneaky bastards would get me the sack. The lies and the liars were well practiced. How could I survive? What could I do? I only know how to be a cop. What if they wangled me a prison sentence? Do you know what happens to cop’s in prison?
Then there were my children. I burst into tears at the thought of not seeing them for months on end. It all came flooding out. I could not survive that. I couldn’t. I need my children. They are all I really have. It was too much to bear. I suddenly felt so lonely, stuck, with no way out; no way to change the events affecting me, I was powerless. It all seemed hopeless.
I kicked the small stool away and the jarring to my throat took me by surprise. It felt like the rope was going to pull my head off, and I was swinging and kicking and grabbed at the rope. Regretting it immediately. Naturally, I had set the noose up well; tied to the rafter in the loft with the hatch open.
I burst into tears at the thought of not seeing them for months on end. It all came flooding out. I could not survive that. I couldn’t.
Therefore, when I grabbed at the rope to try to pull myself up and ease the strangulation it had little effect. Slight, but not much. I felt my tongue being forced forward and further blocking my airways. It was too late to change my mind, but my survival instinct kicked in and I held on to that damned rope for twenty minutes or more. Trying to call for help, but unable. In any case, no one was there to hear me. I knew that I could not hold on forever and that I was going to die. It made it terrifying. I evacuated my bowels, just as the unconsciousness arrived. A nice present for the cop who would cut me down.
I was annoyed that the Chief Inspector who suspended me, was the bastard who appeared on the news saying what a terrific cop I was.
If I had known the impact that I had really made on all the people I was helping, I might have been able to carry on, but I couldn’t see it.
It was the shift that did it. The shift of mind set. My mind shifted from someone feeling valued and doing a good job, to the fear of prison by cops in power, the loss of my children, and the futility of it all. It was too quick to soak up. Too overpowering to rationalise. Too much to bear. Something had to give. Unfortunately, it was my sanity. I was dead on the inside and now dead on the outside.
I was surprised by how many turned up at my funeral. Many people spoke nicely about me. The Harveys explained how I had saved their family, and their only surviving son, from a life of crime. Young Jaydon gave testimony of how I had saved him from taking his own life. He had it all planned until I came in with my big size twelves and stopped the shift in his thinking, changing it to a more positive train of thought. That someone would help him. Someone cared and was prepared to go in the ring for him. It meant a lot. I didn’t know that. Even the guy from the convenience store who had gone back to college and avoided the raid a few days later.
Maybe I did make a difference. I just didn’t know it. I thought I was just working the shift.
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