“Quiet down,” Chief Anthony DeSanto addressed the gathering of sixty or so UPD personnel – patrol officers, detectives and C.S.O.s – at eight a.m. the following morning. Mid-forties, with dark wavy hair, beady chocolate eyes and craggy olive skin, he spoke calmly and commandingly out of one side of his mouth, with a trace of a New York accent. “Let’s get started.”
Seated in the second-to-last row of folding chairs, set up in the lobby of the police department for the occasion, Julie stifled a yawn, not due to a lack of interest, but rather a lack of sleep. Rhonda Sparks’ wake-up call, summoning her to the emergency staff meeting, had come at seven-fifteen, barely affording her three hours of rest.
“At approximately 11:05 last night, the body of one of our students was discovered in the woods,” DeSanto began the briefing. “The victim was an eighteen-year-old freshman. She has been identified as Courtney Anne Kennedy.”
Julie thought the name rang a bell, but was hard pressed to place it in her memory – until one of the color copies being distributed reached her hands. She looked down at the blown-up photograph of the deceased and gasped. It was the dancer from the cafeteria!
“The cause of death appears to be a fatal blow to the back of the head, signifying she was possibly attacked, and it’s being treated as a homicide,” DeSanto illuminated his audience. “The case has been turned over to the City of San Diego Police Department for investigation.”
The announcement caused a minor uproar from the crowd.
Chief DeSanto raised his hands to quell the grumbling protests. “I don’t write the rules; I just enforce them. Besides, we have a bigger issue on our hands: the continued safety and security of our student body. As you know, this is the second attack in a month. Which means, we could have somebody out there who enjoys preying on young women.”
Julie felt a queasiness develop in her empty stomach.
“So while the SDPD tries to catch this guy, or whoever it is, our number one priority is to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. I’ve outlined a plan for stepping up security. We’re going to split up into separate divisions now, where you’ll be given individual assignments. If you have any questions, bring them to the attention of your immediate supervisors. Thank you. And don’t let me down.”
Over the heads in front of her, Julie saw Eric jump up enthusiastically from a chair in the front row. Why did his yellow windbreaker make him look dashing, she wondered, when hers made her look like a clown? A swarm of yellow jackets gathered around him and with her view obstructed, Julie refocused her limited energy on locating her new boss.
She found Rhonda Sparks amidst her fellow patrol officers, gathered on the opposite side of the room, waiting for their assignments. Julie stole up from behind and tapped her on the shoulder.
“Oh, Julie. Listen, you’re going to be working with the other C.S.O.s on this one. Report in to Eric; he’ll tell you what to do.”
What have a I got myself into? thought Julie, her head spinning.
Officer Sparks saw her hesitate and prodded, “Go on. Git.”
Git? Did Rhonda Sparks moonlight as an animal trainer? Julie galloped off obediently to join Eric’s group. She took a seat at the edge of the C.S.O. circle, beside another apparent outsider, a dark, brooding figure packed with enough muscle to push a tank. Intimidated, Julie avoided making eye contact.
“Okay, everybody, listen up for your name,” Eric called the assembly of yellow jackets to order, and then consulted his clipboard. “Tagg, Chris, Jesse and Bo, you’re being moved to escort duty.”
The boys whose names had been called congratulated one another with grunts and high-fives.
“Will, Nat, Ethan and Ari, you have foot patrol,” Eric continued through his list.
The humongous stranger leaned over to Julie and whispered, “You must be the new girl everyone’s talking about.”
Julie prickled. Everyone’s talking about? She smiled nervously and whispered back, “I guess. Hi, I’m Julie.”
“Vince,” he introduced himself. His deep voice was as pleasingly smooth as a black cup of coffee. Which she seriously needed at that moment.
“What assignment do you think you’ll get?” Julie asked, trying to keep the conversation going. Talking seemed to relieve her present anxiety.
Vince blew out a sigh and leaned back in his chair. “I guess that’s up to Eric and Deputy S’miller.”
Julie looked over at the goofy, gap-toothed cadet lapping at Eric’s heels. She recognized him from the previous day. “S’miller? Odd name.”
“His first name is Scott; his last name is Miller. Which is ‘S’miller’ in beer slur. Give the guy a drink, and he gets pretty sloppy.”
Julie chuckled, and Vince finally surrendered a smile. White teeth shimmered in the crack on his tough guy exterior. Julie suspected there was a lot more to Vince than met the eye and was intrigued. “What’s the Chief’s deal?” she probed. “He looks pretty …”
“Intense?” Vince provided the adjective. He drew a sharp intake of breath. “Ex-NYPD. The officers say he’s like a stick of dynamite with a really short fuse. I try my best to avoid him. If I were you, I’d do the same.”
Over in the circle, Eric concluded, “Okay, that’s it. Anybody have any questions?”
Vince and Julie looked at one another quizzically. Although they’d been half-listening, neither had heard their names called. Julie waited for Vince to react. When he didn’t, she called out, “What about me?”
The sea of student cops parted, and by the way they stared at her, you’d think she’d just strolled into the multiplex naked. Their collective faces bore a variety of expressions – shock, curiosity, delight, and, on one or two, lasciviousness.
“Ah, Julie. I almost forgot. These are for you.” On cue, S’Miller got up to retrieve a hefty-looking cardboard box, which he dropped at her feet. Filled to the brim, inside were two neat stacks of yellow paper.
“Flyers. To promote the self-defense workshop this weekend,” Eric explained. “Officer Sparks wants all five hundred of them posted across the campus by tonight.
Several of the other C.S.O.s erupted in snickers like a pack of hyenas. Somebody mumbled, “Have fun,” and others joined in with laughter.
Julie glared at Eric, who shrugged. Was that a smile on his face? She felt tired, and now humiliated.
In the hubbub, no one noticed Chief DeSanto approach. “What’s going on here?” he demanded in a voice that cracked like a whip.
The unruly group shuffled into line.
“Keep it down,” he scolded, and then scanned the other faces in the crowd. “Vince Walker?”
Vince jumped to attention. “Yessir.”
Chief DeSanto looked him up and down then ordered, “Come with me.”
Following the police chief through the throng, Vince stole a glance back at Julie. He looked like a man whose worst fear had just been realized.