Sophie’s was a small Cajun restaurant in Antioch, a small town south of Nashville. The food was good enough that it had a steady stream of customers fairly nonstop, despite the fact that it kept failing health inspections. At least once every six months, the local news station would report some new violation, an assortment ranging from rats to one of the cooks being diagnosed with hepatitis. Each time, the health inspector would shut it down, and each time, Sophie’s would be open the next day. The restaurant’s ability to imitate Lazarus was directly due to the fact that Bobby Zomack, the pot bellied owner, spent the thirty years of his life preceding his entry into the food service industry as the Davidson county Sheriff. This wrangled him enough political clout to overcome the half hearted bleating of whatever health inspector happened to be on duty that month. It also guaranteed him a steady stream of customers with shields on their chest. There were always at least five cops clustered around the battered wooden tables, inhaling jambalaya and crawfish. There were over a dozen in the restaurant today. Lopez and I walked in the front door, past the sign reading, “Sit wherever the hell you want and yell when you’re ready” and into the main dining room. Looking around, Lopez nudged me and nodded over to a booth in the corner. The occupant was the only person in the place sitting by themselves. We walked over, and Lopez asked, “Detective Hanover?”
He looked up from his chicken, and gave us a once over. “You Roberts’ friends?”
We nodded, and he motioned for us to sit. As we did, I looked him over. Tony Hanover was older than I thought, easily past fifty, but was in better shape than either of us. He had a cleanly cut goatee that was immaculately groomed, cut tight against his face. His hair was shorn close to his head, and he was wearing a brown leather jacket that had obviously seen a few years. Although he kept eating, his eyes were fixed firmly on us, and I felt as if they were picking me apart, sorting through the pieces, and tossing aside anything he deemed irrelevant. I felt uncomfortable instantly, and pitied anyone who found those eyes staring at them across an interrogation room table.
“You want something to drink?”
“No, sir.” I shifted nervously in my chair. I don’t know what it is about cops, but they all carry themselves in such a way as to make you instantly feel guilty. “We really appreciate you talking with us.”
Hanover shrugged. “Wouldn’t be if Roberts didn’t back you up. He’s a good guy, which is rare for a lawyer.”
“How do you know him?”
“I had to go into Knoxville to talk to an informant he was representing. He actually seemed to think that we were on the same side, made it easy to get the job done quickly. His client was about as talkative as a rock, but Roberts spoke with him and convinced him that it was okay to talk. Because of that testimony, we closed a major case.” He slugged back a few gulps of what looked like iced tea, emptying the glass. Out of nowhere, a skinny waiter refilled his glass, and vanished as if he’d never been there. “I told Roberts I owed him one, and about an hour ago, he let me know he was calling in the favor.”
“We don’t want to keep you for too long, but we could use some help in dealing with this situation. Honestly, information is the most valuable thing right now.”
He grunted. “Yeah, Roberts gave me the rundown on the situation. You boys need to be careful getting involved in any domestic stuff. Nasty, always, and it’s never simple.”
“Her mom asked us just to find out what’s going on. Tell Katie that she misses her, and let Karen know that she’s not in serious trouble.” Next to me, Lopez fiddled with a straw while he listened.
“Karen paying you?”
Reluctantly, I nodded. “I tried not to accept it, but she insisted. We’re giving it back.”
“Don’t. If she isn’t paying you, you’re a couple friends of the family nosing around and I can’t tell you anything without getting into a lot of trouble. If you are paid representatives of her mother, you fall into the category of private security or investigators, and I have a bit more leeway. Not a lot, mind you, but a bit.”
“Okay… whatever works best for you.”
Hanover nodded. “Okay, some ground rules. First, I’ll tell you what I can, and not what I can’t. Don’t bug me for what I won’t give you. Second, if you find out that this girl is involved in something illegal, you don’t pass go, you call me and report it without hesitation. I find out you’re hiding something, you will find yourself in a cell. Am I clear?”
Thoroughly cowed, I nodded, and saw Lopez doing the same. This wasn’t at all what I had expected, but it was a lot more than I hoped. “Absolutely, sir. Anything you can give us will help.”
“Okay.” Hanover pulled a small leather bound notebook out of his pocket and flipped it open. He placed some half lens wire framed glasses on his nose and began scanning the pages. “Erik Harris, twenty two years old, lives in Madison, we think. Never there if we come scooting by, so we think that he squats with friends most of the time, normally at a trailer at 316 Hickory Pike. Has a tan Nissan Sentra registered in his name, license Helo Alpha Four, Romeo Six Nine.” Pausing, he looked up. “You writing this down?”
“Don’t need to.” Lopez mumbled.
“You going to remember everything I say?” The detective scowled at Lopez, looking annoyed. “I don’t like wasting my time, and if you’re…”
“There are eighteen people in this restaurant, four drinking water, two soda, twelve some kind of beer. From the bits of conversation I can hear, I know that the three cops at table four are pissed because Ramirez is late again, and the last two times he didn’t pick up his part of the check. I know its table four because I saw the seating chart on the way in. Your car is probably the unmarked cop car in the eighth space from the northeast end of the lot, license plate Zulu Five One Tango Golf Nine. You have seventeen dents in the roof, looks like hail damage. We passed it walking in.” Lopez raised his eyes to look at Hanover. “I don’t forget anything.”
Hanover blinked twice, and looked over at me in vague disbelief. I shrugged. Looking back at Lopez, he finally laughed. It was the first expression other than annoyance I saw on his face, and it suddenly made him seem less of a cop and more like a human being. “That’s pretty amazing. Roberts said you were smart, but he didn’t…” He laughed again. “Pretty handy talent.”
“Yeah, it’s great. This asshole can’t even juggle.” Lopez grinned as he pointed at me.
Shaking his head and chuckling still, Hanover returned to his notes. “Okay, Harris has a juvie record, but those are sealed, can’t get to them. But since then, he’s established himself as a very small time but enthusiastic crook. Six arrests, two convictions, all for theft or drug possession. Never did more than a few months before getting booted out on the street, always seemed enthusiastic for providing information on others to get out early. Suspended license, and he currently has an outstanding arrest warrant for theft charges from his abortive career at Wal-Mart. No family around here that we know of. Hangs out mostly with a group of about a dozen scumbags, peddling weed and ecstasy, never enough to get our attention to any significant degree. Lot of criminals learn how to walk that fine line to be the small fish that don’t get a lot of attention.
“Okay, now here’s the odd thing. Recently, he’s completely vanished from the radar. Not hanging out with the usual group, not getting into the usual trouble. The cops that patrol that area say they haven’t heard a thing about him. He’s been spotted a few times, but those were all little things, buying beer, gas, whatever. We busted one of his usual crew last week on possession with intent, and he said that Harris hasn’t been involved in dealing for a bit, claims he went straight.” Hanover looked up at us, returning both the glasses and the notebook to his pocket.
Digesting all of this for a moment, I frowned. “So maybe he gets with Katie, falls head over heels, and decides he’s got to clean up his act. Makes sense, I guess.”
“Not really.” Lopez shook his head. “If I’m trying to be on my best behavior so that I can sweet talk my way into some chick’s thong, I kiss her mom’s ass like it’s fucking honey. You don’t treat her like shit and fuck with the rest of her kids, start a whole scene. What if Katie takes her mom’s side? Bam! Harris is spending his evenings with a bottle of Canola and a volleyball.”
I stared at him. “What?”
“I think what your friend is trying to say, in his own bizarre way,” Hanover said, rolling his eyes, “is that Harris isn’t acting like someone in the scenario you painted would. And he’s right.”
“Okay, so what then? Katie suddenly developed an attraction to this jerk? Doesn’t fit what we know about her, either.”
“Actually, it does.” The cop’s face darkened. “We see a lot of girls who didn’t go stir crazy in high school do something really stupid to act out. This wouldn’t be the first time that the good girl was sucked in by the dangerous guy. Maybe she sees his hidden potential, thinks she can draw it out, the whole Florence Nightingale thing. Never works out, but doesn’t stop each of them from thinking that their situation is different.
“No, the odd thing is Harris’ behavior. If he’s got a cute new girlfriend, guys like him show them off like a new fancy car. He should still be hanging out with the rest of the crew, just to be seen with her draped over his arm.” He shoved the food around his plate, and pushed it aside. Rising to his feet, he looked down at us. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, and that’s all I can tell you. You guys find something illegal going on, and I can do something about this. But Katie is legally an adult, and if she wants to ignore her mom and act like an idiot, that’s her choice. But for what it’s worth, I think you’re right. This smells funny.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “So what’s your next step, boys?”
I looked at Lopez, then back to Hanover. “Not really sure. We really are kind of stumbling through this, and we honestly don’t have a clue what we’re doing. Thought that next we’d go talk to Katie’s friends, see if they know where she is.”
Hanover nodded approvingly. “Not a bad idea.” Tossing a twenty on the table, he started for the door. We followed him out, walking slightly behind him to his car. Pausing by the door, he said, “Listen, I’ll keep my ears open, let you know if I hear anything that I can do to help.” He handed me his card, and shook our hands. “But listen to me. Harris is a two-bit wannabe, but he’s still a crook. Be careful. Don’t do anything stupid. You hear anything I need to know, there’s no bad time to call me. You boys are smart, and that’s good, but don’t get too smart.” Nodding at us, he cranked up his engine and pulled away.
Lopez and I stood there, watching him leave. For some reason, this all felt a lot bigger to me. Something was nagging at the back of my head.