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Signature Nine


Once again in the Captain’s office Ross experienced déjà vu as the Captain handed across an envelope. Ross fished out the contents, a sheet of paper, and read it. 

The man in the photograph? Ask Lieutenant John Ralphs.

“That’s ridiculous,” Ross exclaimed. “It doesn’t look a bit like John Ralphs.
“I don’t think that’s what he means, Ross, or she. John Ralphs knows this guy.”
“So if this is the guy with the voice, why did Ralphs have to track down Hadley?” Ross was confused.
“I think that’s it, Ross. He didn’t have to track down Hadley. He knew about Hadley. I always thought that telephone thing worked too well, too smoothly.”
“If this is true, it’s a disaster.” Ross slumped in his chair.
“It’s worse than a disaster. Worse, because we have no proof, no evidence.” The Captain watched Ross battle with the conundrum.
“There’s something more, Ross. A jewellery store was raided a few days ago.” He pushed a report of the raid across to Ross. “The rumour circulating over there is that one of our officers is involved. No name yet, but the story goes that it’s one of us.”
“This is bad.” Then Ross summed up the situation: “We get an anonymous letter implying we have a rotten egg; we have an officer on suspension; we get a letter linking that officer to a suspected hoodlum, to use Hadley’s word; then rumour connects an officer to a raid, and guess who’s got free time right now. And worst of all, the whole pattern of weird events with the kidnapping and everything falls into place if John’s the bad guy. He’s my best friend, Sir. It was our friends who died.”
“As I said, Ross, the worst is we have nothing, nothing, nothing. Everything you said is unsubstantiated hypothesis.”
“So we just keep our eyes open?”
“We just keep our eyes open, Ross. You and me.” The second anonymous letter followed the trajectory of the first into the waste bin. 


Feeling trapped in the apartment during the week, John had decided to take Jenny hiking in the hills for the weekend. At first, as they set off through woodland, it had reminded her of the walks in the woods by the lake, but that quickly passed – there she just had someone to listen to her, behind her; here there was communication, two way.

Now they were following the bed of a rocky stream, winding up through the trees. John led the way, on his back a pack with a sleeping bag, food, bourbon and a water filter. He had taken a view on the weather and they were travelling light. They were in a dry spell and it was too early in the year for summer storms. They would sleep under the stars. Dressed in faded jeans and a white shirt, he wove his way among the rocks, crossing from side to side of the stream as the banks steepened, worn away by the springtime run-off. The bare earth was a deep brown behind the grey rocks. The air was filled with the scent of flowering bushes that clung higher up above them to the slopes rising from the bed of the stream. Through the dark trunks of the trees you could see a clear blue sky. They had been walking for two hours. John wanted to reach the point higher up where the trees thinned out to permit distant views, before they stopped for a break. They continued the climb. Jenny felt so good, climbing up through the trees. This was real life at last after the tension of the past weeks, after the drain on her emotions. That was all behind them, and as soon as John’s suspension ended, which she knew must be imminent, everything would be back to normal. John wasn’t even thinking. He was immersed in nature, with the physical exertion and the joy of the surroundings. His anger was dispersed; the burden was lifted; until they returned it was just Jenny with him and the hills.

They sat leaning against a rock face. Before them they could see the woods dropping away to the plain far below, stretching miles to a distant horizon, where the rim of land curved against the clear blue of the sky. An eagle hung high in the air above them. From the trees below came the hum of insects. In the distance a thin column of white smoke stood vertical; not a breath of wind. Jenny linked her arm into John’s they gazed into the distance, living the peacefulness of that moment. Jenny closed her eyes. She felt the warm morning sun on her face and the warmth of John beside her.

“Wish Ross and Mary were here to share this.” John turned to Jenny, gently stroking her cheek.
“You mean I’m not enough.” She turned her face towards him, holding him with her soft gaze.
“You know what I mean, Jenny.” He gave her a hug and stood up. “Come on.” She gave him her hand and he pulled her to her feet. He picked up the backpack, and they continued up the path side by side.
“Ross has been funny the last few days, distant,” John said.
“Pressure of work, John. That’s what you were like most of the time.”
“Did you mind?” he asked.
“Of course I mind.”
“Then let’s go hiking more often,” he said, “or rock climbing.”

As the evening drew in John scouted around for a good place to camp. The route had been steadily up hill most of the day. The return march tomorrow would be a breeze. He found a cleft in the rocks a few yards from a pool of clear water. They would be sheltered from behind, but with a clear view of the night sky above and over the plains beyond. He built a ring of stones on a bare rock and piled in dry deadwood, which blazed and quickly turned to glowing charcoal. They threw in potatoes to bake and set to work stripping thin branches to make skewers for the vegetables and meat, which they would barbecue later. After a day’s walking, the water from the pool surpassed the best vintage of Californian wine, but you can only drink so much water. As dusk fell, they switched to bourbon and felt the warmth flow through them and the spirit come alive. The aches and pains of the day receded as the tide fell in the bourbon bottle, just like the tide in the ocean receding across the sand. As the meat spluttered on its spit, the stars began to glow faintly in the sky, and sharpened to bright points as the night darkened and the embers of the fire faded. As the fire died, the stars seemed to descend to just above their heads, almost to touch. They slipped into the sleeping bag, and with the discretion willingly accorded to young lovers, those magnificent heavens retreated and the man and woman became aware just of each other, very aware of each other. 


Police work does not respect the Sabbath, and this Sunday morning was no exception. Once again Ross was in the Captain’s office. This time he had to explain that he had been unable to get hold of John Ralphs. All he could do was leave messages on the answering machine, which he had done. The Captain told Ross that they were to be investigated, and this was why he wanted to see Ralphs. Given that he is on suspension, I would say they would regard it as open season on him, he told Ross. The investigating team were due to arrive on Monday, the next day, but in Ralph’s obvious absence there was nothing for it but to get him in first thing on Monday and hope there was time for a briefing before the investigators arrived. The chances were that there would be, so that was the plan. Ross left, hoping desperately that John was only away for the weekend. Sure enough, he got hold of John on Sunday evening and agreed to pick him up first thing on Monday.

The Captain looked John Ralphs in the eye.
“Listen, Ralphs, I’m going to be frank. You’re a suspect, so you’re on suspension. It’s worse than you think.”
“How worse?”
“Don’t interrupt, Ralphs. Listen. I’ve read Kinley’s reports on you. They’re good. Ross here is your lifelong friend. I’m new here. God bless Kinley and my sympathies go to his bereaved family. But I’m here. Shall I trust you?”
“You have my oath, Sir,” John answered.
“Let me tell you both a story. This is personal. I’m here because the politicians screwed me. By politicians I mean the ones in the Police Department who pretend to be policemen. I told the truth and became a scapegoat. That’s all you need to know. So you know what?”
“No, Sir,” Ross replied, embarrassed by the course the conversation was taking.
“I’m going to act like a politician when I need to, to protect me, and to protect you. You know what that means?”
“It means you’re going to take us into your confidence, Sir, when you know you shouldn’t.” The Captain was impressed by John Ralphs’ perspicacity. Was this a bad or a good sign, he wondered? A shrewd policeman or a devious crook. Well, he had taken his choice, so he continued.
“If there’s a bad apple in my department, it’s me who gets him out, not the investigators. In fact, I just want to get him out. He can resign. I don’t want to attach blame that will besmirch my department. Frankly, I don’t see that serves the common good, not in my role as politician. Do you have a reason to resign, John?” he switched to first names. “Because if you do, resign now, and you are a free man, whatever you may have done.” The only sound in the room was the three men breathing. John thought of his weekend in the hills, of the freedom. He thought of his friends who were dead.
“Sir, I can never resign as long as those bastards breathe freely the air of our town. Sir, all I’ve ever done wrong is to treat police time as my own when we had nothing going on, and I’ve repaid that many times over with my own time spent on police work.” John held the Captain’s stern gaze, and the Captain held his.
“I think you are vicious, devious crook, Ralphs.” The Captain still held his gaze, but John did not flinch.
“I don’t believe you, Sir.”
“Well, it was worth a try,” the Captain said. “Whether you are a crook or not, we’ll pretend you aren’t, but you should know that you’re probably going to be accused. I’m going to protect the Department first and foremost. If I believe you to be innocent, I shall protect you, but that comes second to the Department.”
“You’ve made yourself clear, Sir. But I’m innocent until proven guilty.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that, John. I’ve made myself more than clear. I’ve taken you and Ross into a confidence that is way over the line. Respect it.” With that the conference was over. The Captain was motivated by an “enlightenment” learned from his past. This did not figure in Hadley’s planogram, at least not yet.

An overwhelming sadness enveloped Jenny, when John told her of the meeting in the Captain’s office. John, who had always stood up for what was right, who had devoted himself to his profession, often at her expense, this same man was to be accused, pilloried. Was this really how the idealism of youth transmuted into the worldly wisdom of middle age? I am still young, she thought. I can, and will, hold to my beliefs. This man cannot be crushed by the machinery of police bureaucracy, of any bureaucracy. I would not have strung my life on the line as he did when he stormed that warehouse, believing he was up against nine ruthless killers, and yet he did that for his sense of right, of responsibility for what he does. That is him. That is him as I see him, him as I know him. Then her anger melted as she thought of the confidence the Captain had placed in John. Perhaps there was hope. I have to help him. The key must lie with Bill Hadley, with his hoodlum brother. Bill likes me. He will help me.

Bill Hadley was hunched over his laptop. He was feeding into his planogram, retrospectively, what actually happened. The raid on the jewel store did not readily fit the plan, as he had described it. It went so much better. I need to automate this, he thought, rather than having to reprogram the thing. I need to link my spreadsheets better. This was the start of a six hour session on the planogram, on its structure. Thoughts of all else vanished as he concentrated his energy on honing his tool, the planogram.