14. Police Newser

"Could you hold up a piece of white paper?"

"Sure thing. How's that?"

"Fine, thanks."

"You betcha." Sergeant Harmon narrowed his eyes, and, keeping his head still for the benefit of the cameramen and women, surveyed the nearly empty press room. "Did you all miss me?" he said through unmoving lips. "How's the tan look? Are you going to need a special lens or filter on that thing for the tan, Jer? Don't worry, kids, it's fake. It came out of a light bulb. I'm not holidaying in China or anything, so don't get the wrong idea."

"That's fine, thanks, Sergeant."

Harmon let the sheet drop to the podium, and lolled his head and rolled his eyes in a show of relief. Eventually he brought his liberated gaze to bear on Drew.

"Drew!" he cried. "Sight for sore eyes!" He brought Drew's presence to the attention of Chief Anders, who had just entered the press room, moving as usual with single-minded determination, and carrying before him as usual a paper cup of cappuccino.

"To what do we owe the pleasure?" the chief wondered.

"They sacked my assistant," Drew said, "so now I'm back on this shit detail."

Harmon laughed freely, his shoulders shaking, his eyes roving the room for support. His laughter ended abruptly, because he was a busy man and this was a serious job. Let others laugh long; he would laugh loud.

"Well, boys and girls," he said, "I guess it's about time we got down to those brass tacks I've been hearing so much about from the President."

The chief lowered himself onto a chair along the back wall. The radio people double-checked their mikes, the camera operators bent their heads to their viewfinders, and the reporters who had not yet done so leaned forward and switched their PDRs to record. Harmon richly cleared a clear throat, and the newser was underway.

"I wish I had more for you, but I'm afraid it's been a rather slow week." He paused to smile at the idea of a police officer apologizing for a shortage of crime, then carried on. "Aside from the on-ramp collision, for which the press release has already been, uh, released, there really isn't anything new to report. So I can answer any questions you might have about open cases, but otherwise ..."

"What's the latest on the on-ramp thing," said Drew, who had not bothered to read the release. He did not listen to the reply. Harper, the kid from the Argonaut, who Drew felt must have been directed by Casey to follow whatever stories the Post-Times reporters were following, asked for more trivial details—"What was the make and model of the first vehicle?"—but with such driving intensity that for a moment even Drew began to wonder what Harmon was hiding. Harmon repeated a few times that, although he had at present no information with him, the case file could be consulted afterwards on request.

Drew leaned forward and said, "What about other news?"

"As I said, Mr. Dunkel, it has been a rather quiet weekend."

"Oh, come on," said Edworthy from 2-KFKX. "Surely you can give us something, Sergeant. I can't fill three minutes with a two-day-old traffic jam."

"Perhaps you boys and girls need to go out and make yourselves some news, heh?" Sensing, perhaps, that this might be construed as inciting the city's reporters to break the law, he turned to the chief for support. "Eh, chief?" he chuckled. The chief sipped his cappuccino.

The woman from ZipNews stepped back from her camera. "Pardon me, Sergeant Harmon, but perhaps you could tell us if there have been any further developments in the assault charges being brought against one of your officers."

Harmon pursed his lips to show that he was disappointed by this muckraking. "I'm afraid there have been no further developments in that matter that can be reported," he said evenly.

"None that can be reported?" asked Edworthy. "Meaning, there have been some developments, but you can't tell us what they are?"

Drew joined in. "What exactly can you tell us, Sergeant? We're all shooting in the dark here."

"I'm afraid there's nothing substantive that can be added to the information released last week by, uh, Sergeant Hill," said Harmon.

"And what exactly was that information?" asked Drew.

"Simply that the matter is being investigated by internal review."

"Did this assault take place on-duty, off-duty?"

"The alleged assault was alleged to occur during hours of which the officer was not on active duty."

"What kind of assault are we talking about? Domestic, road rage, barroom brawl?"

"That information has not, and cannot, be released until the process of internal review has been duly carried out to a conclusion. All I can tell you, Drew," said Harmon, adopting his man-to-man persona, "is that we're obviously taking the allegations very seriously and for the time being we can't give out any more details."

Drew, along with everyone else in the room, was surprised and touched by Harmon's lapse into the active voice.

For a time no one spoke. The chief began to fidget. Harmon began to collect and pat his papers into a neat pile.

Then the kid, Harper, raised his pencil and said, "What can you tell us about the body found in the hotel room Monday?"

"I believe, and perhaps the chief could back me up on this, that the body has still not yet been identified."

"Do we know if it's a man or a woman?"

Harmon looked surprised, but only briefly. "I thought the gender had already been released."

"You didn't have that information with you last time," said the kid.

"The deceased was female."

Drew leaned back in his chair and asked the kid directly, "What was this?"

Because Harmon didn't like to relinquish control of the newser, pretending that he was not in the room was a popular strategy for drawing him out.

"The deceased," said Harmon, "was found in a room of a Hotel Seven Monday afternoon by the cleaning staff. The coroner's office was called in to investigate but I believe by as early as Tuesday afternoon a verdict of suicide had been reached. Which I believe is precisely what I said was going to be the expected result."

Harper and a few others began to scratch nonchalantly at their notepads.

Harmon, sensing that he had let something new slip, attempted to backpedal. "I'm not sure if it was a Hotel Seven. I may be confusing it with another case. I don't have the case file in front of me, obviously, but that information can of course be, uh, confirmed. On request." He smiled winningly and said, "You know, guys and gals, if you would just call me up ahead of time to let me know what cases you would be inquiring about I could have everything prepared ahead of time. It's what we're here for, after all."

"Why was the coroner's office called in?" asked Edworthy.

This was met by a slight rumble of impatience from the other reporters, who had already begun to pack up and leave.

"Simply standard operating procedure," said Harmon.

"In cases of suspicious death," said Edworthy.

"What about this death was suspicious, is what we're trying to reach," said Drew.

"Drew, Ed," said Harmon with a sigh, "you and I both know that that's just a what-do-you-call-it, 'a figure of speech.' Every death is routinely labeled as 'suspicious' until the cause of death has been established. In this case the cause of death had not, as of Monday morning, been established. By Tuesday the cause of death had been established."

"How old was the deceased, uh, woman?" asked Harper.

"That information has not been released."

"Can you give us any of her particulars?" asked Edworthy.

"That information is being withheld until the next of kin has been informed."

It took awhile for this to sink in. In the end it was the woman from ZipNews who put the question to Harmon: "Maybe if you released the particulars you'd have better luck identifying her?"

Harmon, with the cocksureness that had no doubt won him this job, merely shrugged.

"Why," pursued Drew, "was it not possible to establish the cause of her death immediately, if it was in fact suicide?" Although he supposed he could already get nine or ten inches out of Unidentified Woman Found Dead in Hotel Room, and although the more he learned the less newsworthy the story might prove to be, he could not resist, sportively, to push Harmon till he found exactly where the stone wall was located.

"The cause of death was established by the coroner's office within a reasonable span of time from the time they were called in to investigate."

"I mean, why wasn't it obviously suicide right off the go? What about the crime scene, or the body of the deceased, led your detectives to think that maybe it wasn't suicide, but maybe murder, or maybe accidental death, or whatever?"

"In other words," said Edworthy, "why was the coroner's office called in?" Asking the same question in the same words was also another fruitful tactic with Harmon.

"The details of the crime scene," said Harmon, latching on to some concrete fact that he could obfuscate, "are not being released out of consideration for the next of kin."

This gem of illogic took even longer to appraise. Finally the kid from the Argonaut asked, "Why?"

Now Harmon was stumped. "Why what?"

Drew, pushing his glasses up his nose with his thumb, said, "Why are the details of the crime scene not being released out of consideration for the next of kin?"

Harmon answered in a patient, didactic tone. "Imagine, Drew, that someone you know or love has been found deceased. Would you want the whole world to know the gory details?"

"So the details were gory?"

"That was a figure of speech."

"A lot of blood maybe splashed around?"

Harmon was too ruddy, too tanned, and too made-up for the cameras to ever go pale. But Drew saw that he had struck a nerve. He tried now to lead the others off the scent:

"That kind of thing? Or what? A lot of drugs or money lying around? Maybe bruises on the body?"

Then his recollection caught up with his recognition, and he realized that what this scenario reminded him of was Nathan Shipley.

He should have followed his instinct and kept quiet. By looking deeper he would only find another petulant teenage suicide. A silly girl with a chip on her shoulder, a grudge against the world, a vendetta against her parents, trying to get even with her mother, her father ...

That stupid, selfish kid. And here was another like him. If so, it was a dead end, a non-story.

"Maybe," he muttered, "she cut off her own head?"

Behind him, the chief dropped his cappuccino cup into the wastebasket.

The newser was over.