A Day Off
On Saturday morning, Detective Baker took his golden retriever puppy, Partner, to the dog park on Fifth. In a ratty old concert t-shirt and cargo shorts, he lobbed a tennis ball to the dog, who raced like a fuzzy dynamo after it, and the pair spent nearly an hour repeating the ritual. The autumn fog left the grass damp, but once the former cop had resigned himself to having to bathe the dog later, he was content to just play fetch as the park started to fill with neighbors and their pets.
Most of the greetings were innocuous: “Hey Bake, the little guy sure has a lot of energy, doesn’t he?” “How’s Cheryl doing in med school?” “You catch the game last night?”
While he was petting a friendly chocolate lab, however, its fireplug-shaped owner asked, “Hey Bake, got any new leads?” Since Partner had already done his business, that was a perfect cue to get going.
For his last three years on the job, the murders at the Owl Club Diner had occupied a large part of Detective Baker’s day, and a similar portion of his mind. Murder in the middle-class suburbs wasn’t new, but it usually involved an unfaithful spouse or a dispute over money between acquaintances. The detective had worked his share of those cases in his forty-two years on the force. What towns like his weren’t used to was a dozen strangers being gunned down while eating pancakes and waffles after hours on a Friday night.
Wanting to give Partner a chance to walk some of the mud off his paws, Detective Baker took the long way home from the park, which brought him past Dave’s Cafe Milano, the little Italian-style coffee house the diner’s owner opened last year, once the insurance money came through. Detective Baker stopped for a coffee and enjoyed the outdoor seating. He looped his puppy’s leash over the chair’s curved armrest so that he wouldn’t run off if he saw another dog, but Partner was too tired from the park to do anything but take a nap on Detective Baker’s feet.
Dave had tried to keep the Owl Club open after the murders, but it was a losing proposition. Some teenagers started coming by because of a morbid fascination with the diner, but they were mostly the low-achiever types who just wanted to hang out all night without ordering much. Almost everyone else avoided the place. It didn’t help matters that the killers remained at large. Nobody still living knew what happened in the Owl Club before at least two men pulled out sawed-off shotguns and started their rampage. Detective Baker and his team had never been able to identify a motive, let alone suspects. The killers didn’t even empty the register, and all the bodies still had their wallets or purses when the police arrived on the scene. Nobody even called it in; Detectives Baker and Morton had discovered the carnage that night when they stopped in for a post-shift meal.
“What can I get you, Bake?” Dave asked within seconds, though he already knew the answer. Detective Baker ordered a dark roast and the peach pie, the same kind he used to get every time he came by the Owl Club to search for clues or follow up on hunches.
While he waited for his food, the couple a few tables down started talking about the case, either thinking he couldn’t hear them or hoping he would and join in. They were discussing the idea that the same two brothers who robbed a string of liquor stores downstate were behind the shootings; it was a theory Detective Baker had investigated and debunked more than eighteen months earlier. The brothers were serial robbers who only killed one man one time in panic. Besides, they were in another county’s jail on the night of the Owl Club murders. Still, if his brother-in-law’s chain e-mails had taught him anything, people were willing to believe whatever they wanted, no matter how provably false.
“Hey detective,” the female half of the couple said on the way out. “Now that you’re retired, I bet you’re lookin’ into all kinds of things you weren’t allowed to while you were in uniform. You need any help, let me know.” As Detective Baker was busy chewing and held up a finger asking her to wait, she slipped a glossy business card onto his table and left. What help she thought he needed from a dental assistant, he wasn’t quite sure.
After paying the tab, Detective Baker swung by the library to return a couple of books that were due the next day. He tried to pick up some shirts from the dry cleaners in the little shopping center nearby, before remembering the quirk that they were open Sundays but not Saturdays. He also took the opportunity to let Partner relieve himself near the fire hydrant on the side of the parking lot.
As he and the puppy headed down the street out of the shopping center, Detective Baker saw Molly Thompson walking in their direction, and turned back down a side street in order to avoid her.
During his final years on the force, Detective Baker had been a regular at a dive bar on Jefferson, a place where he and several of his colleagues had long-running tabs. The guys often discussed cases there, but once the Owl Club went down, they also got used to every barfly with a crackpot theory letting them know all about it. Molly tended bar on Thursday nights, which were usually Detective Baker’s nights off. With most of his nights spent working new cases, his Thursday evenings inevitably meant taking his usual corner table and using the few hours before everyone else’s shift ended to get time alone with the case file and his notes. There were fewer crackpots in the early evening.
When Molly wasn’t busy with other customers, she joined him and served as a sounding board for his latest ideas. Since then, however, he hadn’t had a single interaction with her that wasn’t peppered with requests to remind her of case details he’d already shared repeatedly. He could never tell if she forgot them, or just liked hearing him talk about the Owl Club. “Well, Mr. Detective,” she would always begin in a flirty voice, “what was it you said about…” She meant well, but Detective Baker had come to regret encouraging her curiosity.
Once he finally got to his driveway, Detective Baker took in the typical stack of mail he seemed to accumulate every day, and adjusted the red flag on the box. He wiped Partner’s paws with the orange gym towel he kept on the stoop, and grabbed the spare key inside a fake rock.
There was a time when a slow day like this would have seen Detective Baker chasing down leads. He regularly used his days off to visit other jurisdictions where local cops saw a connection to his unsolved case, or to try finding anyone local who might have seen or overheard something during the murders or the getaway. In three years of investigating, Detective Baker never found an eyewitness, or figured out whether the killers knew the diner didn’t have a security camera. He didn’t know much more about the murders than he did in the investigation’s early days.
For all those years, he had been obsessed with the Owl Club shootings, as much as any other member of the community he served. Detective Baker investigated all manner of other crimes in that period, but nothing that captured the public imagination in the same way. He’d been retired for a few months, and he still regularly received letters or phone calls from someone claiming they found a potential lead.
Even now, as Partner napped in the middle of the living room and Detective Baker settled into his armchair to watch college football, he couldn’t help but notice two of the letters he’d received bore the all-too-familiar handwriting of local amateur detectives. A year ago, he would have given them the courtesy of at least reading the letters. Now, he just dumped them in the pile with coupons to stores he didn’t frequent and offers for additional credit cards he didn’t need.
In truth, if half the people he saw around town didn’t ask him about it, Detective Baker wouldn’t think about the Owl Club case much at all anymore. Two men with shotguns had taken too many of his years, and he wanted to give the ones he had left to his dog, his hobbies, and his health.
It was Detective Morton’s case now. Detective Baker had laundry to pick up the next day.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than forty publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post and So It Goes by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.