Survival Clause – Jenna Bennett

IT STARTED, as such things often do, with a phone call. “Where are you?” Tamara Grimaldi’s voice asked. My husband, whose phone it was, answered, “On our way home from dinner. Just leaving Beulah’s.” Beulah’s Meat’n Three is a favorite of Rafe’s, and he’s a favorite there, seeing as he once had a fling—a very brief fling, a long time ago—with the owner. Grimaldi hesitated. “Savannah’s with you?” “And the baby,” Rafe confirmed, with a glance at our four-and-a-half-month old daughter in the backseat. Grimaldi hesitated again. And must have decided that the circumstances outweighed him being saddled with the two of us. “Get to Broad and Green as fast as you can. Tucker’s got a kid on the ground and is sitting on him.” Rafe’s lips tightened and he dropped the phone in my lap. The tires screamed as he made a tight U-turn, barely even slowing down, before jamming his foot on the gas pedal. The Volvo—because we were in my personal car, not the Chevy that was his loaner from the police department—lurched forward. I fumbled the phone up to my ear.

And I’ll admit I was a little breathless. “Where are you?” Subtext: Why can’t you go to the corner of Broad and Green and deal with Sergeant Tucker yourself? She was Tucker’s boss. Rafe wasn’t, and Tucker has zero respect for Rafe even aside from that. “Murder scene,” Grimaldi said. “With Sheriff Satterfield.” That explained it, then. Or maybe not. If the Maury County sheriff was at the murder scene, surely the chief of the Columbia police didn’t have to be? But now wasn’t the time to worry about it. The Volvo was zooming up the highway toward Columbia at a heart-attack-inducing eighty miles an hour, and Rafe was weaving in and out of traffic, narrowly dodging the other cars. “Tell me about it later,” I told her.

“If these are my last few moments on earth, I want to enjoy them.” Grimaldi snorted, and Rafe shot me a look. “I know how to drive, darlin’.” “Eyes on the road,” I told him, as I dropped the now-silent phone in the center console. Grimaldi had gone back to her murder scene. “Want to tell me what’s going on?” “You heard everything I heard.” He zipped around a slow-moving Cadillac that looked like my mother’s. I peered out the side window. Yep, there she was, staring wide-eyed at me. She’d recognized my car too, of course.

The shadow next to her was either her best friend Audrey or maybe my sister Catherine, since Bob—Mother’s gentleman friend and the guy she’s living in sin with —was at Grimaldi’s murder scene. Or more likely she was at his. But either way, he wasn’t with Mother in the car. I gave her a wave as we shot past and back into the right lane, just before we got flattened by a big, black truck with bug lights on top. The driver leaned on the horn, a deep, angry bass. “Sergeant Tucker is over at Broad Street and Green, and he’s apprehended somebody,” I paraphrased from the phone. “That’s his job, isn’t it? Won’t he be upset if you show up and take his drug dealer away from him?” Tucker worked narcotics, so this wasn’t clairvoyance on my part. Or prejudice, either. “I ain’t aiming to take nobody away from him, darlin’. Just make sure he doesn’t kill the guy.

” “Why would he…? Oh.” Rafe nodded. “Yeah. Tucker’s old school, and not fond of young, black thugs.” No. Rafe had been a young, black thug himself back when Tucker had arrested him, at eighteen, for assault and battery. In Tucker’s favor, Rafe had started it, and he had definitely both assaulted and battered the victim before Tucker got there. I’m sure my husband would be the first to admit that Tucker had had every right to arrest him. “He didn’t…” I began, “um…?” He glanced at me, and as usual, read my mind. “Back when he arrested me? He mighta twisted my arm a little extra hard when he was trying to restrain me.

Pretty sure I remember taking a couple of punches while he was trying to peel me off Billy.” My eyes narrowed, and his lips curved. “I’m sure I wasn’t making it easy for him.” Probably not. “But now—?” His hands tightened on the wheel and the car shrieked on two wheels around the corner of Broad, but his voice was just as calm. “I don’t think he’s trying to hurt this kid. Might rough him up a little if the kid fights back. But if he had a history of that, it’d be in his file.” “And it isn’t?” He shook his head. “I had a look.

Part of my job, after all.” Yes, it was. As far as most people in Columbia knew, Rafe was working for the local PD as an investigator, after being fired from his job at the TBI—the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations—in January. Unbeknownst to those people, he still had his job with the TBI, and was on loan to Grimaldi, and the two of them were working on cleaning up the Columbia PD after the previous chief had been hauled off in the back of a squad car. So far, they had mostly cleared one investigator of suspicion, and had taken another away for murder. Tucker was still an unknown. We knew he didn’t like Rafe much, but there were good reasons for that—Rafe had, indeed, not made it easy for Tucker to peel him off Billy Scruggs back then, and then he’d had the audacity to come back to Columbia as a colleague and the new chief’s pet investigator. So it was understandable that Tucker was resentful. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t honest. Up ahead, we saw a squad car parked at an angle across the street, lights flashing, and a knot of people.

Some of them were holding cell phones. I could see the blue of the screens in the gathering dark. Rafe pulled the Volvo to a stop, and pushed his door open. “Stay here,” he told me, even as he had one foot on the ground. “Don’t get out of the car.” I shook my head, but he had already slammed the door and was on his way across the blacktop to where Sergeant Tucker did, indeed, have one knee on the back of a prone figure that was face-down on the street, unmoving. Two officers hovered nearby. They weren’t actively helping Tucker, but they weren’t actively interfering with him, either. They gave off a vibe of hand-wringing, like they didn’t like the situation much but didn’t quite know what to do about it, and about their superior officer. One of them had a hand on his weapon and one eye on the crowd that had gathered, but since no one was threatening to come any closer, he didn’t actually move.

The other man had half an eye on Tucker and the other on us. When he saw Rafe get out of the car and come toward him, like the wrath of God descending—if that isn’t too religious an analogy—I could see his shoulders brace. His partner glanced at him, then at Rafe, and squared his own. A couple of the phones in the crowd swung toward my husband, and I understood what—or some of what—Grimaldi had been worried about. Tucker hadn’t noticed Rafe’s arrival. Not until Rafe grabbed him by the collar of his uniform and lifted him off the offender. If that gives you the impression that Tucker is small and weightless, I can assure you he’s not. He’s a solid guy with a slight paunch, who probably weighted in at around two hundred. Rafe, though, is six-three or a little more, and he has big shoulders and the kinds of muscles you usually see in ads for Hanes briefs. Most of those muscles were hidden under a T-shirt right now, but they function well in addition to looking pretty, so he had no problem shifting the generation-older, stocky Tucker.

His biceps and triceps flexed and bunched when he plucked Tucker’s form off the skinny body on the ground, and set him down, a little more forcibly than necessary, a few feet away. But other than that, he didn’t evince any particular effort. Tucker staggered as his feet hit the ground, and Rafe took the opportunity while the sergeant got his bearings to reach down again, and haul the victim to his feet. A buzz spread through the crowd, like from an angry beehive. The kid turned out to be just that, a kid. Sixteen, maybe seventeen, in an oversized Tshirt and workout pants. Not too dissimilar to what Rafe must have looked like when Tucker hauled him off Billy Scruggs at eighteen, minus the injuries. There didn’t seem to be much wrong with this boy, other than some dirt on the front of his shirt and pants, and a few minor scratches from where he’d hit the pavement. He was clearly happy to be let up, at least until he got a good look at who’d done the letting. Then his eyes widened and he gulped.

“I didn’t do nothing!” Rafe didn’t respond. Or at least not with anything more than an arched brow. “See that blue car over there?” he asked instead, nodding to where I was sitting. The kid’s head bobbed up and down, and so did his Adam’s apple. “Go stand by it.” The kid’s eyes must have flickered, because Rafe added, “Don’t run. There are four people here with guns, and you don’t want one of’em to get the idea that he can shoot you in the back because you’re trying to evade arrest. Just stay where I tell you.” The kid swallowed again. When he moved toward the Volvo, it was slowly and carefully.

Tucker, meanwhile, had gotten his balance back, and with it some of his bravado. “Who the bleep d’you think you are,” he yelled at Rafe, “coming here and interfering with my apprehension…!” I couldn’t hear Rafe’s response. He moved close enough to Tucker that he could practically whisper in the older man’s ear. Tucker tried to move back as Rafe came forward, but Rafe wrapped a hand halfway around Tucker’s arm and kept him in place so he could lean down and talk to Tucker in a voice that didn’t reach me, and more importantly, didn’t reach any of the cell phone cameras trained on the pair. I had no doubt that most of those phones were set on video, and that some of them might even be live-streaming this encounter right now. Whatever Rafe said, was effective. Tucker turned red, and then pale, and then red again. But when he wrenched his arm out of Rafe’s grasp and stepped back, he didn’t follow it up with a punch or a push, or even anything verbal. “Go on home,” Rafe told him. Calmly.

There might have been an edge there, but not enough of one to make him sound threatening. Or any more threatening than he usually does, at any rate. “I’ll take care of this.” Tucker hesitated. He glanced at the kid, and he glanced at the other cops. Finally he glanced at the crowd, and that seemed to make the decision easier. Looking surly, he brushed past Rafe, close enough to bump him with his shoulder, and headed for his car. Rafe didn’t bother to watch him go, just turned his attention to the other two cops. “We were just providing backup…” one them began as the cameras turned toward them. Tucker slammed his car door, and a moment later, the engine revved before the squad car took off up the street with a roar of the engine.

Rafe took advantage of the noisy interlude to have a quiet word with the two officers, neither of whom I knew personally. Maybe they were attached to Sergeant Tucker’s unit and not traffic. But they knew Rafe, and were obviously willing to take orders from him. Or suggestions, at any rate. By the time Tucker’s car engine had faded in the distance and everyone’s attention had shifted back to them, they were both nodding pleasantly. “Yes, sir.” Rafe nodded back. As he turned toward me, or more likely, toward the kid who was still standing like a statue next to the right fender, the other officers headed toward the second squad car. It might have been me, but it looked like they weren’t wasting any time doing it. You couldn’t call it an escape, exactly, but it came close.

I could practically feel their relief at being able to get away without anything worse happening. “Nothing more to see here,” Rafe told the onlookers as he walked back toward the Volvo. “What’re you going to do to him?” someone piped up from the back of the crowd. There were maybe eight or ten people standing there altogether, and I counted the glow from at least four phones. “Who are you?” someone else called out. I held my breath as Rafe stopped and turned toward them. He held still for a beat, maybe to make sure they were listening, or else because he was trying to decide what to say. Or maybe just because it made for good television. In the end, he went with the truth. “My name is Rafael Collier.

I work for the Columbia PD.” He pulled his badge out of his pocket and lifted it. And then he waited for the rumbles to die down before he added, “That’s my wife and my baby girl in the car. We were on our way home when Chief Grimaldi heard about what was going on, and wanted somebody to take a look. When I’m done here, I’m gonna take my family home and put my baby to bed. But first I’m gonna talk to the kid over there about what happened to him.” “How do we know you’re telling the truth?” someone wanted to know. I’m sure Rafe wanted to roll his eyes. I rolled mine, since no one was filming me. Rafe probably didn’t, since he had several cameras trained on him.

His voice was vaguely irritated, though. “You don’t. But you can watch me do it. And if I do something you don’t like, you can put my face all over social media. You’re prob’ly gonna do that anyway.” Probably. And while part of me was a little worried about what might come of it if they did, the other part rejoiced in the fact that it would make it even more impossible for him to ever go undercover again. He’d spent ten years doing undercover work before we got married, and I’d happily take anything that would stop him from doing it again. Even unwanted social media attention. The cell phones swung toward the car as Rafe headed that way.

I wondered whether they could see me through the windshield, and decided they probably couldn’t. But I’d refrain from picking my nose, just in case. Rafe stopped in front of the young man, by now quivering like a young birch. “Name?” The kid opened his mouth, and had to clear his throat. “Curtis.” I waited for Rafe to ask him his last name, but he didn’t. “What happened, Curtis?” “I was in the store down there,” Curtis said, pointing down the street with a finger that shook. “It was me and a couple of friends. And we… um…” He trailed off, flushing. Rafe sighed.

“What did you take?” “Nothing, man!” He shook his head frantically, and his hair, twisted into spirals on top of his head, swayed. “I didn’t take nothing. But my friends, they grabbed some chips and sodas and stuff, and then they ran. I didn’t even know they were gonna do it, man! And they left me there…” He wound down again, sounding sincerely baffled that his friends would do such a thing. I winced. Rafe probably wanted to. “Lemme guess,” he said now. “Your friends got away, you got caught, the owner called the cops, and Tucker showed up. When you said you didn’t do nothing, he didn’t believe you.” Curtis nodded.

“Did he ask you for the names of your friends?” Curtis winced. “No. Guess we didn’t get to that part.” Rafe nodded. “I ain’t gonna do that, either.” Curtis looked relieved, until Rafe continued, “You’re in enough trouble already. Besides, by the time I tracked’em down, the evidence’d be long gone.” Curtis nodded, looking glum. “I’m not likely to be as understanding next time, though,” Rafe added. Curtis looked up at him, and he elaborated.

“If I get another call like this, and I find out that you’ve let your friends talk you into another trip to the market, whether you steal something or not, I’m not likely to be understanding of you putting yourself in this situation again. You’re either lying to me—” “No, sir!” Curtis shook his head. “No, I ain’t.” “—or your friends planned this without telling you, and then they left you holding the ball while they ran away. Either way, I don’t wanna come back here and find you again. You understand me?” “Yes, sir.” Curtis nodded vigorously. “And maybe think about getting some new friends, since the ones you’ve got don’t seem like the ones anyone oughta have.” Curtis looked glum. “You need a ride somewhere?” Rafe wanted to know.

Curtis blinked, and it took him a second to respond. “No, sir. My granddad’d kill me if I came home in a police car.” Rafe nodded. He’s had some experience with grandfathers who beat their grandchildren, so he knows what that’s like. “Go on home, then. And stay outta trouble.” “Yes, sir.” Curtis took off running. The buzzing from the crowd got louder, and then softer again.

“Show’s over,” Rafe told them, and reached for the door handle. Only to stop when a voice asked, “What about my merchandise?” The speaker was an older man, middle-eastern in coloring. When Rafe turned to him, he looked like he might have wanted to quail, but he squared his shoulders. “They stole from my market!” “He didn’t,” Rafe pointed out, indicating Curtis, who was now a block away and fading fast. The kid should be on the track team at school, if he wasn’t already. “You the one who called the cops?” The man nodded. “I can’t arrest him when he didn’t do nothing. It’s not his fault that his friends shoplifted and ran.” The market owner looked obstinate, and Rafe sighed. “Here.

” He pulled out his wallet, extricated a twenty, and passed it over. “That oughta cover it.” The older man tucked it away. The crowd buzzed again, the anger turning toward the shop owner now. “Go on back to your market,” Rafe told him. “You got enough money to pay for what was stolen. And you shouldn’t leave the place unattended.” The shop owner turned and trotted away, and I think it was spurred just as much by a desire to get away from the crowd as the need to see if his place was all right. “Anybody else got something they wanna say?” Rafe inquired. When nobody spoke up, he grabbed for the car door again.

“Go on home. We’re done.” He folded himself into the car and snapped his seatbelt in place. And drove away, careful not to get too close to anybody. The cell phone cameras stayed on the car until we were out of sight, and it took that long for Rafe to let out the breath he’d been holding. “Shit.” “Tense situation,” I said.

.

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