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Diana has just come from where nobody quite witnessed Sergeant Brown chase, then shoot a man. The man, called Dread Man by the homeless men Brown and his partner talked to, ran from the white van the police were looking for in connection with a ritual murder. She comes back down the hill to where the van and police cruiser are parked.
The squad car’s lights were still strobing; other CSI personnel had the white van surrounded with spotlights. The van was so brand-new that it had no markings at all, and a white temporary tag instead of real license plates. She groaned as she realized she’d forgotten to grab the dead man’s ID: the knee wasn’t hurting so much as making her aware of its presence.
She already knew from experience that running a temporary tag rarely gave enough information, but she took out her tablet and started the process, anyway. She walked up to Keller’s chief assistant Melissa, a woman who could look radiant in hazmat gear. “Can I open up the van?”
“As long as you put on a bunny suit first. Full protocol tonight.” Melissa pointed to her own van, where the plastic coveralls were stored.
Before Diana could respond, Mustapha’s Lexus pulled up behind the squad car. Mustapha got out of the driver’s side; Diana shaded her eyes against the squad car’s flashers to see the unmistakable toupée of Manuel Peña, head of Internal Affairs.
Peña wasted no time “Siddal!” he shouted as he came toward her. “Tell me who you shot this time.”
She burst out laughing. “It wasn’t me, I swear.” She filled him in.
“Reggie Brown?” asked Peña. “Wannabe soldier?” At Diana’s nod, “You do not want to get caught in the cover-up when he finally goes down.” Peña laughed; it was ugly. “Well, I’d love it if you were there, come to think of it. One of these days…”
Mustapha said, “Okay, lovebirds.” To Diana, “Where’s the scene?”
Diana pointed up the hill. “Where the lights are. I’ve already been up that hill. Can you get the suspect’s ID for me?” She patted her knee.
“Sure. Come on, Manny.” They walked away; Mustapha turned back. “Good shooting, for real?”
“Nothing says no. I wish there was a witness.”
“Was this our guy?”
“Get me an ID, let me in the van. I’m all for Sergeant Brown getting to be the hero: we can get back to the usual run of drive-bys and domestics.”
Mustapha went up the hill: Diana put on the bunny suit, then slipped a pair of nonslip booties over the feet. She walked around to the driver’s side door of the van, which the suspect had left open in his haste. The keys were in the ignition, the motor running. The cab of the van had the brand-new smell and the eerie emptiness of a new vehicle: not even any dust or crumpled receipts on the floor. On the passenger seat was a roll of plastic supermarket bags in plain white. Diana poked around with her phone’s flashlight: nothing.
She took the keys, slipped back out the door, around to the back. Melissa said, “Let’s hope it’s empty.”
Diana opened the door. The sides of the compartment were lined with shelves, mostly empty but for three shoeboxes at eye level and a pair of larger boxes on a bottom shelf. No weapons or restraints. No blood or other stains she could see. She used the edge of her phone to lift the lid of one of the shoeboxes. It was half-full of disposable plastic razors, all unused. Her eyebrows furrowed: the next shoebox was full of new toothbrushes, and the third of travel-sized tubes of toothpaste. “Oh, crap,” she muttered.
The first of the large boxes was full of muffins: big ones, the size of softballs, each in a clear plastic bag, all freshly baked and still warm. Diana’s mouth watered and her stomach sank at the same time. She felt Melissa come into the compartment behind her. “We are in so much trouble,” said Diana.
“What do you mean?”
“Not you; me. Indirectly. The officers went looking for this man because some other homeless folks said that the ‘Dread Man’ was driving it. But this guy wasn’t a kidnapper, or serial killer, or the Islamic Reaper.” She pulled the other big box from its shelf, flipped it open. “He’s going around giving food and hygiene supplies to the homeless.” She pulled out a plastic bag that held a loaf of what looked like sourdough. “Not Dread Man; Bread Man. We are so fucked.”
So there’s a double climax in this chapter: Brown shooting the guy, and now us finding out he wasn’t the guy. We’ve repeatedly spelled Brown out as a cowboy, so now we have to wonder where the gun the man was carrying came from. And we’ve got another victim, a guy doing some volunteer work, to add to the total. And of course with the recent emphasis on police brutality, a current-events hook for the story.
But there’s more: I’m setting you up. The whole tragic story here hinges on a misunderstanding: Dread for Bread. If Brown and his partner Officer Slaughter had heard Bread, they would have asked why, and found out, and been a lot less paranoid about approaching the guy. But they heard what they were looking for: something that told them there really was someone out there in a white commercial van, murdering and mutilating homeless men. So as of now, keep an eye out for other crucial moments where someone hears what they’re listening for and makes a bad decision.