PUBLIC IMMUNITY


The sight of Neil Inveig, lying on the floor of his bedroom, naked except for his socks, was an instant flashback to Barry’s freshman year. I’d gone to his dorm to get him so we could drive home together, and found Barry so hung over he could hardly talk, and Neil passed out on the floor, looking pretty much the way he did now.
“Hell of a party,” Barry had managed to gasp out. “You should have come. Lots of booze. Neil brought girls. I think I’m dying.”
I’d glanced at Neil and said, “Looks like he did.”
Barry had turned even greener. “Oh, crap. What’re we gonna do? If the RA…”
“He’s breathing,” I’d said.
This time he wasn’t. There was a sticky dark cap of blood on the back of his blond head; blood spattered on his shoulders, his back, his furniture, his room. Someone had finally nailed him.
“There is a God,” I said.
“What the hell are you doing here, Grant?” Detective Jonasson snapped.
“I’m on duty.”
“Not here, you’re not.”
“Hey, I just answered the call, like everybody else.”
He glared at me as the coroner came in, clucking, “Hey, Grant, John.”
“Randy.”
He squatted down by Neil. “All done?”
“You can have him,” Jonasson said.
I didn’t really want to watch Randy at work, but I also didn’t want to leave, so I went over to the dresser. It was covered with white dust, and there was an ashtray full of cigarette butts and roaches. “Shame he’s not alive,” I commented. “We could finally bust him.”
Jonasson grunted. Only a year ago I’d caught Neil out on 34, barreling back from the casinos with a beer in his crotch, empties under the seat, and a smoldering half-smoked joint on the floor. I’d thought at last, I’ve got the son of a bitch. Yeah, right. Somehow his lawyer had the pot charges tossed out and plea-bargained the DUI down to reckless driving. Neil had been pissed he’d had to plead guilty to anything.
I glanced back – they were rolling Neil over – and turned back to the dresser. Julie smiled at me from among the cluster of photos.
Of all the five thousand reasons to hate Neil Inveig, most people thought Julie was at the top of the list. My high school and college sweetheart, who dumped me for Neil two months before we were supposed to get married. They say you never forget your first love. Maybe she was Neil’s, too.
It startled me when Jonasson asked, “What’re you looking at?”
“Julie,” I said, pointing at the photo.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said, but more sad than anything else.
“I said I’d –”
“I know what you said. Get out of here.”
“Yes, sir.”
I drifted through the house until I found Bob in the den, getting ready to pop a videotape into a VCR.
“Grant,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“Same as you, answering the call of duty.”
“Oh. Sure.” Bob was easier than Jonasson. “Watch this.” In a minute, the screen was full of hard-core banging. A young guy – local low-life name of Todd Johnson – and a woman Bob and I both recognized. That went on for some time. Then there was a jump, and the woman (I’m not going to name her because she’s married and it never came out in court) was gone, and Neil joined Todd. It only took Bob about thirty seconds to switch it off. “What do you think?”
I looked at the two shelves of videotapes, each labeled with the word ‘party’ and a date on it. “I think we’d better box them up,” I said. So we did.

I saw “Serpico” back in high school, and knew right then I wanted to be a cop. I went to college, got my degree in criminal justice, and tried to get a job in the city, where I could go undercover and be cool. Didn’t happen. I ended up back in Laskin. A small town has a small police department: there are eight of us, and I’m one of the patrolmen. It’s a quiet beat: domestics, DUIs, drugs, some robberies, a lot of juvenile stuff, traffic violations, not much else. A lot of trivia no big city cop would ever have to deal with. I’ve never rescued any cats, but I have gone to check out a burst water heater at three in the morning. Idiots didn’t know where the valve was to shut it off.
It’s not exciting, but it can be satisfying, once you accept the fact that it’s not Mayberry, and there’s a nasty streak in everybody. And some are nastier than others. For instance, and my primary one, I’ll admit, Neil. Rich – his family business went back a hundred years – he was also handsome, witty, and oh, so popular. My own mother once said there was no one like Neil to give life to a party. Of course, that was before Barry got mixed up with him.
The other side of Neil was that he was a user and a dealer. Everyone knew it. It was talked about all over town. But nothing ever happened to him. Other people, kids, low-lifes, the endless list of Davisons, got busted, convicted, did their time, but never him. Public immunity. And more. After I saw “Serpico,” I raved about it at school, and Neil raised his eyebrows and sniped, “Yeah, he was real bright. The only guy in New York City who didn’t know the police were on the take.” Even then, everything got smoothed over, taken care of, covered up for him.
So who was on the take? Or was it even a matter of being on the take? Was it just that he was an Inveig? Or was it the money? Whichever, whenever Neil screwed up it was hushed up as quickly as possible. Now that he was dead, I wondered if St. Peter would be like everybody else…

Later that afternoon Jonasson called me into his office.
“I gotta ask, Grant. Where were you last night?”
“Me? Home, asleep. My shift started at six this morning.”
“Anybody with you?”
“No.”
“Now don’t get pissed off. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t check things out.”
“Yeah, sure. All the possible suspects? You think I killed him? Went in and cracked his skull last night? John, if I was gonna do that, I’d have done it back when Julie dumped me.”
“I know.”
“And that was five years ago. I’m over it.”
“And Barry?”
I ignored that. “I didn’t kill him. I’m not sorry he’s dead, I’m not going to pretend I am, but I did not kill him.”
“Now look, Grant, I never said –”
“I know you never said. I’m answering what you didn’t say.”
“Okay, okay.”
“Can I go?”
“Sure. Oh, and one more thing. I don’t want you going near Inveig’s place. You shouldn’t ever have gone there at all.” I rolled my eyes. “You hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and snapped to attention.
“Get the hell out of here.”

I went home and found Barry sitting on my deck. My little brother, who went from law student to dishwasher in less than five years. He’d idolized Neil in high school, and in college had bent over backwards to become part of Neil’s circle. He ended up being something between Neil’s court jester and kicking dog. In exchange, he’d gotten all the drugs he could handle and more. When he finally got busted, he weighed a hundred pounds and looked like walking death. He regained the weight, but he never got back the brain cells.
“You okay, Barry?” He shook his head. “What’s the matter? Got a cold?”
He shook his head again. “No. It’s Neil. I… I can’t get over it. It isn’t right.”
“No.”
“I’m, I’m gonna miss him. He was fun. And he helped me out. You know, like his deck? He was gonna hire me to fix it.”
“I know.”
“I was gonna do a good job. Neil said he knew that. He trusted me.”
“I know.”
“I told Neil I could screen it in for him. Make him a screened-in porch. So he could sleep outside, nights. He thought that was a great idea. Said it gave him all kinds of ideas.”
“I’ll bet,” I said sourly.
“Yeah. He laughed a lot about that. I know you don’t like him. But… he was fun. He looked out for me, he really did. And he listened to me. You know, I told Neil, I didn’t think it was right. Him and Julie. He laughed about that, too. He laughed a lot. I liked that. Most people don’t laugh enough, you know?”
“I know. I haven’t had a good laugh in a long time.”
Barry ducked his head. “Who… who did it?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“Because. I’ve been worried. I thought maybe you got mad. I mean, I told Neil, I didn’t think it was right. Him and Julie –”
“Barry, that was all a long time ago.”
“But I told him. I did.”
I know. You said that.”
“Did I?” I nodded. You have to be patient with Barry. “Well, I did. But I never thought you’d –”
“And I didn’t.”
“That’s good. I didn’t think you had. I just thought, you know…”
“I know.”
“If you find out, will you tell me? Please?”
“I will, Barry.” I checked my watch. “You’d better get going or you’ll be late for work.”
He nodded again. “Just, let me know, okay?”
“Okay.”
I went in and popped a beer. Jonasson and Barry, opposite ends of the pole, with the same damn idea. I didn’t like it. I knew people would talk: ‘Well, you know Grant’s never liked him. That whole thing with Julie Knoldt. And Barry just got out of the pen…’ That’s normal. But to have your boss – not that Jonasson’s the Chief, but close enough – and your brother asking if you’d killed someone was enough to make you check your clothes for bloodstains.
I hoped they were checking Julie out, too. She and Neil had actually gotten married, and divorced a couple of years later. She left town after that. Nobody seemed to know where, although of course, they just might not want to tell me. There’s a story around town about me and her, that I never got over her, mainly because I’ve never gotten married, like it’s anybody’s business but mine. Yeah, she broke my heart, but I did get over it. It’s just that nobody believes it. And now it looked like another story was getting started…
I didn’t sleep well that night. Or the next couple. I felt like everybody was watching me, waiting to see if I’d let anything out. Like a confession. Barry would drop by for coffee, look at me with his big dark eyes, and lope off. Jonasson kept glancing my way. People kept stopping to ask me how I was doing.
It was a real relief when Todd Johnson and Les Davison were finally arrested. How those two hooked up, I had no idea: Les was twenty years older than Todd, and, as far as I’d ever seen, brutally heterosexual. But then I’d always thought Todd was just the standard Laskin juvenile delinquent. You can’t ever tell. Anyway, they were caught in Mitchell selling a bunch of stuff from Neil’s house. Between that and the videotapes, it was no trouble getting them transferred to Laskin to face murder charges.
“Well, that takes care of that,” Chief Munson said.
And it might have been, except Todd’s father, Lars, went and hired Jim Barnes to represent him.
“What the hell is he thinking?” Jonasson wondered. “Little drugged out punk.”
“Everybody deserves counsel,” I commented. Jonassen made a face. “Who knows? Maybe he didn’t do it.” Jonasson stared at me. “Look, I know what’s on the tapes, but Todd’s never been violent. While Les – come on, he just got out of the pen for assault and battery.”
Jonasson thought a minute, his nose twitching. “If he did, he’d never confess.”
“Who needs a confession?” I asked. “We’ve got evidence.”
“Damn straight we have. It’s just… You know how it is with a private attorney. They want to investigate. They’re getting paid by the hour, why not. Things drag out. Things get dragged in.” He glanced quickly at me, and got up. “I’d better get back to work.”

Barnes got cracking. He moved to get Todd transferred to a Sioux Falls facility – claimed we were overcrowded, and a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo that could be summed up as it wasn’t a good idea for the two defendants to be right next to each other every day. Which they weren’t: they were a few cells apart. He tried to get Judge Dunn to recuse himself, on the grounds that having seen Todd on a regular basis for the last six years made him prejudiced. And he moved to suppress the videotapes.
That was the only popular thing Barnes did. Nobody wanted those videotapes shown in court, not even me. Though the amount of nervous anxiety about them interested me more than I would admit. I thought of the married woman I’d seen: I knew she must be sweating bullets. How many other people did he get on tape? And why in God’s name would they do that? It showed that other side of Laskin that I tried not to think about. It made me sick when I realized that Barry probably knew all about it. Might even be on one…
Speaking of Barry, the night of Neil’s funeral, Barry got drunk down at the Norseman’s Bar. He wasn’t causing any trouble – in fact he was just sitting at the corner of the bar, crying his eyes out – but since he’s on parole, he’s not supposed to drink at all. Vi, the bartender, called me to come get him.
“Hi, Grant,” Barry said. “Are you going to arrest me?”
“Nope. I’m taking you home, where you can sleep it off.” I heaved him up. “Thanks, Vi.”
“No problem. Poor guy.”
I nodded, and walked him outside. “But I thought…” he said, and then stopped as I worked him into the front seat. “I don’t feel so good,” he added, and passed out.
Jim McKinney pulled over in the patrol car. “He okay?” I shrugged. “Just get him on home,” he said, and winked at me.
I got him home and managed to heft him up and into the house and into bed. Then I went home, thanking God we live in a small town.
I went back over and reamed him up one side and down the other the next morning, and he promised me he’d behave. But two nights later, he was drunk and disorderly over at the Jackrabbit. They tried to calm him down – everybody likes Barry, besides feeling sorry for him – but he went ballistic on them and started heaving chairs around. One went through the new plate glass window, and this time Barry went to jail.
Well, there was nothing I could do about it but leave him until morning. I didn’t get much sleep that night, either. I went down around seven to see about getting him out on bond. The place was a madhouse. Everybody else was there, too, all talking, all running around.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Todd’s confessed,” Jean, the dispatcher, told me.
“What? When? How?”
“This morning,” Jonasson said, coming through with a file folder tucked under his arm. “Guess he had a come to Jesus moment. Judge Dunn’s going to be here at eight.”
“He can’t come any earlier?” Jean asked.
Jonasson snorted. “Don’t be smart.” He turned to me and said, “There’s some paperwork, but after that’s done you can take Barry home.”
“And the charges?” I asked.
“What charges? He’ll have to pay for the window, but as long as he agrees to do that, no charges will be filed.”
I blinked. “That’s great.”
“Yeah. Remember me on your Christmas list next year.”
“Have some coffee and donuts,” Jean said.
I made myself comfortable, and we discussed world problems, new gossip, and how relieved Laskin would be that the whole Inveig thing was over. At eight a.m. they brought Todd out to take him to the courthouse, and as he passed, I felt my stomach heave: someone had beaten the crap out of him.
“Grant!” Jonasson called. “Your brother’s ready.”
I got up and walked back to the cells with Jonasson. On the way, I hissed, “That’s never going to hold up.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I just saw Todd. It’s called coercion.”
“What are you talking about? A fight with another prisoner?”
That sinking feeling in my stomach was getting worse. “Which one?” I asked.
Jonasson ignored me. “Barry, you ready?”
“I sure am,” Barry said.
My heart was in my mouth as I looked him over. No bruises. His hands looked clean. I took a deep breath. “Barry.” I took another breath, and decided not to waste it. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Yah, sure.”
I took Barry home again and made us both a pot of coffee and some breakfast.
“Gee, this is good,” Barry said, wolfing down the eggs and toast. “I mostly have cereal.” When he was all done, he pulled out a cigarette. I saw him wince as he lit it. “That’s good. That was real good.”
“Glad you liked it.”
“I’m glad you came and got me. I don’t like being in jail. Don’t like it at all.”
“Yeah, well, you gotta stop the drinking, Barry –”
“Don’t worry. I’m not gonna. I’m going to stay out of trouble from now on. Everything’s going to be okay. Don’t worry.”
We were both quiet for a bit, and then I said, quietly, “You want to tell me what happened?”
“Huh?”
“Barry, I’ve got to know what happened. You’re on parole, anything could send you back, and there’s going to be trouble –”
“There’s not going to be any trouble.” Barry was smiling, perfectly calm, perfectly happy. “You know, Ken, down at work? He said what we need is a ‘swift conviction and no jury.’” He was so proud of having remembered it exactly he repeated it three times. “So now there’s not going to be any trial, and there’s not going to be any trouble. It’s all over.”
“Is it?” I reached over and pulled back his sleeve.
“Hey!” he yelped, as I looked at the long bruise on his forearm. I let go of his arm and grabbed the other one. “What’re you doing?” Same thing on that one.
“How did you get in Todd’s cell?” I asked.
“What’re you talking about?”
“The next one, then.” Barry squirmed. “You grabbed him from your side and held him against the bars, that’s where those bruises came from. And while you held him, someone made it plain that if he didn’t confess, he was going to kill him. Or somebody would. And he beat him to a pulp to make it stick. And you joined in. It had to be Les. How’d he get in there?”
“I don’t know,” Barry said. I believed that. Barry wouldn’t know. He wouldn’t have wanted to know, so he wouldn’t know, even if he’d seen somebody let Les in, or hand Les a key or… I put my head in my hands and groaned. “What’s wrong, Grant?”
“You know what’s wrong.”
“Don’t do that!” Barry wailed as I started shaking. “It’s all right, Grant.”
“No, it’s not. You don’t know…” I couldn’t believe it, but I was crying.
“Grant.” Barry put his hand on my shoulder, and then, as I couldn’t quit crying, he put his arms around me, awkwardly. “It’s gonna be okay, Grant. It’s okay. Everything’s taken care of.”

And it was. Jim Barnes tried to raise some stink, but it didn’t take. Todd made his confession in front of Judge Dunn, was convicted, and went to the pen for manslaughter. Les went to the pen as well, for stolen goods. Everybody was happy. Nothing came out. Nothing ever will.
You know, that whole thing about first love is right: it’s just the person that’s wrong. Your first love’s your family. Who you protect, who you help, who you never, ever betray. Even when you’ve betrayed everything else, including yourself. And all you can do is hope, with all your heart, that a small town really is just like heaven.

THE END