The Law of Threes

Ethan Chatagnier

Whit’s mind is on the LSAT study books hidden in the book bag at his feet when they roll out at 10:00 p.m. with the radio bacon-pan crackling. The messages coming through the speaker urge everyone to be careful, to exercise caution, but the whole night shift fleet is swirling around the parking lot like a cloud of energized bees. In the hallways of the station, the mood had been somber, almost silent. It was amazing to see grown, armed men feel so vulnerable in the guarded hallways of their own station. But now that each pair is wrapped in a cruiser, some doing doughnuts or fishtailing out of figure eights, the lot is a rave of red and blue lights. They roll past Whit and Vargas flashing three fingers in the air, expecting to see them flashed back. Whit does not. Though he knows he’s always had the tendency to be carved by the expectations of others, he won’t celebrate this. He remembers this mood. High school. Homecoming. The radio says stay safe out there, but the body politic says be aggressive, B-E aggressive.

Vargas rolls out plenty slow, the caboose of the train, steering with his elbows while he eats his nightly cup of chocolate pudding. He regards himself as some kind of sage or oracle, and Whit supposes anyone who’s been patrolling so long without being promoted out of it has to. He waxes his mustache, not with a hipster twirl but just into a fat black slug that overfills the entire upper lip. Somehow he never gets his pudding in it, which does indeed feel like a mystical power. Vargas thinks there’s power in moving slowly. Whit is not sure there’s power in anything the force does. But other times he thinks everything he does is a wasted act of power: resting a hand on a holster, speeding down an empty night street, or even stopping on a busy sidewalk to double-knot a loosened shoelace.

When the cars come out of the lot, they split left and right into two trails, and from there into smaller and smaller groups until finally he and Vargas are alone headed southwest on International. He can smell the canal and the marshy coastline a few blocks away. The smell travels farther at night, a stink of plant matter ripening in still water. A few blocks farther south they’re in what Vargas calls Zombieland: weak, irregular street lamps illuminating now and then the dead souls pushing shopping carts of obsolete VCRs, or walking that slow junkie waltz with the whole body rocking. Then there are the groups, the gangs, three or four or five walking abreast in the street, teens enlarged by their oversized athletic apparel. If there’s a pipe being passed or a gun tucked in the back of a belt, or anything else citable, Vargas likes to startle them with the lights and siren and watch them scurry, he says, like bugs.

Whit’s foot nudges his satchel, heavy with two fat books of practice questions.

“You know what the people who live here call it?” he asks Vargas. This would have been a good retort if he’d said it months ago, when Vargas had first claimed the naming rights. He’s thought of it often since, but not until tonight has it seemed important to point out. Vargas raises his eyebrows, waiting to be amused.

“Home,” Whit says.

“Not as catchy.”

They pass a bum toting an out-of-season Christmas tree over his shoulder, nearly dragging a soggy-hipped basset hound behind him; a ten-year-old weaving down the street on a bicycle with a basket full of groceries; a doughnut shop they both choose not to mention tonight, the only lit storefront on an avenue composed of security-gated laundries, vacuum repair shops, ethnic groceries, and massage brothels.

“Besides,” Vargas says, “You’re assuming their view from the inside is more accurate than ours from the outside. Those uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, you think they can see themselves more clearly than we can? You think you see yourself more clearly than I do? You think those law books say the same thing to me that they do to you?”

Vargas has dropped hints before that he knew what was in Whit’s bag, but this is his first direct statement about it. Whit has broken new ground, perhaps, with his challenge to Zombieland. It feels, in a sad way, like something that could pass for closeness.

“What do my books say?” he asks.

“My mother taught me about when you can’t say anything nice.”

At 11:30 p.m., they see a kid holding ground on a known corner. Vargas tells Whit to shake him up a bit and parks across the street where he has a good line of sight on the kid.

“Be safe,” he calls as Whit gets out of the car. “Exercise caution.”

Whit walks over to the darkened corner: a mini-mart porched by a single concrete step, on which the kid stands, leaning back against the cross-hatching of the door gate. He’s a teen, by his size, but more is hard to tell given the scrawny, loose-limbed body and the incongruous baby-fatted face. Whit shows his badge and says his name. The kid says nothing. Whit asks his name. He says it’s Gino.

“Isn’t that an Italian name?”

“Holoman,” Gino says. “Isn’t that kind of mayonnaise?”

Whit’s always been able to feel it when he blushes: a girlish warmth that hits the neck as much as the cheeks. He smirks through it. It was a good line. Whit wants to show the kid he can laugh at himself without giving away authority, that he’s not one of the brutes who’ll slam Gino’s head into a wall for a stray word. Someday Whit will need honest information and this decency, this showing of humanity, will pay dividends. Though if his test prep course is worth its ridiculous sticker price, he might not be around to see it. But that damn blush—it flushes any authority down the toilet.

“You know how it works,” he tells Gino. The kid puts his hands against the wall. Whit pats him down: his ribs, his back, his moist armpits, the back and front of his belt, where they like to keep their guns, though corner kids get frisked enough they usually know better. His ankles, calves, knees, thighs. Whit pats the outsides of his oversize pockets, but it can be hard to feel anything but pills in there—he’s missed things before, been razzed for it by the most asinine of street cops—so he reaches into Gino’s pockets to check for powders, weed, money, scraps of paper with phone numbers penciled on them. There’s nothing, as he expected. The stash will be hidden nearby. But he has to check, they say: if you don’t catch the dumb ones, you won’t catch any. He brushes something soft through the fabric of the pocket, and his hand startles back.

“Buy me a drink first?” Gino says.

“A real comedian,” Whit responds. He digs an elbow into the kid’s back, the way he remembers his own older brother doing when he pinned Whit down as a kid, an unbearable knuckling between the ribs. But since there’s plenty of space between Gino and the wall, there’s too much give to cause him any discomfort.

“Shiatsu,” Gino says. “Hot stone.”

“Go home,” Whit tells him. He’s got nothing in his pockets. Whatever lookout he might have had has scooted off. “What kind of mother lets her kid out at this hour?”

Vargas chuckles as Whit climbs back into the cab, and Whit goes hot in the neck again. Vargas says he’ll tell the boys Whit tried. “But off the record,” he says, “you’ll never out-clown a kid with no bank account. What they lack in material assets they make up in cheap irony. They only love the boot, kid.” He sees the look Whit gives him and offers back a mockery of his piety. “It’s not racist. I came up around here.”

Aimless driving. They take a call for a toddler having febrile seizures and stand around in the wet night air while the paramedics do their thing. A noise complaint: lover’s quarrel, a woman in a bathrobe holding a cheese grater like it’s a deadly weapon. No B-and-E from dispatch though, no gunshots lodged in the studs of apartment walls, no carjackings. At 1:13 a.m. a howl comes in not from dispatch but from another black-and-white: responding to apparent burglary at Weston and Campbell, broken storefront glass, young black male seen nearby with a suspicious backpack. It doesn’t make sense: that intersection is just a bail bondsman and an electronics repair shop. Why rob a place where everything is broken? At 1:18 a.m. another call comes through with a little more octane on it: shots fired at Campbell and Booth, officers unharmed, suspect down. Whit’s stomach lurches. And Vargas has that slow way about him, and his mouth half hidden by that baby-shit mustache, and Whit can’t tell at all what that expression means. Regret, amusement, resignation, righteousness? Is it giving him too much credit to say he sighs when he responds?

“Well,” Vargas says, unreadable. “That’s one.”

He’d thought it was all bluster and bluff. How could it be otherwise? That thought: this can’t be the world. Vargas can see the kind of spiral Whit is headed down, his forehead against the cold window, his mouth gone mute, and he pulls into a Denny’s parking lot and tells Whit he has no choice about getting a cup of coffee. Whit goes along. He wants off the street. The counter waitress is Joan, but just the N on her nametag has turned sideways so it reads JOAZ. This is all Vargas calls her, flirting in a way she clearly wants nothing to do with. He pours so much cream and sugar into his coffee it’s like he’s trying to make another cup of pudding.

“You’ve got to keep your imagination in the right place,” he says. “Whalen’s fiancée curled sideways on the least comfortable of ICU recliners while all those monitors beep away like fucking R2D2, falling asleep and waking up a few minutes later from a dream about a ventilator tube sticking out of his mouth and seeing the exact same thing when she opens her eyes. Nguyen’s wife. Bet your ass she’s awake right now, middle of the night, knowing that tomorrow she’s going to get a dozen visits from people she can barely understand. A guy like Nguyen’s got thirteen kids that all live off the rice noodles his paycheck affords, and tomorrow her house is going look like a florist’s wet dream but she’s only going to be able to think about the dwindling sack of rice in the pantry.”

“Mercy,” Whit says. Vargas doesn’t know what he means, and neither does Whit, but Vargas stops.

“Tell me about this test, then. You have to know all the laws?”

“That’s the Bar. This is just a test of logic.” Whit tells him about the three sections: reading comprehension, logical reasoning, logic games. The games are the hardest, at least at first, full of weird scenarios governed by weird rules. Three canoes with four seats each, and each canoe needs exactly one adult. Who is the best tennis player? If G plays golf, he’s the worst tennis player, but if he doesn’t, he’s the third best. But it’s the most learnable section—at least that’s what his teacher, barely more than a kid in fancy threads and glasses, promises every class. So far, yes, the games make more sense if he spends an hour on one, but when he tries to get through four in the thirty-five minutes the test gives him it’s like trying to read computer code. That’s not what he tells Vargas. He tells him there are four game types, and each one has its own sketch. He explains, as best he can, how to form the contrapositive to a conditional statement. He finds himself cribbing words from his instructor’s lectures pretty much verbatim, but he sounds confident. It occurs to him that this is what Vargas was going for: getting his brain into a sphere where it’s more comfortable. He doesn’t mind. He keeps going even when Vargas’s eyes glaze over.

The radio vibrates on the counter next to Vargas’s side of bacon, calling out something about a suspicious young black ma—Vargas turns the dial off, signs the check with To Joaz my one true love and his phone number and motions Whit back to the car. He turns the radio back on when the doors are safely shut and locked, and there’s no chatter, nothing to indicate the count has gotten any closer to its terminus, and Whit discovers something about himself: he wanted the awful thing to be over so much that a part of him had wished for it to happen.

He wants so badly to throw up that he rolls the window down and sticks his head out of it, but what’s in his stomach won’t fit out through his throat. They’re farther south now and farther inland. The air has lost its mossy smell. Now it’s just the day’s exhaust. Looking out through the blank night air he sees scattered big luxurious windows in the hillside houses lit up from the inside, insomniacs with their cable televisions on. They don’t need to worry about rising sea levels up there, but Whit remembers—he was a kid but he remembers—when the whole range lit up like a quick-burning log in 1991, and three thousand houses dissolved into crackling black paper.

Cops up there give warnings if champagne parties go too loud too late. Cops up there make sure no one up there is from down here.

The dead streets quiver with a useless electricity. There’s no squeal of street-racing tires, no thumping of steroidal subwoofers, no rattle of shopping cart casters or calls of birds or even the grapey hiccupping of crickets. Engine noise and an open window. Vargas never runs the radio, neither music nor talk, and the squad radio has gone so quiet Whit imagines some sort of dread cloud hanging over the city soaking up all transmissions. He feels alone in the world.

Vargas rolls up Whit’s window from his armrest, and its cool slate catches the skin of his forehead and lifts it upward. Vargas’s posture is stiff as a startled deer, and he’s looking past Whit out the passenger window down Fremont, and Whit follows the tether of his gaze to the crew of seven marching down the middle of the street, and there’s no word for it but marching: seven in black and white, two of them muscle hulks. This is a mission, not a stroll. They are headed south toward norteňo territory. Something bad is going to happen. Vargas idles to a stop. Thirty seconds later Whit’s watching them through the windshield, twenty feet in front of their bumper. They eye the squad car skeptically but keep moving. Whit waits for Vargas’s hand to go to the PA.

“Don’t get crazy,” Vargas says. “I’m not putting money on a two-on-seven game of basketball.”

“This is our job,” Whit says.

“They do our job for us.”

“Kids get killed in their beds by stray bullets.”

“Anecdotal.”

Whit wants to spit in his face. Vargas’ eyes narrow. He asks: “Has anyone ever told you that when you get pissy, your mouth looks like a butthole?” He puts the car back in gear and they creep back north, opposite the direction in which the crew was headed. Heading back that way, back in the direction of downtown, of the bridge, of the ghost silhouette of a more civilized city, he no longer feels alone in the world. He feels crowded in the car. His hands itch. His face itches. He tries to check his imagination, as his partner had recommended. He sees Mrs. Nguyen in front of a casket. He sees Whalen’s fiancée and Whalen, sedated and intubated on the table, breathing that robot breath, the rise and fall of his ribs too perfect, too regular. He can’t help but see as well the possibility of a line going flat and half a dozen nurses rushing into the room and setting to work with a defibrillator. He can’t help but see that possibility of them shocking only dead flesh that bounces, rubbery, but won’t come back, that possibility of three becoming six.

Ten minutes later, the radio crackles. A gunfight between gangs, not far south of where they just were, broke up on its own with no casualties. Vargas smirks. One of his great amusements on the force is how gangbangers who love to pose tough with their guns have no idea how to aim them. But the smirk disappears into teeth as he chews his bottom lip. Perhaps he’s remembered that the 11s who gunned down Whalen and Nguyen figured it out well enough. Dispatch wants a car to respond and set up a crime scene. Vargas calls in cross streets four miles north of their actual location and asks if they want him to head down. They decline. Closer cars, they say.

Vargas gets them into a half-decent neighborhood and parks under the lights of a twenty-four-hour grocery. “We should while away some time,” he says. “Get in a better headspace.” He does this on nights when he doesn’t want to get mixed up in anything that might result in paperwork. He calls it his special union break. Tonight he’s got a story to tell. His wife went snooping through his oldest son’s closet this last weekend and found a stash that would have given their captain a Certified Organic erection: a two-and-a-half-foot water bong, half an ounce of weed, ultra-sensitive condoms, and a travel-size shampoo bottle filled with olive oil—Whit will never guess what the olive oil was for, Vargas says, or maybe he will. Whit tunes him out. Vargas doesn’t remember telling him the exact same story in May.

Whit closes his eyes and thinks: evidence, conclusion, assumption. Logical flaw. Parallel reasoning. Method of argument. The quietest times his mind has had in months have been the practice tests he’s taken: perfect silence, the timer set for thirty-five minutes per section, and one question in front of him to be dispatched, and then the next. He wonders if they can spend the rest of the shift like this: camped out. Hiding out. If Vargas relaxes into a certain mood Whit might even be able to crack open the books.

But of course that’s a dream. Just after 3:30 a.m., the radio sparks to life again.

Is it possible to go crazy in the span of five hours? Whit’s mind keeps heating up until he thinks it will catch flame, then going blank and cold. He presses the button to roll down the window. Nothing happens. Vargas has the child lock on it. Whit tells him to roll down the window. Vargas tells him to calm down. “Roll down the fucking window,” Whit shouts. Vargas rolls it down halfway.

After the last radio call, Vargas said he wanted to get a damn doughnut. His eyes have reddened, and the sacks under them are puffy. It’s wearing on him too, Whit thinks, but not enough to exculpate him. They’re headed back north on a main avenue, and it feels like coming out of the depths, like coming up from a dive, even as Whit’s mind tangles itself with red thread. He’s thought already about all the things he could do: call someone at the Tribune; go through the upper brass; document, document, document. They all seem to have the weight of impossibility on them. But they don’t, he knows, and that doesn’t absolve him. They are all logistically simple. The impossibility is inside of himself.

As they pass back through Zombieland every soul they see is haunted in Whit’s mind by an officer with his pistol to the back of his head, and none of them has the slightest idea. There are fewer out now, few for whom 4:00 a.m. isn’t either too early to too late. They see the same bum sleeping next to his Christmas tree on the sidewalk, his basset hound using his thigh as a pillow. A few early bread trucks are out, something that’s always seemed out of place here, a relic of a charming old New York or Chicago, rather than this stripped-down urban wasteland. The lumberyard is closed, but under the security lights it looks like a dinosaur graveyard, and Whit watches one tired security guard pacing down the aisles.

“What’s that kid’s name?” Vargas asks. He’s keeping pace with a kid strolling north on the right-hand sidewalk. Whit recognizes him.

“Gino.”

Vargas rolls Whit’s window the rest of the way down. “Go home, Gino,” he calls across Whit. Gino stops and smirks at them.

“Who’s Gino?” Gino asks. “My name’s Melvin.”

“Whatever the fuck your name is,” Vargas says, “you should go home.”

“Thanks, Mom. I mean ma’am. I mean officer.”

Vargas chuckles. If Whit knows him at all, he’s about to kneel on the kid’s back and cite him for something stupid and hard to dodge: urinating on a public building; graffiti; indecent exposure. Vargas is a turtle but he can be a snapping turtle. But his voice shifts into a sincere register Whit hasn’t even heard him use to talk about his own kids.

“Trust me, kid. You want to be at home tonight.”

The kid is suspicious of his tone, but he shrugs, and says he will, before starting up a slower stroll in the same direction. Vargas gets rolling again, and Whit watches the kid shrink away in his side mirror. Who cares? Doughnuts and coffee are only a few blocks away. Fuck the cliché. It’s two hours to sunrise, and he’s been up since 5:00 p.m. yesterday. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Vargas makes a pudding of his coffee again. Whit puts in a hint of milk and about five grains of sugar. Vargas: a jelly doughnut and a maple bar. Whit: an apple fritter. Whit’s almost disappointed he won’t be around long enough to see Vargas develop the insulin routine he’s going to need in a few years. Whit’s been looking at schools nearby, and in a fifty mile radius he’s got two reach schools, four safety schools, and a few in between, but he’s starting to see the virtue in distant kingdoms: Northwestern in foggy Chicago, Tulane in dirty New Orleans, Notre Dame tucked away in the corn.

“The question I’m keeping myself sane with,” Vargas says, “is does it matter? Does it affect the situation in Egypt or Hong Kong? Does it drop more people into poverty? Does it sadden the nation?”

“Does it need to?”

“If you zoom out a little, three isn’t that much.”

“Jesus.”

“From a cosmic perspective.”

“Jesus fucking Christ.”

Whit sits in silence. But this is viral logic. It’s not rare to see a hundred or more violent deaths a year. Three in a week barely registers as an outlier. It is true: no one will be upset but a few stray family members. These are not white neighborhoods. It’s all disgusting, but a part of Whit’s mind is telescoping out like a rising shot in a film, showing him a broader scope of land outside of which this quake won’t even register. This apologia is a bit of Nazi logic, but Vargas has lodged it in his brain, and he can feel the worm wriggling around in there. For just a moment he wants to pull out his gun and put two into Vargas’s chest as he sits on that cheap plastic bench licking jelly off his lower lip. Unwilled, he imagines himself doing it.

Is it possible to go crazy in the span of five hours?

Whit closes his eyes, and again he pictures himself doing it: stand, draw, bang, bang.

He stands and bursts through the door of the doughnut shop into the bracing air. It takes him a moment to decipher what he sees: a statue five feet away from the open window of the squad car, letting loose an upward arc of urine onto the passenger seat. Of course it’s no statue, though he stands remarkably still with his hips arched forward like those cupids, and the stream has an impressive constancy. It’s Gino. It’s Melvin. Who knows what it says on his social security card?

Never afterward does he remember covering the fifteen feet between the doughnut shop door and the parking lot. Never afterward does he remember the tackle. It all happens like those rare, glorious moments he used to have on the wrestling mat, when his body moved perfectly without the brain’s approval—and suddenly he’s there: Gino’s on his back, and Whit’s elbow presses into his cheek, pinning his head to the ground, and Whit’s gun is in his hand, the muzzle against Gino’s temple. He’ll always remember it as someone else, someone with a voice the twin of his own, who says: “You little shit. Don’t you know what tonight is?” What he will remember, always, is looking into Gino’s eyes, waiting for the fear, needing to see the fear, but seeing none of it. He will remember Gino staring up at him with empty, empty eyes, and the realization, like being born, that the kid knows exactly what tonight is. That he’d always known what tonight was. That he’d known his whole life.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter