Dante usually waited at the end of the bread aisle, where he’d sit calmly against the ice cream fridge. He found that this gave the best perspective for the entirety of the store; every other aisle had blind spots that he found unnerving. This position, though, felt like a command center. No patron could walk into the store without immediately seeing Dante. They’d offer him a polite “afternoon” or a non-verbal nod, to which Dante would never respond. Responding would be letting his guard down. It’d be unprofessional.
He’d been informally hired at the end of spring after spending hours in the store as a way to pass the time. Michael, the owner, knew he didn’t really need security—that’s what a closed circuit camera and a direct line to the police were for, after all—but he felt bad for the kid and figured he’d at least always have someone to unload deliveries on Mondays. He offered Dante $5 a day and unlimited coffee in exchange for a watchful eye.
“Law enforcement?” Dante asked.
“You’re not a cop. I don’t want a cop. I need a watchful eye.”
“But you need the law enforced. To avoid theft.”
“Sure. Law enforcement.”
When Dante eagerly agreed with a handshake and stern military salute, Michael knew he had made a mistake.
Still, for all of his strange behavior, Dante was reliable. He never missed a day, and even showed initiative by taking careful notes of the day’s customers, especially any that appeared suspicious.
TUES – man in brown hat smiles at me but doesn’t say anything. only buys bread.
WED – mom’s neighbor asks me why i’m sitting on the ice cream. keeps asking me. asks me why i keep ‘jotting notes’ rather than responding. finally leaves.
FRI – man in dirty tee asks me 3 times for a cigarette. when michael looks away asks me ‘do you want weed?’ screams when i take notes.
When the store closed he walked the block home to his mother’s. She could always be found in the kitchen, ashing Camels over a paper plate and talking with some distant relative on the phone. Upon seeing him, she’d mouth a description of whatever was thawing in the sink, followed by a gesture about which ever unbearable relative was on the phone. Dante always processed these interactions as coded equations. On this particular day it was:
(italian sausage)aunt linda + (a point to the head) = cousin anthony’s trip to the psych ward.
Dante offered a formal wave as he sat down to watch his daily Law and Order: SVU. He had arranged with Michael that all his shifts at the store end at 5:55 so that he would have just enough time to make it home in time for a re-run. As he clicked the television on, he grabbed a pen and a notepad.
He spoke along with the television: In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous . . .
“Aunt Linda says ‘hi,’ sweetheart,” his mother said, still on the phone. “She said she’s glad your job is working out.”
Dante continued to stare straight ahead. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies . . .
“She said don’t worry about last week at the party. Hardly anyone remembers it.”
. . . are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit.
“Dante! He’s watching his show. Dante!” She charged over to him, grabbed the remote from the coffee table and quickly turned it off. “It’s like I’m not even talking here! Jesus Christ, can you please just respond to your Aunt Linda who is on the phone and is trying to make you feel better about last weekend?”
He nodded, realizing what he needed to do to get the remote back. “Thank you, Linda.”
“He says, ‘Thank you, Linda.’ I know, it’s the goddamn show.” She threw the remote back at him and made her way back to the kitchen, lowering her voice in an attempt to be discreet. “Sure, I like my shows too but I can at least talk to people . . .”
But SVU wasn’t just a show to Dante. He liked the action, and Ice-T, and Christopher Meloni’s quips, and he constantly fantasized about Mariska Hargitay in the shower, but SVU was primarily research. Every case that the Special Victims Unit dealt with was a case study of how criminals operate.
He had once explained this to Michael, who didn’t understand his logic. “That show’s all about perverts. I don’t need you chasing down perverts.” He paused for a minute. “Look, I’m not saying perverts aren’t bad. But all I asked is that you keep an eye on the store. Maybe try Matlock.”
Still, Dante knew he was right to study. After all, he had no formal training in law enforcement. Aside from SVU, he felt as though he was relying on some primal instinct. He knew when someone was untrustworthy. He could identify potential thieves on the street. A suspicious person was never truly innocent. But that instinct had only taken him so far. Until he perfected his craft, he was determined to watch each day’s episode with pen in hand, studying how an effective, elite law enforcement unit operated.
Dante was unnerved by The Shorter Woman from the moment she opened the door to the store. Most customers slammed the door wide open and crashed it into the newspaper rack to announce their arrival, but The Shorter Woman pried it open gradually, as if she were suspicious of what lay behind it. Despite her best efforts, the door had a wailing creak that never failed to pinch Dante’s ear, even when he was in the back of the store.
Her entrance happened to occur at one of the few times throughout the day Dante wasn’t sitting comfortably against the ice cream fridge. Instead, he was helping Michael restock the cans on the soup shelf, most of which had expired. The Shorter Woman avoided any conversation and immediately made her way to the aisle that housed miscellaneous office supplies and dry pasta.
Professionalism. Michael had used it the day Dante had been hired, and Dante had applied it to every situation since. “I just need you to stand around, keep an eye. But you can’t be a jerk. No showing up drunk, eating all the chips. Just a little Professionalism is all.” Dante nodded seriously, making it clear he understood.
That word came to him again as he observed The Shorter Woman, as it did whenever someone seemed suspicious. He longed to confront anyone who averted their eyes, anyone with an empty bag. But Professionalism means that you don’t assume this woman is a criminal just because she’s silent. Professionalism means you need proof to accuse someone. Professionalism means you give her the Benefit of the Doubt. But Dante knew that Professionalism also meant you also keep your eyes on her, no matter what.
Dante first tried to signal silently to Michael, who was focused on the abundance of unsold cans of cream of mushroom. Michael paused, staring at the shelf. “There’s a theme, here . . .” he said quietly to himself.
“Potential leaf,” Dante said under his breath, attempting to use a rhyming code he had urged Michael to utilize. Michael had never acknowledged this code, calling it “Navajo windtalker bullshit” when Dante had initially suggested it. Instead, he examined the bottom of a can. “The mushrooms, they expire too quickly for the one person who would buy them.” Before Dante could try and determine another rhyme that might alert Michael, he heard the door slam and the front bell ring. The Shorter Woman was gone.
Dante asked Michael to consult the closed circuit footage, but Michael was unsure of exactly how to retrieve it. He knew that his grandson had rigged the set up almost ten years earlier, and that it used the same VHS every day, but he was terrified of potentially disrupting the following day’s recording.
“Just let me see if she took anything,” Dante begged him, praying that his security had not been breached. He could tell that Michael didn’t think that a stolen notebook or box of linguini was worth calling his grandson. He knew he needed to assert himself as a Professional law enforcement provider. He took a deep breath and stammered, “That’s an order.”
Michael laughed. “Fuck you, that’s your order.” Dante’s face did not change. To Dante, it was a sign that he was steadfast. To Michael, it was a sign that he was desperate. “Alright, let’s go see the tape then. But no more orders, hear?” Dante followed Michael into the back room, smiling.
It was exactly as Dante had feared: the tape clearly showed a Shorter Woman, though her face was obscured thanks to the poor quality of the VHS, delicately placing a box of angel hair pasta under her shirt while he foolishly helped Michael.
“Oh well,” Michael said, ejecting the tape. “No one buys angel hair from us anyways.”
Dante stood silent and humiliated. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Michael, and instead decided to stare at the wall in shame. That was until he realized it was covered with framed portraits of Michael and his wife. He shot his glance to the floor.
“Dante, pick your goddamn head up. The box is something like sixty cents wholesale.”
Dante did not flinch.
“I said pick your head up!”
Dante then settled on the ceiling, preferring the uncomfortable position of his neck to the demoralizing feeling he’d experience by agreeing with Michael. He knew pasta was inexpensive. In fact, he had once heard that store owners factored a certain amount of shoplifting into their budget. Michael would hardly go broke because of The Shorter Woman, even if she made a daily trip. But he wasn’t the store owner—he was the law.
Dante had never actually walked inside the other store two blocks away, though he had constantly seen people walking in and out. They were usually ragged men who had either just gotten off work or hadn’t worked in years. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. Inside, a Working/Non-Working man stood near the potato chip rack, holding a can in a paper bag. He was scratching off lottery tickets, reminding the clerk that the state lottery system was a fraudulent operation. The clerk, tucked safely behind a thick bulletproof window, nodded silently in agreement.
The Working/Non-Working man paused when he noticed Dante. The clerk waited patiently for an order. Dante remembered that surveillance teams never revealed themselves too quickly. He knew he would need to gradually endear himself to the men before asking for any privileged information about The Shorter Woman.
He ordered a beer and tried to appear casual as he opened it in the store, though he had never realized that drinking in a corner store was permitted by the city. Michael had never even pursued a liquor license. “If I wanted to deal with riff-raff I’d run a shelter,” he had once told a man who had come in asking for a forty ounce.
Dante rarely drank and had never understood the appeal. His mother forced him to toast her with a glass of champagne every New Year’s, but beyond that he avoided alcohol. Now he knew he had to act as though this was commonplace, as if the taste of this bitter, spoiled soda didn’t make his mouth well up with bile.
“You a cop or a retard?” one of the Working/Non-Working men asked him, smiling. He stared at Dante, waiting for an answer.
“Cop,” Dante said, taking another sip and hoping his disgust wasn’t apparent. “Been investigating a string of robberies around here.”
The Working/Non-Working Man lost his smile and straightened his posture like a schoolboy. “Well, certainly. Certainly appreciate all you do for the neighborhood.”
Dante turned back to the clerk with a newfound confidence. “Seen a woman in here lately? Shorter?” He struggled to find another detail. “Interested in pasta?”
The clerk searched for a helpful answer, opening and closing his mouth several times without saying anything. “I’ve seen a lot of shorter women—”
“But this woman is Shorter. It’s noticeable.”
“Like a midget?” The clerk measured the invisible woman’s height in the air. “That kind of short?”
Dante realized he had almost nothing to offer the clerk, or anyone for that matter, that might distinguish The Shorter Woman. Still, he had seen so many episodes where the detectives had even less.
“I think you’re dodging my questions. I think you know something else.” His own words surprised him. “You wouldn’t want a surveillance car on your store, would you? You wouldn’t want someone downtown to investigate the particulars of your liquor license, would you?” He held up his can, “Especially about drinking on site. Would you?”
“Officer, it’s just that I see many short women—”
The Working/Non-Working Man cut him off. “I’ve seen a shorter woman.” He took another sip from the beer, then checked to see if there was any left. “Robberies, right? Wouldn’t surprise me if it’s your girl.”
Dante turned his head to throw out his beer and managed to hide the smile that had formed on his face. He was a natural. “Where can I find her?”
The Working/Non-Working Man took a last sip from the beer and crushed it in his hand. “Follow me.”
Dante followed the Working/Non-Working Man several blocks east, finally settling in the vacant lot under the highway. It was the area that he had heard Michael refer to in passing as The Homeless Camp. Surveying the lot, he found that the name was quite accurate: around two dozen men were living there to various degrees. Some had built makeshift homes out of tarps and a few dilapidated boxes. Others settled for soiled mattresses.
“Your girl’s probably around here somewhere,” the Working/Non-Working Man said, gesturing to nowhere in particular.
“Can you point me in the right direction?” Dante asked, hoping he still sounded professional. He realized he should avoid posing questions when possible. Asking permission suggests weakness. “I need a point of contact.”
“Can’t help you out with that,” he said. “In fact, I’ve got to be rolling back home.”
“You don’t live down here?”
The Working/Non-Working Man laughed and began walking. Dante waited a few minutes to make sure that this was not an elaborate test. If it was, Dante was not informed of the results. The Working/Non-Working Man simply grew smaller and smaller until he rounded the corner, leaving Dante alone at the Camp.
Dante began speaking with the men at the lot, treating the conversations as Informal Interrogations, though they often began with “How are you?” and ended with little information on The Shorter Woman, if any. He took notes on all of the Informal Interrogations, though he knew they were relatively worthless.
1 – man with full acme cart tells me no woman lives here
2 – skinny man asks to score
3 – man with full acme cart tells me he forgot a woman lives here
Most threatened him when he approached them. Others weren’t willing to speak if he had no food or money to offer. One man simply smiled blankly at him, oblivious to the fact that Dante was asking him questions.
He eventually made his way to the only parked vehicle in the otherwise vacant lot, wondering if perhaps this was some actual agent of law enforcement on an elaborate stakeout. The van looked as though it hadn’t been operated in years, with flat tires and a body covered in illegible graffiti tags. Both front seats were littered with a sea of garbage. Dante could make out discarded coffee cups, courtesy maps from AAA, and unpaid parking tickets, but most of the debris had melted together to form something entirely unrecognizable. He leaned his back against the passenger side door and slid down until he was sitting on the concrete. The body of the van was surprisingly cool and reminded him of the store’s ice cream fridge. What was most important, though, was that he could clearly see the whole of the lot without a blind spot. This would be his own stake out, and he knew that it would require patience. Every stakeout episode of SVU he had ever seen featured as least one scene break or food delivery to illustrate that a great deal of time had passed. He reminded himself several times that he was more than capable of handling this arduous task as his eyelids slowly grew heavier and heavier.
He awoke, still propped up against the van, and was immediately aware that the early morning sun had already burnt his face. He took in the whole of the lot one more time, trying to uncover anything he might have missed the night before. A younger woman was talking to some of the other men, though he was certain she must have arrived while he was still asleep. She was far too clean to have spent the night. The night before the men had resisted his Informal Interrogations, but now they smiled when the younger woman approached. Every so often she would reach into her backpack and hand one of them a brown paper bag. A little too tall to be deemed Shorter, Dante thought to himself. Still, the presence of a female in the lot might eventually lead him to the Shorter Woman. He jotted down her description in his notes and began walking back home.
Dante stumbled in late to the store, although Michael had never technically established when his shift began. Dante had simply started showing up when the store opened.
“You look awful,” Michael said, “Did you sleep last night?”
“Stake out,” Dante muttered. “Followed a lead.”
Michael stared at him for a minute, looking for the right thing to say.
“The Shorter Woman. I asked around about her.”
“Listen, Dante. The neighborhood’s shit. You’re a good kid.” He held both of his hands towards Dante, expecting somehow that a hand motion would show his seriousness. “Leave it alone.”
“I met a guy who told me he’s seen The Shorter Woman, that she’s been down—”
“I said leave it alone!” The change in tone surprised Dante, as well as Michael. He collected himself, and nearly whispered, “I wanted you to come in here for a little assistance, I didn’t need gangbusters bullshit. You understand me?”
Dante nodded, hoping that that they were done speaking. This was by far the most serious conversation that they had ever had. The two men both felt uncomfortable in the wake of it and nervously searched for distractions. Michael walked to the back of the store and down into the supply basement, muttering something about a pasta vigilante.
The lot was louder than the night before, thanks to a radio one of the men had brought back to his tent. Dante decided that the distraction was just another part of being on the job—a true test of his focus. He felt closer than ever to cornering The Shorter Woman. What did the woman with the brown paper bags know? What was in the brown paper bags? Why hadn’t she offered him a brown paper bag? The questions rang in his head and nearly overwhelmed him. He forced himself to take deep breaths every so often in an attempt to calm down.
As the night went on, Dante tried to document anything of note. As far as he could see, though, nearly everything appeared the same as the day before. He was disappointed to learn that living under a highway was just as mundane as living with his mother.
In the morning, Dante awoke to a soft voice repeatedly calling him sir. He opened his eyes and recognized the woman from the night before.
“Sir, can I help you with anything?” she asked, squatting down to speak to him at eye-level.
Dante wiped away the sweat from his forehead, feeling an even more intense sunburn. “Have you seen any other women down here?”
“No, sir. Just me.” She offered him a brown paper bag. “It’s for the street. Essentials. Would you like it?”
He opened the bag and found a toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, a stick of deodorant, and a few granola bars. “How much is this?”
“It’s free. Just to help you out. I stop by here every morning and bring them to the guys. I haven’t seen you around before. What’s your name?”
He didn’t want to blow his cover, so he used the first name that came to mind. “Michael,” he said, “Mike.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Mike.” She smiled and held out her hand. Dante hesitated, then slowly shook it. It was clear to him that she was not of the lot. Her hair was plain, but definitely clean. She wasn’t heavy, but she was certainly not hungry. Her welcoming smile and the compassionate look in her eyes suggested that she had spent the previous night at home, comfortably. Dante decided that she must have ulterior motives. One of the recurring lessons from SVU was that the friendliest people were often the most diabolical. The woman had charisma, sure, but it was clear that she was also hiding something.
“Where’s the Shorter Woman?” Dante said, placing the brown bag on the ground.
“I’m sorry? I don’t think I’ve seen any women down here. Like we talked about.”
Dante laughed. “I’m not buying your act. What do I need with toothpaste? I came here for answers.”
The woman nodded in agreement, though Dante couldn’t understand why. He was trying to intimidate her. He wanted her to cower, but she seemed to be on his side.
“Sometimes people down here need some items, but if you’d rather not take them then that’s fine. I’ll let you decide what you’d like to do.”
“Shorter Woman. Do you know her?”
“Are you referring to someone at my agency? Was there a shorter woman that you met before? Maybe who worked this shift before I did? Is that it?”
Deflection. It was a typical response from criminals. Dante took a deep breath, trying to remain calm and Professional despite the fact that this woman—appearing helpful, even concerned for him—was lying to his face. He could feel his frustration boiling over into anger, causing his hands to begin shaking.
“Would you like to come to the shelter? Living down here can be hard. It’s nice to be in a more stable environment, even if only for a few days.”
“What I want—” Dante began, though he was so overwhelmed that he struggled to finish his thought. He took a deep breath and tried again, “What I want, what I want is for you to stop lying to me and tell me about the fucking Shorter Woman!”
The woman continued nodding as if she understood his words. “Like I said, I don’t know the woman you’re referring to, but if you’d like to come to the shelter—”
Dante swung his clenched fist back as far as possible and aimed for her temple, which he knew to be the most lethal point of impact. He had never been in an actual fight, though, and didn’t realize the difficulty in landing such a precise blow. Instead, the punch fell on her cheek, knocking her down to the pavement. Dante stood up and saw the traces of a yellow and purple bruise forming just below her eye.
“I told you I wanted answers,” he said, though he was not as stern as before. She was frantically crying and feeling her head to make sure she had not cut it open it in the fall. Every so often she stopped coughed up a wad of blood-tinged spit. Any rage he had felt moments earlier quickly vanished as he watched her struggle helplessly on the ground.
He looked around the lot and noticed that everyone was watching him. Some of them even appeared ready to retaliate. He slowly and deliberately crouched down to the woman and reached into her pocket. She let out a shrill scream that finally ceased when she realized Dante had only taken her phone. He pressed three buttons and waited.
The lead officer at the precinct recognized Dante from the store and, as a favor to Michael, tried to help his case a bit. He could drop the loitering charge and the other frivolous crimes that had been tacked on, but assaulting a woman, especially a social worker, could not be wiped clean. Dante waited patiently in the small holding cell, aware that he should appear solemn and contrite, though he was secretly exhilarated at witnessing the inner workings of law enforcement. He especially loved the slogan that seemed to be everywhere in the precinct: Honor, Integrity, Professionalism.
The lead officer assumed that his interview with Dante would be rather short. It was Dante, after all, who had called the precinct though he had said nothing on the phone or to the responding officers. He had simply waited.
Besides a large bruise, the social worker was unharmed. Non-domestic assault charges as minor as this one were usually dealt with in court at a later date, but a simple statement would allow Dante to return home. The officer decided he would be as direct as possible after reading him his rights in order to expedite the process.
“Dante, can you confirm for me that you struck Ms. Murphy, the social worker?” He waited, pen in hand, ready to transcribe his statement.
“Ms. Murphy mentioned something about that. And we can deal with that later. But if you want to go home I need you tell me if you struck Ms. Murphy earlier today.”
Dante laughed. “I’m not saying a word until you provide me the case file on the Shorter Woman.”
The lead officer tapped his pen on the clipboard. “Dante, if you fail to cooperate with us you will remain in the holding cell. All night, all week. Maybe eventually get shipped elsewhere. You won’t go home until we get an admission or denial of the charge.”
Dante smiled at the officer. “I guess this is where I belong then.”
Kevin Kearney’s writing has previously appeared in Eclectica and A Song a Day. He recently finished his M.A. in Literary and Cultural Studies at La Salle University. He teaches in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and several dying plants.
Jay Waters walked away from a good job in order to teach in college and do other things, including photography. Old enough to know better. Yearns to be a well-travelled Southerner. Believes that a photo should be, for as much as possible, just the coincidence of time and camera—but is learning Photoshop and Lightroom just in case. Usually finds things interesting that most others don’t. More work at noodlephotos.com. From McCalla, Alabama.