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The Decline and Fall of the Murphy Case

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Detective Don Schanke felt good. Great. Cloud nine and climbing. As he strolled out of winter’s early dark and into Jake’s of Etobicoke (pineapple pizza our specialty!) (tip included on parties over five), the world was his oyster. The Murphy case was his pearl. He shrugged off his overcoat, put his hands in his pants pockets, and surveyed the questionably carpeted restaurant as if from a royal balcony.

“Good to see you, Schanke.” Officer Norma Alves, office manager extraordinaire, ticked something on her clipboard. “You’re the last from days. Now we’re only waiting on your partner.”

“Well, you know these night-shift guys.” Schanke reminded himself to be gracious toward lesser investigators, who hadn’t just wrapped the notorious Murphy murder. He’d be patient. Encouraging. A role model.

Schanke had come to the restaurant straight from a marathon confab with the Crown Prosecutor. After months of shoe leather and paperwork, they’d tied up the Murphy mess in a neat bow of red tape. The bad guys were going down. The good guys had handed the press office a primo package. Yes, all was right in this best of all possible bar & grill joints, as the homicide squad came together for its quarterly mandatory fun (teamwork facilitation exercise, if Internal Affairs asks).

Norma gestured toward the back. “We’ve got reserved tables in the alcove by the arcade games. Soda, pizza, and wings are included.”

“And for those coming off duty…?”

“If you want beer or wine, you have to pay for it yourself.”

“Gotcha. A pitcher to share it is.” Schanke ordered Molson and some glasses. “Thanks for working the coverage so that we can hold this shindig outside the precinct.”

“Oh! You’re very welcome, Schanke.” Norma glowed.

She didn’t mention the Murphy triumph, but, hey, she’d been busy.

Carrying the pitcher to the reserved tables, a conquering hero bestowing spoils upon his troops, Schanke reflected that Mr. Murphy’s mysterious killing had been exactly the sort of thing to get the media drooling. Adultery! Gambling! Politics! Schanke was definitely seeing his name in the papers. Probably a magazine feature. Maybe — hey, why not? — a made-for-TV movie. Starring Michael Douglas as one Donald J. Schanke? No, Val Kilmer, definitely. Dye his hair and the resemblance would be uncanny...

“There you are!” Captain Joe Stonetree, casual in shirtsleeves and suspenders, sported one of his rare, wide grins. “The man of the hour!”

The assembled police and forensic technicians broke into applause and whistles.

Schanke nodded modestly. He set the beer and glasses on the nearest table. He basked in the appreciation of his peers, the satisfaction of a job well done for the good people of Toronto, and the anticipation of a call from Hollywood. Should he give his speech now, or save it for the police commission?

Stonetree pushed up from the armrests of a pub chair. Standing, he reached out his hand to—

—one Nicholas B. Knight. Schanke’s partner had appeared silently at his side, wearing that black leather jacket with the holes that any properly responsible adult would have patched by now. (If you don’t fix leather punctures, they just get wider. Not that Schanke hadn’t told him.)

“Good job, Knight.” Stonetree shook Nick’s hand. “The mayor called. You can bet a commendation is in the works.”

“Wait, what?” Schanke looked from the captain to Nick, who had contributed zip, zilch, nada to the Murphy effort.

When the Murphy corpse had first dropped in their laps, with not a clue as far as a telescope could see, Nick had told Stonetree that Schanke was definitely the right guy to take the lead. And then he’d congratulated Schanke on pulling the assignment. (“Don’t think that I don’t know what you just did,” Schanke had said then.) (Not for the first time.) (Or the last.)

Schanke frowned. “Where have you been?”

“I went into Jake’s of Scarborough by mistake.” Nick wrinkled his nose and shuddered slightly. “Got waylaid a bit, then had to drive back here.”

“‘Waylaid,’” Stonetree snorted. “It’s all over the news.”

Schanke’s stomach fell. His eyebrows rose. “News?”

“It’s nothing, Schank,” Nick said. “Any of us would have done the same.”

“Well, here’s to the one of us who was in the right place at the right time to do it!” Detective Dave Lipinski raised his glass. “To Nick Knight, who single-handedly disarmed the cowardly dirtbag waving a hunting rifle at a kids’ karate class!”

“The sensei was his ex-wife,” Nick told Schanke under the cheers. “If not for risking her students, she’d have put him down herself.”

“Huh.” Schanke sank into a chair. Jake’s of Scarborough (garlic fries our specialty!) (no shoes, no shirt, no service) shared a parking lot with a laundromat and a martial arts whatchamacallit— dojo, that’s right. “Good work, partner.”

As conversations up and down the tables swirled on to other topics, Schanke watched the glories of the Murphy case crumble like autumn leaves. He kissed front-page national coverage goodbye. Maybe local interest?

“I saw it on CWB.” Norma pulled out a chair for Nick and slid onto the bench by the wall. “Did you realize that a security camera was on you the whole time?”

Nick’s eyes widened.

“Oh, you looked great!” Norma patted his hand. “It was mostly your back, anyway.”

Schanke sighed. The Murphy case would be lucky to eke out a line in the police blotter with that kind of video action in the hopper.

Nick always was a bit camera-shy. But Metro PD’s golden boy would come to his senses and leap on this, if Schanke had anything to say about it. At least one of them would get a moment in the sun. Why all the moments in the sun seemed to be Nick’s, well... some guys just had all the luck. Nick, fancy-free bachelor living the dream, on the one hand: Schanke, toiling away for wife and kid and mortgage, on the other. Who said the universe didn’t play favorites?

Schanke hauled a smile into place. “Here, hero, let me pour you a beer—”

“No, thanks, Schank. I’m back on duty after this.”

“Norma?”

“I’m good.” She picked up a glass of white wine and smiled. “I’m not back on, after.”

Stonetree idly stroked his empty beer mug. “Hey, Schanke, did you know that it’s possible to push one of those wineglasses through one of these?”

“What, though the handle?” Schanke looked at Norma’s narrow-stemmed glass. Its bowl was wider than the open handle of Stonetree’s mug. So was its base. “No way.”

“Well, there’s a trick to it, of course.” Stonetree pushed his mug toward Schanke. “Take a look.”

Schanke did. Turning the glassware this way and that, the experiment attracted attention. Artie (okay, Arthur, sheesh) from forensics finished his wine and donated the empty glass to the cause. Schanke tried threading the wineglass base and stem through the beer mug’s handle. There was no way, unless…

“Is the trick breaking one?”

“Nope. Jake wouldn’t appreciate that.”

Schanke blinked. “There’s an actual Jake of Jake’s?”

“Sure. Plays the diatonic button accordion, norteño style.”

Schanke saw Nick’s eyes crinkling at the corners. “So no breaking. High-tech? Magic?”

“Nope and nope.”

“Then you’re pulling my leg, Captain.” Schanke spread his hands on the table.

“Who are you going to believe?” Stonetree’s poker face was blasting full strength. “Me, or your own eyes?”

Nick chuckled.

“Oh, I suppose you can do it, mister man-of-the-hour?” Schanke pushed the empty vessels toward Nick.

Nick looked at Stonetree.

“Sure, Knight, give it a try.” Stonetree leaned back. “Do you know this one?”

“I’m afraid I do,” Nick admitted. “Misspent youth. May I borrow your glass, Norma?”

“But I’m not done.”

“I promise not to spill a drop.” Nick set Stonetree’s beer mug and Norma’s wineglass side by side, with the glass nestled in the angle of the mug’s handle. He poured a little beer into the mug. He looked up.

“Well?” Schanke asked.

Poking a finger through the mug’s handle, Nick pushed the wineglass a few centimeters across the smooth table.

Groans and laughs erupted.

“Oh!” Norma exclaimed. “It’s a pun.”

“Push. Through.” Stonetree counted the key words on his fingers. “Told you there was a trick.”

Schanke slumped in his chair. “Good one, Captain.”

Yikes. It was one thing to be outshone in physical feats by wonder boy there, but to be laid low on mental agility by a bar bet? Maybe he was washed up. Maybe the Murphy case had been Schanke’s last hurrah, swan song, grand finale, goodbye and good luck. Maybe it was time to turn him out to pasture. Or the glue factory.

Schanke put his elbows on the table, rested his forehead on one hand, and closed his eyes.

When he looked around again, a pizza had appeared and Nick had disappeared. As Nick didn’t reappear in a reasonable period, counted in slices eaten, Schanke drifted through the restaurant until he spotted his partner at the far end of the video games. Was that last machine not like the others? Ah, yes! A few steps closer, and Schanke hearkened to a golden percussion symphony from his own misspent youth.

“You a pinball wizard, Knight?” Schanke looked over Nick’s shoulder.

“Hardly.” Nick followed a hit with an up push, but then missed a slap save when the background changed. “I don’t remember so much digital commotion on these.”

“Everything’s going the way of the computer,” Schanke commiserated. His partner seemed to have stance and cabinet control in the bag. Masterful nudging, Schanke had to admit. But modern pinball wasn’t merely mechanical. And he didn’t mean any of that zen booga-booga stuff. He watched closely.

As Nick continued, a peanut gallery grew around Schanke, some squad and some regular patrons. One dad boosted his daughter onto his shoulders to see the ball bumping back and forth.

Finally, Nick failed a death save and stepped back. Everyone clapped.

Then the machine started again. Nick’s score showed in the comparison slot at the side of the display.

“Guess I picked duel mode,” Nick said. “Anybody want to try?”

Schanke waited a second in case the little girl wanted in. Then he held up a quarter, rolled up his sleeves, and, with a subtle gander at the rules card, took Nick’s place at the flippers.

Looking up at the girl, Schanke winked, as if to say: “Watch this.” She giggled.

Aim! Hit! Backhand! Backhand! Bounce pass! Hit! Hold! Trap! Up push! Schanke couldn’t spare a glance for the score, but he could tell that his number already had as many digits as Nick’s.

“Speaking of wizards,” Nick murmured.

“Nah,” Schanke said. Hit! Hit! Hold trap! “You just gotta follow the story the machine wants to tell.” Redirect! Coming off! Hit! Hit! “The components don’t change, but the points do.” Upper flipper setup! “There’s a multiplier if you complete each quest in order.”

“Well, that’s me,” Nick said. “Out of order.”

Schanke made it through all the levels twice before he lost his last ball. “Thank you, thank you very much.” He bowed to the few die-hards who hadn’t wandered off, bored by the repetition.

Nick, at least, seemed to know what he was applauding. On both levels. Schanke appreciated that. Schanke hadn’t taken down a gunman, or puzzled out a pun, but he had darn well exhibited — besides at least intermediate proficiency by serious ‘70s pinball standards — the key investigative skill of seeing what was there, not what was expected to be there. Absolutely. Read the rules, rookies! No two games play the same, in pinball or in life.

Then the machine started again. Nick’s and Schanke’s scores showed at the side.

“Tournament mode?” Norma asked, quarter in hand. “May I?”

Aim! Hit! Hold! Hit! Suddenly, five balls flooded the playfield.

“What the—” Schanke started.

“How did you—” Nick overlapped.

Norma laughed. “It’s an 'Easter egg.'” The balls quickly escaped her, but not before she collected a bonus. “A woman in my book club discovered it by accident. They have one of these same machines where we meet.”

Schanke and Nick looked at Norma’s score. Then they looked at each other.

“Jake’s of East York?” Schanke guessed (lettuce-wrapped burgers our specialty!) (now hiring; apply directly to the manager).

“How did you know?”

“Hat trick,” Nick grinned. “Follow the pattern, like Schanke always says.”

Schanke offered Norma a high five. She met his hand, and passed a low five to Nick. They headed back up the line of video games toward their tables.

“Speaking of patterns, Schank,” Nick’s expression turned serious, “the Captain said that you hit the Murphy case out of the park today. That’s going to put a lot of minds at rest.”

Norma nodded. “It’s real closure for the family. Good job.”

“If it were up to Stonetree, that’s the kind of work that would get commendations,” Nick said. “If it were up to me, you’d be the one on TV.”

“Thanks.” Schanke was touched. “Really, thank you.”

Not that they weren’t spot on, mind. The Murphy case had been a grand slam of crackerjack interagency cooperation and virtuoso investigative procedure. No flash-in-the-pan, one-day wonder for the media, like a dirtbag with a rifle and a beef with his ex. No, the Murphy case was a serious professional accomplishment. Well worth ongoing expert attention. The whole squad would benefit from such an example. Maybe Schanke should lead a training. Maybe a city-wide seminar.

They'd have to get it on tape.

 

— end —