«Lieutenant.»

«Sir.»

«Please have a seat.»

Stark sat on the closest armchair in front of the Commander's desk. The Commander stood up, walked to the window behind his desk, and waited.

Stark hadn't liked the idea of a meeting with the Commander right from the beginning, and he liked the wait even less. He shifted position, uncomfortably.

«Do you read the newspapers, Lieutenant.»

No, fatass, I have better things to do with my time. Like squashing crimes. «Not for leisure, sir.» The Commander dropped his head, pensive, but didn't reply. Stark continued «I prefer quicker ways to be up to date with the news, sir, like the radio and the television.» Still no response. «I do have a couple of heads in my team that peruse the newspaper for work, sir, to look for hints and clues that might have escaped us.»

The Commander nodded «Ah, smart choice, Lieutenant, smart choice. Sometimes journalists can see things in a different light, and that can help us indeed. Even when they ramp up some allegations, some useful truth may be hidden in them, couldn't it? Good job with your men, Lieutenant.» Silence again «So, you don't read the newspapers.»

I thought I already replied to that question, fatass «Not habitually, sir.»

«You see, Lieutenant, I think you should have a look at them, from time to time. See this, for example.» The Commander turned, picked a newspaper from a pile that was standing on the left corner of his desk, and slapped it in front of the Lieutenant. Stark picked it up, while the Commander continued. «You made the first page, apparently. And not in the best of ways.»

IRON-FISTED POLICEMAN BEATS YOUNG COLLEAGUE TO A PULP

Stark bit his lip, as the Commander continued: «You know best of all what happened two days ago, Lieutenant. As it happens, there were people around —luckily for the controller, if you allow me— and they could overhear the last bits of your … conversation with him. A little impudent, wasn't he? He surely overstepped a few boundaries, didn't he?»

«Sir, yes, sir.»

«But we have ways to deal with that, yes? Insubordination and all that stuff. We have procedure.»

«Sir, yes, sir.»

«Which you didn't follow.»

«Sir, no, sir.»

«Shall we say you … overreacted, maybe, Lieutenant? Regardless of what the controller could have said to you, provoked or unprovoked, your reaction was maybe a little out of bounds? What would you say?»

«It might have been, sir.»

The Commander nodded again. «Yes, it was a little excessive. And to make it worse, the news made the rounds, kicked you in the front page. Not the best way to get famous, is it?»

«Sir, no, sir.»

«You see, Lieutenant, the controller here was very much liked. I think he mentioned he was the best controller we ever had, yes, during your conversation? Well, he's right. We have the numbers to prove it, even just by comparing his turns with the time when he's off duty. He does a very good job.»

«Sir, he's just a controller. He just calls the number, sir.»

«Oh, indeed, Lieutenant. But he's damn good at it, much better than anybody else. And we don't judge people by the job they do, Lieutenant, do we? We judge them by how well we do it. And he did his job very well.»

«Sir …»

«Please, Lieutenant, I'm not finished. When he is calling the numbers, as you call it, everything goes smoothly. Maybe he's just lucky, maybe it's just that the others fancy him, because he's so young or who knows why. You see, Lieutenant, that controller is very much liked here. We can't say that your … dispute with him would have made you win a popularity contest, if there was one around here, would it?»

«Probably not, sir.»

«Good, I see we're on the same wavelength here. That's very good, Lieutenant. Now, just out of curiosity, why did you call for him? What was all the discussion about?»

«Sir, I believed I saw something odd in the CC recordings surrounding the bombing of my car, sir.»

«Something odd pertaining the controller, Lieutenant?»

Suddenly, Stark felt a little stupid about the whole affair.

«Lieutenant.»

«Sir, yes, sir. He … he just happened to duck at the same time as the explosion, sir. Quite the coincidence, wouldn't you think?»

«Ah, very odd, very odd indeed. You mean, like he was expecting something?»

«That was my impression, sir.»

«Quite the accusation, Lieutenant. You believe he might have been involved with the bombing?»

«I don't know, sir. I did believe he might have been aware of it, though.»

«And what did the controller have to say about it?»

«He … he mentioned that he had heard the threat that came through our radio, sir.»

«Ah. Of course. Him being the controller, this would be a plausible explanation, wouldn't it?»

«It could be, sir. It was delivered in a, shall I say, unfriendly tone, sir. This, I might have felt provoked by, sir.»

«Ah, I see. Of course, having just survived a bombing, not the most relaxing experience, is it.»

«No, sir.»

«Yet, the explanation could be checked, yes? We have audio recordings from the controller station as well, don't we.»

«Yes, sir. I didn't have the idea to check them out though, sir.»

«Of course, of course. The bombing of one of our cars is definitely not something to overlook, every clue must be considered. I will pass the suggestion over to the team that is looking into it.»

«Thank you, sir.»

Silence dropped in the office. The Commander stood still, leaning against the desk.

«Will that be all, sir?» Stark asked, when his patience had run over.

«No, Lieutenant, I'm afraid that's not all there is about it. Please have a look at the newspaper.» Stark picked it up, as the Commander continued «Apparently, they weren't satisfied with the front page news. There's a whole service about you, Lieutenant. Those journalists, they got quite busy around here. Asked a lot of question. Collected a lot of data —only data we could officially provide, of course. Now, if you would indulge me, on page three of that same newspaper you'll find an interesting chart, Lieutenant. Apparently, they took the liberty of benchmarking your work.»

«Quite the liberty, sir, if I may say so.»

«Quite the liberty indeed, Lieutenant. Yet, I find that chart interesting, Lieutenant. You know why?»

«Hm, it's downwards, sir.»

«Indeed it is, Lieutenant. And you know what that means? It means that —according to the press— you're slipping. You have had a brilliant career so far, Lieutenant, wouldn't you say?»

«Sir, yes, sir. Thank you, sir.»

«No need to be modest about it, Lieutenant. Credit where credit is due. I must say that I, personally, was never too happy about some of your strategies, Lieutenant, but I must concur that they have been quite effective in solving a number of cases. Sometime good manners don't get you very far, do they? And an iron fist is better to crack some nuts, isn't it?»

«I believe so, sir.»

«Indeed you do, Lieutenant, indeed you do. And you've got the numbers to prove it. And see, this is where that chart comes in and throws new light on the matter, Lieutenant. Apparently, there's such a thing as too much of an iron fist. And I'm not talking about the controller, here, Lieutenant. I'm talking about cases. Apparently, the press has done some impressive research on that account.»

«With all due respect, sir, the press doesn't know» shit «anything about my cases.»

«Oh, but that's where you're wrong, Lieutenant. They do, they know an amazing lot about them. Not just yours, mind you, but more in general about everything we do here. Sometimes I'm surprised myself, they seem to know how things are run around here better than me. And I don't like that, I'll say, I don't like that one little bit. But maybe it's just that an outsider perspective helps them see things in a different light, see different things. And the press has a formidable memory, a memory that sometimes seems even better than our own. They manage to dig up things from who knows where and tie them together in impressive ways. Not always correct, but nevertheless impressive.»

Stark was a little confused by the speech. At times, the Commander seemed to drift out of the main course into some side-rant, and that required some energy to stop and bring the discourse back on track. The Commander paused, breathed in, then continued:

«But let's stay on topic, shall we. So these journalists thought they could evaluate your performance in solving a number of cases. And given the topic of the discussion —your iron fist, to say— they thought they could even decide when your iron fist was necessary and when it was sufficient, when it was unnecessary, down to when it was actually counterproductive. Funny, isn't it, that they could think themselves able to evaluate your work like this.»

«Funny indeed, sir.» But Stark didn't find it funny. He found it preposterous.

«Yet it's true what they say about a fistful of sand, Lieutenant, isn't it? The stronger your grasp, the less sand remains in your hand. Sometimes, a lighter touch can do miracles.» Silence «Do you agree, Lieutenant?»

«There are such cases, sir.» but he didn't sound too convinced, nor he was.

«Indeed there are, Lieutenant. Like with the controller, for example.»

«Yes, sir.» OK, I got it. I thought we were over that, too.

«Or with Mollica.»

For the first time in his adult life, Stark felt the cold sweats of fear.

«When your car was bombed you had just come back from trying to get your hands on a Mr. Vincent Mollica, nicknamed ‘Quippy’, where you not?»

«So I was, sir.»

«And did you manage to apprehend the individual, Lieutenant?»

«I … I believe I did, sir.»

«So you did. Yet with the blast that blew up your car, you were the only survivor, and everybody else inside was just blown to smithereens. Quite tragic.»

«Tragic indeed, sir.»

Silence again. Then the Commander spoke again:

«Did you ever consider that the bomb might have been set up during your visit downtown?»

«I would find that hard to believe, Sir. Me and my men never left the whereabouts of the car, nobody got close, sir.»

«I believe you underestimate the technology possessed by some of the criminals living there, Lieutenant.»

«Sir?»

«You see, Lieutenant, we just happened to have received a video that seems to have been recorded where and when you went to apprehend Vincent Mollica.» Oh, shit. «Incredible stuff. High definition, night visibility, really incredible stuff. Even more incredible, it seems to have been recorded from a very close location to where you were standing. I'll show it to you.»

The Commander pulled the curtains, locked the door, and turned on the projector, lowering the volume so that no sound from the video would be heard beyond the walls of the office.

Stark saw himself shouting at a crowd, ordering his men to drag a man in front of him, shooting the man in his mouth blowing half his head off, shouting again at a commenter from the crowd —and this time the commenter voice was surprisingly loud and clear— and finally facing the commenter himself —staring straight at the camera— while the news about Vincent Mollica was delivered to him. The video ended with his car rolling out of sight.

Right in front him. Smartass #2 had video cameras implanted in his glasses. Fuck.

The Commander turned off the projector, pulled the curtain open again.

«Quite some stuff, uh? And that's actually a … ah, what did he call it … interpolated video or something. Apparently the original feed is in stereovision. The technician —mind you, a person I have the most profound trust in, he knows when to keep his mouth shut— said that with time and the right tools a lot of analysis can be done with the video and sound from this recording.»

The Commander turned again at Stark, that hadn't moved from his position, turned against the wall against which the video had been projected. Stark was unusually pale, and both his hands were clenched into fists.

«So for the time being, nobody knows about this video, but me and you. And we want to keep it this way, don't we, Lieutenant?»

Stark unclenched his fists, but his breathing was heavy and uncontrolled.

«Lieutenant.»

«Sir. Yes, sir.»

«Especially since if it was known that you had killed Mollica —like that, moreover— someone might even suspect that you bombed your car yourself.»

«What!?»

«Relax, Lieutenant, I'm not saying that you did. But think about it, it makes perfect sense: you make a big blunder like this, your car blows up and not only you are the only survivor, but the others are reduced in such a condition that no mortician would be able to tell the guy's head had been already blown off. All traces of your blunder —wiped out, like that.»

Stark was stymied.

«Honestly,» the Commander continued «I find this idea absurd. I'm more prone to believe that the bomb was set up during your brief stay there, with some mechanical trick to pass unobserved while you were distracted. Maybe this accident was all a set up. Who knows, maybe even the whole Vincent Mollica thing was a way to bait you. But that's not the point, Lieutenant. You know perfectly well that Vincent Mollica was our only lead in the Tailgate case.»

«Yes, sir.»

«And even if the bombing put the closing seal on our chances to get anything from Vincent Mollica, it can't be said that you handled the whole thing as it would have been expected.»

«I understand, sir.» Stark started to see where the whole discussion was going.

«There's more, and it's the worst. Have a look here.» the Commander picked up the newspaper and shove it in Stark's hand, pointing at a specific paragraph.

“… his latest blunder being the loss of an important lead in a top-secret case, nicknamed Tailgate …”

«How the hell do they get this information?» Stark blasted.

«Ah, that would be an excellent question, and rest assured that we'll find the leak. But that's not your concern, Lieutenant.»

«Sir?»

«You must realize that Tailgate is a very delicate case. You know what's involved.»

A fatass senator whose daughter prefers to be a stripper in the worst part of town than marry some pompous fatass son of a fatass like you «Yes, sir.»

«I cannot allow any more slip-ups in this case, Lieutenant.»

«There won't be, sir.»

«No, there won't be because I'm taking the case off your hands.» Stark was flabbergasted. «You're slipping, Lieutenant. You're slipping badly. I'm sending you on vacation. You're over-worked and over-stressed. You over-react, and you make big, blatant mistakes. You're relieved from duty until you calm down and grow back to your sense.»

«Sir! Please, sir, no, … I … this is my whole life, you can't take it away from me, please sir, please, I won't slip up again. There will be no more mistakes, sir, please.»

«No, Lieutenant, and that's final.» Suddenly, the Commander voice grew softer. «Listen, son, don't take it this badly. You really need a vacation. Get on the road, see places, meet people. Find yourself a nice woman. It'll do miracles for you. And you'll come back stronger than ever.»

«Sir.» Stark stood up, holding his tears in. That paternal final talk was even worse than everything that had come before. He was disgusted.

«That'll be all, Lieutenant. Dismissed.»

Stark saluted, and left the office.