A RIGHT TO THE CEREBELLUM
My partner Detective Bill Weatherby never called in sick, so when he was out Monday, I called him. Other than the effects of too many cigarettes, he didn’t sound sick at all, but he said we weren’t spring chickens anymore and had to listen to our bodies.
“Bill,” I said. “We’re both on the wrong side of 50. If we start listening to our bodies now, we’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Just remember what I said.”
My gut said something was wrong. When he didn’t come in on Tuesday, I called again, but his phone was off. After my shift I showed up at his apartment, but he didn’t answer my knock. I thought about breaking the door down, but I didn’t want to wake him up if he was sleeping.
Wednesday morning I stared at his empty desk for about two seconds, then stormed into the Chief Pelia Boskin’s office.
“What’s going on with Weatherby?” I asked over the hum of her cranked up air conditioning. Boskin eyed me as if I was the black sheep in a family of albinos.
“Take a seat, Hardwick,” she said brusquely. For once, I was way ahead of her. Pictures of Boskin with the mayor, business leaders, and even the President lined her wall. She was everything Weatherby and I hated in a chief: focused on numbers, power hungry, and obsessed with cleaning up the squad so it couldn’t do its job. She also had a trim figure and weathered blonde attractiveness that confused me. I didn’t like being confused.
“I was just about to call you in. Have you heard of Nick Stokes?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Is he a country singer?” I was one country song away from breaking a steel guitar over my knee.
“No, he’s a thought boxer and a major dealer of Decidrin.”
“Oh.” I’d heard about thought boxing, where two fighters duked it out mentally, their thoughts projected into avatars. People watched it in the privacy of their computers and bet on the outcome. It was another fad, but then, if you lived long enough, everything was a fad. As for Decidrin, I’d seen its effects on kids. They liked to take it after they’d broken up with someone, or they needed to focus on a test or a job interview. Take too much of it though and you turned into HAL in 2001, after half his files were yanked out. Criminals liked it too because it made it easier to hold out in an interrogation room. The one good thing about that was, because of its effectiveness, entrapment laws had been loosened.
“Weatherby’s disappeared while he was running a sting on Stokes,” Boskin continued. “We hauled in Stokes and grilled him, but he’s not talking.”
“How come I didn’t know anything about this?”
She leaned back in her swivel chair, which squeaked. “You were out canvassing on the Ortiz case.”
That had taken me upstate, to interview friends and relatives of a prime murder suspect. Not only did they know nothing about the suspect, but they also forgot how to speak English or Spanish. So I was conveniently out of the office all day.
“I talked to Weatherby on Monday. He said he was sick.”
“We conducted the sting on a need-to-know basis.”
Need-to-know was one of her favorite adjectives. Weatherby never would have willingly kept me in the dark, but we had to choose our battles. We were looking at retirement and pension in a couple of years. No way a short-timer like Boskin was going to ruin it.
“Let me talk to Stokes,” I said.
“You will, but not in the conventional way.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re going to fight him in a thought boxing match.”
I guffawed, and thought I could see my breath. “I would, but I’m busy training for the ultra-triathalon.”
Her face hardened. “You’ve been a cop for so long, you think you know everything, but you don’t. Stokes controls his emotions for a living. In the interrogation room he’s on his guard.”
“So we go after him on his own turf? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Yes, it does. In a thought boxing match, he won’t expect our motives. We won’t try to win. We just want him to blurt out anything we can use to find Weatherby. Once we get that, you can throw the match.” She leaned forward. “I don’t like you, Hardwick, but a cop’s life is at stake, and you’re one of our best interrogators.”
“Why don’t you just hire a real thought boxer?”
“We have, to give you a crash course.”
Normally, I’d suspect this was a plot to make a humiliating Christmas party video. It also crossed my mind that Boskin would like nothing better than for two critics like me and Weatherby to disappear. I couldn’t let that happen. “I’ll talk to the thought boxer. Is Stokes any good?”
Boskin shrugged. “He’s undefeated, but that’s based on only four fights. The thing about these guys, and as often as not, women, is they have to keep changing their identity so opponents can’t learn their personal secrets.”
“Sounds like a pretty dumb sport. How are fans supposed to develop any emotional attachment?”
“It’s like dog racing. Most people never heard of the dog.”
“What if he doesn’t agree to fight me?” I asked.
“He already has. Stokes is addicted to Decidrin. He’ll fight anyone his manager signs up, as long as the money is right. Of course, we didn’t know if you’d agree, but since we’re giving our fighter a stage name anyway, we didn’t need to wait.”
“When would my training start?”
“Immediately,” Boskin said, her fake smile spread across her face like a banner. “Dessa Dart is waiting for you in interrogation room B.”
Boskin was always one step ahead of me.
“So what’s my name?”
I expected, or maybe just wanted, a long-legged, muscule-bound young beauty. Instead, Dessa Dart was short, round like haystack, with clipped hair. She rose from the interrogation table to shake hands. Despite her plain appearance, she had a winning smile and positive energy rarely found in the stripped-down room.
“So, we have 34 hours to make a thought boxer out of you,” she said.
“Or not,” I said. “I’ll let you know at the end of our session.”
First we focused on questions Stokes might throw at me. It was like a confession to a priest turned upside-down. Instead of passively listening to my sins, Dessa attacked them, as well as every vulnerable aspect of my life. The fact that I’d never married or had kids, the shooting death of a previous partner, the difference between my ideals and the realities of being a cop; all were fodder for Dessa, who’d been well briefed. Even though it was just us, I felt humiliated. I couldn’t tell if it was sweat or tears in my eyes. After an hour, we took a break.
“How are you holding up?” she asked.
“Like the target at a pie-throwing contest.”
She patted me on the back. “Get used to it. I want you to think about these things so much that by tomorrow you won’t even feel the emotions.”
“Usually, I just toss my emotions into a locked box.”
“Stokes will be looking for the key to that box. If he finds it, we want to minimize the damage. Of course, he won’t have access to your personal history like I do. Keep him off balance with questions of your own, and he won’t get it.” She handed me a folder marked Nick Stokes. It wasn’t very thick. “Study this for an hour, and we’ll go at it again. It’s mostly speculative, but it’s a foundation of questions to start with. We know Stokes is a dealer and user of Decidrin, he has no family, and that he was brought into the station yesterday. That’s your entry to his inner world.”
“So I attack him on his stunted emotional and personal life, his addiction, his ruining of young lives, and his being a poor role model. It doesn’t seem like much to go on, especially if he’s an amoral bastard.”
Dessa sighed. “It’s what we’ve got. Let’s get to work.”
We verbally sparred for another two hours. It wasn’t quite as trying, since half the time Dessa had to answer my questions. By the time we stopped, I remained skeptical. Dessa merely pretended to be Stokes, so she wouldn’t be emotionally touched by anything I said. She anticipated that, however, and gave me another folder, this one with her name on it. It contained a picture of her avatar, which looked like a full-bodied, long-haired Amazon. Then we watched a video of one of her past fights, where she polished off another impossibly muscular woman. The thump of each connecting punch, the stomp of an approaching fighter, and the spring when someone got slammed against the ropes were all amplified. The graphics were equally important, blood liberally spouting from the more significant punches. At the bottom of the screen, the text of each question and answer appeared for a few seconds, then vanished for the next set.
Finally, we hooked up to an online training package. We each attached a tiny brain link to the pain centers of our skulls, then fought each other. Each time a question hit home, its receiver’s head got zapped. I started by attacking her real appearance, then floundered a bit until I discovered she had once been abused by an uncle. I felt weird pursuing that, but she insisted. When I stopped I felt as bad about my questions as I did about my answers. But not as bad as Weatherby must have felt, wherever he was.
“So, are you in on this?” she asked when we were done.
“I’m in,” I said. What choice did I have?
That night I found Stokes’s website, called “Think Again.” It included a scowling picture, a brief fight history, and contact information, and basically, nothing I didn’t already know. I needed an edge, so I called Felix Craspo, one of the small-time drug dealers who paid me and Weatherby to look the other way.
“I don’t know anything about thought boxing,” he whined in his nasal voice.
“You know Decidrin. Did you ever buy any from Nick Stokes?”
“Never heard of him.”
“That’s his boxing name. He probably uses a different name when he’s ripping people off.” I paused for emphasis. Guys like Craspo needed their dialogues annotated. “It would make me happy if you looked into him.”
“Think about how unhappy I’ll be if you don’t.”
He gave me his own silent treatment, then said, “I’ll get back to you.”
He hung up. Out of curiosity I called Weatherby’s cell again and got his clipped message: “Not here. Leave a message.” He’d given me the number of a woman he’d been seeing for six months, in case of an emergency. I figured this qualified, but she knew less than I did. He’d told her he was going out of town on an undercover mission.
Around 11 PM Craspo got back to me.
“This guy is a cipher. Most thought boxers are, but this one even more so.”
“What do you mean?”
“I couldn’t confirm any of his four fights. And there’s nothing on the guys he defeated. I think the fights are phonies.”
I called Boskin.
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing if the fights didn’t happen,” she said. “The less experience he has, the better for us. Then again, for all we know, he could have fought a hundred fights under different names.”
“So why list four phony ones?”
“That’s something you could ask him during the fight.”
I wondered if maybe I should get hold of some Decidrin for myself, but decided against it after a couple of blank-eyed kids popped into my mind.
Me, Dessa, and Boskin sat in interrogation room A at 8:30 PM the next night. Projected on our wall-spanning monitor were avatars of myself and Nick Stokes, frozen in mid-glare in the center of the ring. Mine had a baby face and bristly hair while Stokes resembled an unsmiling, lean character from a 90’s cop show. The monitor showed about three hundred people in the audience, though a number at the bottom of the screen showed that eighty times that were watching at home online. The referee introduced us, calling Nick Stokes as “the terror of Trenton” and me “a hungry newcomer from New York City.” He explained the rules, but I wasn’t really paying attention, until he mentioned that a lie detector would pick up any out-and-out evasions, resulting in a penalty.
I looked at Dessa. “You have to tell the truth? You didn’t tell me that.”
“Don’t worry. It’s verbal truth, which covers a lot of ground.”
“But the ref said lie detectors. That measures emotions, not verbal truth.”
She reached to pat my shoulder, but stopped short. “Stokes is the criminal. He’s the one that has something to hide, and we have to find it out. I’ll be hooked up to you, so I’ll feel what you feel, but unless it’s absolutely necessary, I don’t plan on saying anything except between rounds.” As I was the challenger, Stokes got to ask the first two questions. I would answer, then ask two questions of my own, and it alternated. We attached our brain implants and waited.
The bell sounded, and the two avatars circled each other.
“First fight?” Stokes had a Jersey twang, with a touch of weariness. I was surprised to be hit with a “yes or no” question.
“Yes,” I said, anxious for the next question.
“Why did you get into this racket?”
“I wanted to learn some things.”
An abrasive-sounding buzzer rang. “Vague answer,” an electronic voice said. “Clarify.” My avatar swung at Stoke’s head and missed.
I had to be careful. If my next answer was deemed unspecific, Stokes would be awarded a point. A lie would do the same thing. “I’m doing it for a friend. He’s having some difficulty and what I get from this match will help him.” I waited, but the buzzer didn’t go off. My answer was acceptable. It was my turn to ask a question. I went for the virtual jugular.
“In the past six months, what’s the longest you’ve gone without taking Decidrin?”
“I take it every day.” Again, I noticed the weariness that seemed to say, “I’d like to sleep for a thousand years.”
“Could you describe how your performance in the ring would diminish without the drug?”
The crowd oohed as I’d accidentally asked a “yes or no” question. Now I had to wait until my next pair of questions. This was shown in the ring as my avatar threw a left cross that Stokes effortlessly blocked. Dessa had warned me not to watch the fight too closely, and I turned away. As promised, she said nothing, her eyes glued to the match. I would have preferred some feedback other than my doubting voice.
“What’s your main source of income?” Stokes asked.
If I revealed that, it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out why I was fighting Stokes. This was where my inexperience cost me. Stokes was a veteran thought boxer and knew the line between specifics and generalities. “I work for the city.” The vague buzzer rang again. I’d have to keep answering until I came up with something acceptable, or until I fell ten points behind, in which case the match would be called and we would be no wiser about Weatherby’s whereabouts.
“I work in law enforcement.” That got through, but at what cost?
“How are you currently betraying the ideals that made you go into law enforcement?” he asked
I felt a sharp pain in my skull. My avatar’s head snapped back from a vicious right. The graphics department went into overdrive as blood splattered onto the mat. The crowd was getting stirred up. Someone yelled, “Finish him off!” Typical. I was the good guy and they were cheering a dealer.
“Five seconds,” the ref announced.
Christ. Anyone in a profession long enough would be forced to compromise his ideals. I was supposed to get Stokes to question his effectiveness in his occupation and he had me fighting my doubts.
“One point penalty for delay of fight.”
The crowd cheered. Enjoy it while you can, I thought. You’re going to be disappointed when I crack your champion, then throw the fight.
“It’s easy to be idealistic before you start a job,” I said. “Especially one as difficult as police work. In thirty years, though I’ve helped some people and put others behind bars, I’ve seen poverty and crime increase. This has led me to question how much of a difference I’ve made.”
I hoped the last sentence would make my generalities more palatable to the referee. It worked. A bell in my head signified it was my turn to question.
“How do you think your performance in the ring would diminish if you didn’t use Decidrine?” The moment I asked it, I wondered if I should’ve asked something different, as Stokes had been waiting on this for the past minute. It was a good question though because it implied he was a user without waiting for him to admit it.
“Decidrine shuts down emotion transmitters so its users can think rationally. As thought boxing is won or lost on the ability of its participants to control their emotional responses to questions, anyone’s performance would be enhanced by its use.”
He could have gotten that from the net. I had just lobbed it over the plate. I needed something to throw Stokes off.
“How do you feel about having no family?”
It was a shot in the dark that connected. It seemed Stokes took more than the allotted ten seconds to start answering. It was not possible that the electronic referee would be biased, or was it?
“I sometimes regret that I’ve yet to marry and have children,” he said finally. “But thought boxing and family don’t mix. In one, emotions are a liability. In the other they’re a necessity. It’s like being a cop.“
The bell rang for the end of round one.
Boskin stared at me as if she was measuring my skull. I wanted to say, “What are you looking at?” but instead I turned to Dessa, who still faced the screen, her upright hands pressed together. “I could have used some of your expertise.”
“You’re feeling each other out. It’s early. Stay on your guard. At some point there will be an opening, and we go for it.”
“He has to tell the truth,” I said. “Why don’t I just ask him what he did with Weathersby?”
Boskin’s face tightened. “He would throw the fight rather than tell us that. The only way we’ll get anything useful is to make him vulnerable.”
The bell clanged for the second round.
Stokes asked about how being a cop affected my family. I gave a standard answer about how the hours were long and unpredictable, and the harshness of the job had probably kept me from marrying. I braced for the next question.
“Who are some of the drug dealers you are blackmailing?” Stokes asked.
I heard two thuds, the dull sound of the Stokes glove connecting on a face punch, and the more thunderous sound of my avatar crashing to the canvas. Blood from the punch shot up like fireworks. The referee started the ten count. The crowd urged Stokes to finish me off.
How had he known about that? There had been nothing but the faintest of rumors. If I answered this question, my career was finished. If I didn’t, the fight was over, and so was our best chance to find Weatherby.
“I’m not blackmailing any dealers,” I said without thinking. My avatar pulled itself to his feet as the referee reached eight. A hard buzz indicated I was lying.
“Fighter will answer truthfully,” the ref said.
Stokes’s question could have been a shot in the dark, but the more I thought about it, the only way Weatherby wouldn’t have clued me in on this sting is if Boskin had threatened him with something bad. Maybe he was in trouble, or maybe all this time, the sting had been for me. Yes, I was a compromised cop, and a compromised human being. Who wasn’t after a certain point? You live to be a certain age and right and wrong get blurred. Regardless, I couldn’t help Weatherby or myself if I admitted to being a dirty cop. “You win, Stokes. Good luck with your next identity.”
Stokes didn’t back into his corner, however. Instead, he kept talking.
“You received three deposits of ten thousand dollars this month into an account for an Alfred Abbott that’s been traced to you. Where did they come from?”
“Go fuck yourself,” I said, while the ref remained strangely silent.
“Was it from drug dealers you were blackmailing?”
“That’s three questions. This fight is over,” I said.
“Your career is over. We invented Stokes.” The voice was Chief Boskin’s.
I watched my avatar fall to the canvas with a thump. I’d been out-thought. The crowd hissed and shouted in confusion, while Boskin faced me flat on like a headstone. Come what may, I will haunt her.
Food for Thought
With this story I tried to riff on the idea of how the boundaries between right and wrong blur as one gets older. Hardwick feels that over the years as a cop he’s had to compromise his ideals to get things done. This causes a conflict when he comes up against a superior determined to clean up her department according to her more detached view of right and wrong.
About the Author
Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living in Vermont, USA, with his wife and beagle. His short stories have appeared in “Fantasy Scroll Mag,” “Perihelion Science Fiction,” “Penumbra,” and other semi-pro markets. His collection Walden Planet and Other Stories is available in paperback and eBook on Amazon. His hobbies besides reading and writing are playing the piano, jogging, and fighting the good fight against middle age. Though he lived in Brazil for eight years, he is still a lousy soccer player.
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