Home » Play Nice
Play Nice is an Elmore Leonard-style Nancy Drew story. Cassie Luna is a twenty-two-year-old woman whose fairy-tale life as a six-two WNBA star, model and health-food spokesman crashed when she was caught smuggling drugs to pay for her niece Belva’s medical needs. Now she’s being forced by Detective Stevens of the corrupt Jericho Police Department to lie to send an innocent man to jail, or face a long sentence herself, which will destroy the family she’s trying to hold together. Cassie’s always played tough but nice. But playing nice in a very dirty world of drug lords and crooked cops can get you killed.
Detective Stevens leaned across the empty metal table into Cassie’s face, and the table groaned under his weight. Cassie’s nose burned from the bleach in the Jericho Police Department interrogation room and she could feel the sweat starting to crawl down her back.
“Three strikes, Cassie. You’re not very good at this.” He ground every word into her face. “This time, it’s going to get ugly.”
Stevens was sloppy-big and intimidating and ugly himself and comfortable with all of it. Cassie planted her elbows into the table like two spears and leaned into Stevens, their faces an angry inch apart, her tangled blonde hair hanging into his face, determined to show him she was as big and as bad as he was. Between them, the battered metal table cowered like a tiny prop from an elementary school play.
“You think I can’t handle ugly? Particularly, your kind of ugly?”
He opened his mouth and tried to say something but she talked over him.
“Trust me. I can handle all the ugly you can bring.”
She kept her face hard but inside she said, Shit, girl. Don’t piss off the monsters. She knew she had a mouth, worked hard to control it, but without much luck.
Stevens leaned back and laughed and Cassie relaxed a little and leaned back herself, opening up breathing room between them.
Stevens said, “That attitude used to work for you, didn’t it? Back when you were on top of the world? Six-foot-two WNBA player and sometime model? Not so much now that you’re a piss-poor drug dealer looking at her third strike.” He paused and let that sink in. “But I’m about to give you a chance to do something you might be good at. You need my help.”
Cassie put on a big theatrical smile and twanged up her southern accent. “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers, sir. And, I’d like to thank all the kind strangers: Jericho Police Department for ruining my life with trumped-up charges, Detective Stevens who seems to think he’s the director of my life …” Then she snorted, “Only thing I need from JPD is to leave me alone and let me get on with my real life.”
Stevens raised his eyebrows and picked up the paper on his left.
“You want JPD to leave you alone with your real life of selling drugs? Let’s look at these trumped-up charges. First drug bust, they let you off light because you were a golden girl. Judge remembered you from your glory days as an All-American basketballer at Jericho University here, saw you on TV playing in the WNBA.”
Stevens waited for Cassie to argue but she didn’t.
He said, “And because you said you didn’t put that bag of drugs in that trash can at the airport, coming back to the Jericho from LA.”
She leaned back in at him. “I didn’t.”
“So you were innocent?”
She looked away.
“But they kept the conviction on the books just the same,” Stevens said. “Fired you from your WNBA gig in LA, took away the modeling contracts. Put that ugly red scar down the left side of your face when you tried to escape and left you with nowhere to go but back home here. Dropped you back into your old home town full of ogres like me.”
He waited and Cassie said nothing.
“Second time, I caught you selling,” he said. “No doubt about that one. You got probation again, but still a conviction.”
Cassie said, “You ever try to get an honest job after a drug conviction? I’ve got qualifications, but no company in town will touch me. You know I’ve got to make money.”
She slumped down in the chair. “Why the hell are we doing this? I don’t need a goddamned history lesson.”
Stevens ignored her. “Huh,” he said. He read something on the sheet twice. “Pee tests all negative. Never used your own stuff.”
He waited for her to talk and got nothing.
He smiled a full, toothy, now-I’ve-got-you smile at her. “But now, a third time arrest for dealing means you go away for a long time. You’ve never been to prison yet, have you? See how tough a sweet middle-class white girl like you will be there, people lining up to kick the shit out of you just for fun.”
They sat there in silence while he waited on her.
He gave up. “And you said it yourself, you need to be out on the street making money.”
Cassie pulled her hands away from the metal table and hoped Stevens didn’t see the sweat trail she left behind. She forced a cold smile to match his and tried to keep her voice calm.
“Bet there’s something you need from me that can make all this go away.”
“Don’t know how you could think we work that way here. This ain’t no pawn shop.” He paused and his smile grew. “Course, while I’m deciding exactly what charges to file on your ass, I could tell you a story.”
“I love stories.”
Stevens leaned back and laced his hands on top of his mountain of a stomach.
“The CEO of QBot, company that makes those little quad-helicopter drones for the Army and Homeland got killed last night, axed to death in his own home. The guy that did it was found passed out from drugs. Lying there, right on top of his victim.”
“Sounds like an easy case,” Cassie said. “Even you ought to be able to close this one. Legitimately.”
“We do everything legitimately here. But city hall wants this closed fast, with no complications.”
Cassie laughed, “Sounds like just the kind of story city hall likes, another case of a poor man killing a rich man for no good reason other than drugs. Run it on the news twice, the city fathers will take even more cops out of the poor neighborhoods and put them in fancy neighborhoods to protect the rich from the unwashed masses. That’s Jericho, these days.”
Stevens smiled, a real smile this time. “You got a cynical streak, you know it?”
Cassie said, “And JPD’s starting to use some of those drones to monitor intersections and write tickets. If I were cynical, I’d say that seeing the guy who makes those killed must piss JPD off even more.”
“I’d shoot the damned things down, if it was up to me. Hate machine cops. The turd in the punch bowl here is that the killer says he doesn’t know how he got there. Says he’s got an alibi. Says he kicked the habit, and can prove it. He’s trying to turn this thing into some kind of big conspiracy. The city fathers don’t want a conspiracy story. Don’t want anything scaring away new high-tech businesses looking for a clean city to relocate to.”
Cassie made a noise like a snort. “You know a clean city like that?”
“Papers say Jericho is it. One of the top places in the country for high-tech businesses. The city that put man on the moon, back when. Second tech boom now. Shiny new buildings, high-tech jobs—”
“Homeless veterans living under bridges, cops beating up kids who get out of line. Trumping up charges on young girls.”
Stevens said, “Have it your way, long as nobody reads those stories. And the Chamber of Commerce and the Mayor don’t want to read about this one.”
“The Mayor can read?”
Stevens leaned hard on the table again and the tired metal bitched a groan back. “The killer’s Ron Lyle. Cokehead. Customer of yours. If you were to come forward, good citizen that you are, and testify that you sold him a little blow last night about two a.m., somewhere down in that end of town, mention that he was pretty strung out and needed money to buy more.”
“I haven’t sold to Ron in three months.” She paused and added, “If I sold.”
Stevens shrugged. “So he’s buying from someone else. Can’t help it if you can’t hold on to your customers.”
He leaned back again. “Well, if you were to come forward, that might make this one of those happy-ending stories where the cops have a slam-dunk case and no one listens to the ravings of a coke-mad killer. And this,” he held up the sheet with the hand-written arrest report on it, “might just disappear.” He laughed. “Think of it as community service to your beloved home town.”
“Huh,” snorted Cassie. It was a short, ugly sound.
“You know,” said Stevens, “some people don’t like that sound that you make all the time, think it sounds like you think you’re smarter than them, don’t even have to give them a whole word.”
Cassie waved him away. “And if my story doesn’t check out and they add perjury charges on top, you’ll be there to protect me?”
“You got a hundred other ways to frame people, ‘specially on an easy case like this. You don’t need me. This doesn’t add up.”
Stevens leaned in and smiled. “Like throwing away a charmed life by smuggling drugs you don’t even use doesn’t add up.” He leaned back. “It’s a gift, Cassie. Take it.” He held up the paper. “Or take door number two.”
Cassie looked up at the ceiling like she was thinking about it but they both knew there was nothing to think about.
“You’re sure Ron Lyles did this?” she said. Stevens nodded and Cassie laughed at him. “Like JPD was sure I was guilty on that first bust?”
“Like I was sure on the second bust,” said Stevens.
Cassie looked away. Stevens paused and studied her, sad and sure, like a father catching a favorite daughter lying again. She looked back, caught his eyes, and Stevens turned his eyes cold and went on. “We both were. And you still haven’t thanked me for dropping the assaulting an officer charge on that one.”
Cassie met his eyes for a moment and then looked away at the wall.
“I want to talk to Ron, see if there’s anything there to trip me up.”
“Knock yourself out. Tomorrow’s Sunday. Come back to me then so I can have this wrapped up by Monday or I’m coming looking for you with this.” He waved the arrest report at her and stood up and opened the door.
“You can’t run from me, Cassie. I’m the biggest and the baddest around. And we both know you’re going nowhere.”
She glared up at him from her chair, Stevens towering over her.
“You ever remember, Stevens, how you got into this business to be the good guy?”
He still smiled, but his eyes were dark. “Trying to do the right thing can get you in bad, can’t it?”
“I don’t remember.”
Stevens stepped back and opened the door and stood in it. Cassie stood up, feeling unsteady, but made the effort to saunter up to him, push into his space and stand eye to eye with him.
“Tomorrow,” she said.
Stevens still stood in the door.
“Get the fuck out of my way,” she said.
Stevens laughed, shifted just enough, and Cassie brushed by him like he was nothing. She marched down the hall with her head up and her eyes hard like she was large and in charge. She passed a rookie patrolman and glared at him until the rookie looked down to see if he had something undone.
Cassie got in her old white postal service truck and drove down the street to the parking lot of a long-closed motel with fearful eyes peering out from the holes where doors and windows had been. She cried until the shaking stopped and she could clean herself up enough to go back.
She felt ashamed of herself for crying and didn’t know why.
“Not in Kansas anymore, little girl,” she said to the mirror, like her college coach used to tell her when he needed more out of her. “Man up.”
Clicked her heels three times but nothing changed.