You have to work hard to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day. Chain smoking is an art, one that I learned in college. I’m way past my form. I can do maybe three packs on a good day. Most of the time it’s just two. Of course, my style is cramped by the various laws that have come around since college. I remember the days when you could go just about anywhere but movies and elevators, and smoke to your heart’s content.
I’m lucky in my job. In fact, from what I understand, my “charism” seems to be finding easy jobs without trying. This was by far my easiest job yet. I had been appointed by the Sheriff, who was all-powerful and unquestioned. He didn’t really care about the work I was supposed to be doing. I wasn’t supposed to really achieve anything. But it had to look like I was trying, so there was a sort of tacit understanding that I would spend a lot of money. I was a sort of lightning rod – I was well-paid to take a lot of heat from the people I was supposed to be serving. I didn’t mind. That’s not the sort of thing that gets to me.
My official title was “Deputy for Cultural Relations.” That was my first task on the job. “Think up your title,” Sheriff Birmingham told me, and boy did he laugh when I came up with the old “D.C.R.” “That’ll get ‘em!” he said, and he was right. They shuffled me off to every committee meeting and community action group that was known to the Knoxville Sheriff’s Office. And believe me, there were a lot of them. There was some sort of Citizen’s Review Board that met to second-guess the actions of the deputies. I was the sacrificial lamb offered up to the Board, and they ate me at every meeting and never seemed to marvel that I was served up again at the next. I was a perpetual feast. I was snubbed by City Councilmen at every summer picnic in South Knoxville, sneered at during obligatory calls at the Middle Schools, mocked, insulted, and generally despised.
But those, of course, were the people I was supposed to be serving. The people I really served were within the Sheriff’s Office, and if they didn’t exactly love me (having seen the extravagances of my office and expense account), they got it pretty quick. They knew that I was there to take heat off of them, and that it was working. So I got to pal around with the deputies, drive a cop car, and take advantage of those little amenities that make police life bearable. All without actually being a cop.
There were (and are) a whole mess of people like me in police departments across the country. From the guy who takes fingerprints and mugshots to the various secretaries and assistants, there’s a whole world of proxy-cops who don’t have to do the real dirty work but get to play policeman in their spare time.
I was a little different in that I was sworn in. There was some sort of mumbo-jumbo about my lack of police training and education, and I had to attend various courses at the local academy, qualify on the firing range, and sit through interminable downloads of relevant law. Frankly, most of the crap I had to swallow was directly applicable to my job as keeper of the peace for the keepers of the peace. In the end, I was appointed because Sheriff Birmingham wanted me appointed.
So there I was in my office in the City-County building. A nice big office overlooking the muddy expanse of the Tennessee River, right where it narrows and constricts to plod its way through downtown. The only thing I hated about my office were the ancient tilt-out windows; if you were trying to be polite, you had to lean down to blow smoke up and out of the window. In theory, the whole building was non-smoking, but like most laws and regulations, it was really intended as an excuse to punish the poor slobs waiting in the lobby for their lawyers.
I would have vastly preferred an office back at the Sheriff’s Detention Facility, where most of the fun guys were. Instead of the morning hassle, parking garage, and views of nondescript brick boxes, you had a great complex of beautiful suites overlooking a golf course, a nice country drive, and a great cafeteria.
As I’ve said, I have a knack for finding good jobs, particularly jobs that I am in no way qualified for. The DCR job was the pinnacle of my lucky streak. I had been recruited in by the Sheriff, directly from my job as Director of Human Resources for Harvey’s Meats, a fairly big local food distributor with close ties to the mayor’s office. I frankly was nearing the end of my rope in that job. There was an ever-increasing pressure from various federal and state regulations which meant that most of my time was spent shuffling between conferences and seminars, and leading committee meetings on determining costs and risk of noncompliance. I had been in that job about a year, and there were pretty good odds that I would have been canned for one reason or another, so the opportunity to jump ship was a welcome one.
Way, way back in my past I had gotten my degrees in history and philosophy from the University of Tennessee, a feat I had accomplished after only eight years as an undergraduate. My lucky streak started when, to my eternal amazement, I got a job, entirely thanks to a former roommate whose father ran a data-analysis contract firm that supported the NSA. Neil Bryce (aforementioned roommate) was trying to turn me into a Mormon, and I drifted along through his evangelism and into the job. I can’t remember now if he finally figured that I wasn’t worth converting, or if I chucked the whole thing, but in any case I got a flashy company name on my resumé, and one which immediately broke me out of the stigma of a liberal arts major.
Bryce Data Services gave way to Cesar Co., an industrial food services company, and then a stint at Marriott Hotels, the doomed Whittle Communications, Baptist Hospital (where I milked a customer relations job while completing my on-line MBA), a brief run at Oak Ridge National Labs (my NSA ties helped me land that one), and finally on to Harvey’s Meats. All in all, six jobs, sixteen years of work, and exactly zero accomplishments except an ever increasing paycheck, a huge network of golf buddies, and a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit.
Which I was able to indulge pretty easily as the Deputy for Cultural Relations.
So I was sitting at my desk, gazing out the window and lighting a cigarette when my cell phone rang.
“Deputy George,” I said, tapping the earbud to answer the call
“Tom, you’ve got to check this shit out!”
It was Mark Franciscan, a real deputy, but one in Roane County. I had known Mark since my days at Oak Ridge, but now that I was a cop too (or so he claimed), he found more time to hang out with me.
“What’s going on, Mark?”
“You remember the sportsman’s club out here?”
I did. The Oak Ridge Sportsman’s Club was a huge gun range located on federal property near the Y-12 National Security Complex. Mark and I had shot skeet there quite a bit.
“Well, get in your car and get out here. And you might try listening to the scanner. It’s a madhouse! You’ve gotta see this shit. A total clusterfuck!”
“OK. Where are you at exactly.”
“Just follow the flashing lights. You’ll figure it out. Bring your badge.”
I tapped the earbud and hung up, amused. Snuffing out my cigarette, I walked down the hall to the reception station where Heather Kirby sat at a circular desk amidst well ordered stacks of paper. Heather had been one of the pleasures of the job, filling out her uniform in a very agreeable way and flirting in a clinical, almost obligatory manner that made up for the unfortunate prominence of her cheekbones. But she had gotten married and cut both her long hair and her flirting. I confronted the cheekbones.
“Something going on in Oak Ridge?”
“You haven’t heard? Everyone’s heard. You haven’t heard?’
“No, I haven’t heard. What’s up?”
“Shots fired, a house on fire, automatic weapons, maybe a hostage situation. Roane County and Oak Ridge PD are there. Oak Ridge security too. I think TBI is on the way.”
“OK – I’ll get more on the radio. I’m headed over there.”
“Why are you going?” Heather was one of the few who seemed to have caught on to my uselessness, and now that the cheekbones were in charge, she was more acidic than playful about it. I couldn’t resist a little lie.
“I got called in.”
As usual, it was better to listen to the local news than to the scanner.
“blah blah blah blah first on the scene blah blah blah exclusive report blah blah blah journalist blah blah blah…
Or maybe not.