The Cop was A Coward

by Wilbur S. Peacock

Johnny Burke had the making of a fine cop in him ... but there was something mighty strange about Johnny Burke—something mighty strange!

 

I liked the looks of Johnny Burke the first time I saw him. He was one of the cadets who had been signed on less than six months before. He was still on the probation lists, but I could see that he had the making of a fine cop in him.

"Sergeant Southern?" he asked, when he found me in the garage, where I was wiring in a new radio, "My name's Johnny Burke, and I've been detailed to work with you in 27."

"Glad to know you, Burke," I said, coming out from underneath the dashboard of the cruiser.

We shook hands, after I had wiped some of the oil from mine, and I winced a bit from the pressure of his fingers. I got my first good look at him then, and I felt my first bit of confidence since Riley, my old partner, had been detailed to the north end of the district.

He was big, and I mean big. Six feet four, he must have been, and must have weighed close to two and a quarter. Wide shoulders tapered into a narrow waist, his blond head sat squarely on his shoulders, and he carried himself with a panther-like grace. He appeared to be a swell partner to hold down the other half of cruiser 27.

I said as much, and he flushed at the compliment, which was another thing that took my liking. Too many of the cadet cops think they're big shots and are inclined to belittle the men who had been cops before they were out of three-cornered pants.

"I hope so," he said, "for I want to be a cop more than anything else in the world."

I grinned from my scant six feet. "Okay, let's see how we'll work in double harness. Shed that coat, and give me a hand with this set."

"Right," he said, and the two of us went to work.

That was our first meeting, and the one in which I judged him for the first time. I liked the kid and I let him know it, tried to put him wise to some of the things I've learned in ten years on the force. He listened to everything I said, tried to fit it in with the theories the police school had pumped into his brain. Some of it, I knew, he discarded because it didn't sound logical, but other parts seemed to make an impression on him.

He rode the other half of the seat with me for the next week, learning the neighborhood that was our patrol, memorizing names and locations and addresses as I gave them out. He learned fast, and I knew I had drawn a honey of a partner.

Still, there was something strange about him that I couldn't quite analyze. When we were alone, or when we were with the other men at one of the stations, he was big and quiet, seeming to know that he was not out of place. But when we made periodic inspections of boarding houses and the like, he was an entirely different person. He walked stiffly, his arms braced a bit at his sides. His face became a trifle white and his lips thinned, making him seem somebody suddenly alien to the kid I had for a partner. I didn't understand it, and in a way it shook my confidence in him, which, of course, meant that ours was not the instinctive partnership it should have been.

That sounds rather silly when I tell it, but there is nothing childish or amusing in its practical application. Cop teams should be as closely in accord as Tom and Jerry, or sorghum and flapjacks. The average person thinks that the mere routine of following orders takes care of the partnership angle, but that isn't the fact. Teams have to know exactly how much confidence each can place in the other, and each must know the capabilities of the other, or the two men don't make a good team.

And here was this new cadet partner of mine acting strangely as the devil any time the mere routine of covering the district became broken. I didn't like it, but I kept my mouth shut, waiting to see something definite that would prove something one way or the other.

Then one day, down in the station gymnasium where daily calisthenics must be taken, I got my first inkling of the mental twist that was in Burke's brain.

There were half a dozen of us in the place; some of the men boxing the bags, some on the bars, and Burke and I on the wrestling mats. He and I had been practicing jiu jitsu for ten minutes, and both of us were working up a good perspiration. Neither of us had the advantage for the moment, so I went in for a quick wristlock and spin.

Burke straightened as I came forward, squatted and drove forward with catlike speed. Before I knew what was happening, he had caught me with a knee catch and a hip flip, and I was skidding across the rough canvas on my face. I was growling to myself for being caught with an elementary trick, and came whipping back with my hands outspread in catch-all style.

There was blood on my face, although I didn't know it, and since I'm none too soft looking at best, I must have appeared to be rather in a mad rage at being thrown by a man of less skill than I.

I was half-crouched and gathering myself for a quick burst of energy. I noticed Burke's hands coming into position for sudden defense, and for a moment the mere fact that they were in position meant quite a bit to me. For there is no such thing as placing hands in defensive position in Jiu Jitsu; the entire science of this particular wrestling lies in keeping your hands out of the reach of your opponent.

I stopped momentarily, sudden wonder filling my mind. Burke's hands seemed to be warding off some unknown danger that was threatening, and I caught the flicker of some emotion in his grey eyes. I straightened out of my crouch, forced myself not to reveal what I had just seen.

Burke backed off a step, and slowly some of the tightness went out of his face and arms. He breathed deeply, and the sound was strangely like a gasp of relief.

"Whew!" he said relievedly, "I thought for a moment we were going to have a real fight."

I grinned, watching every play of emotion on his face, and carefully weighing every nuance in his tone of voice. And as suddenly as though somebody had told me, I knew he had a strip of yellow squarely up his back.

"That shouldn't worry you," I countered, "You could tie me into knots."

"Yeah?" he said skeptically, "And while I was tying you in knots, what would you be doing?"

I grinned, but I felt suddenly sick inside. Somehow, in the past week, I had come to think a lot of the kid. And now, despite his strength and brains and college degree, I knew that our days as partners in 27 were numbered.

I stretched, headed toward the showers, not answering his question.

"Come on," I said, "We've got just enough time for a cup of coffee before our shift."

I watched him that night and for the next three days. Now that I was particularly noticing him, I could see that my analysis was right. He was like any other cop I had ever known while in comparative safety, but when out of the usual routine and into some beer dive or fairly tough hangout, he was yellow clear to his heart.

He proved that one night when we picked up a quartet of drunks at a dive on the south end of our district. We went there on radioed orders, the complaint being phoned into headquarters by some old maid whose sleep was disturbed.

I shoved through the door of the dive, Burke following close behind. The report had been right, for we could hear the quartet murdering 'Sweet Adeline' in the back room. We went down the narrow passage and over to the drunks' table.

"Come on, fellows," I said, "we're going for a little ride."

Burke stood at my side, not saying anything, carrying himself with that same strained look that I had noticed the first few days we were together. The drunks joked with me at first, insisting that Burke and I have a drink or two with them. I wheedled with them for a while, not wanting to get tough.

And then the entire situation changed. The drunks got ugly, wanted to fight. I obliged them, taking the two on my side of the table, leaving the other two for Burke. I crossed a short right, then lifted a left, and turned to see how my partner was doing.

One of his own men was down, a bloody welt along the side of his head, and the other was cowering drunkenly from the heavy gun in Burke's fist. I knocked the gun up just as his finger pulled the trigger. I caught the gun from his hand, looked at his face in amazement.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Burke," I yelled, "These men aren't criminals; they're just drunk!"

"He was going to hit me with a beer bottle."

"So what!" I was shaking with the nearness with which tragedy had almost struck. "Hell, you don't shoot a man because of that!"

"But that's what that gun's for. I'm supposed—"

I looked at the drunks, who were rapidly sobering. "Get out of here and go home," I said, then turned to Burke, "Come on, let's get out of here."

I reported over the two-way radio that a gun had been fired accidentally, in case somebody phoned in about it, also explained that the drunks had disappeared when we got to the scene of the complaint. Then I turned back to Burke who was huddled in white-faced silence in the side of the seat.

"For God's sake, Johnny," I said slowly, "Just because you're a cop and wear a badge doesn't give you the license to shoot that gun any time you get a notion."

"I know," he said miserably, "I know."

And that was all that was said that night. Burke was uncommunicative and sullen the rest of the shift, seeming to realize now just what a boner he had pulled. As for me, I still shook with horror when I remembered how close he had come to putting a slug through the drunk. I didn't say any more, even tried to apologize for his action in my mind.

1 tried to cover up for him by saying that he was just a rookie and untrained. Too, I remembered how frightened I was the first time I had any trouble. I walked into a gang fight and waded into the leader of one gang. I had my man down, and was bouncing his head on the sidewalk, when other cops pulled me off. I was so scared that I didn't even know he had been unconscious for seconds. Luckily, I hadn't killed him in my unreasoning excitement.

So I covered for my new partner, and acted as though he had made but a natural mistake.

But I was only kidding myself, for two nights later, he let me down again.

It was about eleven at night, and the streets were slowly clearing of traffic, when we rode right into the center of a bank job. I was at the wheel, thinking what a swell life my girl and I were going to have when I got promoted to a detective's job. I pulled around the corner onto Harper street, and into the path of a tommy gun's fire.

We went over the curb, the tires shot to ribbons, before I had time to take a deep breath. I went sideways out of the door, grabbing my gun as I rolled on the pavement. I came up shooting at the two men who were in the touring. I heard Burke yell something from the other side of the cruiser.

And then a couple of slugs spun me like a top, and I hit the ground, having only a hazy memory of seeing Tony Flasco dodging out of the bank's door with another guy. I passed out cold, the drum of the touring's motor sounding in my ears.

I woke up once, when Burke came around the car to see how badly I was hit. I went back into blackness remembering that the flap to his belt gun was still fastened. The yellow rat hadn't even pulled his gun!

The next thing I remember was asking for a slug of whiskey and not getting it. After that, I slowly came back to earth. I hadn't been hit so badly; just bullet shock and a nicked shoulder to keep me in bed for a couple of days. Within forty eight hours, I was sitting up, and a week later I was aching to get back into harness again. True, I was still a bit muscle tender, but I figured a thing like that shouldn't be considered when a killer like Tony Flasco is running around loose.

I wouldn't see Johnny Burke in the hospital; I wanted nothing to do with him again. So, each time he tried to visit me, I had the nurse tell him I was asleep. Finally, he must have taken the hint, for he didn't come around any more.

I felt pretty badly about the kid, but I felt worse when Riley, my old partner, visited me. He came through the door of the hospital room, that map of Ireland he uses for a face ruffled up in a wide grin.

"I warned you, Southern," he said, "but you would play with the big boys. Now, look at you—your pants are ripped."

"Oh, shut up and sit down," I snapped from the wheelchair, trying not to grin, "Who the hell do you think you are—Dorothy Dix! Cripes, you've got enough slugs in you to make you rattle like a dice box!"

"My, what a nasty temper. Tch, tch, tch!"

"Okay, okay, go ahead and gloat. But first, let's hear the latest from headquarters."

And then his face wasn't grinning, instead it grew hard like granite. He told me the details that the chief hadn't let me know, for fear that I would get worried. Suddenly, I lost all desire to joke, too.

Tony Flasco, his lieutenant Vance, another killer named Keeper, and an unidentified man were in the mob that shot me down. They had forced the bank's cashier to open the bank for them at night, had murdered the watchman and then left the cashier for dead. He had rallied enough to identify two of the men from pictures. Burke's and my stories had fitted in the other pieces.

Tony and his mob had got away with over fifty thousand in cash and an unnameable sum in bonds. They had disappeared into thin air, were evidently holing up somewhere until the heat died down. Teletype and radio had the country blanketed, but with as much money as they had they would be able to buy their way out of the country.

"So that's that," I said, "not one blasted thing to go on."

"We haven't got a thing," Riley admitted, "but the chief thinks they're holed up somewhere in town. The identification was too fast to let them get far."

"Maybe," I said, "and maybe not."

Riley hitched his chair closer, and his face wrinkled up a bit in a smile. "There's that possibility that the chief might be right, anyway Johnny thinks so."

I felt blood pressure rising in me for the first time since my transfusion. I started to tell Riley just what I thought of a cop who wouldn't even draw his gun to save his own life. And then Riley pulled the thing that gave me my second shock within a week, and somehow it hurt me more than the slugs did.

"Yeah, Johnny," he said, "he thinks the chief may be right. He's a bright kid, too, smart as they come. He should be, he's my nephew and I put him through college."

"He's—he's your nephew?" I said.

"Sure, and a swell lad; he'll go high on the force. And Southern, you'll die laughing at this—he thinks you're about the bravest cop and finest man he ever met."

Well, that clinched it; I couldn't say a thing about the kid. I knew it wasn't the right thing to do; I should have reported him the moment I got out of the hospital, but the memory of Riley's pride stopped me before I could speak. Instead, I laughed and joked with the cops at the station, and tried not to be alone with Burke. I knew that I might tell him exactly what I was thinking if he rubbed me the wrong way.

And then on the tenth day after the shooting, Tony and his mob still in hiding, I went back into 27 with Johnny Burke. To all outward appearances we must have appeared to be the same old team, but there was a difference.

I was still taped, and the bandages irritated me every time I moved. But there was an irritation in Johnny that shifting a bandage couldn't help.

He tried to make conversation, but I wasn't in the least pleasant. After a bit, he shut up and remained hunched over the wheel, his face as white and stiff as though chiselled from marble. I felt sorry for him then, but I felt a dull hatred, too. He had almost cost me my life, and might do it again if something broke.

I made a mental resolution to apply for a transfer the moment we got back to the station.

About three in the morning, there was a furtive whistle from the mouth of an alley near where we had parked for a moment. Burke grunted something, then climbed from the car. I went, too, just out of general principles.

I knew the whistler the moment I saw him. His name was Lefty something-or-other, and he was about the sneakiest stool the department had. Burke seemed to know him, for he started talking the second we were out of sight of the street.

"You found it?" he said.

"Sure, it's down the street about six blocks. They're holed up in the old warehouse." Lefty's tone was a thin, scared whisper.

Burke pulled a packet of bills from his pocket, slipped them to Lefty's skinny hand. Then the stool was gone down the darkness of the alley, and Burke was turning to me.

"One hundred bucks," he said, "but it's worth it."

"What's worth it?" I asked, but I had a hunch about what was coming.

"The information. I've had Lefty working for me for ten days. He's spotted Flasco and his men in the empty warehouse down the street."

"Well, what are we waiting for?" I snapped, "let's take them!"

I had forgotten for the moment that the cop was a coward; but Burke didn't waste a bit of time in bringing back my memory.

"Maybe we'd better call headquarters?" he said slowly.

I caught at Burke's arm with a grip so tight it hurt my fingers.

"Let me tell you something, Burke," I said, "Lefty is too ratty to trust. Before a squad could get here, he'll tip Tony Flasco off about cops coming. That's his way; he collects both ways." I let go his arm. "We'll call headquarters, sure, but meanwhile we'll see what we can do to stop those punks from leaving."

Burke's face was whiter than any man's I've ever seen. A muscle twitched in his cheek, and his hands lifted a bit.

"Look, Southern," he said, "you don't understand."

"Don't understand!" I was so filled with rage I could barely talk. "I understand only too well. You dirty yellow rat, you're a disgrace to the uniform you wear. You're afraid, afraid to meet another man on equal footing. You were afraid of me in the gym; you were afraid of the drunk in the beer joint; you were afraid of Tony's guns—and now you're afraid to try to mop up a mob that's murdered two men in cold blood." I went toward the street. "Well, by the Gods, I'm afraid too. I'm just as scared as you of getting my belly full of hot lead. But this is my job, and I intend to do it."

"Look, Southern—" He caught at my sleeve.

I shook myself free. "Look, hell! You've got a gun; why don't you use it now the way you'd have used it on a defenseless drunk!"

"That's what I'm trying—"

I swung, lifted an uppercut from my knees. Johnny Burke went down, crumpling slackly to the cement.

"That's just in case I don't come back," I snarled, "I owe you that."

And then I was running down the street.

I ducked around the first corner, ran half a block, then slipped down the alley. I was over my rage almost as soon as I was out of sight of the cruiser, and suddenly sorry for what I had done.

I knew that he would be coming to in a minute or so, and would call headquarters and report. Meanwhile, it was my job to try and hold Flasco and his mob until help arrived. I laughed suddenly without mirth; I knew that one man didn't have a Chinaman's chance of holding four men in that warehouse.

I slowed down in the fourth block, realizing how weak my trip to the hospital had made me. My head was swimming a bit, and there was a throb of pain from my side where a slug had gouged a path.

I darted down the alley, keeping under cover, watching other shadows to see if there was a lookout posted. Finally, I came to the rear of the vacant warehouse, satisfied that I had arrived unseen.

I took a look around, trying to find a sliver of light that would reveal the part of the building in which the men were hiding. Empty windows leered back at me, scabby paint seemed to rustle in the light breeze, but I couldn't find the slightest signs of life.

I leaned weakly against the wall for a moment, wondering if the tip had been on the square, knowing instinctively that it had. I leaped and caught the bottom rung of a fire escape, pulled myself up until I could get a foothold.

Then I went upward as quietly as I could. I found an unlocked window on the third floor, slipped silently through. I held my breath for a moment, wondering if I had been heard. Then, my gun in my hand, I sneaked through the darkness.

I covered the entire floor, shaking a bit in nervousness as a rat scuttled to safety. For seconds, I wondered if I might not be smarter by waiting for reinforcements.

And then my mind was made up for me.

On the floor above there was the sudden sound of voices. I went toward the stairs, climbed them slowly. My mouth was dry, and I could feel cold sweat trickling down my spine.

"Come on, come on," That was Tony's voice. "This place'll be hotter than hell in another five minutes."

I edged further up the steps, crouched with my head just below the landing. I heard steps coming my way and saw the flicker of a light. Then I stood up, lifted my gun.

"Hold it," I said, "It's the law."

There were the sounds of startled gasps behind the flashlight, then a gun barked defiantly. I crouched a bit, blasted lead at shadowy figures. I heard someone scream in agony, then a giant hand lifted me and sent me rolling down the steps.

"Got him!" That was Tony again.

I tried to move, knew that another minute and I'd never be able to move again. I stumbled to my feet, went back to the stairs. Above, I could hear the mutter of scared voices. I knew why they didn't come down; they were afraid I was playing possum.

I collapsed on the second step, was suddenly sick because of the pain in my chest. And then, the steps vibrated from a heavy weight.

I lifted my head, wanting to see what was coming. For a moment, I couldn't figure it out. Then I screamed out a warning.

But Johnny Burke went on up. One moment he was limned in the glow of the flashlight, then gunfire made a blasting hell of that fourth floor. I saw Johnny Burke's body jerk a bit under the impact of the slugs, but he was too big to be stopped by them.

I got to the top of the steps, not knowing how I got there, but in time to see the finish.

One man was down, probably sent there by my bullets, and another was just crumpling from a smashed skull from a savage blow of Johnny Burke's gun. A third man turned and tried to run, but Johnny's hands reached out and hurled him against a wall. He was spreadeagled there for a moment, then slumped sideways.

And then Johnny closed with Flasco.

He went back two steps as Tony pulled the trigger of the gun, then shook his head and started forward again. He caught Tony, and they fought silently for a second. Tony was big, but Johnny was bigger. But Johnny was carrying enough lead to kill the average man.

Tony knew that and fought with the viciousness of a cornered rat. But he was no match for the devil that was Johnny then. Johnny caught him in arms like heavy lengths of hawser, and the back of his coat split from the sudden surge of strength that went through them.

Tony Flasco screamed then, screamed like a woman in deadly agony and fear. He pounded at Johnny Burke's face with bloody hands. Then there was the sound of a heavy stick breaking, and Tony went utterly limp.

Johnny loosened his grip, stood swaying for a moment. He was laughing, laughing with a madness that chilled my heart. He turned, tottered toward me, fell, then dragged himself along with his hands. He laughed when he saw my face in the flashlight's glow, but there was no mirth in the sounds.

"I'm yellow," he said, "yellow as hell! I've been afraid all of my life. Funny isn't it?" He choked a bit. "Then laugh, damn it, why don't you? I'm big, and big guys aren't supposed to know what fear is. So I become a cop, and for a while I think I'm learning bravery."

"Easy, Johnny, easy," I said, seeing the trickle of crimson on his lips.

"Easy, hell!" Johnny's hands clutched my shoulder. "Yeah, I was afraid of you; you were the first man who ever stood up to me. I was afraid of the drunk, too, and in my fear I almost murdered him. I knew then that I could never carry a gun until I learned what bravery was."

"For God's sake, Johnny, shut up!" I yelled, "You'll talk yourself into a hemorrhage."

"You'll listen to me and like it."

I nodded, felt a sabre of pain in my chest where Tony's slug had blasted into me. I tried to move, couldn't, his hand was too solid on my shoulder.

"So I couldn't get by without a gun," Johnny Burke's voice was growing weaker. "So guess what I did—I took the bullets out. Yeah, I carried an empty gun, afraid that if it were loaded I'd butcher somebody. You thought I ran out on you the night of the hold-up, but I didn't. I tried to tell you my gun was empty, but things happened too fast. And then tonight, after Lefty gave us this hideout location, I didn't have time to explain again. I had forgotten to bring shells for my gun, and wanted to get some before we raided this warehouse. But you slugged me and came yourself. I came to and followed you. Yeah, laugh that off, I followed you in here with a gun I could use only for a club. Sure I'm yellow, I'm yellow as hell, but I'm not such a rat I'd let you walk to certain death without lifting a hand. And don't tell me I was brave; I was still as yellow as I ever was. But I didn't have any choice. Hell, Southern, don't you think I'd like to be brave like—"

He crumpled inertly, his hand slipping from my shoulder. I don't remember much about what happened after that, but it couldn't have been much more than a minute before the cops broke in.

We've got beds in the same room, Johnny and I. He'll be here quite a bit longer than I will, but I figured maybe we'd better stick together while we're in here. After all, if you're figuring on being partners for a long time to come, there's no time like the present to make a few plans for the future.

I just caught a glimpse of his back through the silly gown he's wearing. Even partly covered by the bandages, I like it. Somehow, it still is pretty solid—too, I'm beginning to appreciate its whiteness.

THE END