When Maureen Coughlin first appeared in The Devil She Knows (2011), the New Orleans Times-Picayune called her “unforgettable” and “the character of the year.” Booklist named The Devil She Knows one of 2011’s ten best thrillers and declared Maureen “as compelling a character as this reviewer expects to see this year.” Now she’s back in Bill Loehfelm’s new thriller, The Devil in Her Way, and her life has changed in more ways than one: She’s starting over in New Orleans as a newly minted member of the police force.
The punch caught Maureen flush in the temple, striking near her right eye.
The big bony fist drove the rim of her sunglasses into her cheek, knocking them askew but not off, and put a faint buzz in her right ear. She yelped at the blow, a comically loud and clear ouch! A lucky shot, she thought, thrown by a guy she’d been dumb enough to give a free one, to let for half a second step into the blind spot over her shoulder. The punch did get her adrenaline cranked up and pumping double-time, something she hadn’t thought possible, not with the way her skin had throbbed and hummed as she’d barreled up the metal stairs outside the two-story apartment complex and charged down the concrete walkway toward the muffled screams coming from behind the thick metal door of Apartment D.
Her assailant, a skinny black man, barefoot in dirty jeans and a food-stained green tank top, staggered out of that apartment doorway as if he were the one who’d been hit. He stood about half a foot taller than Maureen, putting him at almost six feet. Weightwise, he carried only a ten-, maybe twelve-pound advantage over her.
Maureen braced herself against the balcony’s rusty iron railing and drove her heavy boot heel into the man’s knee, slamming it hard sideways. The man, who hadn’t escaped in his half second of opportunity but had instead started babbling something apologetic, screamed like she’d stabbed him in the eye. He wobbled but didn’t go down. No problem. Maureen didn’t need him to fall. Not yet. She just needed his chin to drop into the range of her right cross, which it did as he struggled for balance, his face bobbing into perfect position.
Setting her feet, she brought her fist from behind her hip and snapped her arm forward, using force from her hips and her back like a baseball swing. She connected well, grunting as the punch landed. A sharp pain shot across her knuckles and the back of her hand like an electric current. The shock died at her wrist. There and gone in an instant. A flash.
Her assailant dropped to his hands and knees on the concrete balcony, coughing. Hell of a shot, Maureen thought, if she did say so herself.
“On your face, motherfucker! Now!”
When the man did not immediately comply, she kicked one arm out from under him. He collapsed face-first onto the concrete. Snapping her cuffs free from her belt, she dropped to her knees, straddling the man’s hips. She bent one arm behind his back, cuffed that wrist, and then bent the other arm, shackling his wrists together, the metal handcuffs grinding like machine gears as she locked them. The man didn’t resist, his breathing fast and wet.
Maureen leaned her forearm into the back of his head, squashing his nose into the cigarette-ash-and-piss-stained concrete. “Do not fucking move. You are done moving. Done.”
She rose to her feet, the four other cops who had arrived on the scene gathering around her. Nobody said a word.
Maureen took a deep breath, trying to calm down. Getting up for a run-in was never a problem for her. Getting her control back, that was where she needed practice. In front of the stone-faced cops surrounding her, she felt exposed and raw, almost as if they’d walked in on her getting laid. Under her uniform, sweat slicked her whole body. Salt stung her eyes. Her heart kept right on racing, punching at the inside of her bulletproof vest.
From behind her dark glasses, Maureen studied her fellow officers. They were hard-bodied men her age or younger. They looked ready and eager to step in and take over for her. She worried that this guy at her feet constituted an informal but important field test, one that concerned a lot more than proper technique with a pair of handcuffs.
Pop quiz, hotshot.
Sad and frail and cuffed as he was, stinking of shitty weed, and sweat, and cheap booze, and Taco Bell, the sad bastard at her feet had hit a cop. Even though she was a rookie, and even though he hadn’t done any real damage, hitting a cop was more than bad news—it should be a one-way ticket to traction. That was what she’d heard, at least. Or had she heard that it used to be that way but wasn’t anymore? She blinked the sweat from her eyes.
She was only five weeks out of the academy; as a condition of her rookie probation she could lose her job over anything, no questions asked and no chance to argue her case. Twenty-first-century police department or not, plenty of cops didn’t like women on the job. Her being from out of town didn’t help. She’d heard rumors she was a plant, from the FBI, from the DOJ, both of which had an active eye on the New Orleans Police Department. She didn’t know these guys surrounding her. She didn’t know them as cops, or as men. She couldn’t trust them. Not yet. One brutality complaint, the wrong kind of gossip or rumor in the wrong ear, and she’d be out of a job, maybe even up on charges of her very own, all before she’d even had a chance to wrinkle her uniform.
These days, zero tolerance in the New Orleans Police Department started with the police themselves. Every arrest, every report, every stat—anything that outside eyes might see got scrutinized. Maureen’s instructors at the academy had hammered CYA into her head. Forget Protect and Serve, they said; Cover Your Ass was the department mantra.
Looking down, she noted that the man at her feet was breathing better now, steady and less shallow, though a small pool of blood had collected on the concrete by his mouth. Had she knocked out a tooth? Did they have to find it if she had? She stepped to the side of her perp. As her adrenaline drained, Maureen started to think less about stomping this guy and instead worried that she’d get shit over the kick in the knee or the punch in the mouth.
She heard telltale heavy breathing heading her way along the balcony and came back to herself, back to the present. Along the balcony came Preacher Boyd. Her training officer. The man who had the last word on whether she’d ever get to be real police. Preacher was large and heavy, with close-cropped dark hair, skin the color of cork, and hooded green eyes. Freckles like red-pepper flakes dusted his broad nose and full cheeks.
Wow, Maureen thought. He was actually out of the car. And had climbed a flight of stairs.
“Make a hole, you sweaty pricks,” Preacher said. “Special fucking occasion.”
Two of the officers eased by Maureen, stepping over the handcuffed man, staring him down from above. They’d be knocking on other doors, canvassing about the original call, a midday domestic. One of them, another rookie fresh from the academy, released a “Nice shot, Coughlin,” under his breath like a belch that embarrassed him. She wasn’t sure, but Maureen suspected he was the guy whose nose she’d broken during hand-to-hand training.
The other two officers entered the open door of Apartment D, talking to the bloody-nosed young woman on the couch, a wailing baby on her lap. One of the officers spoke into his radio, requesting that a female officer be sent to the scene to assist with the victim. Maureen, insulted at first by the request, realized she was not the best person to console and reason with the victim, considering she’d nearly knocked out the woman’s companion. Served him right, the fucker, for beating a woman, a woman holding a baby in her arms. That the vic held a baby, Maureen remembered, made for an even more severe set of charges on the man in cuffs. Good. He was getting everything she could think of, assaulting an officer not the least of them.
The woman in the apartment outweighed Maureen and the perp combined. She’d watched everything through the open door. She glowered at Maureen with hateful, teary eyes, her blood-crusty nostrils flared. She seethed like she’d known every violent thought that had crawled through Maureen’s head. Through her dark glasses, Maureen glared right back.
She wanted to smack that dirty look right off the other woman’s face, bloody nose and tears be damned. She wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. Maureen felt her cheek starting to swell where she’d been hit. She opened and closed her mouth, working her jaw muscles. Maybe she’d been hit harder than she’d thought. Anger rose in her again.
Maybe if you’d thrown him that attitude you’re throwing me now, Maureen wanted to say to the woman, he wouldn’t have hit either of us. Not today, at least.
Easy for you to say, Maureen imagined the woman replying, you, with your gun, and pepper spray, and Taser, and boots, and your four boys backing you up. Easy for you to fight back, with all the shit that you carry.
“Enough with the eye-fucking,” Preacher said.
Despite the fact that he spoke while leaning into the apartment door, with his thick finger pointed at the woman on the couch, Maureen knew he was talking to her as well.
“Ma’am,” Preacher said, “please do what you can to help these other officers, officers you called, if you remember. We’ll be taking in your … whatever he is, here. You’ll be able to find out how to reach him.”
“I already know all that,” the woman said. “And I didn’t call no police, neither. It’s not my fault can’t nobody mind their own business around here, so don’t go puttin’ that on me. You better get him a doctor. That’s what needs to happen. That’s who you need to be calling.”
“If he needs a doctor,” Preacher said, “he’ll get one.”
Stepping back from the doorway, he turned to Maureen, tilting his head to study her swelling cheek. “Your first throw-down. You never forget your first time. Congrats.”
“It does beat paperwork,” Maureen said.
“I can’t get up,” the man said.
“Sir, what is your name?” Preacher asked, hands on his ample hips. He made no move to help the man to his feet.
“Arthur. Arthur Jackson.”
“Mr. Arthur Jackson, please stand up so we can have a look at you.”
“I can’t stand,” Arthur mumbled into the concrete. “She busted my knee. She ruined my one good one.”
“And it hurts so bad,” Maureen said, “that you haven’t moved or made a sound in several minutes.”
“I was in shock,” Arthur said.
“And now you’re better,” Preacher said. “Get up or Officer Coughlin here will be forced to throw you over the balcony railing down to the parking lot. We sure as shit ain’t carrying you. My knees ain’t all that, either. And if you’re gonna make us call an ambulance, we’re gonna make it worth it. That shit costs city money.”
Maureen leaned down and grabbed Arthur by the cuffs and high on one arm, dragging him to his feet. He whined and protested about the pain in his knee. He did seem to have real trouble standing. Despite his struggles, Maureen got him propped up against the wall.
Preacher leaned into Arthur’s face.
Arthur turned his face halfway away, blinking furiously. His chin was slick with blood and a long tendril of red spit hung from his bottom lip. Above his right eyebrow, Maureen saw a bump the size and color of a plum rising under a nasty scrape. From when she’d kicked his arm out from under him, she thought, and he’d hit the concrete face-first. She’d done visible damage, a serious no-no. Yes, he’d hit her first, but she’d been careless at the apartment door and allowed it to happen.
Preacher turned and over his shoulder his eyes met hers for a split second. Maureen saw the anger flicker across his face. She knew they were having the same thoughts. She’d made a mess; she knew that. She’d admit it, but later. Not in front of Arthur. She was at least smart enough to know that much.
“He can barely stand,” Preacher said, his voice low.
“That’s what I was tellin’ you,” Arthur said.
“You shut up,” Preacher said. He keyed the radio mic on his shoulder and calmly called an ambulance to the scene. He grabbed a fistful of Arthur’s tank top and steadied him against the wall. “Sit down and wait. And stay quiet. Go back into shock.”
“I ain’t done nothin’. I don’t deserve this. You heard her. She didn’t even call y’all. There wasn’t even a problem till y’all showed up.” Working around his injured knee, Arthur slumped against the wall. “Y’all got a cigarette?”
Preacher walked away without answering either the accusation or the question.
Maureen followed him down the balcony to the top of the stairs. She wasn’t exactly hanging her head, but she was prepared for a scolding.
Preacher reached into his pocket, brought out Maureen’s pack of cigarettes from the car. “Smoke one where he can see you, the prick. You all right?”
“Fine. You do know he hit me first.”
“I saw. It’ll be in my report.”
Maureen pulled a smoke and her lighter from the pack. She lit up with a long, long drag. The hot smoke burned her lungs. “You did? From the car?”
“I said I saw. That’s what you need to know.”
Maureen watched the Washington Avenue traffic slide by, the cars slowing in both directions to study the police action, the cruisers parked at angles, their blue lights whirling. Up and down the street, people stood clustered in front of their houses, smoking cigarettes and chatting and watching the goings-on at the Garvey Apartments. Maureen didn’t quite understand the fascination. Police activity at the Garvey, or anywhere on this stretch of Washington, really, was hardly an anomaly.
“I can’t believe you called an ambulance,” Maureen said. “Arthur needs an ice pack and an Advil and that’s more than enough. You know that as well as I do. Why are we making a fuss over this?”
Preacher adjusted his crotch. “He’s bloodied up. He’s having trouble standing. He has to go to the hospital first. Personally, I could give a fuck about the state of him, but lockup won’t take him like that. Those sheriff’s department bitches won’t take anyone we bring in with as much as a hangnail. We’d be wasting our time. Believe it.” He took a deep breath, held it for a beat, then let it leak out slow as a faint whistle. “We’ll hang a drug warning on him, too. Say that’s why we called in a medical. We were worried he was too high for the sheriff to handle, a danger to himself and others, some shit like that. We’ll make it work.”
“It’s probably true.”
“Likely enough, anyway,” Preacher said. “Everybody’s gonna smell that weed stank on him. And he did hit a cop. Plus, it’s that much more paperwork to wade through for anyone crawling out from under a rock to complain about him being marked up.”
“I’m charging him with everything I can.”
“Please do. Charge him with 2-Pac. I give a fuck?” Preacher, grinning at his own wit, again studied her cheek. “Speaking of ice packs, I think it’s done swelling. In a day or two it’ll be hard to see if you didn’t know you’d been hit.” He took his cell phone from his pocket. “Show me that cheek.”
Maureen turned her face slightly toward Preacher and he took the picture. “Can’t hurt to have that,” he said. “I’ll attach it to the report. Let me know when you’re done writing it. Make sure some of the other guys get a look at the bruise. Sooner the better, while it’s fresh and ugly.”
Maureen took another long drag of her cigarette. She finally felt her brain and her insides downshifting to somewhere near normal. Though she knew that biologically nicotine did the opposite, she felt her heartbeat slow. God, tobacco was amazing. How was it that a stimulant mellowed you out so much? How would she ever give it up?
“I should’ve waited for the second unit,” she said.
“I told you that when we pulled into the parking lot. They were practically around the corner. Less than a minute behind us.”
“But she was screaming,” Maureen said. “You could hear it clear as day.”
“She was screaming at him,” Preacher said, “not screaming for help. You gotta know the difference.”
“You could tell that from the parking lot?”
“You gotta know what to listen for.”
“I didn’t think he’d answer the door,” Maureen said. “I thought it’d be her. Or they’d refuse to answer altogether.”
“Good thing he answered,” Preacher said. “She might’ve hit you, too. Harder. Looks like she’d like to.”
“At first he was just hollering, I don’t even know what he was saying. Just yelling and flailing his arms.”
“He got the first shot in,” Preacher said. “That’s a problem.”
“He pushed by me,” Maureen said. “Just kinda stumbled really. I thought at first that maybe she’d hit him in the back and pushed him out.”
“I think when he heard the other units arriving, he meant to run, not fight. I really do. That wasn’t a ‘I wanna fight six cops’ kind of punch that he threw. Something in him saw the opportunity to knock me down, maybe he saw me standing between him and the stairs, I don’t know. I’m not sure how much he meant it. I think it was panic. If what that woman said is true, about not being the one who called us, his shock at seeing me makes more sense.”
“The thing of it is,” Preacher said, “if he had a knife in his hand, or a bat, or a pipe, or a gun within reach, and panicked the same way, and everything else plays out the same, then that’s your blood on the concrete over there. Panic is dangerous. For everyone, whether it makes sense or not. You have to avoid it.” A siren wailed not far away, closing in on them. “Otherwise we’re calling that ambulance for you. He can’t get behind you. No one can. Ever.”
Maureen stared across the street at the park and the playground and the basketball courts.
“Ever,” Preacher repeated. “Anybody home, Coughlin?”
“Yes, sir,” Maureen said. “It’ll never happen again, sir.”
“I ain’t lost a probie yet,” Preacher said. “Not to the rules and not to the streets. And, girl or not, you won’t be the first. I’m the good kind of selfish, the kind that’s gonna make you a good cop. Live it. Believe.”
In her peripheral vision, Maureen noticed movement beneath her in the parking lot. Glancing down, she saw that a young boy, maybe eleven or twelve years old, had drifted out from under the stairs. She wondered how long he had been down there.
The boy wore an oversized white T-shirt over faded cargo shorts in a blue, white, and gray camouflage pattern. He wore them low. Standard uniform for the neighborhood. His knobby shoulders rounded, his hands in his pockets, he looked up at Maureen and Preacher at the top of the stairs, watching them with one eye half closed, as if peering at a slide through a microscope.
Maureen caught Preacher’s eye and tilted her head, directing him toward the boy.
“Hey there, son,” Preacher said, peering off the balcony. “Do me a favor, take your hands from your pockets.”
His hand drifted to his hip, to his weapon. Maureen’s throat tightened.
“Preach, he’s, like, eleven.”
“I’m twelve,” the boy said.
“Hands, son,” Preacher said. “Let me see them.”
The boy did as he was told. He slid each hand free slowly. In each hand he held a smooth wooden stick, drumsticks. He didn’t say anything. His mouth was tight and twisted, as if he had something to say but couldn’t find the right words for some big thoughts kicking around in his head.
“There something we can help you with?” Preacher asked. “Something you need?”
The boy took a half step toward the foot of the stairs.
“You can come on up here,” Preacher said, waving the boy toward him with the same hand that had reached for his weapon. “We don’t bite.”
“Do you live here?” Maureen asked. “Which apartment are you in?”
The boy opened his mouth to say something. A sharp whistle, like the sound of a man calling a dog, stopped him from speaking. The boy dropped his gaze. Maureen spotted the whistler standing across the street. An older boy, eighteen, nineteen years old, wearing baggy jean shorts and a black Bob Marley T with the singer’s laughing profile emblazoned over a giant pot leaf. The older boy had his hair in short twists that were bunched like the candles on a birthday cake by an old-school terry headband. He wore a cowrie shell necklace tight around his neck. Black aviators hid not only his eyes but also most of his face.
“Yo! Shorty!” he yelled, with as much command, or maybe it was warning, in his voice as there was in his whistle.
The younger boy turned away from Preacher and Maureen. He didn’t even look to see who had been yelling to him. He already knew. He tucked his sticks in his pockets and slunk away across the apartment-complex parking lot. He didn’t look back at Maureen and Preacher.
When the boy hit the sidewalk, the whistler turned and headed up Washington Avenue in the opposite direction, talking on a cell phone. Mission accomplished, apparently.
“You know what,” Maureen said, watching the whistler walk away, “gimme a minute.”
“Hey!” Maureen yelled across the street. “Hey! Hold on a second.”
The whistler looked back over his shoulder, just to let Maureen know he’d heard and was ignoring her command. Cell phone to his ear, his lips moving, he continued walking away.
“Bob Marley. Wait right there a second.”
“Coughlin, what’re you doing?”
“I want to talk to that guy,” Maureen said, three steps down the staircase. “I wanna ask him what he thinks is going on.”
Something had happened between the two boys. Maureen could feel it buzzing in the air around them, but she couldn’t decipher what it was.
“It’s just regular ‘don’t talk to the cops’ street bullshit between kids,” Preacher said. “A chance to show us up. Maybe they’re brothers. Forget it.”
Maureen watched the younger boy walk away in the opposite direction.
At the corner he fell in with two other boys the same age and size and dressed in the same style, big T-shirts, big shorts slung low beneath hips and butts they didn’t have. She watched as the three of them bumped their small fists and talked. Maureen felt comforted that the kid had hooked up with friends. He looked them in the face when they spoke to him. She grinned at his amateur gangsta lean. She wondered what they talked about.
At a break in the traffic the trio crossed the street and meandered into the ballpark, more of an open field with tilted bleachers and a battered softball backstop. They appeared headed for the basketball courts or maybe the new playground beyond the courts, but in no hurry.
Maureen looked around for the whistler, but he was gone.
A commotion had started building in Apartment D, raised voices, then shouts, then something breaking—a lamp or a mirror. Maureen jumped back up the stairs, headed in that direction, but Preacher grabbed her by the arm as she moved past him.
“Give it a minute and let those boys work,” he said. “Stay right here. We’re guarding the only escape route.”
The woman screamed. The sound was more like a roar, really, Maureen thought. She was afraid of what might come out the door.
“Oh, man,” mumbled Arthur from his spot against the wall. “Now y’all gone and done it to me.”
Red-faced and dripping sweat, two officers dragged the woman out the front door, one officer gripping each of her thick, gelatinous arms. Her hands were cuffed behind her back. Inside the apartment, the baby wailed at top volume. The woman flopped about on the balcony like a giant hooked fish, unleashing a stream of profanities the likes of which Maureen, even in all her years in the bar business, had never heard. When the woman had exhausted herself, the officers eased her facedown on the balcony and released her arms. They checked her breathing and stood.
One cop, a burly unibrowed Hispanic, stretched his lower back. The other, a tall, thin blond with a big nose, walked over to Preacher and Maureen.
“What the fuck happened in there, Quinn?” Preacher asked.
“You won’t believe it, Preach,” Quinn said, his chest heaving as he struggled to recover from the effort of subduing the woman. “In the dishwasher. Like, two pounds of weed in a garbage bag. And three guns in a shoe box.” He smiled. “A fucking bust and a half and we fucking fell right into it.”
Preacher’s eyebrows jumped up his forehead. He threw a quick glance at Maureen. “Yes, indeed.”
Quinn shrugged. “Ruiz was the one that spotted the washer was unhooked and leaning half outta the counter. He went in there for a glass of water.”
“Tell ya what,” Preacher said, turning to Maureen. “Now I believe it wasn’t her that called us here. These two clowns are no dealers. They’re holding for someone else, under orders, I’m sure, to stay away from the cops.”
Maureen scanned Washington Avenue in both directions. The three boys and the whistler were gone. I don’t know what it is, she thought, but we’re missing something here.
BILL LOEHFELM is the author of The Devil in Her Way,The Devil She Knows, Bloodroot, and Fresh Kills. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, the writer AC Lambeth. He plays drums in the Ibervillains, a rock and soul cover band.