Dawn Shift: A Cop Ghost Story
Being a field trainee in law enforcement means you get to do a lot of really cool stuff. There is a lot of rotation between the shifts and even stations to get you exposed to the world you’ll be working in all by your lonesome. Patrol is a whole different animal than the jail I spend the last few years working in.
Field training is a 3-6 month long process (depending on agency and your competency) that is real, life on-the-job training putting all those puzzle pieces they gave you in the academy together. Except here, screwing up and letting a bad guy get behind you means you die, not told to drop for pushups and write a 1000 word memo.
And that’s why I’m not riding alone tonight, to learn a bit more. As I’m in my early twenties, I could be studying for my degree or out partying. Instead, I’m gleaning what little practical instruction I can in my chosen profession. Veteran deputies show me new things all the time, opening my eyes to a wider world every day, where things aren’t always as they seem. Each shift gives me a new perspective.
It’s a bit like They Live, where the protagonist gets these glasses that allow him what the world is like. I don’t end up seeing that the world is controlled by alien overlords, though I do learn that the pretty girl who ran out of gas is an addict who sells herself for cash. Instead of getting her phone number and her out of her panties, I get her into a pair of handcuffs and a jail cell.
For most people, this kind of education is disillusioning, rather than illuminating. I don’t get jaded by what’s being revealed to me. It’s exhilarating to not be a blind passerby in the world, nose to the grindstone, not seeing the truth behind our daily lives. Besides, there is something in my blood. For young men and women who get the bug to be cops, patrolling the streets in a black and white is intoxicating. I need my fix. There is nowhere else I’d rather be.
My friends might laugh at me for giving up the chance to party, but I’m not the partying type. I’m over 21, so I can have a beer any time I want unlike the poor high school kids who have no other option except to get trashed at underage parties. I don’t have a girlfriend, so I figure there is no way I’m gonna get laid at all this weekend, so the only chance of seeing tits I’ll have is by going on patrol. I may see dead titties, tweaker titties, or fat hooker titties, but it sure beats Internet titties.
Our shift started with briefing, and since it’s dawn shift (7PM-7AM) and day two of three in the rotation, all the important business has been covered last night. Everyone is caught up on their training, so all the new business that’s left is for day shift to pass on the car keys and tell us about anything significant that happened on their watch. Once that’s done, we relax.
The sergeant is pretty chill. He’s Italian, loves the Giants and the LA Kings, and is one hell of a cop. Citizens love him and his shift does too. I’ll only ride when he’s working because his troops are the shit. We watched a YouTube video featuring LAPD’s latest soon-to-be lawsuit and critiqued them on poor police procedure and for being dumbasses. In our department, complaints tend to be of the nature “the officer hurt my feelings.” Our Internal Affairs haven’t investigated anything like that since an ex-major league player working in the jail went apeshit on an inmate. Goodbye post NFL career…
Before we go in-service, the sergeant has to present an award to a deputy. Deputy Frat Boy (name changed to protect my identity, not his), is being distinguished with the Cookie Monster Award. It’s a ribbon with a cookie glued on that goes to the deputy who ‘milks’ his call the longest, meaning he spent as much time as possible on just that one call, doing nothing else. Frat Boy is “that guy” of our shift, though I don’t think he means to be.
Despite his reputation and the nature of the award, the circumstances could have happened to anyone and really were unavoidable. The unavoidable circumstances just happened to happen to him, which made the joke even more perfect. For anyone else, it would have been just a laugh. Now it’s a nickname.
As briefing ends and Frat Boy—make that Cookie Monster—starts getting shit from his partner, asking whether Cookie Monster intends to make arrests tonight. “Of course I do,” Cookie Monster says, then promptly sits down in the report writing room to work on “all the reports I have backed up.” The rest of us, including me and my partner for the evening, grab out warbags and march to the parking lot. I pile into the passenger seat of our illustrious chariot, the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, and try to get comfortable amidst all the electronics.
In the parking lot, R&B is thumping out of all the cars in sync, because it’s tradition to at least start the shift with everyone listening to the same music. Thankfully, we’re still years away from the whole dance-pop craze that gave us wonderful people like Rhianna and Chris Brown. No one knows Lady Gaga, who still goes by Stephanie. My partner gets in and turns up the radio when he hears the Motown tune that’s on. He starts dancing.
“Come on, dance with me.”
“No way, I don’t like guys with mustaches.”
He laughs. “Alright. You ready?”
“Yep.” I have a Maglite tucked into the sap pocket in the back of my right pant leg, handcuffs where most men put their wallets. My Sig Sauer semi-automatic is heavy but a comforting bit of weight on my hip. I’m ready to rock and roll.
We radio to dispatch that we’re in service, telling them who’s inside our rolling tin can, who we are and where we’ll be. Our call-sign indicates our part of the county (east or west), which beat we’re in, and the shift in case we’re held over. It’s already dark, so we jam on out into the rural part of county we’re set to patrol. The area is popular with ranchers, farmers, and rich people who don’t want immediate neighbors. It’s still not that remote; pizza still delivers out there.
My FTO—Field Training Officer—Deputy 'Stache (because he’s got a rockin’ mustache) takes us out of the parking lot and out into the countryside. In a few minutes, we’re passing through an agricultural hamlet which features a fire station, market/café, and a post office. Nobody really goes there for anything other than the famous burritos from the Mexican café, which are the traditional station breakfast on payday.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Out to Price Road. There’s this family who has a rodeo every Saturday night and their guests cause a lot of problems. Fights, drunk drivers, car accidents. Probably over three hundred people there tonight.”
“So what are we gonna do?”
He patted the radar. “Gonna catch speeders until the party’s over.”
“Then what?” I could think of a few different things we could do. Speeding out here was the highway patrol’s problem. We seldom even wrote speeding tickets unless the driver was an ass. I hadn’t quite internalized yet that speeding was ‘Stache’s way of hunting bad guys.
“Well, maybe we’ll get us a drunk driver tonight.”
I nodded in agreement with him. A DUI, or deuce, was a good arrest. Drunks get away with too much shit even today. The last thing we needed was another person to die or the state highway to be closed overnight because some drunk decided he needed to swerve his pickup into a telephone pole. “Sounds good.”
“But that’s if we’re lucky.” My hopes sank. “I think we’ll be too busy to worry about drunks tonight.”
“I get the feeling we’re going to be breaking up a big fight tonight. It’s the way it seems to go. Every other week, it’s drunks or it’s a fight. Last weekend, the fire department cut a guy out of a minivan who smelled like a brewery. Hope you’re ready to throw down.”
“Just make sure you carry the flex cuffs for us. We’ll need them. You know how to cuff somebody up with those, right?”
“Sure thing.” I tried not to say anything sarcastic. In the jail, when the inmates would riot get into a big fight we’d often break out the over-engineered zip ties once we ran out of metal cuffs.
That’s when a big black shadow raced across the road. It looked like a dark, translucent cow trotting across the asphalt. It could have been, except I swore it didn’t break stride even when it crossed the ditch.
“What the hell!” we yelled in unison.
‘Stache jammed on the brakes and we were pushed forward against the locked seatbelts. I could feel the ABS thumping behind us, keeping us from skidding.
We were stopped in the middle of a dark, two lane road surrounded by empty avocado and lemon orchards. ‘Stache hit the high-beams and lit up the road. I started playing my spotlight around. Two green eyes lit up in the orchard.
“Holy shit!” I squealed like a little girl. ‘Stache’s shudder was slightly more baritone, but no more manly.
For some reason, ‘Stache rolled down his window. Maybe he wanted to jump out.
In the light, the eyes disappeared and the side of a coyote took its place. We started laughing. It was only a friggin’ coyote.
“Can you still shoot those things?” ‘Stache asked.
“Yeah, but you gotta have a hunting license and they have to be a problem, like bugging your animals.”
“How do you know?”
“My dad has a ranch.”
‘Stache was good with voices. In perfect Redneck, he said “That varmint done aight my chickin’.”
The coyote ran away.
“How’d it look so big? And can that sucker fly? It looked like it walked right over the ditch.”
‘Stache shook his head. “Nah, we saw the shadow of that thing. Went right under the lights. Had I been doing the speed limit, the Roadrunner would have won.”
“The Roadrunner always won. If Wile E. Coyote could jump like that sucker, he wouldn’t be getting a boulder dropped on top of him all the time.”
‘Stache put the car in drive. “Well, I’m gonna keep the brights on until we park, okay?”
In a few minutes, we were parked at the end of a farm road staring at the bright lights of a homemade rodeo corral. We could hear mariachi music through the closed windows.
“I bet they have really good barbeque in there.”
“Not like we’ll get any.”
“‘Do you want a side of spit with that tri-tip?’”
“I know where we can get some tasty coyote.”
We both laughed.
“Seriously,” I said. “Have you had anything weird happen to you on patrol?”
“Well yeah,” ‘Stache said, doing the verbal equivalent of rolling his eyes. “What are you talking about? Crazy hooker jumping from the second floor into the motel pool after trying to squirt us with a bottle of lube? That kind of stuff?”
I burst out laughing, snorts included. “I gotta hear that story, but no. Spooky stuff.”
He cleared his throat. “Working nights, you do see stuff. Usually right after shift change, ‘cause you’re coming from days and you’re so tired. Your mind plays tricks on you. Shadows move, trees jump out at you. Your car ends up across town without you knowing how you got there.”
“More than that, like how they say the work camp and the honor farm is haunted.”
“Oh, that. Ghost stories.”
“There was this one time when I worked out of Fillmore.”
“You have a ghost story?”
“I just said I did.”
“Alright.” He cleared his throat again and turned off the stereo. “So, it’s a weekday night in the middle of summer. The weather is clear, calm, and relatively cool. Just before midnight, the temperature dipped into the 70s. It’s a beautiful night, but no moon. I’m working dawn shift and I’m assigned outside the city, on the south bank of the river. I’ve got that whole area up into the foothills, mostly agricultural land. Since nothing ever happens in there, I’m in the city trying to bust gang members.
“It’s getting late, like 1:30 in the morning. My partner and I are chatting over the computer, trying to decide where to park and eat out lunches. It’s been a really, really quiet night. One domestic and a minor car accident. It’s odd, sort of like the way it is on Christmas Eve. That night was strange, as if nobody in the whole valley wanted to be out after dark. We finally pulled into a park and started chowing down. Then dispatch calls.
“Both of us groan, but we have to take the call. We accept it and the dispatcher reads the call slip to us. ‘Silent residential alarm, 123 Middle Street, cross of Nowhere Road. Alarm company indicates general burglary alarm and motion detectors activated.’ You know where Bardsdale is?”
“Yeah, it’s at the end of Car Crash Canyon, by the oilfields. It’s a ghost town now, right?”
“Sort of. Most of the houses are rented by farm hands, but the businesses are all torn down. The church is empty. You can rent it out for weddings and filming. The only spooky thing, if you can call it that, about that place is the old railroad right-of-way. They graded the whole thing and even poured a platform for the station, but for some reason, the railroad put the line in across the river.”
“Which is why Fillmore exists and Bardsdale went bust.”
“‘Stache, is this gonna be one of those ‘…but the ghost train was really just a couple of drunk assholes with a lantern,’ stories?”
He looked annoyed. “No-o-o-o way, just listen. We get there in about five minutes. It’s really easy to find, it’s the tall blue house if you want to go looking for it. The owner’s wife loves wildflowers and the yard is full of them. I think the house was in an insurance commercial.”
“I don’t remember, but you’ll recognize the house from TV. We get to the stop sign and douse our lights.” Standard police procedure so you don’t spook the crooks and can catch them. “We creep the last block as slow as we can and park at the end of our driveway. It’s gravel, so our boots are crunching like Godzilla on Rice Krispies, so the whole world can hear us coming. We’re pretty sure that whoever is in the house can hear us too. On the front lawn is a woman in a white dressing gown. She smiles at us and waves us over. Even though there’s no moon or street lights, I can see she’s pretty good looking.”
“What did she look like? Did she have eyes?”
“Of course she had eyes. Man, you’re worse than my kids interrupting every damn story I read them.”
“Sorry, just one more question. Was it La Llorna?” That’s the Mexican crying lady who likes to murder children because, depending on what story you hear, she murdered her kids to get revenge on a man who scorned her.
“No, it was your mom, now shut up.”
I had to laugh at that.
“So we whisper ‘Hello’ to her and tell dispatch to give us a 10-33, because it’s liable to get a little crazy with burglars in there.” That was reserving the emergency traffic only marked by a beep every thirty seconds. You don’t want some guy across the county interrupting your call for backup in the middle of a gunfight because he’s trying to eat a sandwich, you know?
“I start telling her about what’s we’re gonna do, and to be honest, I’m checking her out. She’s fine, young, and wearing an old-ladies dress so she’s probably a kinky little nerd. Apparently, something’s going on in the house but she doesn’t know what. She doesn’t want to go in there alone, so I say ‘What kind of men would we be if we asked you to go in there?’ She gets all girly and laughs, does the hair twirl thing. I tell her that we’ll check it out, hopefully it’s nothing. Again, she twirls her hair and smiles.
“We go to the front door and try the knob. It’s locked, so we try the side door, then the backdoor. The woman was still on the lawn where we left her, so I went back over and asked for the key. She said she didn’t have it. I think: Great, there is someone inside and they locked the doors on us. My partner and I back off and call for backup. While we’re waiting, the woman starts talking to me about oranges, and she tells me everything you ever wanted to know about oranges. I wanted to kill myself.
“Thankfully, the sergeant and the K-9 weren’t too far away so they arrive pretty fast. Discovery Channel lady finally stops talking about oranges and we come up with a game plan. The last deputy gets there and we stake him and the sergeant on opposite corners so each of them can watch two sides of the building, in case the burglars try to make a run for it. The dog is going to clear the house for us. You did K-9 training; you know how those suckers bite.”
I sure did. The dogs have a bite pressure of around 2,000psi and regularly tear flesh. They can pull you to the ground by your arm. After training (as the bad guy, of course), my arm was bruised at the shoulder from where the protective sleeve hits my shoulder with each bite. The dog handlers tell every ‘decoy’ to offer the dog the protective sleeve, or else the dog will bite the leg, right near the groin. Needless to day, I made sure they got the arm.
“The K-9 deputy presses his remote control and the backdoor of his car opens. Out comes Fritz.”
‘Fritz’ is the department’s oldest dog. He’s a monster, nearly six feet tall when he’s got his paws on my chest. He’s a bit of a bastard too, not content to just tug on your arm, but wrestle you to the ground so he can bark in your face. Out of all seven of our K-9s (including three Bens), Fritz is the most cantankerous, still barking at deputies, never wagging his tail when the office girls give him treats, and for some damn reason, is always nice to the jail trustees.
“The first thing Fritz does is take a piss. It’s a long one; he’s just going and going, like he’s been holding it all night. His handler is not happy, making that ‘tsst’ noise the Dog Whisperer does. Fritz finally finishes and trots up to lick his handler’s hand, acting like he’s the greatest thing since canned dog food. Off to the house we go.
“After a few steps, Fritz stops and turns back to the car. His handler goes chasing after his, pissed as hell, but he can’t yell, because we’ve got burglars hiding inside the house. The handler calls him back, going in German ‘Heir! Pfui!’ To get the dog back, the handler has to put Fritz on a leash and walk him towards the house. As they pass the woman, Fritz growls at her, fur up and everything, earning a slap and a ‘Pfui.’ Finally, we get to the backdoor and I smash the glass with my baton.
“My partner and the handler have their guns out pointed at the door. Fritz is getting in the act by letting out a low growl and baring his teeth, which if you think about it, is a dog’s way of pointing a gun at somebody. I reach through the broken window and unlock the door. Once it’s open the handler gives his announcement.”
I knew it so I filled in. “Sheriff’s Department, canine unit! Come out before I send my dog in!” It’s always repeated at least twice for legal purposes, followed by intimidating barking. The barking is usually followed by someone getting bit.
“That’s right. Not a damn thing happens. No one comes out, calls out, or makes a sound. For a second, we wonder if the place is empty. The handler takes Fritz off his leash and tells him ‘Voran,’ which means ‘search.’ Fritz won’t budge. ‘Geh rein,’ ‘Go inside’ he’s told. Instead, he sits down. His handler, now totally pissed, starts shoving Fritz with his boot, bitching about how it’s time to retire his old ass to a Korean restaurant for their stir fry. ‘Voran, damn it!’ The dog doesn’t move.
“Finally, his handler grabs Fritz’s hindquarters and stands him up. Then Fritz, with lots of German words of encouragement, starts getting pushed inside. Fritz starts whining like he’s being nudged into a blazing furnace. His handler, swearing away, keeps pushing. Finally Fritz snaps, turns around and nips the deputy in the hand, thus stopping the shoving. The handler flips out, chases after the dog, trying to kick him, and yelling out curses. The sergeant has to leave the corner he’s keeping watch at to tell the K-9 deputy to shut the heck up.
“The woman, who herself looked pissed as hell at that dog, decides to ‘help out’ by chasing Fritz around, which seems to freak him out more. I’m worried she’s gonna get her ass bit, but Fritz dodges her, running this way and that. Between the woman and the handler trying to kick his ass, Fritz covers the whole yard several times. It looked like a Benny Hill skit. Eventually, he gets back to his patrol car.
“Fritz is cowering, pawing at the back door. He’s squealing like a scared little puppy, looking at the woman, looking at his handler, and looking at the house. I didn’t know what freaked him out the most at the moment. We’re still up at the door, guns drawn, pointing them into the darkness inside. It was really, really dark in there. I wondered why I could see the woman clear enough to see her face, but couldn’t see in the house.
“I didn’t want to shine my flashlight in there to give the burglars a target to shoot at. At the time, I figured all the curtains were drawn or something. I feel someone standing behind me and the last thing I want to do is look. Intellectually, I know we just cleared that area and no one should be there, plus I don’t want to take my eyes off my target. You know how you get that creepy weird feeling that someone is looking over your shoulder? That’s what I had. I could even feel a soft breath on my neck. I turn around and it’s the woman!
“Now I’m pissed off because she’s this big white target behind us and a civilian in the line of fire. So I tell her to back off and stand somewhere safe, but she doesn’t leave. It’s her house so I can’t cuss her out, either. Since the whole world knows we’re out here, K-9 guy comes back over after putting Fritz back in the car. He apologizes, and we go in, each of us pointing in a different direction for maximum coverage.
“We get into the kitchen, which is totally normal. Nothing’s out of place, no blood or guts in the sink. Nobody was cooking people in there. The dining room is ordinary too. Glancing behind me, I see something and nearly jump out of my skin because that stupid woman followed us inside! I whisper to her ‘Are you crazy? You’re gonna get yourself killed if they’re still here. Go back outside.’ She just shrugs back at me.
“Living room, clear. Office, clear. TV room, clear. Laundry room, clear. All the time, the woman is following us. To make it worse, she keeps whispering nonsense. I figure she’s rapidly whispering out her Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s or some sort of prayer. It’s creepy because it sounds like static, right in my ear and I’m already on edge. My heart is pounding away. I’m about ready to call the whole thing off and let the burglars keep her and the house. We get start inching up the stairs with me at the bottom. Someone is grabbing my waist, I jump, and you guessed it, it’s the woman.”
‘Stache paused. Both of us look up to see headlights illuminating the inside of our car. We spot the distinctive front profile of a Crown Victoria coming up the road. It’s ‘Stache’s partner and he parks next to us, window to window. It’s Senior Deputy Babyface, who is nearly forty but looks twenty. He’s short on wrinkles and long on stripes. The guy is a total nerd who probably browses those message boards filled with anime and dumb inside jokes.
“‘Sup dudes. What’s going on?”
“I’m telling him a story,” ‘Stache says.
“What it’s about?”
So ‘Stache spent two minutes catching him up on the story before continuing, which gives me time to take out my phone and confirm that no drunk babes texted me. That was still when you had to push the numbers up to three times to get the letter you wanted.
“We get upstairs and clear the first bedroom. When we come out, the woman is standing at the other end of the hallway, just staring at us. If I had been by myself, I would have blamed the whole thing on her for getting lonely and setting off the alarm for company from hot, uniformed studs.”
“You’re thinking of the fire department,” Babyface says. “I don’t care if it was her house. If she was following me around screwing up my search with her weird prayers, I’d have hooked her for 148,” or obstructing an officer.
“Shut up. So as I was saying, we keep going and she’s just standing there, stock still, staring like a friggin’ heroin addict stoned out of her mind, still praying away. We turn away and finish the search. Last room, we go in and lo and behold, we find her in there already, standing in the corner. Seeing my gun aimed at her, she gets all mean-looking and gives me the evil eye. Since I’m a pro and not a dickhead, I don’t pop off and call her out right then and there.”
“You coulda blown her head off,” Babyface said. “You shoulda given her an uncensored piece of your minds.”
‘Stache ignored him. “So yeah, nobody’s upstairs. The house is totally empty. We flip on all the lights, do a secondary search to make sure nobody is hiding under beds, then call it day. We get back outside, and I notice that the woman is gone. She probably stopped following us around somewhere upstairs because the fun’s over. I’m just relieved she didn’t get shot. The sergeant comes up and tells me that the homeowner is on the phone.”
“I told the sergeant I had talked to the reporting party, the woman in the nightgown. He tells me that the reporting party was the alarm company, who called the homeowner on vacation at Disney World. The homeowner wants to know what’s going on. I’m kinda like, ‘Huh, what?’
“The sergeant wants to what the hell I’m talking about. He said there was never anyone else here, just us. So I say ‘She was here when we arrived. I talked to her forever.’ I point to my partner, ‘You saw her. She was following us through the damn house.’”
“My partner looks over at me and says ‘There wasn’t any woman here, ever. I thought you were fuckin’ talking to yourself. I got worried.’ I look at the K-9 guy and he said no one was with us in the house. So I ask them to stop messing with me in no uncertain terms and they all plead the Fifth. Finally they admit to hearing the whispering.
“The K-9 guy goes ‘So that wasn’t you, praying or something?’ ‘Nope.’ Now he goes white as a sheet. He heard it too and told himself it was just me ‘cuz I’m Catholic. Finally, he admits ‘It felt like somebody was watching us the whole time, though, man.’ Turns out, that Fritz and I were the only ones who could see the woman.”
Babyface snickered. “Whatever dude,” he said with a skeptical shake of his head. He rolled up his window and started to eat his lunch.
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Author Don Shift
Don Shift is a veteran of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office and avid fan of post-apocalyptic literature and film who has pushed a black and white for a mile or two. He is a student of disasters, history, and current events.