Deirdre Schmidt patted the dashboard affectionately as she pulled her rusty Toyota Corona into the parking lot of 620 West Washington, Phoenix Police Headquarters. “Atta girl, Bessie.” The temperature gauge was nearing the ‘red zone’ and the ten-year-old lime-green bucket of bolts was on the verge of overheating. Deirdre, too, was on the verge of overheating. The Corona had no air conditioning and was a veritable steam box in the hot and muggy summer weather—monsoon season in Phoenix—as Deirdre’s sweat-soaked hair and clothes attested. The old tin-can of a car was also desperate for a tune-up after making the 1,300-mile drive from Hope, Arkansas – Deirdre’s hometown for all of her twenty-six years. Despite its name, the town of Hope had held none for Deidre.
While the old green clunker wasn’t much to look at, it was all the material wealth Deirdre had to her name, save for a suitcase full of well-worn clothes and the meager household sundries she managed to hold on to after Newt, her husband of six years, abandoned her and their five-year-old, Tad. Newt had run off with a seventeen-year-old waitress he’d met at an IHOP in Little Rock, scraping their checking account clean when he left. The money she’d pulled together by pawning her wedding and engagement rings was just enough to pay a private investigator for a preliminary skip trace.
“He’s in Arizona,” the P.I. had said. “It’ll cost you more to find out where, exactly.”
But Deirdre didn’t have more money. She did, however, have a car and a steely determination to find the bastard. If it was the last thing she’d do, she would hunt him down, drag his two-timing ass to court for a divorce and sue him for back child support.
And, now, here she was. In Arizona. Hurting, desperate, and broke…but not broken.
Deidre cut the ignition and made her way to the front of the four-story police headquarters. The glass façade of the main entrance loomed before her like the beacon of a welcoming lighthouse. In the glass, she caught her reflection—perspiring, hair stuck to her temples, sweat rings under her arms, her cotton sundress a wrinkled mess. No wonder he left me, she thought. She tidied her hair and wiped the sweat from her face before entering.
Inside, the lobby was filled with an assortment of navy-blue uniforms and off-the-rack suits—beat cops and detectives—all milling about, looking officious and puffed up with self-importance. To her left was the lobby’s front “desk”—a long, elevated counter behind which two uniformed officers buzzed about and, behind them, a bank of video monitors. Across the lobby, opposite the desk, was a door marked “Press Room” and, just beyond that door, an expanse of wall bearing nine framed, oversized portraits of officers who had died in the line of duty, dating back to the first: Officer Haze Burch, gunned down in 1925.
The mix of the quasi-military atmosphere and the memorialized fallen was sobering to the usually unflappable Deirdre, and intimidating—a swarm of butterflies began to break-dance in her stomach. A bad case of the jitters brought her to a halt in the dead center of the lobby.
“Can I help you?”
Deirdre’s head swung in the direction of the voice. A whale of an officer behind the front desk motioned her over. Deirdre mustered her courage and approached the desk and the imposing officer behind it. She noticed the gold name tag pinned above the officer’s breast pocket which read: ‘S. Stoneman #1112.’
“What can I do for you today, Miss?” Officer Stoneman’s eyes twinkled with genuine delight, taking Deirdre by surprise. The heavy mood of the lobby suddenly lightened—though not nearly enough to quell her nerves.
“Yes, I’m here for a job interview. I was told to ask for a Sergeant Pinkus.”
Stoneman, whose round, ruddy face was topped by a severe salt-and-pepper crewcut, lit up with curiosity. “Fantastic! Are you applying for the Communications Operator One or Two position?”
“One, I think,” Deirdre replied.
Stoneman’s face fell; the twinkle in his eyes faded. “Oh.”, he said. “Well, that’s not such a bad way to start, I guess. Some Com Op Ones have been able to move up into radio, to become Com Op Twos.” He paused while sizing her up: Mid-twenties, slender, and petite. With her dark, pixie-style hair, large hazel eyes, and classic features, she reminded him of Audrey Hepburn in the movie, Sabrina. He cast an encouraging smile upon her, to calm her obvious nerves.
“But, hey, you look like a pretty smart cookie. I bet you’ll move up in no time.” He gave her a wink and slid his clipboard across the desk. “Can I have your autograph, young lady?”
Deirdre signed, unable to hide the trembling of her hand.
“Okay,” he said, pausing to look down at his clipboard, “Deirdre Schmidt.” He handed her a visitor badge. “Clip that to your blouse, please,” then pointed a stubby index finger at the elevators on the opposite side of the lobby. “Take the elevator down to the basement. When you exit the elevator, make a hard right and stop at the double-glass security doors; I’ll buzz you in.” The twinkle returned to his eyes as he motioned at the video monitors behind him, “I’ll be watching you.”
Deirdre gave him a tense smile in return, mumbled an inaudible ‘Thank-you, Officer Stoneman’, and hurried toward the elevator.
“Call me ‘Stony’!” he yelled after her, eliciting the attention of the many uniforms and suits milling about the lobby. “And don’t be so nervous! Pinkus won’t bite…much!“
Aware she’d become the center of attention, Deirdre was relieved when the elevator door finally opened and swallowed her whole. She used the few precious seconds alone in the elevator to calm herself. She had to get this job. There was no plan ‘B’ to fall back on. She had just enough left of the money her parents had loaned her to make the month’s rent, and that was it. The temp jobs she’d been able to land were sporadic and paid only minimum wage—barely enough to feed herself and Tad.
Deirdre exited the elevator ready for battle. As she approached the double doors, the buzzer began sounding. She looked up and found herself staring into the lens of a security camera perched above the doors. She waved at the camera, knowing that Stony, the corpulent officer at the front desk, was watching her on the monitor, likely with voyeuristic pleasure. Stony answered her wave with a series of short, teasing buzzes. Deirdre grabbed for the door, failing again and again to pull it open before the buzzing stopped. Finally, a long protracted buzz sounded, giving Deirdre the opportunity to open the door.
The security doors led into a long narrow hall. As Deirdre made her way, Officer Stoneman’s quick, teasing buzzes continued behind her, growing fainter as she neared the end of the hall. On her left, she passed a door marked ‘Crime Lab.’ The end of the hallway veered right to a shorter hallway at the end of which was a single glass security door. A small plaque to the right of the door read ‘Communications Bureau,’ and just below it, another sign, ‘Press button for entry.’
Deirdre pressed the button. Through the glass, she saw an older woman, about sixty, with fuzzy hair dyed a canary yellow, typing at a desk in the small reception area. Her head snapped up in response to the buzzer. Seeing Deirdre, she reached under her desk and buzzed her in.
“Are you here for the interview, dear?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m here to see a Sergeant Pinkus about the Communications Operator One position. The woman who called me yesterday asked me to be here at nine.”
“That was me, hon. I’m Hazel, the one who called you,” the kindly woman said as she returned to her typewriter. “Did you have any problems finding us? Folks who aren’t familiar with downtown Phoenix sometimes have a hard time with all the one-way streets and rush-hour traffic.”
“No, no problem at all,” said Deirdre. Truth was, she was indeed confused by the many one-way streets, and the big five-point intersection at Seventh, Grand Avenue, and Van Buren was unlike anything she’d ever seen in her hometown of Hope, Arkansas, population 10,018. During her fifteen-minute drive, she’d lost count of the number of times she’d been honked at by pissed-off drivers.
“Oh, sweetie. I’m so glad. When I first started here, I remember getting so turned around by those gosh darn one-ways that I almost quit my first week. But after a while, like everything else in life, you get used to it. Go ahead, hon, take a seat and make yourself comfortable. I’ll page Sergeant Pinkus for you. It won’t be but a minute.”
Sure enough, in less than a minute, he appeared. He was unexpectedly young—early thirties—obviously fit, and impeccably groomed. He was dressed in street clothes, crisp and perfectly pressed. Clean-shaven with light brown hair neatly trimmed, he wore the signature haircut of all the police officers Deirdre had so far seen.
Handsome, Deirdre thought, though the wedding ring he wore pushed any attraction she might have felt right out the window.
“Good morning,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Sergeant Pinkus, the administrative supervisor for the Communications Bureau. Deirdre, is it?”
Pinkus’ voice caught Deirdre off guard. It was soft and boyish with a slight lisp. The voice, Deirdre thought, didn’t quite fit the image of the man standing before her.
“Yes, it’s Deirdre, but I go by Dee,” she said as shook his outreached hand. She couldn’t help notice how nicely manicured his nails were, and how soft his skin felt. He was not at all what she had expected.
Pinkus showed her into a tiny office and offered her a seat in a hard, plastic chair.
“Thank you for coming in this morning and on such short notice.”
“It was kind of a shock to get called so quickly – I received my test results in the mail on Monday and Hazel called the next morning. I wasn’t expecting to get called, actually. I only scored an eighty-three on the exam …”
“Oh, that’s a good score! Your score was in the 90th percentile.”
“Really?” asked Dee, pleasantly surprised.
Pinkus forged ahead: “Let me tell you a little bit about the position…”
He spoke so softly, Dee had to lean forward and strain her ears to hear him.
“…as a Communications Operator One, your responsibilities will be to answer the Crime Stop calls and, if an officer is needed, enter the information into a computer terminal to send to the radio dispatcher. Up to now, this job has been performed by police officers. However, the officers are being phased out of this job and replaced with specially-trained civilians. We’ve already trained ten civilians into this position over the past couple of months, all clerks who transferred in from our Information Bureau, and they’ve worked out very well. Now we’re ready to get more of the officers back on the street. If you’re accepted, you’ll be among the first group of outside hires, fifteen civilians in all, and we would like to fill these positions as soon as possible.”
Pinkus leaned back in his chair. “Are you still interested?”
“Yes!” Dee stated, trying hard to sound confident.
“Good!” Pinkus removed the paper clip from her application papers, shuffled through them, giving each page a quick scan. He looked up, somewhat surprised. “You have a bachelor’s degree from Southern Arkansas University?”
“And you teach first-grade?”
“Not anymore. I had to leave my job when I left Arkansas.”
“You’ve come a long way. Why the move?”
“Looking for a new start, mostly.”
“How long have you been in Arizona?”
Dee looked at her watch. “What time is it?” she joked, garnering a laugh from Pinkus. “About a month now,” she said, inwardly reflective.
Dee thought about what a nightmare the last month had been. First the long drive from Arkansas in the hottest part of the summer, with no air conditioning, Tad’s constant crying for his daddy, and frequent stops to put water in Bessie’s cracked radiator. And, now, living out of a cheap motel room, working a succession of menial, soul-sucking temp jobs she groveled to get that paid only minimum wage, a scant $2.65 an hour. All just so she and Tad could afford the boxed macaroni and cheese and hot dogs they’d been eating most every night for the past month.
“Well, welcome to Arizona. So, why not teach here?”
“I’m not certified here. I looked into substitute teaching but, honestly, the pay is less than what this job offers, and there’s no guarantee of steady work.”
“I see. Do you think someone with your level of education might get bored with this type of job?”
“No. No, I don’t think so. It’s got to be more interesting than wiping runny noses all day long,” Dee said, laughing.
Pinkus laughed with her. “So what are your career plans for the future? Where do you see yourself in five years?”
“Oh, uh…” The question stymied her—the future was a luxury she literally couldn’t afford to entertain at this time in her life. All her thoughts, actions, and energy were completely spent on surviving her immediate circumstances. She floundered helplessly with the question until Officer Stoneman’s words popped into her head, bobbing up and down like a life preserver. She grabbed on: “Work my way into radio? And continue climbing from there, if possible?”
Pinkus responded with a slight grimace. “Except for transferring into dispatch, this is pretty much a dead-end job. Beyond radio, there’s really nowhere for civilians to rise to here in the Communications Bureau.”
“Oh. Well …” Dee felt as if she’d blown the question. She felt as if she were drowning in failure and, with that one simple answer, she’d blown the whole interview. Her gut wrenched at the thought of not getting the job; at the thought of hunger and homelessness; at the thought of never finding Newt, never getting the divorce finalized or the child support he owed. Worse was the thought of having to go back to Arkansas and face her parents.
Arkansas. She swore she’d never go back to that godforsaken place and, now, it looked like her worst nightmare was all but a certainty.
“But you will get regular pay increases over the years. And we pay a generous differential for working the afternoon and graveyard shifts. Plus, there’s plenty of opportunity for overtime, at time-and-a-half, if you’re willing to work a double shift when needed.”
Pinkus’ encouraging words brought her back from the brink of despair. Deidre found herself nodding like a bobble-head doll. “Yes, of course! I could definitely see myself here in five years. I mean, the pay is decent and I hear the City offers good benefits.”
“Oh, yes, the benefits! Paid sick leave, and we’ve got a great HMO plan, especially if you have a family.”
Dee perked right up. “That would be great!”
“Do you?” Pinkus asked, glancing at her naked ring finger.
“Do I what?” Dee asked, confused.
“Have a family?”
“Yes! Yes, I have a son, Thadeus. Tad, for short. He’s five.”
“No…husband?” Pinkus asked, treading carefully.
Dee shook her head. She didn’t want to talk about her ex. She couldn’t, not without losing her composure.
Pinkus sensed her discomfort and abruptly changed the subject.
“Now, for the negatives of the job. It can get stressful, especially when the calls back up, and you’ll sometimes have to deal with difficult people and tense situations. How are you under pressure?”
“Pretty good, I think. I mean, if I can handle a roomful of screaming six-year-olds…” she joked, hoping to cut the tension still lingering from Pinkus’ previous question.
Pleased, Pinkus pushed on. “Good! And working weekends and shift work? As a new-hire, you’ll most likely have to work second or third shift until you gain enough seniority to move to days.”
“No problem,” Dee stated emphatically. She was lying, of course. She had absolutely no idea how she’d manage Tad if she had to work nights. She knew no one in Phoenix whom she could enlist as a 24/7 babysitter. But if she got the job, she’d figure something out, some way, somehow.
Pinkus, looking quite satisfied, re-ordered Dee’s application papers and secured them with the clip.
“Excellent!” Pinkus rose from behind his desk and started for the door. “Let me give you a tour of the department and show you our set-up.”
Dee followed him down a narrow corridor. Running parallel along the left side of the corridor was a long and narrow room filled with metal lockers.
“Each employee is assigned a locker for securing their headsets and work materials when they’re off-duty.”
A few feet further down the hall he paused in front of an alcove on the left, consisting of a sink, coffeemaker, microwave, and fridge. “We have a small kitchen area where many employees make their lunches. Those who work the graveyard shift really don’t have anywhere to go out to lunch, so the kitchen is a necessity. There’s also a small breakroom right across from the kitchen with a TV and sofa and chairs. A lot of employees like to take naps on their lunch breaks, especially those on the graveyard shift. Straight ahead, through that door, is our tape room. All Crime Stop calls and radio transmissions are recorded. One of the job responsibilities for this position is to change the tape when the alarm board signals a tape is close to its end.”
Pinkus then turned to the right and motioned Dee forward toward a ramp striped with friction tape. “Watch your step,” he cautioned.
At the end of the ramp, he led Dee past the secretaries and sergeants’ desk and into the phone room. “This is where the Crime Stop calls come in,” Pinkus shouted over the clamor. He approached one of the desk consoles where a thirtyish woman was on a call:
“No, sir. Yes, sir, that’s correct. You’re very welcome. Have a nice day,” she said into her mouthpiece, then punched a button on her phone console to disconnect the call.
“Dee, this is Martha Lee. Martha was one of the Information Bureau clerks I told you about who was part of our civilian trial run.”
Martha and Dee exchanged nods. Pinkus motioned toward Martha’s CRT monitor.
“How’re the monitors working out for you?” he asked, then looked up at the overhead fluorescent lighting. “Quite a bit of glare from the overheads, I see.”
Martha adjusted her glasses. “Yeah, by the end of the day, I can definitely feel the strain on my eyes.”
“I’ll look into it,” Pinkus promised, then turned back to Dee. Before he could speak, a bell began to chime. Pinkus pointed to the two multi-colored lightboxes mounted high up in the front of the room.
“If all the Crime Stop lines are busy, the callers get a recording instructing them to hold for the next available emergency operator. When calls are holding, the boxes on those two posts light up and a bell sounds.”
Just then, a small man burst through the radio room door, barking, “Pick up those goddamn calls, people!”
“Ahem!” coughed Pinkus, demanding the little man’s attention. The little man did an abrupt about-face, saw Pinkus and Dee, and froze. He stood, transfixed, staring at Dee.
“Sergeant Hook, this is Deirdre Schmidt. She’s interviewing for the Com Op One position.”
Hook just kept staring. Dee extended her hand. Hook’s hand rose in reflex and absently shook her hand, all while he stared dumbly at the woman. After a long moment, Dee tactfully withdrew her hand, the action of which broke Hook from his spell. His face melted into a silly school-boy smile as he nodded his head up and down in a clownish fashion, backed away, and bumped into the edge of the radio room doorway before scurrying out of sight.
Pinkus watched his comic departure with amusement before continuing: “When people have a crime to report, they either call Crime Stop directly or the telephone operator who connects them. Not all the calls we get are emergencies; some are low priority, like reporting a lost wallet or wanting the Traffic Court’s phone number. Other calls may be urgent, where an officer is needed quickly, but it’s not necessarily an emergency—a family squabble, for example. Still, other calls are emergencies, and are of the highest priority—anything involving a weapon, or a serious injury, or a crime in progress, are what we refer to as “hot” calls. So you can see, if you’ve just been robbed, or have been injured and need an ambulance, the last thing you want to hear when you call the police for help is a recording.”
Dee nodded, acknowledging the gravity of the job, realizing the responsibility she would be accepting should she be offered the position. As she followed Pinkus back to his office, she hoped, prayed, and inwardly begged he’d make such an offer:
“I’d like to offer you the position. If you need time to think about—”
Pinkus was taken aback. “You don’t want the position?”
“No, I mean, yes. I mean, no, I don’t need time to think about it. And, yes, I do want the position.”
“Excellent! We just need to get you set up for a background check and polygraph examination.”
Pinkus noted the alarm on Dee’s face. “A lie detector test. Don’t worry; it’s little more than a formality. All police personnel have to fill out a background questionnaire and undergo a polygraph.” Pinkus paused, then added, “You shouldn’t have any problem, providing you’ve not taken any illicit drugs within the past six months.”
Of course, she hadn’t. She didn’t do drugs; never had. She didn’t know why that was, exactly. Perhaps it was her strict Southern Baptist upbringing and being the only daughter of Hope, Arkansas’ favorite pastor. Perhaps it was part of being a responsible parent. Or perhaps it was just that the opportunity had never presented itself.
A few seconds of deathly silence passed before Dee realized Pinkus was expecting her response.
“That won’t be a problem, will it?”
“No! No problem with that, whatsoever.”
Pinkus’ momentary concern gave way to relief. “Excellent. Hazel will give you the background questionnaire to take home with you. Human Resources is pushing us to get these positions filled A.S.A.P, so the sooner you can get the questionnaire back to us, the better.”
“I can fill it out now; I’ve got a few minutes before I need to leave.”
Pinkus shook his head. “It’s over ten pages long. It’ll take you more than a few minutes. More like a couple hours. And it needs to be accurate down to the last detail. Don’t leave anything out.”
He rose from his desk and led Dee out into the small lobby where Hazel, the police aide, was still busy typing.
“Hazel, see to it that Deirdre gets the background packet.”
Without turning away from her typewriter, Hazel patted a thick manila envelope lying atop her desk with one hand. “It’s right here, ready to go.”
Pinkus grabbed the envelope and handed it to Dee. “Tomorrow would be fine. You can just drop it off at the front desk upstairs. Hazel will call you afterward to schedule your polygraph.” He reached out and softly shook her hand.
Dee returned his handshake with a grip so firm and eager it surprised them both.
Pinkus smiled and reluctantly withdrew his hand. “Do you remember how to get back to the elevator?”
“Yes, I think so, “she said, her voice filled with excitement. “Thank you so much.”
“My pleasure,” Pinkus said, rubbing the hand she’d squeezed as he watched her depart. “My pleasure entirely.”