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Blue Ink

Cop-cum-novelist Mike Balck finds inspiration in the criminal mind.

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Cop-cum-novelist Mike Black finds inspiration in the criminal mind.

By Zak Mucha

It's the night before Halloween, and three people are in custody at the Matteson police station. Darryl and Angie (not their real names) were arrested for "flipping change"--scamming store clerks--in a strip mall; when the cops searched Darryl they discovered that he was wearing a home-arrest bracelet. Sergeant Mike Black is questioning him in a small interview room.

"Oh, man, I didn't steal no money," says Darryl. "They just gave me extra."

The third detainee is a guy who allegedly tried to pass a bad check at Best Buy. When he was arrested he refused to give his name, then signed his fingerprint card with the name from the bogus check.

Another sergeant comes out of an interview room with Angie's convoluted statement, shaking his head. "Hey, Mike," he says, "how do you spell 'grassy knoll'?"

Black laughs.

In 22 years on the force Black has heard a lot of stories. Four years ago he started turning some of them into short stories and novels. His short stories have been published in Ellery Queen and in anthologies such as Hardboiled, 100 Crooked Little Crime Stories, and 100 Dastardly Little Detective Stories. His 1997 novel, Melody of Vengeance, was serialized in Double Danger Tales.

Last December Gryphon published Black's novella The Satan Plague, and this December, Fading Shadows Press will publish another novel, Desert Shadows. Both of them are Doc Atlas stories, Black's nod to the old Doc Savage series he discovered when he was a kid growing up in Blue Island. He still remembers paying 50 cents for his first Doc Savage novel, Fear Cay. Doc Savage--Lester Dent's perfect physical specimen and scientific genius who traverses the world fighting crime, catching spies, and investigating mysterious phenomena--became Black's hero. When Black was 11 he began studying martial arts; he now holds a black belt in tae kwon do and runs three and a half miles a day--he's now run that distance for almost 1,900 consecutive days.

Black went on to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ian Fleming, but he never forgot Dent. He wrote his first story when he was in grade school--a mystery in which the killer turns out to be a cop.

After Black graduated from Northern Illinois University, he served in Vietnam and Korea for four years as an army MP. Then he came back to the south suburbs and joined the police force.

Four years ago Black and his pal Ray Lovato decided to try writing stories in the style of the Doc Savage books. "At first we were just joking," says Black, "but he wrote a short story that got things going. We came up with an informal agreement that he would write about the characters prior to World War II and I would write about them after." They also agreed to collaborate on any stories set during the war, though they haven't done that yet. Black has set his stories in the 50s. "They're pulp," he says, "but fun to write."

Black is also finishing his master's degree at Columbia College. He's in the fiction-writing program, which he credits with helping him complete drafts of two novels: "Sacrificial Offerings," a police procedural, and "Windy City Knights," a detective novel about a cop moonlighting with his security and detective business. He has plenty of material to write more.

"Darryl wants to talk to the sergeant," says a cop as he pokes his head into the office where Black is sitting. Darryl's record has come up showing 32 arrests; Angie's shows 52. All but a few charges are minor, and there are even fewer convictions.

Darryl and Angie have been sitting in the lockup for a couple of hours now. Angie has already given her statement and signed a "voluntary admission," acknowledging that she distracted a clerk while Darryl shuffled bills.

Darryl is barely sitting still in the interview room.

"How bad is your habit?" Black asks.

"How do you know about habits, sarge?" Darryl says, laughing. "No, I don't got no habit. I just snort."

Black asks what happened today.

"Motherfucker just lucked up all that money," Darryl says. He pauses. "It's like, y'all ain't dumb. You been around a long time. I been doing this a long time. I know I'm in a fucked-up position. Know what I'm saying? This motherfucker's in a fucked-up position. I need some help."

Black and one of his partners, Dave Gryczewski, agree, then ask how many stores Darryl hit during the day. They're suspicious because he was carrying a few hundred dollars more than he got in the store where he was apparently caught on video.

Darryl talks but doesn't answer. He keeps interrupting himself, saying, "Know what I mean?" Suddenly he pulls up his pant legs and begins scratching his shins furiously, another sign of heroin withdrawal. Eventually he admits to conning one clerk and getting away with it, then conning another and getting caught. He adds that he's willing to go to detox.

Black types out Darryl's statement, omitting the redundant phrases and useless information, then hands it to Darryl to read.

Darryl slowly reads it. Finally he announces, "I think I want a lawyer."

Black shrugs. "OK," he says.

Darryl is ushered out of the room, and the guy who tried to pass a bad check is ushered in. The cops now know his name because his wife called the station looking for him. Black tells him she called.

Calvin (not his real name), in denim pants and shirt with tan snakeskin shoes, slouches in his chair and laughs. "Was she pissed? We're supposed to go to a masquerade party tonight."

Calvin seems happy to cooperate with the officers. He seems sure they can only get him for a misdemeanor because he only tried to buy $50 worth of stuff with the bad check. "That's why you try a test run for $50 or $60--so it's not a felony," he says. "So it don't spoil the drama later." But he's wrong.

Calvin gives the name of the pickpocket he bought the checks from and says it was the pickpocket who actually signed the checks. "When he gets work he lets me know," says Calvin. "You pay him up-front, but he goes with to make sure it works. But he left when he saw all the action. I didn't sign the check. I just practiced so I can sign like him."

"It doesn't matter if you did or not," says Gryczewski.

"You passed the check over," says Joe Martica, another partner who's stepped into the room.

"I swear I didn't sign them," Calvin insists. "I just practiced."

Calvin is shown the check he swears he didn't sign and the fingerprint sheet the cops saw him sign.

"They look a lot alike, Calvin," Gryczewski says. "Why is that?"

"I told you, I been practicing a lot." Calvin pauses. "How about I can get you the guy who signed them? Get him in here and get him to say he did."

"Oh, he's going to come in and admit to a felony?"

"That's why we got to trick him," Calvin says as he's led back to his cell.

Black now has to find the owner of the checkbook Calvin used. And Calvin let drop that he too has a heroin problem. "I'm going to get him some coffee with lots of sugar," Black says. "He's not going to be feeling good."

A minute later another cop enters the office. "Calvin says he has Crohn's disease and he feels an attack coming. That's an intestinal thing, right?"

"Yeah," Black says. "I think so. Diarrhea."

A younger cop laughs and says, "Give him a block of cheese and tell him to straighten that out."

Just before Black's shift ends, at 11 PM, a call comes in saying a car has crashed through a house. Apparently a couple of kids borrowed their mother's car and left it in someone's living room. Black heads out to his car and drives to the scene.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni, illustration/Tim Faurote.

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