The Powdered Metal Bullet: Detective Short Fiction By James English
James English, author “The Powdered Metal Bullet”, has previously published short fiction in The Healing Muse, Hobart, The Drum, and Baltimore Review. The Radio Theatre Project recently produced his short play about a retired detective, “Saint Rita,” for an online audience.
Detective Maurice Polion was researching a cold case in the basement of the Bangor police station when he came across an old newspaper clipping in a water-stained file. A sergeant named Charles Martin had died seven months after being shot in a domestic disturbance. On July 22nd, 1960, he was entering a house in the Fairmount section when the husband opened fire. Sgt. Martin managed to push the wife out of the way, but he was hit in the chest with a .22 bullet.
According to the story in The Bangor Daily Times, Sgt. Martin had shouted at the husband after the man had wounded him. Det. Polion squinted at the brown, crinkled sheet of newsprint; he’d never heard of a cop yelling at his shooter. He brought the clipping to the one desk in the basement with a decent reading lamp and put on his glasses. The story noted that Sgt. Martin kept the enraged husband pinned down in the kitchen, which allowed his wife to run to the house of a neighbor, who called the police. Two cruisers from Bangor and one from Brewer showed up within minutes, followed by an ambulance and several more vehicles. Officers surrounded the house and the husband surrendered.
Sgt. Martin was rushed to Bangor Memorial, where doctors were unsure whether to operate, since the bullet had broken apart when it hit a rib and damaged a lung. In the end, they removed what minor metal fragments they could find and sewed him up. Sgt. Martin spent a month recuperating and then returned to duty. TheDaily Times wrote two follow-up stories about Sgt. Martin’s bravery and then they stopped. Seven months later, Martin suffered a heart attack while on the job and died. Officers who died in the line of duty were recognized by their department, the reporter noted with dry detachment, but Martin was not.
Sgt. Martin was rushed to Bangor Memorial, where doctors were unsure whether to operate, since the bullet had broken apart when it hit a rib and damaged a lung.
Det. Polion put the clipping down and looked at the Old Town Autobody calendar on the cinderblock wall. In six months, it would be the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Martin’s death.
It was late February in Maine. Bangor was covered in two feet of snow and people were getting tired of the cold. Already, they were talking about when the ice in the Penobscot River would break up. Det. Polion didn’t mind the winter—he’d grown up in Maine and had weathered 46 winters—but recently, a strange restlessness had settled over him. It felt like the mildest of fevers and caused a nagging disorientation. His work felt repetitive and lacking in substance; some days he hungered for something bigger than himself.
The wife in TheDaily Times story, Hessie Pollinger, had told a reporter what Sgt. Martin had shouted after he was shot; the reporter had put the words in the second paragraph of her article. As the officer lay in the Pollinger’s dining room with a shattered .22 slug in his chest, he yelled to Gerard Pollinger: “Come out. You’ve already got me, but I’m not done yet. Come out before I get you.”
Det. Polion brought the clipping upstairs and put it in his desk drawer. While he couldn’t imagine admitting that he was wounded to an armed and jealous husband, what caught his attention was the “I’m not done yet.” Could there be something else, in a different part of his life, that Sgt. Martin hadn’t finished? Why admit that to a violent criminal? Det. Polion tried to forget the incident, but something about it kept tugging at him.
A week after he came across the story, he requested Sgt. Martin’s death certificate in the vital records department at Bangor City Hall. When the clerk asked for an I.D. and proof of lineage, Det. Polion showed her his badge and said he was investigating a line-of-duty death. The clerk waived the $10 fee and made him a copy of the paper, which he brought out to his car.
He’d read death certificates before and knew where to look: “Enter the chain of events—diseases, injuries, or complications—that directly caused the death.” The Medical Examiner’s entry was cruel in its austerity: “Coronary thrombosis.”
Det. Polion felt his throat constrict. The line should’ve said: “Shooting victim 7/22/60. Coronary thrombosis the result of work-related stress and previous trauma.” A full and honest entry would have opened an inquiry into a line-of-duty death, which would’ve given Sgt. Martin the recognition he deserved, but no one in the department had gone to bat for him. Why not?
He contacted the Bangor police officer who’d first responded to the call. They met for lunch at Joshua’s, a pub across the river in Brewer; it was a Monday and the place was mostly empty. The waitress seated them next to a wall with old Maine license plates tacked to the wood. Mr. Mulcahey was in his late seventies and squinted at Det. Polion through eyes that seemed full of watery milk. After they’d ordered, he asked Mulcahey about the shooting, but all the man could remember was Mrs. Pollinger’s terror and how one of Mr. Pollinger’s shell casings bounced all the way down the cellar stairs.
“Speaking of bullets,” Det. Polion said. “Why did the slug that hit Sgt. Martin’s rib disintegrate?”
“I forgot that part,” Mulcahey said. He rolled his rheumy eyes back, as if searching for a long-departed memory. “Some .22 bullets are made of compressed powdered metal and used at shooting ranges. What do you folks use these days?”
“I’m not sure.” Det. Polion tried to sip his beer as if he wasn’t in a hurry, but time pressed on him. The 50th anniversary of Sgt. Martin’s wounding would arrive in a few months; he needed to know why the officer had been neglected. “Why wasn’t Sgt. Martin classified as a line-of-duty death?”
“Some .22 bullets are made of compressed powdered metal and used at shooting ranges. What do you folks use these days?”
Mulcahey leaned into the table. “He died seven months later. Too much time had passed.”
“I’m pretty sure the shooting caused his heart attack. Why didn’t someone get him recognition?”
“People were busy.”
“Too busy to recognize a colleague? He saved Mrs. Pollinger’s life..”
“I don’t think he wanted the recognition.”
“The matter is out of his hands. Someone needs to defend him.”
Mulcahey took a sip of his beer. “Martin hated publicity. A few days after the shooting, someone posted The Daily Times story about him in the station. He took it down.”
“Didn’t his wife want him to get recognition?”
“That’s another story.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know the details. I kept out of it.”
“Kept out of what?”
Their waitress served their burgers and fries. Mulcahey picked up the ketchup. “Aren’t you busy with your regular case load? When I was on the force, I could barely keep up.” He tucked his napkin into his shirt and pointed out the window. “When do you think the ice on the river is going to break up?”
“I don’t know.”
“Remember last year? Everyone was talking about a deer that got trapped on a big piece of ice up on the Allagash. Word got out and pretty soon people were lining up on the banks of the river and taking pictures. Everyone was rooting for that deer to get off the ice safely.” He shook his head. “That story got more ink in The Daily Times than anything about the police.”
Albert Dalrimple, the former DA who prepared the case against Gerard Pollinger, met Det. Polion in his retirement home in Gardiner. They sat in an alcove of the dining room and ate grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. Polion told Mr. Dalrimple he believed Sgt. Martin should’ve been a line-of-duty death, given the shooting and the heart attack, and why didn’t he order an autopsy.
“I should have,” Dalrimple said, wincing. His hands shook so much that he finally gave up trying to eat his soup. “I don’t have many regrets about the job, but that’s one of them.”
The confession gave Det. Polion a few moments of satisfaction, but they didn’t last. “After Sgt. Martin died, why didn’t anyone put in a request for a line-of-duty death?”
“I can’t say for sure,” Dalrimple said, picking up one half of his sandwich and managing to take a bite. “If you want to know the truth, I was surprised they let him become a cop.”
“He wore his badge on his sleeve. He’d question a suspect and end up telling them information he should’ve kept to himself.” He paused. “You know what he said to that Pollinger guy after Pollinger shot him?”
“I don’t remember many details from old cases, but I remember that. ‘Come out. I don’t want to kill you, but I will if I have to.’” He paused again. “Why the hell did he say that?”
“You sure he said that?”
“That’s what the newspaper said.”
“Maybe he was trying to get Pollinger to surrender.”
“So he tells Pollinger he doesn’t want to kill him? That’s the last thing I’d tell someone who’d just shot me.”
Det. Polion felt the back of his neck tighten. “All I know is that Sgt. Martin saved Mrs. Pollinger’s life and died seven months later.”
“You’ll have to talk to her about that.”
Det. Polion had wondered about that himself. After the shooting, Hessie Pollinger had moved to a different part of Bangor and kept a low profile. Det. Polion had looked for mention of her in The Daily Times, but there was nothing. He’d gone back to City Hall to see if she’d gotten divorced, but Vital Records had no information; he didn’t look to see if she’d remarried. Mr. Pollinger, he knew, had been sent to the state prison in Thomaston; he died shortly after he was released in 1974. “What happened to Hessie Pollinger?”
Dalrimple shrugged. “That’s another story.”
Det. Polion got involved in a counterfeit jewelry case that took him to Lewiston and Auburn; he wrenched his back in a traffic stop and needed several sessions of physical therapy. After work one afternoon, he was going through more issues of The Times when he discovered that Sgt. Martin had a stepdaughter who lived in Florida. He tracked down her information and left her a voice mail. A few days later, Beverly Gosselin called him back. Det. Polion told her of his interest in her father’s case and asked if he could visit. She agreed to a meeting, but she said she got tired easily and wouldn’t be able to talk for long. Two weeks later, he flew to Orlando on a Saturday morning and drove to the town of Heathrow.
Mrs. Gosselin lived in a two-bedroom house on the edge of a narrow canal. She was divorced and had long gray hair held in a ponytail. Her eyes shone with a sad intensity and her fingertips had indentations from her part-time work as a seamstress. They sat on her porch, drinking iced tea, and chatted about Bangor.
“I asked my mother to join us,” Mrs. Gosselin said. “But she wasn’t feeling well.”
“Where does she live?”
She nodded behind her. “Down the street. So, tell me what you’ve learned.”
Det. Polion started talking. He hadn’t talked with anyone about Sgt. Martin except his wife. He didn’t want his colleagues to think he was obsessed; he wasn’t obsessed. He just wanted to understand why Sgt. Martin hadn’t been recognized. He told Mrs. Gosselin that he had deep respect for her stepfather’s service and wondered if going back to work after being shot had been difficult for him. He told her that he hoped he wasn’t alone when he died.
His voice rising, Det. Polion said he’d learned that her stepfather was a modest man, but still, he deserved to have his name on the bronze plaque in the Bangor station house. A case could be made that he should be on the Maine Law Enforcement Memorial in Augusta as well.
Mrs. Gosselin stared at the canal. “I thought you had to die in the line of duty to get on that.”
“I think a strong case can be made for your stepfather. He put himself in harm’s way and should’ve waited longer before returning to work. From everything I’ve read, his injury was serious. I don’t think he was fully recovered when he went back to work.”
Mrs. Gosselin’s cheeks tightened. “How do you know that?’
He shrugged. “It’s just a feeling. I can’t explain it.”
Mrs. Gosselin nodded. “I remember when my stepfather went back. My mother was upset. ‘You almost died and you want to go back to the same job?’ she said. ‘Think about Beverly. Think about me.’”
Det. Polion nodded. “How did he convince her?”
“He didn’t. One day, he just got up, put on his uniform, and drove down to the station. They never talked about it again.” She put down her glass of tea. “So, how else can I help?”
“During the gun battle with Mr. Pollinger, your stepfather said he wasn’t done yet. What was he talking about?”
“He wasn’t my stepfather at the time of the shooting. He didn’t become my stepfather until four months later. I thought you knew that.”
Det. Polion shook his head. “Was there something your stepfather hadn’t finished at the time of the shooting?”
“He didn’t know what it was until he got shot.”
“That your life can take shape in a split second. That’s what he told me. That his life took shape the moment he was shot.” Mrs. Gosselin’s lips started to tremble. “What are you going to do when you get back?”
Det. Polion wanted to ask how a bullet gave shape to her stepfather’s life, but Mrs. Gosselin’s reaction made him hold back. He put the fob to his rental car on the porch table. “I have a little more research to finish, but when I’m done, I’m going to prepare a report to give to the Police Memorial Committee in Augusta. I want to start at the top.”
“I appreciate all your effort, and I know my mother will too, but if my stepfather were alive, he’d say that he got his recognition.” She sighed. “Even if it was short-lived, he got recognition.”
“His name in the paper and the gratitude of a lot of people.”
“Especially Mrs. Pollinger, I would imagine.”
Mrs. Gosselin’s cheeks started to tremble again. “Yes.”
“Whatever happened to her?”
She stood. “Thank you so much for visiting.”
In April of 2010, Det. Polion wrote the Police Memorial Committee: “As the attached memo shows, Sgt. Charles Martin, of the Bangor Police Department, never fully recovered from his shooting on July 22nd, 1960, and his injuries contributed to his death seven months later. Sgt. Martin was a loyal member of the department and a devoted husband and stepfather. He deserves to be given a line-of duty-death on the 50th anniversary of his wounding.”
Five weeks later, the chairman wrote Det. Polion a brief letter, explaining that a line-of-duty death had to happen within 48 hours of the incident and Sgt. Martin, despite his bravery and service, didn’t qualify.
Det. Polion was eating a ham sandwich in the basement of the station when he read the letter. He threw his paper bag on the floor. How could Sgt. Martin be ignored? He’d given his life to the department. That night, he went home and showed his wife the letter. He said he wanted to leave Maine and find a state that honored its police officers. She talked him off the ledge. A few days later, she asked if she could give his research to the mayor.
“It won’t do any good.”
“C’mon, Maurice. Let’s give it a try.”
Two months passed. Det. Polion got busy again, first with an arson case in North Bangor and then with a corruption scandal at the civic center. He put Sgt. Martin out of his mind, even though he remembered him whenever he drove through the Fairmount section of the city. Then, in early June, the mayor’s assistant called and said the city was going to unveil a memorial bench bearing Sgt. Charles Martin’s name in Waterfront Park on the second weekend in July.
Saturday, July 14th, was a beautiful morning, warm and sunny but with a bracing wind coming off the Penobscot. Det. Polion put on his dress uniform and his wife wore the new dress she’d bought at L.L. Bean. Solemn and dignified, they attended Sgt. Martin’s ceremony, along with the Bangor police chief, several members of the mayor’s administration, a cub reporter from The Daily Times, Beverly Gosselin, and her mother Hessie.
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