I like to interject some humor and irony in my mystery thrillers. In An Altar by the River, the Winnebago County employees are less than thrilled with this year’s team building exercise. Sergeant Corky Aleckson narrates.
The small Winnebago County Courthouse conference room was filled to near capacity with deputies, corrections and communications officers, office personnel from the sheriff’s department, county attorneys, and probation officers. The other sheriff’s employees, attorneys, and probation officers either went through the adventure in the two days prior, or were scheduled for the afternoon session. Those who had gone the course were sworn to secrecy about it.
I noticed Smoke and Chief Deputy Mike Kenner standing in the front of the room when I walked in. Smoke blinked his eyes twice to acknowledge me. I scanned the sea of people and spotted Mandy Zubinski, one team member, sitting in a middle row. I took the empty chair to her left.
“Hey,” she offered.
“Hey,” I returned. “Good-sized crowd, lots of teams.”
Most of the people were in jeans and hooded sweatshirts. A few wore sweatpants. A number had on hiking boots, and the rest were in athletic shoes. Two things distinguished the deputies from the civilians: a sidearm and a badge, either attached to a belt, or hanging from a neck chain. A day off from Kevlar vests, at least.
The chief deputy drew his hands together in a loud clap. “All right! If I can have everyone’s attention, we’ll get started.” It took a minute for the din to die. “You all know your team assignments. Is there anyone missing?”
I looked around and located Vince Weber in the back row, to my left. He nodded at me. Donny Nickles from probation was sitting in the second row, and assistant county attorney Stueman was standing against the back wall, to my right. My friend, Sara Speiss was next to him.
Sara caught my glance, smiled, and lifted her eyebrows in a way that said, “I wonder what this exercise will be like?” I smiled back and caught Stueman staring at me in a near scowl. I’m so glad he’s on my team.
“Okay, team up and we’ll hand out your instructions. But do not open them until we say so.”
Mild pandemonium swept through the room as people rose from their seats, waved, and gathered their teams into one area or the next. The space around Weber cleared, so he stood and motioned the rest of us to join him in his corner.
Smoke and Kenner passed out sealed packets to each team as they assembled. When Smoke handed one to me he said, “No peeking.” I rolled my eyes then looked at the thick, sealed envelope. I held it up so the others could get a glimpse.
The chief deputy clapped his hands together again. “Listen up!” We have ten teams, the largest group scheduled. Two of the teams had to switch to this time slot, due to unforeseen conflicts, so we did a little last minute scrambling to add a couple of courses. If there are any glitches, I apologize ahead of time. If you run into any real snags, call me on my cell phone, but with your training, that shouldn’t be necessary. You’ve had to figure your way out of things a time or two.”
I felt Mandy eyes on me and chose not to return the look.
“All right, then. I’ll turn this over to Nathan Gillette from our human resources department to fill you in on the details of the exercise.”
“Thank you, Chief Deputy Kenner.” Gillette’s mustache covered his entire top lip and curled around at the sides, touching his bottom lip. “We researched a number of team building activities, and found one we hope you’ll think is worthwhile, and fun at the same time. You have high stress jobs, dealing with crimes, criminals, victims, and legal proceedings. Your various departments interact on a regular basis, so we determined that’s it’s important to open the lines of communication, build bonds, increase trust. Our hope is this will lead to higher performance and an increase in morale.”
I heard a few quiet groans. Many, if not most of the deputies were not touchy- feely types.
Gillette went on, “It can be easy to point fingers at others when things don’t go the way we think they should, either during an arrest, or in court proceedings, or with probation. We want to move away from that. Hopefully, by getting to know each other better, and working together on this exercise, you’ll feel comfortable talking to a person in another department if you have an issue with something they have done professionally.”
More hushed groans.
“Every team has their assignment in the packets. I’ll give a rundown of what we’re doing. You will ride together in a squad car to an appointed spot. Then, using the set of directions and a compass, you will navigate on foot to your destination. Once there, you will each write a haiku.”
I have no idea how I contained my laughter when others couldn’t.
“A high what?” someone asked.
“A haiku.” Gillette was matter-of-fact, like it was something we all did on a regular basis.
“What is that?” another asked. Apparently he had missed high school English class that day.
“It’s a short poem about everyday things. The details are in your packets.”
“You have got to be kidding me!” Weber’s voice was low and emphatic.
“There is no way,” I heard Carlson complain from a nearby group.
I shot Smoke an “I don’t want to do this” look, and he shot me a “who does?” one back.
“Any questions?” I guessed everyone was too shocked for words because no one spoke. “Okay, then. Each driver has been contacted ahead of time. Follow him or her to the cars. Open your packets when you are all in your vehicle.”
I looked at Weber and Zubinski.
“Yeah, it’s me,” Weber said. “Come on, team.”
We trampled off to the parking lot. “Sergeant, where do you want everyone to sit?” Weber asked.
Donny’s legs were the longest.
“Weber, for this exercise, we’re a team, each of us has equal status, but I’d say Donny should take the front passenger seat so he doesn’t have to sit completely sideways.” I handed Donny the instruction packet.
“The back seats of squad cars are not exactly roomy,” Zubinski said to Nickles and Stueman.
Weber unlocked the doors, and we piled in. I ended up sandwiched between Zubinski and Stueman. Weber pushed shut the driver’s side back door, and Donny closed the passenger side door, then the two of them jumped in the front.
“You sure have a lot of bells and whistles in your squad cars,” Donny admired.
“We all know each other, right?” I asked, and everyone nodded, or said “yeah.”
“You’re weapon’s poking into my ribs,” Stueman said.
“Sorry.” I wedged my knees up and shifted them to my right, turning my body toward Stueman to move my Glock and holster away. “Is that better?”
His hazel eyes met and held mine. He cleared his throat and nodded. It amazed me when he spoke. “I’ve heard officers describe taking prisoners into custody as ’cuffed and stuffed’. Now I know what they mean. Literally stuffed. Between the small space, no door handles and the cage between the front seat and the back seat, a person might feel a little claustrophobic.”
I interpreted it as an attempt at humor and I cracked a half smile.
“Breathe in slowly through your nose, and out through your mouth,” Weber said.
Stueman opened his mouth to answer, but didn’t.
“Forget about seat belts,” Zubinski complained.
“You know we can’t do that. We gotta use them,” I said.
“Yeah, our luck, we get involved in a crash and it’s all over the news my passengers weren’t wearing seat belts.”
“Because that would be more important than what happens to us.” Zubinski’s tone was sarcastic.
“Zubinski!” Weber shot back. “Come to think of it, it might be easier to explain that to the news media than how the taxpayers are footing the bill for all of us to get together to write a dumb poem.”
“Probably less painful for us, too,” Mandy said. She snapped her buckles together.
“Donny, why don’t you read our assignment while we buckle up.” I reached down to locate my belt, but couldn’t find it. “Mine is stuck between the seats, I think.”
“Slide forward a little, I’ll dig for it,” Stueman suggested, and I moved a little closer to him. He was pulling his right shoulder strap down. As I settled back to locate my belt, I felt Stueman’s left hand on my bottom.
“S-sorry,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean–”
“H-here’s your belt.” Stueman wrenched it free, and handed it over.
“Thanks.” Let me wake up from this bad dream and soon, I silently pleaded as I buckled in.
Christine Husom is the Second Wind Publishing author of Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, and An Altar by the River.