tagRomanceThe Socratic Method

The Socratic Method


A lot of my stories start with a general idea and build from there. Share the Road, for example, started with the time I came across a runner with a sprained ankle sprawled by the side of the road and drove her home. I never saw her again, but the story was based on a lot of "what-ifs".

The other day I was kidding a female prosecutor I know about her habit of dating cops. It's something that happens constantly- mingle attractive, bright young women and habitually assertive men and nature will take its course. I decided to use that as the basis of a story, and to flip the genders around just to see what would happen. This is the result. I took some liberties with the legal issues to keep the plot working. Just be aware that the scenario wouldn't play out exactly this way in real life.

Amanda Johnson's professional life is based largely on Officer Tina Griswold, who I knew slightly from work. Tina barely reached five feet tall on a good day but earned the respect of her colleagues by demonstrating that she could outwork and outfight any of them. As one of them said, "the fastest way to break up a bar fight was to toss Tina into the middle of it." I know nothing of Tina Griswold's personal life other than that she was happily married with two children in November 2009 when she and three of her colleagues on the Lakewood, Washington Police Department were murdered by a maniac. I hope I did justice to her memory.


Being a deputy district attorney in a small county means that you never know what might come across your desk. Murder one day, speeding the next, and a little of everything in between. One afternoon I was in my office trying to figure out which end of a Honda was which from the pictures taken after a drunk ran it into a tree at sixty miles per hour when the phone rang.

"Mr. Elliot, this is Officer Johnson with Fish & Wildlife. You have a few minutes?"

The voice was female, clipped, and highly professional, but sounded pleasant under it.

"Sure, come on up."

A few minutes later a pet carrier entered my office, followed by a slim figure in a militaristic green and tan uniform.

"Mr. Elliot? Officer Johnson."

"Call me Mike, please."

I took the small hand she extended, surprised by the strength of the grip. I resisted the temptation to get into a contest.


"What do you have here?"

"The victim."

I looked into the wire door of the cage and found two large eyes staring back at me. The head swiveled left and right without the body moving at all, and looked at me again. I'm no expert on owl facial expressions, if they have any, but this one didn't look impressed by me.

"An owl? What's he the victim of?"

"A Great Horned Owl. Someone found him on a logging road with his wing destroyed by a bullet. He's going to live, but his flying days are over. He's headed for a zoo."

I looked again and saw that one wing was missing. There was a lot of anger in her voice.

"This is the third one this year. When I catch the son of a bitch who's doing it, I want him to spend at least as much time in captivity as this poor guy's going to have to."

I glanced at her. From the look in her eyes, I almost felt sorry for the guy if she did catch him. The owl looked back at me, made a few strange noises, and threw up. Sorry, buddy, didn't know I was that distasteful.

"Hey, officer, I think he's sick!"

"Amanda, please."

She looked into the carrier.

"Naw, that's just an owl pellet. He's fine."

"Owl pellet?"

"They can't digest the hard parts of their prey, so they spit them back up. Completely routine. It's a good way to check on what they've been eating."

"Well, he's a handsome guy, but why's he in my office?"

"I just wanted to show you what's going on. I don't want this jerk getting off on a technicality."

"You know who's doing it?"

"Not yet, but I'm working on it. The word's out to everyone who goes out in the woods that we really want this guy."

"Keep me posted on what's happening, and feel free to call me any time if I can help. We can't afford to lose any more of this species."

"Will do."

"Why don't you fill me in from the beginning? Want a cup of coffee?"


She took a chair across from my desk, unbending just a little. Her chestnut hair was in a tight bun at the back of her head, and it's hard to judge a woman's figure when she's wearing body armor under her shirt, but I got the impression that she could be an attractive woman if she wanted to be. She sipped her coffee.

"Mmm, that's good. I've been keeping some strange hours on this case."

She rolled her neck around, loosening her muscles. A neck rub crossed my mind, but something told me I'd have her Beretta up my nose if I tried.

"I bring my own rather than destroy my stomach with County issue coffee. So when did this start?"

"The first one was found dead about two months ago, the second a month after that. This one was a little luckier- must have jumped or something just as the jerk fired."

"Why would someone be doing this?"

"Years ago there was a lot of resentment about logging jobs being lost because of Endangered Species rules, but that's history now. Some sickos just think it's fun to shoot at anything they see. We think there's a black market developing in owl feathers too."

"Not eagles?"

"Everyone knows that, unless you're Native, getting caught with any part of an eagle will get you an automatic ten years in Federal prison. We think some poachers are selling owl parts as a lower risk alternative for fake Native regalia to sell to collectors."

"Fake regalia?"

"You wouldn't believe what a feathered headdress, say, will sell for in Tokyo. The Natives don't like it- they think it's making a joke of their culture, and a lot of that stuff has religious significance- but they don't have a lot of leverage over non-Natives. I know for a fact that one so-called artist who calls himself Standing Bear was born Thad Koskiusko in Pittsburgh."

"Sounds like you don't like it either."

"My grandmother was Lakota. I'm not Native enough to be enrolled, but I don't appreciate the disrespect. Natives have it hard enough in this world without phonies trying to hijack their culture."

"Well, anyway, keep me posted on this. I'd rather head off any problems than try to fix them later."

"Will do. Thanks. Come on, Socrates."

She picked up the crate.

"Socrates? That's his name?"

"Too obvious? I got tired of just calling him 'That owl'".

"Well, it fits, I guess. See ya later, Socrates."

Socrates gave me another revolted look before she carried him out my door. Guess I couldn't blame him given the way humans had been treating him recently. I put the whole thing out of my mind and went back to the vehicular assault case I had been working on. The driver's equally drunk passenger was out of the hospital, but it looked like he was going to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. I wasn't letting the driver get away with that even if his buddy shared a little of the blame.

My phone rang a couple weeks later.

"Mr. Elliot? Officer Johnson here. I've got a lead on who's doing that owl shooting, and I'm doing a stakeout in a couple nights. Want to come along?"

For some reason her warm brown eyes popped into my head.

"I try not to be a witness in a case I might have to prosecute, but I'll make an exception here. When do you want to do this?"

"Can you do it Thursday night about 6:30?"

"Sure. I'm working until at least 5:00. Want to get some dinner before we go?"

Her voice wasn't particularly friendly.

"I'll pick up some hamburgers on the way to pick you up. Meet you at the courthouse?"

"OK, then."

I wasn't exactly asking her on a date, but she obviously wasn't going to get anywhere close to socializing with me. Too bad, but there are plenty of women out there. At least that's what I told myself, trying not to count up the months since I last went on an actual date.

Amanda met me at the courthouse precisely on time.

"I stopped at Mountain Burger on the way over. That OK?"

The local burger stand made food far better than any McDonald's.

"Great. What do I owe you?"

"Six bucks."

I handed it over.

"What's the plan tonight?"

"The local hunters like to put up motion activated cameras in the trees to see where the game is, and the Internet hunting forums have been spreading the word that we really want to catch whoever's doing this. They e-mail us any pictures showing people in the area where it happened. One of the guys we suspect of dealing in animal parts was seen near where Socrates was shot about the time it happened, and we got a tip he's at it again. We're going to watch him and see what develops."

She had been driving her truck up into the mountains as we talked, working our way into the network of logging roads that covers the forests. Suddenly she pulled off into a turnoff and doused the lights.

"This the place?"

"No, but I don't like the looks of what that truck on the other side of this valley is doing."

The truck was working its way toward us, moving slowly with someone shining a spotlight from the passenger side out into the woods.

"They looking for something?"

"Yeah, deer."

She swung the truck out in front the old Toyota pickup, flipping on the red and blue flashing lights on top. The driver, caught in the beam of her spotlight, looked around for a few seconds and then realized that he couldn't outrun an F250 4x4 and switched off the engine. Amanda stepped out, making sure not to block the spotlight that was preventing the driver from seeing where she was.

"Get out and keep your hands where I can see them!"

The driver, a grizzled old coot in filthy jeans and a flannel shirt, did so.

"Asa, you got any weapons on you?"

"Just a knife on my belt. You know I wouldn't try anything stupid with you, Officer Johnson."

"Keep your hands up."

She pulled a folded hunting knife off his belt, glanced at it, and tossed it into the bed of his truck. The she quickly ran her right hand around his belt and up his sides, keeping the left near her holstered Beretta.

"Everyone gets treated the same, Asa, you know that. Haven't we had this conversation about jacklighting before?"

"Aw, there's so many damn rules these days I can't keep them straight."

"When has jacklighting ever been legal? Go stand in front of my truck."

She pulled a small rifle out of the passenger side of the Toyota, cleared it of ammunition, and put it in her truck. Then she pulled out her ticket book and walked to the front of the truck.

"I'm going to write you a citation and confiscate your rifle and spotlight. By rights I should confiscate your truck too, but I know you need it to get to work and I'm too busy tonight to wait for a tow truck. Sign here. It says you have to see the judge Wednesday. I promise you that if I catch you doing this again, I'll make time to confiscate your truck and throw you in jail."

"I got grandkids to feed."

"Find another way to do it. What do you hear about this owl shooting stuff?"

"If I knew who was doing that I would have called you already."

I had been staying out of the way and keeping my mouth shut, but I snorted at that.

"You're going to help out the Game Department?"

Asa gave me a dirty look.

"Don't lump me in with that lowlife, son. I may bend the rules a little, but I don't kill anything unless I'm going to eat it. Anyone who gets a kick out of using God's creatures for target practice is sick in the head."

He grudgingly took his paperwork, climbed back into his truck, and drove off toward town. We started uphill again.

"So what was that all about?"

She glanced at me.

"Real city boy, huh? Deer tend to come out and graze just after dark. If you shine a spotlight in their face they freeze and stare at you. Then a guy like Asa there will take his little .22 rifle and pop them right between the eyes. Quick, quiet, and a major game law violation."

Eventually she pulled off the road and backed her truck into a stand of trees.

"So what are we looking for tonight?"

"The guy we think is doing this drives a black Blazer with extra lights all over it. If we see it coming down I'm going to pull him over, check his hunting license, and see what else there is to see."

"Just take it one step at a time. Remember that it doesn't do any good to catch him with a dead bird if the evidence gets thrown out because of a bad search."

"Will do."

We stared out into the dark for a while.

"So tell me how you became a wildlife officer."

"If you ask me what a nice girl like me is doing in a job like this you're walking back to town."

"Just making conversation."

"Well, I was a typical Western kid. In college I worked summers on a Forest Service fire crew. I was already majoring in biology and thinking that I didn't want to spend my working life at a desk. My senior year I worked on a research project the University was doing for the Wildlife Department and got to know some of the wildlife officers. They talked me into applying to the Wildlife Division, I got on, and here I am."

"Liking it so far?"

"I love it. The hours can be hard, but I like being outdoors and feeling like what I do matters."

She glanced at me.

"So what's your story?"

"I interned in a DA's office in law school. After I graduated I took a job in a big downtown law firm and found that I was bored out of my mind reviewing and writing stock disclosure statements. I started looking for a job in a DA's office, was offered this one, and here I am."

"Like it?"

"Well, the pay's not nearly as good, but it doesn't have to be out of the big city. At least there's something new every day and I get into court a lot."

She glanced at the dashboard clock.

"I think we hit a dry hole. If our suspect was going to be out tonight we would have seen signs of something. It's too dark for anyone to be hunting owls by now."

She started the truck up and pulled out onto the dirt logging road.

"Does catching Asa count?"

"Not for much. I can't overlook that, but he's small fry."

"You weren't as hard on him as you could have been."

She thought about that.

"My grandmother taught me that when we hunt the animals are giving themselves to us to sustain the People, and that we have to respect that gift. I'm not sure I buy into that 100%, but I have more sympathy for people who hunt to eat than I do for people who take parts of an animal to sell overseas and waste the rest."

"You hunt?"

"I used to, but it's the busiest time of year for us and I haven't gone since I joined the Department. I still eat my dad's elk sausage any chance I get."

Eventually she pulled into the parking lot behind the now closed courthouse.

"Your car's here, right?"

"Right over there."

"OK, well, thanks for coming out. Want to go again Saturday?"

I had thought about asking her to have a drink with me, but she was obviously stuck in all-business mode.

"Sure. What time?"

"Meet me here about 5:00 AM."

Yikes. Well, I couldn't wimp out now.

"See you then."

We shook hands and she drove off, leaving me deep in thought. She was obviously a smart, dedicated wildlife officer, and the more I got to know her the more I liked her. She was about as friendly as a block of granite, though, and it didn't look like we would ever do more than work together occasionally.

I dragged myself out of bed at 4:00 AM Saturday, filled a Thermos with coffee, and grabbed the box of donuts I had picked up the night before. She was waiting when I got to the parking lot at 4:45.

"Want one?"

She gave me a wary look.

"You kidding?"

"How's that?"

"Assuming that as a police officer I'm obsessed with donuts? Did you bring anything healthier?"

"I just grabbed what I like to eat. It's not a joke."

"Any maple bars in there?"

"Yeah, there's a couple."

"You're in luck then. Truth is I love those."

"So why are you giving me a hard time about it?"

"I don't like being typecast."

We headed up into the hills and she pulled into a turnoff that gave us a good view of the surrounding valleys without drawing attention to her truck. I poured coffee for both of us and we watched the sun fill the valley without saying much. She muttered something.

"What's that?"

"Oh, just something my grandmother used to say to greet the sunrise. Old habit."

She picked up her field glasses and focused on something across the valley.

"Hey, we may be in luck."

She pulled out and headed down into the valley. At the bottom, we came to a T intersection with another logging road. A big black Blazer roared past, and Amanda swung out behind it. About half a mile down the road she hit the lights and siren, and the Blazer pulled over. The driver, a big burly guy in dirty camouflage, was trying to look innocent.

"What's the problem, Officer?"

"The speed limit on these logging roads is twenty, and you were doing at least twice that."

Her eyes were roaming all over the truck.

"Sorry about that. I'll be more careful the rest of the way."

Amanda stiffened suddenly, stepped back, and pulled her Beretta from her belt.

"Get out slowly and put your hands on top of your head!"

"What's wrong?"

"Just do it!"

He did so. She checked his belt and took the hunting knife that everyone seems to carry in the woods.

"Go over there and sit on my front bumper. Don't move and keep your hands in sight. Give me a reason and I'll shoot you."

"What the heck did I do?"

"Want to explain the owl feathers all over your back seat?"

The look on his face made clear that (1) he hadn't expected her to pick up on that and (2) he knew he was caught. He went and sat heavily on the front of the truck. Amanda reached into the back seat while keeping one eye on him and pulled out a green garbage bag. She set it on the road and opened the top.

"Mike, come look at this!"

I walked over, careful not to get between her and the suspect. The owl in the bag could have been Socrates' twin, except that it had two wings and a large bullet hole through its body. Amanda walked over to her truck, almost vibrating with rage, and faced the suspect.

"Get up and put your hands behind your back."

"OK, look, you got me and I'll pay the fine, but there's no need for that."

He got to his feet, towering over her. I started to move toward them. While I was ready to help Officer Johnson if she needed it, I was also afraid that she was ready to indulge in some police brutality that I didn't want to witness if I could prevent it.

"I'm not going to tell you again. Turn around and put your hands behind your back. Now!"

"Look, little lady, this is silly. You ain't big enough to take me in. Just send me my ticket in the mail."

Incredibly, he didn't seem to think he had talked his way into enough trouble. He turned to me.

"Hey, would you tell your girlfriend here to stop botherin' me? She got PMS or something?"

I didn't need to respond. There was a quick blur behind him, a swirl of movement, and he was face down in the gravel road with Officer Johnson twisting his right arm up between his shoulder blades.

"You still think you're not under arrest, smartass? Ready to behave?"

He tried to say something, but was having trouble. I saw that Amanda had her knee on his head, most of her weight forcing his face down into the gravel. Ouch. She pulled a pair of handcuffs off her belt and slapped one onto the wrist she was holding.

"Put your other hand back here. Give me any more trouble and I'll rip your shoulder out of the socket."

He obviously believed her, and couldn't get his hand back fast enough. Amanda finished cuffing him and stood up, slightly flushed.

"Moron. Help me get him up, would you?"

We got him up and seated on the ground, and left him there while Amanda radioed for backup and a tow truck. Some blood was running down his face from bits of gravel still embedded there. She started back to the Blazer, and I headed her off.

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