Sally comes to the Hot Spot on Farrow Road just before midnight, hoping to find the remains of a candy bar in the garbage.
The manager, Samuel Lawerence Jr., has seen her before. He knows she is hungry and just wants to leave her alone But that was before Sally tried to steal from him. Now, he calls the cops.
Sally almost gets away. She is halfway across Farrow Road before officer Deron Tentyon — just six months on the job and working the night shift in Columbia’s North Region — stops her.
Sally comes back, indifferent. She stands in the parking lot, shuffling her feet and sucking on her index finger like a child in the principal’s office.
“I just came here to get a candy bar,” she says. “I came from the shelter.”
Tentyon runs her information on the laptop computer mounted in his patrol car. Columbia has a warrant for her arrest. Sally is confused.
“Oh, I know what that is. It’s from Georgia, but they don’t want to extradite,” she tells Tentyon matter-of-factly.
Because it is late, and Tentyon can’t get a copy of the warrant in his hands, he lets Sally go. She walks down Farrow Road, and before Tentyon’s supervisor, Cpl. Glen Gates, can turn around, she is gone — lost in the shadows beyond the streetlights.
Gates shakes his head. He has been a police officer for eight years, all of them in Columbia’s North Region. He is in charge of about eight officers, mostly new guys fresh from training. Tentyon is one of those guys.
He has told his men to call him if they have any questions. After he deals with Sally, Gates’ shift is half over. He already has received 60 phone calls.
Gates loves being a cop, and he’s good at it. He has worked some of Columbia’s most dangerous crime scenes. On this night, he also has removed two garbage cans, two umbrellas and a dead cat from the middle of the road.
He knows North Columbia and its secrets — and he checks them every night.
“It’s like fishing,” he says.
He knows about the back row of the Flying J parking lot, where rows of tractor-trailers cast shadows in the dark.
He knows about the abandoned house on Marsteller Street with no front door and piles of blue jeans, cereal boxes and a John Grisham dust jacket that clutter the floor.
And he knows about Railroad.
Railroad is a man who wanders around North Columbia at night, usually frequenting the A-1 food shop on Monticello Road.
On this night, Railroad jumps a little too much when some police officers drive by and is stopped for questioning. He refuses to give his name, and two officers handcuff him outside of the A-1.
“Aww, what’s he getting into?” Gates mutters as he pulls into the parking lot.
Gates knows Railroad as an alcoholic who has never gotten into any trouble. He hangs out in Officer James Roland’s patrol region.
“He’s completely harmless,” Roland says. “One of the few guys.”
But the officers who have stopped Railroad don’t know that. Roland tells them to let him go, and they do.
Before he leaves, Railroad turns and strikes a pose for a newspaper photographer.
“This is my good side,” he says with a smile as he strolls off into the darkness
For Gates, the rest of the night is routine. Thunderstorms knock out power to a Waffle House and Exxon station. The Waffle House never closes, so the doors don’t have locks. The lone employee, sitting in the dark, asks Gates to keep an eye on him.
Another man on Isaac Street calls 911 and hangs up. Gates checks it out. The man is apologetic, saying the redial button on his new phone keeps calling 911. He apologizes for the dirty dishes piled in his sink and promises to get his phone fixed.
Gates finishes the night by checking several of the subsidized housing complexes, including Gable Oaks, where two people were murdered in two months.
Since then, two officers have been assigned to watch the complex all night, along with two private security guards paid for by the complex’s owners. Gates finds the officers sitting in their cars in the parking lot, watching the empty streets.
At 5:30 a.m., Gates radios to end the tour of duty for the night shift. Gates climbs the stairs to the North Region headquarters, off Monticello Road. He’s ready to go home and see his wife and daughter and tend to his German shepherd, who was hit by a car earlier in the night.
“Another successful mission,” he says.