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Truth, Justice, and the American Way

“Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” — Muhammad Ali

Forgotten Places

“Jump off the roof to see if I could fly? No. I never test my delusions. I have them and that is enough.”

In an early draft of The Runaway Bungalow, I took a notion to pull a trope from Shakespeare and leave the stage littered with the dead and dying. Alas, I fell for the young lovers and their fairy god-something, a plaster icon of a voodoo saint, San Expedito, “Hodie,” his motto. I would knock off the romantic lead and a small town cop whose most grevious sin was bachelor housekeeping. No, I couldn’t do it. Like freehand linoleum cutting and cordon-bleu cookery, killing is not my strong suit.

On the other hand...

Harriet’s day off, the couple packed a picnic lunch, fired up Harriet’s ancient Chevrolet and headed for open country. Everlast had drawn the tail. The kid had driven the Celebrity inland, away from the scenic vistas that attracted tourists in their hordes each summer. After months of inactivity they were eating up the miles. As familiar coastal wildflowers and leafy trees gave way to upland ferns and pine forests, the Mountie found himself wishing he had thought to bring along a sandwich, too. One hundred and twenty miles rolled by as the drive headed for the mountains. At last at an isolated upcountry hillside school, they pulled in to the empty playground. Everlast held his breath. Was this the rendezvous, was here where the money was hidden away? No. They could never have gotten away unnoticed to stash it. They had to have brought it with them.

There had been some times over the past months—was it months now?—that their private project had had manpower problems. Champion, Everlast and Quigley had got clogged up on availability to continue the stakeout. The demands of their day jobs had left holes in their once careful pattern of surveillance, and the holes were becoming more frequent as the job grew stale and their enthusiasm flagged. Stale and sour, their private lives had gone all to hell. Time for partying, racquetball, soccer scrum and getting laid had all been pissed away in the golden quest—filling ninety-eight cent notebooks with doodles. But the three and made a commitment to glory and each other. Plus a heavy investment in time and effort. None wanted to be the first to quit, besides there had developed that magic attachment between the keepers and the kept. Ozzie knew who they were and what they were doing and was playing the game with them—a sure admission of culpability. Oh, he was their man all right, no doubt about that. But to make a collar that would stick they had to nail him with the goods—in flagrante delicto. But when, oh Lord.

Everlast had lost sight of the pursued Chevrolet and leaned on the accelerator. He was in a scenic tame wilderness where the forest came right down to the twisting roadside, overwhelming the ditching. Whoa! There they were, just ahead negotiating the next turn. Everlast hit his brakes and fell back out of sight. The duty-mandated lapses of the Mounties and the trooper had left some cracks in the watching of Ozzie and Harriet sufficient for them to have made a local move. But this far? Out of the question. Conclusion, they really are on a picnic or are here to dump the stuff away from the heat. Anyway, thought Everlast, the subject’s taking advantage of the cracks in their net assumed he knew when the watchers would be loosening up.

That Ozzie did not know. But there was no way he could be sure. He knew he was being watched and they knew he knew it. Any exercise, any move with the money by Oswald would therefore have been prompted by fear. They had got the kid jumped—so unnerved him that he was forced to an act of desperation or stealth. Either way was okay. We are the besiegers of his waking hours. Endless patience and grinding boredom—the litany of the stakeout. Any change in the observed behavior patterns, any deviation from the usual routines of the day-to-day flow that had established itself as the rhythm of the lives that were Harriet Hopwood and Ozzie O’Rourke and the flag went up. If the kid got into a panic and ran or got sighted tippy-toeing around by night in his Chuck Norris Delta Force get-up he was bound to panic. You slip and you don’t get caught; you get careless and slip again. One careless oversight leads to another. Then another. Once slip too many and they had him.

Everlast was indulging this gift. He made a mistake undercover agents of every stripe make early on in their careers—young cops, too. Everyone is young once and kids make mistakes. It’s not that the guys in the stories don’t make mistakes, it’s that the guys who make mistakes don’t live long enough to have stories written about them.

Loved by women and admired by men, a quip ready to his lips, the slick, wise-cracking private eye who survives to tell the tale is standing atop the pyramid of natural selection. For every James Bond there are a thousand Joe Blows who mix up the gelignite with the Milky Way bars or rip open their client’s letter bomb after a couple of fast martinis—’Here, honey, let me. You can’t be too careful.’ Statistically speaking, the size of the prize dictated that there would be higher odds for failure, and with concomitant risks. Everlast, who even in his young career had seen too many yellow police ribbons and chalked his share of body lines from impact to eternal rest, forgot the spattered hard-luck gonzos and their tales of failure. Low blood sugar combined with the elation that this might be It—months of yeoman grunt-work climaxing in a full bingo card—made him careless. As Everlast drove one-handed, he fumbled in the glove compartment for cheese crackers or a forgotten candy bar. He had fallen into the error a statistically significant number of gumshoes make just once. He had come to believe his own cover story.

Except for the clear stretch of a quarter of a mile near the school, the ascending switchbacks made for dangerous passing. His options were to pull off and join the picnic or step on the gas, look casual and keep on going.

Everlast, trying to look like a tourist in a hurry to get to some scenery, flashed his lights, signaled for a turn and pulled out to pass. The two cars lined up passing the school, the senior citizen in the sedan giving him some cover, but not enough to spoil the view. The dandelions were high in the school lawn; a week of rain had shot them up well past the grass. Summertime and the livin’ was easy. Everlast estimated the maintenance man had not been here to mow for at least three weeks. A rusted merry-go-round with oak seats teetered on its pivot in a gravel play yard. This was it.

Half a mile further on, Everlast took the first downhill fork and circled back to rejoin the switchback, park and come in close on foot. He fished his service revolver from the glove compartment to lay it on the seat at his side. You never knew.

Concrete block construction and white clapboard siding starting to peel, the building was not more than a few years old. It was a single story building with a punched out metal weather vane someone had liked in a catalog stuck atop a colonial cupola. Patent awning window units were cranked shut against sudden weather.  Throughout their freelance gumshoe work there had been an increasing fear of getting caught and scolded like naughty boys. Quigley had stated the obvious one day in a deep depression. "If we win this one, we’re heroes, but if they catch on to us before we have some concrete evidence, we’re going to look like complete assholes. "Talk about blowing cover - having some high octane legal talent descend on their activities with a peace warrant, a cease and desist order - was infrequent. The game was still on, but it was a game only so long as their prey played bythe same rules they did and didn’t pull the panic lever. He had not complained to the authorities about the tail they had stuck on him, as any innocent citizen would. Champion, Everlast and Quigley viewed that as an admission. Hunter and hunted were playing by the same rules and neither was going to let the grownups know what was happening. A tacit admission of guilt. Quigley’s distrust of lawyers was deep and abiding. It was shared though not to as great an extent by Champion and Everlast. The Canadians had a different system. Over there, a cop didn’t have to read a suspect his rights, he didn’t have any. On paper at least. Things were different in practice Quigley knew, but the Mounties had a freer hand in day-to-day operations. Not so here. And they were here—all three of them. As far as American jurisprudence was concerned, Champion and Everlast were tourists—no hot pursuit—and poking their noses into the private lives of citizens. Quigley had a rough and ready respect for the forms of civilized society. Lawyers were the errand boys of the Establishment, and the Police were its muscle, and he was damned if he was going to let months of grunt work go to waste. They knew the kid was their mark, it all came down to the question of who was going to give out first. Champion, Everlast and Quigley had the iron wills and unwavering attention spans of policemen born. They were in this for the long run. But if it came to iron wills versus brass balls, a nosy lawyer could really mess things up for their investigation. If the word was whispered into the right ears in the corridors of power whence came their salary checks, mileage and uniform allowances, they could conceivably all be back at barracks doing grounds patrol and waiting on a panel of inquiry.

Everlast’s nose pulled up short as the restraining web of his seat belt grabbed his belly, the shoulder harness crushing his chest. He had been doing 80 kilometers per hour, about the legal speed, and coming around a blind corner where the road ahead was obscured by a tight turn and a rock escarpment too near the highway for the builders to blast, piled into a car parked - parked! God damn it! —right in the fucking road. In fractional milliseconds, the pliant webbing of Everlast’s restraining harness stretched not enough to help crushing his chest, driving the jagged edges of several broken ribs into his right lung. There was a concussion too, as his head punched out the safety windshield, starring it in a snowflake pattern. And a bloody nose, his only external bleeding. In the moment of recognition before the impact, Everlast had the flash of Ozzie jumping from Harriet’s Celebrity. They had picked up on his tail. They had seen him gunning by the school and set up a roadblock. He carried the realization with him into a short period of unconsciousness with red, furry edges.

Oswaldo felt a sudden thrill of fear chasing down his back as he jumped from the car dragging the folding chair he had gone back to retrieve. He stopped to savor it. This was it. The time of resolution, forced upon them by this one foolish act—a childish act of spite done without any regard for its consequences. Too late now to ask why he had left the car in the road. He had been blindly taunting them with his innocence, why had he become so outraged when they had picked up the challenge, risen to the bait and moved in after him? Had it been a shadow of malice hovering over them when Harriet and he had planned this picnic? A weekend getaway. A drive in the country. It had been boyish mischief that made him prepare a decoy for the titillation of the watchers. He sat that morning in the hours of dawn while Harriet slumbered on, meticulously packing a shoe box with a discarded pair of sneakers. He packed them in tightly with wadded tissue and newspaper; then sealed the box with a cruciform of many windings of wide, silvery duct tape. Ozzie had made no great display of carrying the wrapped package of sneakers to the car. But he had been uncharacteristically open in his actions, let them make of it what they would. After packing their picnic gear, the styrofoam bait cooler, thermos bottles, blankets, hamper and the two folding aluminum beach chairs snugly against one another in the back seat, he returned to the house for the final package. This he made a small but significant display of wedging in the wheel well of the trunk along with their spare tire. That should give them something to think about.

From the schoolyard they had watched the mountie speeding past. Ho, so he would play at detective games with us, eh? We will have a surprise waiting for him the next time he comes around. And he would be back again, and again—perhaps on foot. It was the same flair for the gallant gesture that had commanded his actions when he engaged the shadow in making small talk at the convenience store checkout counter. Tweaking the tail of the cat. That the mountie would be actually so confoundedly ignorant as to drive into the car parked there on the highway was beyond comprehending. Harriet’s Celebrity was a powder blue shade, its showroom gloss oxidized by many salty winters and pounding summer suns. An air freshener shaped like a little green pine tree hung from the rear view mirror. An old car, all Harriet could afford, she had kept it well. The impact emptied the ashtrays and put an accordion fold in the frame, forever locking the driver’s side door. From a standing start, the Celebrity took the hit and flew, a textbook application of ballistic power factors and billiard table kinetics, the mechanics of the cushion shot. The Celebrity leaped sideways up the hill, jumping a drainage culvert, coming to rest embedded in the soft earth of the school’s approaches. For Everlast, propelled by idle curiosity and wishing he had after all, stopped to buy a sandwich, the curve was too tight. Impatient and hot on the trail, nosing in for a big finish to this caper, his speed was too great and there was simply not enough time to avoid a crash. The mountie’s reflexes had the speed of youth, but nothing could have saved him. Cartilage, tendon and bone welded together in the desperate death pressure of his foot on the brake pedal—down, down into and through the metal floor. His brakes must have locked at the moment of impact, desperation fusing flesh and metal. Everlast shot across the road and down the hill, spinning one full turn with screaming tires and smoking brakes against his careening rush. Allowing for power lost as heat by the impact, Everlast’s Lemans and Harriet’s Chevrolet parted at about 35 km/h, sharing the ride, each their separate ways till gravity dragged them down. Harriet and Oswaldo were climbing the hill to the school, arms full. Their picnic regalia installed in the playground, they had returned for the folding chairs. At the report of crunching metal and screaming brakes, they turned and stood immobilized, dropping the chairs. "Oh, my God!" Harriet’s fist went to her mouth. They watched as the Lemans nosed over in the ditch opposite and rolled over two times.

Oswaldo felt remorse and a thrill of guilt as he ran down the hillside to help if the man was not beyond helping. He had not thought their foolish pursuer would have such small sense as to go speeding around the blind turns of these mountain roads. He had left the car in the road as a gesture, not a death trap, and now this damned fool had gone and hit it. It was a good hundred meters to the car lying on its side, wheels spinning. Oswaldo covered the distance in seconds. It had come to rest with the driver’s side down. The man was pinned inside, still strapped in his seatbelt, his face covered with blood. There was a smell of gasoline and he feared fire. Standing with his feet braced on the sides of the passenger’s side door, he used his legs for leverage, forcing it open. The mountie stirred. He was alive then.

The first shot took Oswaldo in the chest, jerking his body up into an arc, still holding onto the door handle. The shock of the bullet brought a memory of when he had been hit in the face during a soccer match, oh so many years ago. Half conscious and through a haze of blood, the mountie had found his gun.

"So this is death," thought Oswaldo. "I am shot in the chest but I feel the impact behind my nose. How peculiar." He thought of Harriet and the crucifix above his bed at the lycée of the Sisters of St. Dominic. More bullets came and Oswaldo could not move. His body wanted desperately to get itself away from the hail of death but his fingers would not release their grip on the door handle. The bullets came regularly, each a body blow, a shuddering spasm. Cock and fire, cock and fire, the mountie slowly, painfully, emptied his pistol.

Oswaldo died, sprawled across the shattered side window, his legs jerking fitfully. Everlast had managed to fire four more shots before passing out. He hung trapped in his safety harness, his lungs filling with blood.

Harriet had not moved. I can’t stop crying, just look at that—like rain on the windshield. And real tears, too. How feminine. A voice not hers, of comfort and irony, spoke in Harriet’s mind. She sank to her knees in the tall grass and dandelions gone to seed, her fist still in her mouth and heard what was her voice, she thought, saying "Ooooo..." Later that afternoon, the man came to mow the schoolyard. He lifted her to her feet, took her hand from her mouth and led her to the office. There he gave her a glass of water and called for the police.

Notes & RESOURCES:

The story in which this did not appear is The Runaway Bungalow, here.

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