|Joe Torio Mysteries
|The Hangman's Son
Joe Torio Mystery #1
The huge auto sales and service garage on the edge of Sherman Park squatted in the early January dark, its grimy brick walls black against the fresh white snow banks on Cross Street. No outdoor car lot in this neighborhood. All of the new wares were inside. The building was a flat-topped, post-Depression structure, capped with a twenty-inch thick layer of snow and ice, the temperature hovering around zero Fahrenheit. All but one of the street lights in front of the building were out. From where my partner Al Dockery and I were huddling in the alley on the east side of the building, it was just dark.
Theo and Tony Rizzo were inside the building. Not enough for Lt. Crewe, though. He was waiting for Carlo.
"This stinks," muttered Dock as he shivered in the junker's passenger seat cocooned like a fat butterfly-in-waiting. The wrecked and gutted VW Minibus, buried in snow, was in the alley across from the showroom side entrance. We'd cleared discreet little holes in the snow on the windshield so we could keep an eye on who went in the building.
"I said this stinks," he repeated.
"I'm hip," I confirmed, wishing I had brought some hand warmers. I had both my hand and my gun in my parka's side pocket, only my fingertips inside the heavy ski glove. Dock looked through the cleared place on his side of the junker's windshield. "We're freezing to death, our backup is three blocks away, and the Popsicle King is parked out front telegraphing our punches as we speak. Theo and Tony have to know we're out here." His grump dissolved into a chuckle.
"What?" I asked, my own funny bone in sore need of inspiration.
"You know how Crewe, Stasser, and that news team are hunched down in their seats right in front of the showroom windows making like no one's in the car?"
"When I did that walk around I saw they had the engine running."
"You're kidding, right?"
"The engine running, the heater on full blast, windows fogged up, great white clouds of exhaust."
"Just so we still have the element of surprise," I muttered.
"Stasser was resting his foot on the brake pedal, too."
"I took a quarter and rapped on the window," said Dock. "They're still cleaning coffee off each other."
"Would've liked to have seen that."
Dock's grin faded. "I told 'em about the engine and the brake light, but from the look on Crewe's face, I don't think I was getting through."
"The Five Pees," I observed philosophically.
There were the official five pees they taught at the academy: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Then there were the unofficial Five Pees we all learned in the squad rooms and on the street: Promoting Pea-brains Produces Piles of Poo.
"You know how you say most good police work comes down to knowing who to ask for help?" said Dock.
"What about it?"
"So, who do we ask now, Joe?"
"You got that Bat signal working yet?"
He nodded toward his right indicating the increasing snowfall. "The dark knight is grounded."
"Didn't know Batman took snow days. You'd think he'd have a Bat Snow Cat." I closed my eyes and shivered inside my parka. "Damn. I should've worn my ski pants, brought my Boot Gloves and Bun Warmers. I'm freezing. Hell. Carlo isn't coming. He's not an idiot."
Dock nodded toward the street. "After Carlo caught a look at that car full of Filberts in front of his showroom, maybe he dropped dead from laughing."
"It could happen," I said.
Dockery turned in his seat and looked over his right shoulder toward the back of the alley. "You ever wonder how Crewe even made it past probie?"
"It never hurts having your uncle as Police Commissioner," I said.
"Which doesn't make Commissioner Graham a bad commissioner," Dock cautioned.
"No," I agreed. "The fact that he can't find his own ass with both hands and a mirror is what makes him an idiot."
Despite Ronald Crewe's all-American halfback, Aryan/Nazi storm-trooper recruiting-poster good looks, our lieutenant had almost no time on the street. His patrol career ended abruptly after the media dubbed him the "Popsicle King." Off duty late one night in August, he had found what appeared to be an abandoned refrigerated truck parked on the shoulder down in East Beverly Division off the Roosevelt exit to the Interstate. The driver was nowhere in sight, the truck still running. Thinking this seemed suspicious, he took the keys from the ignition, opened the doors in back, and investigated. What he found inside were six human corpses all in plastic body bags.
Crewe called in everything but the National Guard, and when the driver came back with a large Coke in one hand and a Philly cheese steak in the other, he found his truck surrounded by cruisers, many heavily armed law enforcement types, news wagons, reporters, and curious onlookers as Crewe grabbed him, spread-eagled him on the street, and put on the cuffs. Then Crewe pulled the driver to his feet and went for the confession. Turned out the truck driver was delivering cadavers to the university medical school and had stopped at a Subway for a sandwich. Crises over. From then on Crewe was dubbed the Popsicle King.
Al Dockery, his gaze fixed on the side door to the building, said, "I'm getting depressed. We need to change the subject, look for the positive." Dock had been my Training Officer back when the fuzz on my uniform blouse was still thick. In both uniforms and the detective bureau we'd grown middle aged and cranky together. The "positives" was how he bitched.
"That chum bucket is half full," I offered.
"You goddamn right, Grasshopper. Like, with all this cold, Joe, they're making a lot of snow for skiing, right?"
"Yeah. Skiing is good this season. Lots of cold, lots of snow. No mosquitoes, either. Hate getting mosquitoes squashed all over my goggles."
Dock nodded. "We're not getting all sweaty. I hate getting sweaty."
"No sunburn," I added. "I can't stand the smell of suntan lotion and sun block. We're not going to get skin cancer tonight."
"We don't have to watch ugly people in thongs or tank tops, either." Dockery nodded his head for either emphasis or additional warmth. "Why is it the uglier people get the more they want to expose? It's too cold for thongs. Can I get an amen on no thongs?"
"Amen," I said. I nibbled at the inside of my lower lip, my gaze still on the alley's entrance. There was a chance Tony and Theo didn't know we were out there. Maybe they were stoned, or running around with black bags on their heads, or taking a nap.
Capt. Finn had gotten the anonymous phone tip that morning while I was grinding my way through the murder books on deceased drug dealers Roy Thoms and Stevie Pillow. They had each been taken out with the Rizzo trademark: a brand-new stiletto left in the heart, the wrapper still on the handle. There wasn't much of a case. There never was. This time, though, Theo Rizzo had somehow left a partial on the blade of one of the two stickers. Aside from making a statement, the whole point of the new knife, wrapper-still-on-the-handle gag, as well as gloves, was to make prints impossible. There it was, though: one tiny partial on the blade. Enough for a warrant. Maybe enough for a needle or three.
After Nicky Batts's lawyer posted half a million bail each to show that they were not flight risks, the Rizzos took flight. Neither the manager at the garage, nor the sales or maintenance personnel knew where they were. Their mother, Brigada, knew but wasn't saying. Then Finn eventually got a call. He said the anonymous caller reported that all three Rizzo brothers would be at the garage sometime tonight. The collar belonged to Dock and me, but Commissioner Graham ordered a Broadway production: four units, one on each side of the building, six more units in ready reserve out of sight, all under the tactical command of the Popsicle King himself, Commissioner Graham's nephew.
If it was going to be a full-scale assault, it would have made sense to bring in SWAT. However, that way SWAT got the credit, not Graham Cracker's nephew. So we were freezing our butts off and getting ready to blow an arrest or get someone killed in an attempt to rehabilitate the image of the Popsicle King.
Crewe's base unit had Channel Four's Gil Franklin and a camera jock as ride-alongs in the back seat. A successful high-profile arrest would look good on the morning news was the theory. Channel Four didn't want law, order, justice or successful anything, though. They weren't interested unless it dripped red; Gil Franklin was there strictly for the body count. With four previous miscreants stone cold, I had tied the PD record and had attracted unfavorable headlines, all centered around the theme: the hangman's son loves to kill. Learned the ropes at the hangman's knee. Serial killer with a badge. If anyone died tonight, Gil Franklin would have an orgasm and Lt. Crewe would need a divining rod to find his own name in the reports.
"Crewe is a moron," muttered Dock, his stay-positive program down the crapper at last. "Can we call him a moron?"
"The politically correct label is 'reality challenged.'"
"Crewe is an absolute moron."
"This from the sage who teaches that there are no absolutes," I reminded.
"Isn't no absolutes an absolute?" countered Dock.
"Absolutely." I waved the numb contents of a glove in the air. "Dock, what about this phone tip? Who called it in? The Rizzos know we're here, we know they know, they know we know they know."
"Sounds like an invitation to the O.K. Corral, doesn't it?"
"Just a bit. Where's Doc Holiday when you need—"
Dockery's hand shot out, palm toward me, as he nodded toward the street. I looked through my snowy peephole. An instant later, a large man limped into my view. Easily six-foot-six, broad shouldered, and heavy, the man wore a long dark overcoat with fur collar and matching fur cap. He paused for a moment, took a long drag on a cigarette, then flicked the butt in the general direction of the base unit parked in front of the garage. He exhaled, the combination of the smoke and the man's breath blue-gray and lacy in the breeze. It was Carlo Rizzo.
I read Dock's lips as he silently mouthed, "He's made Crewe."
I mouthed back, "Ya think?"
Carlo went to the showroom's side entrance, slightly dragging his left leg as he walked. Years ago he'd gotten his knee tooled by one of Don Scozarri's boys. He opened the unlocked metal door and stepped in, the door closing slowly behind him. I spoke into the open collar of my parka. "Base? Crewe? Carlo made you, lieutenant. They're waiting for us in there. Time to call in SWAT."
There was a crackle from my earpiece followed by the Popsicle King's boyish voice. "That was Carlo? That means they're all in there, right?"
"Lieutenant, we're burned. He wouldn't have gone in unless he wanted someone to follow him. They're waiting for us."
"Torio, you and Dockery move in. Backup units, move to Point Bravo. Units One to Four, move in."
"Is this thing working?" I muttered smacking the com unit against the dash. Pressing the talk button I said, "Base, this is Unit Three. Please be advised that the suspects have spotted your damned vehicle and the crowd of morons you have warming up in it."
"That's 'reality challenged,'" corrected Dock.
"Nonsense," replied Crewe. "We've had no indication."
"What the hell do you think this warning is?" I replied, a little louder than necessary. Dockery was making a clown face at me, his eyes crossed, his head bobbing from side-to-side.
All of the radio traffic was being monitored and recorded, not to mention overheard by the Channel Four news team, but Crewe hadn't left me any choice. "Sorry about that, lieutenant," I apologized. "I guess Dock only imagined you had your engine running and Stasser's big fat foot on the brake pedal in full view of the showroom windows."
There was a long silence, followed by the Popsicle King's spluttering voice. "Torio, I don't muck gige a futch ... I don't ... care! We've got them trapped! Now follow orders!"
Dock spoke into his pickup. "Lieutenant, I believe in the military they call this fighting on ground of the enemy's own choosing."
"Please. Mister Custer," I sang beneath my breath. "I don't wanna go."
"This is the job!" bellowed Crewe. "Move in! All units move in! Move in, god dammit! Move in!"
I listened as MacDonald and Rodriguez in Unit Two grudgingly acknowledged the order. Crewe called several times for Carver and Tobin in Unit One to acknowledge, but got no answer. Carver and Tobin were parked in the darkness of the junkyard at the rear of the building. Either their radio was out, they were both out of the unit making their bladders gladder, they had decided to sit this one out, or one of the Rizzos had crept up on them and zeroed out their hard drives.
"Unit Three?" called Crewe. "Torio? Dockery?"
"Three," I answered flatly.
"I can't raise Unit One. Torio, one of you go back and see what's become of Carver and Tobin. The other get in that side entrance and back up Unit Two. MacDonald and Rodriguez are already in there. Go! That is an order, detective!"
I felt the acid taste of my stomach in my throat. "How important is that pension, Dock?"
"Tough to enjoy it with your brains splattered all over a new Audi, I gotta admit."
"Yeah. Dock, why don't you go and see if Carver and Tobin are finished with their coffee break while I check some sticker prices?"
Dock glared at me. "Why don't you just paint a big bulls-eye on your ass and play a kazoo?"
"You know I'm a banjo man. Go on, Dock. We can't leave Mac and Pancho in there all alone. Anyway, I'm a smaller target than you and my Velcro is tight."
Muttering obscenities, Dockery pushed open the junker's passenger door and slipped out, his bulk soon swallowed by the shadows and falling snow. I slid out the same side, eased the door closed, pulled the S&W 669 from my parka pocket, moved past the two junkers on the opposite side of the alley, and rushed to the wall next to the side entrance. Feeling the firmness of the brick at my back, I inched toward the door.
The door had a clear glass panel in it. Glancing through it first, I decided, would accomplish nothing but acquiring an extra hole in my head. A deep breath, then I pulled open the door, crouched down, and slipped inside to the right, away from the entrance, my back against the wall. As the door hissed shut all of my senses went to high-receive.
It was dead silent, uncomfortably warm, the scents of new car and old cigarette smoke mixed with a touch of stale car exhaust. As I swept the showroom with my weapon, I searched the shadows. Directly in front of me, highlights from the front window's red neon sign reflecting from it, was a sports utility vehicle on an angle to the door. To my right were two more vehicles, a station wagon and one of the neo-beetles, Adolph Hitler's old design concept still holding up.
Past the beetle was an additional showroom with rows of gleaming imported inventory. Directly across from me, beyond the SUV, was a low slung, glossy black sports car. Beyond that was the establishment's vestibule, which also served as an additional display room for the garage's parts department. On the far wall of the parts department display room, there was an additional red neon sign above a door: "Offices." Through the display window to my left, I noted the base unit, a perpetual cloud of hot exhaust still rising from it's rear, keeping the Popsicle King and media warm and happy. Stasser had, at least, taken his foot off the brake pedal. Always a treat working with professionals.
Satisfied I was alone in the front showroom, I removed my left glove, slipped the Maglite from my coat pocket, and moved to the side of the SUV, squatting beside it. After another pause, I removed my bulky parka and left it and my gloves on the floor after retrieving the squawk. I placed the communication unit in the breast pocket provided for it on the body armor and replaced the earpiece. I waited a beat, then duck-walked around the front of the SUV, pausing for a moment behind the glistening hood of the sports car. It was an Audi R8. Damned good-looking ride. My Mazda MX3 was a 'Ninety-two and about ready to be donated to a demolition derby. I toyed with looking at the sticker price, but putting a light on it would be about as stupid as paying a hundred grand plus for a car that only got thirteen miles per gallon. First things first.
After moving around the sports car, I came to rest next to the entrance to the parts department showroom, the blue neon spark plug casting the floor displays in cold relief. The displays were of Santa and his elves, but in the blue light they looked like a squad of grotesque little space invaders awaiting orders. I studied the aliens for a long time to see if one of them made a move to call home.
Opposite the front doors, running the entire length of the vestibule's north wall, was a thirty-foot long counter. Behind the counter was a door leading to where the parts inventory was stored. The inventory room opened onto the garage's main repair and paint bays where, theoretically, the two uniforms from Unit Two would be working their way toward me from the west side entrance, the Rizzos caught in between. The uniforms from Unit One should be coming in the back of the garage next to the grease racks, if Dockery had managed to waken them.
Putting my lips next to the squawk's pickup, I whispered, "Dock?"
"I can't find Tobin and Carver, Joe. Back on out of there—"
"Negative! Negative!" Interrupted the Popsicle King loudly, making me flinch. Through the display window to my left, I could see Lieutenant Crewe pounding his fist on the car's dash. Stasser had his foot back on the brake pedal. The rear window was open and there was a tiny red light moving in the back seat: Gil Franklin's cameraman was taping the play-by-play for tomorrow's broadcast. If his cameraman suddenly turned on the Klieg lights I'd be silhouetted.
"Torio, you get in there and back up MacDonald and Rodriguez!" Lt. Crewe, our leader, keeping on top of things.
"Base, this is Unit Two," called MacDonald. "We aren't in. The door's got a barrier on it."
"Uh oh," I whispered to myself.
"Get outta there, Joe," interjected Dockery, his voice rough with tension. "Tobin and Carver are down. Repeat, Base, Tobin and Carver are down! We need an ambulance, now! We need Torio outta there now!"
"This is Lt. Crewe. . . . Okay. Okay." A numb silence, then Crewe came back on the net. "Ambulance is on the way. Torio. MacDonald and Rodriguez still need backup."
"Negative! Negative, Base. For Christ's sake! This is Unit Two," interrupted MacDonald, his voice tense with frustration. "We are not in. Repeat, we are not in! The door is barred from the inside. Torio is in there by himself!"
I whispered into my pickup, "Dock, getting a little lonely here."
I heard the side door rattle and rattle again. "Joe," whispered Dock, "It's locked."
That was not good. The door hadn't been locked when I went through it. Hence, if it was locked now, someone had locked it. Maybe I wasn't so lonely after all. I studied shapes and shadows until everything looked like it was hiding someone.
After a long pause, Crewe said, "Abort. All units, abort operation! Stay in place, Torio! We'll get help to you." As Crewe ordered the pullout, I caught a glimpse of someone in front of the side door standing behind the SUV.
"Joe Torio, look at you," said the shadow. "I heard it but I didn't believe it. What are you doin' in here, cop? You must got 'em like brass gongs." The voice was deep, clear. Theo Rizzo, number two son.
I tried to make myself small as an electric prickle ran up my spine. Turning my head, I looked at the showroom window wondering if I ran at it as fast as I could, perhaps shooting through the glass as I went, if I could break through it and escape onto the street. I fleetingly considered that one or more stray rounds might catch the Popsicle King or the TV crew, but before I could finish totaling up the positive reasons for taking a tilt at that windmill, the negative side won with the sound of a pump-action shotgun being cocked.
Springing from my position, I leaped into the parts display room just ahead of a charge of buckshot, rolled to my feet, veered toward the counter, and vaulted over it as the TV camera lights went on. I felt like a bug on a microscope stage. Once I was squatting behind the counter, I pulled the squawk from its pocket, and whispered "Talk to yourself, Dock, and tell the Popsicle King to turn of the fucking lights!"
I ran the volume all the way up and pulled the earpiece jack. Leaving the pocket radio on the floor behind the counter, I crawled toward the inventory room door. Just as I reached it, I could hear Dock's tinny voice beginning a dialog with himself.
"Hey, Joe. Whaddya know?" Pause. "I'm off today to the picture show."
"Inspired," I muttered. In the corner of the display room was a large security mirror. From my vantage point I could see a large dark shape moving on the outside of the showroom window toward Crewe's car. Once there the TV lights suddenly extinguished. Another dark shape moved in the mirror but this one was on my side of the glass. As I entered the inventory room door, I saw the shadow with the shotgun ease its way up to the counter, look over, and aim its weapon at the radio. I trained my gun on the shadow. Before I could fire, white hot pain filled my right shoulder as a stiletto was thrust into it from behind. "Dago Frank says 'Hi,'" growled Tony Rizzo's voice.
I violently swung around, Tony's hand on the knife handle stirring things inside as I shoved my gun into Tony's guts and pulled the trigger. As the shadow fell back, the shotgun fired from the end of the counter, the buckshot eating off the top of the door. I fired twice in the general direction of the shotgun's muzzle flash, then I lurched through the door to the inventory room. The soft red-and-white glow of the exit light in the back through the parts shelves cast deep shadows with diffused edges. I pulled myself to the far wall midway between the door I came in and the entrance to the garage and tried to hide myself in between piles of tires and empty cardboard cartons, the smell of new rubber heavy on the air. Something brushed the handle of the knife letting me know it was still in my shoulder.
Sinking to my knees from the pain, I pulled the Velcro loose on the left side of the body armor but couldn't remove it. The knife had gone through the webbing above the Kevlar. I reached over my right shoulder with my left hand and gingerly touched the handle of the stiletto. Pulling that handle out of Tony Rizzo's hand by turning had moved that blade sideways inside my shoulder, tearing up more things than I cared to think about right then. I couldn't bear even the thought of catching the handle of that knife on something. Biting off my cries, bit-by-bit I eased the narrow blade from my shoulder. Once out, I held the wicked looking sticker in front of my eyes and saw the glisten of its seven-inch blade reflecting though a sheen of my own blood.
"Not again," I whispered, as the blood that wasn't pounding in my head dribbled into my armpit, soaking my shirt. There seemed to be something wrong with the blood flow. Way too much. There was also blood dribbling down my chest. The blade must have gone all the way through, hitting a main line on the way. I could feel the blood pooling at my waist, above my belt. I shrugged out of the body armor leaving it and its added weight on the floor.
There was a noise from out in the display room. Pressing my right arm against my side as tightly as I could, I placed the knife on the floor and took my 669 in my left hand, the sound of my heart still pounding in my ears. The beat seemed to be getting a bit fluttery as a gunshot and its muzzle flash came from out in the showroom.
Carlo Rizzo's low-pitched voice called out, "Tony? Theo? Tony? Theo?"
As I tried to make myself invisible I kept my finger outside the trigger guard so a digit jazzed up on fight-or-flight juice didn't inadvertently pop off an unintentional round. I worked on overcoming my narrow focus by repeatedly checking to my left, my right, up, and down. A wave of light-headedness came and I almost went out.
"Theo! Theo, what—Mother of God!"
Theo down? I thought. Theo was the shotgun. That'd have to be the luckiest damned shot of the century. I fought against the blackness. Carlo. I could handle Carlo by myself if I could keep from blacking out.
Scrape, step, scrape, step, scrape.
Carlo paused outside the inventory room door. The big man muttered something. "Tony," then he swore beneath his breath. I guessed Tony hadn't made it either. I would've congratulated myself, but I couldn't see how Theo was dead. Tony was gut shot. That's painful, but lingering. Carlo was acting like they were both dead.
I could hear Carlo's footsteps on the floor, his gimpy left foot scraping the concrete like Boris Karloff in The Mummy. Dock was still talking on the squawk. Something about the Policeman's Ball. A shotgun cocked.
Scrape, step, scrape, step, scrape.
"Get ready you rat bastard," said Carlo. "I'm coming for you."
It was dark, the lines of stocked shelves cocked crazily, the lights mixing with shadows, one of the shadows filling the doorway. I tried to aim and squeeze off a shot, but was too weak. Couldn't move my arm. Couldn't see to aim anyway. There was a pause, a small grunt, then another muzzle flash, the sound of it for some reason quite muted.
I felt something hard and cold against the left side of my face. Then it was warm and sticky. Smell of new rubber. Need to replace the bald-headed tires on my MX3. Meaning to get to it for months. I wondered what the Rizzos'd charge for a set of all seasons. Maybe I could get a professional courtesy discount—
Couldn't lift my arm. Couldn't see. Great, I was blind. Couldn't lift my head. I tried to squeeze off a few rounds but there was no sound, no feeling, my hand twitching.
Circling the drain, I thought. Round and round. Made me think of the big circular staircase. At Pop's house there was the blue rope that held the ornate chandelier in the hall. Went up two and a half stories to a pulley. Nice chandelier. Originally oil, converted to gas, and converted again to electricity. Greenish copper frame set with plates of beveled crystal, twelve pointy light bulbs that looked like fake flames, all on a dimmer switch. The rope that held it was blue.
Billy Roth made a crack about the rope at class. Fifth grade. Said that Joe Torio's father, the hangman, had recycled one of his old ropes.
It was a little funny. Once. Billy took his joke, though, and told it around. And around and around. We fought. Terrible fight. Bloody noses all around.
I felt something at my hand. A nudge. Hand was full of Novocain anyway; shadow over me looking down. Billy Roth, the little bastard.
The chandelier at the Torio's was hanging on a rope that had put twenty killers away. That's what Billy Roth told everyone at school. Jerk. Everybody knows you don't use a rope after three times.
A thump. Another thump. Another.
"Just joking," Billy had said.
King Elementary. There used to be the fat girl, the cripple, the psycho, the computer geek, the Jew, the fag, and the hangman's son: Outcasts all. Billy Roth used to be of our number, but he figured a way out of the few and into the many by throwing me under the bus and rejecting all the other odd human puzzle pieces. Lots of fights and lots of nights filling my head with banal TV shows, hiding in the back of my bedroom closet, cursing the world that had made my father a hangman, teasing my head with ending it all.
The hangman never asked about the black eyes, the split lips, and bloody noses. Instead, one day he took me down to a shack below the tank farm in East Branch to see an ex-con named Leroy Brown, just like in the song. Leroy was shaved bald, had rubbery yellowish-tan skin, a complexion like the surface of the moon, and was one big solid chunk of muscle. After the hangman had left, Leroy said, "I owe you papa, boy. This is payback. Do what I tell you and only the right people get hurt." And then I learned street fighting from a man who used to street fight for prize money and eventually went to prison for killing a man with his fists.
Leroy Brown, every afternoon for two months: Fists, feet, knives, knees, head, dig, slap, poke, punch, stab. I tried some knuckles on the bullies at school, and the beatings miraculously stopped. No more hangman jokes, either, at least not within my hearing. No more beating on the other outcasts, either. Anyone you wanted to pick on had to go through me first.
Wonder if that's when I decided to become a cop. "To serve and protect." That wasn't SRPD's motto, though. On the doors of our marked cruisers, beneath the twin raven logo, our motto read, "Eternal Vigilance." Great photo on the cover of Nightwatch a few years ago: A view of two uniforms sound asleep taken through the driver's side window above the SRPD motto: "Eternal Vigilance."
Long shadows, endless caverns of warm, black cotton swimming in oceans of molasses. Urgent voices. Code this, stat that, paper ripping, Al Dockery's angry voice saying something very rude to someone.
Don't piss off the paramedics, Dock. I'm kind of depending on them. Didn't know if I said that or thought it. Meant to say it but it didn't get a laugh. Probably only thought it.
A thump. Another thump. Another.
Puppet jumping painlessly at the end of his strings.
So many running feet . . .
High clouds, the sky between a crisp blue. Saddleback Mountain in Maine. Small ski operation, big mountain. Stayed there in Rangeley with Aunt Cella when being the hangman's son had me running away from home.
Kirby Flagg was dead. Pop hanged him. I couldn't get away from South River fast enough. Hitched rides across country. Aunt Cella wasn't very friendly when I arrived, but I couldn't think of anywhere else to go. After clearing it with Pop and putting up with my moping for an afternoon, Aunt Cella shoved me out of the house and up on the slopes early the next morning to take a skiing lesson. I learned the wedge and in two weeks hammered that wedge into parallel running, a month later doing all the black diamonds on the mountain.
No one in Maine knew I was the hangman's son. No one except Aunt Cella, and she didn't like to talk about it.
Her husband, dead before I was born, used to be a big-time downhill racer and ski instructor. His pictures were all over the house showing a big, robust man, the huge wooden skis he used in the 'Fifties held over his head in one hand. In fifty-two years of skiing, not so much as a sprained toe. Then, according to Aunt Cella, there was a particularly nasty combination of ice, age, ego, and alcohol when her husband was skiing White Nitro over on Sugarloaf. The result was Clifton Roberts dead from one of those fifty mile an hour off-trail spruce massages.
Aunt Cella did all her crying in private. Her only outward expression of affection was to love the snow. She taught me to love it, too. We traveled all over New England and the names became as old friends: Saddleback, Sugarloaf, Sunday River, Mt. Abram, Wildcat, Loon Mountain, Cannon, Jay Peak, Okemo.
The burning wind tearing at my cheeks as I flew down the trails, past and future brushed aside by my rocketing present.
Then New England ran out of snow, Aunt Cella ran out of patience, and it was time to go back to South River and the hangman.
Another thump. Another.
A thought came to me: If all that thumping was paramedics using a defibrillator on me, I'd probably hurt like hell when I woke up, should I live so long. . . .
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