“Ha! And, he even told me he was now trying to avoid accidents.”
“It’s new data this week,” Gail apologized. Don’t know how I missed it the first time through.”
“Must have done something pretty bad to lose his license?”
“I know it’s nothing much, but—”
“Oh there’s bound to be more, Gail, there’s bound to be much more.” Whenever he found something, he was bound to find something else. All it ever took was persistence, a little pushing and prodding. “Where there’s smoke, you can bet I’ll find the fire. Like I already said, I have a feeling about this one.” Petrie felt a faint twinge on the left side of his neck. You’re supposed to be dead, frozen dead! He sucked in his breath, and then slowly exhaled, wondering if he had imagined this bite like all the others. He felt another twinge, a tiny prickling near the same spot. He continued breathing slowly and waited several seconds, not daring to move even to glance in the mirror. He imagined the bloodsucker poking its shovel around, looking for a choice pore to plunder, but he could not feel anything. Then, he had to wonder if the mosquito already had injected its anesthesia and at this moment in a feeding frenzy.
Petrie smacked himself on the neck, keeping his hand firm and tight there. He knew. He could not feel anything moving under his palm or fingers, but he knew he had the bug trapped. Careful not to let his predator escape, he slowly rubbed his palm and fingers hard against his neck, before checking his catch. Under the weak shine of his interior light, he saw a black smudge. He pulled out his flashlight additional light. Smeared across a callus near his index finger was some kind of insect, a torso with tiny wings mangled beyond recognition. He could not find any red in the smudge. The mosquito must have been bone dry.
“… Well?” Gail said. Again, he had not been listening.
“Well Gail, like I always say, two for two’s always good but fifty percent’s only half bad.”
“Are you referring to your performance anxiety on or off the job?”
“Ooch, ouch! Shoot me dead, woman, shoot me dead,” he said, pausing. “You always joke like that with Robby.”
“Well, now I’m joking that way with you,” Gail demurred. “You know, by the time you bring this speeder in, I expect to be finishing my shift.”
“Well, you know,” Petrie echoed, pausing for the same emphasis. He was feeling lucky. “Maybe I ought to just let this fella drive on off so I can finish sooner.”
“Well then, maybe you ought to hold onto this fella to keep you occupied until my shift is truly over. You wouldn’t want to shoot your quota before you get here, Mr. Fifty-fifty.” Now they were both laughing.
“I may have to do just that, Gail dear.” He paused to wipe the buggy remains from his palm onto a leg of his trousers. He was feeling lucky, all right. “Detain him, that is; I may have to charge him with concealing a weapon.”
“Hey! You never mentioned that?”
“He has this gun used to shoot large staples into people.”
“Maybe you should bring him in right now.”
“Actually, I can’t really charge him for that. As far as I know, a staplegun is not yet an illegal weapon. It’s reason enough to check through his vehicle, though. If there are no other weapons in his car, no suspicious powders under his bumper, body parts stashed in little brown boxes, etcetera, I’ll probably just take his license and let him go with several citations. Maybe impound his vehicle, maybe not. Depends on what I find.”
“Just let me know when you’ll be coming by, Mr. Fifty-fifty.”
As Petrie wrote up the citations, he reflected on the nondescript remains on his trousers. He wished that he had not been so quick to smear the bug. For all he knew, he had killed a small housefly or a fat gnat. In any case, he had killed a pest just the same. If so, it had been a pest just the same, all the way to the instant of its death, harassing him the way only a mosquito could harass. The bug’s situation had been quite similar to the driver’s. Perhaps Mr. Jim Saint James lost his license for having one too many moving violations, perhaps Mr. Jim Saint James had neglected to pay some fines, or had committed a victimless DUI. Perhaps. Yet, he might also be the lone perpetrator of a freak pile up, one that resulted in the deaths of numerous citizens. Anyway you look at it, he was yet again breaking the law, having sped through no less than four States on a revoked driver’s license. These were the circumstances, and it was Petrie’s duty to confiscate the man’s license and impound his vehicle.
With the citations completed, Petrie turned on his AC full blast, quickly opened and shut the door behind him, then walked to the Camaro.
“Here’s what I have for you, Mr. James. Here’s your registration back. It all seems in order.” Petrie handed the driver the papers. “This here is a fix-it citation for your headlight. You might not be aware of this, but one of your headlights is aimed too low while the other is aimed too high, which can distract oncoming drivers. Now, if you can get your headlights realigned within 48 hours, you won’t have to pay the fine. When you do this, just have an officer from any State to sign the back, then mail it to this address.” Petrie pointed to the address on the citation. Do you understand what I have told you?” Without looking up, the driver nodded and took his copy.
“This citation here should refer to two violations: driving with your headlights off and recklessly parked in the middle of the road. I am giving you a break by charging you only for driving with your lights off. By signing it, you are not admitting guilt but that you have received the citation. The arraignment date’s listed here, but again you can handle this through the mail by sending a check or money order to the address on the back. You can call this number here for the fine’s amount.” Petrie pointed to a phone number on the back. “Do you understand? Now, this citation is for speeding. I expect you’ve seen one of these before. You were going 40 in a 15 mph zone. I must say, such a speed poses a serious danger at night, especially for you out-of-towners not accustomed to Ketchesketchken Ridge. The arraignment date’s on the back and so is the address where you can make a payment through the mail. Do you understand? Now this one here is for driving without insurance. You really should get yourself some insurance, Mr. James. I don’t know about California’s driving regulations, but here in Washington you need liability insurance to drive. This fine is larger than the others, but you can also handle payment by mail to the address on the back. Do you understand?” With each citation, the driver signed the ticket and took his copy without looking up or uttering a word. Petrie paused before handing out the final citation.
“Now this here is for driving without a valid license. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Mr. James, but your license has been revoked.” He raised the man’s license and waited, but the driver did not look up. “Just last week, in fact. You’ll need to clear the matter up with your State’s DMV.” Again, the driver silently signed and took his copy without looking at Officer Petrie. Petrie waited before continuing. “Now, because this license has been revoked, I have to confiscate it.” The driver’s hands grabbed the sides of the steering wheel and lowered his head. “And since you are therefore not currently licensed to drive, I need to impound your vehicle.” The driver kept his hands firm on the wheel, his face downcast. “My advice to you, Mr. James, is to call some friends and ask them to come and drive you and your vehicle back to California. You’ll need to get started on this right away. The storage for impounds is $75 a day and the nearest motel is all the way in Wenatchee.” The driver pushed his forehead onto the steering wheel. “First, you need to get out of your vehicle; the tow truck will be here shortly.” The driver’s head remaining pressed atop the steering, his hands began twisting their grip on the wheel’s sides. “You need to get out of your vehicle, NOW.”
The driver jolted up and looked at Petrie. His mouth then opened wide, a soundless exhale. The shepherd erupted into hysterical cries mixed with high-pitched barking and roaring growls. He lurched at Petrie, slamming its snout into the glass, then clamping its teeth onto the edge of the window’s gap to break it away. The driver pressed his forehead back down against the steering wheel, screaming, “I didn’t do anything!”
Petrie grabbed his gun’s handle, but kept the pistol in its holster. “Control your pet!” Petrie shouted. Now forcing its head through the window’s opening, the shepherd barked and snapped as it reached for Petrie. “You need to remove your animal and yourself out of this vehicle—NOW.” The driver pressed his hands over his ears, but his head remained against the top of the steering wheel. He stayed in that position for several seconds. “I repeat, remove yourself and your pet from the vehicle, NOW. The tow truck will be here shortly.”
Without looking up, the driver seized his shepherd by its ear and then held it until the dog quieted to a whine. He finally looked up to lowered the window one or two inches, just low enough to pull both his fist and his shepherd back inside. His forehead had a long red welt shaped by the steering wheel. Gripping the furry neck with both hands, the driver then pressed his forehead against the dog’s wet snout. “SNOW! SNOW! Shuh,” he commanded, “shhhhhuh! Shhhhhuh!” in a tone that was both admonishing and soothing. The shepherd whined with indignation, then quieted and withdrew to the backseat.
The driver stared out through his windshield. The sounds of his breathing were heavy and uneven.
“You must have done something pretty bad to get your license suspended,” Petrie prodded.
“An accident,” the driver replied, “a stupid accident.”
“Stupid or not, whenever you injure someone, you have to pay the—”
The driver erupted with a loud sigh. “Me! Me! I was injured.” He raised his voice with each word, slapping his palms on the steering wheel.
“Well, you must have hurt someone else. If not, the other driver was only lucky this time.”
“I was the one hurt,” the driver shouted, “the only injured. No one else, just me—”
“Just the same,” Petrie continued, “you caused it. Maybe next time, you’ll be more careful.”
“Sure, more careful,” the driver mocked, slapping his palms again on the steering wheel. “Much more careful. I’m parked in my car and an idiot crashes into me.”
“You had to have done more than that.”
“Should’ve been more careful.”
“You mean someone crashed into you after you were parked? So, why did they take away your license? Is that how they work it in California?”
The driver grinned hysterically. “Insurance! I lost my license for being in an accident-without-insurance resulting in bodily injury and/or vehicle damage of more than $500. That’s it, that’s all of it.” The driver seemed suddenly articulate recalling the details verbatim. With all the quick and ready details, the driver’s story seemed at least plausible. “Real, real big time stuff. I get injured, my car gets messed up, and so I lose my license.”
“All because you didn’t have insurance?”
The driver lowered his head back to the steering wheel. “Didn’t even have the motor running.”
“I tell you what, Mr. James, why don’t you get out of the car so I can hear you better. You can let your dog stay put for now.” Petrie watched the driver step onto the road, calming his dog before shutting the door.
“So they caught you driving without insurance, eh?”
“Parked!” the driver corrected.
“That doesn’t quite explain why you’re driving now? With your license suspended, that there is a crime?”
“Had a funeral to get to,” the man said, then faintly lowered his head and his voice, “my mom’s.” Petrie recalled that the card in his breast pocket announced a funeral for a woman with the driver’s last name.
“Well Mr. James, I’m gonna make it real easy for you. Perhaps I won’t impound your Camaro after all, though I will have to search it.”
“No,” the driver said.
“That’s right,” Petrie smiled, “I won’t impound your car after all. I’d hate to keep you here in the Town of Gold Bar without a means of getting home. I’ll just need to search your vehicle; nothing detailed, just a quick search is all. ”
“No,” the driver repeated, then hesitated before shaking his head. “You can’t search my car.”
“No?” Petrie asked. “But after I search your vehicle, I’m gonna let you go. I will need to keep your license, though. But, I don’t think you’ll have a problem getting home, so long as you drive carefully and pay attention to—”
“You can’t search my car,” the driver said, now emphatically shaking his head.
“What do you mean, I can’t? Look, all I want is to make sure you’re not one of those people doing something he really shouldn’t be doing. Afterward, if everything is in order, I’ll let you drive off. I’m sure you can imagine that we get a lot of drug traffickers on their way to and from Canada. I worry much more about them than about California’s insurance problems.”
The driver continued shaking his head. “I don’t want you getting into my mom’s stuff,” the driver said, raising his eyes before continuing. “Not you, not now, not anyone. I can’t handle anyone digging into her things.”
“Mr. James, I’m afraid you really have no choice. I mean no disrespect to your mother, but as we discussed earlier your staplegun is indeed a weapon. I did ask you repeatedly if you had any weapons and you repeatedly denied having them, even though this gun was in view and in easy reach.” Petrie placed the staplegun on the Camaro’s hood. “Again, I mean no disrespect to your mother. I imagine a mother’s funeral can make her son feel pretty lost and confused, and I don’t really think you meant to conceal the weapon. That’s why I mean to let you go. Still, I do have regulations to follow.” Petrie stepped forward and gently took the man’s elbow.
The driver ripped his arm free and stepped away. “I don’t want you touching me, either.”
“Why?” Petrie asked, stepping forward.
“No, nothing. I’ve just been driving for over three days awake … three days away … just can’t handle being touched right now. Don’t even feel human.”
“What are you afraid of, Mr. James? Why are you sweating? You look like you’re trembling. What did you mean that you feel inhuman? Were you taking speed to stay awake?”
“No, no, no!” the driver exasperated, just under a shout. There were faint echoes to the driver’s words. Petrie looked around in the blinking darkness. Aside from Petrie, the driver and his dog, the night was barren, empty. If the driver did take amphetamines, he likely still had the powder or pills on his person. “I just don’t want to be touched,” the driver continued,” not by you—not by anyone.”
“Before I search your vehicle,” Petrie paused as he took a cautious step forward, “I am also required to check you for weapons. Part of regulations.” The driver stepped backward; behind him, the shepherd did not take its eyes off Petrie. The dog remained quieted as it staring through the half-open window with extreme readiness. “Mr. James, I promise you we won’t take long. We don’t have to rush it, either. We can take whatever time you need to brace yourself, all night if necessary. But, we are gonna have to get through this.” Petrie paused before continuing. “I’m sure you’re looking forward to getting home, right?” The driver bowed his head slightly and seemed to relax. “Right now, I need you to lean against your car with your hands atop the hood.”
The dog now watched its master lower his head further, turning, and then take short hesitant steps toward the front of the car’s hood. The shepherd followed, moving quickly onto the front seat to see its master through the windshield lifting his arms and now stretching them slowly over the hood.
“Bend over the vehicle,” Petrie instructed, “all the way over.” As the driver reached his hands over the hood, his entire body seemed to tremble and shake as though in the strain of pulling a large weight. “All the way over the hood,” Petrie repeated. When the driver lowered his long torso and head high upon the hood, the beast Snow appeared as if connected to the shoulders of the driver—its dark eyes, red tongue and bright fur illuminated in the Camaro’s interior light. In the blinking darkness, the dog’s jowls curled slowly into a snarl, baring teeth.
“Place your hands wider apart,” Petrie demanded, as he pushed the driver at first lightly then repeatedly bumped him farther over the hood. “Spread your feet too,” he instructed, kicking the insides of the feet to bring them farther apart. Since the driver stood well over six feet tall, Petrie needed his hands and feet wide apart to lower his torso within comfortable reach for a sufficient search. “Come on. Let’s get this over with!” Petrie encouraged. He had ever intention of hurrying through the frisk to make it short and painless for the driver. Petrie kicked and bumped repeatedly, until the driver had sufficiently lowered himself: spreadeagle with torso, chin, and nose flush against metal. Off the driver’s arm span, his fingers curled over both sides of the hood.
Petrie grabbed the driver’s left wrist, damp with cold sweat. He pulled the hand behind the driver’s neck, then did the same with the other hand, placing the hands one atop the other. “Interlock your fingers,” Petrie instructed. With the driver’s hands clasped over the nape of his neck, Petrie held them in place with his right hand while patting down the driver’s left side, brushing his free hand down the wrist, arm, into the armpit, and then down the flank. The driver had a strong odor—that same mean malodor that Petrie had smelled at the car window. It did not seem likely that such an intense odor could ever result from the sweat of going three or more days without bathing. The odor did not appear to be chemical, but primal. Petrie continued patting down the driver’s left side, brushing his hand down the left flank across the ribs over the cold, oily wet of the T-shirt. He wondered if the intense odor had to do with duress, uncertainty, a violent contemplation. Petrie glanced up at the windshield, at the shepherd still growling with bared teeth. Petrie could not recall ever smelling a man’s fear, but if such existed the smell would explain the dog’s viciously protective behavior.
When Petrie reached the left hip, the driver stiffened and tried to straighten himself. “Keep still,” Petrie commanded, pushing him back over the hood and pressing his head down, until both chin and chest were again flush against the hood. “We’ll be done soon enough.” Because the driver’s jeans were tight at the waist, Petrie could dig only two fingers into the front pocket. The driver jerked and stiffened again, but this time remained down over the hood. Keeping his hand gripped over the driver’s clasp, Petrie dragged out several pennies, a dime, two keys, and a wrinkled $5 bill, placing the articles next to the staplegun on the front of the hood. He then continued searching down and around the driver’s back pocket, thigh, and knee. To search further, Petrie briefly released the driver’s clasp and squatted down to check the calf and ankle. “These are pretty thick wool socks you have on,” said Petrie, attempting to reduce the tension, “must get pretty itchy this time of year, though.” He rooted his fingers as far as he could get them, first between the sock and shoe, then between the sock and foot—common areas used for concealing small bags of powders and pills.
“Well, we’re half-way done now. Just a little bit longer.” Petrie moved over to the driver’s right foot, dug in his fingers, and performed another thorough search before checking the calf. With his right hand pausing at the driver’s knee, Petrie reached and covered the driver’s clasp, the fingers there still interlocked at the nape. The driver continued trembling and sweating, but had ceased jerking against Petrie’s probes. Petrie continued the frisk, running his free hand up and around the thigh and hip and digging two fingers into the right front pocket. Petrie then checked the back pockets and reached around to pat down the crotch.
With a force that hurled Petrie several steps backward, the driver straightened up and ripped his hands free as he spun around to face Petrie. In a backward stumble, Petrie tugged loose his gun from its holster as he fell. Thinking he had been hit and expecting to be hit again, Petrie rolled to one knee and raised his pistol. A fight began inside the Camaro, the yelps and growls exploding in several pitches, as claws and teeth scraped against panes of glass. Much to Petrie’s surprise, the driver had not pursued him. Instead, he remained in front of the hood, the white of his sweat-soiled T-shirt lit by the car’s interior light. Even from the revolving blinks of the lightbar, the driver’s face hid in the dark.
His gun now cocked, extended and pointing at the driver, Petrie clambered to his feet and lunged forward. The driver stood still, his face dripping. His eyes appeared swollen shut and tearing, the mouth twisting open into something horrific. The shepherd continued barking with what seemed like a vengeance, throwing itself against the windows, its hysteria shaking the vehicle and making the shell of the Camaro appear small, fragile. The eyes opened and soon fixed on Petrie’s chest; they glowed as they grew darker—black sparks from deep-set shadows.
The driver stepped forward and reached at Petrie’s chest, his mouth twisting shapeless. Petrie grasped the driver’s wrist to push away the hand, keeping his gun raised, his finger trembling to resist pulling the trigger. Fingers from the driver’s other hand dug into Petrie’s breast pocket. Without releasing the wrist, Petrie pushed the driver back against the hood as the fingers ripped loose the green announcement card.
“Stay—” Petrie began. The eyes were now ablaze with a fury of such intense rage, Petrie aimed his revolver at the hate between the eyes.
The driver’s head snapped at Petrie’s weapon, teeth biting hard as they half-enclosed the gun barrel. Even amid the dog’s frantic barking, the sound of teeth smacked against metal was so loud that Petrie thought he had misfired his gun. He twisted and pulled at his gun, but the teeth remained clamped, as if the jaw were in a death grip, holding Petrie in place. The driver’s lips lifted over the gums, a soundless snarl joined with the shepherd’s high-pitched barking. Petrie glanced at the shepherd, now curled half way out the side window, its rump and hind legs stuck in the gap, desperate claws tearing at both sides of the door. Still, the driver would not let go, his face remaining clenched around the gun, the eyes piercing forth, unblinking, daring Petrie to shoot. Petrie tried again to pull and twist his gun free. He felt the gun metal scrape against teeth, as he heard claws scraping against the door and then a window shattering. As Petrie yanked his gun free, the trigger pulled.
The shepherd’s yelp echoed the blast, the gun’s blast and the cry both shooting into Petrie’s ears and through his body. The gun’s echo hit near the same spot, solidly on the left side of his head, but louder and more numbing than the shot he had fired, followed again by the shepherd’s cry—now a series of high-pitched yelps ringing so painfully in his ear and throughout his body, Petrie dropped to his knees. Before a second echo would strike, Petrie knew he had been hit and was about to be hit again.
Petrie’s gun was no longer in his hands.
The next blow echoed into Petrie through one ear, slamming him down to his elbows. Another blow struck the back of Petrie’s head, forcing him face-down onto dirt. The glinting shape of his revolver was several feet away. Petrie pushed back to his elbows, and then kicked forward the instant before feeling another blow miss his head and crunch into his back. He scrambled on his elbows grasping at the glinting shape. When he gripped the handle of his revolver, the barrel of the staplegun hammered twice into the back of his hand. He blocked the next blow with his body, but as he worked his finger around the trigger another staple found his hand, its twin prongs piercing deep into bone, paralyzing his fingers. He dived forward and tried pushing up to his feet. A staple struck deep into the nape of his neck, dropping him back to knees and elbows. Scooting and kicking, he tried to create more room, some space, enough distance to regain his feet or to use his gun, but wherever he went the staplegun followed—slamming into his hands, his elbows, his back, lodging staples in his arms, his legs, his shoulders, deep into his face, his neck, his throat, whenever he moved and wherever he was moving, and he just could not stop moving. As each blow shook him to the ground, the staples echoed through his body with a high-pitched shriek from one direction, then another direction, then another, until he was crawling back into the very blows that struck him, each blow continuing the echo of his gun’s blast. A staple cut into his eye, rolling him onto his back. Petrie lifted his arms to block the blows and cover his face, unable to see the man swinging the staplegun. He could make out only the glint of his revolver still dangling from a senseless finger, and for the rest of his life he saw just red. And then, more red.
* * *
— Chris Custer