Friday, December 2, 2011

Upstanding Citizen

“Left, please.” Flash.

“Front please.” Flash.

“So tell me, Benny,” said Mel, blinking away the purple blobs floating in his vision,“how is it that you picked me up in two hours, but there's nothing you can tell me about the guys I called you about two weeks ago?”

Benny shrugged and motioned him over to a table with an ink pad and a sheet of paper already filled out with Mel's personal information.

Benny said, “Maybe if you hadn't driven directly home from the scene on fresh snow, it would have taken us a bit longer.”

“Too bad there wasn't any snow when my place was hit, huh?” Mel said.

“I guess it's just one of those things,” Benny said. “ Now just let your hands go limp. It'll work better if I roll them for you.”

The ink pad reminded Mel of creosote. As his fingers were rolled one by one across the paper, he couldn't help but think about the ashen fingerprints and smudges left on the walls where the jerk offs had dumped out the ash bucket by the fireplace.

“Hey,” he said, “why didn't you take fingerprints at my house? They left them all over.”

Benny shrugged. “They wore gloves, Mel. Nothing turned up that we could use.”

Mel let out a bitter laugh. “So all us taxpayers will show up right away on fingerprint searches, but the real criminals on the street just get to keep on laughing.”

“It's an imperfect world.” Benny said.

Benny handed an alcohol wipe to Mel for the ink on his fingers, and took him by the arm back to a green metal desk. Benny took a pile of paper from a nearby chair and elbowed a tabletop Christmas tree aside to make room next to a buzzing computer. He gestured for Mel to sit down.

“The case fan on this thing is always giving me grief,” Benny said and smacked the computer's side a few times, causing the buzz to change pitch. “The city's IT guy says he can't do anything about it, and the department's budget says we can't replace it for at least another year.” Benny shook his head.

“But the paper said you're all getting those new hot-rod squad cards this year,” Mel said. “Just get something else, and you could buy new computers all around.” The solution was so simple, thought Mel.

“You would think so, but no,” Benny said, “Different budgets. Can't just use one to cover the other.”

Mel rolled his eyes. Damn government. He had made due with a '95 F-150 pickup and an old Dell from 2001. But the police department could just spend his tax money any way they wanted.

“Now Mel,” Benny said, “I can answer most of the questions for you on the booking form myself, you know, the name, address, that kind of stuff. But is there anything you want to tell me about what happened tonight?”

“Not hardly.” Mel said. “Not until I get a lawyer in here, though lord knows how much more that's going to cost me.”

“We can provide you with one, if you like.” Benny said. “Marge Kauffman's son is the usual public defender. He's not too bad.”

“I'm not a charity case, Benny. I'll get one on my own.”

“Suit yourself.” Benny squinted at the computer screen and tapped at a few keys. “The only other thing here I need is a list of aliases. You go by any other name but Melvin?”

“How about the 'Mad Upstanding Citizen'?”

“I'll take that as 'none,'” Benny said, hitting a few more keys. “You can never tell when smart-ass comments like that come back to bite you.” He looked up from the screen. “I'm sorry as hell about all this, Mel. But you know what they say, two wrongs don't make a right.”

“Mmm.” Mel grunted. “So do I get a phone call or what?”

Benny lifted a phone from behind the pile of papers and balanced it on the desk's edge next to Mel.

“Make as many as you want while I fill this in, just don't make any long distance ones. The sheriff will have a bird if he sees something like that showing up.”

Mel thought about whom to call. Pam, his girlfriend, was still pissed at him for going hunting the weekend his place got robbed, and was now out the pair of emerald earrings she picked out and had never unwrapped. She'd probably dump him once she found out about all this. His mother would never let him hear the end of it; she was already calling him after every episode of CSI, NCIS, and Law and Order with ideas he could pass along to help the police investigation. His ex-wife would happily come for him, and then squeeze the details out of him for ammunition in the next custody battle. That left only his brother George.

“Hello?” George said over a din of twangy music and raised voices.

Mel plugged his ear with a finger to keep out the computer's buzzing. “Hey, it's Mel. I need you to come bail me out.”

“From like jail or something? What'd you do?”

“Nothing, just a misunderstanding.”

“I'll bet. Say, they catch the guys who robbed your place yet?”

“No,” Mel said, looking pointedly at Benny, who didn't seem to notice. “Seems they haven't been able to find those guys. Look, can you get me out or not? Where are you?”

“I'm at She-Bangs, watching the game.” His words slurred, like he was trying to fit She-Bangs into a single syllable.

Mel's heart skipped. She-Bangs had been right across the street. Maybe George had been too interested in the game and his beer to bother looking out the bar's front window.

“You know what, George? Forget about it. I'll call someone else,” Mel said.

“Hey!” George said, “That reminds me. The Salvation Army got robbed tonight. Cops all over the place. Is that what they got you for?”

“No.” Mel's mind raced and he blurted the first thing that came into his head. “DUI.”

“Those bastards,” George said. “What'd you blow?”

“I uh – point one-oh.”

“Hell, that ain't nothing!”

“Maybe so. You coming to get me or what?”

“I'd love to, but I'm drunk too.”

What a surprise, Mel thought. “So?”

“So? What's it going to look like if one drunk shows up to drive another one home? They'll put me right in there with you. That ain't going to help either one of us.”

“How long until you sober up?”

Benny looked up over the computer screen and raised one eyebrow. Mel shot him a look and turned his back.

“Not until tomorrow, 'spect. I'm trading shots with the bartender on every score, and you know Minnesota can't play defense.”

“Well can't you stop and come here in a few hours?”

“What? Why should I miss out on my fun because you're a jackass? Tell you what – I'll show up first thing in the morning, hangover and all. How about that?”

Mel wanted to slam the phone in his brother's ear, but then he'd have to call someone else. He forced the words out of his mouth.

“Fine. See you then.”

Mel sat in the cell, a ten-foot by ten foot room made of white painted cinderblock, white bars, and lit by a fluorescent tube behind Plexiglas. A thin plastic mattress the color of pistachio pudding was the only thing between him and the cinderblock alcove built into the back wall. It wasn't all that comfortable to sit on, and would probably be a lot worse to sleep on come bedtime, or was it called “lights out” around here? Maybe they kept the lights on, and he wouldn't sleep at all. At least the cell block was empty. He didn't think he could use the toilet with someone watching.

Mel was glad George's present, a camouflage baseball hat, had been stolen too. He was going to tell his brother it had been new Benelli semi-auto shotgun. Damn the luck anyway, the stuff from the Salvation Army store had all been donations anyway, right? The stuff no one wanted anymore. People could have just as easily put it out on the curb for the garbage truck. It wasn't like the Salvation Army paid for any of that stuff. Could it really be stealing if the stuff he grabbed was essentially worthless?

It would all come out now, of course. He'd get either dirty squints from the town busybodies or worse, well-meaning charity types. He might be able to keep it quiet for as long as Christmas, maybe even into the new year. Maybe no one would know until much later. Sometime after the holiday season. Because he didn't want to be a charity case -- no way.

The door to the cell block opened, and Benny appeared at his cell with tray of food. He slid the tray through a slot in the bars.

“What the hell is this all?” Mel said as he looked at the heaps on the tray. Turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables, rolls and gravy.

“Christmas dinner,” Benny said. “They tell me it's all organically grown too.”

“But this is better than what I have at home! How much did this cost the city?”

Benny held up his hands.“Separate budgets, Mel, that's all I can say. I'll get you a cup of coffee when you're ready for the pie,” Benny said, “Just yell out when you're ready.” The deputy turned and began walking out.

“I'm not a charity case!” Mel yelled at Benny's back.

Benny waved a hand acknowledgement as he shut the cell block door.

“The coddling we give these convicts. No wonder the prisons are full,” Mel said.

He wouldn't eat it. He wouldn't. He wouldn't stoop so low as to take a jailhouse meal. He was an upstanding citizen who had been pushed too far, and made a mistake. He'd take whatever the judge handed out and not gripe once about it.

His stomach rumbled. He hadn't had anything since the Slim Jim and granola bar before the break-in. The smell of the rosemary and sage in the stuffing made his mouth water. A curl of steam rose from the potatoes. On the other hand, Mel thought, he might as well eat the meal. It wasn't like they could do anything but throw it away if he didn't eat it, and that was a wasting food. Even more, he was pretty sure that his taxes paid for this meal, so in effect, he was paying his own way, wasn't he?

Mel reached for his fork.

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