by Judy Shantz 1794 words
Alice had arrived in Madison three days earlier with a daypack, a briefcase and a half-baked plan. Her ‘friend’s’ home was so non-descript that she was sure she could just disappear into it and no one would notice. So far, the plan was working. Amy had arrived and seemed to take everything at face value. They had had pleasant conversations with little substance—just enough detail to keep Amy interested.
Now Alice was on the Connector Bus, heading east, past ever-diminishing and empty towns. As the towns grew smaller, so did the road. First the left turn lanes disappeared, then the center line. The “Caution: Narrow Bridge Ahead” could more rightly be said “Sure hope you don’t meet a logging truck or a Winnebago on that bridge.”
Then, surprisingly, the Excelsior turned out to be in a rather pretty spot near a bend in the river, with tidy older homes climbing up the hill behind the diner. There was a car mechanic, a clinic and a florist all lined up on the main street and a sushi restaurant at the end. Clearly, there was more to this town than she had imagined.
Alice walked up the two steps to the front door and slipped into the diner. It was hot and steamy on this crisp, fall day and she managed to dart into a booth at the far end by the kitchen. No one seemed to have noticed.
Dwayne Schwartz had been a police cadet in high school and one of the most enthusiastic since the program had begun five years earlier. He sat upright and attentive at the front of the class, taking notes in a tiny, neat hand in his flip up, spiral-bound notebook. It was good practice. He had watched cop shows on TV and knew that’s what officers always carried in their left breast pockets. He liked this detail. He also liked his fine pencil drawings of police badges and insignia. He was actually quite artistic which really bugged his dad who considered any art effete.
But he was not without self-doubt. Tucked in the back of his mind was the unsolicited and unauthorized advice he had received from one of the instructors who had caught Dwayne nosing around the school doing quick sketches of everyone coming and going.
“Listen, Kid. You’re too eager. I’m going to give you some free advice you’ll never get in the classroom. I’m gonna tell you, there are four kinds of wannabe cops. And they’re all over the board, just like the rest of the population.”
Dwayne felt that he wasn’t going to like what he heard but he just nodded.
“First is the ex-Military. Mostly good guys, quiet and effective. But they’re also haunted. They’ve been living by their wits for so long, and always with a gun in their hand. They’re tough. They want to serve the community. But many of them can’t imagine working without that gun’s authority.
“Then there’s the Power-hungry. The psychologically stunted people who need power over others to feel good about themselves, to feel admired.
“Third, there’s the Fantasy-hero. This guy dreams of being the local hero who solves complex crimes or, better yet, saves someone’s life. He believes that he has some secret and special talents that will make him a great officer. He lives a fantasy life where everyone is grateful to him.”
Dwayne was starting to squirm. He wasn’t a soldier and he didn’t think he was a psycho. But was he just a pretender? Living in a dream? A fantasy?
“Fourth, and most important, are the Realists. Normal people. Yes, there really are some of those and they make the best cops. They know that it’s sometimes thankless work. Know that they could become victims of violence. But they still see value in it and want to help improve their communities. They see it as a basic need and a good job. And they work their tails off.
“You’ve gotta decide which type you’re gonna be. And if it’s not the Realist, then forget about being a cop.”
After finally deciding to go ahead and meet with Alice, Amy had climbed into her old VW and headed ‘down valley’ to Madison, where the road became a highway and the highway became a freeway. Where the countryside ended and greater Seattle began. As far as Amy could tell, Madison’s only identity was as a strip-mall. Every medium-
sized chain in America was represented in a three-mile stretch and frequent red lights ensured that the traveller would have to stop every street or two and take it all in.
Alice’s friend’s home turned out to be a square, two story, beige duplex, right on the highway. The interior was just as featureless, with all the charm of a cheap motel room. And all the utility, too. There was little in the way of cookware and no food in the cupboard except for tins of vegetable soup and store brand black tea. For the first few days she had ignored her surroundings, preferring to concentrate on the tiny, soft-spoken woman who had lured her here. Alice was certainly different from what Amy had imagined but was pleasant to talk to. She had some interesting ideas and, at times, Amy felt like she had known her for years.
After a few days, Amy ventured out to the Safeway and picked up groceries for a few decent meals. But Alice wasn’t interested and would only eat her tinned soup and a few crackers.
Now, every time Amy said that she needed to get back to the diner, Alice would offer up a tiny bit of knowledge about the Smyth family.
“Just a few more days, Amy. Honest. I have to go meet with this lawyer. He has all the ‘paperwork’. Soon I’ll be able to tell you so much more.”
Amy waffled back and forth between curiosity, concern and the suspicion that she was being conned. Alice had a substantial briefcase like a small suitcase with a lock on it. At night she would open it on the kitchen table and take out dozens of unlabeled folders which she claimed held her ‘evidence’. But Amy was not allowed to look. And each day Alice left on one of her many investigatory errands, briefcase in hand.
On the eighteenth day of this strange adventure, Amy stood at the window and watched as Alice left the building and turned down the street toward the crosswalk. She got across just as the Connector pulled up for its first trip of the day, east up the valley. Alice got on. She no longer had the briefcase.
Dwayne Schwartz sat on the edge of the bed in his tiny rented room. His huge white board, supported by the only chair in the room and the bottom corner of his bed, was
covered in drawings and code words. He was using an old headlamp in the dim light and putting the finishing touches on a miniature portrait of Alice. What an unusual creature with the emotionless, staring eyes.
Dwayne looked over what he had produced so far. The code words all described what he had observed the last few weeks. He could feel it. There was a crime going on somewhere in the diner.
Even two years after his graduation, he still felt the prickle of sweat beneath his collar when he thought of the warning from his instructor. If he was honest, was he really just a wannabe, a pretender? He brushed that thought away and started on another. Maybe he just needed to change his name. His father had chosen the name ‘Dwayne’ but he had imagined a son with more swagger, more dude-ness, more attitude. Maybe he should shorten it to Dan. Quick. Empathic. Manly and efficient. More appropriate for police work.
Dreaming on, he checked the detail in his little portraits. Then it struck him, the portraits of Alice and Meghan were almost inter-changeable.
Meghan sat on the crate of beans and listened intently to the torrent of words spewing from this strange woman. Alice was hunched over and nearly enshrouding herself in her fuzzy green sweater. The words made no sense. She had tons of evidence. Evidence of what? Alice couldn’t say. Wouldn’t say? Did she need a ride home? NO! No one understood her pain! What pain? Did she want to lie down? NO! now she was screaming again.
There was a part of Alice’s mind that could not believe what her mouth was doing, giving up every pent-up emotion she had ever felt. There was a part of Meghan’s mind that was starting to panic. What could she say to make all this just go away?
Meghan decided to shut up and let it play out. She imagined that under that odd garment was a whole pile of suppurating neuroses. But she wasn’t up to playing therapist to this poor soul.
After a few moments, Alice’s breathing slowed and her facial affect went blank. She stood slowly and checked her wrist-watch. “I have to go. How do I get out of here?”
Meghan was relieved. She pointed toward the kitchen, then guided Alice past the freezer and out the back door. Without a word, Alice hurried toward the street and practically ran to the bus stop. She was just in time for the westward Connector to Madison.
While Alice was boarding her bus, Amy was making her decision. She had already figured out that Alice must be locking the briefcase in the storage locker in the carport. Did she do that every day? Was there anything at all in those locked up folders? Did this apartment really belong to a friend? Who was this humorless woman who had been playing with her for days, weeks?
Ted pulled Meghan aside and whispered, “after you get off tonight, I think we should go talk to Phyllis together”.
“She’s feeling pretty miserable today. Maybe another time, Ted.”
“All the more reason we should go together. I went up earlier and she wouldn’t see me.”
“I’ve got my bike today.”
“That’s okay. I can walk.”
By the time they left it was growing dark. Excelsior was watching from his perch in the cedar. He had been there for some hours. The blond-haired man was hanging out in the trees, just out of human sight. When Meghan left with Ted, the blond man melted into the forest. Excelsior followed silently.
Then, in the night, the sirens sounded. Too many sirens. Dwayne bolted upright in bed. Had his moment arrived? Was there really a crime? Would the cops appreciate his white board? He was pulling on his boots when Sven ran up the stairs and pounded on his door.