From “Street Life”
Sometimes Mistakes are made
Rick Stanza stepped from the bus into a dry, dusty wind, and billows of exhaust fumes. The gravel crunched under his feet as he moved in from the side of the highway as the driver dragged his suit cases out from the side.
"Only two," Stanza said. "Thanks."
The driver glanced around and shook his head. "God only knows why you want to come here. They don't even have a bus station in this place."
"We all have our reasons," Stanza said, watching the driver climb back behind the wheel. An instant later, the bus vanished into the general morning haze, leaving him standing alone.
He scratched at the scars on his face, his smile fading as quickly as the bus. The suit itched, too-- prison-issue wool suit that stuck to his thin legs where they'd sweated on the bus seat. The suit cases were prison issue, too, standard cardboard that threatened to fall apart as he picked them up. There was little in them. An extra pair of shoes. A comb. Shaving gear. A spare set of under clothing. A pair of brand new jeans. A little money. And the lack of weight made them vulnerable to the wind, the side of one kicking into his leg as he took a step.
He didn't take up the second, spoting the police car hidden in the scruff of trees a few yards away, big gold star shimmering from the driver side door-- above it, the long nose of a curious officer pointed Stanza's way, the face around it rigid and cool, eyes hidden behind the deep green of wire-rimmed sunglasses.
Stanza swallowed dryly and glanced around, but the nearest houses were fifty yards in from the road, dull, low-set ranch styled buildings with dark windows and sparse vegetation.
He waited instead.
The police car rolled up the gravel roadside slowly, like a shark moving in on a prospective meal. It stopped between Stanza and the city council sign welcoming vistors to Munich, Ohio.
"Who are you and what do you want here?" the cop asked, even before the window had rolled completely down.
"Well now, isn't that some kind of welcome!" Stanza growled, wiping the sweat from his brow with a sleeve. "Two minutes off the bus and I'm getting razzed."
"Just answer the question," the cop said, removing the glasses, two small hazel eyes peering at Stanza more closely, studying the scarred face. Two distinct scars cut down the right side of an otherwise hansome face.
Stanza pulled out his wallet and pushed forward an out of date Florida driver's license. The cop took it, examined it, and looked up again.
"Rick Stanza?" The cop said, cocking his head as if the name was familiar. "Okay. So I know who you are? What the hell are you doing here?"
"As if that's any of your business."
The cop clicked open the car door, but did not push it out. "Don't give me a problem, pal," he said. "And don't think I don't recognize prison civies from two miles away."
"Okay, so we have that straight. That still doesn't give you the right to hassel me."
The cop kicked open the door and climbed out, jerking open the back door. "Get in."
"What? You're busting me? What's the charge?"
"We can start with vagrancy if you like."
Stanza smiled. But the scars pulled the lips up into something resembling a sneer. "I'm no vagrant. I've got money."
He opened his wallet and show the cop the spread of green. "I have more than a thousand dollars."
The cop's expression grew more suspicious. "And where did a con get money like that?"
"Honestly," Stanza said. "And I'm not a con."
The cop laughed harshly. "The clothes make the man, don't they?"
"How I wound up dressed like this is a long story I won't go into. But you can check me out. I'm clean. They found me innocent."
"Innocent of what?"
Stanza stiffened and looked down at the ground.
The cop stared at the license again, then looked up, startled. "You mean you're that Rick Stanza?"
Stanza's shoulders slumped as he looked up into the cop's face. Full recognition gleamed in the cop's eyes. Stanza nodded once, then let his head fall again.
The cop's eyes said, "Murderer!" But the car door slammed again and the cop was again behind the wheel.
Stanza looked surprised. "What now?"
"Now nothing," The cop said. "Town's that way." He pointed towards the buildings. "But you're not going to find much of a welcome there either, once people figure out who you are."
Stanza let out a slow breath. "I figured it would be different this far north. I figured a small town like this might not look too closely at the evening news...."
The cop, however, had rolled up the window already and the car moved off. Not far, but distant enough. Stanza picked up his bags and walked down the dusty side road towards the accumulation of buildings, the sign saying over head with petty details of the town's existance: the Mayor's name, the population, etc.
The cop watched, his head slowly shaking.
Stanza stopped in front of the general store, huffing slightly as he put down his bags and stared at the green and white 1956 Buick at the curb. His thin lips formed a circle and a dry whistle escaped, his gaze shimmering with the glinting polished surface.
He smiled and ran his fingers over the waxed paint, slowly circling the machine. He took a deep breath and shook his head slowly, then took up his suitcases again and climbed the steps into the store.
It was almost as dusty inside the store as the roads had been outside, the cracks of the wooden floors gathering the grains like years. It ground under his heal as he stepped through the door, the smell of age billowing up with movement. The mark of recent sweepings show in piles of dust in the corners. But the air was full of other more tempting smells, of chocolate and fruit and month old stacks of paper. Unwashed soda bottle returns sat to one side of the door, stacked in cases waiting reshipment. A worn counter was to the right, with a dozen boxes of various candy indusements, obviously aimed at a younger cliental. Baseball and movie cards predominated the collection.
Deeper in, the aisles were made up of delapodated shelving and open boxes of can goods and soap powders and assorted hardware.
"Can I help you?" asked a voice from behind the counter. An old man sat near on a tall wooden stool, thin moustache wiggling above his upper lip, wearing a stained carpenter's apron and a suspicious expression. His fingers drummed the sturdy keys of an ancient cash register-- A `no sale' flag showed in its dirty glass.
"Actually, I was looking for a little information," Stanza said.
The old man stared at his suitcases, gaze rising up the wrinkled suit to the scarred face.
"We don't sell that here," he said. "Maybe you should try city hall."
"I just want a motel," Stanza said, his voice weary.
"There ain't none."
"Not in town, least ways. If you go back up the highway seven miles, you'll find the Dew Drop Inn."
Stanza shuddered. "I'm afraid I don't have a car."
The old man's face crinkled with a puzzled expression. "No car? How on earth did you get here then? Fly?"
"Greyhound," Stanza said. "I'm looking for work and a room. It doesn't have to be a motel."
The old man peered more closely at Stanza's face, his hard grey eyes studying each detail of the scar. "Don't I know you from somewhere?"
"N-No," Stanza stuttered. "I don't think so. At least I've never been in this part of the country before."
One of the old man's brows rose. "No, eh? I might have something for you, if you're not particular."
Stanza snorted. "After fifteen hundred miles on the bus, all I want is someplace to lay out."
"Fine," the old man said, grabbing up a red grease pensil from the ledge over the cash drawer. He wrote out directions on the dull brown surface of a brown paper bag. He handed this to Stanza then picked up the phone, his weak fingers struggling with the heavy rotary dial. "I'll just let someone know you're coming."
Outside, Stanza blinked at the suddenly bright sun-- which shimmered off the Buick with startling beauty. He leaned against the rail for a moment and smile, the twist of lip and pulled scar clearly sad. Then he shook his head and skipped down the stairs to the side walk, bags banging his legs as he walked.
Down near the highway, the cop car still waited, a wavering aberation in the dust and sun. Stanza stopped, arm rising in a stiff, mocking wave, but wilted again with another shake of head, walking slowly in the opposite direction as indicated by the old man's instructions.
It was not a long walk, but the bags grew heavy, despite their heaviness and his shoulders sagged, his face taking on the burdon of a sleepless night travelling. The sound of the bus wheels was still in his ears, and the throb of the highway numbing his legs. When he reached the house, he sagged against the white picket fence, staring at the building through daized eyes.
It was pure Middle America, complete with small green lawn, flower bed and pale green shutters. The windows each had fluffy curtains and frilly shades. Even the door knocker had been polished, smudging where his sweaty fingers gripped it.
He let it drop, emitting a flat sound inside without an echo.
"Hello?" he said as a small round face appeared in one of the winwos to the side, peeping out like a child, yet it was not a young face, wrinkled deeply in the pattern of expensive wood.
"Mr. Benton called about me," Stanza said. "He said you might have a room I could rent."
The frown deepened, creating even more wrinkles. But something seemed to spark in the eyes, recognition of some sort-- similar to the old man's. A smile flickered to the woman's lips.
The face vanished, and the sound of a hobble step came from inside the door. The knob rattled. The lock snapped. The door openned upon that still smiling face.
"Oh, yes, young man," she said. "We have a room."
Stanza did not move for a moment, goose bumps thick on his arms as he looked around at the yard and house, his gaze narrowing.
"Come in, young man, come in," the old woman said, tugging at his sleeve.
He took up his bags and stepped across the threshhold, the stale smell of plastic covered furnature filling the hall. It smelled like a funeral palor and he stiffened again.
"The room's this way," the woman said, leading him up a set of carpetted stairs. The house interior was as quaint as its exterior, with carefully laid rugs and victorian-styled furniture and glass knick knacks on various small tables in the hall, living room and stairway landing.
His room with a little suite consisting of bathroom and bedroom. He examined the shower stall, toilet and sink. The white had yellowed in the sink basin from years of hard water. But all was clean. The bedroom had a single square window that lookeed out onto the street-- looking more like a photograph from another time and place, with a small pond, a large apple tree and field of high grass beyond the fence.
"You'll be eating one meal a day with us," the woman said.
She quoted him a price and he paid it along with one month securty. And then, she was gone, hobbling back down the stairs, leaving him, his bags and his newly acquired place of peace. He smiled, undressed and took a shower. Then unpacked a single pair of jeans from one of the suitcases.
Downstairs was empty when he left again, as was the street outside. The lawns on either side were thick with signs of occupation, toys and tools and such, but people were lacking. There wasn't even a flutter of curtain as he passed. A few blocks away, Stanza stopped at another store and bought a local newspaper. The want ad section was particularly sparce.
The old woman's son was home when Stanza got back, a grey-haired, non-discript man of about fifty who worked at the local bank, a slight pot-belly pushing out at the middle of his three-piece suit. The easiness of the place had changed with the man's arrival. The old woman that had greeted Stanza with smiles earlier, now refused to meet his gaze. Her son sat across the table puffing on a cigar.
"Planning to stay with us long, Mr. Stanza?" he asked.
Stanza peered over the lip of his glass, then sighed.
"I'm looking for work," he said. "If I don't find something right away, I'll try another town-- though to tell you the truth, I don't feel like moving on right now."
One of the other man's grey brows rose. "Oh?"
"This is a nice town," Stanza said, almost talking to himself. "I've spent most of my life in tourist towns where life is a matter of seasonal invasions. I like the peace and quiet here."
The other man seemed to contemplate this through the plumes of smoke. "It seems to me your kind of person would find it too quiet, don't you think?"
"I don't follow you," Stanza said, though his shoulders had stiffened.
"Well, you being a city boy and all. City boys are want to have fun now and then."
"And I can't have fun here?"
"You said it yourself, Mr. Stanza, this is a quiet town."
"Look, let's be straight about things," Stanza said. "Are you trying to tell me you want me to leave?"
The man glanced at his mother. The old woman shivered.
"We were actually looking for an older man," she mumbled and looked at her son again.
"No," the man said after some hesitation. "As long as its understood we don't want any trouble here."
"I wasn't planning on any," Stanza said, rising from the table. "Now if you'll pardon me, I'll go to my room."
Terse words seemed to pass between the old woman and her son as Stanza climbed the stairs. He shut the door on the voices and turned on the water in the sink basin, pushing his face into it, scrubbing away the dust and sweat. While his face, the doorbell rang. More voices followed. Somewhat louder. He eased into the hall to the top of the stairs. Down below, the cop stood, framed by the open door. He and the banker were talking, gesturing in the general direction of Stanza's room.
Stanza waited till the cop was gone, then came downstairs.
"Is there a problem?" he asked.
The banker's face was redder than before and his eyes angry. "No."
"The cop told you about me, didn't he?"
"I knew already," the man said.
The old woman was in the living room, seated in one of the high-backed chairs. Her fingers clutched a rossary.
"I'll leave if you insist," Stanza said.
"Did you really kill that family?" The old woman asked.
"Mother! Please!" the banker snapped.
"Don't scold her," Stanza said. "I'm in her house. She has a right to know." He turned to the woman and shook his head. "I didn't kill anyone and the court found me innocent."
The banker and the old woman nodded. But their eyes said they didn't believe him.
"We wouldn't think of asking you to leave," the banker said.
Downstairs was empty again in the morning-- though the house seemed disturbed, dust thick in the air where it had been abscent the previous day. He called for the old woman, but only a distant radio responded from one of the rear rooms, turned up slightly at the sound of his voice. He shrugged and unfolded the newspaper. A number of the want ad selection were circles, several for jobs, several others advertising rooms.
He stepped out. It was hotter today than yesterday, too, though his attention was rivited not on the heat but on the green 56 Buick now parked in front of the house.
He circled it again and shook his head.
"Just like your old car, Dad," he mumbled.
He frowned when he glanced at the license plates. Despite the benefits, this owner had not bothered with historic plates, which meant it was most likely being driven like an ordinary car.
Stanza nodded his approval.
"No point owning the damned thing if people can't see it," he mumbled. He let his hand run across the surface of the machine. It was smooth and cool and seemed like the original paint. He sighed and turned away, marching up the long street towards the telephone booth.
The town was larger than it had seemed at first, flat along the valley floor, most of it hidden away by what had once been a great oak forest. Now the woods had dwindled to a line oif trees behind which a housing development had been built-- a bedroom community half way between Cinncinnati and Columbus. The old town had been preserved as a disguise for the hidious reality of the modern American dream. But it was just as dead, too-- as if inhabited totally by vampires which could not stand the light of day.
He stopped at several stores, bought newer papers and street map. The newer section of town had been designed as a full service region, complete with a mall. He crossed the vast parking lots to the clutter of building and invaded it store by store.
"No," the manager of the toy store said. "We have no work."
His gaze was angry which drew a puzzled look from Stanza. "Is something wrong? Are you angry with me?"
The manager shook his head. "I don't even know you, why should I be angry." But the man did not meet Stanza's gaze either, just looked away till Stanza left his store.
The next place had actually been advertised in the paper. But the woman shook her head, looking at him, but with a glazed enough expression to say she really wasn't.
"The job's been filled," she said.
"But you have it listed in today's paper, too." Stanza pointed to the box which he had circled.
"Filled it this morning. Can't help the ads."
But her fingers twitched as they gripped the pensil. Her `in' basket was filled with applications.
"Thank you anyway," he mumbled and eased back through the store to the front, looking down towards the next store. People-- shoppers-- were staring at him. Mothers were clutching their children, redirecting them away from where he stood. Men in business suits stepped out of his way as he walked down the shadowed sidewalk, staring at him, mumbling to others.
"Is that him?"
"It must be," others replied. "He's got the scar on his face."
"God, he even looks mean."
He wandered around for hours, going from the mall to the string of streets that vaguely resembled a middle America main street setting, everywhere getting the same looks and whispers, and people stepping out of his way.
By the lunch time, he was exhausted, legs throbbing almost as much as his head. Stanza eased onto the stool of a greasy spoon diner near the highway. The waitress eyed him, then hustled back into the kitchen. The cook appeared, hairy-arms sprouting out either side of a greasy apron.
"I'm afraid we're closed, buddy," he said.
"Closed?" Stanza said, looking up from the menu. "But you've got twenty other people here."
The man leaned forward, bad breath curling up in Stanza's nostrils. "I'm only going to tell you once. We're closed."
Stanza nodded slowly and rose, glancing around at the faces of the other patrons. They were staring, too, more boldly than the people had on the street, a small parade of pompous fools eyeing him from the safety of proper society.
It had been bad in the South-- in Florida and Georgia. But even in those places there had been an understanding, too, a sense of ruined faith that comes from generations of guilt since the war. Here, there was only the judgement-- and he stepped to the street, retreating down the highway side like a second General Lee.
He followed the highway back to where he'd first gotten off the bus, then down the street towards the delapodated store. It was the long way around but less hectic than the mall and the series of more modern stores.
It was quiet at first.
Indeed, it looked like a ghost town, till the rumble of engines sounded behind him, as two hot rods turned from the highway, drunken teenagers leaning out either side of both cars.
A beer bottle cracked on the sidewalk at Stanza's feet.
"Go home, killer!" They shouted and laughed, their cars swirving as they made a wide u-turn at the next intersection. They passed again, this time the beer bottles were aimed at his head. He ducked. They crashed against the fense behind him.
The hooting came as they once more turned around, like world war two fighters making for one more attack. Stanza started to run, his sweaty fingers gripping the folded newspaper as if it was a weapon. The sound of the engines grew louder behind him. More bottles crashed at his heals. More raging insults mingled with the laughter. He stopped short and ran back towards the highway, the drivers cursing, squeeling on the brakes to turn around.
For one moment, they were out of sight and Stanza leaped over one of the fences and hid behind a row of hedges and tall-topped flowers. He listened to the sound of the approaching cars.
But when it came, it was tamer, stopping at the curb. A door slammed. A face appeared above the hedges.
It was the long-nosed cop named Schlacter.
"You're not going to find a job in there," the cop said.
"Very funny," Stanza said, straightening slightly with some effort at retrieving his dignity. "Did you see what those kids did?"
The cop frowned. "Kids?"
"Yeah, the kids that...." Stanza stopped. The cop's expression was the same as the one of the cook at the greasy spoon. Everything was closed. Stanza's finger dropped from pointing to the broken shards of amber glass at the curb. "Never mind."
He wiped the turf from his pants with his hand.
"Why don't you get in," the cop said, motioning Stanza towards the car. "I'll give you a lift home so you can pack."
"Pack? Why should I want to pack?"
The cop frowned, two straight brows tilting down towards his pointed nose.
"You're not that stupid, Stanza," the cop said. "Even you can see how it around here. No one's gonna hire you. In fact, by this time, I'm sure even your landlord has had second thoughts about renting you a room."
"No thanks to you, eh? I heard you in the palor last night. Warning them about me, no doubt."
"Someone had to tell them."
"Yeah. That's what people have told me all the way up from Florida. I guess the price of having my face plastered on the front pages of every newspaper in the country."
"No, Stanza," the cop said. "It's the price for getting away with murder."
Stanza's teeth ground. "You're pushing it. I didn't kill anyone, and as for my landlord, I'll see what he has to say when I get there."
"Hop in, I'll take you there."
"No thanks, I'm particular about my company. I'll walk."
Stanza strutted off-- the cop car floating behind him like a crusing shark, sniffing at his heals for blood. It wasnt' a long walk. Even with the development, the whole town was little more than a mile across. He stopped at the gate and looked around.
"Satisfied?" Stanza asked. "I didn't kill one person on the whole way home."
The cop didn't get out, but stared out of the open window over his sunburned elbow. "This isn't home yet, Stanza."
Stanza waited till the car had pulled away, watching it slowly turn at the far corner and head back towards the highway. There were oil stains on the road near the curb where the Buick had been. He looked rather sad at it, then shook himself and pushed through the gate towards the house.
He skipped up the steps to the door, knocked, and then when there was no answer, twisted the knob. The door was unlocked and like earlier, no one seemed to be around.
"Hey! Anyone home?"
No answer came. But he frowned down at the brief case in the corner of the living room. The banker's red-leathered case which the son had totted the day before.
"Hey!" he shouted again, as he went from room to room along the first floor, each proving as empty as the last-- though not totally empty, bearing a smell or taste over which he sniffed. He seemed to be following a scent.
In the kitchen, he looked to the clock. It was passed four. At least the old woman should have been around, cooking supper the way she had the previous day. Then, he looked up. The door to the basement was ajar. He sniffed again and paused at its brink. The stairs down were illuminated with a pale bulb. He sniffed and stiffened.
"No!" he moaned. "Not again."
He ran down the steps, then stopped at their bottom, his mouth falling open as he looked down upon the two twisted forms on the floor. A pool of red surrounded their faces and chests. Many slashes marred their clothing. Many wounds showed in the parts of torn fabric.
He climbed the stairs shaken. Despite three years of trail and countless prosecution photographs, he was still pale. He sat at the empty kitchen table. He stared at the swirling pattern embeded in the formica.
Then after a time, he shoved the chair back and rushed up the carpetted stairs to his room. He had bags on the bed half packed when he stopped.
"Am I crazy? I run now and these sons of bitches will have me in the electric chair."
But still, he stared at the small square window and the smudge of green outside. Then, he shook his head and pulled out the things he had packed. He threw the suit cases violently agains the back of the closet, then went back downstairs.
He spent the next twenty minutes searching the house, starting with the basement and working his way back up to his room. He found three important things. First, one of his shirts had been removed from his room, torn, splattered with the victim's blood, then rolled into the corner of his closet-- as except one small square of torn fabric which had been neatly wedged into the Banker's pudgy hand.
"Neat," Stanza said bitterly. "Very, very neat."
The murder weapon was under his bed, also covered in blood. A kitchen knife.
In the banker's den, the drawers had been ruffled, papers strewn across the floor, and the wall-safe, behind a portrait of George Washington, wide open.
After the search, Stanza stopped. He had touched nothing. Even the knife remained where it was under the bed. Among these items were other clues which a real cop might find, if anyone bothered to look.
Instead, with shaking hands, he picked up the telephone and called the police.
"I'd like to speak with officer Schlacter," he said.
"Officer Schlacter is on patrol," the dispatcher said. "Perhaps someone else can help you?"
A series of beeps came over the phone line indicating the call was being recorded. He sighed. "No thanks, it's kind of personal. Could you possibly give him a message over the radio?"
"That's not exactly procedure," the dispatcher said. "But I guess it might be all right."
Stanza gave his name and address.
"That's the Lowry house isn't it?"
"All right. I'll see what I can do."
Stanza hung up, then sat himself back down in the kitchen chair to wait, fingers drumming slowly on the formica table.
The car pulled up with a gush of gravel and the sharp slam of its door. Stanza rose from the chair, his legs stiff as he walked slowly towards the front door to meet the cop.
Schlacter frowned when Stanza opened the door, his sharp brows rising as he glanced around the room. He sniffed and stiffened.
"What's wrong? The teenagers bothering you again."
"Not exactly," Stanza mumbled. "But follow me and I'll show you."
He took him upstairs first to his room, throwing up the closet door, pointing to the crumpled shirt on the floor.
The cop frowned, scratching the side of his long nose. "Looks like you cut yourself shaving, Stanza," he said, though a glint of eye registered the first deep signs of suspicion.
"A lot of blood for a little cut," Stanza said. "The knife is under the bed."
"The knife?" The cop's voice was tight now, his hands clenching and unclenching at his side.
"You want to see?"
"I'll take your word for it. What exactly is all this leading to?"
"Come," Stanza said, turning towards the stairs again. The cop grabbed his arm.
"Do you mind enlightening me to what this is all about? I do have better things to do than following you around the goddamn house."
"Only one more stop," Stanza assured him and continued down to the living room, then through the kitchen to the basement door.
Here, the cop paused and sniffed again, his brows folding in as his right hand closed around the butt of his pistol.
"Look, Stanza-- why don't you just let me look at this for myself."
"Fine," Stanza said, stepping away from the door, letting the cop descend the next set of stairs, the slow careful scuffle of shoes on the steps stopping suddenly. The returned more quickly, and with them a pale cop's face.
The pistol was out of its holster and aimed at Stanza's chest.
"You son of a bitch!"
Stanza sighed. "Get that look off your face, I didn't do it."
"Just like you didn't do the last one either. Get against that wall, and don't do anything funny."
"Be reasonable, officer," Stanza said, turning to face the wall, part of the ritual to which he seemed well acquainted. "You think I'd have shown you all this if I did it?"
"Maybe," the cop said, patting him down with one hand with the pistol leveled in the other.
"Just listen to me, will you."
"That's for a jury, not me." The cop twisted him around again, then shoved him out of the kitchen into the carpeted hall. With pistol still aimed at Stanza's chest, he dialed the phone.
"Please!" Stanza said. "Just listen."
It must have been something in the tone, some note of desperation that touched deep into the soul of the cop. He looked up sharply, his brows again descending into a puzzled expression.
"Talk," the cop said, but did not lift the gun or replaced the phone on its craddle.
"It's a frame," Stanza said, his brow thick with sweat. "I wouldn't have brought you here if I'd done it."
The cop snorted. "Statitics say different. Many murderers claim they found their victims."
Stanza shivered. "Okay. I'll take your word for it. But you're a reasonable man. At least more reasonable than the cops I've delt with before."
"You're putting a lot of weight on first impressions, Stanza," the cop said, the gun lowering a notch. "You're not one of my favorite people."
"I know. I know. But you're not stupid either. Look at this. Isn't it obvious someone's trying to set me up?"
"Or you're trying to make it look that way."
"Believe that," Stanza said, "And I'm doomed."
A moment of silence fell between them, the cop staring at the sweaty face, then looked to the phone. He replaced it slowly, then switched the pistol to his other hand.
"All right," he said. "Suppose that's all true. Why?"
"Somebody wants to get away with murder. Think about it. Put the bodies here, frame me, and walk away without a worry. Who else but you in this town would even think twice?"
The cop clucked his tongue. "So what do you expect me to do?"
"Find the real killers."
"Do I look like Homocide? I'm just a patrolman, Stanza. I don't know anything about this. The county's got to send someone down here and look at this."
"And help send me to the electric chair," Stanza said, slumping against the stairway rail.
Again, the cop clucked his tongue. "All right, Stanza. Why don't you just amble out of here-- let's say down to the dinner near the highway and wait for me there. When I've finished calling all this in to the station, I'll come talk to you about what you've seen."
"I didn't see anything," Stanza said. "That's the whole point."
The cop shook his head. "I think maybe you did, only you don't know what you've seen yet. Go. I gotta make my call."
Stanza turned away, but the cop grabbed his arm.
"Don't get it into your head to hop no bus, Stanza, because you won't get far, and it'll look that much worse in court if I have to come fetch you-- and it may just make me a little angry that I trusted you let you go. Know what I mean?"
"I'll be at the dinner," Stanza said, shoving the door open, marching through the small gate to the street.
Four hot rods reved their engines as Stanza crossed the gravel lot. The dinner face shimmered like gold in the dying light. Shot hair boys huddled over the open hoods as the mufflers barked, looking up at him as he neared the building.
"Well, well," One of them said. "If it isn't the killer."
Stanza glanced at the blond-haired boy seated behind the wheel of the green buick, the face looking like his own impressed into the glass.
A beer bottle fell unbroken at Stanza's feet. Another followed it. Stanza paused, mid-stride, his gaze moving from face to face as the boys eased out from the vehicles.
"You boys have a problem?" Stanza asked, his chest pushed forward like a prison peacock, part of the ritual of survival he'd learned behind bars.
Some of the boys frowned. But another with dark hair grinned.
"Us? What kind of problem could we have with you, killer?"
Stanza looked down at the broken glass then up at their faces again. "You keep throwing glass at me, boy, and you will have a problem."
"Whoa!" The blond boy howled. "Did you hear that, Louie. I think that was a threat."
"You threatening me, Killer?" Louie asked, scratching the back of his head. "What are you gonna do to us? Kill us, too?"
Stanza was on the boy in two long strides, his fingers tight around the boy's throat as he shoved him against the car. The blond boy charged, but Stanza grabbed him, too, banging both their heads against the window.
"You like breaking glass?" he howled, his face crimson. "Let me show you how to break it right!"
He smashed the heads again. A crack appeared in the windshield. So did a trickle of blood.
"Leave off! Leave off!" The blond boy said. "It ain't my car. Me and Louie didn't mean anything."
Stanza let them loose, staring startled at his hands and the blood dripping down from the mark on the glass.
"Watch it next time," he mumbled and turned away-- their shocked expressions following each movement. He banged open the dinner door, the greasy smell striking him the way it had earlier. A different waitress moved up and down the inside of the counter, retrieving coffee cups and dirty dishes. But the same knowing expression touched her eyes when she looked up. Near the window, several patrons looked up from the booths-- their faces saying they'd seen the little routine with the boys, and recognized Stanza, shifting ever so slightly away from him as he passed.
He sat at the counter. The waitress vanished. The cook reappeared in her place.
"You," the cook said. "I told you before, we were closed."
Stanza looked up. The man's arm bulged, inflating the blurry tatoo.
"Good for you," Stanza said, staring into the eyes. "Now if someone around here doesn't get me some coffee, I'm going to make that little prediction come true."
The cook swallowed, staring down at Stanza's pale knuckles. The boy's blood showed on them.
"Okay. Coffee," he said, stiffly signally the waitress to serve him, vanishing back towards the kitchen-- and doubtlessly a phone.
The coffee appeared in front of him. He sipped it slowly and stared out the tinted glass. It wasn't long before the cop came in, his long legs carrying him to the stool beside Stanza's.
He didn't look at Stanza, but stared into the mirror behind the pie plates and coffee urns.
"I'm beginning to suspect you're more trouble than you're worth," the cop said finally.
"First, I get hell from the Sheriff about letting you go, then the station gets a call from here saying you'd just wacked the hell out of a couple of kids and threatened the cook."
"The kids deserved it. The cook took his cue from that."
"Damn it, Stanza," the cop said in a rushed whisper. "With two fucking bodies back at the house, you can't afford the luxury of making trouble. The sheriff was going to have the riot squad down here to pick you up till I talked him out of it."
"I appreciate it."
"Don't. I didn't exactly do it for you."
"For those people back at the house. If you didn't do it, then someone did, and if you get hawled in, it'll go down just the way you said with some son of a bitch somewhere getting away with murder. That doesn't sit right with me."
The cop said nothing for another moment, then smiled. "Actually, when the report about the kids came in, I almost laughed."
"Those punks deserved something. They must have had a heart attack when you turned on them. I don't think they figured you were a real killer."
"Convince them of that now. They're likely heading south till all this blows over. They're the kind that usually pick on the helpless. Give them a man who can fight back and they're wimps, too."
The waitress slid a cup of brew in front of the cop, her expression startled, nervous eyes darting around the room as the other shocked faces looked on-- the place stiff with anticipation.
"Frankly," the cop said, pouring sugar slowly into the black liquid. "I didn't expect to find you here."
Stanza snorted a laugh. "And where was I going to go?
The cop shrugged. "If it was me, I'd have run. I'd have rented a cab to Cincinatti. It's a lot easier to hide in a big city."
"With a mug like mine?" Stanza said, fingering the bottom ridge of scars that curled up near the corner of his mouth. Cincinati isn't all that big anyway. And if you figured I was going to run, why did you let me go?"
"I thought it would make things easier."
"You mean it would have proven me guilty beyond a doubt."
"Or that you were lying about something."
"People lie all the time."
"Not about the important things."
"Are you going to take me down to the station."
"What's your hurry?" The cop growled, suddenly angry.
"Oh, I don't know. I guess I've just developed this philosophy about the inevitable: get it over with. But you said something at the house about me knowing something more than I think. I still don't know what you mean."
"Then you aren't thinking much about your hide."
"I've been thinking about nothing else. Maybe that's the problem. Whoever did this, did it well. I'm so tired of all the bullshit, I'm half tempted to confess, just to have peace."
The cop looked up, his eye probing and concerned. Then, something outside the window distracted him-- the reflection moving in the mirror from one display to the other. The cop twirled around on the stool. Stanza looked, too.
The hot rods were moving on, their rear wheels spitting gravels as they leaped from the parking lot and onto the fast track of the highway.
"The damned fools are asking for the state to catch them. The troopers are up and down this stretch of road all day."
But Stanza gaze was caught on the last of the cars and the still bleeding face of the boy behind the wheel. The mark in the glass looked like a bullet hole.
"Say!" Stanza said. "I do remember something. That car. It was parked outside the house when I left this morning."
The cop glanced at Stanza. "What car?"
"The green Buick. I saw it yesterday, too, parked near the general store."
The cop leaped up. "Well, that's it, then."
"What? I don't understand."
"Just come on, Stanza," the cop said. "Before someone tosses you out of here again on your ear."
Stanza followed the man through the glass doors, still looking puzzled. "But what does it have to do with anything?"
"Don't know, yet," The cop said, motioning Stanza towards the passenger side of the police car. "But that's what I intend to find out. Hop in."
The hot rods roared up the highway, weaving in and out of the narrow two lands with the wrecklessness of suicides.
"Those fools are going to get someone killed," the cop grumbled, weaving his own car into the vacated spaces behind them.
"Most likely us," Stanza said, drawing a raised brow from the cop.
"Not exactly. I'm just not used to going this fast on land."
The cop nodded. "I remember. You were some sort of boat man, weren't you?"
"I learned to drive a boat a full dozen years before anyone would give me a license for a car," Stanza said. "I always loved the sound of the water thumping agians the hull, growing harder and harder the faster I made it go. When I got older, I got bolder. I used to outrun coast guard cutters. Most of them could catch me, but didn't have nerve enough to match my speed."
"What did your parents say about that?"
"I got grounded. The way these kids probably would if their parents knew what they were doing. And the after-effected even lasted for a time, till I got nerve up again to challenge the authories."
As the cop pulled up close to the cars, Stanza gripped the seat.
"Now I'm beginning to see what it was like on the other side," he mumbled.
"Which one was it?" The cop said, now on the tail of the last car.
"The green buick."
The cop peered ahead. The buick held its own, two cars up in the pack.
"We're going to have to seperate him from the others," the cop said. "We won't get anything out of him if they're around."
"You know the boy?" Stanza asked.
The cop looked over-- no grin, but something humorous in his eyes. "Everybody knows everybody around here, Stanza. Sometimes people know a little too much, like with you. That's the problem with small towns. You can't keep secrets. That there is Mr. Bilker's son."
"The store keeper?"
"See what I mean? Even you're catching on."
"No, not really. He's the man who found me the room."
"Well, there seems to be moe to Mr. Bilker than his store," the cop said. "He sits in the place, but it's not all he does. His father owned the place before him and I guess he's used to having people coming around to talk. He's a lot bigger than any store. He owns a paper mill and a few other important things in town. That's his car the boy is driving."
"How do you figure on getting the boy alone?"
Now the cop grinned, though his eyes stayed sober.
"We play the game, Stanza. Watch."
The cop flicked on the siren and lights, but didn't increase his speed. Out in front, the hot rods straightned, each set of eyes looking sharply into their rearview mirrors-- the sound of coast guard horns seemed to fill the place of the siren, the spray of water rushing over the long hull of the speed boat as it bounced on the hard surface of the water.
And like Stanza had done on water, the cars took up the challenge, one by one pulling ahead, gears shifting, smoke spewing out their exhausts.
Still, the cop stayed back, weaving slightly, hands gripping tightly on the wheel. He was in perfect control. One by one the speedier cars changed direction, but each diverting down a different street.
"The fools think they're being clever," the cop said.
Stanza nodded-- the vision of easy get-aways from the coast guard suddenly in his eyes. Stanza looked puzzled as the cop turned down the street following the Buick.
"What's the matter with you?" the cop asked.
"Nothing. I was just thinking."
The car ahead of them squired, making the cop laugh.
"He knows we're on to thim. Now he's either gotta pull over and take the ticker or make a run for it."
Stanza's fingers tightened on the seat, watching the squirming figure in the car ahead, waiting for the blue-grey puff of smoke that would follow sudden acceleration. But the smoke never came and the buick pulled the curb, the boy's shoulder slumped accepting fate.
"Stay here a second," the cop said, grabbing his hat from the seat as he opened the door. "I want to make him squirm a little. You know the routine. When I've got him on edge, I'll signal for you to come."
Stanza nodded, his gaze following the cop's journey to the car-- through the performance of spidery legs bounding along the road, as if the cop had not come out of a car, but off a horse.
The boy squirmed, too-- stumbling out the car door, dropping paperwork from his wallet. Then, the cop waved for Stanza to come.
The boy had brown hair cut short. It emphasised his chestnut eyes which girls must have gone crazy over. But the simple cuteness turned to puddy when shaken wrong, the lower lip quivering slightly-- then more violently when his gaze settled on Stanza.
"What the hell's going on here, man. That dude attacked me in the parking lot."
"Wrong answer," the cop said. "We want to know about the killing."
The boy's eyes shifted to Stanza again, sparking up with another, deeper level of fear.
"You'd better tell him, boy," Stanza said.
"I don't know what you two are talking about," the boy said. "Besides, I don't have to say nothing to anybody. I know my rights."
"You do you now," the cop said, his smile turning cruel. "Why don't you just step over to my car while I call a tow truck."
"What for? The car's legal. You can't tow it away just because I was speeding."
"I could if your old man didn't give you permission to drive it."
"But he did."
The cop leaned close to the boy. "Did he? Then he should know hyou can't drive a car like this around town."
"It's his car."
"Yeah, but the plates are wrong. These here are historic plates. They're not meant for general driving. And your insurance only covers you going to and from automobile shoes. They only show you were putting on out there was how to be wreckless."
"Look, officer," the boy mumbled. "I'm sorry about all that. But you go and tell my old man about this and he'll have my head."
"Fine. Then let's talk about the killing and maybe we can work a deal."
"I can't help you there. I still don't know what you're talking about."
"Then where did this blood come from?" Stanza asked. He had circled to the other side of the car.
"And the blood on your hands," the cop said, grabbing the boy's wrists, turning up the palms.
The boy looked down at his fingers, then touched his head.
"Don't give me that!" the cop said, pulling the hand away from the wound. "That's nothing more than a scratch. You didn't get all this blood from that."
The cop leaned towards the car. There stains on the front seat. Finger marks, but no source of it. Nothing had bled there. The blood had been smeared onto the fabric from something else. Like blood soaked fingers and hands.
"I gotta call this in," the cop said, looking up at Stanza. "Watch the boy. If he trys to run, break his legs."
The boy was shaking now, his face white with shock. "I don't know what's going on here. If it's not the cut then I don't know what it..."
"Shut up," Stanza said.
"What?" the boy said.
"Wait till you get a lawyer before you open that silly trap of yours."
The boy's head tilted, looking more puzzled still, trying to make sense of the face before him.
The cop returned shaking his head. "I'll be damned."
"What now?" asked Stanza.
"His goddamn old man actually reported the car stolen hours ago."
"St-Stolen?" the boy sputtered. "But that's impossible."
"I told you to shut up," Stanza snapped.
"Don't you understand English?" the cop echoed. "There Sherriff's sending a car over for the boy. But he wants me to bring you in, too, Stanza."
"Naturally," Stanza said. "But why did the man report the car stolen?"
The cop shrugged. "He and the boy have had run-ins over the car before. The kid nearly cracked the thing up the last time he had it."
"Still, it seems queer to me-- especially him calling the police."
"You're a stranger, Stanza. People aren't as afraid of the police in these parts as they are where you're from. When they have a problem, they call us."
"When did he report it missing?"
"Early yesterday morning."
"Before I got into town?"
"From what I gather, yes. What's that got to do with anything?"
"A lot, since I saw the car parked out in front of the old man's store after I saw you."
"So the old man was sitting in the store. In fact, he's the one that sent me off to find that room."
The cop turned, his long cheeks suddenly hollowed, as his dark eyes studied Stanza's face. "The old man sent you there?"
Stanza nodded. "The boy wasn't driving the car earlier today either. I remember him tossing beer bottles at me from the back seat. If he'd had the car then, he certainly would have been driving it. Don't you think?"
"Damn it, Stanza. Stop making this all more complicated than it is. The boy's got the blood on his hands, not you."
"Maybe. But I've been in his shoes and I don't like it. Whoever set me up, looks to be doing the same to him."
"What for, if you're going to take the fall anyway?"
"A back up plan, maybe. I don't know. But this looks as pat as the knife under my bed."
"No, listen to me. I saw the car this morning, too."
"In front of the Banker's house. If the boy wasn't driving it then, someone else must have been-- someone trying to frame us both."
"Like the old man, maybe."
The cop snorted. "You don't accuse men like him of murder, Stanza. Not without proof."
"Yeah, I know. People with money get treated better than that, they get to walk free wearing their own clothes, dreaming about other things other than the prospect of jail. But you and I ought to have a talk with the dude before we send this poor kid down the same road where I've just been. I know what it's like, and its worse than murder."
The cop frowned. Even the boy looked up sharply.
"I'm not being benevolent for nothing," Stanza added. "I've been hounded for Fifteen hundred miles and I figure it's just about time all that stopped. Are you with me, or what?"
"The sherriff'll have my badge if I let you go again," the cop mumbled.
Stanza looked at the boy. "You trust me? I mean that we can get you out of this mess?"
There was a slight nod.
"Fine, then you wait here until the sherriff shows. Don't fight him or say anything about where we've gone. Just cooperate. It's the only way to get through this, boy. Believe me, I know."
The cop shook his head. "You're not going to trust him?"
"Why not? You trusted me," Stanza said, motioing the cop towards the police car. "Are you coming?"
The cop threw up his hands.
"What the hell! This is all so crazy now I might as well. But I strongly suspect I'm not going to have a job when it's over."
He hopped into the driver's side and pulled the car away, back wheels burning rubber as the boy and Buick stood like statues against the backdrop of Ohio houses-- the boy looked confused and frightened.
The cop pulled the car up to the curb. The dusty general store had not changed, looking as it had two days ago when Stanza had first seen it, looking as it had twenty or thirty years before when a younger man had swept the door step. It needed sweeping now, newspapers fluttering at its feet like flapping tongues.
Stanza pushed out his door, then stopped, his expression suddenly puzzled.
"What now?" the cop asked.
"I just thought of something--"
"Oh? What might that be?"
"It may be nothing, but it struck me that if the car had been reported Yesterday, you should have known about it."
The cop blushed. "Maybe I did."
"Like I told you, Stanza. This is a small town. We let things go a little here. We try and let people work out their problems. Besides, I thought it was just a nervious reaction, the old man reacting to you-- Yeah, even I saw the way you looked at that car, like you wanted to steal it."
Stanza snorted and shook his head. "Steal it, no. No more than I would want to dig up my father's body. He owned one just like that when I was a boy."
"But you make it sound like I was the one he was after by calling the police."
"Maybe you were. Maybe I was supposed to see you looking at the car again and presume the obvious."
"That sounds stupid."
The cop shrugged.
"It could be other things. The old man and the banker never cared much for each other. And like I told you before, the old man didn't get to own the mill without having something other than sawdust in his head. Something's been brewing between those two for years, and seeing you he figured a way of getting even."
"You mean he wanted to kill the banker all along?"
"And I just happened to come along at the right time. But what does all this have to do with the car?"
"Ever play chess, Stanza?"
"A long time ago. But I was never any good."
"That's because the truly good players think in different ways. Not ten moves ahead, but alternate moves, too, then moves this way and that, making sure to cover all the angles. That's how the mill got to be a big as it is."
"So he reported the car stolen in case things didn't turn out the way he wanted, so the blame would fall on his grandson' shoulders instead."
"That son of a bitch."
"Only he there's a few things he didn't figure on. Like me being right up the street when he made the call, me, looking down at you as you admired the very car he claimed stolen. And then, there was you, remembering the car outfront of the house when you were supposed to be too busy getting your butt out of that place."
Stanza grinned. "And then he could never have figured on you letting me to go the dinner for our private talk. He figured things would snap shut around me, a killer and his victims in the same place."
"The old man figured too much. All the real clever criminals do. That's sort of the reason I figured you didn't do it. You looked to ragged to be cunning."
"Geeze! Thanks a lot."
"Never mind that. You want to come and watch?"
Stanza's grin widened. "Sure."
Both men climbed from the car then up the store steps.
"Oh by the way," the cop said, hand on the door knob. "I think I found you a job."
"My old man needs someone over at the body shop. Ever fix cars?"
"No, but I've worked on boats. I hear its similiar."
"Good," the cop said, pulling open the door, motioning Stanza in ahead of him, the jingle of the bell announcing their arrival.