Conspiracy Theory

It was the same piano keystone cops that made the call when I discovered Tank's body in the roadway. Like the keys of a piano, one black, one white. Black key with the afro, white key with the blonde muttonchops. Black held the flashlight on me, white sat in the prowler behind, headlights and spotlight illuminating my cab in artificial incandescence. From Lou Pine's home high on the hill above, a dog barked, and I could hear human voices arguing.

"Hey, it's that cab driver from the night before," said the black cop to his partner in the squad. "The one who found the body."

The white cop stuck his head out of the squad car window. "That so? Ask him what he's doing out here."

"Out of the cab," ordered the black cop. I obeyed the order, doing my best to shield my eyes from the glare of his big five cell battery flashlight, which he kept focused directly on my face.

 

"What are  you doing out here?" he asked after I stepped out of the cab.

"Can you get that light out of my face?" I asked.

"No. Now why are you out here?"

Rule number one: never lie to a cop. I didn't need the grief, and I sure as hell knew better but I was pissed off and sometimes when that happens my temper gets the better of me so I plunged in and prevaricated.

"I was looking for the address of a fare."

"Parked in the bushes?" He knew I was lying, and he knew I knew he knew I was lying, but I continued the charade.

"I wasn't parked in any bushes," I shot back, the anger evident in my voice. "I was parked at the side of the road." Rule number two: when in the process of lying to the police, don't compound the error by arguing with them.

"Is that so," he said. "And what's the name and address of your fare?"

Now he had me, and he knew it and he knew I knew he knew it.

"I can't remember," I replied.

"Don't have it written down on your call sheet?" All I could see of him was his afro shimmering like a tangled black halo circling the flashlight's unrelenting glare.

"No."

"That's okay, we'll find it for you." He lowered the light as I blinked, tiny bursts of multicolored light dancing before my eyes.

"Hey Bob," he shouted to his partner in the squad.  "Call the cab company and get the name and address of the fare this guy was supposed to pick up, okay?"

"Gotcha Fred," said his partner.

Three minutes passed, and then Bob in the squad shouted out. "Dispatcher says he had no fare. Wants to know what he's doing out here."

I cursed Chuck under my breath for not covering for me. My eyes had refocused, and I noticed that Fred the black cop had large bushy eyebrows and a pinched face.

"No fare. You lied."

"I lied," I said.

"Up against the car," he said. "Spread your legs and put your hands behind your back."

Rule number three: when a cop orders you to do something, you say "yes, sir," and you do it but I had violated the first two rules and had pretty much made up my mind that no matter what I did these piano keystone cops were going to run me in anyway and probably book me so I stiffened up and answered "No."

His eyes narrowed into vicious slits. "Was that 'no' you said?" he said. "Motherfucker," he added with a hiss. With that word I knew we had crossed the Rubicon. He reached out and grabbed me and attempted to shove me against the cab.

Rule number four, and this is the most important rule: when a cop gets physical with you, don't fight back. They have clubs and guns and partners who will gang up on you and the legal authority to do what they have to do to make you submit. I was already in too deep so I threw caution to the winds and took a shot at him, a long roundhouse right that he skillfully ducked and came up with that big flashlight and brought it down smack on my crown as I was spinning on one foot, off balance from the punch. Now I'm a pretty big guy, and tough, too boot, but that flashlight came down with such force on my head that the top flew off and the batteries spit out and I went down on one knee, then the other and then flat on my face, right into the cold blacktop of the winding road.

I heard a third voice, not either of the cops', boom out. "You didn't have to him him that hard!"

"The fuck I didn't," came the reply. "Nobody swings on me."

Lights out.

***

I came to sitting in a black plastic chair in the interrogation room. I knew that was where I was because I'd been there before, and I also knew that I was in for a tough grilling. I had lied to a cop, argued with a cop, defied a cop and swung at a cop. I was on my way to at least a long weekend in the county lockup, and to tell the truth I would have preferred to be in the big house. The county slammer is like a frat house for mysanthropes, which meant you could find yourself bunked in with a guy who had just murdered and raped his parents. Young kids who had been picked up for something as simple as having a joint in their car had been put in a cell with animals who sodomized them and left them for dead. A few years earlier there had been a scandal when one of the youngsters had hanged himself in his cell after being brutally raped by a trio of gangsters who were being held overnight on their way to respective life sentences in the state lockup. The kid was the nephew of a honcho in the local business community and the rape/suicide had made state headlines, forcing the resignation of the head jailer and the sheriff as well. The local constabulary didn't want to repeat the mistake, but I was no kid, so I could expect some pretty rough treatment from both the jailers and the jailed. I wasn't worried. I'd been in tighter scrapes than this and always given back more than I'd received.

I spent a good half hour staring at the lime-green walls before a door opened and in walked Leonard Featherstone. As an arteest, I could only explain the look on his face as "pissed off."

"Well, you really stuck your foot in it this time, haven't you?" he said.

I shrugged in reply. My big mouth had gotten me here, and I had no desire to up the ante. Besides, I considered Leonard Featherstone the closest thing to a friend I had in the police department and I didn't want to burn that bridge. I rubbed the knot on my head where black piano keystone cop had stroked it with his flashlight. Featherstone noticed me wincing as I touched the lump.

"You're lucky that's all you got," he said. "You could have been shot."

I answered with another shrug.

He flicked his hand like he was trying to brush away a pesky fly. "Get out of here," the cop said.

"What?"

"Get out. Go home."

"Somebody make my bail?"

"You haven't even been charged with anything. How is any judge going to set bail?"

I thought about my confrontation with John Q. Law, including my wild swing at black piano keystone cop and wondered aloud, "I don't get it."

"That Silver Star of yours is only going to get you out of trouble so many times, Johnny," said Featherstone.

"And it seems you have friends in high places," he added.

He answered my puzzled look by suggesting we remove ourselves from the interrogation room. "I'll walk you out," he said.

On the steps outside the police station he grabbed me by the arm, and locked his eyes with mine. Over his shoulder the morning sun was rising above the city's abbreviated skyline. It would be another sweltering August day. I wondered what had happened to my cab, and whether or not I had a job to go back to. I thought about Tank, sliced to ribbons on the cold pavement. I thought about my magnum opus. I wanted to get back home. I was bone-tired, beat to hell and pretty much resigned to the fact that I wouldn't discover my friend's killer and that I had probably lost my job but I wanted nothing more to go back to my painting and put on the final touches; the "smile" Cat Dupree had referenced. Whatever that was.

"Listen to me," he said. "I couldn't talk to you in there. They listen in on everything, and record it, too."

"You've got your nuts in a vice, Johnny," he continued. "You know who put in the good word for you?"

I thought it may have been Sparky, but common sense told me he didn't have that much juice. "I don't know," I replied. "Who?"

He paused for effect."Lou Pine," he answered.

"Lou Pine? Why? I never even heard of the guy until yesterday."

"Those two goons who gave you the beat-down? They're his boys."

"The two cops?"

"Yes. They pretty much patrol his turf, make sure nobody noses around. Guys like you."

Part of me wanted to express surprise that two police officers had pledged loyalty to an elected official rather than to the people and the laws they had been sworn to uphold, but I had seen the dark side so many times in my life that this little tidbit of information only strengthened my belief that there were two realities: the bullshit that everyone pretended to believe about goodness and truth and light and justice and power to the people and you work hard and save for a rainy day and your kids will mature into upstanding citizens and people will say wonderful things about you at your funeral; and the other reality: the real reality, where cops were loyal to power and money and fathers drank and beat their wives and mothers donned fishnet stockings and hung out under lamp posts and you could beat a rap with the right amount of money or the right connections as long as the proper palms were greased.

"Truth or consequences," I muttered.

Featherstone stared at me. "You don't seem to get it," he said. "Lou Pine cut you loose why?"

My answer was to remain mute.

"I'll tell you why," said Featherstone, answering his own question. "He wants you out on the street where he can get at you."

I stared at the rising sun over his shoulder.

"Do you understand me, Johnny? This guy's gonna kill you, and he's gonna use those two from last night to do it."

It was as if I was hearing his voice from inside a deep fog. He was warning me, but I didn't care. I had had an epiphany. The sun was speaking to me. It was whispering secrets only I could understand.

"Do you hear me, Johnny? I'm telling you to get out of town. Now, if you want to live."

I now knew what had to be done to my painting, the final touch needed to make it indeed my magnum opus, my gift to the ages. I grabbed Featherstone's hand and shook it.

"Thanks, Lenny," I said.

He held my hand for a long few seconds while he rocked his head slowly back and forth.

"I'm looking at a dead man," he said. "And he doesn't give a shit."

I wanted to tell him, but he wouldn't understand. The sun had pointed the way. Featherstone was right: I didn't care about Lou Pine or his hired guns or even my own miserable life for that matter. I knew now what Cat Dupree meant by the "smile," and I wanted to get home ASAP and put the finishing touches on my masterwork. That would be my first order of business. I would take care of Lou Pine and his goons after.

Like the man said: Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

 

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