Another chapter from a Rainy City mystery featuring Eddie Hummel
I was well south of Auburn on I-5, almost through Tacoma, before the maroon Chevrolet inserted itself fully into my consciousness.
I was busy weighing whether my bright idea to go directly to Hannigan had been a mistake. Somebody official-looking had checked on Jennifer at her trailer park, when she wasn’t officially missing. He had pushed his personal connection with her forward almost too readily, along with a facile explanation. And he had smoothly pre-empted my checking with other teachers. If he had some guilty knowledge, he was out of my league as far as interrogation went. Veteran cops usually make frightening bad guys if they turn.
The Chevrolet was a Caprice, and belonged to one of those model-years when General Motors went for streamlining, but got something like Cinderella’s coach half-melted back into a pumpkin. You know: the ones they stuck all the police fleets with.
It dawned on me that I had noticed a big maroon pumpkin in my mirrors off and on since I started up the hill to the college.
There must be instruction books out there somewhere about how to detect a tail. By the nineties there may even have been a data base that you could dial up from your home modem for a quick course in how to tell you’re being followed. But what it boils down to is a recurring pattern, when everything should be random.
I took my life in my hands, moved into the slow lane, and backed down to the speed limit. Baseball-hatted semi-drivers and big-haired mini-van moms ran right up my tailpipes before they whooshed around me, their bodies held rigid with indignation. One of the women brandished her cell phone at me like a weapon before she jammed it back in her ear. I didn’t get flipped off as many times as I would have before freeway gun-play got so much publicity.
The Caprice stayed well back in the center lane and matched my pace.
Traffic spilled around it like the currents of a salmon river around a boulder. If the Caprice belonged to a trooper trying to pace me, he would be leading a parade like a pace-car at Indy. I wound the bug’s engine back up and went with the flow. Maybe it was a State Patrol bureaucrat loafing home to Olympia after a power lunch up north, taking perverse pleasure in aggravating the leadfoots. They usually dealt the colored cars to the brass in the nineties, which would mean undercover plates, plainclothes and invisibility even to veteran speeders.
The Caprice still was with me past Fort Lewis.
Given the comment by the park manager’s daughter, maybe I had stumbled into some sort of surveillance. But a police team would have run my plate and know my occupation by now. They’d send somebody to interview me later, rather than blow their stakeout. If they did try a tail, they’d use more than one car and trade off, to break the pattern.
More likely I was just being paranoid, and it was some retired Boeing engineer who had purchased a new Chevy every three years since he mustered out at the end of World War Two, and he by God wasn’t about to change now, no matter what they looked like, or drive to suit these damned leadfoots…
We swooped across Nisqually Flats. Four hundred vehicles must have passed me. The pattern of traffic flow changed minute to minute. Except for me and the Caprice. This was nuts. There was no reason on earth for anyone to tail me. But I was damned if I was going to lead the Caprice to my clients’ driveway. I scooted off the Old Nisqually exit without signaling.
The Caprice cut off a couple of cars in its dive for the exit, just avoiding a sideswipe. Awful crisp driving for a 75-year-old Boeing retiree.
I lost sight of him before I took the side road toward the parking lot for the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge. The road turned to washboard, full of puddles, before I got to the graveled parking lot near the refuge building. There was a handful of cars parked in the rain, but not a birdwatcher in sight. I wheeled through the lot, backed up against the brush on the far side and waited. If he really was tailing me, I had given him several choices of route. The refuge road advertised its dead-end status back at the freeway interchange, so I didn’t think he’d look down here.
But he was there in less than five minutes, nursing his soft suspension over the potholes. His tense silhouette, through his rain-speckled side-window, didn’t read senior citizen. He drove past me to the end of the road, turned in beside the refuge building, and stopped. For what seemed like a long time he just sat there, headlights on, wipers slowly whisking the drizzle away. Casing the joint.
I reached into the VW’s little door pocket for my baby Bushnells. I changed my mind when my fingertips brushed the Pachmayr grips of my S&W Bodyguard .38. Because suddenly he was rolling across the parking lot on a line to pass directly in front of me. I held the Bodyguard in my lap and waited. When he drew level, he applied the brakes, shifted smoothly into reverse, and whipped the big boat neatly alongside at an angle, nearly grazing my Bug’s flared Baja fenders.
The maroon bulk was too close for me to drive away without a lot of maneuvering. Too close for me to open my door. It also effectively masked my whole car from the refuge building. By the time all this registered, he was out and around the Caprice, crossing in front of me, a small, cat-quick young man in denims, his crew cut bare to the rain. His right wrist was canted at a funny angle. When he reached my passenger door I saw he had one of those side-handle nightsticks laid back along his forearm. The kind the cops borrowed from the martial arts.
I used to joke that VW Bugs don’t come in size 56 Long, which made them hard for me to climb in and out of. It was always good for a laugh, and a subtle reminder to the ladies what a fine big lad I was. Well, not lad. This fellow was a lad. A lad who calmly took the butt of the nightstick in his left hand. His right hand, wrapped around the side handle, was the fulcrum. His hands moved in a neat, economic twitch and the head of his club smashed my car window into a spray of powdered glass. Some lad. A wordless and terrifying lad.
Everything seemed to start moving in slow motion.
It’s a perfectly normal human reaction: this can’t be happening to me!
He flicked up the lock button. Snatched open my door, left-handed. Spun the long end of the stick back with his right hand for another blow. Cocked his wrist and crouched, as his left hand cupped the butt again. I actually saw his forearm muscles bunch.
Opportunity. Ability. Intent.
Those three words had begun to march through my head when he smashed the glass. The modern-day litany for justified use of lethal force in self-defense; something to tell the barracuda lawyers representing his estate.
He was young and agile. Armed with a blunt instrument whose smashing force he had just demonstrated. I was not young. Not agile. And I was pinned under the steering wheel of my size 46-Regular Bug, where his blows could be destructive, possibly fatal.
Opportunity: he was armed, and had me cornered.
Ability: I had just witnessed the vicious force of his stick-stroke.
Intent: he tailed me, trapped me, attacked me.
So I shot him.