Peace, Love, and Murder
It was Monday morning, and Carl and Ronnie were bickering in the back of my cab. Just like they did every single other day of the week.
“Yeah, but how do you know?” Ronnie said. I glanced in the rearview mirror to see him jab Carl in the arm. “How do you know the Bible is the word of God? I mean, you weren’t there. Maybe the Bible was written by a couple of stoned hippies on the beach.”
Carl snorted. “They didn’t have hippies back then. Or pot to get stoned with, neither.”
“Okay, then two drunken shepherds or Pharisees or whatever. They had wine, didn’t they? Didn’t Jesus, like, invent it or something at some wedding?”
Carl didn’t know how to argue with that.
These two lived in the same trailer park and worked at the same quick-change lube shop in town. And they’d both lost their licenses for DUI, which is why I picked them up each morning and drove them to work—they had a standing order with the Sunbeam Taxi Company. But that was all they had in common. Ronnie was a stoned-out slacker with stringy hair whose idea of fun was poking holes in Carl’s political and religious beliefs. Carl looked like a trucker, right down to his plaid shirt and Mack bulldog cap. He was easily baffled, and hid his bafflement with red-faced belligerence.
“Listen, you skinny punk—” he began.
I glanced in the mirror again to watch him puff up as he tried to formulate a clever insult to Ronnie’s personal hygiene. But I forgot all about the pair of them when I saw the deputy’s car behind me. I checked the speedometer. Damn. Twelve miles over the limit. I eased my foot off the gas pedal, but the cop lights came on anyway.
I pulled onto the shoulder, next to the post-harvest remnants of a cornfield. We were in the central New York farmland about eight miles outside the college town of Rhodes. The gloomy early-November morning had just turned a whole lot gloomier.
“What the hell?” Ronnie said. He twisted around in his seat. “Oh, Jesus, Bo. You’re gonna make us late for work.”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” Carl said, looking back too. “But you’ve got a point there, Ronnie. We shouldn’t have to pay if the driver can’t get us there on time.”
“Man’s right about that,” Ronnie said.
Listen to the two of them, I thought, singing harmony all of a sudden. Ronnie and Carl had never agreed on anything in their lives. But with me to gang up on, they were suddenly best buddies.
I watched the patrol car. The deputy fiddled with a clipboard, taking his time. A few cars crawled by, their occupants craning to peer at me like I was some gory accident victim instead of a guy who’d got caught in a speed trap. Some joker in a vintage Camaro grinned and gave me a thumbs up. Could’ve been you, pal, I thought.
This was bad. I’d only been driving the cab for two months—I started a couple of weeks after I came back to town—and I’d already got slapped with one ticket. The fare had been in a hurry, and when that light turned yellow, I’d tapped the accelerator—barely tapped it—to try and make it through before the red. I did make it, too, although the Statie who pulled me over didn’t agree. That was one moving violation. Two more, and I could lose my taxi license.
In the back, Carl and Ronnie were getting louder in their chorus, now singing the refrain that somehow I owed them money for making them punch in late.
“Shut up,” I said. “Here comes the cop.”
The deputy was a small guy, slim, not even five-five. The little cops are usually the mean ones, which meant a ticket for sure, not to mention a long delay out of pure spite. Then I looked again. This deputy wasn’t a he—it was a woman. I sat up a little straighter. Maybe, just maybe, I still had a chance. I rolled down the window, ready to turn on the charm.
Which, I saw a moment later, would be exactly like trying to lavish charm on a slab of marble. She responded to my smile with a flinty-eyed stare, squinting at me from under her broad-brimmed hat. A scowl creased her forehead, and she held her mouth tight, like she’d tasted something bad and was trying not to show it. Her nametag read T. Hauser.
“Good morning, Deputy Hauser,” I said.
“License and registration.” Her voice sounded like a schoolteacher canceling recess. “I’ll need to see your cabbie’s license, too.”
Cabbie. I hate that word. I wondered how Deputy Hauser would like being called a “coppie.” But I smiled and said, “Sure thing.” I pulled my wallet out of the back pocket of my jeans, handed her my license, then reached across and opened the glove compartment. It was crammed with junk—empty cellophane wrappers, dirty napkins, even a crushed paper coffee cup. Those other drivers were a bunch of damn slobs. Maybe it was the Army training, but I couldn’t stand having my personal space full of disorganized junk.
“I’ll have it for you in a minute,” I said over my shoulder. “This isn’t my usual cab.”
Stony silence confirmed the terrific impression I was making.
I pulled out handful after handful of trash, tossing it on the floor. At the bottom of the compartment was the registration. I gave it to her. Then I slid my taxi license from its place on the sun visor.
“License, registration, cab license. All there.” I tried the charming smile again.
She scowled and walked back to her car.
“Well, Bo,” Carl piped up from the back. “Thanks to you, looks like we’ll be, oh, ’bout a hour late. That’s seven-fifty you owe us. Each.”
“Can it, Carl,” I said. “This will only take a couple of minutes. She’ll write out a ticket, lecture me a little, and we’ll be on our way.”
“This is terrible,” Ronnie said. His voice sounded strange, high-pitched, and he was jiggling his leg against the back of my seat. “What did you have to get pulled over for, huh?”
“Will you please stop?” I said. “I told you, we’ll be back on the road in a few minutes.”
“No, I mean it—this is terrible. I hate cops. They always make me feel like I done something wrong. Now I’m gonna be a nervous wreck all day.”
“Not to mention losing pay for being late, no fault of your own,” Carl said.
“Did you see the way she looked at me? All squinty-eyed, like I was some kinda criminal.”
“You’re nuts,” Carl said. “She didn’t look at you at all.”
Ronnie’s fidgety leg was going so hard it shook the cab. “I can’t take this,” he said. He opened the door, lurched out, and took off running across the mowed-down cornfield.
“What the hell does he think he’s doing?” I opened the door and got out far enough to shout across the car. “Ronnie! Get back here!”
He kept going, his skinny arms pumping as he hoofed it across the field. And right behind him, running like an Olympic sprinter, chased Deputy Hauser. I think she yelled “halt” once before she tackled him. For a small woman, she took him down hard. I could almost hear his oof! as he hit the ground.
“Crazy,” Carl commented.
“You know, I’m starting to think you might be right about that hour. Here,” I handed him my cell phone, “why don’t you call your boss?”
While Carl phoned in, I watched the scene in the cornfield. Ronnie was face down in the corn stubble, the deputy more or less kneeling on his back as she cuffed him. A moment later, she stood and yanked him to his feet. He looked dazed, like he’d just woken up in an unfamiliar room—or an unfamiliar cornfield. They walked back to the cruiser, Deputy Hauser holding Ronnie’s arm. She folded him into the back seat and closed the door. Then she got into the front and started talking on her radio.
I got back in my cab and closed the door. After Ronnie’s weird behavior, I wasn’t going to give her even half a reason to look funny at me. Carl handed back my phone.
“Boss’s pretty mad,” he said. “Says cars are lining up outside, and just one guy there to do oil changes.” He shook his head sorrowfully, then looked out the window and, for once, didn’t say another word.
That deputy was taking her time. I looked in the rearview mirror; she was still on her radio. I thought about calling Ryan, my boss, to let him know what was taking so long, but I didn’t want to tell him I’d been stopped unless I had to. Maybe, with Ronnie hurling himself out of the cab and into the police car like some greasy-haired sacrificial lamb, I’d get off with a warning. Twelve miles over the limit had to be a lot less interesting than whatever Ronnie thought he was running from.
Deputy Hauser’s face materialized at my window. She didn’t say anything, just peered inside. Her sharp-eyed gaze swept across the interior—me, Carl, the mess from the glove compartment. I felt like a zoo animal being observed in a mockup of its natural habitat. When she looked behind my seat, where Ronnie had sat, a grim little smile spread itself across her face.
“Out of the cab,” she said. “You in the back first.”
That set Carl grumbling again. Then he cut himself off with a gasp and said, “Oh, my dear Lord.”
“What? What is it, Carl?” I asked, but he heaved himself outside.
“You stay where you are,” the deputy said to me. “And keep both your hands on that steering wheel.”
Before I could figure out what was going on, a car appeared on the horizon, heading toward us from the direction of town, red lights flashing. Deputy Hauser had called for backup. What, did she think she’d pulled over some getaway taxi full of violent criminals? A bad feeling plunked itself down in my gut as the new patrol car pulled across the road and parked at an angle in front of the cab. A deputy emerged. This one was a big guy, with a double chin and a gut that hung over his belt. He hitched up his pants as he walked toward us.
Carl was spread-eagled against the cab, his hands on the roof, while the female deputy patted him down. I watched his face through the window. His eyes were closed, but his lips moved. I couldn’t tell whether he was rehearsing an explanation for his boss or maybe praying.
Carl straightened and stepped back. Deputy Hauser appeared at my window again. “Your turn.”
I got out of the cab, assumed the position. She frisked me in her efficient, no-nonsense way, but her hands were surprisingly gentle, making me think, absurdly, of a bird trying out its wings before its first flight. I heard a car go by, slowly. What a great advertisement for Sunbeam Taxi—the bright yellow cab surrounded by cop cars, its driver getting frisked by the side of the road. Ridership would be way up.
“Okay.” Deputy Hauser stood up. I went over to join Carl.
“What did you see?” I asked him. “What was on the floor back there?”
He shook his head. “That stupid stoner.”
Deputy Hauser was rummaging around on the floor of the cab, where Ronnie had been. When she straightened, she was holding something pinched between her thumb and forefinger, her other fingers sticking straight out, just barely grasping the corner of a plastic baggie about a quarter full of some kind of dried herb. Only this wasn’t just some kind of herb. “Stupid stoner” was right. Ronnie had ditched his stash in the cab—my cab—before heading for the hills.
The deputy looked at me, sizing me up. I could almost read what she was thinking: Birkenstocks, jeans, sweatshirt, ponytail—probably another stoner. She smiled for the second time that morning; I decided I preferred the scowl.
“I’m going to have to search this vehicle,” she said. “Go back and wait by my cruiser.” She pointed the way with her chin. “And don’t try anything stupid like your friend did. Deputy Webb here will be keeping an eye on you.” The big cop hitched up his pants again and escorted us to the patrol car.
I glared through the window at Ronnie, who kept his head down. His jittery leg was going like the drummer in a speed metal band.
Leaning against the passenger-side fender, I watched Deputy Hauser go through the cab, while the other cop stood between us and the cornfield, his hand resting casually on his gun. She crawled across the back seat, looking under the mats, shining her flashlight under the seats. Irritation bubbled up inside me. These cops had no right to treat me like a criminal, just because Ronnie got stupid. The whole thing was a colossal waste of time—there was nothing illegal in the cab.
Deputy Hauser pulled something from under the driver’s seat and held it up to the light. A pint bottle. Oh, man. Who’d left that in there? Somebody was drinking on duty—Ryan wasn’t going to be happy about that.
Then it hit me. I was in bigger trouble than I’d thought. Even though it wasn’t my bottle, even though I could pass any breathalyzer test A+ one hundred percent, there was still an empty booze bottle in my cab. If I got hit with a speeding ticket and an open container violation, that was it for me. No taxi license, no job.
Deputy Hauser continued her search. Nothing in the trash from the glove compartment seemed to interest her. The big deputy yawned and scratched his neck as she popped the latch to look in the trunk. She walked around to the back of the cab, but the lid seemed stuck. She heaved at it a couple of times before it flew open.
“Jesus Christ!” she yelled. I thought the trunk lid had whacked her in the chin and started forward to see if she was okay. “Stay where you are!” She whirled around to face us, her gun drawn. She held it straight out in front of her, both arms braced, pointing it first at me, then Carl, then back at me. I half-raised my hands, palms out, in what I hoped was a calming gesture.
The big deputy stood there, gaping. He still had his hand on his gun but he didn’t take it out of the holster.
Behind me, Carl was whimpering. She swung the pistol his way, and I took a step to the right, to get between him and the gun. “Take it easy,” I said.
“On the ground, now! Both of you! Face down, hands on your heads. Now—I mean it!”
“What the hell, Trudy?” asked the other deputy. He still hadn’t pulled his gun.
“All right,” I shouted to her. “We’re cooperating.” From behind me came more whimpering. “Get down, Carl, like she said,” I spoke low over my shoulder, watching the deputy and trying to make my voice soothing. “I’ll stand here till you’re down safe. Just do what she says and you’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” He sounded like a terrified three-year-old. Seconds passed. I locked eyes with the female cop. Even from twenty feet away, I could see the gun shaking. “Okay, Bo,” Carl said. “I’m down.”
I dropped to my knees, maintaining eye contact for as long as I could before I stretched out my full length in the dirt and placed my hands on the back of my head. I could hear Carl mumbling; he was definitely praying now: “… hallowed be thy name …”
Boots appeared in my limited field of vision. “Don’t move,” said the female cop. “Don’t even breathe.” She raised her voice. “Mel, what the hell are you, a goddamn scarecrow? Quit standing there and cuff these suspects.”
“… on earth as it is in heaven …”
The boots disappeared, and I heard the car door open. A second later one hand, then the other, was jerked roughly behind my back. I felt a cold metal pinch as the cuffs clicked closed.
I shifted my head a little to get my mouth out of the dirt. I couldn’t imagine what might be in the trunk to freak her out like this. Not unless whoever owned that pint bottle had a whole bar—or Christ, maybe some kind of illegal pharmacy—in there. Maybe this was what zero tolerance felt like.
The deputy got on her radio. “This is car 26 again. We got a 12-77 out here.”
“… and lead us not into temptation …” Carl’s mumblings were getting louder; I couldn’t hear the dispatcher’s reply.
“Yes, damn it, you heard me right. Code twelve-seven-seven.”
“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever …” Carl passed amen and started right in again. “Our Father, who art in heaven …”
“Trudy,” said the other cop. “You called in a 12-77? But that’s a—”
“That’s a goddamn homicide, Mel. Go and look for yourself. There’s a dead body in the trunk of that cab!”