At eight-thirty I pulled into the InstaBurger drive-thru and the driver in the car in front of me shot the kid taking the orders…a single bullet in the chin, the kid fell out of the window spilling a bag of fries and a medium drink. The shooter sped out of the driveway, drove over the curb and headed downtown leaving a trail of French Fries in his wake. I would do without my egg on a biscuit.
The cops showed up to investigate. A detective named Bellows questioned me.
“What do you know about this?”
“I don’t know anything. I was next in line and I heard the kid on the intercom.”
“What did he say?”
“He said good morning, what the fuck.”
“What the fuck?”
The cop continued. “What else?”
“Nothing, I didn’t hear a shot. But I saw smoke come out of the barrel of the guys gun.”
“What kind of gun?”
“I don’t know guns…just a pistol.”
Bellows voice took on an edge, “Well, was it a large pistol or a small pistol?”
“Like I say, I don’t know guns.”
The cop paused to jot a note. “What kind of car was it?”
I hesitated, “I don’t know, a sedan of some sort. They all look the same to me.”
“What about color?”
“I’m color blind,” I confessed, “So I’m really not sure.”
“Your color blind?” Bellows was starting to get pissed. “Christ kid, did you see anything? A license number maybe?”
I took a step back, “No, it all happened too fast.”
Bellows sighed, “Tell me, do you know what race this guy was?”
“It’s hard to say, from the back…. white…maybe Hispanic…I suppose he could be black.”
Bellows face turned red. “Jesus kid you’ve been a big help. Get out of here.”
Late for work by about an hour and a half I headed downtown. I would grab a stale muffin out of the vending machine at the office. I punched in my boss’ number and tried to explain my situation but he wasn’t buying it. As a supervisor Larry Bertrand was wound a little too tight. I finally had taken enough.
“Bertrand you son-of-a-bitch, I’ll be there when I get there and if that isn’t good enough you can take the fucking job and stick it.” I threw the receiver in the passenger seat. It buzzed back to life immediately and I let it go.
I stopped at the light at Birmingham and Lincoln and a clump of the city’s homeless were milling around on the corner. They had a kid surrounded, hounding him for a paper bag he was carrying. The eerie sidewalk waltz quickly exploded into a messy drama when the kid pulled a knife from under his sports jacket and sliced at the hand of one old guy who was grabbing at the bag. Stunned, the old man sat down in the middle of the circling winos holding his mutilated hand watching blood pump from his fingers. Another old guy slipped in the bloody mess on the sidewalk and fell hard on his ass. The kid, still holding, skewered the fleshy underarm of a third guy who grabbed the bag and ripped it open. A dozen empty glass bottles hit the pavement and shattered, becoming just one more part of the mix of old men, body parts and blood.
Cars at the intersection sat through a green light watching the gory dance unfold a few feet from their windshields. Finally a taxi driver bolted from his cab and headed for the mess on the corner. The kid kicked at the torn bag at his feet, took off and disappeared into a maze of stacked pallets and debris.
I took the next green light wondering how much you could get for an empty. Two cents? A nickel? They’re knifing each other over empties? My thoughts deflected back to when I collected empties as a kid just to get the fifty cents for the movies on Saturday afternoon, the challenge of collecting the bottles, the art of collecting only the most valuable. I recalled fist fights over discarded milk bottles, soft drink bottles, and irate name calling…the fury of those who had and those who didn’t. The only difference I decided is that we didn’t carry weapons. Today empties are a precious barter item on the screwy black market of the streets. Would I give up a body part for an empty?
I continued downtown and for several blocks a red pickup followed me with a black girl at the wheel and a white guy in the passenger seat. She was attractive, primitive looking, beads laced closely around her neck, rings on her fingers caught the sun as she gestured toward her passenger. He was average looking except for the earring in his left lobe. He had a goatee and wore dark classes. They were in the middle of an argument and the action heated up when he started waving a pistol in the girl’s face.
Traffic stopped at the light at Lincoln and Stoll Avenue. My eyes were locked on the rear view mirror. The girl shoved the guy’s shoulder trying to push him to the other side of the truck cab. He was waving the gun around laughing and she finally slugged him on the cheek, hitting him so hard his glasses flew into the windshield. He shook it off and retaliated by whipping her with the pistol spinning her head into the side window. A gash opened up under her right eye, along the cheekbone, like a boxers cut. She slumped over the steering wheel and the guy opened her door and shoved her into the street. She tumbled onto the road like a sack of potatoes and rolled onto the median with her colorful caftan bunched up around her waist. The guy slid behind the wheel and was still shouting at her when the light changed. The girl was on all fours floundering like a struck animal, her face bled as she struggled to get up. Nobody stopped to help her, the traffic stream got anxious and hurried on through the intersection. When I turned my attention back to the truck it was gone.
By this time I was ready to call Bertrand to tell him I wouldn’t be in at all but I wasn’t up to listening to any more of his philosophy on being punctual and maintaining a professional profile. Screw professional, people are killing each other, fighting over empty glass and a woman is bleeding in the street after being pistol-whipped. I’d go to work just to get off the streets.
I cruised through the busy downtown as delivery trucks clogged the avenue and shops began to open. I tried to hit the lights not wanting to stop, become a target. I breathed a sigh of relief as my building came into view. Before I could make the turn into the garage a paramedic’s ambulance careened past me on the left, swerved in front of me and sped into the garage. I followed it in and we spiraled down three levels into the bowels of the Altman Building, home to Brookings Finance. I was searching for a parking space when out of the dark corners of the garage a SWAT team materialized, and surrounded my car aiming automatic weapons…at me.
“Out of the car…slowly,” shouted a cop standing at the left rear fender. I could see him in the mirror, pointing a rifle at my head. I got out of the car to face the rifle muzzle.
“Both hands on top of the car…slowly.”
I assumed the position and a flurry of blue surrounded me. I was searched and cuffed. A voice came from the darkness. “What’s your name?”
“Jeremy Ray,” my voice quivered.
“Jeremy Ray what,” asked the voice?
“Just Jeremy Ray…that’s my name. What’s going on?”
“I’ll ask the questions.” The man behind the voice appeared out of the group of cops. Pickens was the name on his badge plate. “What do you do here?”
“I’m a mortgage officer at Brookings Finance. I work for Mr. Bertrand, Larry Bertrand.”
“Really. Have you worked for Mr. Bertrand long?”
“About two years. Call him, he’ll tell you.”
Pickens stepped close unlocked the cuffs and turned me around to face him. “Well Jeremy Ray we’ve got a small problem, I’d love to talk to Mr. Bertrand but it seems he went a little crazy in the office this morning. He shot a secretary and two security guards then stuck the gun barrel in his mouth and blew his brains out.”
“What?” I couldn’t decipher what Pickens was telling me. The words couldn’t find a spot alongside the other messy episodes that had already taken place.
Pickens continued. “Do you know any reason why Bertrand would go off like that?”
There was a long pause in the deathly quiet of the garage. I stared in disbelief at the detective.
“Well,” asked Pickens?
“I was late to work,” I whispered?
“I was late for work?”