By Scott Cannon
R.D. McCalman was damned if he would sit by and watch his neighborhood go to hell just because the city planners, who probably all lived in the trendy, over-priced cottages, old-money manors, and new-money McMansions of mid-town, had let some out-of-towners build two big apartment complexes on the edge of his square mile subdivision in the south part of town.
For some time before the neighborhood patrol started, the nascent crime wave in Marshall Park had made for lively dinner conversation at the McCalman house. It had started with a little uptick in the incidence and severity of the vandalism you see whenever there are kids around. Before the coming of the apartment dwellers, it was stuff like smashing pumpkins during Halloween, a little drinking and dope smoking in the park, that sort of thing. After, it was different when folks started to leave for work in the morning to find the side window of their car a litter of diamond glass on the driveway. And what kind of hell-bent destructive impulse did it take to bring down a brick mailbox? That happened too, and more than once. R.D. imagined a pickup truck with a logging chain attached to the trailer hitch. He imagined a gang of five or six burly teenaged thugs pushing and grunting and sweating in the dark until the masonry mailbox toppled and shattered.
And it only got worse. R.D. would hear about a burglary here and a burglary there in meetings of the Homeowners’ Association, and read about them on the “bitch board,” as some of the Marshallites called the MP Yahoo discussion group, which he got each day as an email that let him add his two cents’ worth for all to see, in long posts rife with errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Mildred was always correcting him when he said they robbed another house or car, explaining the difference between robbery and burglary. Then R.D. would hear her talking to their daughter on the phone about the places they’d “hit.” “They hit this one house less than four blocks from here,” she would say, “and then just last week they hit the one behind us – in broad daylight!”
On the bitch board, R.D. was enthusiastically vocal about starting a neighborhood patrol when that idea came up a couple of years ago. Mildred was behind him 100% when he wanted to be among the first to volunteer, with the assurance that the rules of engagement were that there was to be no engagement. No confrontation, no high-speed chases, and definitely no firearms. They got magnetic signs to put on the doors of whoever’s car they were using that night, and a one-million candlepower hand-held spotlight that plugged into the cigarette lighter socket to keep the batteries charged. If a car was in the park after curfew, they would light it up with the spot that must have looked like a thermonuclear explosion to those in the target vehicle. If it was just kids sucking face or smoking dope they left right away after a word about curfew and the neighborhood patrol from R.D., unseen behind the blinding light. As the kids complied, R.D. would turn off the spot so they could have a flared image of his goodbye wave as they drove away. If the car was empty, they would write down its tag number and check back again later. The car was most always gone the second time around. If there were people in the car and they didn’t move soon after being asked, the patrollers were to call the police. If anybody got confrontational with them, they were to back off while calling the police. That had never happened. They were not to get out of the car except to get coffee at Quick Trip absent extraordinary circumstances, as yet undefined because nothing in the two-year history of the patrol had required vehicular exit.
The patrol made two passes a night through Marshall Park, once before midnight and once after. Late hours for an old man, but R.D. was still pretty wiry if somewhat wizened at his age. He had a hard time sleeping these days anyway, and he was, after all, the Mayor of Marshall Park. That’s what Mildred called him sometimes, and he knew other people did too. It was all in good fun.
The neighborhood patrol was fun too, in its way. Prowling through all the blocks of the neighborhood in the streetlamp dark, on the lookout for bad guys or errant teens when most everyone was asleep, a partner to listen to his ramblings always at his side, R.D. sometimes felt like a teenager himself again. So his laugh was easy when the heads of the boys and girls would pop up in the car when they blasted it with their million candlepower spotlight, and easy still even when the car drove out trailing clouds of pot smoke. One night a girl flashed her tits at them as she left. R.D. laughed then too. His always younger ride-along partners had to think he was a pretty cool old dude.
The partners came and went, with R.D. providing continuity as the rock and the anchor of the patrol from the day it began. It did some good: property crime statistics for Marshall Park dropped noticeably, and the volunteer neighborhood patrollers were lavished with much praise and many thank-yous posted on the bitch board by all the MP residents who couldn’t or wouldn’t volunteer their own time. There had never been a problem until the first night with the new guy. Looking back, R.D. should have known it from the get-go.
Casey Van Boos was sitting in a chair on the porch when R.D. pulled up to his house at eleven that night. He was a big guy compared to R.D., thirty-something, over six feet tall, around 200 pounds, in blue jeans and work boots, black tee shirt and baseball cap, and an army fatigue jacket even though the spring night air held only a trace of winter’s chill. Watching him come down the drive, R.D. thought he would be a good guy to have your back in a fight, and that he looked ready for action. Fine. Some of the men who volunteered for night patrol duty had unrealistic expectations. That was part of why R.D. preferred women partners; they were never like that. The other part was that the women tended to make him feel younger, while the men sometimes made him feel older.
Whatever; it would be okay. If this guy had a security guard hard-on, he would lose it soon enough. Part of his job as the ride-along was to tally the animals they would see during their rounds. The neighbors loved that part of the patrol report they would post on the bitch board the next day: three cats on the prowl, one lonesome lost dog, maybe a fox, and always a number of godless bunnies; sometimes even a coyote. Counting bunny rabbits took the wind out of the sails of the gung-ho types pretty quickly.
Under the Explorer’s dome light, R.D. saw Casey’s baseball cap said “Benchmade” on the front, and that he had one of those ten-day stubble beards guys his age seemed to favor. The introduced themselves as if they’d never met, by tacit agreement pretending it had not been R.D. the HOA delegated to go check out Casey’s back yard chicken coop the neighbors had complained about. He had put it up soon after he and his wife moved into her mother’s house with her two kids a few months ago. Casey had not been overtly hostile, but there was a what-business-is-this-of-yours undercurrent in their talk as he showed R.D. his five egg-layers and the municipal ordinance saying this was permitted at single-family dwellings in the city limits, and perhaps a bit of challenge in the question of where in the covenants was urban chicken farming prohibited. Nowhere, R.D. had replied in that affable old man manner most folks found so disarming. Casey didn’t seem so disarmed when he showed the old man out that day, but R.D. had said nice meeting you and welcome to the neighborhood anyway.
He didn’t seem too disarmed tonight either, when R.D. handed him the steno pad with the pen clipped to the spiral binder. “What’s this?” he said, frowning at it.
“For our wildlife count. You know, for the patrol log report tomorrow. Kitty cats, raccoons, godless bunnies. The neighbors love it. We might even see a coyote.”
This prospect brought no trace of delight to Casey’s face; if anything, his look was one of slight concern. Maybe worried about his chickens, R.D. thought, so he added “That’s only happened three or four times.”
“Right,” Casey said, sliding the pad between his seat and the console. “Let’s roll.”
They rolled. On their first pass by the park in the middle of the subdivision, they spotted a car in the lot. What do they think they’re doing, Casey wondered, breaking a silence that had grown rather thick. Just watch, R.D. told him. Maybe this oft-repeated bit of funny business would get a laugh that would break the ice so that R.D. could fill up the rest of the time talking about the places he’d lived building pipelines and refineries in Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Maybe Casey would like to know about R.D.’s son and daughter, or about Viet Nam. He wondered if Casey was a veteran of the clusterfucks in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s what he would call those wars if he could get him talking, clusterfucks just like ‘Nam. There was nothing like the shared experience of military life during wartime for a bonding agent between two veterans. Casey had the attitude of a guy who had done a tour of combat duty and not quite adjusted to civilian life yet, but for some reason R.D. doubted that was his problem.
They drove past the 10 p.m. curfew sign at the driveway of the parking lot, stopping about twenty feet from the parked car, a late-model Camaro. Just before he lit it up, he looked over at Casey. The guy was watching intently, but R.D. saw no fun in his face. Just wait, he thought.
He was disappointed when he dropped the hammer and no saw stunned young faces in the explosion of light. He swept the spot through the woodland beyond the lot and up the hill to the gazebo overlooking the pond. In a few minutes a young couple came shambling hurriedly down to the Camaro, looking disheveled and embarrassed. The boy gave a feeble wave to the light as they got in the car. R.D. turned it off and returned the wave as they drove past, calling out “Sorry to break up the party, but curfew’s ten o’clock here kids. Maybe you didn’t see the sign. Have a good night, now.”
When the Camaro was gone, R.D. grinned as he told Casey about the girl who had flashed him that time. “Nice ones, too,” he said as he put the Explorer into gear. Casey responded with an obligatory laugh. R.D. decided not to tell him about any of the other crazy fun things he’d seen during the after-midnight patrols.
It took nearly two hours to canvas the whole square mile of the Marshall Park I, II, III and IV, and was close to one when he dropped Casey back at his house. Three garage doors open, effusive thanks from the two homeowners whose numbers he had, no more curfew-breakers in the park, but a plethora of wildlife. A bit ornery, R.D. asked Casey to read the list back to him before he got out of the car, feeling for a moment like he was again an adjunct professor with a recalcitrant student at the city junior college. Casey looked at his steno pad. No foxes or coyotes, but two opossums, a gray tabby cat, and five rabbits. “Godless bunnies,” Casey added with a twitch of a smile, and opened his door. R.D. was glad when Casey turned down his offer to pass the time between rounds drinking coffee at an all-night pancake place. “See you at two,” he said as Casey walked up the drive. Casey waved without looking back.
Back home, R.D. was quiet as he fixed his milk and cookies to wait for the two o’clock rounds. Habit; it would take a shotgun blast to wake Mildred with her hearing aids on the nightstand by the bed. He switched on the TV and watched something about another police shooting in some other state, and breaking local news about a drive-by that just happened in another part of town. R.D. was damned if he would sit by and let it get that bad here.
Casey was waiting for him on the porch again at two. This time he came to the driver’s side of the Explorer. “Want me to drive this time,” he said. R.D. didn’t hear a question mark at the end of the sentence.
“No, I got it,” R.D. said, leaving the “thanks” out of his reply. My car, my rules. Casey climbed back into the passenger seat and pulled out the patrol log without being asked.
The second round always took less time than the first. More wildlife, but fewer people to deal with, and no more open garage doors. They hadn’t been out long when Casey said, “So you’re the Mayor of Marshall Park.”
“That’s what they call me.” R.D. chuckled when he said it, but wondered if the guy was trying to get his goat.
So instead of letting it pass he came back with “And you’re the chicken farmer.” He felt Casey bristle beside him. “I think that’s great,” he added to pull the stinger out. “I read that people are doing it on the rooftops of apartment buildings in New York. Sustainability. Makes sense. One of these days we may all be growing our own food again. My wife keeps a vegetable garden. Peppers, carrots, the juiciest tomatoes you ever saw. Maybe we can do some trading sometime.”
Though the reply lacked enthusiasm, R.D. imagined he was close to a breakthrough with Casey. He couldn’t be just the total dick he had seemed the first time around. He pressed on.
“I remember the chicken house you built. Very nice. I don’t know if you forgot it was me they sent to check it out.”
“I remember,” Casey said.
“I hated to stick my nose in. Live and let live, I say. But you know, neighbors. And I sure didn’t know about that city ordinance either.” The breakthrough was still just out of reach. R.D. decided to go for it. “Where’d you learn all about that?”
“On the farm.”
All right then. “So what else do you do, Casey?” R.D. was just about done with trying to make friends with this jerk. He knew the guy was unemployed. What did his wife and mother-in-law think of that? Maybe it had something to do with his signing up for neighborhood patrol.
Eyeing his passenger sideways, R.D. noticed Casey was leaning forward, concentrating on something he saw as they approached the park. “Now what the hell?” Casey said.
Parked in a dark corner of the lot, R. D. saw a not-new BMW, slung low to the ground, white with black-tinted windows, and one of those wings on the back. R.D. entered the lot more slowly and stopped further away than usual from the offending vehicle. It was way past curfew. Something was not right.
Casey did not seem to share R.D.’s vague sense of apprehension. His reaction to this strange car at this wee hour was to grab the spotlight as he rolled down his window before climbing half out of the Explorer to shine it at the BMW over the roof of the truck.
Stunned, R.D. clutched and tugged at Casey’s knees, now shoulder-level with him sitting on the passenger door, feet on the seat. “What are you doing?” he said, his words coming out in a hiss.
Sitting out of the window like that, Casey was an immovable object and R.D. was hardly an irresistible force. The spotlight did not waver. Centered in its intense beam, the white of the car glared back at them against the dark woods beyond. R.D. thought he saw movement inside, but the darkly tinted back glass seemed to absorb the light like a black hole.
“We should have a megaphone,” he heard Casey say outside the car. Are you for real, thought R.D. as he put down his window in a hurry. He was afraid Casey was going to come out with something like Step out of the car, and keep your hands where I can see them.
R.D. spoke out just loudly enough for his voice to carry across the distance to the white car. “Ten o’clock curfew in the park here, folks. Need to ask you to move on.”
R.D. thought he saw more movement in the car, but there was no response to his call for a tense couple of minutes. R.D. was scribbling down the tag number when Casey started to move. He was climbing out of the window, still aiming the spot at the BMW, holding it as if it were a rocket launcher. “No!” R.D. said.
Just then he heard the engine start and the car’s brake lights came on. It backed out of its place without hurry, then spurted out of the spotlight’s beam for the driveway to the street, so quickly that R.D. didn’t get more than a glimpse of who was inside, and could only see that there was more than one of them. Passing close by R.D.’s Explorer on the way, the low riding white Beemer slowed to a near stop. Casey halfway stood from his seat in the open passenger window, leaning over the roof to keep the spotlight trained on the car as it left. R.D. couldn’t see anything but the reflection of the light in the black side windows as it passed. He forgot to wave.
Once past R.D., the BMW picked up speed and when it reached the street the tires shrieked and it was gone, leaving an acrid cloud of rubber smoke behind. R.D. turned to see Casey seated beside him again, the light off now. He looked angry. “Let’s go!” he said.
“Chase them, you mean? We don’t do that. They’re gone. I got their tag number, if we need it.” He held up the steno pad. His hand was shaking.
Casey snatched it from him and looked. “No you didn’t, this is only part of it.”
That was true; the car had moved before R.D. could get it all down. But they had done their job; the winged alien vehicle had left and he wanted Casey to calm down and his own blood pressure back to normal. “Casey, look, this isn’t Cops, this is neighborhood patrol. Now let’s finish our rounds and go home.”
“But that car, it was wrong, it didn’t belong here!”
“And now it’s gone,” R.D. said, trying to sound calm. “It’s over.”
Except it wasn’t. On their way back to Casey’s house, their second rounds finished, they came upon the car again, cruising slowly around the park without apparent purpose or destination. “There it is again!” Casey said. “I knew they were up to no good. Let’s get the rest of that tag number, in case we find out something happened tonight.” He held the pad, pen at the ready.
R.D. tried to damp down the feeling of unease swelling in his chest again at the sight of the not-right white car. Casey was right; this was part of their job. He heaved a wordless sigh and closed in on the Beemer, slow and easy. When they were close enough he said to Casey, “You got it?”
Casey had just finished writing and looked up. “Watch it!” he said.
The car had stopped right in front of them. R.D. hit the brakes, cinching their shoulder belts across their chests and jerking to a halt a few feet back from the brake lights ahead. “Motherfuck!” Casey said.
Time froze. The car just sat there, engine running, the row of tiny red lights across the back edge of its ridiculous wing floating before R.D.’s eyes like something on a UFO. R.D. felt his blood pressure squeezing up again, and thought his hearing aids were buzzing in his ears. A snippet of the scene on the road from Close Encounters flashed through his mind, and he felt a hysterical laugh come up inside him. It didn’t get out.
The freeze-frame was shattered by Casey in motion. “God damn it!!” he said, throwing open the door and jumping from the car.
“No!” R.D. said, but Casey was already in front of the Explorer, crossing behind the lights of the Beemer’s wing, headed for the driver’s door. The car’s white backup lights came on, bracketing Casey, and in his mind’s eye R.D. saw him smashed between the two cars. Without thinking, he threw the Explorer into reverse and floored it.
Both cars shot back on screaming tires boiling smoke. Still looking forward, R.D. saw Casey go flying off to the left. He heard the sickening crump of crushing metal and a sound like the explosion of bowling pins on a strike roll as the right rear of the Explorer shattered a brick mailbox behind him, then he was careening in a backward slew across the road, coming to rest in the driveway of the lot of the park where they had first seen the white BMW that night. Then he saw it coming at him.
It had turned around and was headed straight for where he was stopped sideways in the entrance to the parking lot, moving without speed but with purpose now. They must have put the side windows down because he thought he saw arms moving outside the car.
He saw that he was trapped: there was no time to turn his truck one way or the other, and even if there were he would have been pointed toward the headlights coming for him or into the dead-end of the parking lot. Flooded with fear and adrenaline, he couldn’t think of what they wanted but knew he had to get away from it. He couldn’t run, not with his knees. They would run him to ground like a godless bunny. He looked through the beam of his headlights to the “Maintenance Vehicles Only” sign next to the driveway and the asphalt path leading up beside it. He gunned the Explorer and it leaped up the trail that ran along the right bank of the pond. He jounced into the dark, leaving the crazy car to hug the pavement below.
When he was far enough on the maintenance trail into the park that he could barely see the glow of headlights back there he stopped and fumbled for his cell phone. Maybe he could make it up the hill to the condos that fronted the pond and hammer on a door there. But that would involve running again, and his knees. He dialed 911.
As he punched in the last number, he heard the BMW’s engine roar and, impossibly, saw it come screeching up into view behind him like some white demon, bouncing and sending out sheets of sparks as it bottomed out on the uneven asphalt, coming full throttle at him before skidding to a stop a car length away. It sat there, smoking in the bath of its own light. Then it went dark.
R.D. couldn’t believe he wasn’t having a heart attack. When the doors opened and four hoodied figures climbed out, he wished he were.
In the dark, he could make nothing of the shapes coming toward him but that they were humanoid and bigger than he. He put his head out the window to look back over his other shoulder. He thought he saw knives, bottles, chains, guns. He gave no thought to his only weapon, the million-candlepower spotlight. They were almost on him.
He still wasn’t thinking when he punched the accelerator to the floor, still looking back. The Explorer plunged left through the tall grass down the bank and into the pond.
The air bag blew up in his face when the truck hit the water at speed, and it was an instant before R.D. thought to take his foot off the gas. The intrepid Explorer waded on in up to its rooftop. He managed the seatbelt, pulled himself through the window, and came sputtering to the surface, streaming white from the air bag powder. He clung to the side of the roof and saw the four figures looking down the bank at him in the pond.
R.D. paddled to the shore, staggering out of the water to collapse on the ground. His hearing aids were drowned, but he thought he heard laughter from above. He looked left and right, up and down the slope of the bank. There was no place to go except back into the water or up to where they waited for him. He craned his neck and could not see them now, but he knew they were still there. He lowered his head to rest his cheek on the wet grass, and closed his eyes.
Then as if from a great distance he heard raised voices, shouts, popping noises, screams – then silence.
He didn’t know how long he laid there before a light shone in his eyes and a face swam into view. “Mildred?” he said. His focus sharpened: not Mildred; younger, darker, and wearing a blue uniform. She was talking to him.
“Are you all right, sir? Do you hurt anywhere?”
He was numb. “No, I don’t think so. I mean yes, I – I think I’m all right.” He started shivering in his wet clothes as strobic images began to pop through the fog in his head. A white car, four silhouettes looking down at him. A body flying through the air.
“Casey.” He struggled to sit up. “Where’s Casey?”
She held him down with a gentle hand. “You just lie still now. The paramedics are here. They’re taking care of your friend. He’s hurt, but he’ll be okay. Here they are now to help you.”
Two men wearing white shirts and blue gloves bent down to him, asking questions as their hands moved around his body: what was his name, what day was it, where did he live, did this hurt, did that hurt. He was strapped to a backboard and carried upward, then rolled along on something with shiny rails at his sides and wheels beneath. He could not move his head but caught glimpses as they moved him. A white car that glowed blue and red, blue and red. A still dark figure on the ground, blue uniforms all around. He tried to relax, looking up at the branches of the trees, blue and red, blue and red, as they rolled away above him. His sense of movement came back as the gurney went down an incline and above his feet the lights spread everywhere before him, swirling and blinking, blue, red, white. The ride leveled and smoothed in the parking lot, and Mildred in her bathrobe was at his side, throwing herself on him sobbing “Oh Ronnie, oh Ronnie” over and over until he felt movement stop. Clicks and clacks beneath, a shifting of weight and he was inside the close bright box of the ambulance, Mildred leaning over him, crying “Oh Ronnie!” Her tears fell hot and salty on his eyes and lips. He tried to smile up at her and reached to touch her face.
They would tell him what happened later: one young man who had been nothing to him before tonight dead, two others fled, another under arrest in the same hospital where he and Casey would spend the rest of the night. Casey had been carrying a gun somewhere in his fatigue jacket. By some miracle he had not been killed or seriously hurt when the car hit him. Shots had been fired by the pond when he found them all there. He and the other young man would still be in surgery when R.D. was released later that morning.
R.D. didn’t know if Casey would be in trouble because of the gun. He didn’t know what would become of the one they caught, or the two that got away. He didn’t know what would happen with the neighborhood patrol, or if the white car was from the apartments or outer space. He didn’t know anything, except that his wife would not leave until they could return home together. For now, that was enough.
Scott Cannon has been a warehouseman, printer, brick mason’s helper, art store proprietor and, for 30 years, an attorney. This is his fifth published work of fiction.