Normally, I try to avoid witnesses.
I don’t like orgies, curious guys at the next urinal, or friends who keep detailed diaries. Eyewitnesses are a particularly bothersome bunch. Besides the fact that they end up on the stand misidentifying honest working-class thieves, they also confuse hubcaps with flying saucers.
Still, at the moment the lights went out under that cottonwood tree, I was willing to toss an egg or two at Mr. man boobies myself if only he’d stay in the window – if only he’d look down on the scene like some warped Olympian god and by his mere witnessing presence protect Val. Unfortunately, Bacchus had gone back to his grapes. Fun was busy turning into tragedy.
Redlands had turned off the spotlight, the blister lights on top of the squad car, the headlights. Val was standing there puzzled in the dark. The Neon’s broken radiator was sissing. The steam caught a little ambient light from a dirty streetlight shadowed behind the trunk of the tree.
I was crouched down by the scraggly hedge five feet from the side of Redlands’ prowler. It took a second for my eyes to adjust, but only a second. My night vision is extremely good and my hearing is, like I said, acute.
First I heard his shoes on the loose gravel of the crumbled sidewalk, then I saw his sillhouette against the mist. He walked towards Val. It was a slow, deliberate walk.
“I know who you are.” Val’s voice was trembling. She was angry, but there was fear mixed in on the edges.
“Oh,” said Redlands. The words came out of his mouth as cold as the November rain. “And I know who you are.”
“Jesus, you’re crazy.” If I could have, I would have stood up and warned Val not to provoke him. I started looking around me for a big rock. I had a sick feeling about the situation. Val was starting to comprehend the danger. “Jesus Christ,” she muttered.
“Watch your language!” James Redlands did not like foul language. He was a religious man. We all know that by now.
Valerie finally caught something in his voice that warned her to keep quiet. It was an important signal. She was a smart woman and never wrong about these things.
“I know who you are.” He was back to that. “You’re that lawyer.”
Val wondered if that was it. Cops don’t like lawyers. It’s a natural rivalry. They especially don’t like defense lawyers. That’s O.K., just a little professional feud here. No big deal.
“You’re the lawyer who works for Planned Parenthood. They told me about you. I saw your bumpersticker.”
Val tensed. “Yeah?” This may be more than she first thought. “I do some pro bono work for them. Legal advice. Volunteer work.” Val tried to sound chatty. “I have some pals who work down there.”
“You help the baby killers.”
I wanted to psychically tell Val to keep her mouth shut. I’ve dealt with crazy people. Hell, I’ve been a crazy person. The best tactic was to stay quiet. Arguments like this one were never winnable. Maybe Val heard my silent warning. She kept quiet.
“You help them kill babies, don’t you?” He was still walking towards her slowly, too slowly. He was only six feet from her. The space between them shrank away in small, almost imperceptible segments – half of halfway, an inch, a millimeter, the thickness of a human hair.
Redlands touched her head. Val was frozen. He wound her red hair in his fingers, and he pushed her down on her knees in front of him.
Later, after all this was over, Valerie told me she could smell him — that it was one of her most vivid memories of that night – that moment. It was a rich mix of the world James Redlands worked in — vomit, sweat, beer, acetone, tears, snot, Armour-all, and fear. It was anti-aroma therapy. The stench was loud. Val said she could hear it. The perfume was bright. She could see it. It made her very afraid.
I remember everything getting darker. I moved up towards them. I had to be careful. If Redlands heard me, he might be surprised. Surprised psychopaths tend to explode. I made it to his squad car, and I crouched there behind the driver’s side door that he’d left open.
“You kill babies.” He sounded cold.
Valerie did work for Planned Parenthood. She believed in it. She believed women needed birth control. It was clear to her that girls whose mothers had produced children like they were breeding stock needed to be educated. They needed a choice and a chance. Most of what they did at the center was birth control, pills, diaphragms, IUD’s and the like. They had classes. They helped with prenatal nutrition to fight birth defects. New mothers were given counseling to make the first months of their babies’ lives good ones. Val tried to give them a little support in her area of expertise, that’s all. Of course, Planned Parenthood was also a social lightning rod. They did abortions, too. It was the only place in the state that did abortions legally. But rules seemed to be changing again.
“Why do you kill babies?” There was almost a singsong quality to Redlands’ voice. It had the sound of a question from a wounded child.
Valerie wanted to stay silent, but fear was pushing at her throat. “Please…”
“Please? You say please, and babies keep dying.” Gravel crunched as he shifted his weight. His hand rubbed against his leather holster. It sounded like an old, creaking door. Redlands was breathing loudly through his mouth.
She choked out another word. “Don’t…”
Officer Redlands sighed. “My wife should have a baby. She’s been trying to get pregnant for three years. But no matter how hard we pray, she fails. There’s no forgiveness for her taking those pills. No forgiveness. I should have a son.” Redlands paused three heartbeats. “And you kill babies.”
It was personal. Val held very still.
Looking inside the patrol car, I could see the shotgun in the front seat bracket. I was trying to remember if I’d ever seen a cop snap the riot gun free. I couldn’t think. I wasn’t sure how much noise it would make if I tried to jerk it free. And the safety – was the safety on? How would I know? How many tenths of a second would I have?
“I think it’s because she used to take birth control pills. They fucked her up somehow. The Pope warned us, but she didn’t listen. No forgiveness. I warned her. Now she is barren.”
Barren? Was he madder at his wife for her sin than he was at the baby killers? Barren? It had an Old Testament feel. The Old Testament can be very bloody. I was on the edge of panic. My thoughts were flying with no place to land. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“We want a baby, and you help them kill babies. How does that make you feel?”
Good girl, Val. Stay quiet. Don’t say a word.
There was a snap. That’s when Redlands took his black nine-millimeter gun out of the holster. It was almost invisible in the dark. Like a black hole, it sucked up what little light was sneaking in under the cottonwood. He grabbed her hair again with his left hand. Val made a tiny sound. And then, oh so gently, he placed the muzzle of the gun against the side of her head.
Val had taken a deep breath. Then nothing. I think she stopped breathing at that moment.
“How does it make you feel?”
“How do the babies feel?”
“Do you pray?”
I was praying to Abraham’s pal. That nomad’s God we all knew as children. In extremis we always return to the old gods. I needed Yahweh to help me. I wasn’t getting an answer.
“You are going to hell. God will punish you.”
I hoped Redlands wasn’t hearing God in his head that moment — that moment that seemed to last forever.
He cocked the gun.
Val sucked in air. Finally.
“Tell your friends to stop.” Nothing moved.
I was almost crying. I couldn’t figure out how to save her. If I rushed him, he’d kill us both, and he’d do it right that moment. I was gambling that I had a little more time. Just a minute or two. Surely there was some answer.
“Stop killing babies.” James Redlands repeated. He wanted no misunderstanding.
“Stop,” she repeated in a whisper.
There was a long silence then. I was out of time. I started to reach for the shotgun. I had no choice. Then just as my hand closed over the stock — just as I was ready to pull it free…
“You’re going to hell now,” he said, then something else, quietly – a prayer?
That’s when I made my move. It was a sudden inspiration. I let go of the gun and grabbed the portable radio Redlands had left on the driver’s seat. I hit the talk button. “Shots fired! Shots fired! Officer down! Officer down! Twentieth and Greely! Twentieth and Greely!” As I yelled into the radio, I broke into a run, away from the tree, back across the street, and into an alleyway.
“Hey, stop!” I heard Redlands shout.
“Shots fired! Dead cop! Help! Twentieth and Greely!” I let go of the transmit button and the radio squawked back at me. “All units. All units.” Help was on the way. I tossed the transmitter into a trash can and slammed the steel lid shut. I could still hear the chatter. “All units. Twentieth and Greely.” It wasn’t two seconds until I heard sirens to the west, then to the north and south. There were sirens homing in on the cottonwood from every direction. I ducked back through the alley. Then I doubled back and crossed the street again. I was a block south of the tree now behind a parked car. I could see Redlands standing in the middle of Twentieth looking north towards the flashing red lights of the first cars to respond.
“Damn!” Officer James Redlands was forgetting his manners.
Within two minutes, there were seven cars on the scene. Including the shift commander. She was easy to recognize. What a beautiful figure. Even the bad lighting and the flack vest couldn’t hide her shape. Sgt. Jasmine Moore was on the scene.
I whispered to myself. “I’m going to give you some really good tips next time, Jazz. And maybe a big wet kiss.”
I couldn’t hear exactly what was said from where I was, but the drift was clear. The good Sargeant was laying into Redlands. I’m sure he was having trouble explaining the situation. He was gesturing and pointing off in the direction I’d taken with his radio. Another pair of policemen emerged into the street with Val. She was handcuffed. That was good. If Moore was arresting Valerie, she’d be providing the ride. Besides, Redlands was in trouble. A false shots fired report and a disabled cruiser.
Over behind the parked car, I stifled a laugh. I thought I’d just run along home. It was only a few blocks. A soaking rain would substitute for a shower. I could change and head over to St. Philomena’s. I needed some dark clothes for the visit. Val was safe for the moment. I needed to talk to Father Douglas Hunter.
figured we had a lot of catching up to do.