If you catch a chameleon on a plaid blanket, he’s history.
I’ve always been pretty good at blending in. I can change the way I walk so that I don’t look out of place in a nice neighborhood where I don’t really belong. I can adjust my posture so it looks like it’s my car I’m standing next to. I always dress for success in the particular zip code I’m working. I can use a nasal tone of voice when it fits. If I’m surrounded by hummingbirds, I can flap my wings very fast. Sometimes I can be so ordinary I disappear.
When I was thirteen, I started learning about hiding in plain sight. I used to mix my mom’s martinis. Then one day, I made an amazing discovery. I rank it right up there with the accidental discovery of penicillin on an old bread crust and vulcanizing rubber.
Gin on ice looks just like water on ice. Mom couldn’t tell the difference. I could mix up a drink for her and dispense one for me simultaneously, a martini for her, a clear glass tumbler full of straight gin for me. It was perfectly camouflaged, because it wasn’t camouflaged at all. It replaced Tom Collins Mix as my favorite beverage.
I had two tumblers that night and discovered something wonderful. Alcohol transported me to heaven. The next morning I woke up in a bed full of vomit. I cleaned everything up myself. It wasn’t unusual for me to do the laundry, and Mom and Dad slept late like they always did. I eventually learned it was best to throw up before you went to bed.
At first I’d put my finger down my throat, but that was unpleasant. So I just learned how to throw up. Simple. I could do it anytime I wanted. Call it “Male Pattern Bulima,” whatever, I don’t care. Sometimes I did it at school to avoid unpleasant situations. No one will hit you if you’re in the middle of a good up-chuck.
So as I cowered in the sewing machine shop doorway with Officer James Redlands’ crewcut eyes drilling a hole through me, I summoned my mystical powers. I slumped like a homeless drunk. I let my face sag and my skeleton shrink. I wanted to look like I belonged where I was, on Eighth and Younger in beautiful Vaporville.
Redlands stopped the car. He was no more than fifteen feet from me, looking across the seat and through the passenger side window. That’s when I threw up.
It was pathetic as it could be. I hadn’t eaten since lunch with Mattie on Tuesday. I was low on every vitamin known to man. Starved like a coyote in an empty desert.
A pathetic little regurgitation, I had hoped for more. Cops don’t like to hassle people who are throwing up. It will cost them valuable time cleaning out the backseat.
Cabbies are the same way. Well, obviously, sometimes they won’t pick you up at all. But try this. If you’re in a big city and you’ve given the hack your destination, and you know he has a reputation for taking the most circuitous of routes in order to max out the meter, simply say, “Can you hurry, I’m a little nauseous.” You’ll be at your hotel in record time. Just don’t say it until you’re in the taxi and preferably it’s moving. That’s just a friendly tip, no charge.
Like I said, it was not my best performance. I hoped it would work. It didn’t. Redlands was getting out of the car. I threw up again.
I would’ve given my left nut for some cherry vodka. We used to buy it at the roadhouse when I was in Optimism. It made for a lovely puddle of spit-up. It tasted like cough syrup and packed a lovely punch, and when I willed myself to throw up, it looked like a fountain of blood. Very effective. As it was, I couldn’t even produce a two-day-old escargot to discourage him.
He adjusted his night stick and approached me. I just hunkered down trying to look miserable. I was.
“Well, what have we here.” With my head down by the tiny dollop of puke, his shiny black shoes were inches from my face. I could smell the polish – and the spit.
I moaned. What did you expect me to say?
He poked at me with his toe. He put it under my chin and lifted my face. “I thought so.”
He gave me a poke with his steel toed shoe. I rolled over on my back, submitting like a puppy begging for mercy. Bravado was unlikely to help me here.
“I know who you are.” He sounded dangerous. I remembered Valerie’s description of her ride. She had said he used that same phrase to her. “I know who you are.”
It was time to give up my act. The situation had become more than a little roust. He looked very big standing over me from my angle. He was very big. He pulled the stick from his belt.
“I saw you coming out of her apartment.” My mouth went dry. Of course. He had Val’s address from last night’s arrest sheet. My God, he wasn’t finished with her. I jumped to my feet.
“You leave her..” The club caught me in the Adam’s apple. It wasn’t a full strength swing. It was short and compact. It was hard enough. My hands went to my throat involuntarily, and I gasped for air as I dropped back on my knees, hard.
“I would advise you to be very still.” His voice was quiet, but I heard every word, even over my rasping breath. “It’s time to come to Jesus.”
He hit me on the right side and then the left before I could even flinch. I think he cracked a rib or two. The pain was very sharp.
“So you must be her stud service. Do you kill babies?” Shit, I was fucked. “Did she tell you what I told her?”
I nodded. Non-violence seemed the only way I might survive. Steven Segal might have figured out an alternative, but he’s fat now. I was skinny like Ghandi. That’s the tactic I tried. I thought passive thoughts.
Redlands was busy being aggressive. “Why don’t you tell her you saw me? Tell her I meant what I said to her last night. Tell her I’ll come back. But she knows that, doesn’t she?”
He kicked me in the balls. I was doubling over when he picked me up by my jacket neck. He was strong. I slammed up against the patrol car. I remembered my dad’s joke about when an insect hit the windshield of his car.
“What’s the last thing that goes through a bug’s mind when he hits the glass, son?”
“His ass.” Hah hah! He had a great laugh.
That’s how I felt as I hit Redland’s unit. I didn’t laugh. He had a hold of me from behind, and he pushed my face against the back door window.
“You tell her…you tell her…” That’s when God and Ulysses S. Grant saved me.
I’ve always been a heavy tipper. People who work for tips are always on the short end, so I try to show them a little appreciation. Sometimes it gets me a drink quicker, or some extra onion rings, maybe a more sincere lap dance. This time a tip saved my life.
My little gate keeper friend from Baldie’s showed up with some friends. He was a lookout, after all, and he never missed a thing — especially when a cop car hit his street. So he saw the whole deal go down. He could see his new friend was having a small problem. He could have just ducked inside, and he did. But he didn’t have to come back out trailing a small crowd of dazed crack heads down the block in the direction of the ongoing massacre.
He was young, but the rock fiends knew he ran the small den on the first floor, and when he called on them to tag along, they did as they were told. There might be something in it for them, they thought, and besides, not going along could get them kicked out. Crack addicts are well-trained. Desired behaviors were constantly reinforced. It was Mrs. Aquino’s people power all over again. The scale was slightly smaller, but the effect was the same. Marcos would have to flee in face of popular scrutiny.
“You tell her to stop helping them…” Redlands looked up.
About twenty or twenty-five people were gathering a few steps away. Some other residents had heard or seen the commotion and were coming out of some other houses, trickling towards the shop doorway. Now they didn’t look dangerous, or even particularly angry. Most just looked stoned. Nobody was going to take on the Bastille that day, but it was a crowd — a crowd of witnesses.
Criminals don’t like witnesses. Of course, Redlands wasn’t a criminal per se. But for all his hostility and sense of righteousness, he knew that what he was doing was, strictly speaking, beyond the pale. He was pressing me against the car. His nightstick was poised to strike again, but it hesitated.
“Back off folks! Back off! I don’t want any trouble here.” Neither did I at that point.
Nobody said anything. More people arrived. “Cops” was a very popular show around here, though this demographic often rooted for the outlaws. Just like, years ago, their predecessors had pulled for Jesse. This was even better than T.V. Besides, this way they could be on the police video. A lot of people purposefully jammed up against the front of Redlands car. If they stood there the camera could get them on the tape. They were very media savvy.
“O.K., folks…step away from the car.” He let go of me and I discovered his hand had been the only thing holding me up. I dropped to the sidewalk like a sack of Jolly Ranchers.
“Stop hitting him! He ain’t doing nothin’!” somebody yelled.
“Back off folks! He’s all right. Back off!” Redlands had forgotten me for now. He never seemed to do well when things got complicated. He considered calling for back up, but… He worked his way around to the driver’s side door. The crowd gave him plenty of room. Nobody was drunk enough at this early hour to be crazy enough to do anything else. They just backed away and let him get in.
Redlands had delivered his message. He was pissed, but he knew when things were out of control. He started up the car and drove away. Slowly at first, the car crept through the little mob — then clear, it accelerated down the block, around the corner, and away.
Then the folks rushed to my aid? No, most wandered off, disappointed things hadn’t exploded and provided some cheap entertainment. A few stood there and looked at me like I was a sick animal at the zoo. A few more left when it was apparent I wasn’t going to die. My buddy from Baldie’s made eye contact, shook his head in pity, and followed the glass pipe squad back to normality at the crack house.
“Thanks,” I thought. I really meant it, too. I couldn’t talk at that moment, though. I was trying to catch my breath. I was testing my muscles. I threw up again, this time involuntarily. It was a dry heave. I was on all fours now. I looked up, and three or four kids were staring at me. I mean there were four kids, but only three-and-a-half of them were looking at me with pity. The kid on the end — a skinny little Hispanic kid — had one eye on me. The other was looking off down the block pie-eyed.
“Pies…” I was trying to say his name. He walked away. I couldn’t speak above a whisper. I couldn’t stand to stop him. But I strained to hold my head up, and I was able to track him all the way across the street and watch him go into the third green house down.
I fell back onto my face. This was going to take awhile.
I knew where Pies lived.
I knew Redlands was insane. I was very frightened. I had to get up. I had to get to Torey. I had to get back to Valerie. I wanted to throw up again. This time it wasn’t because of the beating. This time it was raw fear. I had to get up. The anger and the sour dread got me to my feet. I was like Bambi on the ice, but I was up.
I put my hands on my knees and sucked in air. It hurt like hell. The pain cleared my head. At least, it cleared it as much as it could after what I had seen.
While the crowd gathered and Redlands held me up against the back of the car, I had seen the unthinkable. They were scattered on the back seat.
Six black videotapes — the tapes I had left at Valerie’s — six black videotapes were in Officer James Redland’s police car.
didn’t mean to, but I threw up again.