The short and simple story is, if you look like bad news, you get treated like it. The rest is just details. I know the moral is supposed to come at the end, but I figured I’d save some of you a little time since I know I tend to run on sometimes. The first sentence pretty much sums up the rest of the story, but for those that appreciate the details, I’ll flesh it out a little.
Eight or nine years ago, when this tale takes place, I had a drastically different appearance. I had recently separated from the military and in the fine tradition of all those that were discharged before me, I grew a beard, long hair and dressed like a ruffian. I suppose I was rebelling against the authority of the military that I had so recently left. I used to have nightmares where I was called back to duty and received punishment for not shaving, cutting my hair or wearing my uniform. There’s likely a very good psycho analysis in there somewhere, but I’m no longer like that and am no longer interested in the benefits such an analysis would offer.
Let’s just say I looked like a troublemaker, I liked to emphasize that for those that were especially dense and act like one too. I yelled, threatened and well, caused trouble. It’s easy to do when you’re drunk and angry. Not unsurprisingly authority figures like police officers, security guards and store managers took offense at my very presence. That sort of thing is inevitable.
Every ruffian needs a no-gooder mobile to travel the city and sow his disrespect and I had a 1972 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. As big as a schooner and mostly blue with primer grey highlights and a 350 V8, it was big, fast, and to some, ugly. It ought to have been licensed as a weapon because I surely drove it as one. Yellow lights were a challenge to my honor, jaywalker’s targets for my hood emblem, and speed limits were something that simply pissed me off. As an indication of how reckless I had become, the horn never worked right, so when I became frustrated in traffic or wanted another drivers attention, I stomped on the gas and brake. The squeal of the tires and the cloud of burning rubber was always more effective than the horn could have been.
As one might expect, the traffic authorities took a rather dim view of my activities and took every opportunity to cite me for my transgressions. The first time I received a citation for not wearing my seat belt shoulder strap, I removed them and told every subsequent officer that the car wasn’t equipped with them, you know, because it was so old. When I was cited for speeding, I would speed away after receiving my ticket. In the first four years after leaving the Army I received more than a dozen moving violations. Strangely, since I stopped driving that vehicle three years ago, I have received none, zero.
On one blessedly cool winter weekday afternoon in Las Vegas, I was returning from the research facility that employed me, to the residence I shared with a friend, Jeff. He sat in the passenger seat and the music, like the air outside, was crisp. Jeff and I chatted as I sped up the road exceeding the speed limit by ten to fifteen mph as I was wont to do. That day was no different than any other and I had driven this stretch of road hundreds of times and ran those lights just as often.
The police no longer frightened me, for my insurance company had become a nightmare more devilish than any bonnie blue. So when the black and white passed in the oncoming lane I locked eyes with the officer. I saw a man no older or younger than I, clean shaven and clean cut. His eyes were steel blue and they flicked over me, absorbing every detail. The vest he wore so casually under his khaki uniform shirt pushed against his collar bone from his seated position in the squad car. The golden badge at his chest rode the wave of his protective vest and canted at an odd angle, reflecting the setting sun with a sepia tint that reminded me of sheriffs of old.
He took the same examination of me and saw a dirty man with long, unkempt hair. I wore my attitude as easily as I wore the faded and worn leather jacket, and my sunglasses hid the windows to my soul from his stalking gaze. I drove a shit heap of an old blue car and an accomplice rode next to me, whose appearance was little better.
I sneered at him, my raised lip taunting his threshold of ethical authoritative response. Pig.
His mouth went thin, and his eyes squinted. He accepted my challenge. Dirt ball.
I turned and in my rear view watched him make a U-turn and slip into traffic several cars behind me. I saw him talking into his hand set as he turned and I knew he was calling in my plates to check for prior violations. I was hungry, had to pee, and was less than two miles from home, so I slowed to the speed limit and followed it exactly.
Out of the corner of my eye I watched him pace me two cars behind and I drove like an old lady returning from church. It must have been obvious that I was on alert as Jeff queried, “What did you do?”
“Nothing man, I just looked at him as passed, then he made a U-turn. He’s probably gonna pull me over on some ridiculous charge so that he can check us out.”
Such wasn’t unlikely and more than one officer who pulled me over admitted that he did so for that very reason. They would follow me for a mile or more; wait until I made some silly mistake, like not wait long enough at a stop sign, and the lights would come on. My car fit a certain profile that told cops I might be a gangster or thug. I accepted this as I rarely got a ticket once they found out that nothing untoward was going on.
I had convinced myself that this was what would go down again when the squad car, now directly behind me, turned on its lights. So did another one behind me, and one in the oncoming lane and another to my right. This was not normal, or even expected. Jeff’s response said it all.
I made a left hand turn onto my home street and pulled into the parking lot of the dilapidated Green Valley Grocer that sold booze and cigarettes to minors. When the car was stopped I made a movement to my waist, a trick designed to convince the officer that I was undoing my seat belt which in reality lay on the floor behind me, and normally yielded adequate results. The panicked yet stern voice on the bullhorn stopped me.
“Get your hands where I can see em!”
This wasn’t normal police talk and a glance in the rear view confirmed that something had gone very wrong. I could see five Metro squad cars with their doors open. The occupants of the vehicles were crouched behind the open doors and had their pistols pointed at us, except for the guy with the shotgun. He was pointing a shotgun at us.
I raised my hands and turned to Jeff, his gaze answered my unspoken question of “What the hell?” with his own unspoken answer of “I don’t know what you did to get us into this, but later I’m gonna kick you in the nuts.”
The next few commands from the loud speaker were easy to understand and follow, so I complied. I don’t normally fold so easily, but I know when a situation is hopeless and I knew something was definitely weird here. These cops were just as nervous as I and this was no normal traffic stop. Compliance was the only was to prevent myself from getting pin cushioned by some rookie with rattled nerves.
“Turn of the engine, remove the keys from the ignition and toss them out the window!”
I did what they asked in as calm and slow a manner as possible. Tossing the keys was hard to do while pretending to move through molasses and I hoped they wouldn’t confuse my tossing motion with that of a man reaching for some hidden weapon.
“Both of you, put both hands out the window.”
As I swiveled my shoulders to get both hands out the window to comply with their perverse hokey pokey request I noticed that we had started to draw a crowd. Nothing relieves misery more than witnessing someone else’s misery. Jeff and I lived in a pretty messed up part of town and these people wanted to see two white boys get hassled and hassled good.
“Slowly exit the vehicle, keeping your arms raised above your hands and kneel on the ground.”
My car chose this moment to remind me of how much I neglected regular maintenance by allowing the driver side door to become stuck at what really couldn’t have been a worse time. When I raised the latch the door perfectly failed to open and I had to lean into it with my shoulder. I’m guessing this looked like a threatening movement because everyone started running and shouting, except Jeff.
Actually Jeff could have been dancing the watusi and juggling flaming puppies for all I knew because I was mobbed by three officers as soon as the door swung free. I was pushed to the ground, my legs kicked out from behind and what I imagine must have been a very skinny police man put his razor sharp knee in my lower back. I wasn’t going anywhere, unless I was some kind of robot killing machine sent back in time to destroy the one man… Well I’m not that guy, so I stayed on the ground and examined the tarmac of the parking lot. I could see an abandoned cigarette butt, a funny shaped white rock the size of a pea and a discarded penny buried in the surface, facing tail up. I hear that’s bad luck.
My left arm was forced to my head and latched with one cold half of a pair of nickel plated bracelets. Very becoming actually, but they closed painfully tight on my wrist. When they jerked that arm around to my back, I discovered that some of my hair had become caught in the mechanism of the hand cuff. This of course ripped the hair from my head, and was actually quite painful. The wrist was secured with the mate of the first and I was hoisted from the ground and gently thrown over the front hood of a squad car.
It was actually then that I noticed the slight speckling of factory finish paint jobs. From a distance they appear quite smooth and shiny, but from my close perspective I could see that it was an illusion. I wasn’t given long to contemplate the quality of modern vehicle manufacturers paint and what the decline in pride of craftsmanship meant to the industry though.
A voice, perilously close to my ear explained what was going down;
“Don’t make any sudden movements and I may not have to shoot you. Spread your legs.” He emphasized that command by kicking one of ankles away from the other.
“I’m gonna search you. You got any weapons, needles or drugs?”
“No sir. I do have a pocket knife in the left breast pocket of my jacket and the right front pocket of my pants.” It never hurts to be polite, especially so when you’re bound and under gun point. The search was methodical and he found what he wanted, removing my knives and wallet.
“How come you got so many knives son? Where you coming from?” Those seemed like simple questions, and although I didn’t necessarily consider two small pocket knives as excessive, it didn’t seem like the proper time to argue about it or point out his sentence fragment.
“I was a boy scout. Boy scouts always carry pocket knives. We’re coming from work.” Strangely, he accepted the first answer without a blink but found suspicion in my latter answer.
“Where do ya work?”
“I work at DRI, by the university.”
“That’s a long ways away, what’re ya doing all the way up here?” That too was reasonable, although it didn’t seem important what my travel goals were, again, this didn’t seem like the right time to make a Bill of Rights issue out of this.
“We live right around the corner, about seventy five yards away. We’re just going home.”
He verified my statement by looking at the address on my drivers license before handing it off to another officer. “I’m gonna ask ya one more question son while that officer runs your license for prior convictions. You killed anyone recently?”
That kind of threw me off. I didn’t get asked that question very often, and when I did it was usually in regards to my past military activities. I decided that this officer wouldn’t be interested in vague implications of past actions and mysterious alliances so I told him the truth.
A search of my vehicle had uncovered no hidden cache of weapons, narcotics or midget circus performers and the officer with my license returned, laying the plastic covered paper on the hood of the car next to my knives and proclaimed, “Nothing.” Only then did I get an explanation.
“Alright son, here’s the deal. Two guys matching your descriptions and driving an older, blue, two door sedan, robbed a Green Valley Grocer over on Lake Mead and killed the two clerks. That’s why we pulled you over. We searched your vehicle though and didn’t find any weapons or cash and you don’t have any prior felonies. So, we’re letting you go. Sorry about the mix-up.”
He took off the handcuffs, returned my belongings to me and everyone relaxed noticeably. One officer immediately holstered his pistol and struck up a conversation with me that at any other time would have been perfectly reasonable, but giving the last few minutes, was surreal.
“Is that a 70 or 71 Monte Carlo? Does it have a 454?”
I answered his questions on autopilot, telling him that no, it was a 72 and wasn’t an SS so it only had a 350. While I rubbed my wrists, checked my scalp for blood and recovered my car keys, the situation washed over me like a tsunami of the bizarre. For a few minutes I had been a suspected murderer and if I had been convicted of any felony in the past I would likely be getting a chauffeured trip to a concrete box. Because I had a clean rap sheet though, I was getting back in my car, having lost nothing more than time and a few years off my life.
I was bewildered that I was being released simply because I had done nothing wrong before, as if the only motivation for a crime were a previously convicted crime. It seemed like a gross miscarriage of justice. They had not asked me for an alibi or even enquired about the crime and as soon as I passed their simplistic investigation I was treated as if nothing had happened. I was at once outraged as a citizen and pleased that this particular miscarriage had worked in my favor.
I got back in the car, turned to Jeff, my unspoken question clearly voiced in my perplexed gaze.
“I don’t know what the hell just happened, but if we hurry, we can still catch the first few minutes of the A-team. Besides, I gotta pee.” Jeff spoke the kind and simple words of a master, and I left some rubber in the parking lot.