FICTION: Crossing Traffic by Sean McCluskey

He’s not a cop, even though he wants me to think he is. I know that as soon as I open my front door and see him standing there in his sport coat and khakis, holding up his badge.

He’s standing right in front of the door. Real cops don’t do that. They stand off to one side, so you can’t shoot them through the mail slot or the peephole or whatever. His badge gleams, inside a buttery-smooth leather wallet that definitely hasn’t been hauled out of pockets over and over for years. The picture on his ID card is recent. Like, I think he’s wearing the same necktie recent. Like, I think he has the same shaving cut on his chin recent. And the lettering on the card is blurry. Cheap printers do that when the heads get dirty.

“Can I help you?” I ask. “Officer?”

He says, “Sir, I’m investigating a hit-and-run accident that occurred on Thursday. Witnesses got a vehicle description and a partial license plate, so I’m speaking to all the registered owners. Do you own a gray Chevrolet? The first two letters on the license plate are AN?” It all comes out in a rush, like a kid in a school play.

“Yes,” I say. “I do.”

“Has the vehicle been involved in an accident recently, sir?”

“No, it hasn’t.”

“Sir, may I see the vehicle? As soon as I verify that it wasn’t involved in the accident, I can cross you off my list. It’ll just take a minute.”

An innocent man wouldn’t hesitate, so I don’t either. “Sure. It’s over in the garage.”

He’s a family member, I decide as we walk over to my detached garage. A father or an uncle. Maybe he found the body. One of my early ones, back when I left bodies where they could be found. I was sloppy in the beginning. He must have seen something I missed, something the real cops missed, too. He gathered up the loose thread and spooled it back to me. And now he’s here to Set Things Right.

“Was it a bad accident?” I ask, as I unlock the garage’s side door.

“Very bad,” he says. “A little girl died.”

“That’s terrible. I hope you find the guy.”

He squints and nods, like the cops do on TV. “I’m sure I will.”

The garage smells like gasoline and dust. My old Chevy fills the narrow space, a pocked and rusty beast. It leaks oil and runs rough, but it’s bland. Forgettable. Even I have trouble spotting it in parking lots sometimes. It’s perfect.

He walks around the car, looking it over and nodding his head. I walk with him. If he has a weapon, I want to be close when he tries for it.

He stops around back, reading my bumper sticker. “What is Proverbs 22:15?”

Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but discipline will drive it far from him. “I don’t know,” I say. “It was on the car when I bought it.”

He nods again. “Well, this obviously isn’t the vehicle I’m looking for. Thank you for your cooperation, sir. I think we’re all done here.” He motions towards the door: After you.

I say, “Officer, I lied to you before.”

He looks blank. This isn’t in his script.

“I actually was in an accident last week,” I say. “But it was Wednesday, not Thursday. Late Wednesday night. I hit a parked car. But there was nobody in it, I swear. I’m sorry I lied to you. I was nervous.”

He looks back at the car. “But there’s no damage.”

“My friend has a body shop. I paid him cash to replace the front fender. You can still see a little bit of the other car’s paint, down near the headlight.” I step forward, to herd him around. “Here, I’ll show you.”

“I… okay,” he says. He takes a step, then stops. “After you.” He motions me past, so he can get behind me. I’m sure he thinks that’s clever.

I walk around the car, squeezing between it and the workbench. Down at the far end is my flashlight. It’s a monstrous heavy thing, a battered foot-long aluminum pipe. It’ll make a good club. I watch him in the car’s side mirror as he follows. His hands are open and empty.

I’ve never killed an adult. I’m vaguely excited by the prospect.

He grabs me, wrapping his arms around my neck in a clumsy hold. I turn my head into the crook of his elbow to protect my windpipe. I lunge forward, dragging him with me. Towards the flashlight.

My foot hits a puddle of oil. I fall to my knees, with him on my back. The flashlight’s too far. I scrabble at the bench and grab a tool. A hacksaw. I swing it back at him, but it’s too light. No point for stabbing, a dull blade that won’t slice skin. Worthless.

He snatches something off the bench, letting go of me to do it. I push away from him, but a crushing impact to my temple plows me into the Chevy. My ears ring, and my right eye goes dark.

I’m on the floor now. More hits. My face is wet. Motor oil. Blood. I don’t know. He keeps hitting me. Again. Again. I can’t get up. He hits me again. Again.

Which one is he here for? Which one is he Making Right? I want to ask him, but I–

***

My intention really wasn’t to beat the old guy to death. I’d wanted to make it look like a suicide. My plan was to knock him out, put him in his car, start it up, and let the carbon monoxide do what any sixth-grade science textbook tells you it will.

But the problem with plans, like some famous general once said — Patton, maybe? — is the enemy gets a vote, too. And that son of a bitch definitely exercised his veto. The plan ended at his workbench.

My kung-fu knockout hold wasn’t doing a damn thing. He was a stringy little bastard, but a lot stronger than he looked. He grabbed a hacksaw, but I trumped it with a ball peen hammer. My first shot put him down, and then it was just carpentry. Raise, swing, repeat.

The side of his head was softest, so I focused on that. He didn’t scream or beg. Tough old dude. He eventually stopped moving, but by that point I had a rhythm going. Raise, swing, repeat. I have no idea how many times I hit him. Until I got tired.

Somebody else, not Patton, said if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Well, that guy didn’t. He looked like a cat I’d once had that got squashed by a car. Except the cat didn’t have broken dentures hanging out of his mouth.

I struggled to my feet, breathing hard. My shoulder hurt like hell. I leaned on his car, careful not to touch it with my hands, and stayed like that until I got my wind back.

There was blood on my sport coat, so I took it off and folded it. I thought about taking the hammer with me, but in the end I just wiped off the handle and dropped it. Let the cops decide it was a burglary gone wrong or something. It didn’t matter. I’d never be suspected. I had no motive.

On the way out, I looked at his Bible-thumper bumper sticker again. I remembered it from that day last spring, when the prick wouldn’t let me merge into his lane at some road construction. Didn’t even glance over. No apologetic wave. Nothing. Well, say hi to Jesus for me, asshole. I laughed, and all the tension poured out. This guy was a toughie, the roughest one yet, but well worth the wait. He who can have patience can have what he will. Ben Franklin said that. That one, I remember.

I walked down his driveway to the street, coat over my arm and tie loosened. Casual and easy. It didn’t matter. None of his neighbors were outside. I got in my rental car and cruised away.

I used to have bad road rage. Really bad. I knew it would get me in trouble some day, so I came up with a solution. Whenever it happened, when I got cut off or tailgated or stuck behind some clown doing thirty in the fast lane, I would just write down their license plate. That’s it. No horn, no finger, no screaming out the window. Nothing.

Then, a few months later, I’d drive over to some small town, call 911 from a disposable cellphone, and tell them about a car weaving and speeding. Guy’s probably drunk, I’d say, and give them the plate number. The dispatcher would look it up in their computer and tell the cops out in their cruisers what to look for. He’d give them the make, model, color, owner’s name, and address. And my police scanner would hear it all. Expensive, but so worth it.

And then I’d wait a little more. I’d have patience. A lot of times, I’d even let it slide. But for the ones I didn’t choose to forgive, six months or so later, I’d knock on their door with my phony badge. It always worked. He was number four.

A few miles away, a Mini Cooper blew through a stop sign and made me jam on my brakes. The driver was on her phone. She gave me that little wave that’s half I’m sorry and half fuck you. I waved right back. No problem.

Her license plate was HOT CH1K. I didn’t even have to write that one down.

#

Sean McCluskey lives alone in a woodlands cabin in upstate New York where he hammers away at a laptop trying to be his generation’s Lawrence Block and/or Lee Child. The fact that his generation already has both Block and Child will hopefully not present an insurmountable impediment.

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