Friday, January 23, 2009

Book Plugging Time Again

[From the novel Fire and Rain by H. A. Covington]

Chapter III.

On the first day of October the summer heat finally broke for a bit, and autumn arrived. The leaves along Franklin Street were perceptibly turning color now. Matt was wearing a light windbreaker as he crossed the parking lot at University Mall to the Kerr Drugs.

It was his first day off on his long leave. He had spent the day in his Carrboro apartment going over the entire SBI case file yet again, from beginning to end. He cleared off the one full-sized table he owned, broke the files down and laid them out in separate stacks: medical reports, witness interviews, agent reports, crime scene photos and inventories, newspaper clippings, and a large stack he designated “the MacDonald mess”, documents dealing with SBI attempts to determine what linkage if any there was with the Jeffrey MacDonald murders in Fort Bragg on February 16th, 1970. Matt was completely convinced that the whole MacDonald thing was a dead end, and he was eager to leap right in to doing legwork, but he knew that his first task, however reluctantly, was to go over the MacDonald stack and make 100% sure it was a dead end. Something might leap out at him which would knock his theories into a cocked hat. It wouldn’t take him long. He already knew the whole huge file by heart.

By six o’clock the rush hour had died down and Matt decided to run down to the mall and get a few things, as well as stop by his tobacconist and stock up on cigars and pipe tobacco. The guys at the bureau had taken up a collection on his first birthday with the SBI and had bought him a sardonic but pleasant gift: a big Sherlock Holmes-style clay meerschaum pipe. Matt made sure he never lit it up in the bureau’s designated smoking area, i.e. the public sidewalk, but he found that smoking the monster at home genuinely did relax his body and concentrate his mind. This was definitely going to be a three-pipe problem. Daylight savings time was still in effect, so it was light outside. The air was crisp and bracing in the parking lot and downright chilly inside, because the mall air conditioning was still on. Matt spent about twenty minutes buying and batting the breeze with Derek Bentley, the seedy little Englishman who owned the Up In Smoke Shop, while Bentley mixed up a pound of Matt’s personal blend. Matt needed a few toiletry items as well, and he stepped into Kerr Drugs and picked up a basket. “Hey, Maggie,” he said with a cheerful nod to the full-figured black woman who managed the store, a casual acquaintance.

She beckoned him over and whispered to him, “Mr. Redmond, could you stick around for a a bit? There’s a gentlemen down on aisle five who’s putting merchandise in his pockets. I can’t say or do anything until he actually leaves the premises without paying, that’s our procedure, but to tell you the truth I’m a bit scared to approach him. I know you’re SBI and not a Chapel Hill cop, but...”

“I can apprehend someone committing a crime if I see him doing it, anywhere in the state of North Carolina. Do you think he may be armed?” asked Matt, quietly turning his head to try and catch a glimpse of the shoplifter. All he could see was the tangled, uncombed back of the man’s head.

“No, I don’t think so, but I know he’s crazy,” said the woman worriedly. “I seen him around the mall a lot. He’s always talking to himself, and he looks really spacey. I think he may be on drugs. He’s not a homeless person or a trashy type, he’s always well dressed, but he don’t bathe regular and sometimes it’s pretty intense getting downwind of him. He obviously ain’t right in the head. I don’t know why security don’t ban him from the mall. He scares people.”

“Wait here, and stick this behind the counter for me,” said Matt, handing him his bag from Up In Smoke. Matt eased down the aisles and peeped around the corner. The man was over six feet tall and looked late thirtyish, with a pasty pale complexion and unkempt brown hair that fell down over his collar. He was studying the paperback book rack, mumbling to himself, oblivious to everyone and everything else. Abruptly he reached out, took a book, and stuck it into the pocket of his expensive sport coat. Both pockets swung and bulged from whatever he had stuffed into them. Matt grinned and withdrew.

Back at the counter he said, “Yes, you’re right. He’s crazy as a loon and he’s probably on drugs, prescription medication to keep him from collapsing into a dangerously violent schizophrenic state and going berserk with a chain saw or something equally spectacular. You were smart not to approach him on your own. He hasn’t done anything really bad since he was young, at least not that I know of, but there have been a whole series of assaults, petty thefts and destruction and a couple of unexplained small fires. The potential is always there for him to lose control. He shouldn’t be at large in society, he should be in an institution, but his father is one of the wealthiest men in the South and unless this fine young cannibal freaks out someday and just plain kills somebody, he’ll never see the inside of Dorothea Dix. I might add that he is also the darling of the Chapel Hill artsy-craftsy touchy-feely New Age set, a brilliant pianist who gives regular recitals around the country, and a composer of no little talent who had his first symphony performed at the age of 15. I’ve often wondered how that high-toned crowd he hangs with deal with his occasional outbursts of hysteria and random violence."

“You know him?” asked Maggie in surprise.

“Oh, yes, I know him. He knows me, too, and if we’re going to catch him out he mustn’t see me. I’m going to stand over here by the paper racks with a newspaper in front of my face like I’m reading it. I can watch him in the overhead mirrors. If he leaves without paying for all that stuff in his pockets, I’ll follow him out and bust his stinky ass while you call 911.” The subterfuge with the newspaper wasn’t even necessary. The man didn’t go through the checkout line at all, he simply shuffled out the far door into the parking lot. “That’s it,” called Matt as he headed out the door. “Make that call, Maggie.”

Matt caught up with the tall, shambling figure at the first row of cars. He gripped the suspect’s arm like a steel vise, and the man’s face went slack with astonishment.

"You!" gasped the thief.

"Excuse me, sir, I am an SBI agent and I have reason to believe that you have removed merchandise from the drug store without paying for it," said Matt formally. “Accordingly I am going to search you. Put your hands on the trunk of this car, feet back and spread them...”

Motherfucker! Swine! Son of a bitch!” screamed the man, eyes rolling, spittle flying from his mouth, his face twisting in sudden lunatic rage. “Bastard! I’ll kill you!” Matt expected a wild punch and braced to block it and retaliate with a knockout blow, but instead the suspect snarled like a beast and literally went for his throat, grabbing the back of Matt’s head and pulling his face forward, his jaws open to bite and tear at Matt’s jugular vein with his teeth.

“Jesus shit!” cursed Matt, shooting out one hand to push the madman away and giving him a sharp knee intended for the groin, but his opponent had twisted around so the knee only caught the meaty part of his thigh. The shoplifter staggered back and flailed his fist in an enraged punch which Matt blocked easily, sinking his own fist into the man’s belly once, then twice, then a right to the mouth which sent him to his knees, then another right, then another, as Matt completely lost his temper and hammered the swaying thief’s face. He collapsed on to sidewalk and Matt kicked him in the ribs. “You goddamned fruitcake!” he breathed. “Not so easy picking on a full grown man as it is to torture cats and guinea pigs to death, is it? Not so easy as beating up a twelve year old girl and buttfucking her, is it?”

“You’re the crazy one,” said the broken thief on the ground. “You tell lies. You tell lies about Mama and Daddy. You’re hateful and evil. You try to get money from Daddy by extortion and threats. You deserted your wife and your children and left them starving with no money at all.” He tried to get up, his face dripping blood in gobbets. Matt launched another kick.

Stay down!” he yelled. “You say one more word and by God I’ll kick every tooth in your head out! You yellow, contemptible piece of trash!” He reached down into the man’s pockets and pulled out the paperback book, a Barbara Cartland romance of all things, along with several women’s cosmetic items, a plastic bottle of STP gas treatment, a small china figurine of some generic European peasant girl, four Zodiac key rings, a pack of four AA batteries, a child’s school pencil sharpener, a packet of peanuts, and a UNC Tar Heels swizzle stick. “What is this shit, Sid?” demanded Matt angrily. “This is trash! Why are you stealing trash?” He pulled out Sid’s wallet from his pocket and opened it, finding six $100 bills and a thick wad of tens and twenties. “You’re walking around here with more than I clear in a single paycheck, and you’re stealing stupid little crappy things like this? Sid, do you understand that this is crazy? Do you understand that you are crazy? Do you understand that you are deeply sick in your mind and you need real help in a real mental institution, not those asshole tame shrinks over at Duke that Daddy pays two hundred bucks an hour just to keep you doped up and ambulatory? When in God’s name will you understand that Daddy is not your friend? That he does not want to help you? That he wants you to be like this forever?”

“You’re a liar and a murderer. You murdered those men in Mexico even though you knew they were innocent. You murdered a Mexican woman, too.”

“Shit!” howled Matt in rage and frustration, in his fury kicking Sid in the side yet again. Sid fell to the pavement and began to weep like a child. A small crowd had gathered, but no one intervened, all of them awestruck at Matt’s fearsome rage. “Far out, man!” came a voice from among the spectators.

“That’s enough!” came a sharp voice of command. Matt looked up and saw a tall, muscular young black man in uniform getting out of a Chapel Hill police cruiser which had pulled up behind him. “What’s going on here? Oh, hi, Matt. This our shoplifter? Man, you really worked him over, didn’t you?”

“Hi, Jamal,” said Matt wearily. He pointed to the incongruous collection of bric-a-brac on the ground. “That’s what crybaby here was stealing. Crap. He’s not a thief, really, he’s a klepto, among other things. He won’t get help, real help from somebody who wants to straighten him out.” The Chapel Hill cop drew Matt over to the police cruiser.

“Uh, Matt, I saw that last kick as I was pulling up, and no way was it called for,” he said in a worried tone. “We may lose this one on excessive force. That’s not like you, man. What’s the situation here? You know this guy? What’s his name?”

“Sid Redmond,” said Matt with a sigh. “He’s my brother. We both inherited the same asshole gene from our father, but he can’t seem to keep his under control like I can. Usually I can, anyway. I’m sorry if this gets tossed on excessive, but believe me, that kick was called for. He’s had it coming for a long, long time.”


Anonymous Mark Wells said...

I always liked that one. One of your first, wasn't it?

2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personally consider F & R your best book besides the Northwest quartet.

11:34 PM  
Anonymous Joe Michaels said...

That was a great book, Harold.

8:40 AM  

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