To cross the final frontier

“Doctor Sanchez….Doctor Sanchez, can you hear me?”

Why the hell is it that every public address system ever made produces that tinny, ready-to -squeal-in-feedback, ear-grating audio….how did they get all of them to sound like that?

I stop entering commands and key the mic.

“Yes, I hear you, but I’m busy. Do you think you could give me a few minutes?”

I hope the reply will buy some time, but no such luck.

“I’m afraid not, you have all the entrances to the control chamber sealed, and the safety systems on the ring are disabled. Could you please explain what you’re doing, and why you want to keep everyone else out of the room?”

I recognize the voice now. It’s Don Linster, the self-important twit who manages operations of the Superconducting Super Collider.

“Well, Don, I’m getting ready to make an experimental run, and if you can let me finish the coding, I’ll be able to start the run. Who knows, I might even get some science done…you know, the reason why we have all these neat toys.”

Linster might hold a PhD in particle physics, but I know he hasn’t done any research since he got his degree. I also know he hates to be reminded of that fact. Even with the crappy audio, I can hear the edge of irritation on his voice.

“Yes, Dr. Sanchez, I know what the SSC was built for. I also know that you haven’t submitted a proposal for time to do any runs. It is also very unusual for a researcher to make a data run without any assistance. So I’ll ask you again: What are you doing?”

Ah, fuck it. May as well tell them…it’s not like they can do anything at this point.

“Okay, Don, then I’m planning on gathering data to solve the problem we’ve been having with the most recent runs.”

“What do you mean, ‘solve’? We’ve been getting nothing but garbage out of the latest high-energy collisions. No clear particle tracks, and no definable cause for the lack of results. There’s some sort of problem with the sensor package or the data collection software. We’re going to have to take the ring down and run diagnostic tests on everything.”

I start keying in the command string I’d been working on. Even typing one-handed, I can get the software ready to run while I keep my moron of a boss busy.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Don. There’s nothing wrong with the sensor package, or with the data collection software. We’ve been getting data, we just didn’t recognize it.”

That caught him off-guard, because the pause is obvious. Probably asking some of the real scientists what I’m talking about. The speaker squawks again, but this time, the voice is different. It’s Amber Strong, my associate and one of the few physicists who might understand what I’ve found.

“Paul, what are you talking about? We’ve both been over that data, and all there is in the output is a cloud of random tracks. Nothing that makes any sense, nothing that even looks like it might relate to the sub-quantum particles we’ve been trying to find.”

“Hi Amber…yeah, well, neither of us knew what we were looking at, that’s why we couldn’t make any sense of the data. We weren’t seeing our results…well, we were, but we were also seeing the results of a bunch of other collisions as well.”

“What? How is that…”

“Amber, you remember what we were searching for? Evidence of the particles that make up what we think of as the basic quantum building blocks? Well, we found it! Our collisions were energetic enough to not only produce decay particles, they caused tiny openings in the quantum barrier!”

There was another pause, and I knew this time it wasn’t because some idiot couldn’t understand what I was talking about, but because a kindred mind was struggling to grasp the implication of what I’d just said. I go back to typing with both hands while I wait for a reply…just a few more lines. Give me the time, Amber, give me the time!

The speaker actually squeals this time, Amber now speaking far too close to the mic on her end. “Paul, that’s an interesting idea, but are you sure? Are you sure it’s not just a data collection error, or some sort of scrambled data set caused by a software error?”

I finish the line of code I’m typing in, leaving me only two more to enter before the program is ready to run. I grab the mic, wanting to share my discover with my colleague and also to keep anyone from interfering.

“Yes, I’m positive. I couldn’t understand it at first, but then one night I was looking at the data and I realized that what I was seeing were a series of identical tracks that are slightly out of phase, and that some of them were identical but arriving at the detector at slightly different times. What we saw was the mess that popped up on our display. Do you understand what I’m driving at, Amber?”

Another pause, and I attack the keyboard again. I’m reaching to hit “Return” to execute the program when Amber’s voice interrupts me.

“I understand what you think you saw, but why would the signals present like that? Why would they be out of phase…and why would they be arriving at our detector at a slightly different times?”

“Amber, you’re not a desk-riding fool like Don, think about it! On the quantum level, no two rings will be the same! Those subtle differences will cause a phase shift in the beam, and that shift will be reflected in the particles those other rings produced. As for the time difference…I ran a spectrum analysis and found that the signal’s the same, it’s just coming from a collider somewhere else in the world! There are at least a twenty other rings that I can find. Over half of them are right here, but the rest are scattered all over the world. A couple of them are located in the USSR, at least one is in China, and the rest of them are scattered all over Europe. Hell, one of them seems to have been built in Switzerland, if you can believe that!”

Amber was always quick on the uptake, and she caught the implications at once. “Yes! I see why you’re convinced of you conclusion. But how can you prove it? Is that why you want to make another data run?”

It’ll take at least ten minutes to charge up all the capacitor banks so I can fire the beam. And I need to keep them from over-riding the start sequence. Better keep her talking. I hit “Return”, and the screen displays the charge timer. It begins to count down, and I grab the mic for what I hope will be the final time.

“No, I’m not going to use this run to prove my theory, I’ve already done that! After I realized what I was seeing, I made another run, but I made a change to the software that controls the current to the ring magnets. I figured that if I could vary the strength of the current, I could cause the intensity of the beam to vary…in short, I could generate an old-fashioned AM signal. All I had to do was figure out what I wanted to modulate the beam with.”

The control computer flashed a message showing an attempt by an external source to access it. I type in the command to block the attempt and isolate the machine from outside input. Now, they’ll have to literally short out the capacitor banks to stop them from charging.

Amber cut in while I was stopped to type. “Yes, but you’d have to modulate it with something clearly artificial, something that couldn’t possibly be a random noise. Did you use your own voice?”

“I thought about it, but the collision only takes place for a few seconds, so how much could I say? And how could I be sure any other versions of me doing the same experiment wouldn’t think it was just more random noise? No, I had to use a signal that would be short, yet stand out. So I chose music…in my case, the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

“Why do you say ‘the other versions of you’, Paul? You can’t know who’s running those experiments.”

“Know for sure…maybe not, but when I made the run, over a third of the signals I saw had picked the same four notes. Another third didn’t have a signal riding on the beam, which I’m guessing means those versions of me didn’t figure out what’s going on yet. But of the rest, I recognized every piece of music picked, from the opening guitar riff for “Johnny Be Good” to the bagpipe solo at the beginning of “Amazing Grace” I love. One or two that I knew would be a possible coincidence, but all of them? No, it’s another version of me out there in the multi-verse conducting the exact same experiment.”

Another warning blinked on the screen, this one indicating that the gate on the capacitor cage had been opened.

“By the way, Amber, I’m getting indications that someone’s in the capacitor cage. I don’t think you’re stupid enough to send someone in there, but you might want to remind Don that if those things are shorted, odds are that they’ll either catch fire…or they could just explode. Either way, whoever is in there is going to get hurt, maybe even killed.”

Silence, and I glance at the screen. The charge count-down is now under five minutes, and as I watch, the alarm on the capacitor cage goes out, indicating that the cage is closed again. No more chances that the run can be stopped now, barring someone breaking down the door and storming into the control room. The speaker comes to life, and Don’s annoyed voice is loud enough to set it squealing with feedback, rendering whatever he’d shouted into the mic unintelligible. He pauses, probably to take a breath so he can shout some more, but he doesn’t get the chance. Amber’s voice is the next out out of the speaker.

“Thanks, Paul. Harry Chin was in there, getting ready to try to short the bank out. Director Linster had ordered him to try, and I’ve asked Security to restrain the director in their office so he can’t put anyone else in danger. So….you said you had evidence that these other signals were from parallel universes. Good, but if that’s the case, why are you making another data run?”

It takes me a minute to finish geting my hand into the pressure suit, but Amber seems willing to wait, so I don’t rush. The less time she has to stop me, the better.

“Oh, I’m not going to make another data run, I’m going to test my theory in person.”

“Ummm, Paul you can’t test your theory…wait…you can’t be serious! Paul, if you do that, you’ll…die.

I’d been pulling on the helmet, and I gave ring seal a twist to engage it before check the face plate. Satisfied, I answer. “I know that, Amber. But it’s not like I’m losing a lot. Do you know why I’m willing to do this?”

“Paul, I can’t imagine why…”

“I’m willing to do it, Amber, because I have nothing. I’m three years from being forced int retirement, and I have nobody at hone, or anywhere else, to share my last years with. And that’s why I’m willing to try this. Because if there are other versions of me out there, at least one of them has to have found someone to love. So I’m going into the target chamber, and I’m going to put my head in target area, in hopes that in the instant between the time the collision opens the gateway and the time the radiation kills me, I’m hoping to experience something of those other lives. It might be just an instant, but if I can experience that happiness, if I can know, if only for a heartbeat, what it’s like to be loved…it’ll be worth it.”

There was silence again, and when Amber spoke again, I could hear her sobbing as she spoke. “Paul…I don’t know what to say. Don’t…you can’t think like that, you can’t think your life will be over once you’re retired. You’ve just made a discovery that will earn you a Nobel nomination, if not the prize itself! Don’t you want to be there to collect it, to make people like Don eat their words?”

I smile at the speaker, wishing Amber could see it. “You’re a sweet kid, Amber, but even if I did win the prize, what good will it do to an old man? No university is going to hire me, even with that sort of award behind my name? No, I sent out my preliminary paper this morning to “Physics Reports”, and I listed you as co-author. You’ve done more than anyone else here to help me with this, and you’re young enough to benefit from the boost a Nobel will give you. My data’s in your inbox. You’re smart enough to crunch it and draw up the underlying theories. So do it…and be happy. Goodbye.”

The charge timer is down to one minute. I close the visor, turn the oxygen tank on, and let myself into the airlock that opens into the accelerator ring and the test chamber. I know Amber, and I know she’ll try to stop me. I look at the entrance as I close the inner airlock door. The file cabinets I’d moved in front of it would slow them down long enough for the beam to fire, and for me to carry out my final experiment.

Would it work? I close the door. Work or not, it will be over soon.

A winter’s day

Kevin Smith drew in a breath of air so cold it burned his lungs and pivoted his hips, driving the shovel into the accumulation of powdery snow covering his back walk. The standing temperature hovered somewhere between ‘too damned cold’ and ‘freeze your balls off in an instant’, but he was glad the air was that cold. He’d been born in Carswell’s Corner, and knew that if the ‘Alberta Clippers’ that had moved through overnight hadn’t generated the snow, it would have been ‘heart attack’ snow. It took something approaching hurricane-force winds to cause that stuff to blow, but once it had landed, getting it to move took serious effort. Shoveling it was something anyone with sense dreaded. A scoop of that dense white crap the size of the ones Kevin was now slinging out of the way with ease could task even him.

Another scoop flew, and Kevin stopped to survey his progress. He was just over halfway down the walk, but the real task had yet to be addressed: digging out around the his car and his wife’s SUV, then clearing the short lane from the family parking space to the alley. He could see the alley beyond the vehicles, still unplowed and as free of tire tracks as if it where a country field.

The scraping rattle of a snowplow drew his attention. Could the city street department be coming to take care of the street out front, or even the alley? He focused on the sound, listened closer, and shook his head. No, the city was doing what it always did after a snow storm of any magnitude, it was plowing the streets on the ‘right side of the tracks’ first.

Carswell’s Corner had once been a hub of manufacturing. It had been founded as a place farmers all over southwestern Iowa could bring their harvests. Small manufactures followed, and those had grown to be large companies. All those goods, needed access to the rest of America, so one of the railroad had stretched out a tentacle of steel to proved that service. When the manufactures had gone bust in the Great Depression, the rail line had stayed, but the harvest wasn’t enough to keep it in town forever. Before Kevin was born, the railroad had abandoned the line. He still had memories of it from his childhood, but those memories were of rusted rails standing on rotting ties set in a weed-choked right-of-way. A scrape company had eventually bought the line, tearing it up and hauling away anything of value when Kevin was in junior high.On the East, or ‘right’ side of the old right-of-way was where the ‘leaders’ of the town lived. These were the oldest families in Carswell’s Corner.

Kevin dropped the shovel to the sidewalk and took another scoop as he reflected on how his town worked. What was left of downtown Carswell’s Corner was also located East of the old tracks, but the town’s few bars were located West of the former rail line. West of the tracks was also where the old manufactures had stood, and where the people who worked in those plants had dwelt. Their descendants still lived there, and like their ancestors, they too got the short end of the proverbial stick when it came to city services.

The city still owned the power lines that ran through town, and as surely as the Sun would rise in the morning, after one of the thunderstorms that routinely rolled across town, the first places to get power restored would be East of the tracks. Streets on the ‘right’ side of town were repaired and resurfaced far more regularly than those on the other side too. Everyone living West of the tracks complained about these and a thousand other slights done to them, but to little effect. The town council was voted in ‘at large’, with no real requirement that they represent a particular part of town. So, with the generous backing of the ‘leading families’, the city council served as a rubber stamp to whatever those influential people wanted.

Kevin stopped again as the rattling scrape of the snow plow grew in volume. Turning, he saw the orange hazard lights of a plow strobing off the snow-covered limbs of the trees across the street from his house, then caught a glimpse of the plow itself as it rumbled past.

“About fuckin’ time you assholes showed up!” Kevin muttered as he turned back to his own snow removal. The big plows like the one that had just passed couldn’t navigate the narrow allies so common in his neighborhood, so he’d still be fighting his way through any drifts that might have formed overnight. But at least once he got to the road, it should be just another slick, messy drive to work at the Big Box.

It took Kevin almost an hour to get all the shoveling done, and before he left, he poured himself a final mug of coffee in the hope that it would warm him after the frigid temperatures outside. Hannah, his wife, was up, and she moved to give him a peck on the cheek which he turned into a proper kiss by putting an arm around her waist. That moment of shared intimacy helped warm him more than any coffee ever would. When their lips parted, his wife asked the one question any practical inhabitant of the Midwest would ask on a day like today.

“You think that cars will start?”

“Yeah, it’s cold, but nothing special. Unless your Jeep’s been having trouble turning over, it should start fine.”

“No, it’s been starting without any problems, I was just worried about your car.”

Kevin drove the family ‘hand-me-down’ car, an old four-door sedan that had hauled his family everywhere. With the boys away at college, and their daughter in the Army, there was no need for such a large car. His wife, who worked at the state college the next town over, had a real need for something that could handle winter roads. That’s why she had the newer Jeep while he made do with a car that had seen better days.

“Oh, I’m not worried about that old monster! I think the air would have to freeze solid before that thing refused to start.”

His wife cocked her head to one side as she looked at him, a clear indication that she wasn’t as confident as he was, but said nothing. He smiled at her, gave her a quick kiss on the lips, and letting her go, stepped back.

“We both need to get around, so I better get my lunch packed and get on my way.”

Kevin moved to the fridge, pulled out the covered plastic dish of leftover rigatoni from the night before, and retrieved his lunch cooler. A fork from the kitchen drawer and a cooled block from the big upright freezer in the corner finished joined the dish, completing his preparations to leave. Hannah was busy spreading butter on her toast, so Kevin didn’t interrupt her.

“See you tonight.”

“Yeah, you too. Take care.”
“This from the woman who’s got twenty miles of two-lane roads to drive! You be careful…love you.”

“Love you too.”

After the time spent in the house, the air seemed even colder than it had while Kevin had been shoveling. In typical fashion, the lock on the car door was stiff, and it was a struggle to get the key to turn. The interior of the car, which had soaked in the chill from the air around it all night long, felt even worse. He shoved the key into the ignition, stepped down hard on the gas peddle, and muttered his usual prayer before trying the car on a day like today.

“God, please let this pile of junk start.”

The starter groaned, then began to spin the engine over. There was a loud ‘chug’ as the engine tried to start, another period of relative silence as the starter cranked away, then the engine coughed, sputtered, and began firing regularly. Kevin gave the steering wheel an affectionate pat. “Thanks, old son. I should have known I could count on you.” he muttered to the car, happy to have it respond when he needed it to.

After letting the engine warm up enough to settle into a steady idle, Kevin flipped on the headlights and slipped the car into reverse. The headlights showed no tracks beyond a few animal tracks, probably made by one of th feral cats that haunted the neighborhood. He eased the car into drive and turned the defroster on. He knew the air it blew would be just as cold as the air outside, but it would serve to keep the air near the front windshield moving and (hopefully) keep the moisture from his own fogging the view too badly.

Near the end of the alley, Kevin saw the only sign that another human was up and about in the pre-dawn darkness: a pair of broad tire tracks leading out of Bill Carstairs’ garage. Bill liked to describe himself as a ‘redneck’ because he drove his huge pickup with dual rear wheels. He too worked at the college, but his job in the ground department meant he was probably already hard at work clearing sidewalks and parking lots for the students. It was a good thing he’d already left, because while the city plows had scraped the snow off the road, that snow had been left behind in a broad mound across the entrance to the alley. Even with Bill’s passage, Kevin had to speed up as he exited the alley to be sure he didn’t get stuck.

The road was worse than Kevin had imagined it would be. The new snow had mostly been moved off the pavement, but the slush that had been on the road since shortly after the first snowfall was still there. Unfortunately, the sub-zero temperatures had frozen it solid, and all the snowplow had done was to smooth off the rough surface it should have had. Kevin hit the first patch, and found the car slipping and attempting to fishtail.

“Steady, old son, steady. Don’t go trying to pass yourself.” Kevin whispered as he got the car under control. A light coming up a side street ahead brought his attention back to the world outside. As he watched, a car came to a ‘rolling’ stop at the stop sign, then pulled out onto the road in front of him going the same way.

Well, it tried to pull out. Whoever was driving it tried to accelerate too quickly, hit a slick spot, and as Kevin watched, the car executed a quick, complete spin before slamming into the snow berm along the roadside.

“Holy shit!” Kevin swore as he slowed down to come to a stop beside the car. He saw that both front wheels had been lifted as the snow had compacted under the front bumper, leaving neither of them in contact with the pavement. As he watched, the visible wheel spun, and he heard the engine gun as the driver tried to back out of his predicament. Kevin put on his emergency flashers and climbed out of his car to see if he could help.

Coming around his car, Kevin got his first really good look at the trapped vehicle. It was an Audi, an A6 no less, and either a new one, or nearly so. What the hell is a car like that doing around here? He wondered as he approached the drivers side window. It came down, and Kevin was surprised to recognize the man behind the wheel. It was Nick Patterson, oldest son of the Patterson family and his former high school classmate. The Patterson’s were as close to a founding family a town like Carswell’s Corner could have, and they had the money to prove it. Nick had also had the attitude to prove it. He’d been one of the ‘jock’ crowd that made sure everyone knew they ruled the school, and Kevin had gotten on his bad side more than once. Now, though, Nick aimed his friendliest smile at Kevin.

“Kevin Smith, is that you? Man, I’m glad to see a familiar face! Can you give me hand? I hit a slick spot and the car got away from me. I need to get going…got places I’ve got to go…”

Maybe Nick wasn’t as dense as Kevin had believed him to be, because he slowly stopped talking as he saw Kevin’s face split into a grin that had nothing to do with friendship. Kevin pulled his cellphone out, opened it, and dialed. Nick might have been smart enough to know Kevin wasn’t going to respond a friendly approach, but he wasn’t smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

“Umm, Kevin, who you calling? I just need someone to get out in front of my car and give it a shove, help me get it out of this snow.”

“Well, Nick, I’m calling for some help. I’m calling the police to report that I saw a man driving recklessly run his car into a snow bank. You can be sure they’ll come down here and give you all the help you need. I mean we can’t have a car obstructing traffic or the snow plows if they decide to come back now, can we?”

“Hey, wait a minute! I wasn’t driving recklessly, I just…”

“Nick, you need to learn to shut you mouth. I saw everything you did from two blocks down. Hell, you didn’t even stop for the stop sign, then you come barreling out of a side street like you were racing…by the way, why were you coming out of a side street, in this part of town, at this time of the morning?”

“I’s none of your business, but I was just down here to see an old friend!”

Kevin hadn’t tapped the phone yet to make the call, but he did now as he addressed his old nemesis. “Yeah, Nick, and who are you going to see at 4:30 in the morning?” A thought occurred to Kevin. “Wait….Lori Leleki still lives down here, doesn’t she? Are you still hitting that? Shit, I heard you and the rest of the football team passed her around like a sex toy. I can’t imagine your wife’s going to be happy to find out you’re still screwing the biggest slut in Carswell’s Corner. Is that why you don’t want me to call the cops?”

Nick wasn’t smiling now. His face had first gone pale, then blotched an unhealthy reddish purple. Now he screamed his anger at Kevin. “Don’t you even think about calling the cops, you little son of a bitch! I’ll bury you, you hear me, I will bury you!”

Kevin put his phone to his ear, heard someone on the other end, and spoke to them. “Yes, officer, I’d like to report a traffic accident I witnessed. A driver ran a stop sign, lost control of his car trying to make a turn, and he’s now stuck alongside the road.”

“Where are you located at, sir?”

“Let me see…I’m located on the 1200 block of North Sixth, north side of the road, about two houses down from the corner of Sixth and Oak. Can you tell whomever you send to hurry, the driver is threatening me for stopping to report that accident and I’m afraid he might decide to follow through on those threats.”

“Sir, if you could get in your car and lock the doors, a car should be there shortly. Don’t get into a confrontation if you can avoid it.”

Nick, who had been listening to the exchange, decided that this was the perfect moment to prove his stupidity. “I told you, damn it, not to call the fucking cops! I’m going to get out of this car and beat the shit out of you!”

“Did you hear that officer? I’ll get in my car now, but could you tell the officer responding that this guy is acting like he’s high or something…seriously, this guy is acting like he’s on PCP or something.”

“I heard it, sir, and I recorded it too. Now, get in your car, one of our officers should be there in less than a minute.”

“Thanks, and tell the responding officer I’m be the person in the car with the emergency flashers on. I don’t want to be confused with the really dangerous person, after all.”

“Yes sir, and thanks for being a responsible citizen.”

Kevin fought to keep from laughing as he replied. “No problem, sir, no problem at all. I’m just glad I could help put someone truly dangerous behind bars.”

Interests

“…and the next order of business is the special financial district agreement with Big Box.”

That caught my attention. I scanned the agenda for the meeting again, just to make sure my memory was right. I was…there was no mention of the agreement in it.

“Excuse me, but why is this agreement even being discussed? There’s no mention of it in the agenda.”

The city council secretary, who had opened his mouth to read whatever was in front of him now directed his attention at me.

“The item is on the agenda. It is clearly listed as…”

“But is isn’t on the agenda. I have a copy of the ‘official’ agenda, the agenda published in the town newspaper, the ‘Carswell’s Corner Gazette’. That is where the ‘official’ agenda is supposed to be published, at least that how I understand the city council’s open government rules.”

That seemed to catch the secretary off balance. “Well…we submitted the council meeting agenda to the paper. It’s not the city government’s fault that a clerical error occurred at the paper.”

“A ‘clerical error’? Is that the excuse the council will use to brush this under the rug? Besides, as I understand the rules, it makes no difference whether the paper gets the agenda right, only those items published in the paper can legally be voted on by…”

I didn’t get a chance to finish my sentence. The town mayor, who had tensed up at my first question, picked up his gavel and hammered the block in front of him hard enough that I could see it rattling around on the rostrum.

“You, sir, are out of order! The council meeting rules also clearly state that public comments are to be made at the beginning of the meeting, not in the middle of it. Now, this meeting will continue.”

“I’m sorry, your honor, but you can’t do that. This isn’t a ‘public comment’, it’s a citizen pointing out that the city council is about to violate it’s own rules! The council can not…”

The mayor’s facial color went from a bad indoor tan to something approaching a beet red as he hammered his gavel again. “I said you are out of order, sir! Now you will sit down, or I will order you removed from the council chambers! Is that clear?”

I stood my ground. “You can rule me purple with pink polka-dots, mayor, but you can’t just pretend that the council is not breaking it’s own rules. What’s the hurry? There’s no way a delay of two weeks, until the next council meeting, is going to cause Big Box to drop their plans to built a ‘super-center’…or is it that if the council votes on the agreement now, there’s no chance for anyone to express their opposition?”

“How dare you suggest that this council is engaging in an illegal act, sir, how dare you?” The mayor’s color was now approaching purple, and between that and the hoarse shout he delivered his reply in, I was wondering if he was might keel over from a stroke. But he didn’t. After taking a breath, he continued in something like a normal voice. “As the secretary has already said, the council is not responsible for clerical errors made by the newspaper. The agreement is on the official agenda, the one before each council member, and unless there are any objections from the members of the council…” he stopped and glared at the other members of the council. None of them was willing to meet that scowling visage, nor to speak up. Silence ruling, he continued. “…this council will vote on the agreement. Does any member wish to discuss the agreement?”

Another moment of silence, one or two of the members looking uncomfortable, but none of them were willing to object. The procedural niceties having been dealt with, the mayor continued.

“There being no discussion, and no objections from the council, I move that the agreement be put to a vote.”

“I object again! You can’t…”

One of the advantages of being a council member, or the mayor, was the public address system only picked up what they said. The mayor just spoke over me.

“Is there a second?”

Sam Reggis, a long-time council member and an old crony of the mayor, spoke as soon as the mayor had finished his sentence.

“Seconded, and I move for an immediate vote.”

“This is outrageous! The details of the agreement haven’t even been released to the public! How can this council, in good conscious, vote on an agreement that the citizens of this town haven’t had a chance to have their input on?”

Nobody on the council seemed to hear. Each one, in turn, voted in favor of the agreement. When the last puppet had raised their hand and indicated their acceptance, the mayor gaveled again, a smile on his face.

“The vote being unanimous in favor, the agreement is approved. The secretary will read the next order of business.”

And so the city council of Carswell’s Corner voted to give a multi-billion dollar corporation a tax break …and to spend taxpayer money to build a new road to service the new store…and to fully fund the extension of water and sewer lines to the new business at the taxpayer’s expense. No one was really surprised, any more than they were surprised to learn that the company that had sold the land to Big Box for the store was the same company that had sold the school district the land for the new grade school. It was just business-as-usual in Carswell’s Corner.

Accidents

Rolling up to the scene of the accident, I was sure we’d be doing nothing more than hauling a body away.

Have you ever heard that phrase “wrapped around a telephone pole”? That’s what I saw. How it happened, I couldn’t guess, but a delivery truck had missed it’s turn at an intersection, had missed it going the wrong way, and had slammed into the steel upright holding the traffic signal. Rather than sheering off as it should have, the upright had remained steadfast and the delivery truck had folded. Now, the body forward of the front doors was folded around the upright. The engine was still affixed to the one side of the frame, but the upright had threaded it’s way neatly along the other side, slicing it loose and peeling it away.

To look at the body,you’d sweat nothing could have survived in the tangled mess that had once been the cab. But a man sat on the back bumper of the truck, watching us pull up in the ambulance.

“Hey, I wonder what his story is?”

Saul Lebowitz, my partner for the run, had the sort of black humor a lot of veteran EMT’s pick up over time. He brought the rig to a stop just past the wreck before continuing.

“How the hell he walked away from that, and managed to to do it without a scratch, is going to be one for the record books.”

“You won’t get an argument out of me, Saul. Then again, we won’t find out how he survived, unscathed, if we don’t go ask him. So….”

We grabbed our gear, dismounted, and walked up to the stranger, who rose as we approached him.

“Sorry to disappoint you, guys, but I’m fine. Don’t suppose either of you have a cell I can borrow? I managed to walk away from this without a scratch, but my phone’s in the cab…in a few million pieces.”

I looked towards Saul, and found him looking towards me. He gave me a shrug, and we turned back towards the stranger.

“We’ll let you borrow a phone in a minute, but first, we’ve got to check you over to make sure you’re as ‘unscratched’ as you think you are. So how about you have a seat and let us do our job?”

The stranger settled back onto his truck’s bumper with a rye smile. “Hey, all you’re keeping me from doing is calling my boss and tell him I wrecked one of the company’s trucks…strangely enough, that’s not something I’m in a hurry to do.”

“Yeah, I can understand that. Saul, why don’t you get some vitals while I get his information?” I pulled out my tablet and opened the accident report app. “Okay, while my partner makes sure you’re really alive, I need your personal information. What’s your name?”

“Paul Sanchez.”

“How old are you?”

There was a tangible pause before Paul continued. “Thirty-five, why?”

“Just information I need for the paperwork…or it’s electronic equivalent. Date of birth?”

Paul answered that question, and all the rest I asked, without any delay as Saul took his blood pressure and took the rest of his vital signs. He finished before I did, and interrupted me to give his verdict.

“He’s fine. BP, heart rate, pupil response…all normal. I haven’t examined him in detail, but unless he real good at hiding bruises, cuts and other wounds, I think he’s managed to accomplish a miracle: walking away from a wreck like that without a mark.”

“Okay, Saul, thanks.” I finished asking the last few questions, closed the app, and looked at Paul again. “Well, my partner thinks you’re going to live, and I’m inclined to believe him. That said, I think you should let us do a more complete exam. Internal injuries, concussions and a lot of other things you don’t want to experience without a medical professional nearby can’t always be detected by the sort of examination we’ve given you so far. I honestly think you should let us take you to the Carswell’s Corner General ER for a more complete check-up.”

Paul gave a slow shake of his head. “No, I’m going to be in it deep enough as it is, I don’t need to add keeping my boss waiting for the accident report to the pile. I’d rather just make my calls, and hope the grief isn’t already too much for me to deal with…if you two are willing to cut me loose, that is.”

I spread my hands. “We can’t make you seek medical advice, we can only advise you to seek treatment. If you decide you don’t want any further tests or treatment, you’re free to do so.”

“In that case, you and your partner can be on your way. Sorry to make you two come all this way for nothing.”

Paul held out his hand, and I shook it. “As long as you’re sure…well, I guess we’ll be on our way.”

“After, I hope, you let me make that phone call…”

#

Paullus Lucius Decimus watched the ambulance drive off, thanking every god he could recall from his long memory that they were leaving. He’d been lucky to get his arms in front of him when the truck had hit the metal pole. They’d suffered most of the damage, and he’d been able to change into a spare shirt before the police had arrived to find him in a shredded, blood-stained shirt…and ask him where the blood had come from. The wounds had closed already, as they had every wound he’d suffered over his two thousand years plus of life. It would be another day or more before the scars disappeared, and those were something else he didn’t want to explain.

That was why he’d refused the suggestion that he go for a more extensive exam. He’d had to explain his way out of far too many experiences just like this in his life…ever since that day he’d pulled himself out of a pile of corpses after the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The Germanic tribesman who’d seen him rise from that stinking mess had run away, sparing him from explaining how he could be alive after one of his fellows had slashed his belly open.

It had gotten harder to explain himself to others since that first realization that he was immortal. Now, with digital records of everything, making a new identity was infinitely harder.

“Oh well, fortunately that’s something to worry about another day…..”

Jack’s journey

“Snow! Here boy! Snow! Where the hell is that dog? SNOW!”
Jack hadn’t wanted the dog. After his dad had made him go in to be with his own dog Ralphie when he was put to sleep, Jack hadn’t wanted anything to do with dogs or pets in general.

But no, his little sister had insisted the family needed another dog. Jack had refused to go when the rest of the family had gone to the shelter to find a dog to ‘adopt’. He hated that term. It was a dog, not a brother or sister, so how could you ‘adopt’ it?

Then they’d come home, not with a big, gentle old dog, but a pup that bounced around like it didn’t know how to hold still. And that name! One look that the dog’s coat, a patchwork of different colors, no two matching, had brought several names to Jack’s mind. Painter’s Mistake. Drop-cloth. Even Patchwork. But his sister had already named the damn mutt: Snow. He’d asked her later, and the little twit had given him a wicked grin before replying.

“Cause I know you hate it when dad makes you shovel snow. Besides, he looks kinda like they couldn’t make up their mind what color they wanted him to be and just ‘snowed’ different color schemes down on him.”

His sister had picked the dog out, but who got to take care of it? Who had to take it out to do it’s ‘business’…and pick up the nasty results afterwards? Jack, that’s who! Like right now, when the dog needed to be fed. His sister was nowhere in sight, and Jack was supposed to take care of that before heading out for his summer job. He had to get going, or he’d be late to his job with the landscape company. “SNOW! Damn it, where the hell is that mutt!”

“Jack, watch your mouth. Just because you get to cuss at work where nobody can hear you over that leaf blower you use, that doesn’t mean you can cuss at home.”

As if worrying about being late wasn’t enough, now Jack’s mom was pissed with him for a couple of minor swear words! “Mom, I gotta get going and I can’t find Snow anywhere. How am I supposed to feed him if I can’t find him?”

Mom worked alternate nights at the nursing home, and she’d just gotten home herself a short while ago. She was trying to sort out the dishes Jack had loaded into the dish washer the night before, and not looking too happy with what she was seeing. She stopped, straightened, and fixed Jack with her best ‘Don’t mess with mom!’ look. “He’s outside. Just stick your head out the door and give a yell. That’s dog’s such a ‘chow hound’ just the thought of food would bring him home from California!”

“Mom! Why did you let him out?”

“Because the poor dog needed to go so badly he was trying to scratch his way through the back door, that’s why young man! Now just you watch the tone of voice you use with me.”

Jack scrubbed his hands across his face, frustration wanting to make him shout at his mom for doing something so stupid, while discretion told him to keep his response civil. Civility won, but only by a hair.

“Mom, don’t you remember? The perimeter system, the one that keeps Snow in our yard, is broke! God knows where that dog’s gotten to….”

“Oh, he can’t have gone far…I just let him out a few minutes ago.”

She said it so calmly, like it was a Rule Of The Universe that a dog that loved to run full-speed around their yard like he hadn’t been outside in days, when it had only been an hour since he’d last gone outside, wouldn’t go tear-assing off around the neighborhood. Yeah, sure mom..and who’s going to end up having to chase the damn dog down? Jack kept that thought private and headed towards the back door.

Once outside, he gave a quick look around. No surprise, no dog. It was early enough that he didn’t want to scream for the dog, but Jack knew the only other alternative was to wander around looking for the mutt.

“SNOW!!!! FOOD, SNOW, FOOD!!!!!!!”

Inside, it was like even the thought of feeding the dog would bring him. Outside, Jack’s yell echoed vaguely, but that was the only response it drew.

“I so don’t need this shit!”

On two sides, the back yard was enclosed by six foot tall wooden fence. He’d helped Dad put it up years ago, but the third side, the one opposite the back of the house, was open because it let out onto the alley that was the only way to access their parking area. There wasn’t room for even a small car to pull in without it being in the alley, so they parked parallel to the pavement. An earlier occupant had paved the entire length of their lot with gravel, so they had space for three cars to park. Given that the family had three cars, and there was not enough space to allow a fence and the cars to occupy the space, the entire back of their lot was open.

Well, I know how he got out, but where the hell did he go after that?

Jack made his way down the back steps and walked out to the alley, whistling and occasionally slapping his hand on his thigh, a noise that often drew Snow’s attention. He reached the alley and saw nothing. He drew in another deep breath and yelled as loudly as he could.

“SNOW! HERE BOY! SNOW!!!!”

Still nothing. Jack walked along the alley, looking around, hoping he wouldn’t find the dog rooting through one of the neighbor’s garbage cans…or worse, lying in the alley, hurt.

Ralphie, lying where the passing car had thrown him, whimpering and struggling to move….

Jack pushed that painful memory aside. Snow was just being Snow, running around, investigating any-and-everything. He saw a car enter the alley and started to step back…then he saw it was a police car, and what was trotting along side it.

“Oh….shit….”

Snow stayed beside the police car, or the car stayed along side him, it was hard to tell which. He had no leash or any other sort of restraint on, but dog and vehicle stayed perfectly in place relative to each other. But as the odd assemblage came closer, Snow sped up, dashing towards Jack as fast as he could go. He came to a stop, staring up at Jack, his mouth hanging open and his tongue lolling out in what Jack could only describe as a doggy grin. The police car came to a stop in front of Jack, and Snow gave it a quick glance before turning his gaze once again to Jack, looking for all the world like he was proud of what he’d brought home. Then the window came down and the officer stared at Jack like he’d caught him elbow-deep in a pile of freshly-stolen cash.

“Is that your dog?”

“Well….not really!”

The policeman’s already cold gaze grew Antarctic. “Funny…it sure looks like that dog knows you.”

“Well yeah, he’s the family dog, and…”

“So it’s your dog. Fine. Did you know that having a dog off the leash is illegal in town?”

“Yeah, but…”

“You’re going to have to come down to the station and fill out some paperwork on this. Get that dog inside or on a leash line, then get yourself up to the station.”

Jack didn’t get a chance to argue, because the window came back up, and the car rolled away before he could offer any objections. His trophy gone, Snow wasted no time in running to the back door, where he waited, impatience with the wait to go inside and be fed in every quivering muscle of his body. Jack looked at the dog, pinched his brow, and followed it up the back walk muttering “I am in such trouble with my boss……….”

#

Jack was wrong. He called his boss, but rather than getting a chewing out, Mr. Juarez had told him to take care of his problems and call him back when he was finished. One weight off his shoulders, Jack drove to the police station. He’d never been there in his life, so he had to consult his phone to get directions to the building. The exterior looked almost cheery, a low, neat brick building that only stood out for it’s small number of windows. Inside, it was far different. The public entrance opened onto a small room with a large glassed-in counter taking up one wall. A heavy door, it’s steel-reinforced construction clear from the bolt heads visible for anyone to see, occupied the second. A string of three ugly orange plastic chairs sat against the dingy-white concrete of the final wall. The scant light coming in through the glass around the entrance gave more illumination than the dim florescent lights overhead. With no idea of what he was supposed to do in this grim place, Jack approached the counter.

Maybe that’s why the light is so dim in here? Jack thought to himself as he tried to see if there was anyone behind the glass. After the bright light outside, all he could make out were dim shapes in the room behind the glass. His eyes began to adjust, and he could make out desks and some sort of control panel, the only thing with a human sitting at it. That person, a chunky woman with graying brown her hair cut short, was talking to someone on a phone and acted like Jack didn’t even exist. Then he noticed that one of the video screens in front of her held a series of images, one of which was him standing in front of the window. A quick glance over his shoulder told him where the camera was, then a scratchy voice came out of a grill beside the window.

“How can I help you?”

“Umm, I was told I had to come to the station to fill out some paperwork because our family dog got loose. The officer didn’t give me his name, he just told me to come here.”

The woman hadn’t even bothered to get up, and she looked like she’d rather Jack wasn’t bothering her, but she grabbed a phone before saying “Have a seat and I’ll find out what’s going on.” before the speaker went dead with an click. Jack didn’t sit down, instead he watched her talk to whoever was on the other end of the call. She hung up before addressing him again.

“Someone’s coming to take care of you. Please, just have a seat.”

Jack sat, and had time to find out that the chairs weren’t just ugly, they were also uncomfortable. His ass was starting to protest about the unforgiving surface when the heavy door opened and an officer addressed him.

“You’re here about the loose dog complaint?”

“Yes. I was told to come to the station because there was some paperwork that needed to be filled out.”

“Come with me.”

The officer held the door open, which seemed nice, then instead of walking along side of Jack, he fell in behind him. The impassive expression on his face made it clear he was not in a friendly mood, so Jack walked ahead of him, wondering what he’d gotten into. They were walking down a corridor, it’s walls painted the same white of the entrance, but these walls had been cleaned even less than the reception area. Grimy fingerprints could be seen at several points, like someone had stopped to steady themselves. Scuff marks from uncounted shoes marred the it’s lower margin. Ahead was a tee-junction with another corridor, and Jack saw an office directly ahead. He wasn’t going there, though.

“Make a right turn, and enter the first door on your right.”

Jack came to the junction, saw a pair of officers standing in the corridor to his left. They stopped talking to stare at him, so he made the required turn. The door he had been told to enter had no light coming from it, and he while he wasn’t sure what to do, he entered the dark room. The officer that had been with him turned on the lights, and motioned him towards a chair in front of a small desk.

“Sit down so I can finger print you.”

Finger print? “Officer, I thought I was here to fill out some paperwork…”

“You’re here because you’re being charged with keeping a dangerous animal and not keeping it under proper control. Have a seat.”

What followed next would have been impossible to believe if Jack hadn’t gone through it. The officer fed a heavy paper form into an old-fashioned typewriter and began by asking. “What’s your full name?” After that, he took the rest of Jack’s information down: when he was born, where he lived, asking what seemed like every detail of Jack’s life until he was satisfied. Then he took the form out of the typewriter and put it into a small plastic device that held it in place before looking around.

“Where’d they put the ink pad?”

That lead to him rising to rummage through the drawers and cabinets around the room until he found what he was looking for: a small, flat, white container like a large mints tin. When he opened it, though, what was inside was a block of black, oily material that looked like wax but he guessed was ink. The officer sat this down, then addressed Jack.

“Stand up and give me your hand.”

Jack did as he was told, and with a firm grip, the officer pressed each of the pads of the fingers on Jack’s right hand onto the block. It even felt like wax, but when they came away, the pads were covered in a black ink. His finger were in turn pressed down in pre-marked squares on the form. Once the last one was done, the officer lead Jack to a restroom.

“You can wash the excess ink off here. Let me know when you’re done.”

That final short sentence was delivered in such an stern tone that Jack stared at the policeman before turning to the sink. His efforts to clean his fingers proved in vain, for no matter how he scrubbed his hands, the dark stain remained. The ridges were still clearly outlined as Jack followed the officer back to room he’d been finger printed in. This time, the door was closed, and Jack was told to stand in front of a height scale affixed it. His picture was taken facing the camera, then with his face turned to the side, and as this happened, it dawned on him.

He’s taking mug shots of me? What the fuck?

“We’re done here. Follow me.”

Jack, stunned by now with how much worse things were looking than he’d ever imagined, followed in silence. Back to the front, where he was handed a piece of paper. “You’re free to go. Appear in court on the date on the ticket to take care of this.” With that, the officer opened the door, and Jack walked out, feeling like he was waking up from one strange nightmare.

#

“Mom…I got to go to court.”

What?”

“The cops found Snow loose and brought him home. They told me I had to go to the station, so I did…and they booked me! Finger prints, mug shots…just like I was a criminal!”

Mom had been out in the ‘mud room’, where the washer and dryer was. Now, she came into the house proper, and from the her scowling face to the stiff stance she took when she stopped in front of Jack, it was clear she thought he was making fun of her.

“Jack Simms, being arrested is nothing to joke about! Now tell me what happened!”

Jack didn’t like being called a liar any more than anyone else, and his mother had just accused him of doing precisely that. He fought the desire to get angry, taking a breath before answering.

“Mom, it happened just like I said! Here’s the ticket they gave me, and it’s got a date on it I’ve gotta be in court.”

Presented with the actual ticket, his mother went from doubt to shock. She read the ticket, twice, before saying anything more.

“They arrested you because they think Snow’s ‘vicious’? But why did they arrest you?”

“Well, the officer asked if I owned Snow, and I tried to tell him he was the family’s dog, but he didn’t want to hear it. He just told to get to the station. When I did, another officer took me in the back. Then he got my information before taking my finger prints and mug shots. I still haven’t gotten all the ink off!”

Mom took his hands, looked at the darkly-outlined ridges, and shook her head. “This is insane. Why would they go through all of this for a dog running around loose?”

Jack had no more clue than his mother, and shrugged in silence.

#

The appointed day arrived, and Jack,with his mother in tow, arrived at the city hall well before court was to go into session. A receptionist directed them to the court room, where they joined a small knot of people waiting for the doors to be opened. Jack fought a desire to fiddle with the tie around his neck, hating the ‘formal’ clothing his parents had insisted he wear for his court appearance. Being surrounded by other people, all of them obviously distressed to be dressed in similarly pressed-and-starched shirts, did not help him feel any more comfortable. Only a few people wore their attire without notice, as if it were second nature to them, and Jack realized these were probably the lawyers in the group. More people arrived, filling the hallway with a subdued hum of conversation and an ever-increasing feeling of unease.

A clear, loud metallic ‘Thunk!’ issued from the doors, and they were opened by a pair of men in uniforms, different from those of the police. A third, similarly dressed man stepped forward, directing the assembled crowd towards a pair of uprights that were the room metal detectors. As he watched people ahead of him in line empty their pockets, Jack was happy he hadn’t given in to the temptation to bring his cell phone. The mechanism buzzed when he stepped through the uprights, and one of the guards took Jack aside.

“I’ll need to check you out in detail, kid.”

With that, Jack was forced to stand in front of all those waiting, hands raised, as the guard ran a wand over his body. When he’d proved that Jack had nothing more dangerous than a metal zipper in his khakis on him, he waved him towards the court room. His mother was waiting, directing a glare at the guard that would have made Jack quake with fear.

“How dare he do that to you? What did he think you were, some thug who was going to sneak a gun into court?’

“Mom, he was just doing his job. I was the one he made stand in front of everyone and get checked out! Let’s find a seat.”

Jack had watched plenty of TV programs like ‘Law & Order’ that had court rooms in them, and none of them had looked like the room they entered. It was only remarkable for its plainness: beige walls surrounded rows of seated fixed to the floor like those in a movie theater. In front of those rows stood a podium facing a broad sweep of wood, like an arch laid on its side. Stalks, that when Jack focused on them, held microphones, caused him to guess that each one was a place someone sat.

“Hey, mom, I thought this place was a court room. What’s with all those mics?”

“It’s a court room now, but it’s also the place the city council meets and other groups like the parks district use it too. I went to a park district meeting, years ago when you were little, to try to get them to put another park on our side of town. I might as well have talked to the walls for all the good I did.”

Her tone told Jack his mom was angry about something from that long-ago meeting, but before he could ask about it, a small knot of people moved past them towards the front row of seats, and one of the guards moved along the side wall towards a door. The low rumble of people talking died away, replaced by an expectant silence, and a tense feeling grew in the room. The guard who’d stationed himself by the door knocked on it, then turned to address to room.

“All rise! City court of Carswell’s Corner is now in session, the honorable justice Mathew Neamann presiding.”

Jack hadn’t know what to expect of a judge, but to see his old baseball coach, dressed in a long, dark robe, walking into the room with everyone’s attention focused on him wasn’t something he could have imagined. But he moved and acted as if this were all natural to him, like he’d done this all his life. When he sat down, he leaned towards the mic in front of him and his voice had none of the cheerful nature Jack remembered from practice all those years ago.

“Be seated. Bailiff, call the first case.”

“James Kultgen. Charges are public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.”

An older man who looked even more uncomfortable to be wearing a tie than Jack moved towards the podium, along with one of the slickly-dressed men Jack had guess were lawyers. The latter took center stage and proved the guess correct.

“Your honour, I’m Phil Leleki, and I represent Mr. Kultgen. My client wishes to plead guilty to the charges, and I would ask the court to consider the time he served before making bail, plus any fines, punishment for his offences.”

“I’m sure he would. However, I remember your client, and this is not the first time he has been before this court on alcohol-related charges. If your client is willing to agree to seek treatment for his drinking, I would be willing to accept your plea…but he would be under a suspended sentence, and subject to supervision by court officers. If he finds these requirements unacceptable, we can find space for him in the city jail…”

This set the lawyer and client leaned towards each other, and after a few whispered words, the lawyer addressed the judge.

“My client agrees to the courts conditions, your honour.”
“Very well. We accept the defendant’s guilty plea, and hereby sentence him to suspended sentence of no less than…”

Jack’s mind started to wander, and he wished he had brought a book or something else to occupy him. He looked around the room, scanning the people who filled most of the seats. Many of them were like Mr. Kultgen: dressed in clothing they looked ill at ease wearing, like people attending church for the first time. Most of them looked nervous, and the only part of the crowd that seemed at ease with their surroundings were the lawyers who fill the front row of seats.

Mr. Kultgen was followed by a woman facing a traffic ticket, then a boy not much older than Jack who was facing a shoplifting charge. Jack found he wanted to yawn, managed to stifle the impulse, and as he started to sink back into his bored funk, heard his name called.

“Next case, City of Carswell’s Corner versus Jackson B. Simms. Charges are keeping a vicious animal and not properly controlling an animal.”

Jack rose, and with his mother, moved to the podium. She was the one who spoke.

“Your honor, I’m Jackson Simms’ mother. I’m speaking for him because he’s under 18. We don’t have a lawyer, but if I could, I’d like to ask why my son is even here. The dog in question is our family pet, not my son’s, and he isn’t vicious in any way.”

The judge looked at mom, then at me, before speaking.

“How old is your son, madam?”

“He’s 17, your honour.”
“Then I’m sorry, but for cases of this sort, you have no standing. Minors facing this sort of offence are expected to stand before the court to answer for the charges brought against them. So, young Mister Simms, what do you have to say for yourself?”

Mom looked like she was going to say something more, and from the way her eyebrows were drawn down, I knew this might be one of those times when she cussed. I stepped forward and spoke to keep her from making things worse.

“Well…umm, Your Honour, what my mom said is true. Snow, the dog in question, isn’t mine. He’s supposed to be my little sister’s dog, but I end up taking care of him all the time. He’s not mean, let alone vicious, and I don’t know why the police officer would even say he was. My mom let him out so he could go to the bathroom that morning, and she forgot that the electronic fence around our yard wasn’t working. I didn’t even know Snow wasn’t in our yard until I went out to feed him. Then the police car pulled up with Snow trotting along side it. The officer told me I had some paperwork I needed to fill out because Snow had gotten out of our yard, he never said anything about him being vicious or that I was going to be arrested.”

That got the judge’s attention. “Arrested? What are you talking about?”
Jack wasn’t sure he could do it, but in fits and starts, he recounted what happened to him at the police station. He kept his head down, not sure he could look the judge or anyone else in the face, but when he finished, he raised his head to find the judge staring at him, mouth gaping open. There was a moments silence in the courtroom, then the judge turned to the man standing by the door he’d entered through.

“Bailiff, find out if the chief is on the building, and if he is, tell him to come to the courtroom. Mr. Simms, I find I need to speak to the chief of police, because what you have described is clearly not the proper procedure for an infraction of this sort. This court is in temporary recess until I can find out precisely what’s going on here.”

That statement set off a low buzz of talk, and as Jack looked around, he found everyone was staring at him. Being the center of attention was something Jack hated, so with seemingly every eye on him, his greatest desire was to be able to sink into the floor and disappear. It was the touch of his mother’s hand on his arm brought his thoughts away from hiding.

“Hey, don’t looks so down.” she said in a loud whisper “I think you said just what you needed to to get the judge to listen to you. If things were going bad, he’d have already told you what punishment you were facing. So chin up, hear me?”

“Yeah, mom, I hear you, I just wish I didn’t feel like I was on display.”

Mom didn’t have a chance to respond, as the side door opened and the guard came in, followed by Chief O’Mara. Everyone knew ‘The Chief’, mainly because he made sure some story about him was in the town newspaper every week. Mom and dad both called him an attention whore, and things a lot less polite when they didn’t agree with what he was doing. Now, rather than the confident smile he always seemed to have plastered on his face in the newspaper pictures, ‘The Chief’ had the nervous look of a kid who’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He moved to stand in front of the crowd, directly between the judge and Jack.

“Chief O’Mara, I have been informed that a citizen was subjected to what I can only describe as a full booking procedure for what should have been a simple matter of a ticket. Can you explain why this happened?”

If Jack had thought the chief looked uncomfortable entering the room, the way his shoulders rose, or his head sank down, reminded him of a kid being ‘dressed down’ by an adult for something they knew they’d done wrong. The fact that he didn’t speak for several seconds after the judge had stopped speaking just reinforced that impression. When he did speak, his voice was not the booming one you would expect from such a big man. No, his voice barely rose above a loud whisper, like he was ashamed to say what he did.

“Well, your honour, I’m not familiar with this case, but I can look into it….”

He didn’t get a chance to finish. The judge cut in, stopping him cold.

“Chief, I would suggest you ‘look into’ this matter now! I have no reason to believe that a 17 year old would make up as far-fetched a story as I have hear today to avoid something as simple as a ticket that carries nothing more serious than a simple fine as punishment. So if you will take this young man and his mother with you, and find out what did happen, this court may consider not asking for a formal explanation of the matter. Do I make myself clear?”

Now it was the big policeman who looked like he wished he could sink into the floor, and that somehow cheered Jack up. His contrite reply, “Yes, you do, your honour.”, sounded very much like an apology. But when he turned, there was no apology in his eyes, only anger, and Jack wondered what would come next when he motioned them to follow him.

Chief O’Mara led Jack and his mother out through the door he’d entered from, and through a series of corridors to an anonymous door closed with a keypad. He tapped a series of numbers into the pad, there was an audible buzz, and the chief opened the door.

“This way, please.”

The door opened onto another corridor, this one lined with offices, that ended at a large office that seemed filled with the huge desk that dominated the space. Beyond the chair behind that desk, there was only one other chair, a much smaller and more uncomfortable looking one that sat against the wall the entrance was set in. The chief didn’t ask either of them to sit down, instead going around the desk to grab the phone setting on it before hitting a button alongside the keypad.

“Sergeant Linder? Yes, I need you to get into the records and find out whether there is any booking information for…what did you say your name was, kid?”

“Jackson Simms, sir.”

“Look for any reference to a Jackson Simms, should be in the arrest records for…what day was this supposed to have happened?”

“June 22, sir, and it happened. Ask my mom, she can tell you I came home with that black stuff they use to take your finger prints still on my fingers.”

“Okay, whatever. Look for June 22, this year. Yeah, anything, and if you find something, bring it to my office…and make it snappy, I’ve got Judge Neamann breathing down my neck on this one.”

The chief sat down, then looked at them. “Sorry, but I’ve only the one chair for visitors. If either of you wants to sit down, go ahead, it’s going to be several minutes before anything happens.”

“Mom, why don’t you sit down.”

“No, Jack, I don’t feel like sitting down. Chief, if you don’t mind, can I ask you why you think my son’s lying?”

Mom wasn’t a large woman, she barely topped five feet tall, but when she was angry, she seemed to fill a room. That anger was clear in the frigid tone of her voice, and when Jack looked at her, he saw she was glaring at the much-bigger police chief, her rigid stance making it clear she was bristling inside.

Maybe the chief had enough sense to pick up on that anger, or more importantly, how intense it was. He leaned back from the desk, but not like he was relaxing. No, he looked like a man trying to get some space between himself and someone about to punch them.

“I’m sorry if you think that, Mrs. Simms, but that’s not what I think about you son. I just have trouble believing one of my officers would put a kid through the full booking process for something simple. That would be a serious breach of procedure, and any officer that did that would have to know I would not be happy with them…and officer I am that unhappy with has no future with this force.”

Mom relaxed, but that feeling that she was someone ready to strike out never subsided. Jack wondered how long that tense environment could persist before someone said or did something that would ignite the tension and lead to something worse. A rap behind them brought everyone’s attention to the door, where an older police officer stood with a familiar sheet of paper in his hand.

“Excuse me, Chief, but I found those forms you were asking about…and I don’t understand them. It says this kid was booked for….”

The chief raised his hand to stop the explanation. “I can guess what it says: something completely stupid, right? Were their any mug shots noted with it?”

“Yeah, and they’re in the computer system already. What’s going on?”
“Tell you more in a second, Sergeant. Who’s the officer of record on this, the moron who asked that this kid be booked?”

The sergeant peered at the form for a moment, then “Ulematt, Chief, Officer Capchik Ulematt…I guess that explains everything.”
“Yeah, yeah it does, sadly enough. Give me those paper forms, Sergeant, then get on the computer and purge those mug shots and anything else connected with this…utter mess from the system.” The forms deposited on the chief’s desk, the sergeant left and the chief addressed Jack and his mother directly “Mrs. Simms, young Mr. Simms, I’d like to offer a sincere apology from this department for all of this. This…individual has earned a bad reputation for being, well, let’s just say he believes in being exceptionally zealous in enforcing the law. I’ve had other complaints about him, and I think it’s time for him to start looking for another job.” He stopped talking, took the forms in his hand, and tore them once, twice, a third time, then threw them in his garbage can. “I’m truly sorry about what happened to you, young man, and I promise to make sure nothing about this…abjectly stupid action remains on record. I hope that’s enough.”

The chief rose, held out his hand, and Jack shook it. “Ah, yeah, sure. As long as you tell the judge what happened, I’m okay. Mom?”

Mom hadn’t moved forward with Jack, but she stepped up to the desk and shook the chief’s hand. “Yes, I can accept that, if the Chief will assure me that nothing about this incident remains on the city or any other police computer system.”

That fall, for his senior English writing project, Jack wrote about his run-in with the police. His teacher thought the piece good enough to print in the yearly review of student writers…and that was how Jack Simms began his journey to becoming a journalist. It was also not the last time he would have to deal with the police……..

Every day miracles

I tend to be a fairly cynical sort of person. Life has taught me that, as a general rule, people will cheerfully stab you in the back, cheat you and act like through-and-through SOB’s.
It’s not that I haven’t run into good people. And it’s not that I don’t know that there are decent people out there. It’s just that I’ve run into far too many selfish, double-dealing assholes to let me believe they are the exception and not the rule.
Until yesterday, when a pleasant surprise struck me in the middle of an otherwise unmitigated disaster.
The day itself wasn’t terrible, the weather was actually quite nice and I was still feeling good about the fact that the first piece of writing I’d had critiqued by fellow writers had come through with a good deal of praise sprinkled among the observations of it’s failings. After a morning spent trying to correct a few of those failings, I decided to gather a few of my mom’s favorite roses and take them out to her. That was easy outside of being careful of the thorns, and after I’d thrown away the old flowers, I decided to go get a few dollars out of the ATM so I could take my sister out to celebrate her birthday. That was when things well-and-truly hit the fan.
I saw a car pull up on a cross street ahead of me and stop at the stop sign, then pull a little bit into the intersection. Not having a stop sign myself, I slowed down a bit swung over a bit to be sure I cleared the him.
I should probably known better. I should have laid on my horn, made sure he knew I was coming. I was entering the intersection, and I could see him staring the other direction, but I was sure he had to have seen me already. Of course, he hadn’t, and just as the front corner of my car came even with his, he pulled out and slammed into me.
I remember the impact, the way the view out the windshield jumped sideways, that odd sound metal makes when it’s twisting and bending out of the shape it’s used to, the glass from the passenger side front window spraying everywhere. But I don’t remember my body moving, or even being stirred by the crash. Then there was just the sound of my car’s engine idling, and me sitting there feeling like an idiot for having lost my car.
I got out, checked to make sure the other driver was okay, and when I found out he was, we decided to move our vehicle out of the intersection. I didn’t look at the damage until after I’d pulled off the side of the road. Once I did, what I saw was not encouraging. The other car had struck mine just behind the center of the passengers side front door. The post between it and the rear door was bent, the front door caved partially in, and the rear door heavily damaged. Strangely enough, while the front door window had literally exploded, the rear door window was undamaged. Several people who had seen the accident had already called the police, so all there was to do was wait for them to arrive. It was during the wait that a small miracle happened.
I was sitting on the curb, wondering how I was going to replace my vehicle, when a boy of ten or so rode up on his bike. Like most kids that age, the sight of an accident seemed to captivate him. He came over to me and asked how I was doing. I told him I was fine, and that the other driver seemed to be fine too, but I was wondering how I could replace my car. That’s when he told me he had money, and that he’d give it to me. I told him I was fine, and he should keep his money, and when he rode off, I expected it was to report what he’d seen to his parents. A few minutes later, he returned and held out an envelope to me, telling me it held four hundred dollars, and that I could have it.
Seeing this kid offering me money, probably all the money he had to his name, moved me more than I can say. I told him to take his money home, to keep it and save it for later in his life, or to find someone who needed it more than me. He went on his way, but only after I’d repeated that request more than once.
I hope he keeps that generous spirit, that attitude that you help others out when they need it. I hope that because it’s a gift far too few humans have, and this world is sadly in need of.
I hope we can all find one of those small miracles in our hearts when someone else needs it.

How (not to) deal with technological problems.

Have you ever had to deal with a ‘help desk’ for a technical issue?

If you have, you’ve probably dealt with what I call a “Script Monkey”. A Script Monkey sits in a cubicle all day long, hooked to a phone. Their job is to deal with people who are having issues with their devices, or their Internet connection, or some other technological problem. Their tool for doing this is…The Script.

The Script is a set of instructions handed down from On High (meaning from someone who actually might know something about the system/device the Script Monkey is dealing with) that walks the hapless user/caller through a series of steps that should solve a certain problem with the device/system.

The Script will typically have several scenarios listed, the most common problems that caller will have, and by walking the user through these steps, the Script Monkey can often solve a problem…without understanding a single thing about what they’re doing.

You see, Script Monkeys are usually paid as little as possible. They don’t need a technical degree, or even even to be terribly ‘tech-savvy’, they simply need to march through The Script and Solve The Problem.

Unfortunately, The Problem isn’t always in The Script. Take my dealings with a Virgin Mobile Script Monkey, for example of how badly such an approach can go….

When I switched to a ‘smart’ phone, my shopping requirements were simple: I needed good coverage, a cheap device, and a cheap plan. I had had a ‘dumb’ phone from another carrier, but their reputation for supporting ‘smart’ phones wasn’t terribly good at that point (and the phones they supported were, frankly, crappy). So after looking at all the different devices on sale as ‘pay-as-you-go’, I chose a Virgin Mobile device, The monthly cost wasn’t terribly high, and the service coverage was decent, but the clincher was the price of the device: about a third less than the next cheapest handset.

Once I was connected, I had few complains. My calls/texts went through, and I (usually) had service when I needed it, so on the whole I was satisfied. But when I bought the phone, it was keyed to a specific data plan…and that was my Achilles Heel. After a couple of years of service, Virgin decided they would no longer support said plan and gave users the option of changing to a different plan, or buying a new handset. Not having the money to spare to buy a new phone, I opted for Plan A. I shouldda knowd betta……………..

To get a new plan and get it activated, one must deal with a Script Monkey. Script Monkey has a set of steps that they walk through once the customer has made up their mind about which plan they desire. Step 1 is to cancel the old plan. Simple, right? Step 2 is to activate the new account connected to the old device…which means telling the device that it no longer is connected through the old plan and doing a partial reset so it can connect to the new plan. Step 3 should be to make sure everything before has worked and, if it has, to give the customer a mindless congratulations and send them on their merry way.

You note I prefaced Step 3 with “should be”. That’s because in my case, when they got to Step 2, my device did the disconnect from the old plan, started the partial reset…and froze. It came to the point where it was attempting to start all the different services offered, and that’s where everything crashed-and-burned. It went no further, even after a half-hour wait…and here is where the problem of with using Script Monkeys came to the fore. Upon being told that the phone was frozen, Script Monkeys (yes, I dealt with more than one of them) first instruction was to tell me to go to the Settings screen on the phone. HELLLOOOO!!!! What part of “It’s frozen.” do you not understand? First Script Monkey kept trying to tell me I should still be able to get to the Settings screen. When I made it abundantly clear that this was impossible, he passed me off to Script Monkey #2…who proceeded to tell me to do the same thing! I will admit, Script Monkey #2 at least had an idea of what had gone wrong: my phone normally connects to my home wifi network, and to do the sort of reset Virgin Mobile needed to do on my phone, the phone needed to be connected directly to their network. But he was convinced that I could somehow persuade my frozen phone to give me access to it’s commands so I could disconnect it from my home network.

Once I knew what the problem was, the solution was simple: leave the house and walk far enough away that the phone could no longer connect with my home wifi. It was a solution Script Monkey could have suggested to me fairly early on…if he’d known enough about such things. As it was, I ended up having to ‘read between the lines’ and solve the problem by myself.

The phone? Yeah, after a few stuttering tries, it connected up to the new plan and worked fine. It’s got some ‘features’ I do not like…especially the ‘premium’ voice mail service that looks to be a subscription-based service that gains me nothing while making the operation of taking a voice mail more difficult. But yeah, it works now…no thanks to Script Monkeys. Because if a problem isn’t in The Script, then Script Monkey might as well be sailing in the area of the old sea charts where they’d write “Here be monsters”. I’d hope that companies like Virgin Mobile would think about such problems and hire people who at least had an inkling of how their system/devices work…but people like that don’t do minimum-wage. So we, the customer, will continue to be stuck dealing with people who are trying to fix our problems while knowing little more about them than we do.

Ain’t greed grand?