By Hannah Christensen
He sidled up to the police car, keeping an eye, an extremely careful eye, on the policeman Vaughn was keeping occupied. As soon as he drew even with the car he dropped down to let it shield him.
He crawled along until he reached the passenger side and peeked in. The keys were still in the ignition, though the car wasn’t running.
He pulled the door handle. It was unlocked and the door opened with virtually no sound.
He crawled in, latching the door behind him.
He slid into the driver’s seat, cursing his friends to be reprimanded by their mothers. He vowed to never play truth and dare again and started the car.
Thankfully this was one of those new models with an engine that purred rather than growled. He eased it into reverse rather than drive directly past the policeman. The officer didn’t so much as glance his way.
A dump truck squatted at the curb not far away on the opposite side of the street. Nervously checking for any coming traffic, he slid the car backwards in a somewhat wobbly line.
The dump truck hogged the road, and a fire hydrant lurking in its shadow tried reach out and scrape the car. The back tires rubbed against the curb, and he was just about to congratulate himself with a fair first parallel park when the door jumped open.
His yelp was cut off with a hand on his mouth.
“Screeching sapsuckers, Joe, do you want to ruin the surprise?”
He flopped his head back against the seat as he recognized Tony’s voice. Tony’s hand slid off his mouth as the smaller boy squirmed his way into the car, too.
“Cut it out. I just have to put it in park and we’re out of here.”
“You parked crooked. It doesn’t count as hidden if the cop can see the front part sticking out.”
Joe kicked at the accelerator. Why was he listening to a twelve year old with even less driving experience that he had? He felt the back end of the car start to climb the curb, and jerked the steering wheel—the wrong way. He didn’t care. The radio had come on, calling for Officer Morely. It was time to leave.
He suddenly noticed Tony’s hand reaching for the control board that took up most the dash and slapped it away. “What are you doing?” he hissed.
“It’s like a telephone—you’re supposed to answer. What if it’s something important?”
Joe leaned over and tried to shove his friend away from any knobs or switches, but forgot he hadn’t put the car in park yet. He snapped back over to the driver’s seat and stomped on the brake.
The siren came on.
“What did you touch? Turn it off!” yelled Joe.
“It wasn’t me.” Tony sounded indignant. “You must have bumped something when you slammed the brakes.”
“Get out, get out quick.” Joe pushed and pulled at the shift lever in turn. Panic blurred his mind over which way to put it into park.
“It’s too late now,” said Tony. “He sees us. We’ll have to move it somewhere else to hide it.”
Joe lurched for the door handle.
“You can’t leave it until you hide it! Comrade’s Honor!”
The car thumped forward off the curb and Joe grabbed back on to the steering wheel to swing it away from the dump truck. “Fine,” he said, “but he’d better not pull a gun.”
The policeman yelled at the boys, then started jogging toward them. He didn’t move fast enough to call it a run. Vaughn did. He sprinted around the officer and threw himself onto the hood of the car just before it turned down the nearest street. He landed almost spreadeagled, grinning like a maniac through the windshield.
Joe slapped at controls until the siren went off.
“Faster,” said Tony. “I think he’s gaining on us.”
Joe gripped the sweat-slickened steering wheel tighter and edged to the front of his seat. He tried to ease down on the accelerator, but it didn’t move. He leaned in harder. The accelerator dropped to the floor and the car jumped forward.
“Not yet!” Tony began to roll the window down. “Vaughn isn’t in yet!”
Vaughn had slid sideways. His feet dangled over the edge of the hood now and he had a tight grip on the windshield wipers.
Joe tapped a couple of times on the brakes and looked for another corner to turn, one with bigger buildings to block the view, he hoped.
Tony grabbed onto Vaughn and helped him start to climb in through the window.
“Whoa, Rad, those are some serious swerves! They’re in their own lane, y’know.” Vaughn now held onto the edge of the passenger’s window with his feet inside.
“Don’t call me ‘Rad’.” Joe wrenched the steering wheel right and they clattered through an alley.
“Comrade. Comrade,” Vaughn quickly corrected as he pulled himself in to avoid the clattering trash cans.
“Come in, Morely,” the radio said. “We have a situation Hot Jackal up on Goolah Street.”
“You’ll need to take a left,” Tony said.
“Yeah, and where’s the switch to turn the sirens back on?” asked Vaughn.
“Don’t you dare!” Joe almost crashed directly into a dumpster. “The whole point of this was to hide the car.” He got to the end of the alley and veered left. A pickup jammed on its brakes to make room.
“It would help us go faster,” said Tony.
“Listen, I just want to hide this thing,” said Joe. “And get your hands off!”
Tony leaned back into his seat. “I still think we should answer. Go right. Now take that next exit.”
Joe gripped the steering wheel with whitening fingers. His steering came in jerks.“Is he still there? Have we lost him yet?”
Vaughn laughed. “Go faster, comrade. You can’t lose him if you stick out like a sore thumb. Look at all the people staring.”
Joe jerked his way onto the exit. “The faster I am, the harder it is to stop.” He frowned. “I think we went the wrong way. This looks like the freeway.”
“Yes, we can go much faster on the overpass,” Tony said.
“The overpass! There’s no place to park on the overpass.”
“This is the fastest way to Goolah Street. Since you will not let me answer the radio, the least we can do is deliver their car to the scene of the action.”
Vaughn pumped his fist in the air. His whoops drowned out Joe’s objections.
Tony turned a stern frown at Joe. “We are going too slow. You will get us pulled over.”
“Who’s going to pull over a police car?” Vaughn had squashed himself into a more settled position in the passenger’s seat, but he still snapped his fingers with excitement. “They’d probably just radio to see what the problem was.”
“That’s it,” said Joe. “We’re getting off next stop.”
It actually took two exits before Joe could make his way around the semis. When they came down the ramp, tall, grimy buildings seemed to swallow the car. Joe found the first place along the curb he could pull into without having to worry about backing up.
“This is great!” Vaughn crowed. “You put him smack in a no-parking zone. That’s almost as good as an empty parking meter. Man, I’ve always wanted to see if a policeman would give himself a ticket or not.”
“I don’t care,” Joe said, cranking the car into park and yanking the keys out. “I just want to get home.”
“Do you have any insectoid inkling on how to get home?”
Tony’s question froze Joe.
“Hey, good point, Com.” Vaughn jostled Tony. “Do we?”
Joe looked around slowly at the grey, decrepit buildings. Trash scuttled across the street. A little bit down the street a man slouched in a doorway, smoking and watching them. “Guys…maybe this isn’t a great place to park the car after all.”
Tony nodded crisply. “If driving on the interstate makes you that nervous, you may sit in the back. Vaughn and I will manage fine.”
“No, I think we should leave it,” Joe said quickly. “It’s just…maybe I ought to lock the door.”
“Lock his keys in his car?” Vaughn hooted.
“No…I meant…Let’s go. Home is somewhere in that direction.” Joe pushed the keys partway under the seat, slammed the door shut, and strode across the street.
Vaughn and Tony followed. They took the first alleyway they found heading south. Joe kept looking around like he expected to see a cougar lying in wait.
“What’s your problem?” Vaughn asked.
Joe was turned around backwards. His eyes darted to every window and door they had passed. “I feel like we’re being watched.”
“What do you think is going to happen? Someone is going to jump from a window and—YAAGH!” Vaughn started back and tripped as an arm darted out from beyond a trash bin and clamped its fingers on Joe’s arm. Joe screamed, too, as he was pulled in tight toward a scrawny figure in the shadows.
Vaughn scrabbled to his feet. “COMRADE’S HONOR!” he yelled and charged. The figure dodged and Vaughn bounced off the trash canister and into the brick wall.
“Grab my hand! Grab my hand!” Tony reached one hand out to Joe while he clung tightly to the trash receptacle with the other. His reach fell almost a yard short from Joe, whose elbows were now encircled by a wiry arm and pulled tight against the smelly stranger.
Vaughn rolled over on the ground and groaned.
The scrawny figure started backing away, pulling Joe with him. He suddenly stopped. For a moment the only move he made was the flaring of his nostrils. Then he dropped Joe and ran.
“What’s the problem?” asked a new voice.
Joe’s stomach lurched when he looked up and saw the man in uniform at the end of the alley. Then he saw past the uniform and knew it was not the same officer as was looking for his car. This man was taller, wore a mustache, and had skin about as dark as his navy slacks.
“We just got attacked!” Tony’s eyes looked wild and his hair was either extremely tousled or attempting to stand on end. “This guy ran out and grabbed Joe—he’s getting away!”
“He kidnapped somebody?”
“I’m fine,” Joe hurried to say. “He let go. He’s gone. We’re fine.” He noticed the policeman was breathing as hard as he was.
“What about the rest of you? Are you doing alright?”
“Yeah,” hasped Vaughn. “Just…getting…my wind.”
A radio crackled. “Carter, come in.”
The officer reached down to his belt and pulled up the device. “Carter here.”
“Where are you? The Jackal’s turning orange and the Beta’s headed your way.”
“I ran into a problem off North and Smith. I’m headed your way as fast as I can make it without wheels.”
“Well, book it. No more detours. Over and out.”
“Roger. Over and out.” He clipped the radio back onto his belt and turned to the boys. “I don’t know what you boys were up to, but it’s time for you to quit. Now, get home to your mommies and stay out of trouble.”
They all three mumbled dutiful “yes, sir”s, but as he was turning to go, Joe called out. “Wait sir! If you need some wheels, there’s a police car parked over on that street.” He pointed back the way they had come.
“Thanks, son,” Officer Carter said, then sprinted off.
Joe heaved a big sigh of relief.
“I hope he doesn’t need handcuffs,” said Vaughn.
“What do you mean?” asked Joe. Then he saw the handcuffs tucked into Vaughn’s waistband. His mouth opened, but no words formed.
“They make me feel safer.” Vaughn untucked them and then crammed them out of sight into a pocket.
Joe snorted, but turned and began to lead the way again. They all walked a little faster this time.
The boys could hear police sirens in the distance.
“What do you think the Jackal is?” asked Vaughn.
“It’s a code,” said Tony.
“Yeah, but for what? Did someone rob a bank or is there a gang war or what? I mean, as far as we know there’s a murderer on the loose. He could be—whoa!” Vaughn stared across the street as a man scrabbled onto the top of a building then bounded across the roof to leap to the next building. “I’ve always wanted to parcore.”
“Come on, guys,” said Joe. “I think the sirens are getting closer.”
“Just a sec.” Vaughn started running down the street. “I want to see where he goes next.”
Joe and Tony followed.
“That was an easy jump—it went down. He’s going to miss—no, he grabbed onto the fire escape. Which way’d he go now.”
“He’s still up there—there, behind the billboard.” Tony pointed.
“Is that a gun?” Joe pulled back.
“Oh, man, we’ve got to see what he’s doing.” Vaughn kept his eyes glued upward and started walking again.
“Not that way!” said Joe. “Do you want him to see you? He’s got a gun.” He dragged his friend across the street and away from the mystery man, then started sprinting through the back ways to approach the building from behind.
With teamwork they were able to climb, push and pull their way onto a fire escape of a nearby building. Near the end, someone inside began yelling at them, but they made the platform and run up the stairs before anyone came out. Now they were high enough to observe the gunman from behind.
“What do you think he’s trying to do?” wondered Vaughn.
“Maybe he’s part of the Jackal and is trying to ambush the pursuing police,” said Joe. Silence stretched out and he started fidgeting. “Or maybe not. He’s probably just playing hard core paintball or something.”
“No way,” whispered Vaughn. “He’s gotta be the Jackal or Beta or something. We can’t let him get away with it. We’ve got to come up with a plan.”
“A what?! What are we supposed to do, walk up and ask for his gun? We don’t have weapons or a way to get up there or anything. If we try to use the fire escape over there, we’ll come up too close to him and he’ll see us.”
“We have handcuffs,” said Tony slowly. “And look—that building over there has a plank laid across to it.”
Joe and Vaughn followed his pointing finger.
“I dare you,” said Tony, “To climb over there and handcuff him to the back of that sign.”
Vaughn threw up his hands defensively. “I already took my turn. Anita Rose, remember?”
“Me too,” said Joe.
“Don’t look at me,” said Tony. “You know I get dizzy and faint when I am suspended more than 6 feet in the air. I was thinking Joe could do it. It’s still his turn, after all.”
“Don’t you think I’ve gotten myself into enough trouble today?”asked Joe. “ If I get home alive, I am done with Truth or Dare. Permanently.”
“We haven’t finished this game yet.” Tony smirked. “And when it is my turn, I’m definitely picking truth.”
Joe scowled, sat back and crossed his arms.
“Fine, don’t think of it as a dare. Think of it as your contribution to society.”
“My contribution to the mortuary, you mean.” But his shoulders slumped, and Tony turned in triumph to lead his friends back to the ground.
Rummaging around in the trash turned up an old doorknob and some bottles. Tony decided that he and Vaughn would keep the bottles to use as missiles while Joe would take the doorknob.
“The doorknob is too heavy to throw that far,” Tony explained. “We’ll wait until you’re close before we throw the bottles. That way they will not attract his attention to us, since we may not be able to throw them hard enough to knock him out.”
Joe wished there was a way to knock the fellow out long distance and be done with it. He reluctantly accepted the metal knob Tony handed him and rose to follow to the adjacent building. “Come on, Vaughn. If I have to do this, so do you.”
“You wouldn’t believe what I found in here,” said Vaughn. He was still half in the dumpster. “Mushy potatoes! They’re disgusting—ew, maggots!” His face popped out again, beaming. “Oh, man, I’ve got to grab some of these. Mom never lets me keep anything like this at home.”
But Vaughn would not join them until he had gathered a sackful of rotten potatoes.
Joe gagged and Tony pinched his nose shut. “Those stink worse than the rest of the trash put together!”
Vaughn paid no mind.
When they reached the top of the building, the boys took a rest. Joe stretched it out as long as he could before Tony started fretting about the policemen coming while there was still a danger. After extracting a promise from them to get closer so as to be within bottle-tossing range, he started to inch toward the board.
The man did not look around as Joe approached the edge of the building.
Joe looked down and swallowed hard. The plank before him was a good four inches wide, but it felt much smaller. A gust of wind made it wobble under the foot he had just placed on. Joe closed his eyes briefly, then squinched them open just enough to see where he was going. Step. Step. Step. Joe could not decide if would rather go slowly and carefully or get the passing over with as quickly as possible. Step. Step. Step. He wondered if he dared open his eyes enough to see if the gunman had noticed him. Step. Step. Step. The metal knob in his pocket felt as though it were tipping him off balance more than the handcuffs in his other pocket.
Finally Joe got close enough to the other side to jump to the roof.
The board clattered at the sudden departure.
The man glanced over his shoulder, then turned around. A scowl predominated his face.
Before Joe had too much time to wonder how much a bullet hurt exactly, a glass bottle burst against the side of the wall and drew the man’s immediate attention.
“Throw it higher,” yelled Tony. Another bottle crashed on the roof about a yard away from the gunman.
Joe started running. He had only covered half the distance to his opponent when he saw the gun go up, pointing toward the boys on the other roof. “No!” he yelled. That’s when the potatoes started flying. They did not splat as well as rotten tomatoes would have, but had extra clout. There was plenty enough ooze to make an impression, though. Joe could testify to that personally as one smacked him in the chin as he dived for the man’s knees.
The impact made the man stagger forward, but he kept his feet.
Joe dug in his pocket for the doorknob and swung it at the man’s head.
He grunted, but stayed upright. The gun began to swing toward Joe.
Panicked, Joe swung harder. He caught the man on the side of the head this time and sent him down. The gun slid across the roof, whacked into a chimney and went off. Joe scrabbled for the handcuffs and snapped the dazed man to the billboard supports. He turned and sprinted back to the plank bridge. Not until he recrossed did his friends’ cries and hand waving register.
“The gun! Get the gun!”
Joe swiveled around, one foot still on the board. The board tipped, wiggled, and slipped from its perch. Joe jumped back as it fell to the ground.
“You didn’t get the gun.” Vaughn looked disappointed.
“And I’m not going back for it. Let’s go.” Joe led the way back to the fire escape.
They made their way back to the street. Vaughn turned about for one more look at the site of their adventure. “Uh, oh,” he said.
The other two turned as well.
“Joe!” said Tony. “This is why you should follow instructions.”
The gunman was recovering from the blow. He stirred about, and while he showed no signs of escaping the handcuffs the gun was not completely beyond his reach.
“We must warn the police.” Tony began to race down the street north, away from home.
“Comrade’s Honor!” Vaughn was right behind him.
“Guys!” Joe turned and trudged after them. He stopped and winced as a police car turning onto the street almost hit them.
Vaughn and Tony raced to the front windows and tried to shout warnings and explanations through them.
The door opened and Officer Carter stepped out. “I thought I told you boys to go home,” he snapped.
Tony grabbed onto his arm and pointed. “It’s a gunman! He’s handcuffed to the sign, but he’s about to get his gun back!”
The policeman frowned up at the building. He jogged to the side to get a better look, then pulled out his radio. “This is Carter. I have him corned, but he’s armed. Send re-enforcements. Repeat, Beta is cornered.”
The radio began crackling wildly with directions and responses through the web of law officers on the hunt.
Officer Carter’s smile flashed brightly against his dark face. “Thanks, boys, for the heads-up. But you need to get home; your mamas’ are going to be worried sick. They’ll probably scold you clear up to the other side of next week.” He squinted up at the handcuffed man again. “Though I would sure like to know how he ended up handcuffed to that billboard.”
Joe turned slowly toward Tony, a grin spreading over his face. “Tony,” he said. “What is the story of how that man got up there? The whole, entire, full story.” He stared the shuffling boy in the eye. “Truth.”