To my grandson, Aidan Connor Dungan
Duty, Honor, Country
Table of Contents
Wanted Poster, Hermosa City Limit,
Circle K Convenience Store, Sanderson's Café, Crown Vic Police Cruiser, Target Practice, Sheriff's Badge,
Abandoned Mines Poster, Bison Drawn by Caveman, Pump House, Cadillac Escalade Truck, Deputy Sheriff's Badge,
Studebaker Pickup Truck, Beth's Promise Ring, Bellagio Fountains, Airplane Lavatory, Canadian Gold Coin
Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Since school starts tomorrow, this is my last chance to sleep in late. Shortly after 10 AM, I head for the kitchen and, passing a portable radio nestled amongst potted plants on a shelf in the garden window, I flick it on:
At 8:45 AM this morning a hijacked Boeing 767 airliner struck the north tower of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, setting it ablaze. A half hour later, a second hijacked 767 slammed into the other tower. Both have collapsed and continue to burn. The number of casualties is not yet known, but is thought to be in the thousands. Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, a third hijacked airliner crashed into the Pentagon, tearing a huge hole in the west side of military headquarters. Despite severe smoke and flames, the living, injured, and dead are being pulled out from beneath the rubble. For more on this hellacious calamity, an unprecedented three-pronged attack by terrorists on our eastern seaboard, we take you to Washington, D.C., where . . .
"Not very plausible," I say to myself. This must be an updated War of the Worlds broadcast. Hadn't Orson Welles fooled millions in the 1930's with a breaking news version of H.G. Well's classic science fiction yarn? I wasn't about to be taken in by a dusty trick and, reaching for the knob, somewhat indignantly turned the dial to what I thought to be a reliable all-news-all-the-time station.
. . . a fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed near Pittsburgh. There are no known survivors. Police and firefighters are combing through . . .
Oh my God! It's for real. Thousands of Americans—civilians for the most part—mangled, crushed, burned, and buried alive in a sneak attack that by comparison rendered Pearl Harbor a scuffle in a bathtub. Organized terrorism, the kind that involves lots of money and planning, had been confined to the fringes of our collective radar; a daily occurrence in Beirut and Tel Aviv, but not perceived as a pressing domestic problem. This was a wakeup call, a reminder that we are part of a shrinking world where a fire in our neighbor's house needed to be put out lest it spread to our own.
But why? Why us and why now? Was it God's punishment, a prelude to Armageddon? I just couldn't buy that. New York and Washington, D.C. weren't Sodom and Gomorrah—as a matter of fact they weren't anywhere near as decadent as Amsterdam and Bangkok. No, despite the shrill rasping of mullahs and Osama bin Laden, the United States was no Great Satan. If anything, we were simply too complacent, too trusting.
I switch off the radio and eat my bowl of cereal in the living room where I can watch the news on television. The screen portrays the heart-breaking exodus of refugees in business suits and ties fleeing Manhattan on foot. Dust fills the air, coating everything and everyone in shades of gray. It is Ⳡas if the tragedy is being broadcast in black and white. Unable to pull myself away from the tube, I repeatedly view footage of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. It can't happen here, not on American soil.
In the days to come, many of my older friends will enlist in the military. Flags fly everywhere and it is not unusual to see Old Glory attached to everything from car antennas to fence posts. Never before in my life have I witnessed such a spontaneous display of patriotism. In the heat of the moment, not knowing where and when the terrorists would strike next, is it any wonder that false reports of nonexistent terrorists would lead a number of vigilantes and super patriots to champion an "America for Americans" in which there would be no place for immigrants or those of foreign birth?
September 11 would soon come to join December 7 in the public mind as a "Day of Infamy." In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, General DeWitt, commander-in-chief of the West Coast, declared, "A Jap is a Jap." United States citizens of Japanese descent were rounded up and moved to inland concentration camps. Chinese businesses had their windows smashed by mobs of roving vigilantes who mistook Chinamen for being Japanese. It has been said that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Prejudice is no substitute for studied deliberation. That said, we did our utmost best. May God forgive us for any mistakes we may have made in our initial knee-jerk response to the gruesome carnage of 9/11.
Although it looks rather barren, this place is a desert resort. Snowbirds—that's what the Canadian tourists call themselves—drive down here in their RV's to work on their tans. Most are working class families with children who cannot afford the Caribbean. But what the travel brochures fail to mention is that the temperature drops when the sun goes down. I never liked the cold. If God had meant for humans to live in cold climates, He would have given us fur coats like animals. It's simply not natural to be bundled in layers of clothing. Slows you down. Better to be cold than clumsy.
There's not much to do for a young stud seeking adventure in a small town in the high desert. Most of the good-looking local girls go elsewhere to get their kicks. Chugging a 12-pack of beer has been known to make a less-than-stunning chick seem sexy, but that's not really practical when you live at home and your father is the sheriff.
So that's how I came to be plinking pebbles off our next door neighbor's second story window. I had read somewhere that glass is a liquid rather than a solid; a congealed substance with such graceful moves that not even a slow motion camera can capture its act. Those stained glass windows in old European cathedrals are thicker at the bottom than at the top—proof positive that glass moves in its own sweet time. I figured that a small rock at the top of its trajectory wouldn't have enough force to break a window unless it hit dead center. So far my hypothesis had proven correct. I had selected seven smooth pebbles of approximately the same size and weight from a terrarium on the patio with which to conduct my experiment. The first six had performed stupendously, striking at the edges near the frame without so much as a hairline crack. Perhaps I had grown overly confident or, more likely, I should have dispensed with the quilted coat I was wearing. Anyway, it wasn't as if I had intended to break the window. It was an accident—more like an Act of God than that of a vandal—science gone wrong. A similar mishap had led Alexander Graham Bell to discover the telephone. But while Alex became a millionaire, I became a fugitive. Dumb luck. How was I supposed to know that Old Man Grady slept with his clothes on to save a couple of pennies on his heating bill or that his bed stood directly under the window?
Fortunately for me, his arthritis slowed him down and I was almost to my own driveway by the time he came bursting through the front door with an over-under 12 gauge shotgun. Ordinarily, the sight of a weapon would make me freeze in my tracks, but I remembered that my father had confiscated Grady's ammo several weeks before after catching him taking pot shots at some raccoons that had been rummaging through the trash cans. Besides, in the excitement he had forgotten his glasses. Everybody looks pretty much the same from the back side. Unless I turned towards him to go up the lighted driveway, he wouldn't be able to finger me.
Instead, I ducked behind a shrub and tore off the heavy blue jacket and black baseball cap that even an elderly man as myopic as Grady could not help but notice. When he drew even with the shrub, I struck him with a body block that would have done a NFL lineman proud. Grady and the scattergun flew in opposite directions, the stock having splintered upon impact with the concrete driveway while the old man landed flat on his back atop the shrub with his mouth open as if in disbelief.
A cursory glance at the weapon confirmed my suspicions that it wasn't loaded. Wrapping my arms around his body, I gently lifted Grady and placed him on his feet, being careful not to relinquish my grip lest his shaking knees would suddenly buckle and send him sprawling to the ground. Making a pretense at dusting the dirt from his clothing, I kept my head turned towards the street as if I was searching for someone who had got away. Evidently, Grady was still in shock because his jaw was still agape.
"Oh God, don't let this old fart have a heart attack," I mumbled under my breath. Half-dragging, half-carrying, I managed to get Grady back to his house and onto the bed. While removing his shoes, I fed the feeble geezer a cock-and-bull story about how I had been walking down the driveway when I had seen a mean-looking hombre in a blue quilted jacket and a black cap run from his yard and had given chase and probably would have caught the crook if I had not collided with Grady. After covering him with three blankets, I went home, tossing the broken shotgun into a trash can on my way up the driveway. Undoubtedly, my father, being the sheriff, would be getting a phone call from Grady in the morning. And my father was nobody's fool. I must have gone over what I would say to him a dozen times before I finally fell asleep.
Evidently Grady didn't phone my father because I didn't hear anything more on the subject. Maybe he was still mad about having his ammo confiscated or maybe he didn't figure it would do any good to file a complaint. When I came home from school the next day, I noticed that the broken window pane had been replaced with plywood. But instead of cutting it the size of the glass and inserting it in the frame, he had nailed a thick 4 X 8 sheet over the opening. It looked like those pictures on the evening news of homes on the Gulf Coast being prepared for a hurricane. Grady was weird. Rumor had it that he had never married because he was having an incestuous relationship with his younger sister who had been his housekeeper until she had gone to live with another relative. Word was she had to have an abortion and most had assumed that Grady was the father. But I knew different. Latent homosexuals like Grady cannot father children because their sperm dries up. At least that's what our assistant water polo coach had said at practice and he's usually right about these things. Deviates from the shallow end of the gene pool can't get it up. It's nature's way of improving the breed. If you don't believe me, read Darwin.
By the way, I'm Ryan. Hermosa—that's what they call this town—being so small, everybody knows everybody and there isn't normally any need for introductions. In Spanish hermosa means beautiful. If you like sand, this place is positively gorgeous. Sand is everywhere: on the ground, in the air, in your shoes, in your hair—a constant wind forces fine grit through weatherstripping, making it almost impossible to keep it out of vehicles and houses. Like God, sand is omnipresent, but it is more of a curse than a blessing.
Romero is my last name. That sounds Spanish too, but we're not. By giving something a Spanish name, you add a touch of class. It has to do with English being a guttural Germanic language while Spanish seems to flow off the tongue. How else to explain why people are willing to pay upwards of a dollar more for a bottle of cerveza than they would for beer?
The official language is English, but due to a flood of illegal immigrants from Mexico what is spoken on the street is Spanglish, a mongrel mixture of Spanish and English, which is somewhat like the Frenglish spoken in certain parts of Canada. Por ejemplo, a blurb on AM radio for a used car lot gives the directions in Spanish followed by "certified quality pre-owned vehicles." The addition of English legalese is supposed to make their worn-out rust buckets sound better than they actually are.
When I was a little kid in second or third grade, I would lie awake at night listening to my inner voice whisper, "nobody likes you." While that might sound crazy, I can assure you that I have never gone so far as to allow anybody other than myself to berate me in any way. In effect, my ego was simply letting me know that I needed to keep my own counsel. Since it is impossible for a rational person to put someone else's interest above his own, it follows that friendship only goes so far. If you don't hold part of yourself back, you risk getting hurt. That's why I'm sharing these insights into my inner self with you, someone with whom I am having a superficial relationship that extends no farther than the pages of this book, instead of with a close personal friend. This way we both benefit. Think of it as that rarest of occurrences, a win-win situation, in which I vent my frustrations in order to keep my sanity while you get your jollies by playing the voyeur. Judge me however you want since it matters naught whether you are with me or against me. Feel free to rip pages from this book and use them for toilet paper as it won't affect me one way or the other. Remember, it was you that came to me seeking entertainment and not the other way around.
Take a look over there. That's my father, the sheriff, having a difference of opinion with a local rowdy shortly after closing time in the parking lot of Sonny's Saloon. No, he's not the big fellow pulling the slide back on the chrome plated 9 mm loaded with bye-bye pills. The other one—the little guy in the starched khakis and badge with the barrel of the gun pointed at his head . . . .
But don't be alarmed. That's just the way he works. Let the crook think he's got the advantage and then turn the table on him. It works every time (well, almost every time). You see, law enforcement officers have MO's just the same as criminals. Early on, they establish a repertoire of tactics and it accompanies them for the rest of their career. It was exactly this type of risky behavior repeated ad infinitum that drove my mother to divorce him. But it doesn't bother me a bit. Following the Second World War, my grandfather served as Hermosa's first sheriff. It's in the blood. My father is the type of man who lives his job. He instinctively knows how to talk down the bad guys. Listen and learn:
"I ain't goin' back to no prison. Wasn't doin' nothin' but havin' me some fun. Don't come no closer."
"The fun ended when you pulled that gun. Shoot me and the good people of this state will do to you what the animal shelter does to mad dogs. But first you'll rot on Death Row. When you're strapped to a gurney and they raise the curtain at your execution, my family will be sitting ringside. They will be the last thing you see when the second plunger drops and you shit your pants."
"Don't make me kill you."
Neither man blinks. But the sheriff banks on taking the initiative and makes a lunge for the gun. He almost got it right. If it hadn't been for the knife in the big guy's other hand, he would have come out on top. A swift upward swing buries the blade in the sheriff's shoulder. A good move, but a gun still beats a knife and the sheriff puts it to good use by pistol-whipping the daylights out of his opponent.
The fight has gone out of the big fellow. But the sheriff isn't taking any more chances and, swinging him around with his good arm, throws the bad guy through the windshield face first. No use reading him his Miranda rights before putting on the cuffs. This guy is out cold.
* * *
We've got an old male dog who is gentle enough but, not being neutered, gets into fights when there is a female in heat. The vet sews him up—sometimes without an anaesthetic—and by the next day he is up and running. Dad's the same way. When he woke up in a hospital bed, he got dressed as quickly as his one good arm would permit and walked out the door with the doctor yelling at him.
With Dad being so busy, I try to help out around the house. Doing the laundry is one of my chores. But what am I supposed to do with a bloody khaki shirt with a gaping hole in it? Surely, he wouldn't have tossed it in the hamper if he didn't believe it was worth saving. I'm about to load the shirt in the washer with the rest of his uniforms when the phone rings.
"My car keeps stalling. It's got 5,000 miles on it. Do you think I need to replace the fuel injectors?"
Recognizing the voice on the other end of the line as Thelma Perkins, who runs the only dress shop in town, I reply, "You dialed the Romeros by mistake. It happens all the time. Brothers' Auto Parts ends in 96 and our number ends with 69. Did you gas up on a Sunday at the Circle K? They've got water in the bottom of their storage tank and the tanker truck doesn't come until Monday."
"Why don't they get that fixed? I bet that's the reason they are two cents a gallon cheaper than any of the other stations."
"I don't really think it's intentional. When it gets really hot, the water vapor that is in the air starts to condense inside the storage tank. It's not a problem until they run low on gas."
Thelma's tone freezes as she says, "You're darned right they do it to us on purpose. We're paying two dollars a gallon for watered-down gasoline!"
"Put a tankful of premium in it and I'd be willing to bet it will run as good as new."
"Thanks, Ryan. You're just like your father, a real lifesaver. I just wish there was something I could do for you."
"Maybe there is. I'm trying to get a blood stain out of one of my father's khaki shirts."
"Rub the stain with soap—don't use detergent—brush it briskly and then soak the shirt in cold water for several hours. Repeat the process until the stain disappears."
"It's also got a hole in it."
"What kind of hole? Is it ripped? Is the fabric intact?"
"It's sort of V-shaped and I'm afraid it will pucker when I sew it shut."
"Turn the shirt inside out and tape the V together so it won't pucker when you sew it. Cut away any excess tape when you're done. If you have any trouble with it, bring it to me and I'll do it for you."
"You're one-in-a-million, Mrs. Perkins."
"So are you, Ryan. Use a toothbrush so you can't do any harm to the material. And tell your father he's got my vote in the next election."
"I'll do that, ma'am."
That's one of the benefits of living in Hermosa. Since we all know each other, there is no such thing as a wrong number. Whomever you dial, you stand a pretty good chance of reaching someone who cares.
In the confusion following 9/11, the Sheriff's Department gets a hefty increase in phone calls, mostly from crackpots and Nervous Nellies who are convinced that there are al-Qaeda agents and wild-eyed terrorists hiding in the bushes. These reports have to be carefully recorded and checked for veracity which takes time and energy. No sooner does Dad finish filing one, then the phone rings with another. Let's listen in:
"Sheriff's Department, Sheriff Ryan Romero speaking. Please help us to assist you by giving me your telephone number and address."
"It doesnⴠmatter who I am," says the voice on the other end. "What matters is that you guys aren't doing your job. Last night, I did three loads of laundry and hung my sheets out to dry. When I got up this morning, the Arabs had stolen them off of my clothesline."
"What makes you think it was Arabs who did it?" Dad inquires perfunctorily.
"Who else makes robes from sheets? These were 300 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets; no finer sheets are to be had. I paid $25 each for them," complains the unidentified caller.
"Did you see anyone lurking around your property last night?"
"I don't have to stay up at night guarding my property. That's what my taxes pay you to do." And with that parting piece of wisdom the anonymous caller slams the receiver in my father's ear. He gets up from his desk and goes out on patrol so as not to have to take any more crank calls. I cannot say that I blame him.
I know better than to start dinner before Dad pulls into the driveway. Like crooks, sheriffs don't keep regular hours. Tonight we are having fish sticks because it was all that was left in the freezer plus it is one of the few foods that doesn't give either of us indigestion. Fish sticks are not made of ground fish like some people think. Actually, they are cut from blocks of frozen whitefish. They cost about the same as hamburger and are much better for you. I digress. The chief reason we are having fish sticks is that I can get them on the table before Dad can open his second beer.
I put dinner on the table—literally, since the tablecloths departed with Mom—and the first thing Dad asks when he comes to the table is "where's the tartar sauce?" There isn't any because he didn't remember to buy it the last time he went to the store. But to avoid being labeled a "smart ass"—a "smart ass" is anyone my age who points out the obvious—I smile dumbly and pass the bottle of Tabasco sauce which is what he put on his fish sticks the last time we had them for dinner and will almost certainly be what he will put on them the next time. What's with this tartar sauce business, anyway? For as long as I can remember, Tabasco sauce has been my father's condiment of choice, dashed liberally on eggs in the morning, chili at lunch, and meat at dinner. Could it be that Dad's tastes are changing? I will believe that the day we go out to eat something other than Chinese or Mexican. To say that we are stuck in a rut when it comes to cuisine (I use the word in its broadest sense) is putting it mildly.
As usual, I am the one who starts the conversation. I tried waiting him out once and neither of us said a single word. We just ate like two strangers sharing a table in a crowded restaurant. It gave me the creeps. Besides, he is my father, he has just put in a 14 hour day, and, as corny as it may sound, I really do want to make our home life as pleasant as possible. So, I begin by asking, "Hard day?"
"Winch broke down. Third time this week. Canadians aren't desert drivers. Get stuck in a patch of sand and they keep spinning the wheels until they are buried up to the hub. I told Mayor Tom that a Crown Vic was never meant to be used as a tow truck. Those RV's get longer and heavier every year. Let them call the Auto Club like anyone else. But he says that the snowbirds are our bread and butter."
"Adelanto's Police Chief has a 4 wheel drive vehicle. So does Victorville."
"Victorville is twice the size of Hermosa with three times the budget. They actually have a police force. I've got to make do with part-time deputies."
I am tempted to bring up the fact that Victorville's City Manager had offered him the job of Police Chief the last time it became vacant, but think better of it. We are firmly rooted in Hermosa. My grandfather was this town's first sheriff and my father took over after he died. Might as well go to Los Angeles or New York City as to move to Victorville.
I allow the conversation to die a natural death. Since Dad appears to be preoccupied, I put down my fork and start eating with my fingers. The last time I did it, it got me a lecture on proper table etiquette. What I don't understand is why is it alright to eat fish and chips with your fingers, if you aren't supposed to eat fish sticks that way? Who makes up these stupid rules? I'm feeling rather brave as I'm reaching for my sixth fish stick when out of the blue comes:
"Got a call this morning from the night watchman at Pipeline Construction. Sometime last night, a hasp was pried off a shed and a case of dynamite is missing. I faxxed Homeland Security and they are assigning an FBI agent to the investigation."
Terrorists in Hermosa? I get the visual image of an al-Qaeda commando busting a hasp with a blow from his rifle butt. Nothing this big has happened in Hermosa since the time they cordoned off Main Street to film a nude scene in an Adam Sandler flick. Despite being totally stoked, I manage to ask in what I hope is a not-too-emotional tone, "Any leads?"
"Night watchman noticed a young fellow loitering near the gate earlier that evening. Said he couldn't get a good look at the face, but he is relatively certain that the suspect was wearing a blue coat and a black baseball cap."
I didn't think it was possible to choke on a fish stick. I mean, it's supposed to happen with beef and chicken, but never with fish sticks. That unfortunate mishap with Grady was long forgotten; so what made me swallow hard and wedge an entire fish stick where my tonsils would be if they hadn't been taken out when I was twelve? Gasping for air, I lunge for my milk, but the glass slips from my hand, and it spills all over Dad's khaki shirt as he springs up to come to my aid. Anyone else might have first tried to dislodge the fish stick by pounding me on the back, but Dad, being experienced in such matters, goes straight for the Heimlich maneuver. The fish stick flies out of my piehole and lands in Dad's food. He calmly walks back to the table, forks the fish stick to the side of his plate, and goes on eating, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Only a parent could do that. And he didn't even wait for me to thank him.
With no radio or television (other than cable and satellite), we depend on the Hermosa Herald for our local news. Sam Peterson is the newspaper's owner/publisher/editor/reporter who has won everyone's respect by calling things as he sees them for over 40 years. Since there isn't always a lot to report, Sam gives in-depth coverage to what little of interest does happen, which is a nice way of saying he strings it out for all that it's worth. Just as I figured, the stolen dynamite was big news. It dominated the front page for a solid week. For three consecutive days, a drawing of the suspect wearing a heavy jacket and a baseball cap ran with the lead story. As artist's sketches go, this one was pretty good. I would have liked it better, however, if it didn't make everyone think of me. My Dad ribbed me about it, as did my friends. But they didn't know the half of it.
Grady phoned the Herald to report that the man in the drawing was the burglar who had fled from his house after breaking an upstairs window. The old fart liberally embellished his tale until I was tackling the burglar while he broke the stock of his shotgun over the guy's head, only to have him get up and run away. Of course, it was a complete lie, but when Sam asked me about it, I wasn't in a position to deny it. The story ran on Wednesday with my yearbook photo alongside a picture of Grady with slicked back hair that must have been taken before I was born. Naturally, Dad was furious that I hadn't bothered to mention it to him. But why didn't he yell at me like he usually did when I pulled some bonehead stunt? There was something different in the way he looked at me. Although he didn't come out and say it, I got the distinct impression that he was proud of what he thought I had done. It looked like I was off the hook. Mrs. Perkins told the mayor that I deserved a medal. Beth, who up until now hadn't acknowledged my existence suddenly wanted me to take her to the prom. If pats on the back were a penny each, I'd be worth a whole dollar.
About Beth. Beth doesn't walk; she glides like a Hovercraft, almost as if there were a cushion of air beneath her feet. You probably think I'm some lovesick puppy. That's not how it is. All I'm doing is making an independent observation. Bipeds are the biological equivalent of a two-stroke engine—we jerk along. Beth, however, has somehow overcome this innate defect of homo sapiens, evolving into gracefulness. That makes her superior, which explains why I am attracted to her. It's all in Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Don't believe me? Go read it for yourself.
Fifteen minutes up the state highway, the joshua trees give way to scrub oaks. It was to these hills that the forty-niners migrated to when the gold played out in the Mother Lode. Few, if any, struck it rich and all that remains today are abandoned mines. Being secluded and spooky makes it a great place to party. There is one nameless mine in particular that has drawn the high school crowd from Hermosa since before I was born. In fact, I found my father's name painted on a nearby outcropping of quartz and granite along with the date, 6-11-76. It's also where I first got close to Beth. She was with some guy who was puking his guts out, so it wasn't all that hard to steal her away. We talked and she didn't object when I put my arm around her. That was last weekend. I ran into Beth at the library yesterday and now we're on for the prom. Maybe I'm growing up. It hasn't been all that long since I had nothing better to do with my free time than to toss pebbles at Old Man Grady's window.
My main problem is that I don't have any wheels. Nor do I have a driver's license. Dad says he can drive me anywhere I need to go. I suppose that includes the prom. With my luck we'll end up going in a patrol car. Lots of action there. I'll be lucky if she kisses me goodnight. Just because the law enforcement officers' association supports raising the driving age to 18 shouldn't mean that I have to suffer. Why can't Dad be reasonable? Is that all I am to him, a political football for him to score his goals? But I suppose that's not really fair. He THINKS he is being responsible. There is a world of difference between being reasonable and being responsible. Reasonable people use good judgment whereas responsible people blindly follow the rules. Having a driver's license and insurance wouldn't necessarily make me a better driver. Dad's outmoded values are stunting my growth.
Since I could not come up with a reasonable solution, I decided to tell Beth that my grandfather was dying and I wouldn't be able to take her to the prom. To my surprise, Beth bought my lame story. I feel guilty about it but I'd feel even worse if I had lost Beth. Life doesn't care. There are times when the truth won't get you where you want to go.
On July 4th we go all out to celebrate our nation's independence. Even the Canadians participate in what amounts to the biggest bash of the year. At 10:30 AM the parade starts down Main Street led by a Marine honor guard and the Hermosa High School Hyenas marching band. At the last minute the mascot got sick and that is how I came to be wearing the jackal costume. I'm yelling at the top of my voice—half-howling, half-laughing—dancing, prancing, offering my paw to kids on the sidelines when they howl back. With all the activity and it being a hot summer day, it's a sauna inside the fur suit. Most of the crowd is wearing T-shirts, shorts, and sandals. But there is this dark fellow at the back who is wearing a heavy blue jacket and a black baseball cap. Strange, I think, and then it hits me.
THIS IS THE TERRORIST WHO SWIPED THE DYNAMITE! A sudden rush of adrenaline shifts me into overdrive. Moving like a wedge through the crowd, I home in on my target. Shoving past some middle-aged Canadians in Bermuda shorts, I get soaked in beer. But I hardly notice. I'm tensing to spring when a revelation stops me dead in my tracks. Sweltering day + heavy jacket = suicide belt. Beneath the jacket, this jerk has dynamite strapped to his body! No way I'm going to tackle him. If he lets go of the detonator, they'll have to hose us off the roadway. But I've got to do something and fast. Fish sticks. Yes, that's it! I reach out and grab the guy from behind, pinning his arms against his body, sort of like performing the Heimlich maneuver with malice aforethought The band is going by and they are in the middle of a drum roll as I lift Mr. Suicide Bomber off the ground, attempting to squeeze the life out of him. The crowd thinks it is all part of the act and roar their approval. Elbows drive deep into my ribs, but I'm not about to let go. My right knee catches his knee from behind and we both go down hard. But he rolls away and is up and running with me on his tail.
I try to shed the costume on the run but the zipper sticks. In the time it takes me to get across the parking lot, he's up and over the chain link fence at the rear of the Circle K. The barb wire strand on the top snags my much-too-furry crotch which promptly rips as I do a full flip and manage to land on my feet. Turning around, I see him shinny up the drainpipe onto the flat roof. I wrap my paw around an empty wine bottle and hurl it at Mr. Suicide's head. It misses by a mile, hurtling completely over the building to explode on the asphalt below. The crowd hears the glass break and responds with a spine-tingling shout. They have forgotten the parade—we've stolen the show. It's my 15 minutes of fame, but I'm not enjoying it. This is the fight of my life and everyone thinks it's a joke. So much for not being able to fool all of the people all of the time. A drawing of this guy ran on the front page for a week and I'm the only person who recognizes him. This is ridiculous. People see what they want to see.
Normally, I'm slow to anger. But this guy is making me mad. I find a case of empty long neck beer bottles and fire them off like a gatling gun. Mr. Suicide is dodging them left and right. I lob one high and he gets under it and sends it flying back at me. Next comes a dish antennae which would have beaned me had it not abruptly come up short when its coaxial cable went taut.
We've attracted an audience. A Calgary cowboy, his faded jeans embellished with a Stampede belt buckle, is taking it all in from just beyond the chain link enclosure. His jaw has gone slack, as if he is beginning to put 2 and 2 together. But I haven't got time to wait for him to do the math. Instead, I give him a big hyena grin, point towards the sky, and, when he looks up, I stick my paw through the fence and snatch a cell phone off his belt. Stabbing at the miniscule buttons with my clumsy paw, I suddenly realize why animals don't have cell phones.
Meanwhile, our Calgary cowboy has finished the equation and come up with 5. The pointed toes on cowboy boots were evidently designed to assist them in scaling chain link enclosures, because this guy is doing a Jackie Chan on me before I can talk my way out of it. Besides, it's hard to come up with a convincing explanation when you are flat on your back with a cowboy sitting on your chest.
And then he had the audacity to gag me with a handkerchief. You would think that a cowboy would use a bandana. His snot rag stuffed in my mouth! No wonder they call it a gag.
Although I couldn't talk, I could still move my head. I kept staring at the cell phone lying less than a foot away and he eventually got the idea and leaned over to pick it up. Three short taps on the keys and we were connected to the emergency 911 dispatcher. I say "we" because we were functioning as a team despite outward appearances to the contrary. What I mean is that I had intended to dial 911 and the fact that it was the cowboy who eventually placed the call is of small importance. I had an idea and he acted upon it. That makes us a team, doesn't it?
By the time Dad arrived in the black and white and I had my chance to explain what happened (Dad, for some unexplicable reason, did not immediately remove the gag), the terrorist had made good his escape. Two days later, a team of special investigators went over the roof of the Circle K with a fine tooth comb and came up with nothing. They hung around for the rest of the week, asking questions and looking for clues. Although several hundred people had seen the terrorist, they couldn't seem to agree on what he looked like. Lots of people had videotaped the parade and the agents confiscated everything they could get their hands on, including a camera belonging to the Hermosa Herald along with four rolls of undeveloped film. What it showed, I don't know. The feds whisked it away and that was the last we ever saw of it.
I'm thinking about having some business cards printed: RYAN ROMERO, HERO. That's what they are calling me. Yesterday, I did a phone interview with a talk show host from a college radio station in Adelanto and today Mrs. Stevens from two doors down came over to show me a clipping from the Los Angeles Times. As luck would have it, they spelled my name wrong. If I had given the reporter a business card, maybe that wouldn't have happened.
The hyena costume was in shreds when I turned it in. Mrs. Michaels, the band instructor, who is in charge of such things, looked at the big rip down the middle (I never did get the zipper unstuck) with a frown that made the Grinch look like Santa Claus. The thought ran through my mind that she was going to make me pay for the damage. Instead, after staring at it (and me) in a threatening manner, she evidently thought better, and, tossing the ruined garment aside, said, "Since the band is getting new uniforms next year, I don't see why we shouldn't do the same for the mascot. I'm just glad that you didn't get hurt." Then, as I was about to exit through the doorway, her sternness melted into a girlish grin and she blurted out quite unexpectedly, "That was very brave of you, Ryan. You did us proud!"
Dad is worried that by going up against this terrorist fellow twice I may have made myself a target. I don't have the guts to tell him that I made up a story the first time to cover up for breaking a window. How was I supposed to know that the bad guy I invented would turn out to be real? Besides, if I told the truth now, it wouldn't change anything. I did everyone a favor by alerting them of danger before it actually happened. There are no two ways about it. The whole town is saying that I am a genuine, 24 karat solid gold hero. After what they've said, It wouldn't be right of me to let them down, now would it?
What amazes me is that the one person I most wanted to impress took a dim view of what I did. Earlier today I was walking down the sidewalk thinking about ways to spring a trap on the terrorist when Beth drives up in her mother's Mercedes, pulls over to the curb, and rolls down the window. She is wearing dark wraparound sunglasses and has that look on her face that women get when they are about to unload. I glance around for some way of diverting her attention, but it is too late.
"Ryan Romero! How could you? Whatever made you spoil the parade? That enormous ego of yours almost got us all blown to Kingdom Come. All you needed to do was to ask someone with a cell phone to dial 911. But, oh no, being conceited, you couldn't pass up a chance to show off in front of a crowd, could you? And, to top it off, you picked a fight with an innocent bystander. Thank God, he kicked your ass. Maybe this will teach you a lesson."
"He barely laid a hand on me. Why, I . . .
"And you are a liar to boot. I don't know what I ever saw in you."
I desperately wanted to defuse the situation. These kind of things need to be discussed in private. I am about to say something to put her in her place when she steps on the gas and speeds away before I can get a word in edgewise. Women! No matter what you do, they always take it wrong.
I need wheels. The difference between an adult with an active social life and a kid that is going nowhere is a driver's license. No wonder Beth talked down to me. Walking down the sidewalk, I must look like Iam down and out. It only goes to prove that you cannot be a real hero without a set of wheels.
Even terrorists have wheels. He had to have a vehicle to steal an entire case of dynamite. Since he has not been seen that often, it stands to reason that he is holed up somewhere out of town. I bet he hides in a dark cave during the day and only comes out with the vermin at night.
What makes these people function? How could anyone be so mad at the world as to want to blow themselves and everyone near them to smithereens? Strapping dynamite to one's body must be the ultimate desperate plea for attention. What good is martyrdom going to do this guy? So he goes to Islamic heaven and is greeted by dozens of dark-eyed virgins. A lot of good that is going to do him without a penis.
Why didn't he push the button on his suicide belt while he was in the crowd watching the Fourth of July parade? Is he having second thoughts? Do terrorists go to baseball games and eat pizza? Maybe our way of life is rubbing off on him. Maybe if he stays here long enough, he will come to realize that Americans are not as bad as the militants make us out to be. But then, that is assuming that he is a human being. Dad says that terrorists are like cockroaches. You have to stomp on them hard before they spread.
Speaking of cockroaches, that is Melinda Grant coming out of the lobby of the post office across from City Hall. Look close, and you will see the strawberry blotch on the side of her neck. Most people think it is a birthmark, but I know different. When Melinda was still a toddler, her mother got fed up with her constant whining and threw a pot of boiling water at her, scalding the left side of her body. If you ask me, she should have done a better job because Melinda did not learn anything from it. She is a crybaby and a snitch. In 6thgrade I snuck off to get a soda during a school assembly and Melinda told on me. The principal suspended me for two days and Dad made me spend them shoveling sand in a ravine that runs alongside our yard. It took a week for the blisters on my hands to heal.
Normally, I will avoid Melinda like the plague she is. But today is different. Melinda lives next door to Beth and they play tennis together on weekends. I am going to saunter over to the post office, turn on my patented Ryan Romero rico-suave sex appeal, and see if I can get her to put a good word in for me with Beth.
"Those pleated shorts really look good on you, Melinda. They make you look thinner.
"Are you calling me fat? What's it to you what I wear?"
"Nah, it's nothing like that. I was thinking of getting something like that for my sister."
"You don't have a sister. What are you trying to pull?"
"Actually, it is for Beth. She is always talking about how well you dress and I thought you might help me to pick out something for her. I know we are not exactly the best of friends and you don't owe me anything, but I could use your help right now."
"You are asking me?"
"Please, I'm begging you. Beth means the world to me. You know her better than anybody. I don't know of anyone whose opinion she values more than yours."
"Alright, Ryan. Seeing as how it is for Beth . . . ."
"Thanks, Melinda. You won't be sorry."
I turn away quickly and hurry down the steps so as not to give her a chance to change her mind. Besides, I am not feeling very good about the way this turned out. Sure, I got what I wanted from Melinda, but it cost me more than I had planned. Since when do I humble myself before someone I despise? This isn't like me. Love makes you do strange things, but this is ridiculous. I go for rico-suave and come off as a charity case. Got to get those hormones in check. They are driving me up the wall. Every time I try to think of a way to capture the terrorist, I think of Beth instead. Women are such distractions. Only trouble is that I like them.
Hanging around the house all summer isn't doing me any good. Dad set the thermostat at 85 degrees to save electricity. It is hotter than blazes in here. I must have gone through a case of Pepsi this past week. There are only 2 cans left in the refrigerator. I would go out and buy some more, but I am flat broke.
What I need is a job. The RV parks sometimes hire summer help, but I heard it is mostly shoveling sand and pumping human waste from storage tanks. My cousin did it last year and he says that you put on a pair of grimy gloves and shove a four inch rubber hose onto the tank. When the hose clogs, you have to shove your arm inside, feel around for what got stuck, and then pull it out. All the way from Edmonton some snowbird family with 6 kids have been sharing a chemical toilet. Did I mention that the foul mixture is 3 months ripe and baking in the desert heat? They all had burritos for lunch and little Timmy got a tummy ache and heaved his into the toilet. Sister Tammy disposed of her tampons in the toilet and when older brother Tommy got lucky with a female hitchhiker, he got rid of the condom in a similar manner. Yes, that is what you have in your hand, Tammy's tampon and Tommy's condom. They got tied together with dental floss and wedged so tightly that it takes you 15 minutes to dislodge them. Oops, did it splash in your face? Well, no one said it was going to be easy. What do you mean, this job stinks? You are fired!
I am not cut out to be a laborer. I can picture myself answering phones for a talent agency on the 32nd floor of a towering skyscraper. But the nearest talent agency is in Los Angeles where they do not build tall buildings due to earthquakes. Here I am, brimming with talent and ambition, stuck in a small town in the middle of the desert. It is not fair, but then what is? I would be lucky to land a job as a dishwasher at Sanderson's Cafe.
"Hi, Jenny. Is Mr. Sanderson around?"
"How are you, Ryan? I was at the parade and saw you go after that madman. He ought to be shot on sight. Sanderson is working the grill. The door is over there."
Every bit as tough as she looks, Jenny has three large plates balanced on her forearm and a glass pot filled with steaming hot coffee in her other hand. Two of the fingers holding the coffee pot go straight as she points toward a swinging door that leads to the kitchen.
As I push my way through the door, the hinges complain noisily, and Mr. Sanderson looks up frantically from the five orders of hash browns sizzling on the grill. He is attempting to grin, but it is obviously forced. I am inching backwards, thinking that maybe this is not the best time to approach him for a job, when he blurts, "What do you need, Ryan?"
"I thought maybe you could use a dishwasher.
"What I could use is more customers and a few less annoyances. This place doesn't make enough business during the off-season to justify hiring a dishwasher. Ever since they built the bypass for the state highway, I have barely managed to make ends meet. Those Canucks sit for hours, nursing a cup of coffee and then expect a free refill. If I was Jenny, I would pour it in their laps. Those coins they leave her as tips are not worth half what they are supposed to be worth. They have this bogus two dollar coin that has a penny inside of it. The first dollar is OK, but the second goes for a cent."
All the while he is talking, Mr. Sanderson is slapping patties on the grill. He has to be at least 80 years old, but you could never tell it from the way he moves. Years of working at a grill have singed the hair off the back of his right hand, a hand that deftly turns a spatula through maneuvers that resemble an aerial dogfight. I am thinking he is a borderline racist, so it surprises me when he says, "It's about time I sold this place and retired. I bought two acres in Alberta. Nothing but pine trees and blue sky. And it has air that is fit to breathe. Trout cannot wait to take your bait. I don't understand why the Canucks want to come here when they got it so much better there."
"Thanks anyway, Mr. Sanderson."
I am turning around as if to go. But Jenny is coming through the door with a plastic tub full of dirty dishes. I sidestep, flattening myself against the wall and the door misses me by an inch.
"Quick reflexes," says Mr. Sanderson, flattening a hamburger patty against the bottom of the spatula. He leans into it hard, pressing the grease out. Jenny is placing the tub into the sink at the other end of the kitchen. She has something on her mind and is oblivious to the conversation. A fly lands on a nearby counter and I smash it to death with the palm of my hand. This time the grin is for real: "Your grandfather had quick reflexes."
"You knew my grandfather?"
"He washed dishes for me. In fact, he did lots of odd jobs before he became sheriff. Your grandpa worked his way up from the bottom. Not afraid of hard work or anything else for that matter. Nowadays, self-made men like your grandfather are rarer than Republicans in a breadline.
I toss the carcass of the fly into a wastebasket and turn again to go.
"What's the rush? I said I didn't need a dishwasher, but I didn't mean I could not use some help. Ever run a buffer? Been a while since the linoleum had a shine. Come back around nine when I am closing up and I will put you to work."
"Thanks, Mr. Sanderson."
This time I don't see Jenny coming as I push through the swinging door. She is moving so fast that she cannot stop. But instead of colliding, she sweeps me up in her arms and carries me through the door. Without losing a beat, she sets me down gently and pulls a pad from her pocket to take a customer's order. Blushing, I slink around tables and chairs, trying to look nonchalant and wishing I was invisible. Out, onto the sidewalk I stumble. Graceful I may not be, but at least I got the job
Walking home, I come across a broken down motor home. It is a new 30 footer with three bicycles tied to the rear. The hood is up. Mom, dad, and their teenage daughter are sitting on the curb, looking dejected. I am guessing that the fully endowed daughter is not wearing a bra beneath her sequined T-shirt. I want to take a closer look without being too obvious. So, I stick my head in the engine compartment as if I know what I am doing. The dad gets up, walks over, and says they are waiting for a tow truck.
Since it is well over 100 degrees today and a lime colored liquid is dripping down the side of the plastic overflow bottle that connects to the radiator, it does not take a genius to guess that the engine has overheated. I know just enough about it to sound knowledgeable.
"You know, they make three types of thermostats: low, medium, and high. When you buy a recreational vehicle up north, it comes equipped with a high-range thermostat. But what you need for desert driving is a low-range thermostat that cuts in before the fluid comes to a boil."
He buys my explanation—what the heck, for all I know, it could be correct—and offers me a can of Pepsi from a cooler packed with ice. We shoot the bull for a while and he lets me know they are staying at the RV park on the north end of town. I get introduced to the rest of the family and the daughter, Angelique (isn't that a delightful name?), flicks her auburn hair from side to side and smiles invitingly....She is sitting on the cooler and I am standing there looking down upon her abundance in all its glory. I am sucking it all in when the tow truck arrives and I say good-bye. Good Samaritan that I am, I make a mental note to drop by the RV park the next chance I get in order to make certain that the mechanic did a good job.
After dinner and a long shower, I head back to Sanderson's Cafe, where I bump into Grady as I am going in the door. The newspaper he has folded under his arm drops to the floor. When I stoop to pick it up, the headline screams, 'FIRES SWEEP ACROSS ASIA.' I am thinking it is not any hotter there than it is here. Grady grunts as I hand it back to him. That's likely about as close as he can come to saying thank you. Off he shuffles into the night, a lonely man with no one waiting for him at home—no wife to hug and no dog to pet. I certainly would not want to be Grady.
Mr. Sanderson locks the door behind me and flips the sign in the window over so it now reads CLOSED. We go into the kitchen. The grill is cold and there are tubs of dirty dishes stacked in the sink. He has me take out the trash. When I come back inside after hosing out the cans, Mr. Sanderson is pushing a block of porous stone back and forth over the grill. He hands it to me and I scrape the grill while he washes the dishes. The air-conditioning is off, I am sweating like a pig, and my arms are starting to ache. I have been scraping for an hour and don't seem to be making any progress. Back and forth, back and forth until my arms feel as if they are going to fall off. This is senseless, mindless drudgery. Surely, there must be a better way.
"Do you always scrape the grill like this," I ask innocently.
"Each and every night," Mr. Sanderson replies, "Going on 50 years now." He is hard at work, scouring a blackened aluminum stock pot and has not been paying me much attention.
"Couldn't we do this with power tools," I boldly venture.
"What does the sign painted on the building say?"
"When it says Ryan's Cafe you can stand atop that grill with a jack hammer and pound away to your heart's content. But while it is my cafe we will continue to do it my way. Is that alright with you?
"Yes, sir, Mr. Sanderson."
It's another half hour until he tells me to stop. My right hand has two blisters, one of which is broken. A considerate employer would have provided gloves. But I know better than to open my big mouth and say so.
Mr. Sanderson tells me to get a stepladder from the broom closet. The big screens in the hood over the grill have to be taken down. They are clogged with yellow grease. By the time I can carry them to the sink, my pants are soaked with the nasty stuff. It is my own fault. Had I not removed my apron while I was scraping the grill, it would not have happened. But it is hotter than blazes in here and I thought I would be better off without it. I would put the apron back on, but it would be like putting on a condom after sex.
Mr. Sanderson brings out a galvanized mop bucket and fills it with hot water and disinfectant. Mopping a floor is no big deal. I do it all the time at home. If I waited for someone else to do it, the ants would have taken over by now. I mop over the linoleum with a vengeance, stopping here and there to scour a hard spot on my hands and knees with a scrub brush. Mr. Sanderson is obviously impressed, but no words of praise are forthcoming. Perhaps he only speaks when he has something bad to say. I sure hope I never get to be like that.
I mop us both into a corner booth where Mr. Sanderson has two mugs of coffee waiting on the table. We have been working hard for several hours and I definitely need a break. My joints ache and my muscles are sore. Besides, the floor has to dry before we can buff it. I take a sip from my mug. The coffee is strong and hot, but there is a cooling breeze blowing through the open windows. One of them has an air conditioner in it that is seldom if ever on. No need for me to ask why. Electricity is expensive in Southern California. Dad says we could easily run up a $300 bill in a single month if we left the air conditioning on all the time. The Circle K is the only store in Hermosa that sets its thermostat below 80 degrees. I guess that explains why the owner won't allow kids to hang out in his store on hot summer days.
I place my hand beneath the table and feel a wad of gum. In fact, the underside of the table is layered with rock-hard, dried-up chewing gum. Give me a hammer and a chisel and in a year or so I might be able to chip it off. I am wondering how long it has been building up when Mr. Sanderson looks up from his coffee and says:
"You look a lot like your grandfather. First time I ever set eyes on him was right after World War II. Came in here looking for a job. Some slick real estate agent had sold him some sand and he was trying to make a ranch out of it. Said he needed money for a well. I told him that I could think of better things to do with money than putting it into a hole in the ground. Then he flashed me that big grin of his. Said he was doing the work himself, but needed the money to buy the materials. I said I would try him for a day, but if he broke any dishes, they would come out of his wages."
I can't count the number of stories people have told me about my grandpa. Maybe they think I was too young to remember him, but I do. He taught me to appreciate life for what it is. To me he was very real—flesh and blood real—infinitely more real than the legend. For Hermosa he was a hero and everyone needs a hero. It's the family business. Grandpa was a hero, Dad is a hero, and I intend to be a hero, too. It's what we do. People are free to embellish it anyway they please. I don't mind. In fact, I would rather listen to a tale about my grandfather than to buff the floor. Fortunately for me, Mr. Sanderson is beginning to warm to his subject:
"Your grandfather works for me for three or four weeks. Then I don't see him for a week and I figure he gave up on the ranch and moved on. But then I hear he has got a tripod and a pulley rigged up and is digging himself a well, one bucketful at a time. Since the soil is mostly sand, there is a big chance that the hole could collapse on him before he reaches the water table. He is about thirty feet down when the rope breaks and he has to come to town to buy another one."
"In that time, the summer of '46, there was a general store where the Circle K is now. At one end of the store there was a bar. The previous weekend there had been a hill climbing contest sponsored by a motorcycle dealership in Adelanto. When it ended, some of the bikers stopped here to celebrate. Only the celebration began to get out of hand. In those days we didn't have a town sheriff. Since they had thought to cut the phone lines, we had no way to summon help from the county or the state. They were doing pretty much as they pleased, getting drunk and roaring up and down Main Street on their cycles, scaring the dickens out of people."
"Your grandfather walks into the store and asks for a coil of rope. There are several bikers at the bar and one of them is wearing a denim vest with a swastika painted on the back. There I am standing at the counter, paying for a sack of flour, when this big guy with tattoos covering his arms asks me to buy them a round of drinks. Not wanting any trouble, I get another bill out of my wallet when your grandfather looks him straight in the eye and says, "he don't drink with Nazis and neither do I, at which point they laugh and throw an empty beer mug at him. Your grandfather catches it in his left hand, smiles, and takes a deep bow. They go wild with applause."
"He walks slowly over to the bar, sets the mug gently on the counter, and grabs the biker with the swastika by the vest and rips it off his back. It's six against one, but he seems to welcome it. Wrapping the vest around his forearm, he uses it to shield himself from their knives. They are all over him now, so he drops to the floor and makes a leap for the door."
"I got knocked cold by a flying barstool, so I missed the rest of the fight, but I heard later that when he got out the door, he grabbed a sawed-off shotgun from a leather holster hanging from the nearest bike. Because all of the bikes were parked in a clump on the wooden porch, when the first one fell over, the rest followed."
"They were mad as hornets when they swarmed out the door, but they were not about to go up against a shotgun. He told them to go back inside and finish their beers. They proved slow to follow orders, so he got the bunch of them moving by blowing the porch steps to splinters. By the time they mustered the courage to take a peek out the window, he was long gone.
"That night we had an impromptu meeting of concerned citizens and local ranchers right here where you are sitting now. Sam Peterson had just returned from the county seat where he had tried to get us some assistance. The deputy on duty had told him that he couldn't be bothered by transients whooping it up in a one horse town unless a shooting had occurred. That was the last straw. We formed a Citizens' Committee. My head was still throbbing and I wanted to go and lynch the bunch of them. Sam said that wouldn't do. We needed to incorporate and elect our own sheriff. But that could take months. So we decided to appoint an interim sheriff who could run the riffraff out of town."
"The next morning we went over to your grandfather's ranch to offer him the job. He said he was busy digging a well and couldn't go until it was completed. So we helped him finish the well. I put on some coffee and the others took turns at the shovels. Didn't need to dig far. With all of us working, we were done by noon. Sweetest water you ever tasted—clear like a mountain spring. Never went dry—not even after three years of drought. When a horse gets loose, it heads straight for the trough that is fed by that well. You might say as how horses got horse sense."
"Of course, those outlaws skedaddled as soon as they set eyes on your grandfather coming up the street with the rest of us behind him. I was carrying a big cast iron skillet and you can bet I was plenty disappointed when I didn't get to brain them with it. Went with their tails tucked between their legs. They weren't half as bad as they thought they were."
"A couple of days later, the Hermosa Herald put out a special edition devoted to the incident. Sam has got a way with words. He can paint what happened like nobody else can. The eastern newspapers got hold of it and turned the storm into a hurricane. Then Hollywood got into the act and they filmed the story right here on Main Street. Starred Marlon what's-his-name, you know, the Godfather fellow with the chipmunk cheeks."
What motivates people to tell me this tale? I must have heard it a thousand times. It's almost as if they figure my grandfather never told me the real story. Since Mr. Sanderson was one of the few that were actually there, his version is more accurate than most. I had a Canadian tell me that the Hell's Angels burned down Hermosa. Legends grow with time. Sooner or later, I expect we will demolish the Circle K, rebuild the General Store, and turn it into a tourist trap. It probably would have been done long ago if it were not for the fact that outsiders tend to refer to the town fathers as vigilantes. That is being mean. The Citizens Committee was composed of decent, law-abiding, God-fearing citizens who, considering the circumstances, had no other choice than to take the law into their own hands.
What puzzles me is why Mr. Sanderson insists on referring to the man who saved this town as "your grandfather." Could there have been some animosity between them? Or does he want to make it abundantly clear that I could not find a better role model? My grandfather was on a first name basis with everyone in this town. His name was Ryan Romero, the same as me and my father. And no, I'm not Ryan Romero III or Ryan Romero, Jr. Plain Ryan Romero; plain as the nose on your face. Nobody has any trouble telling us apart. You can always tell by the inflection which one of us someone is talking about. When they speak about my grandfather, the tone is one of respect bordering on reverence for a historical figure. My father tends to get grudging respect and I get dissed. Sometimes I think I would rather not be noticed.
Mr. Sanderson glances down at his watch and gets that surprised look on his face that tells me our 10 minute break was over 5 minutes ago. I dispose of the coffee mugs and wipe the table off while Mr. Sanderson goes to get the buffer. It is a rather imposing machine with two giant round bristle brushes on the business end. When he turns it on, the lights dim ever-so-slightly for a fraction of a second and the motor begins to hum. Together, they glide from side-to-side in a graceful imitation of ballroom dancing across the linoleum floor, leaving a brilliant shine in their wake. This is the grand finale, the last task to perform before we call it a night and go home. If we had an audience, no doubt Mr. Sanderson would have gotten a standing ovation.
He's a hard act to follow, but now it is time for me to shine (pun intended). Firmly, I take his partner into my hands. The buffer veers to the left. I pull hard to the right. The buffer responds as if it came equipped with power steering, almost getting away from me. I glance down and, horror of horrors, the cord is wrapped around my left foot. Deftly, I lift my foot, allowing the cord to slide safely to the floor. Precariously posed on one leg, I am the personification of perfection. Why does the stupid buffer have to pick this vulnerable moment to run amok? Down it goes, taking me with it.
Mr. Sanderson smiles at me. "The same thing happened to me, first time out," he says. It is a bit like learning to ride a bicycle—it takes a while to get your balance."
I crawl over to the buffer on my hands and knees and switch it off. Mr. Sanderson must think this is amusing because his eyes are gleaming like a freshly buffed floor. As I am struggling to get up, he tosses me the keys. "Lock up when you are done," he tells me. And without further adieu, he disappears through the open front door into the dark night, leaving me to stew in my own juices. It takes me all of an hour to give the floor the appearance of glass, the purpose of which escapes me. If a customer slips on it and sues Mr. Sanderson, does that mean I have done a good job? If it was my restaurant, I would sprinkle sand over the floor in order to provide some traction. As I am locking up, I see the sign painted on the building. Yep, Sanderson's Cafe is what it says, plain as the nose on your face.
By the time I get home, it is 3 AM. Although I am thoroughly exhausted, I cannot seem to get to sleep. No matter how many times I punch it, this stupid foam pillow won't fluff. Didn't they used to stuff pillows with chicken feathers? As I recall, Dad's bed has pillows that fluff. I bet he would not mind if I traded one of mine for one of his. But he is sound asleep, so I tiptoe into his bedroom and am about to grab the pillow from the opposite side of the bed when his hand slips under the pillow and comes up with a gun. I about wet my pants.
"What the hell are you doing sneaking around my bedroom?," Dad demands.
"I need a pillow," I answer, my voice quivering with fear.
"What is wrong with the one you have in your hand?"
"It won't fluff."
"Fluff for brains nearly got himself shot. Don't ever sneak up on me like that again."
Dad turns over and goes back to sleep. How was I supposed to know he kept a gun under his pillow? Seventeen years I have been living in this house with my father and I still don't know everything there is to know about him. Lesson learned: law enforcement officers are on duty 24 hours a day. This is one mistake I can guarantee you I will never make again.
What makes me pull these dumb stunts? Could it be that I am harboring a subconscious urge to self-destruct? Perhaps I have more in common with a suicide bomber than I realize. No, that's not it. Everybody makes mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them. I am not getting anywhere beating myself over the head.
Where there is a will, there is a way, or so my mother used to say. I solve the pillow problem by tearing the foam into little pieces. It isn't feathers, but it does fluff. Satisfied, I finally fall asleep.
The heat wakes me up around noon. Nasty, ungodly heat, such as only desert dwellers know. Unforgiving, searing heat that penetrates your bones and bakes the marrow. Give me a ticket out of this place. What I need is a swim.
Lake Witt is just outside the city limits. It's where we get our drinking water. There is a chain link fence around it with "No Swimming" signs posted at regular intervals. That is a bit like dangling candy in front of a baby and then telling him he can't have any. Anyway, there is not any other place to swim.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the faceless bureaucrat who in the name of some obscure governmental agency took it upon himself to ban the public from swimming in a lake which belongs to them. If it were not for him, the lake would be too crowded for me to enjoy a swim.
The 10 foot fence may look imposing, but it is not really that much of a barrier. Wire is much safer to climb than a stepladder. A stepladder can wobble and make you fall, especially when you are standing at the top. But a chain link fence is supported by strong steel poles anchored in concrete. The links are just the right size for tennis shoes. It could not be by accident. This fence was meant to be climbed.
Since there isn't anybody around, I take my clothes off and swim in the nude like real athletes did before commercial interests and promoters ruined amateur sports. There is nothing wrong with swimming in the raw. Although it may not be in the Bible, it stands to reason that Adam and Eve took off their fig leaves when they went for a swim.
I know what you are thinking. You are imagining what you would do to me if you ever caught me doing the breast stroke sans Speedo in your drinking water. But it is not as if I am dipping my private parts in the glass of water you just poured. Water gets recycled, same as any other material. It's a complicated process, but I will try and keep it simple. The snow melts up in the mountains and flows into Lake Witt where it gets a dose of chlorine and fluoride before being pumped to my house. When I flush the toilet, it goes to the municipal sewage treatment plant where it gets aerated and somewhat purified before being dumped into the river. Downstream of Hermosa is Adelanto. By the time the river gets to Adelanto, most of it has soaked into the ground where it replenishes the water table which happens to be where Adelanto gets its water. This process is repeated four or five times before the river reaches the Pacific Ocean. That's right, the water gets flushed down four or five toilets before it comes out of the kitchen faucet of a posh mansion in Beverly Hills. And, since it is no worse for the wear, why should I feel guilty about going for a swim?
Taking a deep breath, I plunge beneath the surface. The water is so clear that I can see a long way even though I am not wearing a face mask. A seemingly limitless liquid paradise beckons me to explore its wonders. How could I say no? After all, you are only young once. Might as well go for the gusto. Go skinny dipping at 17 and you are a mischievous kid. Do it at 40 and they will call you a pervert. Better now than later.
Thoreau should have had it this good. According to what I read in English literature, Walden Pond wasn't much more than a mud puddle. Imagine what he would have penned if they had given him a decent lake to write about.
After nearly having been shot this morning, I am in no rush to go home. Sunsets in this region are second to none. I understand it has something to do with the smog. Evidently, particles in the air act like a prism, diffusing the sun's dying rays into a virtual riot of colors ranging from pastel orange to fluorescent burgundy and beyond. The show goes on for nearly an hour, 300 days per year. I am for demolishing Disneyland so that tourists can have an unobstructed view of Southern California's spectacular sunsets. Nothing that is manmade will ever rival Mother Nature.
Like an idiot, I forgot to bring a towel. Not important. If a dog can shake himself dry, so can I. I am doing a pretty good imitation of a wet retriever when I spy a big plastic barrel lying on its side behind an oleander. Maybe a technician forgot to haul it away after adding chemicals to the water. I would report it to someone, only I am not supposed to be here. It seems strange that anyone could misplace an object this large. I guess some people would lose their heads if they were not attached to their shoulders.
When I get home, there is a message from Beth on the answering machine. While I am happy to hear from her, I am in no rush to return her call. Right now, what I want most is to be alone with my thoughts. I go to my room and shut the door. Although I am lying motionless on my bed in the dark, my mind is racing backwards through the day's events. I am outside of myself looking inward. The tape rewinds, then jerks to a halt when it reaches the last frame. I was not prepared for the gun in my father's hand. Was that me screaming? I am flying out of control. Got to get a grip on myself. What scares me more than the gun is that Dad may have detected fear in my eyes. He tested me and I failed miserably. Dad would never let himself get caught off balance. It makes me wonder if I have what it takes to be a Romero. Anyway, this is no business of yours. Whatever you are thinking, keep it to yourself.
Have you ever noticed that the weak moments—those times when your doubts and fears strike full force—always occur when you are not doing anything important? That is why the idle rich have shrinks. You might cry yourself to bed at night, but in the morning you have to get up and go to work. By staying busy, you stay sane.
Duty calls. It is time to make dinner. If you are like me, you would rather not spend too much time in the kitchen. Forget the cook books. I will show you how it is done. First, get a package of meat out of the refrigerator—pork, beef, whatever—cut it up with a butcher knife and toss it into a large cast iron skillet along with soy sauce and a dash of Worcestershire. Chop onions, green peppers, and garlic. Throw in a can of mushroom soup and an egg or two. Mix it all together and put it on the stove. Turn on the heat. Stir occasionally. When the meat turns brown, it is done. Congratulations! You cooked an entire meal in less than 15 minutes and only dirtied three utensils. Show me a chef who can do that.
I got my first paycheck today. Since it was only for one week and I am only earning minimum wage, I wasn't expecting much. And that is precisely what I got—not much after the state and federal governments took their share. Why do I have to pay for Old Age Survivors Disability Insurance? It sounds bogus. Nobody survives old age. Wouldn't you have to be immortal in order to collect? There is also a separate deduction for Medicare. Why should people my age have to pay for Medicare? Please don't misunderstand me. I do care about the elderly. As a matter of fact, I plan to be there myself someday. But couldn't they at least wait until I am out of high school to start charging me for Medicare?
Now that I have some money, I can take Beth to the movies. Or can I? The last time I went to the movies with the guys, it only cost me $5. Of course, each of us paid for our own ticket. Plus we went in the afternoon when the prices are considerably cheaper. It would be different on a date. We would have to go at night and I would have to pay for both tickets. That is $15 just to get in the door. After we are in, I will have to buy popcorn and soft drinks. Let's see, two large sodas, $3.50 X 2 = $7. Add the popcorn and I'm out $10. Twenty-five dollars for a 90 minute flick! That is ridiculous. No wonder my friends go up into the hills to party. Nobody can afford to take a girl on a date at these prices.
Beth is great. I'm sure she would be willing to share the costs, but my pride won't let me ask. Men are cursed. The older I get, the more I think with my dick. It is my dick that is telling me not to let Beth pay her own way. God help me. If I have to go through the rest of my life like this, it is not going to be worth living.
You would not believe the dreams I have. Most of them involve Beth. If she knew what I was dreaming about, I doubt she would ever talk to me again. I have heard women say that men are animals. It's true, we are animals. But we also have souls. It is the soul that takes something brutish and makes it glorious. Why should I settle for mere sex when I can go all the way and have a full-fledged romance? Love doesn't take you where you want to go unless it is shared. So why am I not telling this to Beth? Because I have trouble expressing myself when I am near her. My hormones are revving so hard that I cannot function in a normal manner. Anticipation is killing me.
Enough of this. I am beginning to sound like a lovesick puppy. Chasing women is for losers. I need to get my act together. If our relationship is going to last, I need to earn Beth's respect, not her pity.
Contrary to what you are probably thinking, I have never had a problem getting girls to like me. I dress well and have been told that I am fairly good looking. And, most importantly, I know how to carry my end of a conversation. I am not one of those guys who clam up when they get around women. It is only Beth who affects me in that manner.
Here, take a look at my high school yearbook. Thirteen of the 21 girls who signed it put their phone numbers after their signatures. No doubt some of them sit on the bed at night staring at the phone, waiting for me to call. I may not be a dream boat, but no way am I a garbage scow.
Speaking of garbage scows, I ran into Melinda while walking home from work around 4 AM. I was dying to ask her what she was doing out at that hour, but thought better of it and limited my inquiries to a curt, "How is it going?" Since she grudgingly nodded an acknowledgement of my presence rather than stopping to engage in conversation, I took it she wasn't very happy to see me. Could it be that she had something to hide? Possibly an affair with a married man or perhaps a lesbian lover? Not likely. After all, she is Beth's best friend and this is Hermosa, not Hollywood. I have to quit thinking like a cop.
But then, that is what I am—a third generation cop. Even if I wanted to—which I don't—there could be no escape. It is what is expected of me by Dad and everyone else in this godforsaken town. They take it for granted that I will be sheriff someday. It's as if I don't have a separate identity. When my parents named me Ryan, they pinned a badge on me. I wasn't born, I was cloned.
Not that I am whining. I could think of worse things that could happen to me than turning into my father. Although his job may be frustrating at times, it is never boring. There is plenty of action and that suits me just fine. Going after the bad guys with a vengeance is a great way to live life to the fullest. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Pat Garrett—they brought law and order to the West. They are my heroes. I may not be able to completely fill their boots, but I intend to follow in their footsteps. Hereabouts, people respect the law. That is a lot more than I can say for big cities like Chicago and Detroit where drugs, crime, and corruption run rampant. Give me Hermosa. Unlike those urban wastelands, we have not lost sight of what America is about.
Hermosa is more like what America used to be than what it has become. Evidently, we aren't large enough to attract a MacDonald's or a Wal-Mart. Other than the Circle K franchise, our businesses are of the mom and pop variety, family-run and family-oriented, which means that they are sensitive to local needs and tastes. At Sanderson's Cafe you can get avocado on your hamburger. Try that at a MacDonald's. When you order a Coke, the waitress brings you the real thing—a bottle of Coca-Cola and a glass rather than handing you a flimsy plastic cup and telling you to get your own drink from a machine which dispenses cola-flavored syrup diluted with carbonated water. When it is 100-plus degrees, you can't help but appreciate that the ice cubes in your glass are full-sized. What is with those pathetic little ice cubes at MacDonald's anyway? If they can't keep your drink cold, what good are they?
Not that there is anything wrong with MacDonald's. In fact, I would love to own a franchise. I suppose their burgers aren't so bad if you are in a rush. They make money—lots of money—which is better than I am doing. Once in a while, when I make Dad angry, he says, "If you are so damned smart, why aren't you rich?" I didn't used to know what he meant. Now that I am cleaning grease bins for minimum wage, it's starting to make sense.
Dad told me he got a report from the FBI on the suicide bomber, but he would not tell me what it contained, other than that they had made a positive identification. In law enforcement lingo that means they know his name. I would give my next 3 paychecks to find out what else they know about him.
Why is Dad and/or the FBI being so secretive? Maybe they are afraid of scaring people more than they already are. Snowbirds are the life blood of Hermosa. If they ever stopped coming, it wouldn't take long for this town to dry up and blow away.
There is Dad now, pulling into the driveway. If I can talk my way into accompanying him on the job, I might get a chance to sneak a peek at that report.
"Hi, Dad. You are home early."
"I have barely enough time to get a shower and eat. There is this prisoner that has to be delivered to county lockup for a court appearance tomorrow."
"Can I come?," I ask as disinterestedly as possible, trying to hide how much it means to me to come along.
"You feeling alright? Didn't you say something about being too old to go on a ride along? As I recall, the last time I asked you, your exact words were, 'I am not a cub scout trying to earn a merit badge.'"
"You know me, Dad. I was just joking."
"Well, you can't come tonight, it is too dangerous. This redneck tried to kick his way through the screen the last time I loaded him into the backseat."
"Actually, I would like to see what you do at your desk. You said there is a whole lot more to law enforcement than patrol work. 'No job is complete until the paperwork is done.' That is what the sign says on the wall in your office."
"Glad to see you have been paying attention. Let's make it Saturday morning. That is the day I catch up on the paperwork. We can go eat lunch together."
Doing my level best to convert a smirk into a grin, I reply with genuine affection, "If it was not for you, Dad, I don't know what I would do."
See, that wasn't so hard. Dad doesn't even remotely suspect what I really have in mind. Show a little respect and parents will give you almost anything you want. That report is as good as in my hands. This is going to be a breeze.
I am thinking that it might not be such a good idea to walk out the door with the file concealed somewhere on my person. That is out-and-out theft, which is way out of my league. Far better to make a copy on the photocopy machine. Or perhaps I could simply memorize the essential data. That would eliminate the paper trail and nobody could ever trace any leaks back to me.
This is terrible. I am beginning to think like a criminal. It is almost as if I am planning a heist. No, crooks do robberies for the money. I am doing this for all the right reasons. Let's think of it as a covert operation. That gives the whole thing an entirely different perspective. Being a FBI report, there is every likelihood that some of the contents were obtained by covert means. I am simply doing what the FBI did. Surely, they would understand—maybe even approve—of what I am going to do. Like hell they would. Nobody is going to have any sympathy for me if I get caught in the act. This time I am on my own. I wanted to be a hero. The risk, it seems, comes with the territory.
Finally, Saturday arrives. We have some venison in the freezer from Dad's last hunting trip and I make venison and eggs for breakfast which goes over big with Dad. That's right, folks, Bambi tastes good. Sort of sweet with no gamey aftertaste.
After breakfast, we get in the black and white Crown Vic and are backing down the driveway when we hear a loud metallic thud. Thinking that he hit something, Dad slams on the brakes, jumps out of the vehicle and runs to the rear where he sees the lightbar lying on the driveway. It doesn't seem to be damaged. Evidently, the clamps were loose and the wiring was the only thing holding it in place. When the wires finally broke, the lightbar slid down the roof. Dad shrugs his shoulders. Considering that the car is 12 years old, it is to be expected. He decides to wait until Monday to get it fixed and carries it back up the driveway. Meanwhile, I am rummaging under the front seat. I pull out a pair of galoshes, a ski mask, and a raincoat—winter weather gear—before I find the portable 12 volt flashing red light that he keeps there. Placing it on the dashboard, I plug the cord into the cigarette lighter and have the pleasure of seeing Dad's face light up as he gets back into the car. Although he doesn't thank me, I know he likes it when I show initiative. He wants me to do things without being told. I have discovered that the way to get along with Dad is to carry my end of the load.
We have maybe gone a half mile when we pass a Winnebago with Manitoba plates parked by the side of the road. Dad slows down to check it out. It doesn't seem to be in any trouble and we are about to leave when something about it makes him reach over and turn on the flashing red light.
"What's wrong, Dad?"
"It's almost 9 AM and the curtains on that RV are drawn."
"Oh, come on, Dad. It's the weekend, they drove through the night, and they decided to sleep in."
"I have never seen anyone from Manitoba who didn't get up with the sun. See that big wet spot in the sand over to the right? They stopped to dump their waste tank. "
Why hadn't I noticed that? If I had my way, anyone who knowingly spoiled the desert would be shot on sight. Dad removes his mirrored sunglasses from his shirt pocket as he steps out of the vehicle which gives me the impression that he intends to make an arrest or issue a citation.
Dad covers the 10 yards between the Crown Vic and the Winnebago in an even stride, glancing around at the passenger side before approaching the driver's door. Three raps with the side of his palm brings a bald head through the curtains and the window slides open barely enough to permit conversation.
"Who the hell are you?" demands Baldy.
"Sheriff Romero. Open that door and step out slowly with your hands where I can see them."
"You are not the law. I bet you got that beat up, stripped down patrol car at an auction, rented the costume, and are trying to shake me down. You can't fool me with that phony red light; I can see the wires sticking out where they took off the lightbar," Baldy boldly replies, pointing a bony finger at the roof of the Crown Vic.
Dad winces imperceptibly, instantly recovers his acumen, and raises the ante: "You either get down or I put you under arrest for dumping your dung on the side of the road."
"I am not about to get down. I have a deer rifle lying across my lap. The only thing between you and this 30/30 is a one-sixteenth of an inch painted aluminum door. So you are a cop, eh? Then why is your partner wearing a ski mask?"
Dad's right hand automatically drops to his holster at the mention of the deer rifle. His gun is clearing the holster when his peripheral vision confirms the ski mask allegation. Nothing like this has ever happened to him before. Fate is mocking him. He is driving a beat up patrol car and his son is wearing a ski mask. The gun drops back into the holster and he slowly retraces his steps to the Crown Vic.
I see him coming, pull off the gray woolen mask, and place it back where it belongs under the front seat with the rest of the winter gear. The reason I had put it on was because I was about to go on a covert operation to obtain a top secret report and I wanted to feel like a commando. I had taken the stupid thing off almost as soon as I had put it on. Honest to God, I didn't have any intentions of interfering with the duties of a police officer.
Dad drives the rest of the way to City Hall staring straight ahead with both hands gripping the steering wheel. He has made up his mind not to talk to me. Instead, he is listening intently to the traffic on the ancient Motorola which is tuned to the California Highway Patrol frequency because Charlene, the city's only dispatcher, whom law enforcement and fire must share, gets weekends off.
Some buildings have character. City Hall is not one of them. It is a no-frills structure built by the lowest bidder. The Sheriff's Department is on the second floor. We take the rickety stairs because there is no elevator. At least the stairs are on the inside, which is more than I can say for the clapboard cracker box in back of it that houses Hermosa's Volunteer Fire Department. What they both need most is a lightning bolt.
No taxpayer dollars wasted here. Mayor Tom had the lower half of the walls painted forest green and the upper half white, the idea being that since only the bottom gets soiled, only the bottom needs to be painted. That is alright because paint could not save these walls. They are so thin that when the drunks get to screaming in the holding cell, you can hear them in the Assessor's office. Sometimes Dad has to run his baton along the bars to make them shut up.
There are wanted posters and newspaper clippings pinned to the bulletin board in Dad's office that were there before I was born. A hairline crack in the plaster ceiling came compliments of the infamous 6.6 magnitude Sylmar quake that leveled the Veterans Hospital 30 years ago. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if the fault line that runs through Hermosa became active, but I certainly don't want to find out.
Dad sits down at the same desk that his father used and lifts a fat file off the top of the stack in his in-basket. I pull a metal folding chair alongside the antique desk and gaze bewilderedly at my first grade class photo in a gilded frame. Is this supposed to be some sort of joke? If so, it isn't very funny. Here I am a fully grown man and my own father continues to think of me as a little boy. Doesn't he realize how I have matured? Now I know the real reason why he won't let me get a driver's license.
I am hoping that Dad will get called away for a few minutes to give me time to search through the files, but as the day progresses, it begins to look like that is not going to happen. So what if I went into the hallway, picked up a phone, and made it happen? Maybe I could disguise my voice and say that two guys are punching it out in an alley or some other such nonsense? No, turning in a false report is not my style. Besides, it would be way too risky. Better to wait and see what develops.
Dad learned to type at the Hunt-and-Peck School. In my opinion, people who stab at keyboards with two fingers should be charged with a crime. Nothing could be less efficient. At this rate, there is no way he is going to be done by noon. Dad looks up from a request for state funding for two new black and white cruisers that he is preparing and sees me staring at my watch.
"This is taking longer than I thought," he says. "Lunch might be a little late."
"That's fine, Dad. I am not hungry yet anyway," I lie (convincingly, of course).
Dad goes back to his paperwork for several minutes, then stretches and gets up from the desk.
"How about if I get us a pizza with everything on it?," he asks. "Think I can trust you to stay here and answer the phone?"
"Sure," I say a bit too enthusiastically. Good things come to those who wait. I couldn't hope for a better chance to go through the files. With luck, the pizza won't be ready any time soon. I keep watch from the window until I see the battered Crown Vic leave. But I no sooner open the unlocked top drawer on Dad's desk than the door flies open and in walks Melinda as if she owns the place.
"What the hell are you doing here?," I demand.
"I get summer school credits for volunteering as a student intern. Does your father know you are rummaging through his desk drawers?"
"I—I am looking for a pencil," I hesitantly stutter, trying hard not to look as guilty as I feel.
"There is a can full of pencils and pens on top of the desk. You can'tfool me, Ryan Romero. I know you too well."
Melinda bends over, scoops up the files from Dad's out-basket, then turns her ample backside to me and strides over to a long row of steel file cabinets. She slides open a drawer and places a bulging folder where it belongs. It irks me that she knows which files are which and I don't. Why, of all people, does it have to be Melinda? If she makes good on her threat and lets Dad know I have been going through his desk, I am a goner. There must be some way I can get rid of this malevolent little snitch before Dad returns. I need to think fast.
"Have you ever seen so much dust? Some of those files have been there since before we were born," I casually remark.
"You afraid of dust?" Melinda retorts with a sneer.
"No, it is the rats that bother me."
"What rats? There aren't any rats in here."
"Sure there are. They nibble on the folders. Don't believe me? Take a look for yourself."
Melinda stares long and hard at the file she is holding in her hand. Its manila cover is turning beige with age. The more she gawks at the missing corners and uneven worn edges, the more they look like teeth marks. Melinda cranes her head to peek behind the file cabinet. It is dark back there. Anything could be lurking. Inadvertently, she lets the file slip through her fingers into the open drawer below. Quickly, she slams it shut. Slowly stepping backwards, Melinda bumps into me and screams.
I didn't mean to startle her. Nor was there any reason for her to scream at the top of her lungs as if she was being raped or murdered. No wonder Dad dropped the pizza he was carrying up the stairs and came rushing through the door with his weapon in his hand. Melinda slaps me—I am not sure for what—and she goes running out the open door and down the stairs, leaving me to explain what happened.
"You want to see it that bad? Well, here it is," Dad says pushing an oversized suspension file across his desk towards where I am seated. Considering that he has been interrogating me for more than an hour (it is against the law to give the third degree to a prisoner, but it is alright to do it to your kid), I can't imagine why Dad has changed his mind about letting me in on what he knows about the terrorist. After all the stupid moves I have made today and all the grief I have given him, Dad still comes through for me. He has always been and will always be the man I admire most. Nobody else would give a bonehead like me a second chance. If I ever amount to anything, it will be because of him.
The first thing I see when I open the file is a small snapshot of the terrorist. He is smiling and looks nothing like I expected. The shape of the face seems right, but where is the moustache? Maybe he grew it after the picture was taken. The features, however, are unmistakably Arab. It's him alright. Although I never got a close up look at him, I think I could pick him out of a lineup. I say so and Dad nods approvingly.
I burn his mug shot into my consciousness. Never before have I been so intently focused. My world hangs in the balance. For the sake of everything and everyone I love, I vow to take this terrorist down. It will happen because I will make it happen.
There is an index on the first page. Attached at the top with a paper clip is a summary of vital statistics:
Name: Halim Khaddam
Height: 175 cm (5 feet 9 inches)
Weight: 77 kg (170 pounds)
Country of Origin: Syria
Occupation: Mining Engineer
Immigration Status: Undocumented alien suspected to have entered US illegally
"That is his name, Halim?," I think out loud.
"Hal-e-em," Dad corrects me. "The 'i' is pronounced like a long e."
"How much school does it take to become a mining engineer?"
"A lot . . . ," Dad answers, "a whole lot of math and science in addition to something else."
"Mining involves explosives. A good mining engineer would know dynamite the way Bobby Bonds knows baseball."
"That settles it," I eagerly conclude.
"Not exactly," Dad says, warming to the subject. "There are plenty of loose ends to tie before we can prove anything of consequence. All we have is suspicion. Got to fill in the blanks to send him to Guantanamo. Study that file long and hard because when you are done with it, it is going back under lock and key and will not be coming out again any time soon."
The trick is to mine some useful nuggets from the mountain of information the file contains. I note that Halim Khaddam is thought to have illegally crossed the border from Canada several months before the dynamite was stolen. So, at least the time frame fits. But some of this stuff just doesn't seem to make sense. Why did he spend 3 years working for a mining syndicate in the Yukon? It also says that his former employer recommended him for rehire. Not quite the behavior you would expect from a terrorist. But, come to think of it, Osama bin Laden didn't exactly fit the profile of a terrorist either. One thing is for certain: this guy isn't your average extremist cretin. Which would make him all the more dangerous and harder to catch. Which explains why he has managed to elude us so far. But nobody bats a thousand. Sooner or later he is going to make a mistake. And, when he does, I intend to be there to nab him.
I go all the way through the file without finding any fingerprints. No way this guy could have immigrated to Canada without them taking his fingerprints.
"Where are the fingerprints?, " I ask.
"There aren't any," Dad replies.
"Have you tried getting them from Ottawa?"
"If they wouldn't give them to the FBI, they darned sure aren't going to give them to me."
"Why not?," I ask with the innocence of youth.
"Because when we nab a terrorist, we do our best to fry him. Canada—and most of the rest of the world—maintain that the death penalty is barbaric. As far as they are concerned, America is 50 years behind the times. They won't supply information on anyone who might end up on the wrong end of a rope."
"That is ridiculous," I say. "Give a terrorist a life sentence and there is nothing to prevent him from killing a prison guard. Talk about misplaced compassion. You cannot reform a predator. You either kill him or he kills you."
"Try to tell that to the Canadians," Dad says, his eyes flashing fire. "To them, I am little more than a hick sheriff. I am good enough to pull their motor homes out of the sand, but they don't trust me or any other American when it comes to dispensing justice. We are the ones policing the world—it is our troops that are carrying the battle to the terrorists, protecting their precious freedoms—and the Canadians have the unmitigated gall to quibble about how we do the job."
My blood is boiling. As far as I am concerned, any nation that won't join us in the war against terrorism is against us.
I have never met a Canadian I did not like. Our neighbors to the north have always supported us in the past. Don't they realize how serious this is? On 9/11, terrorism got the upper hand and nearly put an end to civilization. If the United States goes down, Canada won't be far behind. This is no time to be championing barbarians.
It is half past two when Dad decides to call it quits for the day. Although he has just put in an 80 hour week and is utterly exhausted, he offers to take me target shooting. I am not enthused until he unlocks the gun locker and I see him take out a 9 mm pistol rather than the .22 rifle I have always used for target practice in the past. Does this mean that he is finally beginning to think of me as a grownup or is he simply trying to make amends for having drawn his weapon on me? I have been waiting for this moment all of my life. When it comes to rites of passage, they don't get any bigger than this. Going from a .22 to a 9 mm is for a guy what going from bobbysocks to nylons is for a girl. Too bad my parents got divorced. I could always count on Mom to take pictures.
Police departments in big cities have air-conditioned indoor ranges. That is nice, but nice is not what it is like out in the field. An officer's life may depend on his ability to fire under adverse conditions. That (and a limited budget) explain why Hermosa's firing range is a vast expanse of sand at the bottom of a sheer cliff. In summer the sweat runs down your brow and gets into your eyes, making it hard to aim. When the sand is blowing, you have to be careful to keep it from jamming your weapon Although we don't have any pop-up targets, what we do have is a radio-controlled miniature dune buggy whose bullet-ridden body was recently replaced with an upside down stainless steel bowl that we dented with a hammer to make it fit the frame. It may look funny, but I dare anyone to devise a moving target that is harder to hit.
Dad starts me out on stationary targets at 25 feet. At this distance a blind man should be able to hit the bull's eye, but all of the bullets from my first 15 round clip miss the target. Maybe I could do better if I threw the gun at it.
"Your reflexes anticipate the recoil which causes you to jerk the pistol up just before it fires," Dad says in answer to the puzzled look on my face. He waits while I reload and then tells me to "point the weapon down range, lock your elbow in place, sight down the barrel, and slowly squeeze the trigger." This time I do better, managing to group 3 of my shots in the bull's eye. I pause to take a drink of water and when I look back there is a jackrabbit standing directly in front of the bale of hay to which the target is affixed. He is up on his hind legs, as if daring me to shoot him.
"Don't you even think about it," Dad snarls. "The pistol in your hand is a weapon, not a toy. You will treat it as you treat me—with respect."
I fire 4 more clips before moving down range to 25 meters, where I fire 6 more clips. Most of the rounds bury themselves harmlessly in the face of the cliff. If the target could shoot back, I would be a dead man by now. But Dad seems to be impressed. What is important, he says, is that my shots are grouped. He claims my aim will improve over time. Maybe so, but for now I doubt I could shoot my way out of a paper bag with a Beretta.
Although the jackrabbit is long gone, I can't seem to get my mind off him. Grandpa made the world's best jackrabbit stew. Since jackrabbit is tough and stringy, he would mix in okra and hominy and let it simmer all day. Suffice it to say that jackrabbit stew is a darned good chew. Makes my mouth water to think how close I came to having it for dinner.
It is Dad's turn to shoot. I tape a target to the antennae of the dune buggy and prepare to have myself some fun. Most of the time Dad comes to the range alone. He sets the controls so that the dune buggy runs in circles around the bale of hay and doesn't touch them again until he is done shooting. Would you call that a moving target? When a criminal is shooting at you, does he run in circles around a bale of hay? Of course, he doesn't. Although he may not know it, what Dad needs is a real moving target and I am just the person to give it to him.
I run the odd looking contraption out to the base of the cliff and set it to making its usual lazy circles around the bale of hay. Then, as Dad is about to get off his first shot, I thrust the lever forward and the dune buggy does a wheelie. And that is just the beginning. In the next couple of minutes, I put the dune buggy through its paces. Sharp left, sharp right, zig up, zag back; if the lever was stirring cream, it would have been whipped by now.
To my surprise, I don't get a rise out of Dad. He is ejecting the empty clip as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.
I run the dune buggy back and strip the target off the antennae. Swiss cheese should have this many holes. I count twice before announcing in a loud voice, "Fourteen. That is darned good shooting, Dad."
"Fifteen," he states matter-of-factly.
"I counted the holes twice. You got 14."
"Look closer. One hole is bigger than the others. That is because I put two slugs through it."
Sure enough, the hole in the middle of the bull's eye is larger than the rest. Suddenly, I don't feel so good. Dad deserves more respect than I have been giving him.
"Can you teach me to shoot like that?," I ask sheepishly.
"My dad taught me. His dad taught him. Someday, when you have a son, you will teach him." A slight pause and then, "Want to go again?"
"You're darned right I want to go again."
"OK Let's do it again. Only this time, we are going to do it left-handed."
"Why left-handed?," I ask.
"Because someday your life may depend on it. The better an officer shoots, the longer he can expect to live."
That is a sobering thought. Dad always pisses in my Wheaties when I am feeling cocky. But I bounce back fast. As I am awkwardly wrapping the fingers of my left hand around the 9 mm, I am imagining a showdown at High Noon. Halim Khaddam has a lit stick of dynamite in his hand. But Halim's dynamite is no match for my gleaming six-shooters. Bang goes the gun in my right hand and cuts the sputtering fuse in half. Bang goes the gun in my left hand and . . . .
"What on earth made you shoot in the air? No telling where that bullet went," Dad says as he takes the gun from my hand. "That is enough for today."
We gather our gear and trudge back to the Crown Vic. Dad lectures me for what seems to be forever on the importance of paying attention to what I am doing. My end of the conversation consists of saying "Yes, sir" every time Dad pauses for an answer. By the time we leave, it is starting to get dark. Dad switches on the headlights but nothing happens. Evidently, we blew a fuse when the lightbar fell off. An 18 wheeler gets on our tail and flips his lights on and off. Dad attempts to ignore him, but the truck driver persists for the next mile or so in trying to get our attention.
Since it is hard to see the road ahead, Dad plays it safe and slows down to a crawl. Everybody else follows suit. Nobody, it seems, wants to pass a slow-moving police car with its lights off. By the time we turn off the interstate, all four lanes of northbound traffic have piled up behind us.
Pulling to the top of the driveway, there is a dull thud followed by a crunch. Dad gets out and pries the lightbar from under the wheels. It is hard to tell in the dark that the flattened hunk of metal used to flash red, white, and blue. This has not exactly been Dad's day.
I cook fish sticks for dinner. We are eating in silence when Dad notices the target taped to the door of the refrigerator. Fifteen for fifteen. Dad gets up and gives me a hug. This time it has nothing to do with Heimlich.
I am loading the dirty dishes into the dishwasher when the phone rings. It is more than likely a pesky telemarketer, so I'm reluctant to stop what I am doing and answer the phone. Following the sixth ring, the answering machine takes over. It is about to do so when Dad yells out from the living room, "Would you get that? I am expecting an important call." I no sooner pick up the receiver than I have reason to regret it.
"Ryan, Ryan you rat. Say something. I know you are there."
"Uh, how you doing, Beth? Sorry I took so long to answer. My hands were wet."
"You are wet, all right. You scared Melinda half to death. Putting a rat in the filing cabinet is the type of stunt little boys pull. Aren't you ever going to grow up?"
"She gave it to you wrong, Beth. There was no rat. You know how Melinda is. She's got an overly active imagination."
"If she imagined it, it must have been because you put it in her head. You are lucky your Dad called her parents to apologize for you. If you were half the man he is, you would have made the call yourself."
That was a low blow. I was not aware that Dad had called the Grants. Why didn't he tell me? Ever since Melinda ratted on me in the 6th grade, I have been looking for a way to get even. All right, so maybe I went overboard.
"You think I should take her some flowers or something?," I ask.
"Flowers? You hurt Melinda and then you expect to buy your way out with flowers? Listen, Ryan, it doesn't work that way."
"No, the way it works is that Melinda gets to take swipes at me and I can't do anything about it because I am a guy and she is a girl."
"This isn't a gender issue, Ryan. This is about the way you behave. At least that is what your father told the Grants."
"My father is a public servant who needs every vote he can get in the next election. He has to tell people what they want to hear."
"He certainly did a convincing job of it. I know I believe him," Beth says.
"But you got the information secondhand from an accomplished whiner who no doubt did her best to embellish it. Have you ever thought of listening to both sides of a disagreement before deciding which is right?," I ask, realizing as I mouth the words that I am stretching diplomacy to the limit.
"Ryan Romero, you are impossible."
"Look, I admit to having used less than perfect judgment. I offered to take her flowers, didnᴠI? Even a small bouquet would cost me a couple of hours of mopping floors. How sorry do I have to be?"
"Large bouquet sorry delivered in person with sincere repentance."I would much rather swim in a septic tank than apologize to Melinda. Talking to her over the phone is bad enough. Why do I have to do this in person? Gadzooks, me thinks I'm destined to choke on humble pie.
I no sooner get off the phone then it rings again.
"Is this the Richardsons?," asks a familiar feminine voice on the other end.
"Hi, Thelma. No, you got the Romeros by mistake."
"Oh, darn. I was so upset that I forgot to put on my reading glasses. Steve, you know—Steve Richardson— Larry and LindaⳠoldest boy, mowed my lawn today and didnⴠprune the roses like I told him to. They outdid themselves this season and I⭠afraid that if they donⴠget cut back soon, they⬬ go dormant on me."
"Are they still blooming?"
"Absolutely loaded with roses. I think I may have overfed them."
"I owe Steve a favor. How about if I drop by first thing Monday morning and prune them for you?"
"You are so sweet, Ryan. I really hate to impose on you. If it wasn't for my arthritis, I would have pruned them myself."
First there is darkness, then comes the dawn. Thank God I live in Hermosa where I can count on decent people like Mrs. Perkins to come to my aid when I need them most. It may seem to you to be a coincidence, but it happens too often not to be divine intervention. For those of us with faith, He is there when we need Him. I don't believe in coincidence, I believe in God.
Isn't Sunday supposed to be a day of rest? When anything happens, why do they always have to call Dad. It is not like the Sheriff's Department doesn't have any deputies. We slept in and we are just sitting down to a nice bacon and eggs breakfast when the telephone rings.
"Let it ring," I advise. "Whatever is on the other end of that line can not be as important as you getting some peace and quiet."
"The older you get, the more you sound like your Mom," Dad comments. "I darn well didn't shirk my duties when she was here and I am certainly not going to start now that she is gone."
"Go ahead, Clint Eastwood, ruin your day."
"I suppose you think that was funny," Dad says. He is reaching for the phone while shooting me a look that would set fire to a bucket of water.
Ever listen to someone talk on the phone? It is like watching a stripper—all you get is a tease, enough to whet your interest, but never enough to satisfy. It is a jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing—actually more than half because Dad is a man of few words.
"Yeah, I am Sheriff Romero."
"Khaddam, huh? You sure it is him?"
"Did he put up a fight?"
"I will be right there."
"Someone saw the terrorist?," I ask when I'm certain the call is over.
"Aren't you the kid who said not to answer the phone?," Dad replies with I-told-you-so gusto. "If you didn't give a damn who was calling, how can you give a damn about what they had to say? That was the desk sergeant at Adelanto calling to say they have our terrorist on ice but cannot hold him much longer without preferring charges. And for that, they need a positive ID. Seeing as how you are the only person to have eyeballed him, suppose you and I get our butts over there before they have to let him go."
It is a 20 minute drive to Adelanto, but Dad makes it in 15 without breaking any speed limits. Considering the flashing lights are out, that is pretty good. Adelanto weighs in at 18,000, four times the size of Hermosa. They have 23 full-time law enforcement officers who get regular paychecks and don't have to listen to Mayor Tom whine about how the city would like to pay its employees what they are worth but cannot afford to do so. They also have the only minor league baseball stadium in the region which, according to the fans, makes Adelanto the capital of the high desert. We pass it on the way in, a monument to foresightedness or bonded indebtedness—a glass half-empty or half-full—depending on who is doing the talking. What I like best is the underground parking at the sheriff's station. We park our beat-up excuse for a patrol car in the space by the elevator reserved for "Sheriff." After all, Dad is a sheriff. I can see by the smile on his face that this is one of those practical jokes that police chiefs love to play on each other.
We go up to the second floor where we sit around for an hour waiting for them to get a lineup together. When they depict these things on television, most of the guys in the lineup resemble the suspect. That is the idea, isn't it? The witness picks the perpetrator out of a lineup to show the police arrested the right man. But none of these guys look anything like the terrorist I saw on the roof of the Circle K. Number one is much too old, number two is Latino; number three looks a bit like Dad, and number four looks a lot like me. I am going along with the joke until I realize that everybody is serious. They actually believe they captured the terrorist and look vexed when I shake my head no and say "Halim Khaddam is not in this bunch." We drove here on a Sunday for this? Now I know how Marcia Clark must have felt when the glove didn't fit O.J. Simpson.
Dad is as disappointed as I am that Adelanto got the wrong man. He does a few inquiries and finds out that the old man in the lineup was an undocumented Yemeni migratory farm worker who had aroused suspicions because he spoke no English and could not communicate anything to the detective that interrogated him other than that his name was Halim.
"I am going to have a talk with the Watch Commander. Maybe we can find someone who can translate for us. We are not leaving here until I am absolutely sure that their Halim has nothing to do with our Halim."
"Can I tag along?," I ask hopefully.
"This shouldn't take too long. Go wait in the car."
"Can I have the keys?"
"What the hell for?"
"The Motorola. You didn't think I was going to drive it, did you?"
Dad tosses me the keys to the Crown Vic and takes the elevator to the fourth floor. I go down the stairway to the underground garage. Being Sunday, there is nobody else around. I look at the roof of the black and white parked next to ours and notice the lightbar is askance. There is a tool box lying next to it. My guess is that someone—most likely a mechanic—was replacing the lightbar and forgot to put away his toolbox when it came time to go home The cardboard box that the lightbar came in is lying on the concrete. Instinct makes me go over and examine it. The box is empty except for a pamphlet with step-by-step instructions. All it takes is a few tools. Any dummy could install a lightbar.
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking I am about to steal the lightbar. That shows how little you know about me. Ryan Romero is no thief. I was brought up to respect the law. Before we go any farther, you will have to apologize for casting aspersions on my good name. If you expect me to continue to share my feelings with you, you are going to have to show me some respect.
It is not stealing; it is providence. We were in desperate need of a lightbar and God brought us to Adelanto to get one. I am the instrument of His bidding. If you had been paying attention, you would know that this was meant to be and I was meant to do it.
It takes me less than a half hour to transfer the lightbar from the black and white to the Crown Vic. If the toolbox had contained vice grips, I could have been done a lot sooner. As it was, I had to make do with pliers.
I place the tools neatly back in the toolbox, flick the switch on to test my handiwork, and then see Dad coming down the stairs. His look of astonishment is intensified by the red, white, and blue lights playing on his face. He sees the black and white with a toolbox where the lightbar used to be, puts 2 and 2 together, and comes up with me. It is only 5 or 6 paces from the stairs to the Crown Vic, but Dad takes his time the way that adults always do when they are coming up with their next move. I, on the other hand, know precisely what to do and how to go about doing it. By the time Dad gets in the vehicle, I have turned off the lights, started the engine, slid my butt over to the passenger side, and am drumming my fingers on the armrest. I have noticed that the older people get, the slower they move. If people my age ran the world, it would turn a whole lot faster.
"Tell me you did not steal that lightbar," Dad demands gruffly as he gets behind the wheel.
"I didn't steal any lightbar," I reply while looking him straight in the eye.
"Then how come we suddenly have a lightbar and the patrol car next to ours came up missing a lightbar?," Dad says in an authoritative tone which tells me he isn't going to take any BS.
"It got commandeered," I say, nowhere near as convincingly as I had intended for it to sound.
"Commandeered. We studied it in school. It is how General William Tecumseh Sherman supplied his troops during the Civil War. The army took what they needed from southern civilians on The March to the Sea and Sherman paid for it with IOU's."
"You sure about that? If everybody got to borrowing at gunpoint there would be hell to pay."
"It's only right when governments do it. I left a note under the windshield wiper."
"What does it say?," Dad asks, his tone softening to the point where I no longer feel intimidated.
"Adelanto, IOU one lightbar. Signed, Hermosa," I recite from memory.
A new silver Lexus with leather upholstery pulls up in back of us and honks. It is their sheriff and it appears that he is not very happy about us being in his parking space. He has his badge cupped in his hand and is holding it up for us to see.
Dad backs out slowly, pulls up parallel to the Lexus, rolls down his window, and doffs his hat to his counterpart. The response is a cold stare.
"Up his," Dad says as we exit the municipal underground parking and turn left onto Adelanto Road. We are almost to I-10 when Dad turns to me and says, "You don't talk like a cop."
It's my turn to say, "What?"
"I said you don't talk like a cop."
"What makes you say, 'I don't talk like a cop?'"
"You should listen to yourself speak. You think you talk like a cop? What I hear is lawyer."
If there is one thing about Dad, it's that he is blunt. He is welcome to his opinion, but I think a cop has to change with the times or risk becoming a relic. A patrol car without flashing lights isn't much good to anybody and could conceivably jeopardize public safety while involved in routine duties such as high speed pursuit. I did what it took to put us back in the game. If I had waited for Dad to do it, we would still be waiting.
We are heading home on I-10 when we get hit by a freak thunderstorm. It is over in an instant, but not before the semi in front of us spins out, blocking three lanes of westbound traffic. We turn on the lightbar, put out some flares, and wait for the California Highway Patrol to arrive. Since Southern Californians are not used to driving in the rain, it's easy to see how there could have been a pileup if we weren't on the scene. There is no room for excuses when it comes to public safety. Call me a lawyer, call me any name you like, but if it was not for me, somebody would have been hurt. Dad doesn't apologize. That is not his way. Instead, he removes his hat and puts it on my head to keep me from getting wet. Drivers are gawking as if they had never seen a jackknifed rig before. It is all Dad can do to keep them moving. As I am standing there, watching him herd the cattle, I am thinking that someday I want to be just like him—a man for whom actions speak louder than words.
There are plenty of cops that go on to become lawyers. I have got nothing against them, it's just not for me. Seeing as how I am set on nabbing bad guys, I want to do it first hand. I guess I am like Dad—I would sooner take a bullet than sit behind a desk and shuffle paperwork.
The rain has stopped by the time we reach home. There is a Mercedes parked at the top of our driveway. It is Beth, or at least it is her mother's car. But that couldn't be Beth, could it? She looks a bit like Beth but this girl is dressed to kill with stiletto heels, translucent blouse, and a neckline that took a plunge and left me gasping for air. There is a ruby where her belly button should have been that surely came from the crown jewels.
This vision of loveliness completely ignores me and struts over to Dad. Wrapping both of her delicate hands around his right hand, she pumps it as if she was supplying a bucket brigade at a conflagration.
"It is so good to meet you, Mr. Romero. My name is Beth. Ryan and I go to school together. It must be a joy to have a son who admires you so deeply."
"Oh, he's a joy, alright," Dad replies, his eyes rolling upwards.
"Seeing as how my mother let me have the car and I am feeling lonesome, would you mind if I borrowed your son for the evening?"
"That is entirely up to him. He can either go with you or stay home and count his hormones."
Dad heads for the front door, leaving me to fend for myself. Beth is looking me over as if I am a side of beef. I don't know what got into her, but she isn't acting like her normal self and it is making me extremely uncomfortable.
"Want to go for a ride?," she asks while opening the door for me, her eyes sparkling with fire.
I get inside, but cannoy seem to get the seat belt to buckle. Reaching across my lap, she does it for me. Beth is in the driver's seat in more ways than one. Dean Martin croons Amore, the sunroof slides back, and a hawk wafts effortlessly on the currents overhead, riding so high that he is no more than a dot punctuating the limitless azure sky.
As I settle back into the padded seat, it reminds me of Ricardo Montalban and rich Corinthian leather. Is that Chanel No 5, eau de parfum? That is odd—I could have sworn I did not speak a word of French. The hawk appears larger. It is not clear whether it is him descending, or me ascending. I always wanted to fly. Now that I am here, I don't ever want to come down.
Don't ask me how we ended up at Sanderson's. One minute we were soaring along I-10 and the next minute we are parking between a dumpster and the grease pit. Nobody— Mr. Sanderson included—ever found romance at Sanderson's Cafe. Ambiance isn't even on the menu. This is hamburger haven, not steak heaven. Just because I work here doesn't mean I like the food.
Maybe Beth wants to meet my co-workers. Or maybe this is her way of showing me she is not adverse to mingling with the masses. At any rate, I appreciate Beth taking an interest in what I do for a living. Not every girl would do that for her guy.
It is dinnertime and Jenny is waiting all six tables and the counter plus busing the dirty dishes. She's busier than a gopher at a golf course, but not too busy to ask Beth where she bought her blouse and take our order. Beth has the chef salad and I go for a patty melt with avocado and bacon. I know it is loaded with the wrong kind of cholesterol, but I promise myself to kick the fast food habit by the time I turn 50.
I go to use the men's room and collide with Jenny carrying a tub full of dirty dishes. Some of it gets on me. Jenny sets down the tub and wipes me off with a wet rag. I pray that Beth isn't watching mommy clean up her little boy. This is so embarrassing. The ironic part is that I am standing next to the restroom and could have easily done this for myself.
"There, now that's better," Jenny says as she transforms a small dab of grape jelly into a large noticeable wet spot on my pants. I am thinking I must look like a little kid who didn't make it to the men's room in time.
"How do I look?," I plead, trying to put a cheerful face on an increasingly awkward situation.
"Like you just been bagged and tagged. Oh, come on now, honey, you mean you don't really know why she brought you here for dinner? This is where the ladies bring men when they are staking their claim. It's cheaper than an ad in the newspaper and a darn sight more effective."
I am half inclined to duck out the back door and run down to the Circle K to buy condoms, but with what I have in my wallet, it is either pay for the dinner or purchase protection. There is no way I can do both. If I don't pay for the meal, that pretty much ends my chances of getting lucky. Figuratively speaking, I'm screwed.
To my surprise, Beth paid for the meal while I was in the men's room rubbing the wet spot on my pants with a paper towel. I take three ones from my wallet and place them on the table for a tip. Beth scowls, picks two of them up, and tenderly tucks them in my pants pocket.
"I have to work here," I plead. "Anything less than ten percent is an insult."
Beth winks, puts her soft right hand into my pocket, pulls out both dollar bills, puts one back, and lays the other on the table.
"Satisfied?," Beth asks with a smile while tilting her head to one side.
Was that meant to be a question or a statement? It doesn't matter; the time for talk is over. I put my hand firmly around Beth's waist, look deeply into her gorgeous green eyes, and escort her out the door. God created us in order that we might feel. He did a good job. It feels good to be alive.
It is not far to the car, but we are not in any rush. Every few steps, we stop to kiss. I am a shade awkward, but Beth is a great instructor. We make music and are striking all the right chords. Merging, we resonate with delight. After a while, we reach the Mercedes and I automatically open the front door. To my surprise, she quickly pushes it shut. Slipping past me, Beth opens the rear door and motions for me to get in the backseat. It has been a bummer summer, but I have a strong feeling that things are about to change.
Hold it right there. This is where I draw the line between my private and public life. You are not climbing into the backseat with us. Besides, second hand jollies are not much fun. Go get your own. Haven't you read enough for one day?
Back already? You don't ask what I have been doing and I won't ask what you have been doing. Suffice it to say that I used to hate hosing down the parking lot at night. Scrubbing the grease pit was a chore. Having to climb inside the dumpster when it got full to stomp down the trash was demeaning. But all that has changed. My attitude has improved 100 percent. I seriously doubt that I could ever step out the back door of the cafe without being reminded of Beth and her mother's Mercedes. Screw vinyl seats; get leather upholstery. Believe me, it is well worth the extra cost.
We are backing out of Sanderson's parking lot when Beth turns to me and asks, "Where to?"
I am smiling from ear to ear as I reply, "Who cares? Wherever we go, it cannot get much better than where we have been."
Beth kisses the tip of my nose. "Sweet boy," she says. "Sweetness will always get you where you want to go. How about we just drive?"
And drive we do. This being Sunday night, we pretty much have the road to ourselves. With a full tank of gas we cannot be denied. We make the darkness yield to our every whim. A hero I wanted to be and a hero is what I am. No man is complete without a woman. No, that is not right. No man is complete without the right woman.
It could be the view or perhaps it is the fact that it is secluded. Whatever the attraction, the old abandoned gold mine has been the place to party ever since anyone can remember. Take 138 to a dirt trail about halfway up the mountain on the road to Wrightwood and you might find it—then again, you might not. There is a maze of dirt trails up there and anyone who is not from around here is liable to get lost. As for us, we did not come this far not to go all the way.
Up a vertical hill, around some rocks and a felled tree, and we are there. Wait a minute for the dust to settle. Then, it hits us. No matter how many times I come up here, I can't help but be amazed. This is how the heavens were meant to be seen. You can keep your street lamps, I will take the stars. A thousand points of light etched into a black canopy. Talk about awesome. I don't know of anyone who has ever come up here at night and not been impressed. I forgot to bring beer, but it is no big deal. All we have to do to get intoxicated is to drink in the night.
"Doesn't it take your breath away?," Beth coos. "Could anything be more romantic than city lights beneath the stars? Seeing Southern California on a clear summer night is like watching a black and white epic film backlit with fabricated fire. We are bearing witness to the longest running production ever, an extravaganza if ever there was one."
I have never felt so inspired in my life. Hermosa, Adelanto, Hesperia, and Victorville are like a string of pearls. An epiphany bursts upon me. Turning to Beth, I exclaim, "Billions of lights, each light a pinpoint in a sea of darkness. What a waste. Electricity doesn't come cheap. We could do the job much more efficiently for a fraction of the cost from up here. Imagine 4 or 5 magnesium flares slowly descending on parachutes, turning night into day. Design a machine flare gun and we could make the High Desert so bright that chickens would lay eggs 24 hours a day. How's that for an idea?"
"I have got a far better idea," Beth whispers softly while cupping her hand to my ear. A sudden high voltage shock from a wet darting tongue short circuits my cerebrum. Flares go off and I burn with desire.
I am not sure when we fell asleep, but morning comes far too soon. I wake up with Beth in my arms. Beats a teddy bear. I could get used to this. She looks so sweet and innocent when she is sleeping. We need to go home, but I'm reluctant to wake her. Ojos verde struggle open as I stroke her hair. I am thinking how beautiful Beth is. She smiles a response. Must have read my mind.
We are about to get underway when I realize that I have to go to the bathroom and the nearest porta-potty is at a rest stop four miles down the road. Never has the chaparral looked so good as it does now. I would prefer to wait but when nature calls there isn't much choice. My pants are down around my ankles and I am stooped over clutching a leaf when I inadvertently glance up at the mine and see a man's shadow near the entrance. One second he is there, the next second he is gone.
Since I had not seen any other vehicles, I had assumed we had the mine to ourselves. Nobody but kids my age ever come up here. I bet he has his car parked out of sight. It isn't any of my business, but I can't help but be curious about who he is and what he is doing here.
I have more pressing matters on my mind. How are we going to explain being out all night? What will Beth's parents say? Actually, I have never met them. Something tells me they are not going to be overjoyed. This calls for some heavy duty thinking. What I really need is a get-out-of-jail-free card because that just might be where I am headed if her parents decide to file an official complaint with the Sheriff's Department. I can see myself addressing the court and pleading diminished capacity. "It is common knowledge, your honor, that men think with their appendages."
The light of day has a way of ruining romance. What seemed so right in the night can now be seen in its entirety. Doubts arise and second thoughts occur. I won't say that we are sorry for anything we did because that would be a lie, but I will say that I wish we had spent more time considering the consequences of our actions. Sure, we are just like Romeo and Juliet, but look at what happened to them.
Seeing as how a prudent person tests the water prior to jumping in, I borrow Beth's cell phone to call home and see what kind of reception I can expect to get from Dad. I get the answering machine. That means that Dad is at work and I have still got some time left to try and set things straight. There are so many loose ends that it is hard to tell where to start. For openers, I have Beth drive us to Thelma Perkins' place. It turns out her rose bushes are not half as big as I had been led to believe nor are they in particularly bad shape, so I decide to have Beth wait for me in the car while I give the rose garden a manicure. It takes me less than an hour to do the job.
I return to the car carrying two bunches of long stemmed roses, containing a dozen roses each. They look identical, but they are not. I toss one bunch into the backseat and hand the other bunch—the bunch containing the best roses—to Beth. She rewards me with a hug, followed by a flood of tears. I swear I don't understand women. The why and how of their behavior eludes me. I want to know, but do not seem to have the ability to comprehend.
The other bunch of roses—the ones with the aphids—are for Melinda. With any luck, she will recognize my apology for what it is—insincere—and we can continue to be enemies. The only reason I am going through with this farce is because it means so much to Beth. In other words, my love for Beth is stronger than my hate for Melinda. Roses have thorns. Beth is the flower and Melinda is the inevitable thorn that comes with it.
We stop at the Circle K on the way home to fill up the Mercedes with premium even though it was burning 89 octane gasoline when Beth borrowed it. I run a squeegee over the windshield and do my best to make the car presentable. Since it can't hurt to put on a good face, I get the key to the restroom from the clerk and we take turns freshening up. Beth combs my hair with her fingers and pinches her cheeks to give them some color. For a couple of people who spent the night in their clothes, we don't look half bad.
Beth drops me at the curb in front of Melinda's house. I shuffle up the concrete walkway like a condemned man on the way to the gallows. I would give a month's pay to be anywhere else right now. If I knock softly, maybe they won't hear me. No, that would be the coward's way out. I may be stupid, but I'm no coward. Reluctantly, I press the doorbell. Nobody comes to the door. I press it again. Still no answer. Evidently, the Grants are not home. Now isn't that a shame?
I am dying to know how Beth's parents reacted when she got home and am tempted to go over and find out. Two things stop me:
I am walking home when some stranger honks his horn and gives me a thumbs up as he passes by. Since my pants aren't on backwards, I blame the wilted clippings I am holding in my right hand for the unwanted attention. Throwing them into a nearby ditch lifts my spirits. I have had enough of playing Prince Charming. It is best not to come on too strong. A little of me goes a long ways. Beth got a taste. Let her savor the flavor.
Dad is still at work when I get home. I have got a couple of hours and I figure it is better to fix a decent meal than to mope like a dope. Worrying never got anyone anything other than ulcers. What is done is done. I knew better than to stay out all night. If you play, you got to pay. I will accept my punishment like a man. However, a good cut of beef grilled to perfection might go a long ways toward mitigating the situation. Nothing pleases Dad like barbecued meat. I fire up the hibachi and have two half inch thick sirloin steaks sizzling over the charcoal briquettes by the time Dad has downed his first beer. As he comes out on the patio with his second beer, he is smiling. Has he forgotten that I have been a bad boy? No such luck.
Dad is grinning from ear to ear as he asks, "Have yourself a good time?"
"Uh, not really," I lie.
"That'stoo bad," Dad says, his smile changing to a frown, "because you are not going to have a good time any time soon. You are hereby grounded for the rest of the summer."
We eat dinner in silence. Dad sure knows how to ruin a good steak. Having lost my appetite, I push the food around the plate with my fork. Why couldn't he have waited until dinner was over to ground me? It must have been the beer. They should change the warning on the back of the can to read "ACCORDING TO THE SURGEON-GENERAL, IF YOU DRINK THIS BEER, IT WILL IMPAIR YOUR ABILITY TO DISCIPLINE YOUR KIDS PROPERLY."
Thank God there are only a few weeks left before school starts. The last time I got grounded, I nearly went stir crazy. Being confined is definitely not for me. I have heard of felons boasting that they could do a nickel (5 years) or a dime (10 years) while standing on their head. Could be that's the origin of the word numbskull. As for me, I would much rather be flogged than confined. A half hour or so of pain and a whipping is over. Incarceration is not nearly as humane because it only serves to prolong the agony. Corporal punishment beats jail. Flog me if you must, but do not deny me Beth.
Nor will I be denied. Our love will withstand the test of time; of that I am certain. In order to temper steel, the metal is heated until red hot before being dunked into a bucket of cold water. This results in increased durability. Likewise, passion is shaped in fire. Throwing cold water on hot passions will either make or break a relationship. That which crumbles is not meant to be.
I am removing the dirty dishes from the breakfast table the next morning when Dad gives me a sideways look that tells me I am about to be questioned. Did I say questioned? Interrogated is more like it.
"Did you see or hear anything unusual while you were at the mine?," Dad asks casually, as if his interest was personal rather than professional.
"Not really," I answer truthfully. There was nobody else there except . . ."
"Except what?," Dad pries about as gently as if he were wielding a crowbar on a bent nail.
"I caught a glimpse of someone's shadow at the entrance just before we left."
"Male or female?"
"Definitely male," I answer without hesitation.
"What makes you so sure?"
"I thought we were alone. It took me by surprise. There were no cars, no tire tracks, but here he was watching us. It gave me the creeps. What is all this about?"
"For the past several months I have been getting calls about strange things going on at the mine: whirring noises, explosions, and lights going on and off at night. When your grandfather was sheriff, he was plagued with UFO sightings from the vicinity of the mine made by people with one too many beers, overactive imaginations, and nothing better to do than to bother the cops. But this is different. Mayor Tom swears he heard several explosions coming from deep inside the mine in broad daylight when he was escorting some rock climbers from out of state. They heard it, too."
"So, what is the problem, Dad? Why not drive out there and see for yourself?"
"For the same reason that your grandfather didnⴠgo there—it is outside of my jurisdiction."
"So, it is somebody else's problem." I say, shrugging my shoulders.
"No, it is my problem. The Mayor and the good citizens who elected me expect me to find the man who stole the dynamite. They are scared shitless that he is a terrorist hell-bent on blowing Hermosa to kingdom come. After 9/11, I don't much blame them. Serve and Protect doesn't end at the city limits."
"You drove out there, didn't you?," I say with complete conviction. Nobody I know has ever accused my father of shirking his responsibilities.
"About as often as a gopher changes holes, but I didn't find anything to arouse my suspicions. Which does not surprise me, considering that anyone up there can see a black and white coming from a mile away. Nor did I have time to search the miles of tunnels that branch out from the main shaft. It would take an army a month to do that. So far, I haven't been able to convince the County Sheriff and Homeland Security that it is worth the trouble and expense. This is the first war in the history of the United States to be captained by bean counters and desk jockeys. Sort of makes you wonder sometimes which side God is on. Does it really matter whether we call Him Allah or Jehovah? He is God Almighty, omnipresent and omnipotent—plenty big for two, three, or a dozen religions to share and then some."
Is God on our side? Or is He on their side? I would prefer to believe that God isn't a party to war and devotes His efforts to putting an end to the carnage rather than making endorsements. Of course, I could be wrong. But that would mean that the guys with dynamite belts are right which would make about as much sense as Alfred Nobel (who invented dynamite) sponsoring a peace prize. In 1993 white supremacist Prime Minister F. W. de Klerk of South Africa was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and, to make things worse in 1994, the committee picked a terrorist, Yasir Arafat of Palestine, for the award—proof positive that doublespeak didn't die in 1984. It is sad that we cannot trust our leaders to give it to us straight. Truth, it seems, is the first casualty in any war.
I must apologize profusely for going off on a tangent that some of you may find uninteresting. If I didn't give a damn, perhaps I could maintain control and not offend others' sensitivities as frequently as I do. Now, where were we? Oh, yes, Dad was sharing his wisdom with anyone within earshot. Out of respect —he is, after all, an authority figure—I strongly suggest you try to keep a straight face. Ready? Let's rejoin him:
"The Mayor thinks that the explosions he heard were Halim Khaddam honing his skills. He is worried that the next one will be for real. Frankly, I am too."
"He likes dynamite. Let's give him a lethal dose. We could blow up the entrance to the mine with him inside," I say, ending my soliloquy with a heartfelt "KABOOM!"
Dad smiles broadly. "I wish it were that simple. Sealing off the main entrance will not do a bit of good unless we seal off the ventilation shafts and back entrances along with it. The trouble is that nobody knows how many of them there are or where they are located. Ever try to bury an anthill? It can't be done."
"Khaddam almost has to have a vehicle. Otherwise, he wouldn't be able to get from the mine to Hermosa without being noticed. In fact, I am willing to wager . . . ." I was about to suggest we place a bet as to how long it would take us to capture him, when the doorbell cut me short. Dad nods at me to answer the door as he reaches for the pistol tucked away in the small of his back. Even when at home, a lawman can't be too careful. As Grandpa Ryan used to say, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Not knowing what to expect, I fling the front door open and there stands Grady in an overcoat and a slouch hat. In all the years we have been neighbors this is the first time he has come over. I am wondering what the occasion is. Only one way to find out. . . .
"Good morning, Mr. Grady. What's up?"
"Is your father home?"
"Sure," I say, opening the door wider, "come on in."
Grady hesitates for a moment, then removes his hat before stepping inside. He shakes himself like a dog coming in from the rain and extends his right hand to shake Dad's hand. I always thought Grady to be nondescript, but now know better. Henceforth, I will refer to him as being shaky.
"Howdy, neighbor," Dad says with genuine warmth. "What can I do for you?"
"You remember that old truck that used to sit in my driveway?"
"You mean that rust heap with the 'For Sale' sign? Don't see many Studebakers these days."
"Yep, a real collector's item," Grady says with approbatory zeal. "I sold it to this Arab sheik a couple of months ago for a good deal more than I paid for it. But the bank won't take it and I want to swear out a complaint."
"Please tell me you did not take an out-of-state personal check without a picture ID," Dad says with a groan.
"Of course, not. I'm not stupid," Grady retorts as if offended that Dad would think that about him. "I made him pay me in gold."
"Foreign coins shouldn't pose a problem for a bank."
"Who said anything about coins? GOLD! Real gold. Nuggets, dust, and flakes."
"More likely iron pyrite," Dad surmises while attempting to suppress a grin. "Fool's gold."
"Not a chance. I gave it the Sherman test," Grady says with conviction. "I hit a flake of gold with a hammer and it flattened without breaking." Reaching inside his overcoat, Grady takes out a small leather pouch.
Dad eyes the pouch. "Where did you come up with this Sherman test?"
"I saw it on the Discovery Channel. General Sherman strikes a few flakes of gold taken from Sutter's mill with a hammer, proclaims it genuine, and then rides off to the Civil War. That was when the gold rush started."
Dad has a dubious look on his face. "What did you say the sheik's name was?"
Grady sets the pouch down on the table, fumbles inside his overcoat, and brings forth a folded handwritten document. Slowly, he unfolds it and squints repeatedly as he attempts to study it. "It is on the Bill of Sale. Let me put on my reading glasses. Says here he is Halim Khaddam."
"Mind if I see that?," Dad asks. Grady hesitates an instant before reluctantly surrendering the Bill of Sale to him. With me looking over his shoulder, Dad stares at the signature, written in a clear, bold hand. Why would a wanted felon use his real name? Is this an instance of dumb crime or is the terrorist taunting us? Could this be Professor Moriarty leaving his calling card to show Sherlock Holmes he is not afraid? No, I am reading too much into this. It has to be a mistake—every criminal screws up sooner or later. Gotcha!
"I signed over the pink slip," Grady volunteers in a quivering voice. No doubt he is disturbed by our unexpected interest in the Bill of Sale. "It is all legal like. Can't fault me for driving a hard bargain."
"Weren't you aware you were doing business with the man who broke your bedroom window and tried to burglarize your home?" Dad's harsh tone reflects his disgust. I wince. I had hoped that this would never come up. Time to fess up. Little white lies have a way of growing until they weigh heavily on the conscience. It was Saturday night and I didn't have anything better to do than to break a window and blame it on someone else. At first, the terrorist existed only in my mind. Then, like my little white lie, he grew until he threatened everything I hold dear. This is all my fault. Some hero I turned out to be. Real heroes never get scared and lie. Real heroes stick to the truth, regardless of the consequences.
I am about to come clean when Grady puts the kibosh on it by blurting out an extremely crude vulgarity with a racial epithet for a chaser. Normally, Dad does not permit any foul-mouthed utterances in our home, but he lets this one pass without comment due to the addled condition of our elderly house guest. What could be more pitiful than a mentally unbalanced bigot with a limited vocabulary? No doubt my deep loathing for Grady and everything he stands for had something to do with me breaking his window. It wasn't right but I am beginning to think that it was meant to be. Let's get one thing straight. I am all for hanging terrorists, but not because they are of any particular ethnicity or religious belief. Nothing adds fuel to the fire faster than a racial slur. If I learned anything on 9/11, it was that the bad guys start fires and the good guys put them out.
Dad sits down at the table next to the sack of gold, pulls a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook from the right hand pocket of his khaki shirt, and starts to write. I cannot see it from where I am standing. Whatever he is writing, it doesn't take him long to finish. With a sweeping flourish, he signs his name at the bottom, tears the page from the notebook, and passes it to Grady.
Out of courtesy, Grady gives the shaking scrap of paper in his right hand a close squint before asking, "What is this?"
"Your receipt," Dad says, "for the gold and the Bill of Sale. They are material evidence in an ongoing investigation."
Grady reaches for the sack but Dad beats him to it. For a moment, it seems like he is going to cry, but he chokes it back and says, "First you take my ammunition, now you want my gold."
"You will get it back," Dad assures him.
"They said on the news that these terrorists are being held indefinitely. I could be dead before they come to trial. Gold doesn't make good evidence. The only fingerprints on it are yours and mine."
"This gold is proof that the economic sanctions against al-Qaeda are working. We froze their bank accounts and they are desperate for cash. The FBI might be able to trace where the gold came from by analyzing the impurities. No two mines produce identical gold. Even 24 karat gold has miniscule traces of other elements in it. Each and every mine has its own signature."
Frowning in disbelief, Grady asks, "How would a cop know that?"
That was downright rude. The nerve of this geezer insulting my father in his own house. "He saw it on the Discovery Channel," I reply sarcastically.
Dad laughs. "If you want to catch a mad bomber, you have to think like a terrorist. What we have here is a mining engineer holed up in an abandoned mine. No way we are going to flush him out without knowing something about mining. This is one sheriff who has been doing his homework. When the feds finally get it together and decide to go after this guy, I intend to be ready."
"You play hero and I get to pay for it with 7.2 ounces of gold worth $2780.64," snorts Grady derisively.
"Look at it as an investment in national security. The US government is offering a reward of $5 million for information leading to the dismantling of any system used to finance a terrorist organization. Seems to me like you qualify," says Dad with a wink in my direction.
Greedy Grady bites hook, line, and sinker. "FIVE MILLION DOLLARS! I better go and let you get back to work. Always happy to cooperate with the law. Did I tell you that my cousin George was a reserve officer with the Anaheim Police Department? Disneyland made a stink about him using his badge to get in free and they had to let him go. Real shame. It drove him to drink. Went from police officer to Skid Row bum."
Having concluded what he believes to be a successful business deal, Grady once again shakes hands with Dad before turning to go. As soon as Grady is gone, I turn to Dad and ask, "You made up the part about the $5 million, didn't you?"
"Didn't you read the reward poster on the wall in my office? My guess is that Grady is going to be a very rich man."
Doesn't that beat all? Law enforcement officers risk their lives going after terrorists and guys like Grady reap the rewards. A task force often spends years to build a case against a terrorist organization and gets little more than a pat on the head for their efforts. They are the ones that deserve the money, not Grady. Grady unloads a beat-up truck for 3 times what it is worth and then rats on the buyer. For this he stands to get $5 million? In addition to being blind, justice can be less than fair, particularly when it comes to money. Considering that jurors only make $5 a day, I am amazed that the courts haven't ground to a halt. There has to be a better way.
Dad is putting on his hat as he heads for the door. He has a determined look on his face that tells me something is up. "You going out to the mine?" I ask, hoping to tag along.
"That's right. And you would be, too, if you hadn't got yourself grounded. There are two gallons of paint along with some paintbrushes on the work bench in the garage. Peel those posters off of the walls and then paint your bedroom. That should keep you busy and out of trouble until I get home."
"You have such a nice way with words. If the sheriff job doesn't pan out, you could always find work interrogating prisoners in a concentration camp. We could be a team. You splatter the blood and I paint over it."
"Watch your mouth. You are in enough trouble as it is. Work fast and you be done in time to cook dinner."
I'm opening my mouth to say something else when Dad puts an abrupt end to conversation by slamming the front door in my face. One step more and I would have had a busted nose. I have heard of tough love but this goes beyond that. Painting is hard labor. Isn't there something in the Constitution or the Geneva Convention which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment?
I suppose everybody would be a whole lot happier if I did not go to college and learned a trade instead. I can see me now spraying countless gallons of paint a day, bringing the gift of color to a drab world. So be it. If my Dad, the exalted Sheriff of Hermosa, says that painting some stupid wall is more important than catching a terrorist, who am I to say different?
You know me. I am an optimist, the type of person who makes certain that the glass is always half full, even if it means I have to spit in it to make up the difference. Consequently, I go out to the garage determined to make the best of it. Painting builds character. Renoir, Picasso, El Greco, Titian, Vermeer, Monet—these were all great men who painted their way to fame. But then, come to think of it, none of them attempted anything as large as my bedroom, except for Michelangelo who mainly did ceilings. The last famous person to do entire houses was Adolf Hitler. No doubt his father, Alois Schickelgruber, yelled at him to get it done in time to cook dinner.
But, like I said, I prefer to look at things in a positive manner. That is why I won't say a word about how the paint is flat white even though it is my bedroom and I would much prefer a full gloss pastel blue. Since I am not the one paying the bills, I am lucky to have the paint. I can live with white. Cover it with posters and nobody will ever notice.
It takes me 15 minutes to carry all of the paraphernalia—the ladder, brushes, and rollers—into the house and an hour to take down the posters, move my stuff into the hallway, and cover the floor with a drop cloth. So far, so good.
I am reading the instructions on the back of the paint can when I come across do not use when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees. It must take nerve to sell this stuff to Californians in the summer. If I sat around waiting for the thermometer to drop below 90 degrees, I would not get done until Christmas. What the heck, I will just turn on the air conditioning full blast. Usually, I amot allowed to turn it on until late afternoon when it gets as hot as blazes. But Dad wants it done now and he is the one paying the electricity bill. Dad has a fit when it goes over $200. Nothing makes an electric meter spin faster than a 3 ton central air conditioner. At 220 volts, it could make hell freeze over. Comfort here I come. There may well be the devil to pay, but we won't cross that bridge until we come to it.
The instructions also say to stir the paint for 10 minutes. What do they know? You cannot stir paint without making a mess. I take my advice from the intensely immaculate man of action, James Bond: "Shaken not stirred." Shaken is so much more genteel. Mind if I rumba? I Do not want to bruise the bouquet. Pry off the lid. Enjoy that rich aroma. I am a modern warrior, the new Tom Sawyer, intent on making painting fun.
Not just a painter, but an artist. Watch me work. A dozen strokes with the roller and, voila!, a life size rendition of a bison. Like it? I got the idea from my Art History textbook. There is this cave called Chauvet-Pont-Duc in the south of France that has some top notch art by little known artists from the Paleolithic Era. Mine is not nearly as good as theirs, but then they were not working with a roller. Paint an owl, a prancing horse, a bear, a panther, a mammoth, a reindeer, and a couple of dozen human hand and foot prints and you can get the feel of what it was like to be a Stone Age caveman.
I am signing my initials at the bottom of the mural when I hear the muffled sound of the phone ringing underneath the heavy drop cloth. It takes me a couple of tries to fish it from the top of my chest of drawers:
"Romero's Art Gallery," I answer with pride, "consulting and analysis at $100 per hour. We are currently booked solid. Tours available only by appointment."
"Listen, I can only talk for a second. I am grounded, my parents took away my cell phone and I am not supposed to see you anymore. They are watching me like hawks. What are you doing right now?"
It's Beth! I have been wondering why she had not called. Seems like it has been ages . . .
"I am painting my bedroom," I say, pause for effect, and then quickly add, "Dad sentenced me to hard labor."
"I pressed the roses you gave me in the Bible and sleep with them under my pillow at night. I love you . . . ."
Suddenly, the phone goes dead. Someone must have grabbed it out of her hand. I am tempted to drop everything and run over to Beth's place, but that would only make the situation worse for both of us. No choice but to stifle my feelings. Sadly, Romero's Gallery comes to an end. First to go is the bison, then the mammoth, and lastly, the hand and foot prints vanish beneath a flurry of snow white paint. The Ice Man Cometh, a glacier descends upon Gaul, and it is ice scream oblivion via Darwin. Two more hours of drudgery with a roller, some touchup with a brush, and I am finished. As predicted, it is time to cook dinner. Civilization is such a drag. If I had my choice, I would be a caveman hunting bison on the French Riviera with Beth by my side.
Two medium rare 18 ounce bison steaks would be just the thing for dinner, but we are having London Broil which is about as close as we will ever come to eating bison. Tender and juicy, served with sauteed onions, garlic, and green chili peppers, London Broil is a gourmet treat. I would like to invite you to dinner, but there is only enough for two. Perhaps some other time.
Dad digs into the London Broil as if he had not ate in weeks. While this isn't exactly the same as paying a compliment to the chef, I take it as such and make a mental note to go through the newspaper ads and find whether either of the two stores where Dad shops for food has London Broil on sale. A while back, the federal government closed the border to Canadian beef due to mad cow disease and the prices have yet to come down. By watching for sales, we can afford to eat beef twice a week. Considering the high cost of meat along with the E. coli, Newcastle, mad cow, salmonella, and listeriosis scares, it is a wonder we are not vegetarians.
We are almost finished eating when Dad suddenly leans back in his chair, reaches inside of his jacket, pulls out a license plate, and flings it onto the table where the vase of flowers would be if I had time to bother with such niceties.
"Expired commercial plate," I comment without looking up. "Must have come from a bus or a truck."
"You have seen it before, but you probably cannot remember where," Dad says with a sly grin.
I read the yellow number off the blue California plate aloud, "4RS2871," and add, "a definite loser for license plate poker."
"Au contraire, mon frere."
Wow! Dad is speaking French. The snowbirds must be getting to him. Next thing you know, he will be playing ice hockey. Where have I seen that plate before? One thing for sure: it doesn't ring any of my bells. How does that saying go? When in doubt, BS your way out. I might as well take a stab at it. "It came off of the bus that used to take me to Sunday School. I always suspected the driver was DUI," I quip authoritatively while making an all-out effort to keep a straight face.
As soon as the words exit my mouth, I am aware it was the wrong thing to say. Dad's playful mood comes to an abrupt end. "It would do you good to start going to church again," he says in a serious tone that makes me sorry I ever joked about such a sensitive issue. We quit going to church after Mom left. Dad is right, we ought to go back. It's not God's fault the marriage went sour.
It is not my fault either. In fact, according to the State of California, when it comes to divorce, nobody is at fault. And, since nobody can ever be officially blamed for breaking the marriage contract, there is no need to act responsibly. Adults behave like children, doing as they please with no regard to the consequences to themselves and their families. It is enough to make you want to cry. Please tell me why. If it's not my fault, then why do I hurt so bad?
"You don't remember where you saw that plate, do you?," Dad says, bringing me back to the subject at hand. "I will give you a hint: it mostly sat in a driveway."
"Grady's old truck! You found it? Did Khaddam ditch it?"
"No, the plate was facedown in the dirt when I came across it. What makes it valuable is that I found it inside the mine. That proves he has holed up somewhere in there. We have to flush him out before he links up with other terrorists. Al-Qaeda sent him here to scout out a base of operations. That is the way I see it and that is the way Iam going to tell it to the Department of Homeland Security, the mayor, and the newspapers. Gas them out, bomb them out, whatever it takes. Terrorists behave like cockroaches. Go to squish them and the filthy things scatter."
"So what are we waiting for?," I ask naively, totally unaware that sheriffs aren't any different than the rest of us in that they are not always free to do as they choose.
"You want to know what I am waiting for? I am going to tell you what I am waiting for. I am waiting for a sedentary, overweight FBI administrator in Washington, D.C, with a cellphone up his butt and far too much time on his hands to quit watching porno flicks on the internet long enough to do his job. The mine is outside my jurisdiction. I requested authorization from them months ago and all I have been able to get out of them is, 'we need to investigate further.'" Halim Khaddam entered the United States illegally, stole a case of dynamite, and is hiding out in an abandoned gold mine. What else do they need to know about him? They want to investigate? Let them investigate what a case of dynamite could do to a small town like Hermosa. Nothing left. No women, no children, no dogs, no cats, no businesses, no homes. I have lived here my entire life. I took an oath to protect Hermosa and that is exactly what I am going to do."
"But why Hermosa? This is not Manhattan. What good would it do al-Qaeda to destroy us?"
"That is what puzzled me, too," Dad says. "And I am willing to bet that although the FBI isn't about to say so to my face, the reason that they have not approved my request is that they cannot bring themselves to believe that al-Qaeda would bother with a small town whose sole industry is tourism."
"You are right, Dad. That is what is missing. There has to be a motive."
"I think the mine itself is the motive. The terrorists chose an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere for their base of operations. What they didn't reckon with is that kids from Hermosa come there to party. You and your beer-guzzling, girl-chasing buddies got in their way. Ever hear of Operation Pastorius?"
"No," I say while shaking my head from side to side in an attempt to assert a double negative, by which I meant, I had never heard of Operation Pastorius and, we never drink more than a keg or two at a time.
"In June 1942, a Nazi submarine landed four saboteurs on a New York beach. They bungled the job and got caught. Even so, it gave the country a scare. At the time it was a big headline story. But there was a second story that got suppressed. Another group of saboteurs were put ashore on a beach in Florida. They went on to Cincinnati and Chicago. Two of them made it to New York City."
"That is scary, alright. What if Khaddam isn't alone? We aren't going to let them scatter, are we?," I say, fearing that it might already be too late.
"Over my dead body," Dad replies, bringing his fist down so hard on the license plate that it is a wonder the table does not collapse. Thank goodness I had thought to remove the dirty dishes earlier. With all the broken glassware and china I have to sweep up at work, I certainly don't need to be doing it at home. Once upon a time, we had a service for 8. Now, I could not come up with 4 matching plates and/or glasses. That is what I get for discussing sensitive matters at the dinner table.
Dad stands and paces back and forth for a while. Halting abruptly as if having received some earth-shattering revelation from on high, he stares a hole through my head [that is how parents read minds] before issuing me his latest proclamation:
"We are going to have to dine out tomorrow because I have a City Council meeting at 6 PM. Come by about 4:30 and we will try that new Mexican restaurant. The meeting won't last long. It is closed to the public, so you will have to wait for me outside. But a few of the councilmen are hard of hearing, which means the Public Address System will be on. If you care to know what is going on, put an ear to the door and you can catch most of it."
"Let's get this show on the road. I am J.P. Tom—just plain Tom. Having been elected mayor, I hereby call this closed session of the Hermosa City Council to order. It is 6 PM, Friday, August 30, 2002. The record shall so state. Sheriff Romero, are the doors to council chambers barred?"
"Yes, your honor."
"And is there anyone at this meeting who doesn't belong here?"
"No, your honor."
"Seeing as how the meeting is not open to the public, we will dispense with the Invocation and proceed to call the roll: Deputy Mayor Harold Cox?"
"I'm here. Aren't we going to do the Pledge of Allegiance?"
"You will recall we did that at the public session," replies the Mayor testily.
"Wouldn't hurt to do it again."
"Harry, please. There is nobody here but us. We can do the Invocation and the Pledge and go through the whole kit and caboodle or we can speed it up and get out of here at a decent hour. It is up to you."
"Sorry, J.P. I didn't mean to rock the boat."
"As a result of the untimely demise of Councilman Miller, we have a vacancy that will not be filled until the next election. Members in attendance: Tom and Cox; Excused Absence: Lee; Staff: Romero. Sheriff, is this tape recorder working? I don't see the little red light."
"I think maybe the light is burned out. The spools are turning, so it's recording. It has a 90 minute cassette."
"That should be more than enough. You can erase this part later. Now, where was I? Oh, yes . . . we have a quorum. Pursuant to Civil Code Section 54956.9(a), discussion at a closed meeting of an elected municipal agency must be restricted to personnel and/or security concerns. Is there a motion to proceed?"
Harry raises his hand and says, "I so move."
"Is there a second?"
Harry raises his hand again and announces, "I second the motion."
"Harry, you know better than to second your own motion. But, seeing as how there is nobody else to second it, I will let it go this time. Screw parliamentary procedure. The form may not be exactly right, but at least the spirit of the law is intact, which reminds me of the time I killed a jackrabbit that had run behind a rock with a ricochet. It isn't normally done that way but there wasn not any other way to do it. It was either do that or go hungry. People with full bellies can afford to be sticklers. The rest of us do what we have to do in order to survive. Let the record show that the motion was made and seconded. It's time we put it to a vote. In favor? [Harry raises his hand.] Opposed? [Harry sits motionless.] The motion is passed unanimously."
"Now that we have the required stuff out of the way, we can get down to business. First item on the agenda is the Hermosa Volunteer Fire Department. It seems they forgot what the word volunteer means and are demanding to be paid for their time. Needless to say, Hermosa can't afford a full-time Fire Department. It wouldn't be a good idea to refuse them outright as they might decide to resign en masse and then where would we be? Of course, we could put them off by offering to study the matter. And, if that doesn't work, we could try buying them some new hoses. Is there a motion to proceed in this manner?"
Up goes Harry's hand. "I so move," he proclaims in a loud voice, as if there was an audience to hear it and then, after a short pause, adds, "might as well second the thing, too, while I am at it."
"Any objections? [short pause] Motion passed. Henceforth, the policy in regard to the issue of pay for the Fire Department will be to delay and obstruct whenever possible. Moving on to the second item on the agenda, we come to a matter of utmost importance. I cannot walk down Main Street without having someone ask why we have not caught this terrorist yet. People are scared to death. They are saying that it is not safe to live in Hermosa. The developer who said he was interested in building 250 homes here has decided to back out of the deal. Hermosa is hurting. If we don't do something soon, there won't be any town left for terrorists to blow up. Sheriff Romero, I am proud to have known your father. He knew his duty and never once let this city down. It has been my experience that there are two types of people: those who make excuses and those who do what needs to be done. Your father was an outstanding example of the latter variety. If he were alive today, we would not be in this dilemma."
"And he might be alive today if you hadn't denied him health care coverage. You voted 'no,' didn't you? Some friend you turned out to be."
"Gentlemen, please," Harry implores. "Fighting among ourselves is what they want us to do. J.P., you either shut up and permit the sheriff to explain how he intends to capture the terrorist or I am walking out. As for you, sheriff, you are barking up the wrong tree. Neither the mayor nor the council receives any health benefits from the city. The money is not there. We need to expand the property tax base and that takes development. As things stand, nobody in his right mind is going to invest in Hermosa's future. If you don't catch that madman soon, we can all kiss our asses goodbye. Come next election, we will be history. Either we pull together or hang alone."
I hope I am getting this right. There are bound to be gaps when you are trying to listen through the door and look through the keyhole at the same time. If you know a better way, now is the time to speak up. I am getting a crick in my neck—not sure how much longer I can keep doing this.
"Sheriff Romero has my full and complete support. No doubt he appreciates that our survival depends on him. We dare not wait any longer for Homeland Security to rescue us. God helps those who help themselves. It is up to us to capture these evildoers. Afterwards, the court can decide the issue of jurisdiction. What do you say to that, sheriff?," asks the mayor with a leer as he passes the microphone to Dad.
Grasping the public address system's volume knob, Dad turns it down. The tension everyone has been feeling begins to subside. That is what good cops do. They draw on their knowledge of human nature to defuse explosive situations. The mayor is on edge. Dad has to soothe his nerves before he can get him to listen to reason. Finessing the overseers on the city council is part and parcel to the job.
"The mayor is the man in charge and we are going to do this his way. What we don't want to do, however, is to go off half-cocked. We have reason to believe that the man we are after is a Syrian mining engineer named Halim Khaddam who crossed over illegally from Canada by hitching a ride with some snowbirds. After disrupting the Independence Day Parade, he holed up in an abandoned gold mine. Like the other 911 terrorists, Halim Khaddam speaks English fluently and wears western clothing. You pass him on the street and he is just another person. Only this particular person stole a case of dynamite. Homeland Security does not think we are in danger. They think Hermosa is a nowhere town full of nobodies that terrorists wouldn't be interested in and they are not about to let me, the hick sheriff, put the squeeze on them. Which means we are all alone by our lonesome. No question about it, our backs are to the wall. Like the mayor said, the plan is to bag this raghead, pack him off to Guantanamo, and worry about the legal niceties after the threat has been removed."
"We have to do this on our terms, not his. Much better to wait him out than to have to go in and get him. If we do this right, we won't have to contend with cave-ins, flooding, poisonous gases, bad air, and other dangers that we could expect him to lead us into. A cat knows better than to chase a gopher. Invariably, the cat will lie motionless next to the hole and wait for the gopher to make an appearance. That is how I intend to catch Khaddam. When he pops his head out of the hole, I will be there to lop it off."
Dad hands the microphone back to the mayor who promptly turns the volume back up.
"That is all very well, sheriff. We fully appreciate that you have devoted abundant thought to the problem. Time, however, is not on our side. People want action. Either we come up with some tangible results soon or the voters are going to crucify us. Sam Peterson and the Herald are playing this for all it is worth. Haven't you been reading the letters to the editor? They are out for blood."
Sorry, but I had two sodas on the way over and now I have to go to the bathroom really bad. Since the council meeting appears to be degenerating into a pissing contest, I doubt that I will miss anything of value. If you ask me, the mayor is out of control. Somebody rattles his cage and he takes it out on Dad. If it was me, I would tell him to take his job and shove it.
Why do they lock the restrooms at night? Who would be dumb enough to steal a used toilet? No doubt the council members all have keys. Thank goodness they don't lock broom closets. Sometimes a guy has to improvise. It is not as if I am going to do anything out of the ordinary. Mop buckets were in use long before commodes.
There, I am back. Sorry it took me so long. There are some things you cannot hurry. Seeing as how the double doors are propped open, the meeting must be over. I don't see the mayor, but there is Harry talking to Dad. Let's listen:
"Look, sheriff, I am no bigot. I will take anybody's money. I love Canadians. Eighty percent of my gross receipts come from renting spaces to Canucks. Walk into the office and you will see a maple leaf flag nailed to the wall behind the counter. Look around the campgrounds and you cannot help but notice that the pay phones, vending machines, washers, and dryers have "out of order" signs on them. That is because they are jammed with Canadian funny money, worthless coins in the same denominations as ours except that they are tinny and don't have half the heft. Here, take a look at this two dollar token. It says two dollars on it but anyone can see that it's a penny ensconced in an aluminum ring. I went to deposit it at the bank the other day and the teller laughed at me."
"Look, Harry, I am a peace officer, not a diplomat. Last time I heard, Canada was a sovereign nation. If the Royal Canadian Mint runs short of precious metals and has to substitute arcade tokens for coins, then that is between them and Washington. When George Washington threw a dollar across the Potomac, he darned sure didn't borrow it from Sacagawea. There is not that much difference between a Susan B. Anthony dollar and that $2 penny you showed me. Nowadays, nothing is worth what it used to be. In 1920, they sold brand new Fords for under a thousand dollars. You cannot buy a used car for that today. Be reasonable. You can't expect me to toss a snowbird in jail because his government is cheating your vending machines."
"Since when did passing bogus money become legal? I am being nickeled and dimed to death. The repair bills alone are killing me."
"So quit calling out the repairmen. Rig the machines to accept anything and everything that is put into them. Then raise the prices by two or three hundred percent—that ought to more than cover your costs. Throw any Canadian coins you get in a 5 gallon water bottle and maybe we can raffle it off next Fourth of July."
"That is not a half bad idea, sheriff. It is better to outsmart them than to fight them. I owe you a favor. By the way, did you hear how those Canadians offered to assist us in fighting the war against terrorism after 9/11? They wanted to send us 6,000 ground troops, 2 ships, and 6 fighter jets, but when they figured in the exchange rate, all we ended up getting were 2 Mounties, 1 canoe, and a bunch of flying squirrels."
Not being one for jokes, Dad smiles a thin smile that contains no laughter. But Harry isn't about to let Dad get off easy. "The US Navy couldn't use the canoe and decided to get rid of it," he continues. "Turns out there is only one way to kill a Canuck canoe. You have to get down on your k-nees and k-nife it." Guffawing with gusto at his own puny pun, Harry doubles up with laughter. Dad grimaces and walks away. He's had enough humor for one night.
Nothing left to do but turn the lights off, lockup, and go home. I am looking forward to a long soak in the bathtub. Not sure why, but when I go to City Hall I almost always come home feeling filthy. Tonight, I feel especially filthy. Strange, but it is as if I have been wading through muck.
Fortunately, we have a 40 gallon water heater and I won't have to worry about running out of hot water. What we lack is candles and soft music. That stuff left with Mom. I once saw this movie about a single father struggling to raise his son. It was supposed to be funny. I was the only kid in the theater who wasn't laughing. My Social Studies teacher said that humor helps us deal with painful situations. Sometimes maybe, but not always. Our home used to be full of laughter. Now, it is just another broken home. Nothing I do can fix it. It is simply the way it is.
Summer vacation is almost over. I am actually looking forward to going back to school. This is my senior year. Lots of good stuff: Beth, my class ring, the prom, graduation. I am worried that Beth will be mad at me for not finding some way to contact her. Dad and I are just about to come to an agreement when—wouldn't you know it?—the phone rings and Dad shushes me as he picks up the receiver.
"What's that you say? Sodium cyanide? In our drinking water? Cyanide is a deadly poison, isn't it?"
This just will not do. It is not like I am eavesdropping. Dad has such a loud voice that you cannot help but hear what he is saying on the phone. You have no idea of how distracting it is to hear one end without being able to listen to the other. What Dad needs is a speaker phone. Maybe I will get him one for Christmas. I would pick up the extension in the kitchen except that Dad would hear the click. This really sounds interesting. Maybe if I stroll into the kitchen and pick it up slowly . . . .
"Let's not be too quick to refer to it as deadly. Although point four parts per million certainly gives us cause for concern, there is no need to panic. The thing I don't understand is why this particular reservoir never tested positive for cyanide prior to yesterday. There is a chance that someone dumped toxic waste into Lake Witt. What we need is evidence. Could you meet me at the gate in an hour? You can't miss me. I am driving a Metropolitan Water District pickup truck, white with a blue logo."
"Not so fast," Dad says. "What exactly does having four parts per million mean? Are people going to get sick?"
"The Metropolitan Water District is doing everything in its power to make certain that no one is going to get sick. Currently, the water from Lake Witt is being mixed with Colorado River water to meet EPA standards."
"Let's see if I got this straight. You know for certain that the lake is poisoned and yet you are still pumping it to us?"
"It is customary to blend waters from various sources to lower the level of contaminants. The federal Clean Water Act permits point two parts per million cyanide. That is the standard that was mandated by Congress. I can assure you, Sheriff, that the MWD has fully complied with the law."
"Watered down or not, it is still poison. I am turning off the main valve at the pump house. If you like, we can work together on this. But that valve is staying off until I say different."
"Be reasonable, Sheriff. What you are proposing will up our costs by 60 percent."
"We are talking lives and you are worried about costs? There is no such thing as an acceptable level of cyanide. I am not about to let you dose pregnant women and babies with poison. That water comes to my house, also. Blended, my ass. You better pray nobody gets sick."
Dad slams the receiver down hard. I, in turn, slam the extension. Alarms are going off inside my head. If ever there was an emergency, this is it. I rush back into the living room to lend a hand. Amazingly, Dad doesn't tell me to buzz off. He throws me his keys and tells me to get a crowbar and then warm up the Crown Vic while he makes a quick phone call. Finally, I am getting in on the action. Adrenaline pumps through my veins. It's hero time. They cannot stop us. We are going to save Hermosa. I wonder what the crowbar is for? Grandpa used to carry a tire iron with him when he broke up bar brawls. A crowbar beats a tire iron, any day. How tough could this MWD guy be? Strange, he did not sound tough over the phone. Maybe Dad knows something I don't.
I start the car and then slide across the seat to the passenger's side. The crowbar laying across my lap is giving me the willies. Big city police departments issue nightsticks while rural cops like Dad are more likely to make do with blackjacks, axe handles, tire irons, cattle prods, and a variety of other implements. The thrill of the feel of cold steel gives way to reason. Call me a bleeding heart, but a crowbar seems a bit much.
I do not have to wait long. Dad jumps in, tosses me a Polaroid camera, and we are off. There is nothing more exciting than going Code 3, lights and siren, pedal to the metal. A roller coaster isn't half as fun. This is what real cops live for. Nothing in the world like an adrenaline high. A couple of these and you will never do dope again. Although you will never get anyone to admit to it, 9 out of 10 street cops are addicted to Code 3. Don't believe me? It's the flashing lights and sounds (as much as anything else) that addict gamblers to slot machines. Add the thrill of the chase under emergency conditions and you have Code 3. If I could put it in a pill, I would be rich.
It takes us less than 3 minutes to get to Lake Witt. Somehow the MWD official got there first and already has the gate open. He is frail and thin—exactly the opposite of how I had pictured him to be. I hate to wimp out in front of Dad, but I don't want to hurt someone if I don't have to. There are times when a man (I am almost a man) has to take a stand.
"You think I should take a full swing with this crowbar? This guy is a pushover. Can't I sort of tap him in the knees with it?"
"Don't let me ever see you hit ANYONE with a crowbar! It is a tool, not a weapon. We may need it to pry the valve shut."
"Oh," I say, feeling myself shrink down to size. Why don't parents tell us these things instead of keeping us guessing?
Instead of heading for the open gate, Dad walks down the fence to a spot where the chain link has been cut and folded back. Since the cut edges are brighter than the wire, it could not have happened very long ago. Dad holds the chain link back while I step through and remarks that someone took the time to cut a straight line—too fastidious to be the work of vandals.
When the MWD official joins us Dad asks him, "Did anyone report this?"
"Not to me," the official replies sheepishly.
"How often does your security do a perimeter check?"
"The fence is checked bi-monthly by a maintenance supervisor for damage."
"You mean there isn't any security? No patrols whatsoever?"
"Used to be before the layoff. Security got cut with the last budget."
Dad shakes his head in disbelief then strides towards the pump house with the MWD guy and me in tow. The door is padlocked and it takes several tries before we find the right key. Why so many keys? My guess is that they are meant to jingle-jangle so as to give us skinny-dippers fair warning. Nobody wants the MWD sneaking up on them, least of all me. Bell the cat; see if I care.
Bright red and about the size of a steering wheel, the shutoff valve looms before us. I go over to it and spin it shut with my left hand. It is almost as if it is on ball bearings. Darn crowbar is overkill. It must weigh upwards of 10 pounds. Now I am stuck lugging it around. If the idiot who invented the crowbar had had to carry it around, you can bet he would have made it from titanium rather than cold steel. I am absent-mindedly banging on a large pipe with it until Dad tells me to cut it out. Why can't old people tolerate noise? It has probably got something to do with the hair that grows in their ears.
By shutting off the main valve I have saved several thousand people from being poisoned by the MWD. That makes me a hero. Still, there is something missing. Where is the action, where is the drama? It never happens this way in the movies. Heroes aren't supposed to be humdrum. Couldn't we have waited for somebody to die before shutting off the water? That way people would appreciate what we did for them.
We padlock the pump house and go for a stroll. Dad wants to walk the entire perimeter of the lake, examining every rock and boulder for clues. This could take hours. Someday, someone is going to invent a compact, portable outdoor air conditioning system that will make walking under a blazing sun a pleasant experience.
Thirty minutes later the MWD guy is perspiring profusely, visible proof that the vast majority of people are overweight and out-of-shape. He gives Dad some lame excuse and heads for his truck. Good riddance. Now we can conduct an investigation without the MWD looking over our shoulders.
"What are we looking for?," I ask after an hour of trying to look like I know what I am doing.
"Cyanide, footprints, anything that might furnish a clue," Dad says, wading up to his knees in the water to retrieve what turns out to be an inner tube from a bicycle.
"What does cyanide look like?"
"A white crystalline powder, sort of like methamphetamine," Dad replies as he tosses the tube away.
"What does it taste like?," I innocently ask in a half-hearted attempt to keep up my end of the waning conversation.
"You got heatstroke?"
"Sorry, it must have been a brain fart."
Law enforcement officers are not sparkling conversationalists. Men and women of few words somehow gravitate to this profession. I try my best with Dad, but it is an uphill battle. Macho does not make it in today's world. I think I will do him a favor and dye his khaki uniforms pink. On second thought, maybe I won't.
Dad continues to poke about looking for clues. Where he finds the energy to walk in this heat is beyond me. Iam dying for a swim. I have cottonmouth and there is nothing to drink other than cyanide tainted lake water. Three hours of baking in the hot sun and nary a clue to show for it. But Dad is not about to give up. Dad's got what it takes. My get up and go got up and went.
We are almost to the spot where I usually go for a swim when I recall having seen some empty 55 gallon plastic barrels the last time I was there. Could they have something to do with this? I can't tell Dad about them because then he would know that I have been trespassing. What I can do, however, is to steer him in that general direction and let him think he discovered them himself.
Steering Dad in the proper direction turns out to be no easy task. Finally, in desperation, I go over to the bushes and roll out one of the blue barrels. Dad goes bananas over it. It turns out there are traces of white powder in the bottom. Not only that, but there is a second and a third barrel stashed in the chaparral. I stand guard while Dad goes to radio for a flatbed truck. We now are fairly sure of how the lake came to be poisoned. The question remains as to who and why.
Two days later, when the story appears on the front page of the Hermosa Herald, my photo is prominently displayed. Once again, I am the local hero. People who don't really know me are slapping me on the back and offering congratulations. I feel a bit guilty about not having said something when I first noticed the barrels, however, since nobody got sick or died, it probably doesn't matter much one way or the other.
The owner/editor of the newspaper, Sam Peterson, volunteered to foot the bill for shipping the three barrels to the FBI's crime lab in Washington, D.C. People are angry and justifiably so. Almost to a man, they want the terrorist caught, and they want him caught now. No ifs, ands, or buts.
The telephone has been ringing all day. Some guy from Toronto called and told me the Canadian Broadcasting Company was carrying the story. However, when I tried to find it on the internet, the search engine sent me to a porn site. Excuse me, there goes the phone again.
"Is this Ryan?"
"Yes, it is me. How are you, Mrs. Perkins?"
"Oh, I am fine, thank you. But I would probably be lying in bed at a hospital or, worse yet, on a slab at the morgue if you hadn't found those barrels. I have lived here my entire life and I have never seen people this scared. There is a run on ammunition next door at Dale's Sporting Goods. Bottled water is going for a dollar a gallon at the market and there is a line forming at the ATM across the street at the bank. I am going to boil the water before I take a bath tonight and I am turning off the sprinklers so as not to kill the lawn."
"I don't think boiling the water will eliminate cyanide. Besides, we turned off the main valve in the pump room at Lake Witt. When Mr. Peterson wrote the newspaper article, he forgot to mention that the water we are getting now is coming from the Colorado River," I reply, trying to calm her fears.
"That is a relief, but I am still going to boil the water. Doesn't the plumbing need to be flushed out?"
"I hadn't thought about that," I say, wondering whether it needs to be or not. "So far, nobody has issued any warnings."
"Listen, Ryan, I have somebody here who wants to talk to you."
"Put him on."
"This is definitely not a him," Thelma says knowingly. I can hear a second female tittering in the background.
"Remember me?," asks the second female. My heart leaps at the sound of her voice.
"Beth! I didn't think I would hear from you until school starts. You promised your folks that you wouldn't talk to me."
"Ryan Romero, I did no such thing. I promised I wouldn't phone you. And I didn't. Thelma phoned you."
"Give Thelma a big hug for me," I reply. "She always comes through when I need her most."
"Thelma thinks the world of you and your father. So do I. I think I understand now why you were so intent on chasing that man at the Fourth of July parade. He is full of hatred and needs to be caught before he hurts someone. My Mom is waiting for me in the car so I have to go. Be careful and remember I love you."
"Wait, Beth, I wrote a poem for you. It needs to be polished and I don't have a title for it yet.
Come ride with me
And sweet romance
May be your destiny
Take a chance
Unzip your pants
And set your spirit free.
Do you like it?"
"The perfect poem from the perfect man. See, you are more romantic than you realized. Mind if I make a suggestion? Substitute dance for pants."
"Unzip your dance? That doesn't make sense."
"Then how about begin to dance?," Beth offers sweetly.
"I will work on it some more and give it to you at school," I promise.
"I have to run, goodbye."
Frantically searching my mind for remnants of Freshman French, I pass by Adieu and go with "Au revoir," as more befitting a bon vivant et poèt.
The phone will not stop ringing. Once more into the fray . . .
"Ryan Romero here," I answer.
"Ryan Romero here, too" says a more mature version of my voice on the other end of the line.
"Hi Dad, what's up?"
"I want you to deadbolt the doors, lock the windows, and stay inside until I get home. This is turning ugly. I have received reports that there are armed men patrolling the streets in pickup trucks looking for terrorists. The mayor has called an emergency Town Meeting. No telling what is going to happen. Don't wait dinner for me."
Dad hangs up without waiting for a response. Maybe it is just as well because I am speechless. Surely my friends and neighbors—people whom I know and trust—wouldn't take the law into their own hands. These armed men almost have to be outsiders—troublemakers spoiling for a fight. I double-check both entrances to make certain they are bolted and then go quickly from room to room closing the windows. To make sure that they cannot be opened from the outside, I brace wooden dowels diagonally across the metal frames. For good measure, I tilt a wooden chair against the front door. Perhaps it is a bit much, but better safe than sorry.
Peeking through the Venetian blinds, I watch the afternoon traffic from the safety of the living room, half expecting to see a truck of skinhead red necks go by guzzling beer and shooting up the neighborhood. To my dismay nothing out of the ordinary seems to be happening. There is a pizza delivery lady in an ancient primer gray El Camino lurching along in first gear while casting furtive glances out the rolled down window, but she is obviously searching for a house number and I quickly turn my attention elsewhere. What about the beat up Dodge truck with Colorado plates parked across the street? No, it has been sitting there since yesterday. Besides, there is nobody in it. Say, isn't this the second time Councilman Lee has driven by? He has the only Cadillac Escalade I have seen in Hermosa. Man, would I love to have a truck like that. Considering his father-in-law owns Pipeline Construction, he can afford it. Why is he making a u-turn and coming back? Couldn'tbe lost. Not with the GPS navigation system that comes standard on an Escalade.
He is pulling over to the curb and stopping. Look how the paint gleams in the sun. Must be 5 or 6 coats of lacquer on that baby. I read an article in Car and Driver about them. They cost upwards of $55,000 and are pretty much in a class by themselves. I wonder if Mr. Lee would mind if I took a closer look at it?
Dad said to stay inside. Could be he exaggerated the danger. Being on the City Council (and therefore in the know), I seriously doubt that Mr. Lee would be out and about unless the coast was clear. Besides, I would only be gone a minute or two. In order to live our lives fully, we must sometimes take risks. How is that for homespun philosophy? There is a slight ring of truth to it. Rule #1 in Ryan's Handbook for Heroes says to prepare an excuse in advance in case you get caught.
Rule #2 says that those who resist temptation never have any fun. Nothing could be more fun than a luxury truck. Consequently, I am out the front door in a flash. Ryan Romero is not one to miss an opportunity. Although I don't know Mr. Lee that well, I don a smile and greet him like a brother.
"That is sure one nice truck. Mind if I walk around and take a better look at it?"
"Go right ahead. Hey, wasn't your picture in the newspaper? You are Sheriff Romero's son, aren't you?"
"His one and only. But don't believe everything you read in the newspaper. It was my father who found those barrels."
Due to smoke tinted windows, I hadn't noticed the muscular guy sitting in the backseat with a Mossberg 12 gauge autoloader on his lap. And it wasn't until I leaned my head inside to take a better look at the satellite radio that I saw the Glock 10 mm automatic pistol lying on top of the dashboard. That's more firepower than most cops carry. What have I gotten myself into?
Gun etiquette and common sense dictate that I should not blurt, 'What is with the guns?⠠Do it to the wrong guy and you just might find out. Instead, I opt for the indirect approach and ask, "Wasn't that your dynamite that got stolen?"
"My fault for not securing it better," replies Mr. Lee with eyes cast downward. "I am to blame for putting Hermosa in danger."
"No, he isn't" comes a voice from the backseat. "I was the guard on duty that night. If I had been doing my job, I would have caught that terrorist red-handed. Any other employer would have fired me on the spot." His voice is quivering with anger and his knuckles are white from clutching the shotgun tightly. This is one guy I wouldn't want to tangle with. Something tells me I should have listened to Dad and stayed in the house.
"I heard on the news that Cadillac Escalades were eight times more likely to be stolen than other new cars. You can't even go for a drive anymore without being armed to the teeth," says Councilman Lee in answer to my prolonged stare at the pistol lying on the dashboard.
Who does he think he's fooling? I must look awful dumb for him to expect me to buy that line of crap. Obviously, he's not aware that Dad is on to him. My guess is that Lee and a few others pressured the mayor into calling an emergency Town Meeting in order to speed up the hunt for Halim Khaddam. But that still doesn't explain why he jumped the gun and is out here parked in front of our house. Lee is slicker than a spitball. I wouldn't trust him any farther than I could throw him.
If it hadn't have been for the shiny new truck, I wouldn't be out here. When am I going to learn not to allow myself to be distracted from what I should be doing by every cute chick, cheap thrill, and flashy fad that comes my way? What am I doing here talking to a couple of armed hotheads with hair triggers? It's time to make myself scarce. I'm backing away from the truck when Councilman Lee motions for me to come closer.
"I went to school with your father. We ate our lunches together, played on the same team, and dated the same girls. When I broke my ankle playing football, he came to the hospital to visit me. He smuggled me in a couple of cans of beer and borrowed a red magic marker from the head nurse to sign my cast. We were about as close as friends can get. When the dynamite got stolen from my construction firm, I really thought he would catch that fellow before he could raise hell with it. But the hours stretched into days, the days stretched into weeks, and the weeks stretched into months and he still hasn't caught him. We don't need another 9/11, especially here. People are scared out of their wits. They're afraid that their homes and families are going to be blown to bits. What good is a sheriff who can't ensure public safety? We want Khaddam gone, dead or alive, and we want it now. We've waited long enough. Seeing as how the law won't put a halt to this terrorist menace, we're left no other option than to do it ourselves. God help anyone who gets in our way."
Common sense says not to argue with a man with a gun. Wild-eyed pistol-wavers like the councilman are best left to Dad. The place to confront Lee will be at the emergency Town Meeting. I say goodbye and turn away. Surely, Lee's not crazy enough to shoot me in the back in broad daylight. Nonetheless, I make the distance between his parked truck and my front door in record time. No telling what those two hotheads might do.
First, I secure the door, pushing two heavy bookcases against it. My palms are sweaty and my heart is pounding. Then I call 911 and get the Fire Department. After being placed on hold for several minutes, I ask to be transferred to the Sheriff's Department. By the time I get through to Dad, the black Cadillac Escalade has pulled away from the curb and is long gone.
I tell Dad what I saw, tactfully omitting the part about me disobeying orders by leaving the house. Of course, he will find out about it sooner or later, but hopefully it will all be over by the time he does. After all, Dad has enough to worry about without having to worry about me. In other words, what he doesn't know can't hurt him (or me). So, I'm not the perfect son and sometimes I don't do exactly what I'm told. It wouldn't be right of me to throw it in his face, now would it? The way I see it, it's up to me to reduce the amount of stress he experiences. It's my sacred duty not to add to it. That's why Rule #3 says "don't sweat the small stuff."
"Was Lee alone?" Dad asks.
"No, there was a goon riding shotgun in the backseat. I think I've seen him around before. Willie Something-or-other. I couldn't swear to it but I'm pretty sure he works for Pipeline Construction as a night watchman."
Dad thinks Lee showed up in front of our house because he wanted to force Dad's hand by getting arrested for carrying a loaded weapon. That way it would look like Dad was out to get him for criticizing the Sheriff's Department for not having devoted sufficient resources into ending the terrorist threat. With the emergency Town Meeting only about three hours away, it wouldn't be smart to add fuel to the fire. The sole way to fight the City is in front of a roomful of witnesses. A public servant who disregards appearances doesn't last long.
The way these public meetings work is that the side that can muster the most support wins. If I can get enough of Dad's friends to show up, I can stack the deck in his favor. No time to lose. I reach for the rolodex, pick up the phone, and get started.
"How you doing, Jenny," I say into the mouthpiece as soon as she picks up the phone.
"Is that you, Ryan? Are you calling from the cafe?"
"No, I'm at home. Thought I'd call you and ask for some help."
"Nothing I like giving better. Having girlfriend problems?"
"No, it's not that simple. You might say this is a matter of life and death," I reply low and slow so as to emphasize the confidential nature of our conversation.
"Are you in some kind of trouble? They're going to have to get past me to get to you."
"I'm fine, Jenny. It's my father who is under the gun. That slick guy on the City Council, Lee, and a shotgun toting thug who works for him have taken the law into their own hands and are cruising the streets looking for terrorists. It's out of hand and Dad is afraid they're going to shoot up the town. I think the thug's name is Willie. He sits at the lunch counter, nursing a cup of coffee, and gives the paying customers a hard time whenever he comes in the cafe. You know who I'm talking about?"
"Sure do. Got to be Willie Duran. He's a real hard case. They say he once shot a man for looking the wrong way at him. Lee's not much better. Two weeks ago, he paid for a meal with a $10 bill and swore up and down he gave me $20. When I showed him there wasn't a twenty in the cash drawer, he accused me of pocketing the money. I heard he's done the same thing to three or four other businesses in town."
"Lee talked Mayor Tom into calling an emergency Town Meeting for 6 PM tonight at City Hall. They're out to hang my father for not having caught the terrorist. Do you think you could come down there? Dad is going to need all the support he can get. If these guys get their way, Hermosa won't be a fit place to live.""Of course, I'll come. Your father must have jumpstarted my old Chevy umpteen times in the last couple of months. Anybody else would have told me to go buy a new battery after the second or third time. But not your Dad, he knows I can't afford it what with my son in the hospital and me being divorced. As for Lee, he couldn't give a darn less what happens to anybody else other than himself. Remember that flashflood we had two years ago, went on for two days and put half the town under water? Pipeline Construction billed me $975 for the sandbags they stacked around my house. Less than a week later, I learned that they had already been paid for half of it by the federal government's Emergency Disaster Relief Fund. Lee claimed it was an honest mistake and refunded my money, but I had the feeling that he was simply covering his tracks. Lee's cheated nearly everyone in town at one time or another."
"Nothing I would like better than to turn the tables on Lee. The political hacks want to tell Dad how to do his job while denying him the manpower and equipment he needs to get it done. They're playing a losing game. I think it's about time we called them on it."
"Give them hell, Ryan. I'm going to call some friends and see if I can't get them to come, too. If it weren't for your father and your grandfather, there wouldn't be a Hermosa. This town owes your family a debt of gratitude. Lee's nothing more than an instigating ingrate. I've got a hunch his dirty tricks are about to come home to haunt him."
I spend the next two hours on the phone with Thelma Perkins, Sam Peterson, and anybody and everybody else whom I figured would be willing to come down to City Hall and go to bat for Dad on short notice. If Lee is looking for a showdown, he's going to get a lot more than he bargained for. Evidently, he thinks he's a big man with a pistol and a blunderbuss. Since when does might make right? If brains were gunpowder, Lee couldn't blow himself to perdition.
I bend one of the Venetian blinds just enough to see out the window but there is no further sign of Lee. Dad comes home about 5:15 PM and I can see by his face that he is not in the mood for conversation. I grab some carrot sticks out of the refrigerator for us to munch on the way to City Hall. Dad runs some cold water in the wash basin for a quick clean up and discards his sweat drenched khaki shirt for a clean one. In less than 5 minutes we're ready to go. I would give every cent I had to know what Dad is thinking but know better than to ask. He grips the steering wheel of the Crown Vic so tightly that his gnarled knuckles turn white. When we get to City Hall, he opens the trunk, gets a small caliber revolver from an Army surplus ammunition can, spins the chambers, and stuffs it in his right boot. There is no way Lee is going to back him down. Dad walks tall into the Council chambers with me close behind. All eyes turn to meet us. Thank goodness I remembered to comb my hair.
Although we are 25 minutes early, most of the seats have already been taken. A couple of people in the rear are holding open bottles of beer and Dad tells them to down it before the meeting starts. Catching sight of one of the Wyatt brothers rolling a cigarette, he points to a "No Smoking" sign and, when that doesn't work, Dad grabs a book of matches out of his hand before he can light it. As the other brother is standing up to protest, Dad deftly kicks the folding chair out from beneath him. The women snicker and men catcall as the Wyatts dust themselves off and make a hasty exit.
Dad busies himself setting up the public address system while I and a few other volunteers fetch brown metal folding chairs from the storeroom. As I recall, there used to be a poster board sign above the doorway which stated in large bold lettering that the Fire Department had determined the maximum capacity of this room to be 467 people. What had happened to it I don't know, but it was obvious that there was nobody counting heads at the door and that if we hadn't already surpassed that number, we soon would. I thought seriously about mentioning it to someone, but couldn't bring myself to do so. As far as Dad's interests go, the more the merrier. Besides, it's a public meeting and it wouldn't be right to turn people away. Better to be crowded than shrouded in secrecy and drowning in corruption. If I had my way, the whole town would be here.
The turnout appears to be about fifty-fifty—half are Pipeline Construction employees who I expect to side with the man who signs their paychecks and the other half are local people born and raised in Hermosa who support Dad. While setting up folding chairs down front, I catch bits and snatches of conversations:
"Sheriff's a drunk. They say his wife left him." I start to turn around and give the greasy-looking offender who uttered this claptrap a piece of my mind, but instead I back into him, knocking his Styrofoam coffee cup to the floor. Evidently, he doesn't recognize me, since he lets it pass as an accident.
I'm handing a couple of chairs to a buddy wearing a Hermosa Hyena's letter jacket when I hear him say to the bleach blonde hanging onto his arm, "What they need to do is to set up a 24 hour roadblock on the main highway. Shoot first and ask questions later. Turn away anyone who doesn't speak English. Foreigners got no reason to be here. It's time we sent them back where they came from."
We're out of chairs. Dad picks up the microphone and politely asks parents to place small children on their laps to provide seating for those standing in the aisles. The meeting can't begin until everyone is seated. I'm pushing a disabled veteran in a wheelchair through the double doors when I overhear someone a few rows up remark, ". . . straight-arrow Romero . . . ." I have no idea who uttered it or whether they were referring to me or my father, but it bores into my brain and bothers me immensely. Is that what Hermosa thinks of us? Are we out of step with the times?
Not hardly. Whether the American Civil Liberties Union and its ilk acknowledge it or not, the United States is a Christian nation with conservative values. If anything, 9/11 made us even more so. You would be hard pressed to find an anti-war protester in Hermosa. Same goes for flaming gays. Although they're selling that kind of decadence on television, rural America isn't buying it. We work hard, raise families, and pay our taxes. All we ask is to be left alone.
"BANG, BANG, BANG!!" Mayor Tom wields the oversized wooden gavel as if it were a sledgehammer. Nobody seems to notice. The din continues unabated. Some joker up top makes a rude noise and his friends giggle. "BANG, BANG, BANG!!" repeats the gavel to no effect. On the table next to the gavel is a starter pistol loaded with blanks. Mayor Tom picks it up, points it at the floor, and fires. All eyes are focused on the smoking pistol. He has their complete attention. Silence reigns."This meeting is called to order," proclaims the Mayor."Objection," shouts Sam Peterson from the front row. "This meeting is illegal. According to the Brown Act, a public meeting cannot be called by a chartered California municipality on less than 24 hours notice." Sam stands and looks Mayor Tom straight in the eye from a distance of less than six feet away. The blood vessels in his neck are bulging and his teeth are clenched.
"Never having attended law school, I wouldn't know a brown act from a blue law. What I do know is that you are out of order. Any more outbursts and I will direct Sheriff Romero to remove the offender from Council Chambers." Having reestablished order, Mayor Tom twirls the pistol on his index finger and deposits it in his coat pocket. Fully chastised, Sam Peterson resumes his seat.
All heads bow as Pastor John Self from the First Baptist Church delivers the Invocation. After petitioning God's blessing, the roll is called. All council members and staff are in attendance. Next, everyone is asked to stand, face the flag, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Hats are removed from heads and placed over hearts. Six hundred solid citizens speak as one:
"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
"Amen," adds the veteran in the wheelchair with a tear in his eye. A nice lady behind him bends over and gives him a hug as everyone is sitting back down.
"Please be quiet. It's 6 PM, Wednesday, September 11, 2002, one year to the day after the vicious, unprovoked attack on the United States of America by Arab terrorists. I'm Mayor J.P. Tom—just plain Tom. I'll be presiding over this emergency Town Meeting where the citizens of Hermosa in conjunction with their elected officials are going to decide a course of action to deal with the ongoing terrorist threat."
"Back in June, a case of dynamite was stolen from a local construction company by one or more terrorists whom we believe slipped across the border illegally from Canada. On July 4, our annual Independence Day parade was disrupted by a suicide bomber—no doubt one of the terrorists—wearing a dynamite belt. Then last week, the same terrorist poisoned our drinking water. It is imperative to the health and safety of Hermosa that this al-Qaeda cell be put out of action without further delay. For several months now we have been living in fear of these evildoers. We can no longer wait for the federal government to do something about the situation. It's our God-given duty to protect our loved ones from these heathens. Councilman Lee has proposed that we hunt them down and kill them like the animals they are. What about it, Sheriff Romero? If this assembly votes to do so, would you be willing to deputize a posse and wipe this scourge from the face of the earth?"
I wince. Mayor Tom had minced no words in stating his case. Not enough had been done to track down and capture the terrorist. Precious time had been lost. Hermosa found itself facing a clear and present danger. J.P. Tom had laid down the gauntlet. The question was whether my Dad, the sheriff, had the cojones to blow away Halim Khaddam and any other terrorists who might be out there. "Hunt them down and kill them." No other options had been considered or presented. This was a clarion call for vigilante justice. And he had the nerve to attempt to embarrass my father—a sworn peace officer—into going along with his repugnant "ends justify the means" bullshit.
Dad saunters up to J.P. and gives him an icy stare. Then, instead of taking the microphone from the Mayor's outstretched hand, Dad turns his back to him and switches off the public address system, leaving His Honor to orate into a dead mike until someone in the audience finally shouts, "Sit down!" Sentiments having turned against him, Mayor Tom judiciously resumes his seat, surrendering the floor to Dad.
A natural born orator doesn't require amplification. Vigorous, manly voices carry without the aid of electronic devices. With all due deference to Thomas Alva Edison, Jesus had no microphone when he addressed the multitudes. Nor did Marc Antony use a bullhorn when he spoke to the Romans. When Abraham Lincoln climbed atop a stump to debate Stephen Douglas, there weren't any wires trailing from his coattails. Real men don't need props to make themselves heard.
Dad walks back to the podium, spreads his legs apart, and waits patiently for the hall to go silent before addressing the audience in a loud, clear voice, "I've been Sheriff of Hermosa for going on 10 years now. During my three terms in office, I've been horsewhipped by a drunken rancher, ran over by a '52 DeSoto driven by an escaped felon, shot in the thigh by a wife who was aiming at her husband, and knifed in the shoulder by a barfly who decided he needed a beer after closing time. I do my duty to the fullest and have the scars to prove it. That's how I earn my pay. No amount of money, however, can compensate for getting stabbed in the back by the Mayor and the City Council."
Councilman Lee jumps to his feet and is about to say something when Dad whirls towards Lee and orders him to shut up and wait his turn. You can feel the tension in the air. It's as if lightning has struck and people are waiting for the inevitable thunderclap to follow. Lee glances towards his fellow conspirators on the City Council and, seeing no support, slowly sinks back into his chair.
"Now, where was I?" Dad drawls, making it clear that he doesn't intend to put up with any further interruptions. "Oh, yes, the Mayor was trying to coerce me into shooting criminals in the streets like they were dogs. No doubt a lot of them deserve it, but that's not the way we do things in this country. He should know by now that I am a law enforcement officer, not a hired gun. Since I make regular reports to the Mayor concerning my progress on this and other cases, I am at a loss as to what caused him and Councilman Lee to turn on me in such a vicious manner.
"I think we are close to capturing the terrorist varmint Mayor Tom was telling you about. We have some pretty good leads on him. First, we know his name—Halim Khaddam. This guy is no street Arab. The FBI has him pegged as a university educated mining engineer from Syria who knows almost everything there is to know about explosives. When we chased him out of town, he went to ground in an abandoned gold mine halfway up the mountain where there are miles and miles of tunnels to hide in. Since he knows this underground lair better than we do, there is a possibility he could do like Pancho Villa and elude us for years. I have a suspicion he wants to lure us down into his hidey-hole where he can pick us off one by one. The way to outsmart him is to cover the exits. Let him come to us. Sooner or later heⳠgoing to come up for air and that is when we are going to nab him. If the Sheriff's Department wasn't so terribly understaffed and the mine was not located outside of our jurisdiction, we probably would have arrested him by now.
"The thing to remember is not to panic. The Sheriff's Department is going to put this terrorist behind bars and we are going to do it by following proper police procedure. There is no room for vigilante justice in a nation built on law and order."
Having said what he had to say, Dad strolls over to the public address system, flips the switch to the "on" position and says, "Mr. Mayor, it is all yours."
Mayor Tom rises from his seat, taps the metal grill on the microphone with his fingernail, and says, "Testing, testing, one, two, three." Satisfied that his weak voice is sufficiently amplified and that he is once again empowered, J.P. smiles wanly and announces, "The chair recognizes Councilman Lee."
Lee gets out of his seat, walks over to the public address system, takes the metal toggle switch firmly between his thumb and forefinger, and breaks it off where it emerges from the amplifier, ensuring that it will remain on and can't be turned off by Dad (or anyone else for that matter).
There is less than 3 feet of empty air separating Lee and Dad. Although they aren't looking at each other, I can literally feel the tension flowing between them. Tesla himself could not make this much energy transfer between two bodies without someone getting zapped.
"That is sad, downright sad," says Councilman Lee addressing the crowd in what I deem to be an overly polished manner. He pauses for effect and shakes his head. "Sheriff Romero thinks the Mayor and I are out to get him. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I played football with Ryan in high school. We were on the same team then and we are on the same team now. I have nothing but respect for him and his family. So much so, in fact, that I was taking notes while he was speaking. [Lee stoops and picks up a yellow legal pad covered with scrawls and doodles which he proudly displays to the audience as if to show he is telling the truth] I want nothing more than to help the Sheriff dispose of this terrorist menace. From what he just said, I gather there are two things holding him back:
1. He doesn't have enough manpower
2. The mine where the terrorists are holed up is outside of his jurisdiction
"Let's give Ryan what he needs. I make a motion that we, here in Council Chambers tonight, deputize a posse to go to the mine and smoke out the terrorists. As President Bush so ably put it, 'Bring them on.' And, to ensure that it is all done legal and above board, I propose that we annex land from the County and thereby extend the city limits to include the abandoned mine.
"Now, I know this isn't exactly what the Sheriff wants. He prefers to wait and let the evildoer come to him. Normally, I would agree, but this is an extraordinary situation. We haven't a moment to spare. They have already tried to poison our water. We have families to protect. Who knows what these demons will do next?"
There are murmurs of approval from the audience. A man stands up and says, "I will volunteer for that posse." The crowd cheers. In less than a minute, half of the men are standing. Those remaining seated are being nudged by their wives to stand up and volunteer. Councilman Lee has struck a chord that resonates with Hermosa. The motion hasn't yet been discussed, much less passed, and already I sense that reason and common sense have suffered a severe setback. Dad has a strong, masculine voice, a truthful demeanor, character, and a lot more moxie than most, but, when it comes to public speaking, he is no match for a slick, fork-tongued devil like Lee.
Councilman Cox seconds the motion and it is opened to discussion. A sea of hands go up and the Mayor limits each speaker to two minutes. The first to be recognized by the chair is Lee's stooge, Willie Duran. He opens a spiral bound notebook and begins to read something which was obviously written by someone (most likely Lee) other than himself. Mispronouncing and stumbling over many of the larger words, he eventually gets it across that he favors expanding Lee's motion to include a security force to patrol and guard Hermosa. Although he speaks as if he has a Neighborhood Watch program in mind, I know of no such program in any city that is armed and/or possesses police powers in the manner he describes. It is clear to me, if not to the others, that what Willie really wants is for Hermosa to be patrolled by armed vigilantes. I have a flashback of an overly nervous Willie sitting in the backseat of Lee's truck clutching a shotgun and I shudder. Almost as soon as Willie finishes, the City Council approves adding a Neighborhood Watch provision to the original motion. Talk about a setup! I'll be tarred and feathered if Willie Duran wasn't coached. What irks me most is that I sat through the farce in silence and was unable to muster the courage to voice an objection.
The next speaker to be recognized is sitting in the second row from the back. It takes about a half a minute for Dad to take the microphone to him, after which he identifies himself as John Grant (Melinda's father). He clears his throat before continuing, "I am not a bit surprised that those terrorists come from Canada. You can't trust Canadians. They weren't loyal to Britain and Queen Elizabeth and you can bet your bottom dollar that sooner or later they are going to turn on us. I have seen winters when there were three or four of those conniving bastards to one American citizen. What if they jump us and slit our throats while we are asleep? Never mind there is only a couple of them raising hell right now. That is because they only got one case of dynamite. Mark my words, give them hosers time and they will steal more. Every man Jack of them will have a rag on his head and a suicide belt under his jacket. And that goes double for their women and children."
Mayor Tom shakes his head in what I assume to be disapproval and calls on Councilman Cox who has been waving both hands in the air desperately trying to attract the Mayor's attention.
Councilman Cox stands, takes the microphone from the Mayor, and says in what I would best describe as a high-pitched nasal twang, "Now, let's not knock our neighbors to the north," his wire-rimmed bifocals slipping down his nose. Pushing them up with an index finger rendered permanently bent by arthritis, he continues, "Sixty-two percent of the business at my RV Park comes from Canadian tourists. Hermosa would have died a slow death years ago if it were not for the snowbirds. Canadians are pretty much like us in that they speak English, watch sports on television, and drink beer. Of course, a few of them are Frenchified but we don't get many of that type down here. Where they differ from us is that they eat cheap beef tainted with mad cow disease. It is not their fault, they simply donnot know any better. Is it any wonder a few of them went berserk and became terrorists? We can't kick their tourists out because of that. If the shoe was on the other foot and the Canadians tried to kick us out, we would be petitioning Washington to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at Ottawa and Montreal. Of course, they do not have much of an Army or a Navy, but you get what I mean. I have been pumping septic wastes from recreational vehicle storage tanks for 20 years and I can tell you that the Canucks aren't any more full of shit than we are [chuckles to let us know he is joking]. Anyway, once we get rid of the hardcore terrorists in the al-Qaeda cell, the rest of them will have learned better than to give us any trouble."
The next person to speak is my Social Studies teacher, Mr. Tyler. He tries to chide previous speakers for their prejudice against Canadians and gets booed down. The emergency Town Meeting is beginning to resemble NHL Hockey in that emotions are running wild. With so many packed into such a small room, the air conditioning is inadequate and, the longer the meeting goes on, the staler the air and the higher the temperature. People are becoming short-tempered without being aware of it. What began as a peaceful assembly is degenerating into an angry, vengeful mob.
Some yokel rolls an empty Pepsi can down one of the aisles. Getting up to retrieve it, I notice Willie and a couple of his pals unfurling a butcher paper banner between them which reads in bold foot-high red letters: IMPEACH SHERIFF ROMERO. This goes on for approximately a minute until Jenny, who is seated directly behind them, swings her purse and tears it in two.
"I am so sorry," she says while secretly suppressing a smile. "My joints are aching so bad that I just had to stretch." Willie isn't buying it and makes as if to slap her. Dad grabs Willie and puts him in a choke hold. Two of Willie's pals stand up to help him. A kick to the chin sends one of them flying and Jenny nails the other one cold with her purse. After cuffing Willie to a post, Dad drags his two pals out the door by the collar. From the cheers, it is obvious that this is exactly what everyone, with the exception of Mayor Tom and Councilman Lee, was hoping for. In fact, they are still cheering when Dad comes back to release Willie Duran. Mayor Tom picks up the starter pistol by the barrel with his right hand and brings the butt end down hard on the table. It takes him almost two minutes of steady pounding to restore order.
Grady raises his hand and gets the floor. Slowly getting up from the folding chair, he steadies himself with a death grip on the crooked cane in his right hand. Clearing the phlegm from his throat, he demands to know why the pothole in the westbound lane of Main Street hasn't been repaired. Having forgotten his hearing aid, he neither knows nor cares what has been going on.
Every inch the consummate politician, Mayor Tom flashes Grady a saccharine smile, says it is at the top of his agenda, and promises to get back to him later. Grady doesn't catch a word of it and, to the delight of almost everyone, curses the Mayor profusely before sitting back down.
"It is getting late and many of you are anxious to go home and eat dinner. All I had was a cup of coffee and a donut for lunch and my stomach is growling," confides the Mayor to no one in particular. "Since most of those who had something to say have been given a chance to say it, I think we should cutoff further discussion and take a voice vote, after which the City Council members will be polled individually so as to officially determine whether the motion is passed or denied. All those in favor of directing Sheriff Romero to deputize volunteers to go after the terrorists, extending the city limits to include the old mine where we believe they have holed up, and instituting citizen patrols to protect Hermosa from the terrorists' threats, please respond in the affirmative."
The assemblage dutifully responds with a vigorous chorus of ayes, yeas and yeses.
Despite the Mayor having put the question in a derogatory manner, Dad, me, and a handful of others manage to utter a less-than-resounding "nay".
"The ayes have it," Mayor Tom announces triumphantly. Proceeding to poll Cox and Lee, he gets the unanimity he desires. Then, turning his attention to my father, the Mayor orders him to pick 20 volunteers—"20 upright citizens," is the term he uses— to be sworn in immediately as deputies.
Bowing to the will of the people, Dad asks for a show of hands of people who want to join the posse. As best I can estimate, more than 60 percent volunteer, a surprising number of women among them. A sense of pride swells in my chest and I cannot help but raise my hand, too. There is a determined look about them, not unlike the look you find on the faces of volunteers being inducted into the military in time of war.
Mayor Tom and Councilman Lee have their hands raised. Dad says he needs them to arrange logistics and, recognizing the wisdom in his thinking, they slowly lower their arms. Dad goes up to Willie Duran who has both hands raised and tells him, "I want you with me where I can keep an eye on you." Next, he stands in front of Jenny and asks her if she thinks she can keep up with the men. "I can run circles around them," is her reply. Dad picks her along with two women sitting next to her. Working his way up and down the aisles, it doesn't take more than a few minutes for Dad to flesh out his posse. By the time he comes to me, he has already picked 19. I am expecting him to tell me I am too young. Instead, he looks me squarely in the eye and says, "you will do." I cannot believe my ears. Could this be the same Dad who told me not more than a month ago that I was not ready to get my drivers license? I want to hug him, but realize that this is neither the time nor the place.
A barely perceptible tremor shakes City Hall; strong enough to feel, but not enough to disturb anyone. Still, I cannot help but wonder if the earthquake isn't an omen of more frightful things to come.
While Mayor Tom delivers an impromptu speech on civic responsibility, Dad goes upstairs to his office, opens the safe, and takes out 20 deputy sheriff badges. They were purchased in the early 1950's when Hermosa's founders foresaw rapid growth. They had seldom seen use and were as bright and shiny as the day they had been cast from brass in the shape of a six-pointed star, layered in gold, and engraved with enamel-filled lettering.
By the time Dad returns with the badges, Mayor Tom is introducing each of the 20 volunteers individually to thunderous applause. Dad waits for the Mayor to finish speaking and then has us assemble in front of the podium facing the flag. We are a ragtag bunch and it takes time for him to get us in order. Councilman Lee is designated to administer the Oath of Office:
I, ________, having been duly appointed a Reserve Deputy Sheriff of the City of Hermosa, and a Reserve Peace Officer of the State of California, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will defend, enforce, uphold, and obey the Constitution and Laws of the United States, the State of California and the Ordinances of the City of Hermosa against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That I will obey the lawful orders of my superior Officers and adhere to the regulations of the Hermosa Sheriff's Department. That I will faithfully discharge my duties and responsibilities as a citizen of the United States. I will serve to protect the rights, lives and property of all citizens and uphold the honor of the law enforcement profession to the best of my ability, with my life, if need be. This I do solemnly swear (or affirm), this day of Our Lord, September 6, 2002, so help me God.
After we are sworn in, Dad pins the badges on our chests. Being rather old-fashioned, he is not sure how to go about it when he gets to busty Jenny's chest and dodges the problem by asking Councilman Cox's wife to do the honors for the ladies.
I wish grandpa was here to see me. Here I am an honest-to-goodness Deputy Sheriff, the stuff that heroes are made of, and I am not even old enough to vote. My head is spinning with ideas on how to capture the terrorist and I do my best to sell them to Dad on the drive home. Either he is not buying my ideas or he is preoccupied with other matters because he does not comment on any of them. With that stone cold poker face, I can never tell what is going on beneath the ten gallon Stetson hat.
For those of you who might not know, the term "ten gallon hat" has nothing to do with liquid. Galon is the Spanish word for "braid." Some vaqueros wore as many as ten braided hatbands on their sombreros, and those were called "ten galon hats." Not being familiar with the lingo, English speakers heard gallon. You did not really believe that cowboy hats held ten gallons of water, now did you?
Since we did not get a chance to eat dinner before the meeting, I pop a couple of frozen dinners in the microwave as soon as we get home. We had just finished eating and I am cleaning off the kitchen table when the phone rings. I make it to the phone before Dad. Sam Walters, the Fire Chief, is on the line and he wants Dad to come down to the Circle K ASAP. He sounds upset. After Dad threw the Wyatt brothers out of the Town Meeting, they drove over to Circle K and shoplifted a 12 pack of Tecate. The night clerk, Rafiq Hariri, gave chase and dented the hood of their car with a baseball bat as they were attempting to get away. After chugging the beers, the Wyatts came back and . . . Dad should really come over and see for himself.
Dad grabs his hat and his pistol and heads for the door. Since I am wearing my Deputy Sheriff badge, I want to go, too. Dad starts to say something, notices the badge, and bites his lip. It is about time he stopped treating me like a kid. On the way to the Circle K, Dad turns and gives me a wink, the same wink I have seen him give the part-time Deputies, a wink that says, I trust you to cover my backside.⠠I am not even wearing a gun, but I swear to myself that if it comes down to it, I will stop a bullet for him. A law enforcement officer has a right to expect that from his partner should the situation demand it. I may only be 17, but I think like a man and that is a lot more than I can say for some people I know who are twice my age.
When we arrive at the Circle K, the scene is pure bedlam. Most of the parking lot is roped-off with yellow crime tape and there is an angry mob gathering on the periphery. Dad asks if any of the bystanders witnessed the crime. When Sam Walters replies, "none of these people were here when I arrived," Dad turns to the crowd and shouts, "Show over, time to go home!" It takes some repeating, but the grumbling eventually ceases and the lookers-on disperse in twos and threes.
Sam Walters also informs us that there are two witnesses who are waiting inside the store. As I step through the doorway, I nearly slip in a pool of viscous liquid. Noticing several trails of bloody footprints on the concrete floor in front of me, I feel queasy. It takes effort to suppress the urge to retch.
The magazine rack in front of the counter is dripping blood. A blood-spattered, Cosmo cover girl's voluptuous gown has been ruined, as have the profiles of the other celebrities who grace the covers of Time, Seventeen, Forbes, and various other periodicals packed onto the shelves.
Scrawled in fresh blood on the wall, almost as if finger painted by a kindergartner, adjacent to an ad for Copenhagen chewing tobacco, is the following message:
9/11 PAYBACK TIME
[signed] The Aryan Brotherhood
Huddled together next to the condiments for the hot dogs are two ladies. Dad speaks softly to them, attempting to calm them down. He pulls a spiral notebook and a ballpoint pen from his khaki shirt and begins to take their statements. He begins with the older of the two, a graying matron, who identifies herself as an elementary school teacher from Saskatchewan. She came into the Circle K shortly after 8 PM for some coffee. She had tried to strike up a conversation with the clerk, but he was busy cutting open boxes and restocking shelves, so she had paid for her coffee and was exiting the door when the Wyatt brothers burst in, grabbed Rafiq Hariri by his beard, and pulled him to the floor. They kicked him repeatedly and, wielding his own box cutter against him, made numerous incisions on his upper torso. As he screamed in pain, they taunted him by calling him a camel jockey and a raghead. After he passed out and they could no longer get a response from him, they hog-tied Mr. Hariri's feet with clothesline taken from a bin in the third aisle and dragged him into the parking lot. The witness had sat frozen in her car, afraid to say or do anything, while the two brothers tied the other end of the clothesline to the back bumper of their car. They then got in the car and did 10 or 15 doughnuts around the parking lot at high speed with Mr. Hariri's bloody body bumping along behind like a sack of potatoes. Tiring of their fun, they went back into the store and came out with some more beer and a can of charcoal starter fluid. The first witness is sobbing so hard that she cannot continue and the second witness, who has been shivering under a blanket, must take up the story where the first left off. She saw one of the Wyatts cut the clothesline with a penknife while the other doused the body with starter fluid. Getting back into the car, the man on the passenger side of the vehicle flicked a lit cigarette at the clerk's limp body, instantly igniting what little was left of his clothing. The driver popped the clutch, burning rubber down the driveway and out into the street. A passerby smothered the flames with his leather jacket and left. Upon arrival, the Volunteer Fire Department escorted both witnesses inside the Circle K, ordering them to wait there for the Sheriff.
I am thinking we should be gathering DNA evidence or dusting for fingerprints when the radio interrupts my thoughts. If you have never heard the distinctive squelch of a Motorola, you have no idea whatsoever of what police radio is about. I go out to the Crown Vic and take the call. It is the Adelanto dispatcher informing us that Rafiq Hariri was DOA at Twin Peaks Hospital. What was classified as an assault/hate crime is now a full-blown murder investigation.
I am going back inside to tell Dad when a lowered V-8 two-door sedan fishtails past us at high speed down Main Street. No doubt about it, it is the Wyatt brothers up to no good. In a flash, Dad and I are after them in the Crown Vic. We go Code 3 (lights and siren) two miles up the interstate until we catch up with them. Dad nudges their rear end several times with our front bumper, but they won't pull over and the aging cruiser won't accelerate enough to pass. Two more miles down the road and a large object is thrown out the passenger side window. Before Dad can react, a chunk of cinder block smashes through our windshield and lands between us on the seat. I am cut by the glass and feel warm blood running down my face. Dad and I kick out what remains of the windshield. Handing me the pump-action shotgun, Dad directs me to shoot out the right rear tire. At this speed and distance, it is a difficult shot, but I succeed on the third try. The sedan flips over end over end and eventually comes to a stop on its roof in a shallow ditch beyond the blacktop shoulder of the highway. We dismount and Dad shouts, "He's going for a gun!" I pump three rounds into the chassis of the overturned car, the last of which ignites the gas tank in a ballooning burst of flame that incinerates everything and everyone it touches. Ghastly human wailings and the acrid stench of human flesh burning in the dry night air absorbs my senses. Good Lord, what have I done? Within a short infernal course of less than two minutes, the Wyatt brothers are Post Toasties. There is no way anyone could have survived such an intense conflagration. Wiping my bloody face with his bandana, Dad reassures me that "they got what they deserved."
Later, while pulling the charred bodies from the wreckage, white teeth flash next to blackened flesh as Toby Wyatt manages to gasp, "See you in hell, Sheriff," with his dying breath. What a waste! Neither of the Wyatts were much older than me. They are doomed to spend eternity in unmarked graves on Boot Hill. May God have mercy on their souls.
Since the deaths occurred on the Interstate outside the city limits, a CHP officer is dispatched to take the report. We make it home around 11 PM. To counteract any infection, Dad swabs my face with cotton balls soaked in hydrogen peroxide. He hangs around and tells me a long, pointless story about how a thief had thrown a sack of industrial diamonds at Granddad when he responded to a bank robbery. My face feels like ground hamburger and all I want to do is to get some sleep. I am about to cut Dad off when I realize that this is the most he has had to say to me since Mom left. This is what I have craved all along. Dad is talking to me as if I were an equal.
Dad allows me to sleep in the next day, which is Saturday, and I wake up around 9 AM to the pleasing aroma of hot link sausages and waffles cooking in the kitchen. If anybody had asked me before today, I would have told them that Dad could not boil water, much less cook. Turns out my father is full of surprises. Makes me wonder what else I don't know about him.
When I sit down to breakfast, the Hermosa Herald is lying on the kitchen table. "COUNCIL FORMS POSSE TO CATCH TERRORISTS" reads the headline, followed by a two column story on how 20 volunteer deputies had been sworn in at last night's Town Meeting. Reading it with gusto, I turn to the second page where, under an advertisement for General Tires, there are three paragraphs devoted to the previous evening's hate crime murder of the night clerk at Circle K by the Wyatt brothers. My name is not even mentioned. Evidently, even a hero must make the newspaper's deadline or suffer the consequences. Dad says that a few years back he captured a cat burglar at 2 AM and the story failed to make the news. C'est la vie.
We are just finishing our breakfast when Dad receives a phone call from the Ford dealership in Adelanto. The Department of Homeland Security has approved Hermosa's grant and we will be getting 3 new fully equipped Crown Vic police cruisers on Monday. This means we won't need to have deputies patrolling the streets in their private vehicles. This is a bit of good news that puts a smile on Dad's face. With any kind of luck, we will similarly solve the problem of outfitting 20 green deputies with firearms, uniforms, and walkie-talkies. Dad's biggest fear is that the sudden expansion in the Sheriff's Department will make us look like an undisciplined bunch of vigilantes.
We arrive at City Hall around 10 AM and climb the stairs to the second floor. Since Dad told the other 19 volunteer deputies to be at the Sheriff's Department by 9:30 AM, they are sitting on the tables and chairs, skylarking and shooting the breeze by the time we arrive. Dad barks their orders, telling them to assemble in single file on the lawn in front of City Hall. Less than five minutes later, Dad is giving it to his new recruits as only he can give it:
"I bet you shake-and-bake deputy recruits kissed mommy good-bye this morning and told her you would be home by dinner with Osama bin Laden's scalp hanging from your belt. Well, let me tell you wienies, it takes more to solve crime and track down criminals than a pea brain in the skull of a hot dogging idiot. Police duty is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. Until further notice, think of me as your mommy and daddy. I will tell you what to do, when to do it, and how to cover it up to keep it from stinking in the hot sun. All I want to hear from you is how much and how high?⢠ While Dad has been talking, he has been walking back and forth in front of the new recruits. I am the second guy from the right end. Suddenly, he wheels on his heel in front of me, thrusts his chin inches from my face, and says, "Wipe that smile off your face—I am not here to entertain you." So much for the sheriff's son getting special favors and lording it over the rest. Duly humbled, I wipe the smirk from my face and silently vow to redouble my efforts to be the best volunteer law enforcement officer Hermosa has ever seen or will ever see again. I am daydreaming about a brass statue of me standing in the lobby of City Hall when Dad brings me back to reality by announcing that we are going to run in formation to the end of Main Street and back. I hear some groaning and one brave soul pipes up, "that is more than a mile!" Dad quickly retorts that anyone who isn't up to the run might as well quit because "it is only going to get rougher from this point on." There are no takers. It looks as if our little group is a whole lot tougher than one would gather from our disheveled appearance.
The first two blocks of our run are uneventful. The sun is out and it is over 90 degrees despite the fact that it isn't anywhere near noon. True to her word, Jenny is out front setting the pace. Then, something remarkable happens. Bystanders begin handing us cups of water to drink or splash on our sweating bodies. Everyone is cheering us on. By the look of things, you would think we were running the Los Angeles Marathon rather than some puny little mile run. It is a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell small town America painting with the neighborhood kids and dogs bringing up the rear.
I am deeply touched. This is a spontaneous outpour of patriotism generated by the goodwill of our fellow citizens. They have been threatened by dynamite, had their water supply poisoned, and are shouting us words of encouragement because we are going to pull the enemy out of his hidey-hole and give him the thrashing that he deserves. They are giving us our victory laurels prior to battle. God bless America. God bless Hermosa. All we need is a brass band and this would be tantamount to a Fourth of July celebration.
Dad takes it in stride. Although the training didn't turn out exactly the way he planned, it did serve to introduce his new deputies to the people of Hermosa. Needless to say, good publicity is an essential part of maintaining an effective Sheriff's Department. Dad gives the troops the rest of the weekend off before we deploy to the abandoned mine on Monday. He tells them to go home and get some rest because come next week they are going to need it.
As the rest of the deputies depart, Dad and I go back up the stairs in order to catch up with the pile of paper in Dad's in-basket. Two faxes come in almost simultaneously while I am pulling up a chair to sit next to Dad at his desk. The first is official approval of Dad's application for three fully equipped police cruisers funded by a grant from Homeland Security. By the return address, the second is from the FBI's crime laboratory in Washington, D.C. In a memo, a lab chemist details the various tests which she ran on a sample of gold taken from the purchase of Grady's truck by Halim Khaddam and concludes that she is 98.7 percent certain that the gold was mined locally in Southern California and not in an Arabic country as we had supposed. I hand the fax to Dad, who appropriately frowns as he reads it.
"So much for the al-Qaeda connection," I venture a bit too flippantly for my own good.
"OK, then what about the stolen dynamite, the suicide belt, and the cyanide-tainted reservoir, all of which indicates al-Qaeda? Let's see you explain that away, smart ass," Dad says with the voice of authority.
"I never actually saw any suicide belt and simply assumed he was wearing one because it was hotter than hell, he had on a coat, and he looked like a drawing of the man who had stolen the dynamite. Maybe, he is what he says he is, a mining engineer. Being an illegal immigrant, he couldn't purchase explosives, so he stole them from a construction yard. He sees a fenced-off area around a lake and figures it is an ideal place to dispose of hazardous wastes and tailings."
"You been reading too much pulp fiction, " says Dad. "Guantanamo is full of people who crossed the border illegally and stole explosives. Mark my words, he is the same as the rest of them. As law enforcement officers, it is our duty to make arrests. It is up to the courts, not us, to decide the efficacy of the charges."
Dad stares at me as if I have lost my marbles. Having inadvertently struck a nerve, I change the subject. Still, I cannot help but wonder how close I came to the truth.
We leave the Sheriff's Department around 2 PM and take the Interstate to Adelanto where we spend the rest of the afternoon (not to mention a good portion of the petty cash fund) shopping for equipment at a large sporting goods store. With the aid of a sales clerk who claims to be a spelunker, we purchase 6 backpacks, a slew of dehydrated foods, coils of rope, a GPS homing device, 6 stainless steel Rambo survival knives, 3 florescent lanterns, 9 batteries, and scads of who-knows-what that Ralph, the sales clerk, says is essential if we are planning to spend three days and nights in an abandoned mine. As we are waiting in line at the check out stand, I spy a large first aid kit behind the counter which Dad directs the lady at the cash register to add to our bill. We toss the items in the trunk of the Crown Vic and go to dinner at El Torrito where Dad and I have steak fajitas and an enchilada combination plate. Dad calls it our last supper, despite the fact that it is Saturday night and we won't have to eat dehydrated foods any sooner than Monday. So much for his opinion of my home cooking. So it isn't haute cuisine. As far as I am concerned, Dad is perfectly welcome to assume the cooking duties any time he chooses and I will get an extra 15 or 20 minutes sleep every night. Besides, with all that Tabasco sauce, I doubt he can taste the difference between huevos rancheros and chili verde. As Mom used to say before she went away, some guys can never be satisfied.
Mayor Tom graciously arranged a charter bus for the posse to take to the mine. Climbing the stairwell carrying three backpacks each is a chore, but Dad and I are greeted cheerfully by the others. In the morning mist, at exactly 7 AM, the bus departs the City Hall parking lot for the more than half hour journey. Believe it or not, we sing America the Beautiful and I Am Proud to be an Okie from Muskogee on the way there.
What Mayor Tom did not arrange was the promised extension of Hermosa's city limits. Why he didn't know that such actions take months or years to accomplish is a question only he can answer. The closest he could come to giving the posse legal jurisdiction over the mine was to file a "Sphere of Influence" application with the County. Technically, our status is little more than that of vigilantes. Nevertheless, we are determined to capture Halim Khaddam before he can strike again.
We get off the bus at the mine, line up according to height, and Dad gives us our assignments. Willie Duran, Chuck Stevens (a neighbor from a few doors down), Darryl Cox (he is 32 years old and his father is the Deputy Mayor), Bob Hosberg (owns a dude ranch), and I are detailed to go down into the mine with Dad. Jenny is put in charge of the rest of the deputies who will guard the entrance and ventilation shafts to make certain that our fox doesn't slip out the back door while we are pursuing him. Dad also wants them to search for the Studebaker truck that Halim Khaddam bought from Grady. There is a chance that Khaddam covered it in brush and mesquite—an effective means of camouflage in the high desert—to keep us from finding it.
I believe it was the famous Prussian strategist Clausewitz or maybe it was Sun Tzu or could it have been Julius Casear who said that you can tell "the effectiveness of a fighting force by the state of its weaponry." If that is the case, then we are in deep trouble. Dad brought his 9 mm pistol along with 3 pump action shotguns and a .22 Remington from the Sheriff's Department gun rack. There is also a .38 caliber snub-nosed revolver, 2 pellet guns, and a machete which the others thought to bring with them from home. In order to have enough weapons, Dad tells Jenny that she will have to have her people stand guard in shifts. I imagine 2 deputies sharing one machete and pray we don't resemble 21st century Keystone Cops. Anyway, it's not the size of the dog, but the fight in the dog that counts. Our morale could not be better. Also, the force of numbers favors our side by a margin of more than twenty to one. My problem is that I worry too much.
Our 6 man team is preparing to go down into the mine when someone spots a cloud of dust on the horizon that indicates we are about to have company. Minutes later, Sam Peterson arrives in a Jeep Cherokee. He spends 30 minutes interviewing the posse and takes a group photo of us kneeling in front of the mine, weapons at the ready. [Note to reader: a copy of the original black and white picture occupies a hallowed place in City Hall. Although I have seen it more times than I would care to admit, it never loses its fascination. Do we look like a band of Old West Vigilantes, as some have alleged, or do you see in our faces the radiation of homegrown patriotism that was unique to the times? I leave it to you and history to pass judgment on us.]
How do you keep to the main tunnel when you descend into a mine and avoid the side tunnels which mostly terminate in dead ends? The old mine amounts to a maze with branch passages forking off in every direction. In the dim light of a single lantern (since the batteries must last at least 3 days, it does not make sense to use more than one at a time), we are able to follow the rusting iron rails that lead down the center of the main tunnel into the depths of the mine. All we do with the branches is to shine a light down them. Dad says that is the best we can do and keep to our schedule. I am thinking that it wouldn't be very hard for Khaddam to double back on us. But that is why we have 15 deputies up top guarding the exits. Houdini himself would have a difficult time escaping the trap we have set for our prey.
When you enter a mine, it is always cooler than the outside air temperature. As you go deeper into the earth towards the core, the temperature rises one degree for every 60 feet of depth due to something called the geothermal gradient. I don't claim to understand the dynamics behind it, but that is what I gathered from some research I did on the internet last night before coming down here. Also, the day time and night time temperatures do not significantly vary once you get a few feet down from the surface. I think this has something to do with the earth acting as insulation, but, as the rap group NWA used to say, don't quote me because I don't know shit.
Gold ore invariably occurs as veins in quartz deposits in this region of the world. The mine is created as the ore is extracted from solid rock using picks and dynamite. This particular mine can be found on old Spanish maps dating from the early days of Alta California when Indians were forced to extract and process the precious metal by primitive means. It has taken hundreds of years of back breaking labor to create the miles of passageways that exist today. Doesn't it seem strange that nobody can recall the original name of this mine? The closest we can come is that the mine was designated as Shaft #1 during the late 1940's when it was last owned and operated by Consolidated Minerals. Millions of dollars of gold bullion extracted and not even so much as a brass commemorative marker at the entrance. No wonder tourism is down from what it used to be.
The rock walls are dank and in places seem clammy to the touch. I am thinking that this could be converted to the world's largest mushroom farm with minimal effort. Considering the high level of humidity, I wouldn't be surprised if I got a fungus before we get out of here. Remind me to change my socks when we stop to rest for the night.
The floor of the mine slopes gently downward, there is plenty of headroom, and it is beginning to resemble a cakewalk when Dad, who is the lead man in our posse, comes to an abrupt halt. Yawning in front of him is a two foot diameter vertical shaft that plunges straight down. Shining the light into it, we cannot see bottom. Bob Hosberg drops a stone down the hole and, thirty or forty seconds later, we think we hear it hit bottom. We spend a half hour rummaging through side passages until we find a broad one-inch thick wooden plank that is long enough to bridge the gap. Dad goes across first and the rest of us follow in single file. I do my best not to think about what lies beneath as I gingerly step onto the unstable plank. Having seen Indiana Jones do this at the movies doesn't help a bit. Besides, he probably had a stunt double do it for him.
As stone goes, quartz is rather sharp. When I inadvertently rubbed up against an outcropping of the milky white substance, it tore my jacket. Much of it is crystalline in nature, with tinges of pink and other colors that tend to give it an iridescence rarely found in other minerals. The smooth, flat facets of the regularly occurring tetrahedrons remind me of Christmas ornaments. Were it not for the fact that a dangerous terrorist is lurking somewhere in the mine, I think we might actually be enjoying our excursion.
The mine is far from being a lifeless underground world. Salamanders slither along the floors and walls, darting from one pool of water to the next. Also, we have passed piles of dung that would indicate that the mine serves as home to a variety of animals. So far I have not seen any snakes, but something tells me they are here somewhere. Spiders abound. Creepy and crawly insects of every description dine on my exposed flesh. Should I ever come down here again, I will definitely wear gloves.
Have you been to Carlsbad Caverns or Cave of the Winds and are wondering where are all of the stalactites and stalagmites? Mines of the precious metal variety, having been made by the hand of man, have not been around for anywhere near as long as caves, which are the creations of Mother Nature, many of which were in existence eons before our primitive ancestors began to walk this earth. It takes thousands of years for the minerals deposited by water dripping on rock to form the stone icicles that hang from the roofs of caves. While the mine may not be as aesthetically pleasing as Cave of the Winds or Carlsbad Caverns, it is colored with the palette of mineral ore deposits. Were it not for strategically situated colored lights, Carlsbad Caverns would appear pale in comparison.
Eighteen chapters ago, when I began this journal, I agreed to share my most intimate thoughts with you, the reader. That is a bargain I aim to keep. Since our esteemed Mayor and the City Council jumped the gun and weren't able to establish our legal right to be here before sending us on this mission, and because Hermosa experienced a problem with a similar legal difficulty in my grandfather's day, I fully expect that sometime in the future outsiders are going to refer to us as having been Vigilantes who took the law into their own hands. Perhaps we did, but if we did so, we did it out of necessity. We patiently waited until we could wait no more for the FBI to send us some assistance. In the end, we had to go it alone. Should you feel the need to point your finger, please point it elsewhere, as Hermosa is a struggling high desert community of less than 5,000 people who did not ask to have their kids threatened or their water poisoned and is simply doing the best it can under the circumstances. We may be 6 white guys chasing after an Arab, but that doesn't make us the bad guys. After all, our country was the victim of 9/11, not the perpetrators. What we are doing is bringing a terrorist to justice. If that does not make us the good guys, then maybe we should replace the Bible with the Koran and turn over the keys to the City to Halim Khaddam. Can't you get it through your thick skull that we are doing what we are doing in order to survive?
Four hours later, we enter an extremely large cavern with a luminescent ceiling that I estimate to be at least 40 feet high. We find an air mattress and a pillow on a level ledge lying about a foot or so off the cavern floor. Dad is ecstatic and thinks we have discovered Khaddam's bed. Chuck Stevens' right knee is puffy and swollen. He hikes up his trouser leg to show us where the surgeons cut him open to insert a replacement. Of course, if Dad had known that Chuck's knee was artificial, he would not have allowed him to come down into the mine. We take a 30 minute break and Chuck says he is ready to go on. Exiting the cavern, we enter an alcove that contains a large plastic bag filled with Cocoa Puffs, 6 cans of condensed milk, a 10 ounce box of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies and, best of all, the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times which proves that Halim Khaddam was here less than 24 hours ago. Willie Duran tells me he can smell Arab in the passageway, but I do not believe him any more than I believed him when he told me earlier that Arabs do not spit out the pits when they eat dates. It is clear to everyone that we are hot on Khaddam's trail. Dad warns us not to shoot unless Halim Khaddam shoots first. The last thing we need is bullets ricocheting back at us through the narrow passageway.
The steel rails have reached an end and we are having some difficulty distinguishing the main tunnel from the larger branch tunnels. Several times we take wrong turns that lead us to dead ends. In desperation, Dad turns on the GPS device and it acts much like a compass in guiding us in the direction we want to go. Ten hours after our descent, we run into a pocket of bad air in a particularly low-lying section of the main shaft. I know it is bad because I feel woozy and there isn't enough oxygen to get a match to light. We detour through a different section of the main tunnel (frequently there are two or three sections which run parallel to each other). Dad wishes he had brought a device to monitor the air with us, although I am not even sure whether such devices exist. If I remember correctly, early coal miners used canaries to monitor the air when they descended into the lower depths. I cannot imagine PETA and/or the SPCA allowing songbirds to be used in such a manner today nor would I want to kill an innocent bird. Still, I can't help but think it better to let a bird die than a human being.
We stop for the night and eat an evening meal consisting of teriyaki beef jerky, dried apricots, and the condensed milk we confiscated from Khaddam's pantry. Knowing that the milk came from our enemy's larder makes it taste sweeter. If it was not for the digital watch on my wrist, I would have no idea what time it is. We draw lots and I stand guard while the others arrange their Mylar blankets on the ground in an attempt to get some sleep. Two hours go by before I wake up Bob for his turn at guard duty. How anyone can sleep on a makeshift mineral bed is beyond me, but I do manage to doze off at some point during the night. I awake to an aching back and sore muscles in the morning. At least I assume it is morning because Dad has turned the lantern on and the others are up and folding their blankets to fit back into their backpacks.
The going gets tough. Not only has the tunnel become noticeably narrower, but the slope has increased to the point where we have difficulty keeping our footing. On several occasions the slope is so steep that we have to take caution not to slip on the rock and plummet downwards. For safety's sake we tie a rope around our waists and connect ourselves in single file so that if one person starts to slide, the others can pull on the rope and stop him.
Shortly after noon, we stop in a small cavern where groundwater is seeping through a crack in the rock wall to form a shallow pool where albino salamanders frolic. Chuck's artificial knee is swollen to twice its normal size and Dad reluctantly orders Bob Hosberg to help him return to the surface. There are four of us left and five batteries for the lantern. Either we head back within the next couple of hours or risk having our batteries give out before we make it back to the surface.
An hour and three-quarters later we come to the end of the tunnel where there is tons of debris from recent blasts. Dad estimates that we have gone more than a mile deep into the bowels of the earth. Although we see neither hide nor hair of Halim Khaddam, we do locate evidence of his handiwork. Three holes have been drilled in the rock and 3 sticks of dynamite can be seen protruding from the holes. Evidently, Khaddam ran out of percussion caps. Dad gingerly removes the dynamite and puts it in his backpack. There i nothing to do now but turn back. Although we are disappointed at not having captured the terrorist, we don not look at our journey as being a complete failure. We have proven that we aren't afraid of Halim Khaddam and that we can chase him to the ends of the earth should it prove necessary. Besides, Jenny may have caught him as he attempted to sneak out the entrance. It is a slim hope, but any hope is better than no hope at all.
It had not occurred to any of us that coming up would be more difficult than going down. It is because gravity was working in our favor when we were descending, but has turned the tables against us now that we are climbing to reach the surface. Fortunately, however, we make few of the wrong turns that we made the first time and have a notion of where we are going. If we had it to do over again, we would have Jenny and the other deputies haul us up using a pulley and rope through one of the vertical ventilation shafts. Live and learn.
There are assorted agates and what appears to be semi-precious stones embedded in the tunnel walls. I have been using my knife to pry loose some samples. There could be more to this mine than gold ore. It is obvious to me that, if nothing else, Halim Khaddam was bitten by the gold bug and repeatedly broke the law in order to feed his greed. Wouldn't it be ironic if someone, say me for instance, was able to develop a more profitable use for this mine?
We catch up to Bob and Chuck in the large cavern where we found the air mattress. Bob built a fire to sterilize his stainless steel survival knife and lanced Chuck's knee. Although it is still red, the swelling has gone down considerably and Chuck can hobble along with some support from the rest of us. Hopefully, we can get him to a hospital before infection sets in. There is a thermometer in the first aid kit and it turns out Chuck is not running a fever. Dad says there is nothing wrong with him that antibiotics won't cure.
I am prying what I take to be an opal from the wall of the tunnel and have to pull so hard that I almost break my knife. I no sooner have the gem in my hand, then water starts coming out of the hole. Cracks begin to form around the hole and within 15 seconds a large section of tunnel wall gives way and a flood of groundwater pours in. The force of the water is so strong that it knocks Chuck Stevens off his feet. Dad and Bob Hosberg pick him up and we begin to run as fast as we can for high ground. The whirling water is up past Darryl Cox's nose and he has to hold his breath until Dad holds him up by the waist and he is able to gulp down air. We are in imminent danger of drowning when the passageway begins to tilt upward and we are able to scramble to safety.
While our clothes drip-dry on our bodies, Dad chews me a new asshole in front of the others, confiscates my survival knife, and tells me he will take away my badge if I ever do anything as stupid as that again. Darryl off-handedly refers to me as the posse pariah. God has a way of humbling those whose egos grow too large. I have never been so embarrassed in my life.
We are taking a 15 minute rest break in a section of the main tunnel adjacent to a particularly flat and shiny mica formation when Willie Duran pulls a black felt tip marker from his jacket pocket, and, turning to speak to Dad, says, "How's about if we leave a message for any future expedition that may come down here?"
Dad appears to be taken slightly aback by Willie's request. I believe he expected Willie to be a trouble maker and was pleasantly surprised when, other than for an occasional bigoted joke, he turned out to be a rather amiable team player who pulled his own weight. As he is inclined to do when mulling something over, Dad takes off his Stetson hat, runs his fingers through his thinning brown hair, and rubs the stubble on his chin. "Can't see much harm in that," he says as he puts back on his hat.
Standing up, Willie stretches his sore muscles and asks, "Anyone know what date it is?"
I push the time and date button on my digital wristwatch before answering, "We have been here at the mine for slightly more than 60 hours. This is Wednesday, September 18, 2002."
Willie scrawls on the mica wall for a while, signs his name at the bottom, and, one by one, we each sign our names alongside his. When we are done, our legacy to posterity, as Willie calls it, reads:
SHERIFF ROMERO AND POSSE PURSUED AL-QAEDA AGENT HOLED UP IN THIS MINE, FROM MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 16TH TO WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 18TH, 2002.
Willie Duran, Deputy Sheriff
Bob Hosberg, Deputy Sheriff
Ryan Romero, Deputy Sheriff
Chuck Stevens, Deputy Sheriff
Darryl Cox, Deputy Sheriff
R. Romero, Sheriff, Hermosa
Maybe Willie isn't such a bad guy after all. My first impression of him was influenced by the unfavorable circumstances in which it was formed. When not in the company of Councilman Lee, Willie can be a rather decent individual. In the future I will attempt to win his friendship and promise not to be as harsh in my judgment of him as I have been in the past. Just because he is a bigot doesn't mean he is past salvation. Everyone has their faults, me included. I think I need to learn to be more tolerant of other people. As the Bible says, I should remove the log from my own eye before commenting on the splinters in the eyes of others.
Once we get to the point on the main tunnel where the tracks begin, we make better time since we no longer have to worry about taking wrong turns. Despite the pain, Chuck Stevens keeps up with the rest of us. As his knee is still oozing a small amount of blood and pus, we stop for a break to allow him to pour hydrogen peroxide on the wound and change the gauze dressing. He seems to be as anxious to get to the hospital as we are to take him there.
It takes three hours of walking steadily uphill before we see the outline of the tunnel entrance. We stop while Dad goes on ahead because it is dark outside and he is afraid that the deputy on duty might mistake us for terrorists. He need not have worried because the guard turns out to be fast asleep. Dad kicks him awake and asks him what he would have done if he had been a terrorist. The poor fellow has no answer.
We find Jenny in a large tent nearby. She uses her cell phone to call for a medical evacuation helicopter. Twenty minutes later, the helicopter lands, two EMT's emerge and in less than 10 minutes, Chuck Stevens has an intravenous saline drip and is on his way to a trauma center in Victorville. Dad doubles the guard at the entrance to the mine and we sack out on the ground for what remains of the night. Somewhat reluctantly, we pack up our gear at dawn and board the charter bus for the trip home.
Jenny, however, manages to cheer us up by informing us that she found the Studebaker truck, or rather the mound of brush and mesquite where it had been hidden and took a plaster cast of the tire tread marks leading from there to the road. That, and the three sticks of dynamite that we recovered from the bottom of the mine are good solid evidence that will help to convict the terrorist once we bring him to justice. Dad tells us that it is not our fault that Halim Khaddam happened to be away from the mine and blames himself for not having good intelligence as to the terrorist's comings and goings. "Next time we will get him," he says through clenched teeth and I can assure you that Dad never says anything he does not mean.
Having been with the posse hunting down Halim Khaddam, I missed the first 3 days of school and have to make up the assignments. Trigonometry is above my head, but Beth promises to tutor me. Beth is the one bright spot in my life. We spend every free moment between classes together. The good thing is that her parents have changed their opinion of me and we are free to date on the weekends if I bring her home by midnight. That is, we could date if her mother allowed her to use the Mercedes (which she won't or if my father would allow me to take the driver's test at the Department of Motor Vehicles (which he won't. No choice for now but to live on love.
I get ribbed a lot about having been part of a wild goose chase that didn't accomplish what we set out to do. Most of it is good-natured. Occasionally, however, some wienie goes out of his way to give me a bad time. Beth and I are standing in line buying lunch in the cafeteria when Tyler Hayes, who plays center on the football team and dated Beth once or twice before I met her, comes up to me and says in a loud voice that everyone in the building can hear, "My Dad says you and your scumbag father got bought off by al-Qaeda. He says there is nothing lower than someone who sells out his own kind." Tyler wants to fight and I am about to tell him that I will meet him after school when Beth takes the banana custard cup from her tray and smears it all over the front of his pants.
"That is gross, Tyler," Beth says. "Please go to the restroom the next time you feel the urge to masturbate."
Everyone in the cafeteria is laughing as Tyler runs out the door. I don't appreciate having my girlfriend fight my battles for me and I tell Beth that she made me look like a wimp. She says that Tyler groped her on their first date and that she had been waiting to get even with him for ages. Beth has spunk. Come to think of it, she reminds me of my mother. Was it Carl Jung or perhaps it was Sigmund Freud who said that boys want to marry their mothers? Too much psycho babble can ruin your day.
Someone tells me later in the day that Tyler's father is Dale Hayes who owns Dale's Sporting Goods. He evidently didn't agree with the Sheriff's Department having spent his taxes to buy equipment from a large warehouse sporting goods store in Adelanto with whom he is in direct competition. For all I know, he has a legitimate beef which might have resulted in a change in policy if he had waited and brought it up at the next City Council meeting. What kind of a father poisons his son's mind with hate over a petty business misunderstanding? Now I know why Tyler is the way he is. Like all too many of us nowadays, he comes from a dysfunctional family where the need to make a living has become more important than love and affection. I understand what his problem is, but that does not mean I won't eventually have to kick his ass. Some people have to learn the hard way.
After school, I walk over to the Petrified Prospector, a lapidary, jewelry, and rock hound shop that primarily caters to tourists. Removing the rough gemstone I took from the mine from my pocket, I hand it to the man behind the counter and ask him if it is a genuine opal. He glances at it and says it is more likely a topaz.
"Is it worth much?" I ask.
"Maybe ten dollars if it was cut and polished," he replies.
"How much would you charge to cut and polish it?"
"Twenty dollars," he says without blinking an eye.
I act like I am mulling it over, but I already know I want it made into a promise ring to give to Beth. After asking a few more questions, he shows me a display case full of ready made rings which he says are less expensive than having a ring custom made. I insist on having it custom made and he tells me it will cost $200 to have my stone cut, polished, and set in a silver band. He is writing up the invoice and asks me what my girlfriend's ring size is. I tell him I have no way of knowing. He suggests that I either bring her to the store or measure the circumference myself using a piece of string. I pay a $75 cash deposit and tell him to make the ring the size of my little finger. He slips a number of steel rings on my pinky and declares it to be a size 7. Let's hope I am right about my little finger being approximately the size of her ring finger.
Two hundred dollars is more money than I have in my bank account. Fortunately, Sanderson says I can work weekends at the cafe. I tell Jenny about the ring and she says it is a wonderful idea. It is not as if Beth and I are getting married anytime soon. As I understand it, a promise ring proclaims to the world that we are romantically involved without being obligated. I hope that doesn't strike you as being a copout because it certainly was not intended to be. It is just that at 17 everything is up for grabs and there are no guarantees for the future.
I work as a Deputy Sheriff two nights a week, same as the rest. No choice but to ride shotgun since I don't have a driver's license. The City Council somehow comes up with the money to buy us uniforms and put us through a week-long course at the Police Academy in Victorville. I am thinking I am going to miss more school but my counselor arranges for me to get credit for community service and work-study. The Police Academy has me jogging constantly going to and from the range in addition to attending classes. The instructors are no nonsense types and I learn a lot while I am there.
With 3 new Crown Vic police cruisers and 20 additional deputies, the Sheriff's Department is able to keep the mine under close surveillance. Nothing, however, is seen of Halim Khaddam or the truck. It is as if they vanished into thin air. Dad thinks that the posse scared him away.
Chuck Stevens was released from the hospital yesterday. The infection proved to be local and he did not lose the artificial knee. Mrs. Cox and some of the other deputy's wives dropped by the Stevens' home to visit Chuck and to volunteer to help Mrs. Stevens with the cooking until such time as she could leave her husband's bedside. Good people assisting those who deserve help is what makes Hermosa such a great place to live.
I work second shift patrol, 4PM to midnight with a part-time deputy named Jake on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Unless the dispatcher has an assignment, we begin by driving out to the mine to check for any sign of Halim Khaddam. On this particular Tuesday the sky is overcast with haze and there is a late model Pontiac parked out front with three guys in the front seat. They do not see us approach and we are almost upon them when I recognize them as three jocks from my high school football team. There are open containers lying on the dashboard and a case of beer in the back seat. Jake has them get out of the vehicle and pour the beer in the dirt. What could be going through their minds? They know the mine has become home to a terrorist, yet they still drive out here to guzzle beer. Jake threatens to cite them, but they talk their way out of it. Our varsity squad is bad enough without having 3 players suspended. Hopefully, coach won't catch wind of this.
We are leaving the mine and are about three-quarters of the way down the dirt path leading to the Interstate when Jake sees an old truck in the distance which vaguely resembles the one we are looking for. Without further fanfare, he switches on the lightbar and we are off in pursuit. We fishtail down what remains of the dirt path—it really doesn't rate being called a road—and skid onto the asphalt. By this time, we have lost sight of the truck and Jake pushes the pedal to the metal in an effort to gain on him. We catch up to the battered truck in a matter of minutes and are surprised to find the driver ambling along in the far right lane going 15 miles per hour under the speed limit. Evidently, he fails to see our flashing lights as he doesn't pull over and Jake gives him several quick bursts from the siren with no discernable effect whatsoever. We continue this ridiculously slow pursuit (it reminds me of the O.J. Simpson pursuit) for another two miles before the truck finally pulls over on the shoulder and brakes to a halt.
We no sooner pull up behind him, radio the dispatcher our location, and get out of the cruiser, then we notice that the brand name stamped into the tailgate reads International. It is obvious we made a mistake. This is not the Studebaker pickup we have been looking for.
Jake walks up to the driver of the International who turns out to be a toothless elderly rancher and says by way of apology, "I am sorry, sir. This is the wrong truck."
"No, it is the right truck," the elderly man replies. "I have driven Internationals all my life. I am on my fourth wife and this is only my third truck. I bought it new in 1949 from International. Make no mistake, this is the right truck."
Jake spots two packs of rolling papers on the front seat and automatically asks, "Do you have any drugs?"
The rancher reaches for a prescription bottle of pills in his jacket pocket and unscrews the top. Offering the plastic bottle to Jake, he says, "Take two of these. They are pretty much good for whatever ails you."
Jake bites his lower lip. He had forgotten about asking for the man's driver's license and instead says by way of departure, "Have a nice day, sir."
"It is my God-given right as an American citizen to have any kind of day I choose," retorts the crusty old gentleman as Jake and I are walking back to the police cruiser.
I have always been of the opinion that there is no such thing as an accident. If not, then how are insurance companies able to predict with accuracy the probability of calamities such as floods and earthquakes occurring? Surely, there is a purpose to everything in nature and the fact that we may not know that purpose or that God hasn't seen fit to reveal it to us does not mean that the purpose does not exist. You are probably wondering why I am dragging out the heavy-duty philosophical artillery and bombarding you with it. It is because something happened at home last night which completely altered my perspective on this matter.
After a particularly harrowing day, Dad took me out to eat at a new Mexican restaurant south of here that specializes in mariscos. I had halibut and Dad had a platter of mussels marinated in lemon juice and tomato sauce. Almost as soon as we got home Dad came down with a real bad case of diarrhea and spent most of the night running to the bathroom. That, in itself, isn't unusual. Montezuma's Revenge is the price an aficionado pays for enjoying Mexican cuisine in an unfamiliar location. I thought little of it and went to bed. Shortly thereafter, Dad felt an urge to evacuate his bowels for the fourth time in an hour, and, rather than run back and forth to the bathroom, decided to sit on the toilet seat for awhile. Being exhausted, he fell asleep on the toilet, slipped off the seat, and fell forward head first onto the glazed tile floor. Hitting his forehead on the hard surface knocked him out and he lay there in a pool of blood until I found him in the morning. I called 911 and an ambulance took him to the hospital where the doctor found no evidence of stroke, heart attack, or seizure. It was simply a freak accident, a once in a lifetime occurrence. It is like the bumper stickers say, "shit happens."
Nothing looks worse than a white gauze head bandage topped with a Stetson hat. It would be more sanitary if Dad left the hat at home until the wound healed. The sweatband looks like it has gone 30,000 miles without an oil change. Since he won't listen to reason, maybe I should hide the hat somewhere. Sometimes it is not clear whether he is parenting me or I am parenting him.
Grandpa Ryan Romero came back from overseas after World War II wearing khakis. Due to a snafu, his duffel bag was stuffed full of khaki uniforms. With minor alterations, they served him well during his career as Sheriff of Hermosa. The Deputy Sheriff's uniform hasn't much changed over the years other than that the button down fly has been replaced with a zipper. I managed to get mine stuck in the down position after going to the restroom at the Circle K the other day and, were it not for a borrowed safety pin, would have been extremely embarrassed. And to think, I once seriously considered dyeing my Dad's shirts pink.
We don't carry mace or pepper spray. Dad says that they only serve to make the perpetrators angry. I managed to get some stick time in the other day when the husband came after me with a gun following a domestic disturbance call. Lucky for me, he was so drunk that he could not thumb off the safety. I have probably given you the mistaken impression that close calls like this occur all the time in Hermosa. Nothing could be further from the truth. We spend most of our time performing services such as winching an RV out of the sand or getting a cat out of a tree. I am not the hero I claim to be. Nor do I have a raging desire to get myself shot in order to become one.
I must apologize to the reader for having romanticized the job of law enforcement officer. In truth, it is a way to make a decent living, neither better nor worse than being a school teacher, a plumber, or a fireman. If I have idolized my Dad and his profession, it is in reaction to having been abandoned by my mother. I know why she divorced Dad. He paid more attention to the job than he did to her. Is that sufficient justification for pulling the plug? Was it necessary to pull the plug on me as well? Why bring me into this world if only to abandon me. Do I have a right to two parents or not? Perhaps I am naive, but it seems to me that any family—even a dysfunctional family—is better than no family at all. Why make a solemn pact before God to stay together for better or worse if you are not going to work at making it better? It is the kids rather than the parents who suffer from divorce. No fault divorce—who are we trying to fool? Enough of my rant. It was time for me to unload and you were the first person to come along. If you don't like it, you are free to go.
Let's move on to a more pleasant topic. The promise ring turned out to be everything I hoped it would be. They crafted it using white gold rather than silver for the band. Also, I paid $10 more to have Beth's name engraved on the inside. It sparkles like a blue sapphire and doesn't look anything like a topaz. The jeweler outdid himself. Jenny said that a good girl deserves a decent ring. I will take it a step farther and say that a decent girl like Beth deserves a better ring than I can afford. My sole comfort is that no gem regardless of price could ever compete with her beauty.
I was going to give the ring to her after Chemistry lab this afternoon, but there were too many people standing around. Besides, I am not sure how to go about it. When my Dad courted my Mom, he got on one knee and asked her to marry him. I am not ready for that. A promise ring is meant to be something in between going steady and marriage. The presentation should be a solemn affair, something which has meaning for both of us. I am open to suggestions. What's the matter, cat got your tongue? Come up with an idea I can use and I will consider naming our firstborn child after you.
Could someone please tell me why my counselor advised me to take trigonometry? What use is this garbage in the real world. It is better to be blissfully unaware of the difference between an isosceles and an equilateral triangle than to have this useless information clogging up your brain cells. I want to use the storage space on my mind's hard drive to record baseball scores, phone numbers, and the lyrics to songs. Why not take care of the important stuff first? Then, should there be any room remaining, I can fill it with Pythagorean theorems and stupid proofs that will make me appear to be smarter than I actually am.
The tree shaded lawn between the cafeteria and the Administration Building at Hermosa High is known as the Commons. I am sprawled on the grass with my head against the gnarled trunk of a Peruvian pepper tree. Beth squats on the ground beside me attempting to pound tangents, sines, and cosines through my thick skull.
"You have to maintain a B average in the mathematics college prep curriculum in order to be admitted into the Police Science program at UCLA," Beth gently nags me. "What properties are unique to a right triangle?"
"That is a trick question, isn't it?" I reply. "Aren't triangles inherently wrong. They have too many angles. One triangle is as bad as another, it is only a matter of degree."
"Did you read the assignment?" Beth asks in disgust. "I can't tutor you if you lack the desire to learn."
"Oh, I have an excess of desire," I counter as I take her hand in mine, stroking it gently to show how I feel. Her anger slowly dissipates, her hand goes limp, and I deftly slip the ring onto her outstretched finger.
"You bought this for me?" she coos incredulously, turning her wrist to watch the ring sparkle. "Why, it is beautiful. It must have cost you a fortune."
I tell her how I pried the rough stone from the tunnel wall and managed to hold onto it despite the subsequent flood. She leans over and kisses me on the lips, long and hard. Fool that I am, I forget to say anything about it being a promise ring. When the bell rings and we go to class, I realize that I have made a commitment, but am uncertain as to what the commitment entails.
There is a spinet piano in the living room that hasn't been touched since Mom left. Something draws me to it and I am picking a tune out by ear when Dad comes in the front door. He looks at me as if I have committed a sacrilege, but I ignore him and manage to play a flawed rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. Dad walks over, takes off his Stetson, and lays it on top of the piano next to the Academic Decathlon trophy I won in 9th grade. His deep baritone has some difficulty reaching the high notes. Neither of us could carry a tune in a bucket. However, the important thing is that we are enjoying ourselves immensely. We are done with denial and are now in the process of healing. Dad desperately needs to go out on a date. Men either use it or lose it. I have a hunch that this is one wallflower that's about to come into bloom. I have seen the way that women look at him. I am thinking it would do him a world of good to get back in circulation.
Having 20 additional deputies turns out to be a blessing. Dad no longer has to work 60 to 80 hours per week and with Melinda's help finally succeeds in processing and filing the stacks of reports on his desk. A 200 unit upscale tract of homes is being built by Pipeline Construction in conjunction with a Los Angeles developer. The increase in the property tax base plus hook up fees for municipal utilities has relieved some of the strain on the city budget. The Sheriff's Department can now afford to issue us uniforms, weapons and other equipment. We look and act like professionals.
Halim Khaddam has vanished. The City Council is of the opinion that he high-tailed it out of here because the posse was after him. Dad thinks he found a new hiding place and is biding his time, waiting for an opportunity to strike when we least expect it. As for me, I don't know what to think. Most people are simply grateful not to have to live in fear. If Halim Khaddam never comes back again, it will be too soon for me.
Last Thursday, Jake and I were dispatched to another abandoned mine (there are at least three in the area) where some Canadian tourists had heard an explosion. As it turned out, an addict had set up a methamphetamine lab inside the mine. This was a hastily concocted operation in which a propane burner heated the chemicals in a pressure cooker. A makeshift assortment of containers were connected to the pressure cooker by rubber hoses held in place with duct tape. The County sent a hazardous materials team to clean up the mess while Jake and I telephoned nearby hospitals to see if anyone had been admitted recently for extensive burns to their body. Sure enough, a 35 year old male with second degree burns on his face and torso answered our description and we subsequently drove out to Victor Valley Community Hospital to interview the suspect. The reason I am mentioning this incident is to give you an example of good police work which resulted in an arrest. This is the norm rather than the exception. If I come across one more idiot who refers to us as vigilantes, I swear I will scream. Gossip dies hard in the high desert. If only we had captured Halim Khaddam, the voters would be singing a different tune.
Part of my duties is to check the mailbox on a daily basis and bring in the mail which I put on the kitchen table for Dad to read when he gets home. In today's mail there was a gas bill, two ads, and a letter from the National Association of Law Enforcement Executives. Having been addressed to Ryan Romero, I haven't any qualms whatsoever about opening the letter and am delighted to find that it is an invitation to attend a series of seminars and lectures being held at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Dad could use a vacation. And, if he plays his cards right, the City might be persuaded to foot the bill. I bring the subject up at dinner. Dad thinks it is a great idea and says he will discuss the matter with Mayor Tom at the earliest opportunity. Of course, I want to go along, too, but think it best to wait until later to ask since Dad isn't really sure yet whether he will be able to go. The prospect of a trip to Las Vegas excites me. This is adult entertainment at its best with gambling, showgirls, glitz, and neon lights. Since I will be accompanied by my father, there isn't much danger of me succumbing to sin. You don't have to be 21 to enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffets, Bellagio fountains, and luxury accommodations.
"Remember when J.P. bought you lunch?" I ask as I am taking the dirty plates from the table.
"How could I forget it? He wanted me to fix a speeding ticket for his cousin."
"It is time you returned the favor. Take him to his favorite restaurant. Ply him with wine and tell him you want a 10 percent increase in salary and 4 nights in Las Vegas, all expenses paid, to attend the convention. If he balks, remind him that the City Council voted themselves a 20 percent pay hike and a week long junket to the California Municipal Government conference, complete with airfare, meals, and luxury hotel rooms. They borrowed the money to pay for it from the sewer fund because they had already exhausted the general fund," I say, having read the blistering editorial concerning City Council improprieties in Tuesday'sHermosa Herald.
Since he is almost always in uniform, Dad owns very little in the way of civilian clothes. The few that he does have are out of date. He is lucky to have a son that cares about his wardrobe. I ordered a leather jacket for Dad's birthday present from an internet wholesaler. Unbeknown to me, the parcel, when it arrived, required a signature. Since there was nobody at home, why didn't the delivery man use common sense and leave it on the porch? What am I supposed to do with the notice they taped on the front door? Not having a driver's license, I can't drive to their station to pick it up. They are supposed to be a delivery service. Why do I have to do the job for them? They think that people have nothing better to do than stay at home and wait for the mail. How arrogant of them!
Color me dense. It is getting dark outside when a postal van pulls up the driveway. Our letter carrier is working overtime and has decided to attempt a redelivery on the parcel. She is lithe, tan, and is smiling despite having already put in a 12 hour workday. Lord, if you don't strike me down where I stand, I promise I will give the mail lady a generous tip come Christmas. I have to quit jumping to conclusions. [Note to self: Patience is a virtue that I had best acquire.]
I have been surfing the internet, hoping to come up with anything that might indicate that Halim Khaddam has surfaced in another location. Both Yahoo and Google came up with no results. I am so desperate that I have even been to an official U.S. Navy website that hasn't been updated in two years to track down references I got from search engines. The sole place left to venture is the newsgroups frequented by the lunatic fringe. Should I trust information supplied by the Maine State Militia, Southern Michigan Regional Militia, Militia of Montana, and other such 100% American organizations? The fact of the matter is that I have no other option. Perhaps they have their ears to the ground in ways that Homeland Security can't conceive.
The Militia of Montana website has a catchy banner depicting two minutemen standing guard over the credo, "Here in our homeland, God, guts, and guns, keep us free." An eagle perched on what I assume to be the Holy Bible with a rifle clutched in its talons completes the picture. It is clear to me that these people mean business. However, there is no way of contacting them other than the general purpose email address at the bottom of the page.
The Southern Michigan Regional Militia website asks us to take the following oath:
I am the foundation of a free society...
I have been a tradition since ancient times...
My stands at Lexington and Concord gave birth to this nation...
I am recognized in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; according to the authors of these documents, I am composed of the whole body of the people...
...I am the militia
I have the right and the duty to be armed, ready to defend my home, my community, and my nation
I am prepared to take care of myself and my family in event of a disaster
I am prepared to help my neighbors in times of hardship and emergency
I am a good citizen, a good neighbor, and an asset to my community
I have undertaken all these things as lifetime obligations. My responsibility is inescapable, and my duty is unquestionable
I believe that as long as there are free men and women, there will be a militia, and as long as there is a militia, there will be free men and women
I am proud to call myself a militiaman.
I locate the spokesman's email address and fire off a message asking for any information they might have on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda operative Halim Khaddam. What I get by way of reply is the militia's newsletter. Oh well, it was worth a try.
There is an article on the ABC News website about James Loy, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, testifying before a Senate investigative committee that recent intelligence shows that al-Qaeda terrorists are likely to enter the country through the Mexico border. Our 2,000 mile border with Mexico is a rusted sieve through which 1.1 million illegal immigrants poured last year. The 10,000 federal agents (plus units of the National Guard) patrolling the border have their hands full. Lately, they have been receiving assistance from armed citizens recruited via the internet. I am thinking that if it is not hard for al-Qaeda operatives to slip across the border into the United States, it must be a cakewalk for them to slip back across into Mexico. Could be that Halim Khaddam did just that. Or maybe he is driving the back roads at night trying to get there.
I can imagine Halim Khaddam attempting to sleep on the seat of his broken down truck in the midst of a limitless salt flat 20 miles from the nearest service station. It is hotter than the hubs of Hades, there is no food or water, and the vultures are circling overhead. For a wanted man with a price on his head, sleep comes in fitful nightmares of being pursued by the good people of this world. One thing is for sure. Halim Khaddam, in whatever hole he has chosen to hide, is not having any fun.
And neither am I. I have to get some wheels. Who ever heard of a Deputy Sheriff without a driver's license? That's right, the criminals I arrest are permitted to drive, but I am not. What kind of justice is that? The badge on my shirt says that I am a full grown man, but I can't take my girlfriend to a drive-in movie. This is ridiculous. Dad trusts my judgment with a shotgun during a car chase but refuses to let me take the steering wheel for normal patrol duties. How must Jake feel about having me for a partner. I might as well be handicapped as not to have a driver's license. Hermosa lacks public transportation. People either have a driver's license or rot at home. And, the worst part is that California requires a parent's or guardian's signature for anyone under the age of 18.
I am surfing the worldwide web and find a dotcom offering $83 roundtrip tickets to Las Vegas from Los Angeles International Airport. With a package deal for luxury accommodations for four nights plus car rental, that comes to $950. That is not asking for much. It is a cheap way for the city fathers to recognize the services Dad has done for the community.
I am shutting off the computer when the phone rings. It is Dad and he says we are going to Las Vegas. I say we because the City of Hermosa is paying for Dad's expenses and he is going to pay for mine. As Elvis might say, Viva Las Vegas!
The only question that remains is what to pack. I remember Dad having once said that a man can live out of a gym bag while a woman needs two suitcases and a trunk. If that is the case, I can get by with a toothbrush, a coat, 2 changes of underwear, and a change of clothes. Throw in my iPod and I will be ready to boogie. I can't believe this is happening to me. Is that Sinatra I hear singing, "Fairy tales can come true . . ." in the background?
This being our first trip together anywhere, I am not sure how to prepare. Should I pay the kid across the street to feed the dog or should we board him at a kennel? Certainly don't want the mail and the newspapers to pile up as they advertise to potential thieves that there is nobody at home. Perhaps I can ask my teachers for my school assignments in advance and then work on them in our hotel room. Fat chance of that happening. With unlimited cable television access and room service, the last thing I am going to be doing is reading my textbooks. Besides, there is not enough room in the gym bag to take them along.
I am always telling people to notify the Sheriff's Department before they go away on vacation. You can never be too secure. I innocently suggest to Dad that I booby-trap the front and back doors when we leave for the airport and he jumps down my throat before I can get a chance to explain. My intentions were to rig a bucket of water over the door that would fall on the head of anyone who attempted to break in. Why do parents always assume the worst? It is not as if I am stupid enough to pack the doorway with plastic explosives wired to a magnetic detonator.
Can you believe we have to stand in line at the ticket counter for two hours for a shuttle flight from LAX to Las Vegas? Attempting to put my fellow passengers in a good mood, I casually remark to the dour-faced matron standing beside me that TWA stands for Terrorists Welcome Aboard. Evidently, security guards lack a sense of humor because they promptly escort me to a windowless room where they take their sweet time about conducting a full body cavity strip search. The worst part is that Dad thinks my ordeal is hilarious and can't stop laughing about it. He wouldn't find it half as funny if it had been his butt that those cold hands were probing.
This being my first airline flight, I choose a window seat halfway down the aisle. They really ought to make themselves a wider aisle as passengers are constantly bumping into people who are already seated as they try to negotiate the narrow passageway. Nor is there nearly enough leg room for a growing boy like myself. That is what I get for going with the lowest roundtrip fare. This isn't an airliner. It's a cattle car with wings.
No movie, no lunch, nothing to eat or drink except for a bag of peanuts and a can of Pepsi (no refills). There are two restrooms, one at either end of the plane, to service 180 passengers and crew. Although I come from an economically depressed region, I have never seen such squalor. The bathrooms are the size of postage stamps. You sit on the toilet with your knees crammed underneath the stainless steel sink This is a turbulent flight. Pity the poor passengers with air sickness or diarrhea who rush down the narrow aisle towards the lavatory only to have to wait their turn in line.
Sorry, I di not mean to whine. Actually, if it wasn't for the turbulence, I would be singing the airline's epraises. The flight attendants are super. I ask one of them for a pillow and he comes back with a dinky cushion.
"Can I get this super-sized?" I inquire with disdain.
"I am sorry, it is one size fits all," he apologizes.
A second flight attendant bumps aside the guy I am talking to and wisecracks, "Anyone with a brain would stuff two into one pillowcase rather than argue with the customer."
The first fellow vanishes and returns in a few minutes with a proper pillow. "It belongs to the other attendant," he confides. "I took it from his overnight bag."
No doubt the antics would have continued had it not been for the flashing "Fasten Seat Belts" sign. The descent is smoother than the ascent and the captain brings our plane in for a perfect landing. "It is 98 degrees outside and you can fry your huevos on the tarmac," our pilot quips as he taxis towards the terminal. Unfastening his seat belt, Dad leans over and says, "Hot and sandy, all the comforts of home."
McCarran airport is crammed full of slot machines. Thousands of these brightly lit, whirring, ringing one-arm bandits vie for our attention as we stride towards the baggage carousel. That they are effective in parting fools from their hard-earned money is evidenced by a long line of losers at Traveler's Aid begging airfare home. It is a blessing to be a minor in that there are two less temptations—booze and gambling—by which to fall prey. Wouldn't want to overdo it the first time out, now would we?
We grab our bags, head for the exit, and take the airport shuttle—$20 plus tip—to the Frontier Hotel and Casino on what is known as The Strip. Opening in 1942 as the Last Frontier, she has since undergone numerous name changes and facelifts, as befall an aging courtesan. Howard Hughes paid $14 million for her in 1967. It must be embarrassing to be the cheapest hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard (the boast is that we match anybody's rate—10% discount with military ID), but she looks none the less for the wear. Given a skilled plastic surgeon and cosmetics, a showgirl can extend her career indefinitely. Never having been far enough from the outhouse to escape the smell, this old girl looks pretty good to me. The way I see it is that a man has two choices when he comes to Las Vegas. He can either go to MGM's New York, New York and pay $12.50 to ride a stunted roller coaster with a bunch of tourists or he can show some cajones and ride the strongest bucking mechanical bull this side of Creation at the Frontier for free. It's such a bone crusher that they make you sign a legal waiver exempting them from responsibility before they let you ride it.
Instead of two singles, we get a double room with two beds. I get the idea that Dad intends to keep a close eye on me. You would think he would have learned to trust me by now. It is not as if I am the type to sneak downstairs to the casino in the middle of the night to try my luck at the slot machines. By the way, if security did happen to catch an underage player, would they allow him to keep his winnings?
I turn the thermostat on the air conditioner up full blast. A flick of the remote control and I am watching a WPO Championship No Limit Texas Hold'em game on television. It is Moneymaker vs. Fossil Man. La vita dolce. I have to pinch myself to prove I am not dreaming.
Time for a swim. The Frontier Hotel and Casino has an Olympic sized swimming pool with a 12 foot deep end, but no diving board. Fortunately, I remembered to bring my Speedos and, being the muscular hunk that I am, turn a few heads as I dive gracefully into the water. Too bad there aren't very many people my age. Most of the babes lying on poolside chaise longues soaking up rays are older than my Mom. Somebody needs to tell these matrons that cottage cheese thighs turn sour in a bikini.
After showering off the chlorine from the pool, Dad and I hit the street. We top off a gourmet buffet lunch with a visit to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. Madame Tussaud was an 18th century French housekeeper who got friendly with her boss and ended up taking control of his business. The museum exhibits wax life-like likenesses of film stars, celebrities, serial killers, and other famous people. Dad is standing in front of the statue of Elvis and I am standing next to Michael Jackson. Naturally, we cannot resist bringing them to life in a way that the museum wouldn't dare do:
"Hey you. I'm talking to you, the King of Rock and Roll," I speak for Michael.
"What you want, Wacko Jacko?" Dad puts words in Elvis' mouth.
"I am thinking about giving your daughter, Lisa Marie, another try."
"You so much as touch her and I will wax the linoleum with you. Did you tire of diddling little boys? I hear they shoot child molesters in Nevada."
"Who you calling a child molester, you overweight, out-of-shape . . . ."
Just then the tour guide returns and asks, "Would you like to rejoin the others in the Chamber of Horrors?"
It is time to move on. As a parting gesture, I touch Michael's gloved hand one last time. He is no child molester. Just another flawed, mixed up soul. Jesus walked on water. The rest of us are lucky not to drown in our own urine.
These wax statues are so good that you would swear they are human beings frozen in a state of suspended animation. The Chamber of Horrors features infamous serial killers such as Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper. A cute little brunette is examining Jack the Ripper closely when he comes to life and makes a move in her direction. She starts screaming and runs for the exit with two or three others in our group. But it turns out to be part of the show. Jack the Ripper is actually an actor who gets paid to frighten the tourists. Makes you wonder what they do on Halloween.
When we get back to the Frontier, Dad decides to try his luck at Blackjack while I take a nap. I wake up 2 hours later and Dad is watching cable TV with the sound turned down. There is a stack of 20 dollar bills lying on his bed.
"You're a winner!" I exclaim.
"I have always been a winner," Dad says, "it just took you a long time to notice it."
"Oh, yeah?" I counter, "then how come Mom left?"
"That's different. Someday you will understand."
He is wrong. I will never understand. Winners stay married and losers get divorced. Nothing is more pathetic than a man who has money and no woman to spend it on.
We go to bed early because Dad's first seminar starts at 8 A.M. tomorrow morning. Dad sets the alarm clock for 6:30 A.M. to give himself time for a cup of coffee and the 10 minute walk to the Convention Center.
"It is hard to believe that we have been in Las Vegas all day and haven't met anyone who is here for the Convention," Dad comments as we are stripping down to our underwear for the night.
"Who in their right mind is going to book a room at the Frontier Hotel when luxury suites are going begging at the Luxor?" I reply as I am turning back the covers.
"What is wrong with the Frontier? There aren't any lumps in this bed . . . ."
". . . Nor is there a mint chocolate on your pillow," I finish his sentence for him.
We talk a while longer prior to turning out the lights and going to sleep. It is not as if I have got anything against the Frontier. It is just that I think that we could have done better. Why settle for 3 stars when there's a 5 star with a vacancy down the street?
Dad is right. These mattresses are top notch. I sleep like a baby. By the time I wake up, Dad is long gone. He left a post-it sticky note under the cable television remote control instructing me to buy myself breakfast. Not being one to disobey written orders, I pick up the phone and order a supreme pizza with anchovies from Little Caesar's. Nothing goes with Jerry Springer like a jumbo pizza and a 2 liter bottle of Coke.
Since Dad will be at the Convention Center all day, I am in charge of myself. What I need are some souvenirs. Why not collect casino chips? A one dollar chip from each of the casinos on the Strip ought to prove to any doubting Thomas at school that I enjoyed myself in Las Vegas.
The logical place for me to start is downstairs in our own casino. I stand around watching the action for awhile, then I go up to a gambler I see carrying a tray of chips, tell him I am looking for a souvenir, and offer to buy a chip. He asks me if this is my first time in Vegas. I reply in the affirmative, he smiles, hands me a chip, and refuses to take my dollar. Easy money, here I come.
I repeat the procedure at two more casinos with similar results. I'm attempting to score a chip at the Flamingo when a security guard materializes out of nowhere and asks to see my driver's license. When I tell him I don't drive, he automatically assumes I am underage and escorts me to the exit. Isn't that a fine how-do-you-do? There is no law that says I have to be an adult to collect souvenirs in Las Vegas, now is there?
Most people refer to Las Vegas Boulevard as the Strip. But just out of sight of the tourists, behind the rear alleys and employee service entrances to the hotel-casinos is a raw untamed region with limitless action that is perhaps more deserving of the name. Here, along Industrial Road and Western Avenue are the city's topless bars and nudie-cutie strip joints—Little Darlings, Wild J's Gentlemen's Club, Spearmint Rhino, Tally Ho, and the Can Can Room. As far as you and my father are concerned, I didn't go there. And even if I had gone there, it wouldn't have been to collect souvenirs.
Returning to the Frontier Hotel, I have a pastrami on rye with hot mustard and a dill pickle at Phil's Deli, and go up to our room. I flop onto the bed, grab the remote control, and tune into the middle of an action thriller in Spanish on one of the Latino channels. The hero is shooting the heck out of the bad guy when there is a loud knock at the door. It is not time for Dad to be back and I am not expecting anybody. And it could not be the maid because they always knock softly so as not to wake you up.
"Who's there?" I yell through the door.
"Open up, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department," growls a deep voice on the other side of the door. Damn those casino security cameras! I toss my three $1 chips under the mattress before letting the policeman in.
"Are you Ryan Romero?" asks the uniformed policeman in the doorway who must be all of 6 feet 4 inches and 260 pounds.
"Guilty as charged," I say, attempting to add some levity to an unpleasant situation.
"I am here to transport you to the station," he replies in a deadpan manner.
"But it was only three dollars," I attempt to rationalize.
For a city as large as Las Vegas, they sure have a small police station. It is so small and dingy that it makes me think that maybe they got it because the crooks didn't want it. We whiz past the front desk without them bothering to book me. What is going on? We enter a windowless room at the rear of the building where a man in civilian clothes awaits us. Is this the guy who breaks your fingers and warns you never to come back to Vegas?
"Hi, I am Detective John Sharp," he introduces himself, extending his right hand. Reluctantly, I take his hand in mine and whisper, "Deputy Ryan Romero, Hermosa Sheriff's Department." From his powerful grip, it is clear that I probably pegged him right. When he finally lets go of my hand, I count my fingers to make sure they are all there.
The uniformed officer leaves the room. So that is how they get away with it. No windows, no witnesses, and the room is at the back of the building where nobody can hear the screaming. I crack my knuckles in anticipation. If I am going down, I might as well go down fighting.
Detective Sharp walks over to a monitor on top of his desk and turns it on. "Can you identify the man sitting down?" he asks. "We are watching your father question him on closed circuit television."
So that's what is happening. Dad caught a crook. What a relief! I can actually feel the blood returning to my fingers.
"No matter how he disguises himself, he could never hide those wild eyes. The Arab wearing the three-piece Armani suit with the ostentatious gold jewelry is definitely Halim Khaddam, a notorious al-Qaeda agent with numerous outstanding felony warrants and an APB," I identify the man in the hot seat being grilled by Dad. "Don't let the fancy threads fool you, he is pure, 100 percent unadulterated scum."
Detective Sharp nods in agreement and turns up the volume to where we can hear every word of the interrogation. Our pastor once said in a sermon that the Devil can quote scripture when it suits his needs. Perhaps this explains why Halim Khaddam is answering Dad's questions in impeccable English spoken with an Oxford accent.
"Where did you get the dynamite?" Dad asks.
"Since your regulations prohibited me from purchasing explosives, I was forced to borrow it."
"From whom did you borrow the dynamite?"
"I cannot recall. Perhaps a decent meal would refresh my memory," Halim Khaddam retorts.
"You will be fed when the other prisoners eat. Did you pry loose a hasp and padlock in order to borrow the dynamite?"
"I believe this is the third time you have asked me that question. Why not save yourself some time and effort by playing back my previous answer on your tape recorder?" Halim Khaddam suggests while reaching for the "Stop" button on the tape recorder.
Dad deftly catches the terrorist's right index finger in his hand and bends it backward. "Want to try that again?" he asks as Halim Khaddam tries to pull the injured digit from Dad's grasp.
Dad gives the finger a squeeze before releasing it.
Halim Khaddam refuses to answer any more questions. Dad pulls up a chair and sits so close to the terrorist that their noses almost touch. They stare in hatred at each other for the longest time. Finally, Halim Khaddam blinks. "I am a Canadian citizen," he declares, "and I demand that you notify the Canadian Embassy that I am being detained against my will."
"Since you won't cooperate, I have no choice but to turn you over to the FBI. They will most likely notify the Canadian Embassy as soon as they are finished booking you at Guantanamo." With that final warning, Dad turns off the tape recorder and removes the cassette. "One thing puzzles me," he says in a confidential tone. "What motivated you to poison the reservoir?"
"I did no such thing," replies Halim Khaddam.
"We found where you cut the fence and traces of cyanide in the empty 55 gallon barrels lying in the brush along the shoreline."
"It appeared to be a secure fenced area," Halim Khaddam replies as if perplexed, "what better place to store hazardous wastes?"
Dad shakes his head in disbelief. "And what happened to the Studebaker truck?"
"I traded it in on a Lexus after I got to Las Vegas. The Lexus fits in better with the successful image I need to project in order to sell shares in my gold mine."
"What makes you think the mine belongs to you?" Dad asks incredulously.
"That old mine had been abandoned. I reopened it and worked it for 3 months. According to Bureau of Land Management regulations, the claim now belongs to me. The accepted way to finance such a venture is to go public and sell shares in the corporation."
"What corporation?" Dad asks with a facial expression that would be appropriate to someone who had just bit into a lemon.
"Why, Hermosa Gold Futures, Limited, of Canada, of course. I thought you knew."
As soon as Detective Sharp sees Dad remove the cassette from the tape recorder in an effort to get Halim Khaddam to talk, he gets a tape recorder from a desk drawer and sets it on the desk next to the speaker. Referring to the clandestine recording, he jokes, "What that asshole Arab doesn't know will hurt him." I am thinking that maybe it will and maybe it won't. The way the courts are now, they seem to be more concerned about how evidence is gathered than they are about whether or not it pertains to the case.
"I⭠lost," I say. "How did my father know that Halim Khaddam was in Las Vegas."
"He didn't. Sheriff Romero walked to the Convention Center ahead of schedule this morning and had some time to kill before the Law Enforcement Executive's conference opened. So he bought himself a cup of coffee and was looking to see what else was on the agenda. He found this placard in front of the open door of an adjoining assembly hall," Detective Sharp states as he hands me a gold colored sign which reads: $$ HALIM KHADDAM, INTERNATIONAL FINANCIER, CAN SHOW YOU HOW TO TRIPLE YOUR INVESTMENT IN 5 WEEKS BY TRADING IN LOW-RISK CANADIAN GOLD FUTURES. $$
"Doesn't this violate US Securities and Exchange Commission regulations," I say, pointing to the sign.
"Who knows?" Detective Sharp replies. "Since the corporation is listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, it could prove to be legitimate. Let's not muddy the waters. Sheriff Romero made a citizen's arrest of Halim Khaddam for felony theft of explosives. I think it is our best bet for getting him sentenced to a long prison term coupled with deportation. The FBI knows how to break terrorists. Being a Canadian citizen won't cut him any slack with the Military Police at Guantanamo."
The door opens and in walks Dad in a bad mood. He hands the key to the interrogation room to Detective Sharp, commenting, "I'm done with him. You can either question him further or turn him over to the FBI. The only way to get something more out of him is to squeeze him."
Suddenly, we hear a loud crash followed almost immediately by a crunch. We go through the door and are into the hallway when the crash-crunch is repeated. We race to the interrogation room and find the door is still locked, however, there is a jagged hole in the wall where Halim Khaddam used a chair to break through the thin gypsum wallboard. It looks like he managed to squeeze through the narrow space between the 2 X 4 studs and crawl into the hallway. We rush down the hallway and fling open the rear exit. Halim Khaddam is rounding the corner at the end of the alley. Detective Sharp fires twice, apparently to no avail. By the time we reach the street, the fugitive has vanished.
"He won't get far," Detective Sharp vows. "An Arab running down the street in an expensive suit should attract lots of attention."
Two hours later, we are searching for Halim Khaddam along the Strip in an unmarked Chevy Impala when Detective Sharp gets a call to proceed to the Traveler's Aid station at the airport where they are holding an Arab matching the fugitive's description. Sure enough, it turns out to be Halim Khaddam who aroused suspicion when he asked for one-way airfare to Syria and was unable to produce a passport.
We shove Halim Khaddam into the backseat of the Chevy Impala. Detective Sharp adds a set of leg irons to the handcuffs he is already wearing. This time, we take no chances. Scarcely a word passes between us as we head Code 2 down Las Vegas Boulevard towards the FBI Field Office on East Charleston Street where we immediately turn Halim Khaddam over to the agents who are awaiting us at curbside.
I never expected the hunt for Halim Khaddam to end like this—in a resort known for its glitz and glamour with nary a spark, let alone fireworks. The agents sign a receipt for the prisoner, slip a hood over his head, and half-push, half-carry him up the steps and into the building. No heroics, no press, no delays—no waste of time or motion. Efficient public servants doing the job the way they were taught to do it, the embodiment of protect and serve.⠠It was good enough for my grandfather, good enough for my father, and it is definitely good enough for me. I am proud to be a peace officer. Good vs. Evil. Let the bad guys beware.
Ryan Romero, Deputy Sheriff
October 15, 2002
There was quite a stir when the big city police chiefs learned that a previously unknown small town sheriff had nabbed a terrorist wanted by the FBI in the building where they were holding their annual convention. Not since Sheriff Tiny Baxter confronted Hells Angels leader Sonny Barger at Bass Lake on Independence Day 1965, had a rural sheriff from California achieved such national acclaim.
Dad ran unopposed for Sheriff in the next election. All anyone seemed to care about was that he had arrested Halim Khaddam. A New York publishing firm contacted Dad and asked him to write a book, but nothing ever became of it.
I graduated from high school and went on to study police science at Cal State San Bernardino where I am now in my second year. Beth is taking Chemistry at UCLA. Her family wants her to become a doctor. We see each other on weekends.
Getting an education isn't half as hard as paying for it. On top of my tuition, I had to pay nearly $300 for textbooks this semester (and that was for only four classes). I'm thinking about enlisting in the Army and going to Iraq. That way, when I get out, I can finish my education on the GI Bill.
Housing is booming in Hermosa. The population has quadrupled in the past decade and is projected to double again before 2007. Consequently, the Sheriff's Department now has five full-time deputies, 24 volunteer deputies (myself included) and 3 dispatchers. Dad rarely gets to go out on patrol due to his administrative duties.
Halim Khaddam never got to Guantanamo. The Canadian government cut a deal whereby he served two years in a federal prison in Florida followed by deportation. He is probably out by now.
Hermosa Gold Futures, Limited, of Canada turned out to be legitimate. In March 2005, with gold trading at $425 an ounce, they announced plans to reopen the mine. It is now fenced-off. Too bad. No more parties, no more fun.
In case you are wondering, I am still planning on running for Sheriff when Dad retires. There is no better place to raise a family than Hermosa and I aim to keep it that way.
Ryan Romero, Deputy Sheriff
May 10, 2005