Tuesday, March 26, 2013


["The Munchausen Enterprise" is the core idea of a longer work-in-progress]

a short story by

Vincent A. Palazzo



            Maggie O’Connor drags her small metal cart and one uncooperative leg up Cooper Hill towards Greeley Gardens.  At the corner, she turns right and walks the entire length of the park on the opposing side, dutifully stopping at very meter to collect the town’s parking tariff.  The coins are just as dutifully deposited in the cart designed for that purpose; in almost fourteen months on the job, the sixty-four year old Maggie has not lost or misplaced so much as one quarter.  In a previous life, before a stroke made speech difficult and her left leg lazy, Maggie taught High School English and led the Community Theater.

            Her route takes her to Palmer Circle and the entrance of the park.  She crosses, taking a moment to observe the monument to the town’s war dead, as she does every day, and heads back in the opposite direction.  She enjoys the downhill walk and looks ahead to the bench at the corner where she will have her lunch.  At a silver Volvo, parked by an expired meter, she hears the first sounds of trouble coming from inside the park.  There is a series of quick explosions, like firecrackers but somehow hollow.  Maggie is reminded of the sounds of men hunting in the woods by her childhood home.  Those reports had a hollow muffled sound just like the explosions in the park but Maggie does not have the time to make the connection with gunfire.  Her damaged mind jumps from popping sounds to the screams that follow and then to the squealing of car tires.  She turns in time to see a late model SUV fishtail out of the park entrance and head in her direction at high speed.  She has just enough time to think about writing down the license plate number, just enough time to reach for the pad she keeps for remembering what her brain forgets too quickly when a single bullet crashes through her skull.  She is literally dead on her feet until the good leg finally catches on and she crumbles to the pavement.  She is discovered with her hand still on the handle of her metal cart.

            I have no trouble shooting her.  She was a bitch in High School.

            A group of young children enter the park tethered to a length of clothes line.  They are all young students from Ms. Edith’s morning kindergarten class and they are all excited to be on their first field trip.  Ever!  Each kid dutifully holds a loop in the rope and marches in lockstep towards the amphitheater.  Allie King, the smallest in the group, walks at the head of the line holding the rope with one hand and Ms. Edith’s hand with the other.  She can see the performers setting up the stage and grows animated.

            “They’re starting! Ms. Edith, they’re starting!”

            “It’s okay, honey.  They’re just getting ready.  They know we’re coming.  No one is going to start without us.”

            The man in the black SUV is dressed in a black sweatshirt and black cotton pants.  He sits behind black sunglasses and tinted windows watching from the parking lot as the children get settled on the grass.  He has been there for thirty minutes, well before the kids crossed the street and entered the park, but no one pays any attention.  He is just some guy sitting in his car sipping a cup of hot coffee.  Just some guy enjoying the morning. 

            I cut quite the dashing figure.  The Man in Black in the black SUV may be a little stereotypical but I enjoy the image.  A Clementi symphony flows from my Bose sound system; my hand conducts the music through the open car window as I casually scans the pathways and roadways that lead to the amphitheater.  The rest of the windows are closed; the tint provides just enough cover.  No one notices my .44 caliber Bulldog or the Mac10 pistol sitting on the passenger seat.  A large digital countdown timer sits next to the weapons.  It now blinks “2:08”. 


            Ms. Edith is standing behind her charges facing the puppeteers as the car pulls to a stop.  She is drinking her own cup of coffee.  There are only a few yards of grass separating us as my Man in Black raises his Bulldog and fires.

The first shot is wide.  It hits Ms. Edith but not as planned.  The bullet catches her in the shoulder and literally spins her around.  Just like in the movies.  As she drops to one knee, she sees the Man in Black.  She sees the black glasses.  Sees the little boy smile.  Her mouth flops open.  Shock.  Amazement.  There is no time for fear or recognition.  There is no time to cry out.  The second round is true.  Just as planned.  The kill shot hits her in the chest and destroys her heart.  She is dead before anyone realizes.  Before the children start to cry. Before the performers, the spectators, the vendors, the joggers and the occasional lover recognize that the real drama is parked in a black SUV. 

In that moment between murder and understanding, my Man in Black drops his Bulldog and fires the MAC10.  I immediately miss the smaller pistol.  It is much lighter, a mere 23 ounces, and much easier to control.  The MAC10 feels like trying to hold an angry big mouth bass by the tail.  My aim is high; my hand shakes under the weight and sheer power of the weapon.  Its magazine empties in less than two seconds – I think about screaming as I squeeze the trigger – but the spectacle has the desired effect.  Anyone moving in my direction has reversed field.  Everyone is running for cover.  Terror has taken center stage.  There is screaming and confusion and chaos.  The kids are now crying almost with one voice.  It is pandemonium and it is perfect; exactly the scene I imagined when I first decided to act. 

The Man in Black does not wait to see if he has hit anyone else.  It does not matter.  The play is proceeding as planned.  The morning is not over; there is more to do.  The car is in gear and gaining speed.  The digital clock continues to count down.  1:18. The play may be behind schedule.  Just a few seconds, but today seconds matter. 

The car hits the turnabout fast barely slowing to prevent a skid.  I hear the sound of metal on metal as the older Honda I cut off loses control and strikes a parked car.  That should slow pursuit!  For the moment it does.  I am now travelling at highway speeds on Palmer Avenue.

Maggie O’Connor is doing her coin collecting thing as I raise the Bulldog. I sees her stop and shudder, almost as if a bug flew into her eye, but I can’t pause to evaluate my work.  Three. I make a mental note and plow through a controlled intersection against the light. 

There are pedestrians in the crosswalk up ahead.  An old man with a walker, his wife with their cart of wet laundry and some kid on a skateboard threaten to block my path. The Man in Black switches hands and fires a single shot out the driver’s side window.  This time I miss completely but the effort has the desired effect.  As bits and pieces of asphalt spray into the air, the old and infirm fall backwards; the kid on the board propels himself forward creating a hole for the SUV.  I click off another bullet – four – and glance at the clock. Less than half a minute remains.

            The rail lines are up ahead.  The Man in Black hears two sounds at the same time – the horn of an approaching train up ahead and the wail of police sirens closing in behind him. The cops took up the chase just after I shot at the old man in the intersection.  They didn’t even stop to help the old guy.  He sat on his ass until some neighbors pulled him from the street and helped him into a lawn chair.

            The train whistle sounds again.  At one hundred feet from the corner I can see the silver engine and the cars that will cross in front of me.  They are coming fast.  The countdown clock beeps and blinks 0:00.  The SUV is just a second or two behind schedule and Amtrak, miraculously, is on time.  I will not make it past in time. The barrier is down, the lights are blinking and I do not have the courage to ignore the warnings.  The Man in Black would make the leap but he is not driving.  Not really.  He will have to listen to me.  The long train will not provide cover; the cars will not allow me to escape.  It is time for Plan B.

            The SUV fishtails onto the gravel service road, gains purchase and barrels forward at dangerous speeds.  The SUV bounces furiously over the uneven surface, forcing the Man in Black to drop both guns on the floor; this is two-fisted, white-knuckled driving.  To my left, the train glides past at an almost similar pace.  Up ahead, I can see where the rails curve away from the road.  I can see the tunnel in the distance and I can just barely make out the next intersection.  It is paved but crosses the rails at a difficult angle. The train will clear it before I gets there.

            The police cruisers are having some difficulty on the gravel service road.  They are unable to close the distance, promising a little breathing room at the corner.  The Man in Black moves the vehicle to the left but does not attempt the hard turn.  He uses the paved intersection to guide his vehicle onto the rails.  This is not the movies.  The car’s tires do not ride the rails like a train gliding effortlessly towards the tunnel.  Instead, I find myself bouncing over the rail ties with the right rail running under the car.  Steering is complicated; every time the vehicle drifts left, the rail rubs against the inside of the right wheels causing the SUV to buck insanely.

            It is an impossible ride but the tunnel is only a quarter mile ahead.  The Man in Black gets there ahead of the police cruisers. 

            Patrolman Michael Granger was one of three officers involved in what was a very short high speed chase.  He piloted the car closest to the black SUV, flying through city streets at dangerous speeds that would have been dangerous on an open highway.  His position leading the chase had more to do with luck of the draw or right place at the right time than it did with driving or police skills.  The rookie had little of both.  He was responding to a call involving the SUV when he heard a single gunshot right in front of him.  He saw the subject vehicle fly through the approaching intersection.  He saw an old man with a walker fall backwards into the roadway and thought briefly about offering assistance.  The chase simply had more appeal. Granger bore down on the accelerator and took the left turn at speeds well above published safety limits.  Surely someone else would stop and assist the old man.  Besides, this was why he became a cop.  In his mirror, he saw two other patrol cars speed past the old guy.  They validated his decision.  The man in the SUV came first.  The radio reported injuries and fatalities; this guy was not getting away.

            The turn put Granger within shooting distance of the gunman.  He was certain he could put a stop to this quickly but there were rules to high speed chases.  Discharging a weapon risked collateral damage…a big no-no.  If he got the guy, no one would care.  If he clipped a civilian in the process, the family would be all over the papers.  His badge would be worth less than already chewed gum.  There would be a PR nightmare for the department and probably a lawsuit.  Shit-heel lawyers would be all over the place.  Granger ending up out on his ass would be the least of his worries.  No, there were other ways – by the book ways – to stop the gunman without damaging the indigenous population.

            Granger bore down on the accelerator bringing his cruiser closer to the SUV.  The railroad crossing was only a few seconds ahead.  The open space would afford him an opportunity to stop this perp – god, he loved the word perp – and eliminate risk to civilians.  Granger could take him down single handed.  When the newspapers showed up, he’d be standing next to the Commissioner.  Granger’s mind drifted back to his training.  Quickly, he reviewed the procedure for deliberately clipping a fleeing vehicle causing it to spin out of control.  If he did it right he could end up with one dead mother-fucker or a bloodied killer in handcuffs.  Both made a good picture.

            Granger’s focus was shattered when the SUV’s window exploded outward in his direction.  His cruiser was close enough to be pelted with glass. Worse, Granger heard and felt a small thud near his left elbow.  His rear view mirror – driver’s side just a couple of feet from his head – blew apart.  What remained was a jagged piece of navy blue plastic.  Nothing more.  Granger was taking fire.  Instinctively, he eased off the gas.  Both hands tightened at ten and two.

            Granger took the turn onto the gravel service road at high speed.  He fishtailed all over the place before regaining control.  The heavier SUV was handling the rough road better than his cruiser.  The two other vehicles in pursuit followed with greater caution increasing distance between the lead vehicles.  Granger cursed and complained that his Academy driving classes were nothing like this but he kept going.  This sonovabitch was not getting away.

            Granger was taken completely by surprise when the SUV bounced onto the rail bed and started riding the rails towards the tunnel.  You’ve got to be kidding me and cunt-lapping-mother-fucking-sonovabitch and quite a few more colorful expletives filled the officer’s head.  What he shouted out loud was not as imaginative – No Fucking Way! – but it managed to force him forward.  Granger took the turn in much the same way as the perp, positioned his vehicle like the SUV, with one rail running under his cruiser, and bounded after the shooter.  It was a stupid thing to do.  The patrol car bounced so violently that Officer Granger’s face kept hitting the driver’s window.  He would have a nice bruise to show when this little bit of police work was done.

            At this point, the rookie should have called in but Granger did not dare take his hands off the wheel.  Ten and two had become a sick joke.  He would have to rely on his fellow officers – behind him – reporting his position.  Had Granger taken a moment to look in the mirror, he would have noticed that they had stopped at the intersection.  Other cars were now entering the area.  They all stopped at the intersection.  No one followed him onto the rails.

            Ten or fifteen very painful seconds later, his front wheel hit a particularly deep rut.  The tire hit the rail tie but the wheel did not roll out of the hole.  The physics of force and immovable objects took over.  The car stopped abruptly but not before metal bent, the axle broke and the cruisers wheel assumed a very unnatural angle.  Inside the vehicle, the patrolman was thrown forward.  The seatbelt lock caused a nasty burn diagonally across his chest.  The airbag deployed blooding his mouth and breaking Granger’s nose.  When he wobbled out of his car, more than a little disoriented, the pain in his back almost dropped him to the ground.  His right arm, thrown over the top of the door, kept him from falling.  He hung there like an old Raggedy Andy doll while his fellow officers ran down the tracks to offer assistance.

            Granger was still a quarter-mile from the tunnel. The SUV had disappeared into the darkness.  It was no longer visible.  For the moment, there was nothing for him to do.  He watched the black maw ahead and listened to the pounding of black boots behind and waited.  One officer was closer than the rest.

            “Hey, Mike! You okay?”

            There was something whimsical in his tone.

            Yeah, sure!  What do you think; Granger wanted to answer but didn’t get the chance.  A huge explosion literally burped out of the blackness.  A plume of red and yellow flame shot skyward across the stone face of the tunnel.  Debris, the flotsam of rail walkers and derelicts, took flight and flew towards the officers.  And empty beer can cracked the windshield of Granger’s cruiser.  The concussion knocked him to the ground; he screamed in pain as his ass hit a rail tie and pain shot upward through his back.

            For the first time in his short career, Officer Michael Granger thought of disability as a blessing.

            The Man in Black stands in the dark next to the SUV.  If the police give me two minutes, Plan B will still work.

            I work in near darkness.  The only light comes from the interior of the car.  I remove the Man in Black and toss him into the car.  The black sunglasses have already been discarded.   Black boots land on the floor next to the firepower. A new uniform, baggy running shorts and a well-worm t-shirt, recast my main character.  The new actor is closer to reality.  The play, for the first time is more autobiography.  The Man in Black entered the tunnel; Eddie McDermott was about to walk into the sunlight.  I climb a concrete utility shaft.  Everything else is left behind.

I exit an abandoned utility shed less than a ninety seconds after losing the SUV.  I am well on my way, just an average guy jogging in baggy blue shorts and a red pocket “t” when my watch chimes a two-minute warning.  I feel vibration in the ground as the SVU and the tunnel explode but keep my pace steady and calm.  A half mile further along Crescent Street, I stop at a mustard yellow, late model Ford Mustang.  I get in and drive off without incident.  Plans C or D will not be necessary.

            There were no redemptive, hand-of-god hiccups.  I drove to the airport at posted highway speeds without incident, top down, elbow slung out the window.  It was a completely enjoyable ride.  Twenty minutes later, I slid into a rent-a-car parking lot, dropped my paperwork and keys into the rapid check-in box, avoiding unnecessary, casual conversations with extraneous humans, before taking the shuttle to the long-term parking lot.  The family CRV, Hermione, sat waiting patiently.  She has been waiting for the last five days; my most recent business trip was about to end.

            The police were not at my house when I pulled into the drive.  They will come – I left enough victims to keep them busy for a while – but, for the moment, I planned to relax, collect myself and enjoy a tall whisky. Neat.  When they come, I will be ready.

            My briefcase and keys are dropped by the front door.  My coat is tossed carelessly over a wing-back chair – signs that there is a new sheriff in town.  I plop down on the sofa and drop my feet on the cocktail table.  I take a deep pull on my drink; the remote in my other hand finds the Chicago game.  The Cubs won’t win the division but the season is still young; at least, they might win the day.

            In the quiet of my living room, adrenaline drains away.  I feel the need to sleep.  When the police come, they can wake me.  That would look more natural, anyway.  In the meantime, I will sleep my most peaceful sleep in years.  As I sink into the cushions of the couch, I see my wife Edith drift by on the digital frame.  She is surrounded by snow, bathed in the steam of a hot tub.  It was a shot from our winter trip to Breckenridge.

            Just like a ghost, I think.

            Eddie McDermott sleeps.

            I smile.

            I wake to a dark house and a somnambulant neighborhood.  The police have not come to express their condolences and ask a few questions.  It is after one and this surprises me – and maybe offends me just a little.  You’d think my work deserves a bit more attention.  Oh, well…in the morning, then!  I lumber up the stairs and onto the bed without changing.  I never liked pajamas anyway.

            The alarm wakes me at 6AM.  Half asleep, I go into the bathroom, strip off yesterday’s clothes and climb into the shower.  The water refreshes me and brings me back to life.  I step out of the tub ready to face a new day.

            Edith is sitting on the toilet.  Her panties are at mid-calf.  Her black nightgown covers her knees and most of the view. I cannot conceal my surprise; I stand there dripping on the bathmat, my mouth agape.

            “Sorry,” she giggles, “when I wake up I need to pee.”

            “It’s okay,” I shrug, shaking the shock and confusion from my face and voice.  “It’s not like you’ve never seen me naked.”

            Edith shrugs, changing the conversation.

            “You were talking in your sleep…”

            I still haven’t reached for a towel.  Edith has my complete attention.

            “Sorry.  What did I say?”

            “I’m gonna kill you, Dotty…”

            I laugh.  The truth makes answering easy.

            “Seriously? She’s a character.  I was working on her big scene all day.”

            “Dotty must be giving you a hard time.  You were really tossing around last night…”

            I watch as Edith grabs some paper and finishes up.  She pulls her panties up and rises in one motion.  Not once is she exposed.

            “She’s a little difficult…:

            I watch her leave the bathroom.  When the door closes, I reach for a towel and dry quickly.  Only dampness remains.

            “Don’t worry,” I muttered, “I’ll work on it…”

            Maybe something simpler.

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