Sleeping Policemen by Dale Bailey and Jack Slay Jr. by Dale Bailey and Jack Slay Jr. - Read Online

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Sleeping Policemen - Dale Bailey

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Conrad

Sunday, 2:07 to 2:53 AM

None of them knew they had hit someone—not even Nick, not right away. They had been cruising along at sixty or better, Finney pushing the Acura through the curves while Nick dug through the cooler for fresh beers, aware only of a vague sense of hurtling light, a blur of naked trees beyond the back window, the bone-jarring throb of Warren Zevon over the sound system. They would argue over what happened next. Finney said he had seen a flicker of movement in the dark at the edge of the road; Tucker, riding shot-gun, claimed to have seen nothing, nothing at all. Nick didn’t see anything either—he was fumbling with the pull tab on a can of Bud—but he remembered a shuddering sensation, as if the Acura had bounced across a monster speed bump way too fast. A gout of beer sloshed over his hand, and a phrase—

"Sleeping policeman—"

—ricocheted crazily through his mind. He glanced out the back window in the same moment that Finney stepped on the brakes.

What he saw there—a ragamuffin tumbling shape, black against the surrounding blackness—sent ice surging through his veins. The Acura fishtailed and spun across the yellow line, its tires squealing; it came to rest facing in the opposite direction. Finney dropped the car into neutral as Warren Zevon barreled into Excitable Boy. Finney punched the knob, silencing the stereo.

He turned to glance back at Nick, his face hollow and strange in the greenish backwash from the dash. What did you say?

Sleeping policeman.

What the fuck does that mean? Tucker said.

A speed bump. You never heard that?

Fucking speed bump, Tucker said, but to Nick the voice sounded nervous. A cold weight—like a chunk of iron—had settled in his gut. He sipped at the beer for something to do, but the truth was, he didn’t want it anymore. It tasted warm and brackish. Thick. The way he imagined blood might taste.

They sat there a moment, the Acura idling in the middle of the twisting mountain road. Twin cones of pale light pierced the darkness. Their skid marks stood out against the pavement in stark relief.

That wasn’t a speed bump, Finney said.

What was it?

A man, Nick said.

No way. I caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye. It was moving way too fast to be a man.

It wasn’t anything, Tucker said.

I think it was a deer.

Sure, Tucker said. A deer. That’s what it was.

Finney shifted into first and brought the Acura around into the proper lane, slowly picking up speed. Nick leaned back, stretching his legs across the back seat. Through the driver’s side window he watched a scrolling panorama of black sky and mountain slope. Patches of snow lingered here and there under the trees, but the worst of it had melted. The road was clear. When he glanced between the bucket seats, Nick could see the dash. The speedometer needle hovered at a cautious thirty miles an hour. The digital clock changed from 2:13 to 2:14. A vision of that black shape tumbling across the pavement kept breaking into his thoughts—a tatter of dirty cloth, a white blur that might have been a face. No matter how hard he tried, he could not make his mind think it had been anything other than a man. He leaned up between the seats. The clock read 2:16.

I think we should go back.

You think.

No way, Tucker said. I gotta get some sleep or how am I gonna study for that Western Civ exam?

I’m with Tuck. It’s late and I need to cram tomorrow, too. It was just a deer. I think we should let it go.

We should never have come in the first place, Tucker said. Fucking hour drive.

You didn’t seem to mind when that redhead was shaking her ass in your face, Finney said.

You left skid marks. They can match those, you know.

Tires thrummed over pavement. Tucker drained his beer, crushed the can, and dropped it to the floorboard.

Nick said, Maybe it was a deer, maybe it wasn’t. But it’s not going to look good if it wasn’t and we just drove off. Not for us and not for your dad, Finney.

Fuck you, Finney said.

He braked, steering the car into a scenic overlook. He parked at the end of the lot, facing a row of coin-operated telescopes mounted on iron posts. Mountains surrounded them on three sides, steep and impregnable. In daylight, the view would have been spectacular; now, shadow cloaked the far reaches of the parking lot. Just beyond the windshield, a black abyss opened up, stippled with the lights of a small town. Ransom. Nick tried to pick out the college. Futile, he thought. Nothing was clear, nothing visible.

He said, What if it’s a man and he’s alive, what’s your dad going to say?

What if he’s dead? Tucker asked.

Either way, Finney said, the Senator’s not going to be happy.

He dropped the car into reverse and returned to the road. None of them spoke on the way back.

Finney stopped the Acura in the center of the northbound lane, catching the thing in the high beams. It lay twenty yards away, a black, lifeless heap against the gray pavement, framed by a glitter of chrome and plastic. Nick knew that if he got out and knelt before the car he would find damage. A shattered turn signal, a dent, something. Nothing dramatic, but damage all the same.

Evidence.

We can’t just sit here, Nick, Finney said.

Come on, then.

Not me, Tucker said.

Nick paused with his hand on the door handle. Tucker had turned, his moon face pale and worried in the space between the seats, his brown hair disheveled.

What do you mean?

You’re the one wanted to come see. So see.

We’re all in this together.

Uh-uh. Save me that three musketeer shit, Nick. I didn’t do dick. You’re the one had to see. Finney, he’s the one driving.

And you’re just a fucking choirboy, I supp—

Save it, Finney said. Just check it out, Nick.

Nick opened the door and got out. Early December air gnawed at his hands and cheeks. The night smelled of damp earth and leaves, of the blue exhaust gauzing the air around the Acura. He squinted back into the blaze of headlights, noticing the smashed parking light on the passenger side and the shadowy fold of a dented fender. He imagined the car lunging into motion, abandoning him. The windshield was a black mirror. He couldn’t see Finney, couldn’t see Tucker. Doubt wormed at him. We’re all in this together, he had said.

But were they?

The macadam steamed under the black sky. On his right the ridge climbed steeply, a near vertical wall of granite outcroppings and stunted trees. On his left, the road fell away into dense underbrush interspersed with patches of white pine, barren hickory, walnut. A stream chuckled down there somewhere, swollen with thaw.

Nick identified the dark heap before he crouched beside it. Black leather trench coat. Black jeans. Hand-tooled leather boots. A man. The body was still warm, and when he touched it, his hand upset its center of gravity. His breath caught in his throat as the man rolled bonelessly, empty of volition: an out-flung arm; a rustle as the coat fell open on one side, revealing a white shirt of raw silk; and last of all the face, a pale wedge upturned beneath the sky. He had been blond, handsome, his narrow face artfully stubbled.

Nick lifted his head, sensing something watching him, something in the woods. He studied the line of dark trees. Underbrush rustled to his left, and he turned his head swiftly. He caught a flash of movement as something big—

a bear?

—crashed deeper into the darkness. And then the night was still.

Christ.

He turned to the car and waved his arm.

The Acura crept forward, reversed onto the shoulder and parked, headlights burning into the oncoming lane. Shadows drifted over the dead man’s face, and Nick backed away, his eyes fooled. For a moment, he had seen the dead man grin. Car doors slammed, the sound batting away between the ridges. Footsteps crunched across the graveled berm.

Oh, Christ, Tucker said.

Nick heard him stumble into the weeds, retching, but he did not turn around. He sat there on his haunches gazing into the dead man’s face, struck suddenly by the absence of trauma. Blood trickled from one nostril and he could see another wet patch, black in the headlights, at the crown of the guy’s head, but otherwise there was nothing. Nick gazed down at the guy, thinking of Candy, a miniature schnauzer. He’d loved that dog like life and he had found her just the same way one day after school: lying on the roadside, intact, whole, untouched except for the slight inconvenience of being dead. But he had felt more then. Real grief.

Now all he felt was fear.

He felt hollowed out with fear.

He stood, studying Finney. Finney looked just like his father: dark wavy hair, eyes the color of dirty ice and just about as cold, a strong jaw. It was easy to imagine his face on a campaign poster, the junior senator from the state of Tennessee. Like father, like son. Finney had grown up in Memphis, and he had a cornpone accent he could turn off and on like a spigot. If he had been just a trifle less spoiled he would have gone to Vandy like the old man. He had come to Ransom instead, a nice compromise: small, private, and not too demanding, it had a sterling pedigree and a better endowment. He would go to Vandy for law school; Nick had watched him mail the application just before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Nick spat onto the pavement. He’d arrived at Ransom on scholarship and a part-time job unloading trucks; he didn’t know how he was going to afford grad school. Finney and Tuck had floated in on a cushion of privilege and old Memphis cash, and they’d drift out the same way. Sometimes he could see the silver in their smiles.

Jesus, Finney said. Guy looks like a fucking Nazi.

He’s dead.

You sure? You check for a pulse?

I’m an English major. How the fuck do I know where to look for a pulse?

I don’t know, Finney said. Hell. He bent over and fumbled with the dead guy’s wrist. I guess he’s dead.

Tucker stumbled out of the weeds, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His eyes were glassy with panic. He reminded Nick of a buck he’d cornered one winter. They had stared across a glade at one another as Nick lifted his father’s shotgun and sighted down the bore, the two of them so close that he probably could have dropped the buck with a dirty look if he had wanted to. The whole time the buck had just stood there, staring at him with eyes glazed porcelain by terror. Bang, Nick had said. The buck had bounded off into the underbrush and Nick had known that he would never hunt again.

That’s what Tucker looked like now. That buck.

Silent tears ran down his face. Is he—

Nick nodded.

"Oh shit. Shit, shit, shit! We got to get the fuck out of here, we got to get the fuck out of here right now—"

Shut up! Nick snapped.

Tucker bit his lip and turned away, pounding on his thighs with clenched fists.

Finney started through the man’s clothes, his hands moving efficiently, turning the front pockets of the jeans inside out. Change scattered musically across the pavement. Nick watched a quarter roll away and spin to a stop on the asphalt. He hunkered down beside Finney.

Help me turn him over, Nick said, and together they lugged the body onto its side. Finney held it there while Nick went through the rear pockets.

Are you crazy? What are you doing? Tuck said.

Trying to find out who he is, Finney said.

Nick withdrew a silk handkerchief to match the shirt, a comb for the straight, shoulder-length hair, nothing else. He shook out the handkerchief, folded it carefully, tucked it back into the rear pocket. The same with the comb.

Where’s his wallet?

We have to get out of here, Tucker said. Somebody could come a—

Easy, Nick said, and Finney pushed the body back. It slipped through Nick’s grasp, and this time both sides of the leather coat flipped open. A gun lay snug under the guy’s left arm in a shoulder holster made of soft leather. Tucker gasped, and Finney looked up to meet Nick’s gaze, those gray eyes gone cold, considering. Nick reached for the gun.

What is it?

Nick worked the action, careful to point the thing into the dark woods. Smith and Wesson. .45 semi-automatic. Loaded. He wiped it carefully with the tail of his shirt and slid it back into the holster.

He a cop?

You see a badge?

Oh my God, Tucker said. I can’t believe you guys. Maybe he’s an undercover cop or something. Who cares? Let’s just get the fuck out—

You watch too much TV, Tuck, Finney said. We’re in Ransom, North Carolina. Only cops around here are rangers and the local yokels in Ransom. This guy, he’s working for the other team. Wouldn’t you say, Nick?

Nick had been digging through the leather overcoat and now he held out something else. A roll of bills the size of his fist, folded in half and bound by a rubber band. Looks that way.

He riffled the bills with his thumb, his heart suddenly pounding. Hundred dollar bills. A roll of hundred dollar bills. He felt the weight of Finney’s gaze and stood abruptly, dropping the money onto the dead man’s chest like it had burned his fingers.

Finney just stood there, staring at him.

"What are you guys doing? We have to get the fuck out of here now! Somebody could come!"

He’s right, Finney said. We have to think this thing through.

Easy, Nick said. Get on the car phone, call the Senator. The guy’s dead. Someone’s bound to be looking for him. You’ll walk with manslaughter. Probation, community service. Nobody hurts.

Fuck that, Tucker said. Let’s just leave the guy and get out of here.

I’m afraid I’m going to have to vote with Tucker here, Nick. Dad can save me prison time, maybe, but I figure law schools tend to frown on felony convictions.

You walk away from this, it’ll come back to haunt you and your dad, too.

Nick—

They’ll catch us!

How?

The skid marks, the damage to your car. They’ll track us down.

I don’t think so, Nick. I think you’re letting a few moral qualms get in the way of your better sense.

Jesus, you guys, Tucker said. What the hell are—

He’s right, Nick. We have to make some decisions here and we don’t have the luxury of time.

They locked eyes. Nick saw the sweat standing out on Finney’s face, and he realized that despite the icy air, he too had started to perspire. A stark sense of before and after possessed him, life bifurcated by a single stroke of the blade. He longed to return to the moment just prior to the accident; he’d been reaching for a beer, trying to decide whether to tell Sue about the strip joint. She might love it and she might hate it, he couldn’t know for sure. She reminded him of a kid at an amusement park—attracted to the wildest rides, afraid to buy the ticket. Sometimes she did. Other times …

None of that mattered anymore.

Those were the thoughts of another life, a life innocent of light and impact, innocent of consequence.

Nick?

What do you got in mind?

Easy. We drag the body back in the woods a hundred yards or so, clean up the worst of the glass, and get the hell out of here. It’s December in the Smokies, Nick. It’s gonna snow like all hell in the next few weeks, and they’ll close this sucker down. People’ll be cruising down the interstate at seventy-five miles an hour. Nobody will find this guy till next spring, maybe not even then. Meanwhile, me, you, Tuck—we’re gone, graduated. Law school, baby, grad school. Tuck here, he’s taking Wall Street by storm, and nobody will ever know the difference.

I will.

"Goddamnit, Nick! The guy is dead. We’ve got our whole lives ahead of us."

No, I can’t do it. He started to the car. You’re not going to do it, I’ll make the call myself.

Nicky!

Nick paused, aware now of the cold, of the perspiration chilling on his flesh, turning him to ice.

One more thing. The money, Nick. Nice little nest egg for you, something to help you meet those nasty first year expenses.

You guys are fucking maniacs, Tucker said. I can’t believe we’re even talking about this. Just leave the guy in the road and let’s haul ass out of here.

Nick, listen to me. It only makes sense.

Jesus, Finney, you’re telling him to steal the money?

Shut up, Tuck. It’s not like the guy’s going to need it anymore.

Nick stood with his back to them, memories burning in his brain: the peeling clapboard house in Louisiana, his dad broken at fifty-five from working on the rigs, the two brothers who had come before him, Jake and Sam, following in the old man’s footsteps. He couldn’t go back there, could he?

Christ, Tucker said. Take the coat, take the fucking boots. He won’t be needing those either.

Don’t be a child, Finney said. Nick needs the money. Nobody ever has to know.

It’s mine? All mine?

That’s right.

Nick gazed blindly into the headlights of the Acura. A thousand motes swam there. He could almost feel the money, heavy in his hand. He and Sue had talked about what would happen after graduation, but those were pipe dreams, he knew that now. He would go back to Louisiana, and work for a year or two on the rigs. Maybe then he could afford a couple years of graduate school. Maybe. If he didn’t get crippled offshore. If he didn’t get trapped in the lifestyle, three weeks on and a week of shore leave, blowing his earnings on ice-cold Delta beer and Cajun honeys who would be fat by the time they hit thirty. Just like Dad, he thought. Just like Jake and Sam.

And Sue? She said she would wait, but they both knew better. Sue ate strictly flavor of the month—Finney could attest to that—and just now she had a taste for Nick, but unless something changed he didn’t have a shot at permanence. She would be gone before the ink on her diploma dried, back home to Savannah for the summer and straight into the arms of some moon-faced rich guy with a gold Visa and a Jag. Some asshole a lot like Reed Tucker.

He could feel the money, heavy in his hand.

Nicky?

Don’t call me Nicky.

Whatever you say, man, but you got to make the call. A car could blow through here any second.

Let’s do it.

He turned to face them, and Finney nodded. That’s my man.

I’m not touching the dead guy, Tucker said.

Fine, Nick said. Start picking up glass.

Nick hunkered down and picked up the roll of hundreds, pausing to meet and hold their eyes, first Finney, then Tucker. Then he zipped the money into an inner pocket of his own jacket. Together, he and Finney wrestled the body erect. It was harder than he had expected. Every time Nick had dragged a drunk off to bed, the drunk had woken up enough to stumble along beside him, helping a little, blowing beery breath into his face. Never had he struggled with truly dead weight—and now the full meaning of the term bore in upon him. Lifting the dead guy was like lifting a sodden carpet. His muscles ached in spite of the high school years and college summers loading and unloading crates of fresh fish in Glory, Louisiana, in spite of the two hours he spent lifting weights in the gym three days a week.

They dragged the guy between them, his boots scraping the pavement. Tucker knelt to begin gathering fragments of the parking light’s smashed reflector panel, strewn shards of glass and rubber. Their progress slowed at the verge of the road. The dead guy’s legs kept tangling in the undergrowth. Once Finney stumbled and fell, cursing, and the entire weight of the dead man collapsed onto Nick, so heavy he did not think he could bear it.

After that, they decided to carry him between them. They argued in frenzied whispers over who would get the feet, who the bloody head, then Nick relented, aware of the money in his jacket, knowing that he had surrendered control of the situation somehow in taking it, but powerless to give it up. Fleeting images of Sue kept passing through his head—of Sue, of his father twisted in his wheelchair, of the enormous stinking gantries of the oil rigs, the sea in flux about their enormous support columns, bearing away a freight of sewage and cast-off food and garbage, black gouts of raw, spilled fuel.

He knelt, and got the guy under the armpits and lifted on Finney’s count of three. The dead man’s head flopped back against his stomach, and Nick suddenly wished he had thought to close his jacket. His heart raced. His breath formed enigmatic patterns in the air as they stumbled farther into the underbrush. The hum of the Acura’s engine grew distant, the lights receded beyond a screen of brush and trees. His muscles burned like he had been in the gym for hours.

They moved through the trees silently, panting