UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
STEPHEN MACKINNON

Nightcrawlers


           Let’s get one thing straight: I never asked the town meeting for a thousand-horsepower V-hull drug smuggler interdictor or a helicopter gunship.

           What I said – it’s all on the cable TV tape – is this: we're well on our way to becoming the cocaine smuggling capital of the New England coastline and need to fight back. I told them earlier this summer a white shrimp boat with no net gear, no flag, no name printed on the bow, chugged right across our inner bay, headed for the Gulf of Maine. Coast Guard seized 859 burlap bags containing 25 tons of pot, street value fifteen million. Had I handled the incident, we could have seized the boat, hocked it under the Drug Asset Seizure and Forfeiture Act, as amended, and begun funding first-class coastal perimeter surveillance – not just this hokey stuff where I sit on Halibut Point with a pair of night vision binoculars scanning the dark water for Mexicans in supercharged Boston Whalers ferrying the junk into the little hidden spots between Brattle Point and Carlson Beach.

           I didn’t say anything about .50 calibers. Well, maybe I mentioned a few might be nice, but I was just commenting that these night crawlers play to win.

           That wasn’t the way the ex reported it in the next day’s paper. No, she throws together some inciting quotes from the Prout’s Neck yuppies who never want to fund progress, and I end up looking like I’m gearing up for World War III.

           As I glanced over the rest of the paper, I said to my son, “I think she was at a different meeting.”

           “Roger that,” he said.

           Later that day, at the end of my shift, I dropped by the newspaper office for a little chat. I went in the back entrance to avoid the receptionist and found Nancy in her office at her desk.

           When I leaned against her doorway she reached for the phone receiver, but didn’t pick it up. “What do you want?”

           “I have a question.”

           “I’ve told you don’t come here, Gus.”

           “I want to talk.”

           “I’m calling the police.”

           “Go ahead. They’re just as ticked off at you as I am. Why did you make a fool of me in the paper? Huh? Answer me. I’ve never done anything like that to you, and - ”

           She tried to throw the door closed, but my foot was in the way, and I guess I didn’t move fast enough for her, because she pushed past me and made a rush for the front of the newsroom. “You got it completely backwards. I said we needed to do something about the smuggling situation. I never said what.”

           Just then Lieutenant Callahan walked in, hand on his holster. “Gus. Outside. Now.”

           “I’m off duty.”

           It was my first ride as a passenger in a cruiser. I figured I was in for a little wrist slap. He led me into his office and shut the door.

           “Give me your gun.”

           “I just wanted to talk to her.”

           “You scared the hell out of her, Gus. Frankly, you scare me,” he said, putting my gun in his desk drawer. “Now your badge.”

           “Are you firing me?”

           “The board of selectmen will be taking care of that. This is an official disciplinary matter.”

           “Let me ask you a question, Callahan. Exactly whose pocket are you in?”

           “Huh?”

           “New house, new boat. New everything, it seems.”

           “I work overtime, like your mouth,” he said, standing close enough I nearly choked on his cigar breath. “Now get out of here.”

           Afterwards I drove out to the point. I parked my car at my usual surveillance spot overlooking the bay, thinking about my next steps. I could appeal to Civil Service, but that’s always messy and might hurt my chances of getting in with Customs or D.E.A.. I cracked open a beer and listened to the Coast Guard cutter channel until it faded into static. I felt myself flow into it, like being dragged out to sea, well beyond the point where I could be of any interdiction value. These night crawlers, the shore huggers as I sometimes call them, have won. Just as I reached my mastery of this cat and mouse game, my own people cut me off at the knees.

           I pictured the Mexicans laughing at me the way they did one afternoon. I had been grabbing a little shuteye before my shift on the living room couch when a hand tapped my shoulder. I looked up, and my eyes followed a night crawler as he tip-toed out of my house through the front door. A large green trash bag was in the center of the living room, probably a kilo. It reminded me of my dad’s war stories about how the Japs would sneak up on a foxhole where two men were sleeping and slit the throat of just one, so the other would wake up and find his buddy dead and lose his stones for battle. Outside, the figure disappeared into the rosa ragusa over by the Mitchells’ house, just beyond the overgrown honeysuckle teaming with bees. Inside the house, the green bag was gone. I drew my weapon, but all the rooms - and the shower - were empty. I went back to the living room in a cold sweat, shivering, blushing at the howls of laughter.

           The other thing that bothered me, sitting there on the point, was my ear. Gone. Lobster boat, trawler, a Grady White – they all sounded the same. I used to be able to tell make, model, and prop pitch with just a whiff of sound. I’d lost my touch. I wondered, had they come and gone? Dropped their load and just left? Was I day dreaming? I asked these questions out loud as though the answers might rise up from the surf. It didn’t.

______

           The next evening, over fried clams I tell Teddy I'm taking a short break from law enforcement. “Callahan kicked me off.”

           "He what?"

           "Long story. I got feelers out to D.E.A. and Customs." What I don't tell him: word from one of my sources says I might not be a good fit, so I’ve also applied to a few different departments north of here. We might have to move.

           He asks when I’m going to take him on surveillance.

           “Soon.”

           “When?”

           “When I can.”

           He’s been watching the tide chart and has a gut feeling the night crawlers are going to make a drop.

           “Where?” I say, going along with the game.

           “Brattle Beach.”

           "What makes you so sure?"

           "Intelligence," he says. He means radio traffic.

           “Remember that shrimp boat I mentioned at town meeting? Customs traced it back to a Colombian cartel."

           “Figures,” he goes. “I say screw the surveillance and just take the fucking war right to them.”

           “Hey, watch your language.” He’s fourteen but acts my age. “Another Coast Guard recruiter called today. Stop telling them you’re eighteen.”

           He pushes aside the rest of his dinner. I’ve lost him. I don’t know what to say. How to get through to him. He used to say “I want to be where the action is” and I used to say “You’ll get your chance.” Now I’m not sure I want him wearing the uniform. I picture him walking the plank like me.

           But I let him go on. He tells me the feds this year alone have captured 14 vessels in a 200 mile coastal radius carrying a total of eighty two tons of marijuana. He says there’re two D.E.A. agents in Massachusetts and nine Coast Guard cutters covering New England. “Let’s get a small navy going.”

______

           This morning I wake up from my nap and hear the kid banging away on that damn Underwood, clacking away.

           “Teddy?” I crack open the door. “I hope you’re not writing another letter to the editor.” He is. This one’s titled CRIME PAYS. “Teddy, don’t go writing things like that to your mother.”

           “People need the truth.”

           “Not from you. Look, I'm making chow. Let’s eat, then why don’t you see what Jeremy and Charlie are doing? Maybe go fishing for the afternoon.”

           “I want to go out on patrol, like usual,” he says.

           “Not today.”

           “When?” he asks.

           “Sometime. Soon. After things cool down. I just might appeal to the Civil Service.”

           “Heard back from the D.E.A.?”

           “Not yet.”

           “Well, give them another call, Dad.”

           I go outside and throw some dogs on the grill. He’s worried about the damn D.E.A.. I worry about him. One thing I know is that there is a boundary in the mind where thought passes from the conscious into the unconscious, beyond which obsession breeds.

           He’s taken my side in this dispute, which his mother thinks I put him up to.

           “You need help,” she said yesterday. “You’re screwing him up, Gus.”

           “He’s taking it hard, Nancy.”

           “No, Gus, you’re taking it hard, which makes it hard on him,” she said. “You’re supposed to be his role model. Act like one. And I don’t appreciate not hearing from him except at the paper.”

           “He’s angry. He’ll come around. He just needs time to mull things over.”

           “Maybe you ought to, too.”

           “What’s that supposed to mean?”

           “Think about it, Gus.”

           “I think plenty,” I say.

           “Gus, grow up, Jesus.”

           “That paper doesn’t make you God. You screwed everything up for me writing that article. People think I’m a fool. I’m not. Happy?”

           So, at lunch I make a point of reminding him this is between his mother and me.

           “I have rights.”

           “I know, I know,” I say, biting into my hot dog. “But newspapers are tough. They don’t always report the truth the way we see it.”

           “They should.”

           I take a sip of beer and wipe my mouth. “She’s still your mother, and I think the right thing is to make up. That’s what real men do. They bury the hatchet. Now let’s see the letter.”

           “Mailed it.”

           “You what?”

           “When you were out at the grill.”

           “Christ, Teddy. You promised to show them to me first.”

           “You saw it.”

           “In your room. What did it say?”

           “Crime pays.” He tells me a night crawler makes more than a pro basketball player working one night a month.

           “I know. But what did I tell you about aggravating the situation?"

           He stares at me.

           Though he’s been in my life fourteen years, I feel like he’s a stranger, just as most of life now feels like it belongs to someone else, because in a sense it does. I don’t know have clue what’s next.

           I gave it twenty years. Joined the force a couple years after high school. There was an ad posted on the town hall bulletin board. No interview, just OTJT (on the job training). The sergeant found a gun for me (a little .38 Smith & Wesson with a blue metal barrel and a cross-etched wood grip), a holster, some bullets, and a wide leather belt with a knurled pattern stitched into it. He zipped through the radio codes, showed me the trouble spots, and went over how to take the one cruiser over to the one-lane beach access road without getting stuck.

           What I liked was snooping around, being on the prowl. One day I might be clearing out trouble down at The Port Hole; another, sitting stakeout with the staties if I thought I could help. I worked hard and did the best I could with what I had – a cop’s cop. I felt alive. Most of the time, at least.

           I had my share of trouble, too. Things got bad two years ago when I arrested the mayor’s nephew on pot possession, and made the bad call concerning the Mary Alice, neither of which I’d handle any different today.

           When I pulled over the nephew – Billy or Bobby Butterfield, I don’t recall - he was with two other kids about his age, eighteen, all gagging on the pot smoke. I asked him if he knew why I had pulled him over.

           “Because you’re stupid?”

           “Try again.”

           “I don’t have to. I know people in this town.” He had sun-bleached blond hair, traces of zinc on his nose from the beach. He was wearing one of those Alligator shirts and bright green chinos. After a short struggle, I got the cuffs on. Textbook. Nobody got hurt.

           “You’ll hear about this tomorrow,” the booking lieutenant said. “That’s the mayor’s nephew.”

           “I don’t care if he’s Jesus Christ.”

           “Why don’t you go back to the scene and see if you can find some evidence.”

           “C’mon, you can’t smell that?”

           I went back to the scene, and found nothing there or in the impounded car, so the charges were dismissed, and the kid gave me the finger, low, as he left the court room with his uncle.

           That might have been the reason I tried to handle the Mary Alice on my own – a redemption type thing.

           It was a 56-foot trawler that pulled in on my day off with no fish and a small Mexican crew that asked directions in broken English to the Gulf of Maine. Their rusted net winch looked as though it hadn’t been used for a couple of years. They tied up and bought fuel.

           I watched it in plainclothes for the good part of the afternoon, except when I went for coffee. When I came back, the crew wasn’t there, so I blocked in the stern with the harbormaster’s boat, radioed in my position, and proceeded to board.

           It was dark and empty. There was an open brick of hash in the pilot house along with some scuba gear. I asked around the dock and was told that a trash truck came by and took away a bunch of bags about the time I was gone getting a cup of coffee.

           I called in descriptions of the crew and ordered a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep, starting from the state highway back toward my position.

           When Callahan showed up I asked if the Mexicans had been spotted in a trash truck.

           “You saw them?”

           “Earlier. They took off.”

           “When?”

           “I watched them three quarters of the afternoon.”

           “When did they take off?”

           “I don’t know.”

           “You knew they were there and you didn’t call it in?

           “I was waiting for the pick up. The transport. The guys from Boston or New York.”

           “You saw them?”

           “No, not the pick up crew.”

           “The guys on the boat, Gus.”

           “Yep.”

           “So you watched all afternoon and didn’t call it in?”

           “That’s what I just finished saying” I swept the crumbs of hash into an evidence bag. “It’s the kingpins we want, not courier pigeons.”

           Bob Stillman, another patrolman, replaced me. Customs came around and took everything away. They confirmed it was part of an eight to ten million dollar ring they’d been keeping tabs on for several months.

           I got no credit. No citation. Nothing but foot patrol. Midnight to eight, downtown, where I didn’t dare make an arrest with that probation hatchet hanging over my head.

______

           Tonight me and Teddy are parked out the end of Halibut Point, seventy feet above sea level, with the VHF radio and the night binoculars. He is scanning the horizon. His hands look almost as big as mine on the massive apertures. His grip is as tight as that dream of mine last night about the cross-country trip.

           I’ve been getting images in my sleep. Last night, I pictured fishing for food, maybe hunting. Like a stream of video. I imagined a stream in the deep woods of Idaho. He was upstream, just around the bend.

           “I think I’ve got one,” he called to me.

           Setting down my pole on a rock, I hurried over to give him a hand. Proudly, he held it high, looking happier than he has in a long time. The fish, its eyes bulging, had a look of terror. Gently, I pulled it off the hook, and placed the fish in his palm.

           “It’s pretty small,” I said. “We ought to think about throwing it back.”

           “You’re right,” he said. I don’t know why, but tears formed at the edges of my eyes. He asked what was wrong.

           “I was your age once,” I replied, cautious with my words, not quite sure how to answer. “And I was just remembering how it felt to have my whole life ahead of me.”

           How can I tell him that? I don’t know. I want to tell him there are other things besides police work in life - computers, banking, delivering mail. There’s a huge world out beyond this eight-by-three-mile spit of scrub pine that’s been falling into the sea a foot a year for the last decade.

           He breaks the silence with a sighting. “Ten o’clock low. Ten knots.”

           I grab the infrared binoculars from him. “Stop playing with the adjustment, you’ll cloud the image. That Whaler? Just a couple of sport fisherman.”

           “That’s what you think they are,” he says, taking the binoculars back. “Die, Chico. Die.”

           “Teddy, the blues are running. They’re innocents. See them laughing? Probably ribbing each other about the one that got away. Besides, they’re not Mexicans. Friends fishing, that’s all.” I light a cigarette. “We could go fishing – maybe take a trip somewhere. Would you like that? Get out of this town for a bit?”

           He doesn’t answer me.

           “How about it?” I glance at him, and then look out through the windshield, trying to get the right words together. “Look, Teddy, this ‘everyone’s guilty until proven innocent’ thing, I hope you didn’t get that from me.”

           “Yes, sir.”

           “Did you?”

           “Yes, sir.”

           “Look, stop it. There’s a lot of very nice people out there – including your mother. Who would like to hear from you, I’m sure.”

           “I have the right to remain silent.”

           “You also have an obligation to treat her with some respect. Hear me?”

           “Bird,” he goes, pointing up at the red taillight of a little Cessna.

           “Heard anything from the D.E.A.?”

           “No.”

           “Did you call?”

           I don’t lie. I take a deep breath and exhale through my nose. “No, Teddy. No, I didn’t. I’m not even sure they want me. Maybe I’ll try something new. It wears on you, the job. Don’t get me wrong - public service is an honorable profession. But it has its ups and downs. That’s why I want you to think about computers or something else. There’s lots of other jobs.”

           A few days later, I decide to go with the private security company idea I’d been kicking around. My first customer is the utility company. There's a downed power line over the east side of town that needs guarding until the repair crew can get over there. It didn’t take much putting this idea together, just a matter of having some magnetic signs made up for the car door – G. Carlson & Associates – in blue and gold.

           At the scene, I pour myself a cup of coffee from the thermos, and spread the morning paper out on the hood of the Volare. No letters to the editor, thank God. Some familiar faces speed by giving me the finger.

           Around noon, the linemen pull up in a white cherry picker. It’s Bill Stevens and that pot head Ed Finn I used to nab at Wingaersheek Beach until he finally wised up and straightened out. I can tell from his smirk I’m in for a ration.

           Bill nods from the cab, I nod back. Eddie climbs down and asks if they’re being pulled over. He smirks.

           “No, you’re here to fix a downed line,” I go.

           Bill puts the gearshift into reverse and feathers the gas, coming to a stop just a few feet in from the asphalt. Then he hops down from the cab and lets down the hydraulic stabilizers so he can raise the cherry picker and get to work. Like me, he’s all business.

           Eddie scratches his chin, looking me up and down. “Jeez, Gus, one day you’re busting balls, next day you’re directing traffic. So, exactly why’d you leave the force? Get sick of it? They get sick of you?”

           I straighten my Foster Grants, clip my orange vest in place, and scan the perimeter, which only goads him.

           “Knock it off, Eddie,” Bill grunts. “We got work to do and we’re late as it is. Hi, Gus.”

           “Bill.”

           “I just want to make sure I’m not breaking any law,” Eddie says.

           My blood pressure restores to normal a few minutes later. I smoke a cigarette and drink the rest of my coffee and watch the guys put in the new cable, knowing the crew coming with the new pole won’t be here until five at least, which’ll give me a full eight hours guard duty.

           He’ll get his – Eddie Finn. I just try to push it out of my mind, but of course what I should’ve said weighs on me. I wave a Jetta around the blind corner without thinking and its driver swerves to avoid a collision with an F-350.

           Later, after work, cruising through the night scene of marsh grass and fried clam stands, I try to keep focused on the task at hand, the details about the cross-country trip. I stare straight ahead, avoiding looking at the trouble spots I used to case, but I know they’re out there, those night crawlers, just as sure as there’s water, just as sure as there’re waves, bringing poison into our community.

           It helps to remind myself I’m going to leave this place for awhile. I’ve decided Teddy and I are going to take a canoe from Vermont to the Gulf of Mexico in order to forget this place for awhile and clean out our minds. I’ll home school him for six months. He’ll have to follow the home-school curriculum and collect some plants for a biology presentation when he gets back, according to his principal. We’ll take the Barton River into Quebec, up the St. Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes, and down the Mississippi River to the Gulf.

           I’m mentally laying out the route through the St. Lawrence Seaway when I bank the curve and almost hit a thin, dark figure that looks like a deer.

           It’s him. Backpack, hood over his face. Is he going by himself? I slam on the brakes and hit reverse.

           “Teddy?” I shout through the window. “Hey, stop. Where you going?”

           I unlatch the door, but the second I step out, he makes a break for it, disappearing into a blur of zigzagging elbows cutting through the darkness. “Teddy – Teddy, don’t. Stop.” He tosses the backpack over his shoulder and nails me in the knee, knocking me flat. He’s gone.

           I massage the damn knee. In the bag there’s a VHF radio, a Maglite, a K-bar. What the hell? I comb the darkness. Just fireflies. He won’t get far. He’ll hit the sluice on the northeast end of the beach and reverse course. By then, I’ll have let some air out of the tires and be cruising along the beach with the floodlight, just like I used to do to catch the high school brats with beer.

           I rise on my good leg just as a supercharged Whaler enters the cove and throttles down. I can’t see but can hear Mexicans chattering on VHF 16.

           I squeeze the mike button and get them thinking I’m their contact.

           They ask in Spanish if I’m ready for Santa Claus to come to my house. I say yes, cocking a little .22, directing them in with the flashlight beam.

           Just then there’s a rustle in the scrub pine. It’s Teddy, mumbling “I’m hit.”

           He’s face-down beside a rusted fence post, the one he must’ve run into, judging from the ugly gash on his thigh that’s gurgling blood. I tie off the femoral artery with my belt, and make a bandage out of my T-shirt. “I’m calling for help. Breathe.”

           “There’s a drop coming in.”

           “I know. Forget them. Breathe.”

           “Don’t worry about me,” he says. “Go get ‘em.”

           “You’re bleeding pretty bad.”

           “I’m fine,” he gasps. Then his eyelids close.

           A panic washes over me like ice water. I tap him on the cheeks. I call his name, and smack him gently, but he’s shivering into shock from what looks like a compound fracture where I’ve cut his jeans back with the K-bar.

           I radio Med Flight. I tell Rich Galvin I need a chopper here, and he says he’ll call me back.

           “Look, I'm not shitting you. It’s Teddy. My boy's hurting and I've got to get him help.”

           “He’s hurt? Bad?”

           “God damn right, Rich. Send the goddamn chopper ASAP.”

           “This isn’t some kind of joke?”

           “No, goddamn it! My son’s bleeding to death. Plus, get some goddamn cruisers down here. I’ve got a drug drop in progress just south of the sluice.”

           Teddy’s pulse is slowing; his skin feels clammy. I pull the green wool Army blanket a little tighter around him. Then I wait. Then the night crawlers ask about 5-0. Hell, I’m so mad I say come right up on the beach. No cops. Dump your load. Hurry, I say, I don’t have all night, like I’m driving the transport. They ask about cops again. I can hear their engines idling as they chatter urgently in Spanish, two boats out there floating next to each other. I look up into the sky. No chopper yet. Nothing.

           Soon, the red and white ambulance lights swoop in, ricocheting off the eel grass, ruining my chances at a citizen’s arrest. A couple of EMTs run over with medical kits. I’m sweaty, and notice I’m shaking. I run through his vitals one last time, and let them take over so I can assess the shore situation where all the green trash bags are. I push the blanket up close around his neck, check his weakening but steady pulse, and think how many diapers I changed on this kid.

           I’m asked what happened.

           “He ran into that pole. I was – chasing him. I think he was just trying to run away from home.”

           The EMT nods as he re-dresses the wound, leaving the belt tourniquet in place.

           “Did I call in time?” I ask.

           “Yeah. He’s lost blood, but not too much.”

           “It’s my boy. I’ll be going with you guys. I used to be on the force.”

           Somebody asks who the bags belong to. At first I don’t notice Nancy kneeling next to Teddy, stroking his hair. She must’ve heard the call over the scanner in her car.

           “We are going to talk about this, Gus. My God.”

           “He was running away.”

           “I heard over the radio you were chasing him. Why? Because he didn’t want to sit stakeout or whatever the hell you were doing here.”

           “He was running away.”

           “Look – oh my God, look at his leg.”

           “I know! I found him, for Christ’s sake.”

           More blue lights and headlights bound in, cruiser radios crackling. It’s Bob Stillman with Callahan, asking about the bags, about the radio back-and-forth with Mexicans.

           “If you heard that, why did you drag your ass getting here?”

           “Just answer the question.”

           “Look, my boy’s hurt. This isn’t the way it looks. I was patching up Teddy. They must’ve thought the flashlight in my hand was guiding them in.” I don’t need more trouble. I fib. “I was directing them away.”

           Stillman glances at Callahan. I know what they're thinking. I used to get the I-didn't-do-it-but-saw-who-did-it alibi all the time.

           “You’ve got to believe me. C'mon, Callahan. What do you keep looking at me like that for? Why would I be involved in this? Where would I put all of it, my trunk?”

           “We’re hoping you’ll tell us.”

           “Whose side you on? Huh? You took your sweet-ass time getting here. I said they were coming in with a drop. That’s the drop. You’d know that if you got out and did some drug work.”

           Off to the side cops I used to be friends with are snapping photos of the bags, my foot prints, the position of the Volare, building their flimsy case against me, so it isn’t a big surprise when they tell me I’ll ride with them to the hospital and after Teddy stabilizes be taken in for questioning.

           “I’ve got to talk to Nancy first.”

           “Gus, I don’t want you in the ambulance,” Nancy says. “You’ve done enough damage already.”

           “He was running away.”

           “From?”

           “You know.”

           I help lift the stretcher into the ambulance anyway. The EMTs close the doors, and drive away.

Stephen MacKinnon's story "Drinking In the Loons" was recently listed as among the "Notable Stories of 2007" in the Million Writers Award contest. In addition, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Armageddon Buffet, Carve Magazine, Fiction Attic, Kennesaw Review, Marginalia, Ontario Review, Rosebud, Talking River, The Belletrist Review, The Oregon Literary Review, The Potomac Review, The Southeast Review, The Yalobusha Review, Triplopia, and Whistling Shade. In addition, his work has received award recognition from Carve Magazine, Ontario Review, Rosebud, and The Southeast Review.







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