A Shot in the Dark
… in which a red mist falls.
Elmore Rogers slumped on a dirty cot — the same cot in the same Lafayette city jail cell he’d hated last January.
The prisoner wore the same dejected-looking, orange jumpsuit. It held the same sour-sweat smell. Last June’s dented tin drinking cup lay on its side by the bed, and a tossed-away yellow Juicy Fruit wrapper still hung in a corner spider web.
One thing differed — Elmore. This time behind bars, he pressed a soggy wad of brown paper towels hard to his nose.
He pulled away the soaked mess, examined it, and shook his head. The flow of blood had slowed, but not stopped.
Neeley, I never thought you’d ever put a taser to Elmore Rogers, he thought bitterly. Never thought you’d put a taser to your oldest friend in the world …
After the log-truck crash and the surprise in a glove compartment — the square of red Lebanese hashish carefully wrapped in aluminum foil — Sheriff Neeley dragged Elmore down to the station the hard way.
Stun gun. Handcuffs. Physical force. A nasty steel cage in back of the squad car.
Elmore pressed the paper towel compress back to his nose. He seethed. He kicked the tin drinking cup with his bare toes and sent it clattering into the bars at the end of the cell.
I smoked hashish one time in my whole life, Neeley. Over there, in the war. You tried it, too. You sat right there at the end of the pipe with me. You remember how I didn’t enjoy it. And you know in your goddamned guts that Elmore Rogers wasn’t riding around downtown Lafayette in Mr. Rankin’s truck with a hundred plywood reindeer in the cargo and a block of hashish in the cab …
Elmore had protested his innocence in the middle of the street.
He raged mostly at Dick Wragg, accusing his next-door-neighbor of planting the drug. (I’ll beat your Navy SEAL ass again this Christmas, Wragg!) Elmore had clenched his fists in the sunny intersection and stalked Wragg among the wrecked vehicles and spilled logs and splintered Rudolphs. That went on until Neeley stuck a taser to Elmore’s belly, zapped him into the middle of next week, slapped cuffs on his wrists, and shoved his convulsing body, bloody nose and all, into the back of the squad car.
How things changed in one year.
Twelve months ago, late on Christmas Eve, Elmore and the twins sat peacefully in that same sticky, smelly back seat of the squad car. Officer Turnipseed played Santa and somehow snuck a pair of shiny new bikes out of the trunk and into Elmore’s kitchen.
Elmore applied pressure to his nose. He breathed through his mouth, but found that difficult, too — his tongue and lips still felt numb, not natural, after the taser.
Who knew a stun gun caused violent nosebleed? Who knew intense electric shock made a man’s face and hands and feet feel like chunks of dead wood?
Taser or no, Elmore’s ears heard perfectly well.
Outside the police headquarters, big bass drums pounded past yet again. This night, Elmore imagined even the dead up in Lafayette Lies Asleep Memorial Gardens could hear the ruckus in downtown Lafayette.
The Jolly Holiday route paraded right past the police station’s front door. Elmore heard thunderous pandemonium. Drumbeats and reed squawks and brass oompahs and whistles and rumbling tractor engines and cheer after cheer rose from passing bands and floats and throngs of people, a stormy ocean of noise.
The PD had no windows, but Elmore could imagine only a few yards distant those perfect formations of musicians in red and blue and green school band uniforms. He envisioned rows of sequined majorettes showing off their limber young legs and twirling batons in their white gloves. Elmore could practically feel the amoeba surge of 10-deep sidewalk crowds, thousands of bundled-up people waving arms as the floats drifted by under colorful volleys of tossed hard candies and lollipops and Moon Pies and shrapnel blasts of silver-foiled chocolate kisses.
Elmore thought of Will and Mary, leaping for those sweets, a worried Kelly minding them, distracted, her pretty face frowning, all the time watching left and right to see when Elmore would finally bother to show up on this special downtown night.
Elmore Rogers, missing in action, just like old times.
Two numbed fists savagely struck the solid-steel bars of Elmore’s cell. The bars didn’t even vibrate.
Unfair! Wragg framed me, Neeley! Set me up! You know me! Neeley, you know I didn’t cause that accident. And you know I don’t mule drugs, or even use them. Good God, Sheriff Dan — I don’t even drink…
Elmore stared in fury as fresh blood welled from his knuckles. But he didn’t feel those wounds. He only felt outrage.
Dick Wragg wanted Elmore behind bars. Why? For what reason? What on earth was going on here? Why did Elmore Rogers rot behind bars tonight? Why hadn’t Neeley even given Elmore a chance to telephone Kelly and the twins? Or call a lawyer?
The life and fun of the world passed by right outside tonight while Elmore stared from a six-by-four jail cell at two battered gray desks buried under stacks of papers at Lafayette police headquarters.
Why? Why did Elmore come to his senses wearing this humiliating orange jumpsuit again?
Elmore stared at a paper grocery bag on Sheriff Neeley’s desk. It held his clothes. Elmore saw one leg of his blue jeans dangling.
Damn it, Neeley!
Outside, a new high school band marched past. The players wailed their hearts and souls into a version of “Hit the Road Jack.”
A cannon boomed somewhere, followed by a huge cheer.
Elmore gripped the cell bars with both hands.
He could imagine a war was ending.
Or just beginning.
* * *
Four blocks away, Sheriff Dan Neeley watched the parade pass like a gaudy snake down Main Street.
Neeley fidgeted, restless, in the shotgun seat of Wragg’s official fire department cruiser. The big red Buick idled in the cold night behind a line of orange-and-white barrels that blocked access from this side street. Wragg ran the defroster, but he still leaned forward to wipe the windshield clear with his winter military glove every few minutes. The red cherry pulsed on top of the cruiser.
The emergency services radio band crackled to life, but no voice of instruction followed single burst of the static.
The men waited.
Neeley stared at Wragg. He clutched the radio receiver in his hand like a nugget of raw silver.
“Who the hell’s using the radio band tonight, Wragg?”
Neeley’s frustration filled his voice.
“I’m sitting here beside you, and my police car’s parked back of headquarters. Deputy Turnipseed’s not an authorized user. Your firehouse ain’t got one single authorized user. Who’s on the horn here, Chief Dick? We waiting on the National Guard? The governor of Alabama?”
Wragg cut his eyes toward Neeley and waggled his peculiar top lip.
“Chief Neeley,” he breathed. “Neeley, Neeley, Neeley. You never know who might be interested in our big parade.”
Sheriff Neeley thought about the non-answer. He watched a grandly decorated float pass through the intersection, a mob of townspeople jumping up and down, exhaling vapor, on both sides of it.
The noise of the crowd rose. A log cabin and Indian teepees made of painted chicken wire excited folks. The men on the flatbed sported Davy Crockett coonskin caps, and the women wore leather tunics and hair in braids, like Pocahontas. They reached into trash bags and pulled out candy and hurled it by the fistfuls into the night.
Wragg’s voice took on a snide note.
“Oh, I know your problem, Neeley,” the fire chief said. “You got your panties in a wad ’cause your old suck buddy Elmore Rogers got caught red-handed with 25 to 30 worth of contraband. And 25 to 30 won’t even cover the wreck he caused, or the civil disturbance. Why, your soldier buddy threatened me with physical harm, Neeley. It appeared to me old Elmore was high as Stone Mountain and driving a heavy truck and causing a public nuisance. Plus, dealin’ hash. Judge Baker is gonna throw the book at him, Chief. I mean, if there’s any justice in the world.”
Neeley bit his tongue.
Justice? Something felt so unbelievably beyond justice here …
Again, the radio sputtered, a giant clearing its throat.
“I need to get to work now, Fire Chief Dick,” Neeley announced. “That’s my home town out there.”
Chief Neeley tried the handle, but the door didn’t budge. Wragg, the driver, operated the safety lock.
“You don’t get out yet,” Wragg advised. “We got orders. YOU got orders. Orders from you-know-who.”
Neeley felt another rise. Of … what?
“We will sit side by side here together, like school chums on a Bluebird bus,” Wragg instructed. “We will remain at all times in my vehicle. We will keep the radio turned on. We will wait until we receive further marching orders...”
Wragg’s voice faded.
Neeley’s attention focused instead on a figure passing that exact instant behind the sidewalk crowds.
Female. Lovely. Familiar.
Even in the crowd, Sheriff Neeley immediately distinguished her remarkable face, the black bolt of hair, the singular shape of her body.
Kelly Bellisle. Kelly Rogers.
But what was wrong with her? Where was her coat on this icy night? Why was Kelly walking that way, nearly a stagger? Why were her clothes disheveled like that?
Kelly seemed to Neeley something like a movie zombie, moving willfully but clearly in trouble.
Where were the twins?
What was going on here?
Chief Neeley glanced at Wragg. The fire chief still clutched the radio hand piece. He appeared to be distracted, his mind elsewhere.
“You son of a bitch,” Neeley growled under his voice.
Wragg twisted in surprise.
“What the hell does it mean, you planting that hash on Elmore? I know where you got that shit. You and me both know Elmore Rogers didn’t drive up to that traffic light today with Lebanese red in his glove compartment.”
Fire Chief Wragg allowed himself a smile.
“Why, Sheriff Neeley, you the one who personally took that hash out of the cab. You seen it with your own eyes, confiscated it with your own hands. You, the police chief of Lafayette, Alabama. And you and me both know Elmore Rogers been carrying on this bad business almost a year. You heard Mr. Wood talk about it in our meeting last summer. Right? You remember that, don’t you? Chief Neeley, Elmore’s guilty as sin on Saturday night.”
Neeley felt something happen inside. Beyond his control.
“Wragg, by God, I’m not asking you again. Tell me what the hell is going on here?”
The radio sputtered loudly. This time, a deep drawl followed.
Both men recognized the voice.
Chief Wragg? Chief Neeley there with you?
“Yes, sir!” snapped Dick Wragg.
Neeley waited one heartbeat to answer.
Mr. Wood’s cracker voice leaped from the radio: Good. All right. I’ll say this once. Pay attention. It’s my last instruction.
Neeley picked up the background noise of a truck engine coming to a stop. Mr. Wood had been on the move, driving somewhere.
The radio: First, I remind you officers of the law to stay in the fire chief’s car without leaving it for any reason, under any condition, for the next 30 minutes. This is my strictest order …
Neeley barely heard. He shifted forward in his seat, his eyes on the parade scene.
Kelly Rogers had fallen. She’d collided with a double-wide country woman in a Santa hat who leaped, sort of, for glittering sweets thrown from the Davy Crockett-Pocahontas float.
Kelly lay by a barricade barrel and didn’t move.
The radio went on: And you are certain you have Elmore Rogers in custody?
Now, Neeley’s attention riveted on the radio.
What did Mr. Wood just say?
How the hell did Mr. Wood know about Elmore Rogers? The only person in the city of Lafayette authorized to report any felony arrest or any details of a felony arrest was a police chief named Dan Neeley.
How did Mr. Wood know one blasted thing about Elmore Rogers being in custody?
“Yes, sir, Mr. Rogers is in full custody,” answered Wragg confidently. “Just the way you ordered.”
A key turned in Chief Neeley’s brain, and a door swung open.
Neeley stared at Wragg. The Adam’s apple moved up and down in the fire chief’s throat and his top lip quivered as he answered Mr. Wood.
The radio: You keep it that way. And let me repeat: You two men will remain in the fire chief’s vehicle for exactly 30 minutes. Then, you are free to resume your official duties with the Jolly Holiday. Those are strict orders, and I want them followed. No matter what. Do you read me?
“Yes, sir,” Wragg answered. “We read.”
Then, he keyed the radio quiet.
Outside the cruiser, Kelly Bellisle Rogers lay motionless, crumpled like a heap of clothes, by one of the orange barrels.
Fuck all, Neeley told himself. This is not right.
The police chief didn’t try the door handle a second time.
Instead, he furtively moved his right hand down to his belt. He spoke soothingly to Wragg as a distraction.
“Listen, Chief Dick,” he began. “I got a question.”
Chief Neeley arrested his immediate thought. Then he spoke up.
“How, exactly, does Mr. Wood know that Elmore Rogers is locked up over yonder in my city jail?”
A smug smile crossed Wragg’s face. Neeley thought of egg yolk oozing through a cracked shell.
Before Wragg said a single word, Neeley pushed his taser into the fire chief’s sternum, right over the heart.
Full force. Twice.
Wragg flopped like a tossed doll, and he displayed the whites of his eyes and chewed his tongue bloody.
The inside of the car smelled like burned shoes.
Neeley reached across the twitching body and pressed the cruiser’s safety lock. He shouldered open his door, and left it standing open.
“Kelly! Kelly, it’s Neeley!”
He rushed toward the loud parade and the hollering crowd and the barrel barricade and the fallen woman lying on the sidewalks of Lafayette.
* * *
Elmore raised his head. His cot squeaked slightly.
The lock on the front door of the police station made a noise, and the door burst wide open.
Dan Neeley, in full blue uniform, stepped across the threshold. He carried Kelly cradled in his arms like a sleeping bride.
“Jesus, Danny! Not Kelly, too! What have you done to her? Where are my kids?”
Neeley didn’t take time to close the door.
He lugged Kelly, her hair swinging, to a clear space on the headquarters floor just in front of Elmore’s cell. The police chief eased her limp body down, his ruddy Irish face bright red from exertion.
Tremendous street noise, merrymaking and huzzahs, squalled in on an icy draft through the open door.
In a far corner of the room, a silent video camera came to life. The device swiveled slightly to take in a panoramic view of the Lafayette police headquarters.
Neeley folded his leather police jacket and placed it beneath Kelly’s head. He briskly stepped over and kicked shut the front door. He glugged several bubbles from the water cooler, fetched back a big paper cup, and dashed it all, every drop, directly into the pale face of the unconscious woman on the floor.
Kelly gasped, moaned. Her long eyelashes fluttered open, and the wonderful dark wells beneath showed life.
“What’s the matter with her, Dan?” Elmore’s voice had changed from fury to worry. “KELLY! Oh, Jesus.”
“I think she’s been drugged, Elmore. Maybe she overdosed on her pills. She fell down in the street up at Foster. Got knocked down, I mean, but she couldn’t get up. I don’t know about the twins.”
Neeley reached to take a pulse.
“Still, El, it ain’t a good thing Kelly’s here without Will and Mary.”
Elmore stretched a hand through the bars. He grabbed the bicep of Dan Neeley. His old friend. His baseball and football buddy. The soldier who saved his life.
“Let me out, Neeley. Something terrible is going on. Look at Kelly! I need to find Will and Mary …”
Kelly opened her mouth now, looking straight up at the fluorescent lights in the ceiling. She spoke like a woman in a trance.
“Mrs. Mock.” She whispered, licked her dry lips. “She brought cookies.”
That was all.
Elmore watched Kelly’s chest rise and fall, fast, like a bird breathing. Her drenched hair looked like snakes.
Dan Neeley leaned down, directly over Kelly’s face. His red buzz cut seemed to glow.
“Mrs. Mock brought cookies,” the police chief said slowly and clearly. “And then what happened?”
Kelly swallowed. Tears shone in her eyes.
“And Will and Mary…” A hot tear slid fast down the right side of Kelly’s extraordinary face. “Will and Mary were gone.”
Then, Kelly fell to pieces. Wrenching sobs buckled her, palms grinding her face. She curled into a fetal shape and cried out like a woman burning at the stake.
Elmore shoved and shook the cell door with all his might. Frantic.
“Neeley! Let me out! This ain’t right! You know I don’t belong in here! I didn’t put drugs in my own truck!”
The police chief kneeled over Kelly, pulled her up by her shoulders, drew her to his chest. Tenderly. Her black hair covered most of the freckled hand he placed against the small of her back.
“Kelly,” he said, in the kindest voice Elmore had ever heard from his friend, “you got to get it together now. Come on, sweetheart. You got to be strong. We need you. Will and Mary need you. Right now, Kelly.”
The sobs against the policeman’s chest subsided.
Neeley peered over her head at Elmore, gimlet-eyed.
“Here you go, El.” His left hand extended a silver ring of keys. “It’s the big one.”
Elmore fumbled, found the right key, fit it to the lock.
The mechanism clicked distinctly, and the door swung open on its own.
“Help sit her up in my chair, El,” Neeley ordered. “Let’s get this lady back in working order. We need a plan.”
The two men lifted Kelly, fireman style, the way they learned to carry wounded comrades in the service. She felt as light as wet crepe paper. They settled Kelly at Neeley’s desk, and the policeman brusquely swept an arm across the cluttered surface, heedlessly hurling folders and manuals and law books and loose papers to the floor.
Elmore fetched another cup of water, and this time it went to Kelly’s lips.
Elmore couldn’t take his eyes off Kelly’s face as she swallowed and swallowed, draining every drop from the cup.
“Kidnapped!” Kelly gasped, her first words. “Our babies!”
Chief Neeley knelt to Kelly’s eye level.
“You are sure Mrs. Mock took them? They went with her?”
“I NEVER trusted her!” Elmore blurted out, his voice high. He had already stripped off the orange jumpsuit and was dressing in his own clothes. “She never cared for those kids or me or anything but her social self …”
Kelly spoke, rasping.
“They ate cookies. Will and Mary. She brought them in a picnic basket. Poison cookies.”
“Come ON, Neeley!” Elmore shouted now, jumping up and down. His nose bled just a little. “Let’s GO! It’s Will and Mary!”
Outside, a boisterous cheer surged from the crowd. Something grand must have floated past in the dark. Songs from several marching bands merged in a raucous cacophony. The ear-splitting noise momentarily drowned Neeley’s answer.
“Right!” he repeated, yelling now. “Let’s go. All of us. I’ve got an idea. Help me, Elmore.”
The two men lifted Kelly, her pale arms draped on their shoulders. They walked comically lopsided — tall, lean Elmore holding one side and short, blocky Dan Neeley holding the other.
They reached the headquarters' door.
The police chief stepped forward. Kelly leaned on Elmore.
Neeley yanked the knob, threw the door wide for their escape. A loud new blast of street noise entered.
Police Chief Dan Neeley pivoted in the entrance to face Elmore and Kelly. His freckled expression was grave and earnest.
“Wragg’s in on this, El. For whatever reason, he got you locked up. And listen — that Mr. Wood …”
Out in the streets, past the spectacle of music and cheering, Elmore witnessed a strange blink of light. It appeared high over the parade.
He heard a muffled pop.
Dan Neeley’s head simply disappeared. It turned to mist. Red mist.
A powerful gust of winter wind bullied through the open doorway of the police headquarters.
Red droplets, with giblets of gray matter and little white specks of bone, covered Elmore and Kelly Rogers.
Red mist speckled the policemen’s desks and the books and the papers scattered across the floor. The mist blew sideways and spattered bulletin boards and bars of the jail. It freckled the dirty white wall over the cot in Elmore’s cell.
Danny Neeley’s skull was blown away from the pale red eyebrows up. The keys fell from his hand and jangled on the floor.
It was the loudest sound Elmore had ever heard.
Maybe Elmore screamed, too.
Danny Neeley stood impossibly upright for a moment.
He collapsed in stages.
First, Neeley fell to his knees. Second, he dropped onto his all-fours, palms flat against the ground. Third, he bowed in obeisance to the shooter like a Muslim praying toward a distant holy city.
Then, Danny Neeley quietly placed what was left of his face on the threshold of the headquarters' door.
With a deep sigh, he died there.