Authors: Bill Fitzhugh
For my siblings,
John, Ann, Mike and Liz,
who also survived Catholic school and
who give me great support.
And, as always and forever,
Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car.
ROUCHING BEHIND A TRUCK THAT WAS BUILT FORD TOUGH
, Dan Steele had but one simple question. “How the hell did she end up with a gun?”
The man in the white jacket crouching next to Dan shrugged. “It’s L.A. How do I know?”
Dan tugged habitually on his goatee as he considered how to deal with the armed woman who had taken the hostage from the nursing home and who was now hiding behind the driving excitement that was a Pontiac. Since Dan’s job required him to deal with crises on a daily basis, he was usually calm, cool, and collected when this sort of thing hit the fan, but this was a different sort of thing. Dan seemed to be taking this personally.
It was just past ten o’clock and already it was ninety-two degrees. It was going to be another miserable day in the San Fernando Valley, with hot yellow-brown air triggering another Stage Three Lung Alert. Dan carefully raised himself until he could see his reflection in the truck’s side mirror. Given the circumstances, Dan thought it only appropriate that he looked like a sweaty cop in a good suit when in reality he was the creative director at an advertising agency.
Dan looked like the sort of guy you would see in a television beer commercial, playing football in the background with other guys who weren’t quite good-looking enough to be
featured in the spot. He had been a swimmer in college and had put on a little weight but had not gone completely to seed. The upwardly arching lines in his forehead looked like ripples coming off his eyebrows, resulting in a cheerful appearance unmatched by his present disposition. His thick, dark hair was styled into a fashionable helmet. With his adequate physique, respectable looks, and not-too-shabby income, Dan seemed to have it all. But Dan, being in the advertising business, knew better than anyone that things aren’t always what they appear to be.
He pushed his Armani frames up the slippery bridge of his nose, then looked quickly over the hood of the truck. The woman and her hostage were ten yards away. Dan ducked back into hiding position and turned to the man in the white coat. “Okay, here’s the deal,” Dan said as though he were in charge. “I’ll create a diversion. You go for it.”
The man looked at Dan and snorted.
go for it.”
Dan did little to hide his contempt.
Who does this six-dollar-an-hour yahoo think he is?
Out of force of habit, Dan assessed and categorized the man in marketing lifestyle-segmentation terms: unmarried, high-school-grad, apartment-dwelling, domestic-beer-drinking, TV-sports-watching, lower-middle-class nonvoter. He was a perfect sample from the psychographic cluster those in the advertising business called “Single City Stiffs.” And wasn’t this present scenario a perfect example of why we had demographic distinctions in the first place? People like Dan Steele didn’t rush out from behind cars attempting to subdue armed crazy people. That was a job for rent-a-cops and other ambitious minimum-wagers. Unfortunately, the man in the white coat didn’t share Dan’s feelings on social Darwinism, so Dan was screwed.
Dan cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. “All right, I’ve had enough of this crap! On three, we’re coming in! This is your last chance!” He waited for a moment to see if
that would end matters, but the hostage taker didn’t respond. Dan pulled some cash from his pocket and turned to Single City Stiff. “All right. You go that way,” Dan said, pointing east. “I’ll go that way.” He pointed west before handing the man a couple of twenties. The man nodded agreement. A second later Dan started. “One! Two!”
Dan cringed at the fat sound of two rounds slamming into the other side of his hiding place. “Three!” Dan turned to the man in white. “Go!”
In one swift motion the man stuffed the forty bucks into his pocket and made his move. He was just four feet from the truck when the woman opened fire. The blood red exploded across the man’s white coat. He staggered backwards and fell at Dan’s side. “Jesus!” Dan hadn’t been prepared for this, not outright murder.
The man’s eyes and mouth were open wide. He’d been hit three times. His breathing was frantic as his hand groped about his bloody chest. “Oh my God! Oh my God!”
“I don’t believe it!” Dan said. “She … she shot you!”
The man’s expression relaxed a bit. He suddenly didn’t look like someone who had just taken three in the torso. “Wait a minute …” The man probed his wounds, then put his bloody fingers to his mouth and tasted the red. He spit.
Dan knew something was hinky. He reached down and felt the wounds himself. “The hell is this?” He rubbed the blood between his fingers, then sniffed. “She’s got a
The man in the white coat sat up, confused as much as anything else. “She said she was armed. She didn’t say with what.” The man suddenly grabbed Dan by his shirt and pulled him close. “Hey, asshole,” he said. “You didn’t go.” He was angry. “You said we’d go on three and you didn’t go for shit.”
“I did,” Dan insisted, “but I, uh, twisted my ankle.” He rubbed the joint and winced. “Ow! I think I sprained it pretty bad.” He touched it tenderly. “Might be broken, I’m not sure.”
“Uh huh.” Single City Stiff wasn’t buying it. “So now what?”
Dan was trying to think of a no-muss, no-fuss solution when his cell phone rang. Dan wiped his red fingers on the man’s white coat, then drew the phone like a gun. “Steele.”
“Which one do you want first?” It was Rose, Dan’s assistant at the ad agency. Her favorite game was “good news, bad news.”
“I’ll take the bad,” Dan said. He listened for a moment, then looked skyward. “What?” He banged his head against the side of the truck. “You have got to be kidding.”
“No,” she said. “I am
kidding. I don’t have time to kid around with all the work my idiot boss gives me, especially in light of the fact that
idiot boss just called an emergency meeting of all department heads. You’re due here in thirty minutes.”
Dan peered over the truck toward the hostage situation. “Look, I’m handling a small problem right now,” he said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Hey, you’ll be dealing with a problem called unemployment if you don’t get your sorry butt into the office for this meeting.”
Dan wondered what he had done to deserve all this. “Rose, darling, do me a favor and delay it. Call in a bomb threat, start a small fire. Be creative.”
“On my salary? Forget it. Now, the good news. Beverly What’s-her-name called. She’s in town and wants to get together, nudge-nudge, wink-wink. You now have twenty-nine minutes. Gotta go.” Click.
Suddenly smiling, Dan slid his cell phone back into its soft, warm holster, thinking of other things. This was indeed good news. Beverly was the woman of his wettest dreams. She was a commercial director in a porn queen’s body. Over dinner, after directing one of Dan’s television commercials a couple of months ago, Beverly confessed to having an exotic sexual appetite that had never been fully satisfied. A day hadn’t passed
since then that Dan hadn’t thought of her confession and the implied possibilities. Beverly promised she’d call Dan the next time she was in town, and lo and behold, his day had come.
All he had to do now was solve this hostage situation and get to the meeting on time. But even if he left this instant, Dan knew it was nearly impossible to get from Northridge to Century City in under thirty minutes. Dan yelled over the car again. “I don’t have time for any more of this crap! What’s it gonna be?”
The woman yelled back. “You don’t take me alive, coppers!” She coughed up a nutty little cackle.
“Great,” Dan said. “Now she’s Jimmy Cagney.” Dan had wasted entirely too much time on this. He had other things to do, vastly more important things, and this was just serving to piss him off. Dan wasn’t sure if he was more aggravated by the fact that he was having to deal with this crazy woman or the fact that he was paying someone else to do it.
I work my ass off for the money I get
, he thought.
Why do I get so little in return? Where’s the complaint department?
Dan cupped his hands and yelled again. “All right, I’m going to stand up and come over there and we’ll talk! And no shooting!” Dan waited for a response, but none came. “I’m not armed!”
The man in the white coat looked at Dan. “You gotta be crazy. She’ll ruin that suit.”
“Sometimes you feel like a nut,” Dan said. “Sometimes you don’t.” He shook off his coat, hanging it on the truck’s side mirror. He then braced himself and stood. A second later, a round of dark red paint exploded on his clean starched white shirt. He took a deep breath. “Dammit,” he screamed. “Put down the gun, Mom. The show’s over.”
ive minutes later Dan was standing at the front desk of the nursing home looking like an angry performance art piece. His
suit was ruined, his mood foul. He pulled out his checkbook and looked at the nurse behind the desk. Dan pegged her demographically as a “Midcity Service.” She was a canned-hash-eating,
-magazine-reading, associate-degree-carrying renter, with bad credit card debt. “Can’t you increase her Thorazine or something?” Dan asked.
“Your mother isn’t on Thorazine,” the nurse said. “She’s on divalproex sodium.”
And for good reason. After decades of increasingly wider mood swings, Dan’s mom had been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder. As a manic-depressive she was the poster girl for what mental health professionals called biphasic mood dysfunction. In her manic phases she was a marvel to behold. The mania manifested itself in what were usually harmless escapades, like using a paint gun to take hostages at the nursing home where she lived. On the downside, her depression could be paralyzing. Overwhelming despair and a sense of emptiness diminished her interest in all activity. Her appetite would disappear and, if the depression went untreated, she could quickly lose fifteen pounds on a frame that couldn’t really afford the loss. She sometimes found herself obsessed with death. The words “recurrent suicidal ideation” had found their way into her permanent record.
Her name was Ruth. As children, Dan and his twin brother, Michael, had seen her more than once on the floor of her room curled into the fetal position, crying for no apparent reason. Having nothing to compare it to, they assumed everyone’s mom was that way. That many years ago Ruth was just one of the millions suffering, undiagnosed, from dysfunctional mood swings. Unaware of alternatives, she had simply tried to cope with it, never knowing why she felt the way she did—assuming it was her fault—and trying to deal with being the mother of two boys whose father had disappeared, leaving them in near poverty.
The poverty was what Dan hated the most, or at least that’s what he thought. Being poor forced them to accept charity. Nothing was more humiliating. In fact, humiliation and wanting were the primary emotions of Dan’s childhood. Raised by television as much as by his troubled mother, Dan was constantly taunted by commercials. By the time he graduated from high school, Dan, like all American teenagers, had been exposed to around three hundred and sixty thousand advertisements for all the desirable, sexy products available to the American consumer—all the things Dan couldn’t have. As a child, Dan wanted nothing more than to grow up and be a consumer. To have all that stuff. If he had that stuff, he thought, then he’d be happy. And he wouldn’t be humiliated anymore.