(written for the [Fiction] Friday prompt on July 9, 2010: “In her right hand a woman holds a loaded gun, in her left, a coin that just came up ‘tails’”.)
There wasn’t much more to say, so I stayed quiet.
The officer looked at me icily, contempt and scorn the only things to be seen through the angry look frozen on her face, a look that grew angrier with each passing moment of silence. Yet still I stood there, mutely ignoring her scowls as best as I could while holding the hot blowtorch in my hand. In the distance I could hear the fire engines coming nearer, their sirens echoing hauntingly off the cold stone buildings and the low cloud cover.
Eyewitnesses, reliable as they might or might not be in a case like this, had called the police to report a set of car fires and a man holding a blowtorch wandering up and down the street shouting gibberish. That blowtorch-wielding man was, of course, me, since I clearly had the torch in my hand and just as clearly had been wandering up and down the street, shouting. I knew they were calling at the time but I did nothing about it – their calls were the least of my concerns.
“It’s not what it looks like,” I had said, calmly and immediately, upon the officer’s arrival at the scene. Several officers had been dispatched and had trapped me, blocking off both outlets from the street. It’s not as though I was planning to leave the street – but blocking streets is what police officers do, so they did. I imagined the traffic reporters squawking about the so-called ‘police activity’ that was blocking the street and messing up the rush hour traffic, but the truth of the matter was that there was hardly any activity from the police at all – they were simply blocking the street because it was in their nature to do so.
“It is never what it looks like,” the officer had replied to me, also calmly and immediately. “But I have learned that what it is is usually something very close to what it looks like.”
“Where am I?” I had asked next. In hindsight, I realize I probably should not have asked this.
The officer was slower to respond to this one, clearly measuring her words, her eyes looking me up and down with suspicion. Her facial features made her look to be about twenty-four years old, but the white hair and dull gray skin implied she was more experienced with living than that. The white hair and dull skin also matched the name on her badge. Officer Frosty. “Have you been drinking?”
“No, ma’am. I was at work only moments ago. But I haven’t figured out yet where they dropped me—I mean, where I am now.”
“You are in Chicago.”
“Chicago. Right where you have been all along, blowtorching these fine peoples’ cars.”
“I didn’t blowtorch anyone’s cars,” I protested.
That’s when the scowling and looks of contempt started.
That’s also when I decided to stop saying anything.
The truth of the matter was that I hadn’t done anything to the cars. The trouble with The Truth, as most everyone knows, is that no one really cares about it. Visual evidence is always more important than The Truth. When you’re ten years old and your mom catches you with your hand in the cookie jar minutes before dinner and, unfortunately for you, after you were told that you could not have any cookies before dinner, punishment is swift and complete. It is of no consequence that you were simply returning the cookies your little sister had taken – putting them back in the jar, back in their rightful place. No, the visual evidence of your hand in the jar always outweighed any amount of Truth that might have been on your side. And when the eyewitness—in the case of “The Cookie Jar Incident”, your little sister – does not defend you with The Truth, the case is closed. It is the nature of moms to believe what their baby daughters say – or don’t say – beyond anything else.
Similarly, Officer Frosty did not care about the Truth. She couldn’t have cared less that I was trying to rectify the situation that had been presented to me. If only she’d stop bothering me for a minute, I could prove to her that the Truth was not at all what it looked like. But bothering people, much like blocking up streets, is in the very DNA of police officers and so she did not stop bothering me.
“Well? What do you have to say for yourself?” Frosty demanded after a few minutes of my silence finally got the best of her patience. She slowly brought herself closer to me, her eyes on the blowtorch in my hand, my eyes on her twitching hand that looked like it would enjoy nothing better than to grab that gun and fire at will in my general direction. As I stood there, silently holding the smoking blowtorch, I could see her hand getting closer and closer to the weapon; yet silence remained my choice.
Suddenly, faster than I thought she could move, Officer Frosty was right next to me, gun in her right hand, poking it into the side of my head. “I thought perhaps I could jog your memory by tapping you like this… make you better able to help me understand why you would be out here burning cars. Let me know when it starts to help.” Her breath smelled sweet, a combination of chocolate and coffee. It seemed odd that I could not see her breath as she spoke in the cold air, but I assumed it was due to the smoke and heat from the cars that continued to burn.
“I didn’t burn anyone’s cars,” I said quietly, breaking my vow of silence in hopes that she would back away from me and allow me to focus on something other than how good it would be to have some coffee and a donut right now. Or a coat – a coat would have been quite useful to me given how cold it was. It had been an abnormally cold winter across the entire northern hemisphere and Chicago was no exception.
“Alright,” Frosty huffed, clearly annoyed but enjoying the thought that she had caught me red handed. “How’s about you explain what you did do. Start with your name. What’s your name? You can handle telling me your name, can’t you?”
“My name is Harvey Long,” I said quietly. “I am a plumber. I was working on the plumbing in an apartment in New York City. I was connecting the pipes when –”
“A plumber, from New York City, connecting pipes,” she interrupted, pretending to take notes but not realizing I could see that the pen was just a lollipop stick with rainbow-colored duct tape wrapped around it. “I am afraid you must have your story mixed up. You are clearly a punk, a deadbeat, lowlife hoodlum. You are simply taking out the frustrations of your pitiful life by destroying some innocent people’s vehicles – good, Patriotic people’s vehicles – vehicles these fine Americans worked hard to obtain and maintain.”
“I swear I have done nothing wrong! My appointment was at 4:15 and I had just gotten started when I… ended up here.”
Another officer came up behind me and grabbed the blowtorch from my hand. Officer Frosty, now free to look at something other than the blowtorch, leaned in close to my face and whispered – her sweet-smelling, invisible breath making my head spin – “You will have to do better than that. It is only 3:30 now. So why don’t you tell me what really happened? We have eyewitnesses.”
I took a deep breath. Then another. “Officer, I am telling you the truth. If you’ll just give me a chance–”
“Chance, eh?” She fumbled around in her pocket for a moment, holding a coin when she pulled her hand out. “I don’t have my Standard Coin of Chance with me, but if you’ll agree, I’ll use this one.”
Confused, I nodded.
“Heads – I let my twitchy trigger finger have a good time; tails – you get to explain.” She held the gun up next to my head and flipped the coin. We watched it spin, reflecting the light of the fires surrounding us. As it came to rest in her left hand, I let out a sigh of relief.
Without removing the gun from my forehead, she said, “You’ve got one shot, punk. If I don’t like what you’re saying…” She let the implication of her unfinished sentence hang in the air.
“Look,” I started, hesitating slightly as I tried to ignore the cold metal against my forehead. “It is 4:30 in New York City and fifteen minutes ago I arrived at apartment 13 G to install the water line to Mrs. Robinson’s new built-in, under-counter coffee and espresso machine. I was there, under the counter, working on the pipes when… a ship appeared out of thin air and took me on board. Before I knew it, I was dropped here. When the spaceship took off again, everything seemed to be burning. I was going up and down the street calling out for the ship to come back – to explain what I needed to do – but it was gone. Then you were here and, well, I hope you know what has been going on since you’ve been here.”
“Spaceship…” The response was a combination of a question and a rebuke. She didn’t even pretend to write it down in her little notebook with her ornamental pen.
“Yes, ma’am. That’s right.” I said, looking straight at her.
“So, you would have me believe that aliens came all the way here from the planet Blorgon just to suck you out from under a coffee machine, set a bunch of cars on fire and leave you to take the blame while they take a joyride around Vegas and watch the cars burn on the evening news?”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s right,” I repeated, still looking directly at her. “Well, mostly right. The alien… his name is Blorgon and he’s from the planet Ixalathiumipthifrong. Have you met him? I don’t know if he evaporated off to Vegas or not, but I’m sure he didn’t want me to take any blame – he wanted me to fix something. I don’t know what I am supposed to fix yet. It’s kind of our thing: I play practical jokes on him, like replacing his ship’s fuel with sweaty socks I had collected at the gym or storing his spacesuit in the freezer; he randomly sticks me in complicated situations that I have to figure out – one time he left me in Spain during the running of the bulls – turns out that due to some creative cost cutting, the bulls that year were really just kids in bull costumes with birthday party noisemakers strapped onto their heads as horns. And I had to figure that out and prevent the kids from being slaughtered – yes, the costumes were that good.” I laughed at the memory. “Ah, good times. Anyway, the spaceship didn’t really suck me out from under the coffee machine, either – it kind of evaporated me from under there and condensed me here.” I paused for a second as the firefighters showed up, having given up their fire trucks to the streets that were gridlocked due to the police activity and choosing instead to carry their hoses on foot to use with the fire hydrant at the end of the block. In that same brief second I noticed one of the people on the sidewalk crying loudly about a kitten that was trapped in one of the cars, though nobody else, including the kitten, seemed to be bothered by this. Focusing my attention back on the officer as the situation became clearer to me, I added, “Oh, and the cars aren’t really burning. So, come to think of it, you don’t really have it right at all.”
Officer Frosty chuckled. Speaking to the other officer who was still nearby, holding the blowtorch, she said, “Oh, we’ve got a good one, here! The cars aren’t burning? And the smoke, flames and tremendous heat that are surrounding us are just our imaginations?”
“No, you truly are seeing and feeling all of that. But it isn’t actually real.”
Just then, a woman on the twelfth, or perhaps it was the thirteenth, floor of a building a little bit up the street from our position stuck her head out the window and shouted “Fire! Fire! Somebody help me!”
“It’s not real, ma’am,” shouted Officer Frosty, chuckling.
The sound of the woman wailing was drowned out by the sound of the building’s fire alarms screeching. The fire fighters immediately changed their focus to the building and started running the hoses toward the door.
“I suppose you are going to say that I should tell them not to bother with the alarms, that it is all a mirage, too.”
“No,” I said. “I think that one is real.”
“I’m tired of this nonsense,” Frosty said. “Cuff him.” The officer who had taken my blowtorch grabbed my left wrist and pulled it behind my back. I did not resist. I felt the cold metal handcuff press against my wrist as it was tightened so much that it cut off the circulation to my hand.
Before he could attach my right wrist to the cuffs, a fire fighter ran up to the officers. “The fire hydrant isn’t working!” he said.
“What’s wrong with it?” asked three voices: the two officers and mine.
“It seems to be frozen,” said the firefighter.
“I’ll go take care of it,” said the police officer with my blowtorch.
“Wait!” I shouted. “Are you really going to test your luck by using a blowtorch to thaw what is effectively a big, frozen pipe, when you’ve got a professional plumber and blowtorch user from New York right here? I can get that water flowing in no time, even with one hand cuffed behind my back. But you’d better decide quickly if you want to not have all the buildings on this block burning, too.”
Officer Frosty’s gun hand twitched but then she nodded and I was led to the hydrant, my left hand still behind my back though it was cuffed to nothing. Kneeling down to inspect it I said, “I need my blowtorch, a hot coffee and a frozen bean burrito.”
“Are you questioning a professional during a crisis? There’s a man, on the sidewalk, with a bag of groceries. He dropped the bag before and there were frozen burritos in it. I need one—no, two—now!”
The blowtorch was placed on the ground next to me as I inspected the hydrant. The dripping I could see on the ice that had formed around the valve told me the pipe inside wasn’t actually frozen – the valve itself was the only part that was iced up. My job was going to be easy after all. After a minute that felt more like an eternity, the man with my frozen burrito hurried over and I carefully unwrapped it with my one uncuffed hand.
“You’re going to eat a frozen burrito now?” Officer Frosty’s sweet-smelling breath still didn’t show up in the cold.
“No,” I said. “I’m going to cook it first.”
“Give me that blowtorch,” she demanded, trying to grab it.
I held up my hand to stop her. Placing the burrito on top of the valve I said, “Ma’am, you do not apply a heat source of this magnitude directly on a frozen pipe or else you are going to have a bigger problem on your hands! I will, therefore, use the blowtorch to heat up the burrito which in turn will thaw the ice that is preventing this valve from opening. Where’s my coffee? It had better be hot!”
I heard scrambling behind me as someone rushed forward with a cup of coffee, the steam lifting slowly upward into the cold air. I made the officer holding the coffee wait as I turned on the blowtorch with one hand and then held it up above the frozen burrito that was balanced on top of the frozen fire hydrant valve. In just a few seconds, the delectable scent of a cooking bean burrito filled the air. I nodded for the officer who had just brought me the coffee to bring the cup to my lips; he grudgingly obliged.
“You call this hot?” I demanded. “Set it down on the sidewalk.” I moved the blowtorch from the burrito that was now steaming in the cold air, though still thoroughly frozen, and placed the fire just above the coffee, carefully avoiding the paper cup containing it.
“What are you doing?”
I looked up at the officer with the invisible breath. “I’m heating the coffee up.”
“Oh that’s it,” she said, stepping forward. “We don’t have time for you to waste heating up coffee!”
She threw the coin that was still in her hand at me. It moved, seemingly in slow motion, allowing me to notice that it was a shiny 1999 commemorative New Jersey state quarter. The quarter was headed straight at my coffee, so I dropped the blowtorch and grabbed the coffee. At the same time, the officer dove toward me. As she grabbed my arm, a single drop of coffee splashed out of the cup and landed on her boot. She immediately started screaming at me, using words I did not understand.
I saw the shimmering in the background before I heard the noise of the spaceship arriving. My buddy, Blorgon, had returned, landing his spaceship in the middle of the icy street. But even after the ship had fully condensed onto the street, everything looked shimmery, like waves of light flickering from one side of my field of vision to the next, all emanating from Officer Frosty’s boot. She had let go of my arm but was still screaming, hopping up and down. I watched in horror as she slipped on the ice, landing on the still-burning blowtorch.
I began to grab her, to pick her up off the fire, but Blorgon grabbed my handcuff and held me back. Before my eyes, I watched Officer Frosty transform from a large, gray-skinned human into a leathery lizard-like creature, as if the heat of the blowtorch was causing her disguise to melt away. As the lizard twitched, the car fires vanished, leaving no evidence of ever having been there.
“Ahh, Captain Frozonoralo of Liztillia Prime,” pronounced Blorgon, “under the authority of the Intergalactic Security Council, I hereby place you under arrest for tampering with the weather of a sovereign planet. As per Intergalactic Treaty, you will face trial on the planet of your choosing for the unnatural endangerment of a sentient species.”
“Just give me a chance,” hissed the lizard woman. “I can explain”.
Blorgon rolled his eyes. “That is acceptable under intergalactic treaty. Harvey, would you please flip?” Blorgon reached into his pocket and tossed me a yellow, metal coin with a sun on one side and comet tail on the other. “What’s this?” I asked.
“Intergalactic Standard Coin of Chance,” Blorgon replied. “It is the standard unit of justice across most of the galaxy. According to treaty, a flip that results in tails will allow the accused one chance to explain themselves. So, give it a good flip — it’s for justice.”
I shrugged and flipped the strange coin, watching it spin in the air before landing on the lizard’s tail. It slid off, showing Heads. “Hmm,” said Blorgon. “You had a fifty-fifty chance, as is required by law, but having the coin land on your tail does not equate to the intergalactically accepted Tails standard. So, it’s to the dungeon with you!”
Frozonoralo shrieked loudly. “Earth is not a member of the Intergalactic Community and is therefore not protected by any treaties! The Liztilian Empire shall not be held down! We will conquer this barbaric planet and make it our next ice world colony!”
Blorgon motioned to the other officers to pick up the shrieking lizard, but they stood motionless, horrified looks on their faces. Sighing, he turned to me and said, “On behalf of the Intergalactic Community, I want to thank you, Harvey. Once again you have helped us apprehend a filthy, cold-blooded criminal and protect life, liberty and interstellar happiness. If you will finish fixing the fire hydrant while I drag this scum into my ship, we can get you back to Mrs. Robinson’s coffee machine in time for her to have her espresso with dinner.”
I picked up the blow torch and re-lit it, turning my attention to the frozen burrito still balanced on the valve of the fire hydrant. Soon, I was eating a pair of piping hot burritos while watching Chicago’s finest put out a wastebasket fire with enough water to drown a fish. Blorgon indicated it was time to leave and I evaporated from the street, condensing moments later under the counter in Mrs. Robinson’s kitchen. Blorgon thanked me again for my service to the Galaxy and I watched his spaceship disappear.
It was then I realized I had left my blowtorch in Chicago. But I didn’t panic; the truth of the matter was that Blorgon would be back just as soon as he realized I had filled his intravenous coffee drip with decaffeinated iced tea, because that’s what friends are supposed to do.