The Big Wake-Up
Cable Car Crunch
...... “Are you hoping for a souvenir or checking to see if they’re your size?”
....... The woman doing the talking was holding a towering stack of pastel-colored panties. We were the only two in the Missing Sock Laundromat. I was there because doing my own laundry in the middle of the workday seemed the best investment I could make in my flagging private eye business. She was thereapparentlybecause even Victoria Secret underwear models have to do the wash.
....... There’s no question I’d been staring at her. I don’t usually associate tweed with sexy, but she’d shoehorned her extravagant curves into a vest and jacket made of the stuff and on her it was positively prurient. The jacket just came over her hips and then a pair of clingy jeans took charge and traveled the length of her long-stemmed legs to some pointy brown boots. Given the alternative between watching my Fantastic Four bedsheets go through the spin cycle and taking her in while she folded and stacked her unmentionables, the question of eyeball allegiance was never in doubt.
....... I sat up straighter in the plastic lawn chair I’d been camped in. “Doesn’t matter what size they are they are. They’re not my color.”
....... A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth and she leaned down to put the stack of panties in the nylon duffel bag at her feet. When she had them situated just so, she yanked the draw string closed and swung the bag over her shoulder. She flipped back apricot blond hair, then reached into the open dryer.
....... Mirth and green light shone in her eyes. She gestured for me to hold out my hand and pressed something warm and spongy into it. “Well, here’s your souvenir, then.”
....... A fabric softener sheet.
....... I laughed and watched as she plopped a tweed newsboy cap onto her head, collected an oversize umbrella from near the door and went out onto Hyde Street and a driving San Francisco rainstorm. She gave me a two-fingered wave through the plate glass and then jogged across the street to stand with an older woman at the cable car stop on the corner with Union in front of the Swensen’s ice cream parlor.
....... That particular Swensen’s was the originalopened in 1948 by Earle Swensen himselfand the promise of a couple of scoops Cable Car Crunch after I finished my laundry was the main reason I picked this place over the laundromat in my apartment building. The pantie girl had been an unexpected plus.
....... Sighing, I pocketed the fabric softener sheet and let my gaze return to the bank of Speed Queens in front of me. The machine on the end was shaking violently due to my decision to throw a pair of dirty Converse Chuck Taylors in with my sheets. I moved to rebalance the load, then heard the deep, coffee grinder rumble of an approaching cable car. It pulled in front of the ice cream parlor, blocking my view of the girl and the older woman. It looked completely devoid of passengers and I thought how lucky the girl had been to catch an empty car so quickly.
....... I’ve never been more wrong in my life.
....... On sleepless nights, I can still see the next five seconds replay when I press my face into the pillow. The cable car seemed to pause on its tracks, there was a harsh unzippering noise synced to lightning flashes, and the car accelerated from the corner. By the time I thought to look to the gripman, his face was turned away from me, but I could just make out two pug-ugly Uzi machine guns dangling from leather straps that crisscrossed his chest. I yelled something inarticulate and plunged across the room to the door.
....... It was a short, drenching sprint to the cable car stop. The girl and the woman lay in a jumble with packages and bags in the gutter, their open umbrellas twitching and rocking in the rain like things possessed. There was no question of either being alive. The 9mm slugs had stitched a slashing line across faces and chests, and although there was relatively little bleeding, the damage was horrific. The older woman, in particular, simply had no forehead. The pantie girl had less damage to her face, but the tweed fabric of her vest was chewed to shreds and bright red arterial blood welled in shallow pools across her throat, sternum and breast. Both women peered up into the downpour with unblinking eyes.
....... The awful transformation from teasing, flirtatious girl to broken rag doll left me vapor locked. I didn’t know what to do. I sat on my haunches in the street, my hair plastered to my scalp, my fingers squeezed against my kneecaps, swaying from side to side. I might still be there if an aproned teenager hadn’t poked her head out the door of the Swensen’s and let off a strangled scream.
....... I blinked, then blinked again. I squeegeed hair and water off my face with my palm and reached across to close the eyes of the dead women. By the time I stood up, the teenager had retreated into the store. She tried to block me from entering, but I bulled my way through to stand dripping on the tiled floor while she scampered back behind the ice cream freezer. “Go away,” she squeaked.
....... “Call 911,” I said. “Tell them that a gripman on the Hyde cable car line is shooting people with machine guns.”
....... Whatever response she made to that was lost in the sound of me flinging open the door again with the little bell attached to it caroming wildly off the glass. I ran across Hyde to the alley that bordered the laundromat. I had parked my 1968 Ford Galaxie 500 halfway on the sidewalk in an illegal spot near the corner. I dove onto the bench seat, shoved the key in the ignition and cranked the starter while I worked the gas pedal. The car shook while the starter turned, but the engine didn’t catchan all too common occurrence with the Galaxie. I wrung the steering wheel in frustration, pumped the pedal some more and forced the starter into an extended series of arias. The engine still didn’t join the performance.
....... The smell of raw gasoline wafted into the car: flooded. Hissing a rosary of curses, I laid my hand flat on the dashboard in a kind of anti-blessing, pressed the gas peddle all the way to the floor and twisted the key. The Galaxie shimmied in an off-kilter rhythm, fired once, missed a beat, then fired again. Finally all the cylinders caught and the engine rumbled to life. A cloud of blue gray smoke that not even the driving rain could knock down billowed up behind me. I yanked the transmission into gear and jolted off the sidewalk in a squealing left turn onto Hyde.
....... The maximum speed of a cable car is ten miles per hour. That was still enough for the car I was chasing to travel six blocks to Washington where the tracks turned left to go down the hill to Powell. It was just making the turn as I gave the Galaxie all the gas I dared, winding the car up to 50 miles per hour by the time I hit the depression in the roadway where Hyde roofed the Broadway tunnel. The Galaxie bottomed out, scraping up yards of asphalt and swamping the aged shocks. We bucked in a seesaw oscillation that combined with the fogged front windshield and the wheels slipping on the slickened steel of the cable car tracks made controlling the car an iffy proposition at best.
....... The turn at Washington proved the point. I pressed the brakes to slow for it, but hydroplaned on the tracks. I torqued the wheel over anyway, provoking a skid that snapped the rear end wide and knocked over a scooter that was parked at the corner. I turned into the skid to regain control and side swiped two more autos. By the time I had fishtailed into the middle of Washington, the cable car had crossed Levenworth and was approaching the crest of the hill at Jones.
....... Then came the bullets. I had hoped the gripman would be unaware of my pursuit but the orchestra of crashes accompanying my turn must have alerted him. He swung wide out of the cable car, clinging to a white pole on the side while squeezing off a long, stuttering round from one of the Uzis. The slugs tattooed the hood of the Galaxie, then flew up into the windshield, chiseling a constellation of starburts in the glass. I tried to crawl into the dashboard ashtray, but flying glass sliced my right cheek before I could take cover.
....... The cable car rolled over the edge of the hill and the gripman lost his sight line. He swung back inside the car just as it slid from view.
....... Up until that point, the Galaxie had had little to recommend it as pursuit vehicle. It was old, mechanically unreliable, hard to control and not particularly fast. All of that changed now. A two ton hunk of 1960s Detroit iron makes an excellent guided missile.
....... I slapped the gearshift into low and tromped hard on the gas pedal. The rear wheels chirped and the car shot forward with a jolt that knocked more of the fractured glass from the windshield. In an instant, I was at the top of the hill. In another, I was sailing over it.
....... Any worry about how the shocks would handle another hard landing was misplaced. The Galaxie pancaked onto the back of the cable carflattening the panel with the car number and the Rice-A-Roni adand firmly embedding the front end at a height that didn’t permit the wheels to touch the ground. My forehead punished the steering wheel, and by the time I unstuck my frontal lobe from the inside of my skull, we were barreling down Washington as a conjoined unit at a speed much greater than the nineteenth century cable car designers had contemplated.
....... Not that the gripman wasn’t doing his damnedest to stop us. Plumes of sparks flew up from beneath the car where he’d employed the emergency breakbasically a steel wedge that is crammed into the slot between the tracksand I could smell and almost taste the acrid wood smoke coming off the old fashioned wooden track brakes. When the brakes didn’t seem to be working he resorted to the Uzi. Bullets nickered overhead, but I put a stop to that by tromping even harder on the gas.
....... We shot past Taylor and then Mason. I realized I had a death squeeze on the steering wheel even though there was no steering to be done and I was screaming at the top of my lungs. The tracks turned right abruptly at the next streetPowellbut I didn’t think we would be joining them.
....... There was a hard jolt at the intersection and I felt the cable car wrenching away from the Galaxie. My front wheels bounded onto the ground. The last thing I registered before slamming on the brakes and bracing myself for the inevitable was the cable car heeling over like a yachtthe grip beneath the car still attached to the cable, which was being pulled from its slot like a gigantic rubber band.
....... The back end of the Galaxie spun around to the left and I skidded kitty-corner across the intersection to broadside a street lamp, and when that didn’t hold, the storefront of a Chinese Market. I heard the light pole crashing down, glass from the storefront shattering, and above it all, a tremendous snap and an awful whipping sound.
....... I rattled around the interior of the car like a bean in a rumba shaker. I must have lost consciousness for a moment because the next thing I remembered was the near zenlike sound of rain water dripping through the broken windshield onto the dash. Then a whispered, “Are you okay?”
....... Okay I was not. I sat up in the seat and immediately discovered about ten places where I hurt, including a stinger to my neck that made my left arm feel like it was on fire. Outside the driver’s side window, next to a store display of ceramic figurines, was the person inquiring about my health: an old Chinese man in a sweat suit and a Cal Berkeley baseball cap. The way out to the left was blocked, so I crawled across the seat, encrusting my knees with a mosaic of broken glass and ceramics as I went, and pushed open the passenger door. I lumbered out and stood on trembling legs by the base of the felled street light, transfixed by what I saw across the way.
....... “Hey,” said the Chinese guy, no longer whispering. “You smashed my store.”
....... I didn’t answer him because I had already broken into a shuffling, windmilling trot to get to the far corner. The cable car was flipped over on its side, part on the roadway and part on the sidewalk. The gripman was on his back in the street, lying parallel to the overturned car. As I got closer, I could see that he was alive and conscious, but given his injuries, I doubted he wanted to be either.
....... This was my first good look at him. He was young, red-haired, and probably had a last name that started with O’. He had a bandanna tied around his head that matched his brown SF Municipal Railway uniformand a special cable car division insignia embroidered over his chest. I reluctantly abandoned my theory that he was a random crackpot who hijacked the car.
....... It was no theory that he was suffering. The skin on his face was so pale and so wet that it appeared almost translucent. His eyes were marbles of agony. He watched as I approached, then gasped, “I can’t feel my feet.”
....... I wasn’t going to make it easy for him. “That’s because you don’t have any.”
....... He nodded like I’d passed along a ball score, then closed his eyes. “The cable,” he mumbled.
....... “Yeah. The cable. But you won’t need your feet for the gurney ride to the lethal injection chamber. Now shut up while I save your miserable life.”
....... I yanked off my belt and leaned down to cinch it above his left knee as a makeshift tourniquet. The first cop car showed up as I was tugging at his belt for the other leg, my fingers slippery with blood.
Copyright (c) 2009 by Mark Coggins.
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