Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 19

     Thanks to having woken up with a stomachache, Jet stayed home from school and watched Nina at Nine with his mother. It’s not like he was particularly prone to stomachaches—with the notable exception of the third grade, when he had one for three months because his teacher, Miss Clausen, insisted on making him stand in front of the class each morning and recite the day, date and time in French—but he was no match for the colony of Salmonella newport bacteria which built a condominium in the two week-old rice pudding he’d discovered buried in the back of the refrigerator between a jar of vintage mint jelly and an open box of Bake-O-Pow baking soda, a brand which hadn't been manufactured in over eight years. It wasn’t a horribly bad stomachache, but it was bad enough for Erta to keep him home from school.

     Nina at Nine had the distinction of being the only show on daytime TV that could get Erta to switch over from the Quite Reverend. This was quite an honor, especially for a locally produced—and very obviously so—news/entertainment/public service television show. It starred Nina Nise, former Queen of the Big Boy Tomato Festival whose primary qualification for the job was being married to the station manager.

           Nina at Nine had been on the air for three years and had all the relevance of an appointment book in a mausoleum. Each day Nina made one of her favorite recipes, highlighted a local charity, demonstrated a craft item which could be made at home, and interviewed the closest thing to a celebrity guest she could coerce into coming on the show. This particular morning she made a herring and capers casserole, discussed the Lily White Society (which she assumed was a garden club but was, in fact, the women’s branch of the Order of the Neo-American Reich), showed how to make decorative Thanksgiving turkeys from pine cones (a favorite of hers which she demonstrated at least once a month), and interviewed Crunchy Castleton.

     Crunchy, who received her nickname after being caught giving her tenth grade biology teacher a blow job with her mouth full of crushed ice, held the dubious honor of being the town's only professed psychic. Each year at the Annual Interfaith Christmas Church Bazaar and Hannukah Hootenanny, Crunchy spent the day sitting in a small dimly lit room decorated with cut-out stars and moons reading Tarot cards, palms, or bumps on the head. Each fate-seeker, after waiting at least thirty-five minutes in line, would loudly remark that it was a fun way to give a dollar to charity, then hang on each of Crunchy's words, whining like a well chafed two-year old when told their time was up.

     "Crunchy? May I call you Crunchy?" Nina asked.

     "You already have."

     "Then may I continue?"

     "Of course," Crunchy said.

     "Tell me," Nina began, putting her finger to her lips as if deep in thought.  "Did you know I was going to ask you that?"

     "Ask me what?"

     "Whether it was all right to call you Crunchy."

     "Of course."

     "Exactly how did you know?" Nina said, spreading her hands apart. "Did you see it in a dream? Did you have a vision while you were sitting here? Or did it just pop into your head like a vacation slide on a screen?"

     "None of them," Crunchy said, causing Nina to lean forward and raise her eyebrows in suspense. "I knew it because that's the first question everyone asks me."

     Nina looked down at the coffee table and snuck a peek at a white index card with questions she’d prepared for the guest. "As you know, I asked you here this morning to discuss the rash of unusual robberies which has been plaguing our fine city. The police don't seem to be making any progress. And everywhere I go friends and viewers alike ask me, 'Nina, what can we do?'. "

     "Obviously I'm not a policeman, and I think anyone who knows me at all—whether it be socially or from our daily visits on this show—knows that I hold the local police in the highest regard. But that doesn't mean we can't do our best to help, to augment, to assist our friends in blue. That's why I've asked you here today Crunchy, to see if you can use your God-given talents to help the police solve these crimes."

     "I'll try my best," Crunchy said, "but I can't promise anything."

     "Is there anything you need? Spooky music? A black light?"

     "Just silence."

     Nina held her finger to her lips. "Sh-h-h. Now everyone be quiet and let's give Crunchy a chance," she said staring directly into the camera, since there was no studio audience on Nina's show.

     Crunchy closed her eyes and lightly massaged her temples. She pressed the index finger of her left hand against a point in the middle of her forehead and sat bolt upright. Her body relaxed, her hands falling gently to her lap. Her head lolled in a circle, her eyes open wide.

     "I see someone," Crunchy said in a deep melodic voice, radically unlike her own.

     "Who is it?" Nina asked intently.

     "It's a man. He's wearing gold robes and rope sandals."

     "Is he the robber?"

     "He’s a holy man," Crunchy continued. "His eyes are closed. I think he’s asleep while standing up. No, his eyes aren’t closed. He’s Asian. He's a Chinaman priest."

     "Is he the robber?"

     "He has paper bags. He has clothes hangers. He has menus."

     "What else does he have?"

     "He has rice," Crunchy said. "He lives near a factory where they process rice. Or perhaps a warehouse that stores rice. He steals to ponder the meaning of the act. To search for a deeper understanding of life. His dog sleeps on the display pads from the jewelry store, he sleeps on the paper bags."

     "What's his name?"

     "Ling. Ting. Maybe Sing. It's hard to hear. Wait! It's Ping!"  Crunchy said excitedly, then softly, "Maybe not."

     "What does he look like?"


     "But what does he look like?"

     "He wears gold robes."

     "That should be pretty easy to find in this area," Nina said directly into the camera.

     "I see him in another room," Crunchy said. "There are no bags, no hangers, no menus. But there’s water. Lots of water. He removes his golden robes. He has a slender body with a small, firm butt. He's looking directly at me, his deep black eyes burning a hole through my soul. His eyes look down, forcing my eyes to follow. I look at his hairless chest, then follow the path of his eyes across his stomach and at his...Oh my God! He's huge! I've never seen a man that big! It can't be real, it's too much like a..."

     "Thank you Crunchy Castleton for being on today's show. Be sure to join us tomorrow morning when we'll make a fabulous low calorie fruit cocktail shortcake that's long on taste..."

     "Oh, you shouldn't be doing that."

     "...get some leather-saving tips from that brown-eyed sole brother, Reginald Talbot, who's been repairing shoes at Reggie's Shoe Shop for over twenty-seven years..."

     "I can't stand it, I've just got to have that thing."

     "...and show you how to make the most adorable doll furniture from old Clorox bottles..."

     "I'll do anything. Anything you say!"

     "...Until then, this is Nina Nise saying have a Nise day."

     "That’s it. We'll have an ice day," Crunchy shouted. "Yes! An ice day! We'll do it with ice!"

     * * * * * *

     Erta switched the channel to the Quite Reverend, who was rerunning a tape from several months ago when he was at the San Diego Wildlife Park healing an old tiger with arthritis. Erta picked up her tattered address book with the red and yellow vinyl cover and started calling everyone she knew to tell them about the meeting that night.

     Word circulated quickly. At 10:47 she called Ginny McCann, who already heard about the meeting from her sister Rachel. At 11:05 she called Nora Zordinger, who had heard from Ruth Ann Andre, Erica Johnston, Teeny Shawn, and C.R. Valence. At 11:15 she closed her address book and went food shopping, satisfied that there was little sense in calling anyone else.

     From the moment she left the house until the moment she returned, Jet answered the phone thirty-eight times.

     "Jeez, Mom. It's tough enough being sick without having to play secretary too," he told his mother when she got home.

     The phone rang.

     "Would you get that, honey?" she asked.

     "Why not," he answered, "it's for you." He picked up the receiver, "The meeting's here at 7 o’clock tonight. Bring some munchies and all your friends, unless they're one and the same." He was quiet for moment while he listened. "Mom, is it okay if they bring a TV camera?"

     "Of course."

     "Sure, no problem."

     Something clicked in Erta's mind. "What did you say?"

     "Just a second," he said into the phone, then putting his hand over the receiver, "I told 'em it was no problem."

     "No, before that."

     "They asked if they can bring a TV camera to the meeting."

     "Who has a TV camera?"

     "The TV station, who else? Is it okay?"

     Erta paused for a second, but instead of her brain processing this information it sat in idle with the engine revving. "I guess so," she stammered. "Do they need a lot of room?"

     "Do you need a lot of room?" Jet asked into the phone. He turned to his mother, "Nah."

     "I don't see why not," she said, not very convincingly.

     Jet hung up the phone. "Two other TV stations called while you were out and want you to call 'em back."

     "What did they want?"

     "They wanna bring TV cameras, too."

     "What did you tell them?"

     "I told 'em to go ahead."

     The phone rang before Erta could say anything. Jet answered it.

     "Mom, some guy from the Weekly Something wants to talk to you."

     Erta sighed and took the phone.

     "Mrs. Banker," the voice began, "I'm Steve Clarkson, a reporter for the Weekly World Scene and I'd like to ask you a few questions about the citizen's action committee you're organizing." Erta was silent. "Mrs. Banker? Is this a good time to talk?"

     "Could you call back in about fifteen minutes?" Erta asked.

     "Just a couple of quick questions, Mrs. Banker. It won't take long, I promise."

     "Fifteen minutes, please."


     Erta placed the receiver in the cradle, then picked it up before it had a chance to ring.  She dialed, got a busy signal, then hung up. On the fifth try she got through.

     "Jem, this is getting completely out of hand."

     "You're telling me," she replied. "I haven't been off the phone for five minutes all day. I tell you, people are just going crazy mixed-up about all this."

     "Three TV stations want to film the meeting and some reporter wants to interview me."

     "That’s great!"

     "I’m not so sure it is," Erta said tentatively. "I don't think I'm very good at that sort of thing."

     "Have you ever done it before?"


     "Well, bushwa! It's a cinch that anyone who can organize something like this can handle a couple of TV and newspaper reporters."

     "But that's not the same as talking to people I know."

     "Just pretend they're old friends," Jem told her, "and explain it to them just like you are to your friends over the phone."

     "This is a lot bigger than I imagined," Erta said, a little worried. "Where are we going to put everybody? This house isn’t that big."

     Jem was silent. "Erta," she finally said, "I think we're going to have to find ourselves a bigger place to hold this."

     "I know, but where?"

     "How about the school?"

     "It's not a school function," Erta said. "I don't think they'll let us do it."

     "Who else has enough room?"

     "The Towne Theater?"

     "They'll be showing a movie."

     "A church?"

     "No matter which one we pick we're going to piss off someone."

     "Well what are we gonna do?" Erta asked in exasperation. "Hold it in the Food House parking lot?"

     * * * * * *

     Traffic on Broad Street was backed up for ten blocks. While this may mean nothing to a Guiness Book of World Records judge, it was an unparalleled event in the 137 years since the road had been hacked out of the underbrush. Had you asked anyone about the likelihood of such an occurrence happening, they would have told you there weren't enough people in town to cause that kind of gridlock and they would have been right, for people had come from miles away to join what alternately resembled a family reunion and the Woodstock of lynch mobs.

     Another historical first was that the Food House parking lot was completely devoid of cars. While this doesn't sound like it should be such a rarity—for by all rights it should be empty all night, every night—it was. For normally if Ramon wasn't busy restocking the store, Candy Warsh was in the back seat of someone's—anyone's—car, dry humping her little heart out and giving in to the whiny pleas for a handjob. And if a shopper's car wasn't stranded overnight with a dead battery because Flippo's wouldn't send a wrecker until the next morning, a city cop was dozing off in the front seat of his squad car, often in Candy Warsh's warm, underage company.

     What the parking lot lacked in cars this night, it more than made up in people. There was a stage of sorts set up next to the building, if in fact you could call forty upside-down empty milk crates covered with flattened cardboard cartons a stage. In front of this were sixty uncomfortable metal folding chairs, donated for the evening by Johnson's Funeral Parlor and Eternal Gardens where, as it was proudly stenciled on the back of the chairs, "the plot always deepens". Behind these chairs was a vast sea of people lying on blankets eating fried chicken, sitting in beach chairs sucking Popsicles, and milling about in a near perfect example of Brownian motion.

     Food vendors pushed shopping carts filled with cotton candy, Cracker Jacks, and candy apples. Others had their hands full of brightly colored helium balloons shaped like Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus, and George Washington. One was even trying to sell huge foam rubber shamrocks and small green plastic bowler hats left over from the rained out St. Patrick's Day parade. Reporters roamed the crowd looking for stories and settling for local color. There were microphones plugged into tape decks, reporter's notebooks being written on with sharp pencils, and one TV camera for every ninety-seven people. A police helicopter crisscrossed overhead, its powerful spotlight sweeping the crowd like a bad prison movie.

     Erta sure knows how to throw a party.

     "Why do I have to do this?" she asked Jem Marconi.

     "Because it was your idea," Jem replied. "Besides, if you remember, I agreed to give a speech later on. The least you can do is announce the speakers."

     Erta looked out at the huge crowd; she'd never before spoken to more than five people at once.

     "How do you work this thing anyway?" she asked, waving an electric bullhorn at Jem.

     "I really don't know," Jem said, examining it closely.

     Officer Milo Jenkins leaned over. "You just pull the trigger and talk into it," he told Erta.

     "Just pull on it?"

     "Yup, that's all there is to it."

     Erta hesitantly mounted the stage and looked out over the sea of bodies which filled the parking lot. Her mouth went dry. Her throat constricted. Her hands started to sweat.

     "Just do it," Jem called out in a loud whisper. "Don't think about it; just do it."

     Erta looked at Jem, her eyes glassed over, her hands shaking. She turned to the crowd and raised the bullhorn to her mouth. Her thumb pressed a red button on the side.


     The piercing cry of a thousand horny Godzillas erupted from the bullhorn, startling Erta and causing her to drop it. The crowd let out a shocked gasp and fell silent. As every head in the parking lot turned towards Erta, the bullhorn clattered to the stage, bounced onto the asphalt, and skittered into the crowd.  Erta looked at Jem in panic.

     "Get it," Jem mouthed to her, motioning towards the crowd with her hand.

     Erta didn’t see any bullhorn, all she saw was thousands of faces staring at her. Waiting. For her. Erta wanted to say, "I'm sorry, I must be in the wrong place. This isn't the Intercounty Bridge Tournament, is it?", but even if she were to say it, no one other than the three people directly in front of her would have heard it unless she had the bullhorn.  Without that she couldn't get out of this, gracefully or otherwise.

     "Here you go, Mrs. Banker," Officer Jenkins said as he handed Erta the bullhorn. "Now that you've got everyone's attention, don’t push the button, pull the trigger."

     Erta lifted the bullhorn to her lips and pulled the trigger. Nothing came out.

     "Pull the trigger, dear," Jem said.

     Erta stared straight ahead.

     "The trigger!"

     Erta held the trigger in as far as it would go—the bullhorn worked fine, it was Erta that had gone mute. Realizing that every second she waited was another eternity of embarrassment, she finally opened her mouth.  But |nothing came out. She thought about the silver-tongued preachers who had filled nearly every waking hour of her adult life. They spoke to thousands—perhaps even millions—of people every day, why shouldn't she be able to talk in front of a crowd just this once?

     The pressure of thousands of staring eyes burned into her skin. The black holes of TV camera lenses waited to suck her words out of her lungs and onto the airwaves.  "Think of them as if they’re one big person," she thought. "Pretend you're talking to yourself in the shower." She opened her mouth to speak but still nothing came out.

     "What would the Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III do?" she asked herself.

     She took a deep breath. Closed her eyes. And opened her mouth. The words flowed loudly and with conviction, the bullhorn spraying them over the crowd.

     "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name;" she began. Scattered people joined along. "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." More people joined in, the buzzing words getting louder.  "Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Had Erta's eyes been open, she would have seen that nearly everyone in the Food House parking lot was standing with head bowed, hands clasped in front of them, reciting the Lord's Prayer as one.

     "And chringen us not into grabando, but debraden pre por kanda," she continued. One by one, group by group, people fell silent, straining to hear Erta's words. "Rolf troine esta Kaltemp, ent tra promme, ent tra grondoll, prenta.  Amen."

     "Amen," the crowd responded, looking at each other bewildered.

     "Krindel! Krindel! Brayd nyam a dwa preeknoid," Erta continued, her eyes shut tight.

     "What's she saying?" Officer Jenkins asked Jem.

     "Sometimes she mumbles when she gets excited," Jem told him, knowing it was much better than telling him the truth: Erta was addressing the crowd in tongues.

     "Dramboy intui riprap freemb, entruro ent tra kroisan."

     "You'd better get up there," Jem told Jenkins, knowing something had to be done. And quickly.

     "What for?" he asked.

     "She just introduced you."

     "You sure?"

     "Positive," Jem said emphatically. "Didn't you hear?"

     * * * * * *

     While Officer Jenkins told the crowd about the progress, or lack thereof, the police had made in the investigation, Jet wandered through the densely packed mob looking for a familiar face. It was amazing that with this many people he would recognize so few. Oh, there was Old Man Cordin and his wife, sitting on folding chaise lounges playing The Price Is Right with people’s jewelry as they walked by. And Whitey Hepplewhite, who silently surveyed the size of the crowd hoping his Food House store would reap the financial benefits of this goodwill gesture. And there was his English teacher, Miss Hellstrom, standing to the side dressed so casually Jet didn't recognize her as she held hands with a man she’d met the night before.

     Jet knew his brother was somewhere in the crowd, luckily not with him. They'd walked most of the way to the rally together. Amazingly, the walk had been very pleasant— almost enjoyable, in fact—until they'd gotten about two blocks from the Food House, which was when Job wanted his brother to walk twenty steps behind him so no one would think they were together.

     "You know what I'd do if someone thought we came here together?" Job asked.

     "Shoot yourself?"

     "No, shoot you."

     "Then they'd arrest you," Jet said.

     "But they'd let me go."

     "They'd have to. You're so ugly you'd scare the other prisoners."

     "No, you peckerhead," Job said, "they'd let me go and give me a medal."

     "The only metal you've got is between your ears."

     "That's right. A mind like a steel trap."

     "A mind like stolen crap."

     Job tore a match from the matchbook he'd been playing with, placed the head on the striking surface, turned, and shot the match at his brother. It ignited in mid-trajectory.

     "The truth hurts," Jet called out, "doesn't it?"

     The match landed on Jet's head. He swatted at it with his hand as the sickening aroma of singed hair swirled around his head.

     "I guess you just met your match," Job said, laughing.

     "My match died on the cross."

     Job shot another match at his brother, but it missed. This convinced Jet it would be in his best interest to walk the requested twenty feet behind his brother.

     Now as Jet roamed through the crowd he was happy his brother had abandoned him, though it would be nice to find at least one of his friends.   He suspected Rubber Boots was there, as well as Hanner and Neckless, each most likely with their families. The problem was, locating anyone in that massive crowd was like finding a dustball after Jackson Robert finished a cleaning binge. Jose Rosenbloom, who with his height and balloon head would have been easy to spot, had misunderstood what his friends said and at that moment was standing outside the Food Hut Quik-Serv wondering why everyone else was so late.

     Just as gravity, relativity, and quantum mechanics were very much in effect that night, so was probability. Probability would predict that in a crowd of that size, Jet would be bound to run into at least one person he knew. It would also say that of all the people he could run into he'd be most likely to run into the one person he'd least want to see. Jet, in his own inimitable way, bucked the odds by running into not one, but two of the people he least wanted to see.

     "Well, well, well," Johnny Kasouska said, "look who we've got here."

     "Hey, Johnny," Jet said, trying to muster some false enthusiasm.

     "Didya forget about me?" the Turk asked.

     "I was working on it."

     The Turk proudly grinned at Johnny. If it weren't for pinheads, how would idiots know their proper place in the food chain?

     "I think we have some unfinished business," Johnny said. "You, me, and your little pal Bubba Roots."

     "Yeah, where is that junior bone puffer?" the Turk added.

     "I don’t know," Jet said, ignoring the Turk. "But this rally is for a good cause, and I think we should be focusing our thoughts and energies on trying to solve the problems at hand so we can work together in global harmony to make this a better world for ourselves and future generations. So why spoil it by bringing yesterday's business into it? Besides, if Bubba...I mean Rubber Boots, isn't here then we don't have a quorum and we can't very well hold the meeting, now can we?"

     "I can do whatever the fuck I want," Johnny said.

     "Yeah, it's a free country, ain't it?" The Turk added.

     "I guess democracy does have its drawbacks," Jet said. "So what was it you wanted to talk about?"

     "The note."

     "The note?"

     "The note."

     "What note do you mean?" Jet asked with exaggerated innocence.

     "You know what note. The one I got by mistake after English class the other day," Johnny said as Jet screwed his face into a cartoon image of non-comprehension. "You know what I’m talkin’ about. You got the one about my being late and I got......" he stopped as Jet pointed to himself and mouthed "Me?".

     "Yeah you, you dildo-brained sacka douchebags," the Turk said.

     "What charming images you conjure up," Jet said, then turning back to Johnny, "Now what's this about a note? I don't remember anything about any note."

     Johnny looked into Jet's eyes, catching on to what Jet was trying to tell him. I little smile crept on his face. "Wait, wait, wait," he said. "Come to think of it, maybe I've got you mixed up with someone else."

     "How many Jet's you know?" the Turk asked.

     Johnny smiled at Jet, who turned and started to walk away. "See you guys, later," Jet said with a little wave.

     "Hey, Banker, where you going?" the Turk called out.

     Johnny touched the Turk's shoulder. "How 'bout a ciggie-butt for your old pal?"

     "But what about..."

     "What about nothin'."

     The Turk looked at Johnny and blinked his eyes. "Ya know, sometimes I just don't get it."

     "I knew there was something about you I liked," Johnny said. "Now where's that ciggie?"

     * * * * * * 

     On the stage, Officer Jenkins finished his defensive pep talk. "And so I ask for the h-h-h-help of each and every one of you b-b-b-by acting as the extra eyes and ears that will extend the reach of the p-p-p.....p-p.....police force so far and wide that whoever p-p-p-perpetrated these crimes will have nowhere to hide, nowhere to f-f-f-feel safe. With your help, I promise you we will ca-ca-atch him and bring him to j-j-j-j-j-j-justice."

     A polite wave of applause swept through the crowd. Jenkins stood in place, basking in the appreciation and saluting the crowd with the bullhorn in hand. He never knew working a crowd could get him—and them—so charged up. Knute Rockne with a .38.

     "What now?" Erta asked Jem.

     Having never run a rally before, Jem wasn't really sure what else was supposed to happen. It would seem that there should be more speakers to stir the crowd with their oratorical flashfires, culminating in a speech so universally soulful, so charged with contagious adrenaline that the crowd would be whipped into an anarchic frenzy.

     She looked at Erta, but knew she couldn't chance letting her back on the stage lest she decide on the spot to launch an evangelical career by trying to convert a Food House parking lot full of innocent bystanders to a brand new religion. They hadn't arranged for any other speakers—not having expected anything of this magnitude or needing this much organization—and other than Jupiter Johnson, an ex-history teacher who'd earned his nickname by lecturing people, trees, and bicycle tires that history books were nothing but big fat lies, none had come up and volunteered. The choice before Jem was simple: either this was to be the shortest rally known to Western civilization, or she would have to take the stage now and hope for the best.

     "Friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens," she said, holding the bullhorn to her mouth. "Let’s all take a moment to offer thanks for the full lives that we have. Thanks that we're not hungry, that we have clothing to wear, and that we have a roof over our heads. Because as sure as the sun rises every morning—except, of course, when it's raining—the day will always come when our applecart is upset, when our nice little world is turned topsy turvy, when our status becomes unquoed. And that's exactly what's happening to us now. For we have in our midst someone who’s disrupting our businesses and wreaking havoc on our lives."

     A mumbling ran through the crowd.

     "We've heard from Officer Jenkins of our fine police department, who says they're very close to an arrest. Ordinarily I'd say that was great news, except it seems to me I've heard that song before. Maybe it's deja vu, but I could swear we've been hearing that since the day after the first break-in."

     "Yeah!" the crowd said as one.

     "It's great that they sent Officer Jenkins here to talk to us tonight.  It's great that they have a special task force whose only job is to crack this case. It's great that they say it's a high priority. But where are the results? Where's the culprit? Exactly what have they got to show for all the work their special task force is putting in?"


     "That's right! Nothing! Now I don't know about you, but I'm sick and tired of going to bed every night afraid for myself and my family. I'm tired of picking up the newspaper, listening to the radio, watching TV and all I seem to hear about is the break-ins. I'm sick and tired of hearing excuses and not seeing results."


     Jem glanced over and saw Erta talking excitedly, frantically gesturing to Officer Jenkins and a man in a beige trenchcoat. "Oh my God," Jem thought, "she's tonguing them."

     "We live in a wonderful town," she told the crowd. "It's quiet, it's peaceful, it's a safe place to raise our families and teach our children the high moral values we ourselves were taught. But what kind of environment are they being exposed to when one person can terrorize each and every one of us by breaking into any business he so desires and taking whatever useless items he wants? Is this any way to bring up our children?"


     Another man in a trenchcoat joined Erta's group. He pointed towards the back of the crowd, then to the stage. Officer Jenkins stood on his tiptoes, straining to see over the heads of the crowd. Jem looked too, not having any idea what she was searching for. As she scanned the crowd, she noticed a circle of people about halfway back cutting a swath through the mass of bodies, bobbing and floating through the crowd like an embolism, roughly keeping its shape as it weaved along unheeded.

     "The members of the press are here—newspapers, TV, radio. Look at the TV cameras staring at me right now. What do you think they're saying to the world?"


     "They're saying our police aren't capable of capturing a robber.


     "They're saying we don't care enough to do something about it."


     "And it’s not just that they're saying it—no, that would be so bad—they're saying it with smirks on their faces, laughter in their eyes, and sneers on their mouths."


     The bubble worked its way through the crowd and was nearing the side of the stage. Jem could see three policemen and two men wearing trenchcoats walking in a tight circle, arms linked to form a human barrier. Officer Jenkins and Erta came to the side of the stage and motioned Jem to them.

     "It's over," Jenkins said.

     "What's over?"

     "The ordeal is over; we've arrested a suspect," he continued.

     "It can't be," Jem said, looking at Erta in disbelief. She was just getting fired up!

     "Go ahead and announce it," Erta said.

     "Now?" Jem said blankly.

     "Not yet," Jenkins said, "wait until they get him away from here. I don't need a lynching on my hands."

     The circle of police arrived beside the stage, pausing briefly as if to catch its collective breath. As it started moving towards Broad Street, the human armor parted momentarily, giving Erta and Jem a quick glimpse of the suspect the police had so triumphantly nabbed. As he struck a match and lit his cigarette, the flame quickly flared, momentarily lighting Johnny Kasouska's face before the police again closed in around him and moved as one away from the stage.

     "May I?" Officer Jenkins asked as he took the bullhorn from Jem's hand. He walked onto the stage and stood in the center, remaining silent until Johnny had been loaded into a police car and it left the area.

     "F-F-F-Friends, neighbors, and members of the p-p-p-press, I have an important announcement to make," Jenkins barked into the bullhorn. "We have j-j-j-just arrested a suspect in the b-b-b.....b-b....break-ins."  He stood up tall, straightened his back, and sucked in his stomach, standing proudly at attention.

     "How's that for service?"


Chapter 20 ]

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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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