I got away with murder once, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen again. Damn. This time I didn't do it. Well, not all of it anyway.
The incoming call showed up as an "alert" on my computer screen at almost midnight Friday night. I balled up the paper wrapper from the cold burrito I'd called dinner and reached for the mouse. There were more than a hundred of us on the night shift, each sequestered in separate cubicles and hunched over our screens like penitents in a confessional. The room was super-cooled to keep us awake. I laughed at the irony that, although it was September, it was probably still ninety degrees outside in the Arizona desert.
According to the information on the screen, the client's name was Markson and he was driving a 2007 Cadillac Seville. The HandsOn service he'd signed up for included automatic notification to the Call Center if his airbag had been triggered.
"HandsOn Emergency. This is Jessie. Is there an emergency in the vehicle?"
A muffled response. Coughing. He was probably still patting back the doughy folds of airbag that had assaulted him, reeling from the sting of the high-powered blast of the nylon bag on his cheeks and chest. His face would be dusted with white powder from the explosion. His nose might be broken.
"I'm all right." More coughing. "Just got rear ended."
"Is anyone in your car injured? Do you want me to call an ambulance?" It must have been quite a hit; rear enders rarely set off the airbag.
Something like a groan. Then the metal-on-metal snick of a car door shutting.
"No, I'm okay. I'll check with the other guy."
Another car door opened and shut, the sound closer this time.
"Didn't you see ..." Markson's voice trailed off in the distance.
The map on my screen showed that the car was in Tucson. Weird. The Call Center was responsible for a thousand mile section from Southern California to East Texas. Funny to get a call from just down the road.
The blinking cursor showed Darren Markson's car near Agua Caliente Wash on the east side of town. The "hot water" in the name of the arroyo was pure wishful thinking; it would only see water during the monsoon runoffs. Probably not even a paved road out there, if the map markings were right. More desert than city, really. The creosote would be taller than the Cadillac's windows.
The sound of scuffling came through my earpiece. I pushed the plastic ear bud tight to my head in concentration. Panting. A soft thud.
"I told you ..." A deeper voice, it carried the hot, dusty smell of Mexico in the slurred bridge between the words. Almost "toll Jew."
Something slammed against nearby metal, then the sound of breaking glass.
"You lying sack of ..." A different voice. English as a first language. Beer as a second.
Deep, fight-for-air panting. Heavy thuds of elbows or boots against the Cadillac's solid metal door. A long exhaled breath. Then silence. A kicked pebble ricocheted off metal as someone moved away.
"Mr. Markson? Mr. Markson! Are you all right?"
The silence was louder than the voices had been.
Whatever was going on, it required the cops. I called the 911 Operator in Tucson. In most cases, I'd make the connection and then let the client and 911 Operator talk directly to each other, but Markson seemed to have his hands full right now.
"This is HandsOn emergency dispatcher, Jessie Dancing. One of our clients is having some trouble. He's been rear-ended out near Agua Caliente Wash, just north of Soldier Trail."
"Give me the details on the car."
"It's a white Cadillac Seville, Arizona plates, David-Edward-Nora Zero Six Six. I heard what sounded like a fight, and now I've lost contact with Mr. Markson."
"We'll send a patrol car."
I gave her my number and hung up, then flipped back to the open communications channel with Markson's car. If it was a fight, who'd started it? Markson or the guy who'd crashed into him? And I thought I'd heard three voices.
There was movement nowthe susurration of fabric on fabric. And something that sounded like the glove box opening then clicking shut again.
"Mr. Markson? Are you okay?"
A grunted acknowledgment, then silence. The connection had gone dead.
I zapped an audio copy of the Markson conversation over to Mad Cow. Madeleine Cowell was her real name, but I treasured the friendship that allowed me to use the shortened honorific. She was on the concierge team tonightthe HandsOn operators that made hotel and restaurant reservations for clientsnot the emergency dispatch group. Take a listen to this, I typed. Easy enough to walk right over to her cubicle and ask her myself, but this way I didn't have to leave my computer screen unattended.
Mad Cow's return email popped into view. Is this going to be one of the Dumb Questions? Mad Cow and I had adapted comedian Larry Engvall's "Here's Your Sign" skits to life at HandsOn. You know the ones. "Tire go flat?" "No. The other three just swelled right up on me." The current pick for the dumbest incoming call was the guy who phoned last week and asked if I could tell him if his car was running.
Not this time. I thought this guy was in trouble, but I'm not sure.
I thought it sounded like a couple of guys at a kegger, she answered.
Maybe she was right. Maybe I'd imagined the threat in those voices.
I tried to put the sounds in the most positive light. Say Markson wandered into this patch of trackless desertgot stuck in the sandand somehow got tapped by another car that was trying to help push him out. The "I told you" and sounds of a scuffle could just be a couple of guys trying to dislodge a car from deep sand.
But I couldn't get around the third voice. The one who said "you lying sack of" something. That made it more serious than a couple of guys straining their calf muscles and debating whose insurance was going to cover the damage.
Now that Markson's first call had been disconnected I couldn't initiate another call to his carwell, not legally. Our customers frowned on the notion that we might listen in whenever we wanted to.
His personal cell phone information was listed on the screen, too. I listened through five rings and an even-tempered voice mail, then left my number for him to call back.
I turned the volume all the way up and replayed his incoming call. There was a breath of desert air and the scritch of creosote branches on metal, sounds I hadn't heard the first time around. Markson must have had the windows open. And I heard the same words as before, although Markson's voice sounded more nasal than I'd first thought. Maybe the airbag really had broken his nose.
There were at least three voicesone born in a big city in the East, one nurtured on the stony mesas of Mexico, and one coming straight from a bar. And there was definitely a fight.
I'd never had a call drop like this before. The satellite communications system we used was much more powerful than a regular cell phone, so it wasn't likely that he'd gone out of range or lost the connection. More likely, somebody inside the car had pushed the button to disconnect.
Fuck the privacy laws. I shut off the automatic recording system and pinged the car. It was still in the same spot.
I opened the phone channel to allow me to hear what was going on. Voices muttered in the distancethe cadence and consonants sounding more like Spanish than English. I couldn't tell how many voices or what they were saying. The sound of something dragged across brittle vegetation, and a rasping sound that I couldn't place. Heavy, smacking thumps of wood against something softer. A grunt of air with the effort. A scream and a groan in response.
I didn't say anything, unwillingeven though I was almost a hundred miles awayto let them know that I was a witness to the scene. A coward, hiding on the other end of a satellite phone.
The heavy thuds continued but the moaned responses stopped.
I called the cops back, but didn't tell them about listening in again on Markson's car. What good would that do anyway? It was against the law, it wasn't recorded, and I didn't have anything but a scary premonition to tell them about.
"Have your officers found the car yet?"
"They're on their way. We had a delay here with a drive by shooting."
"Call me when you find him. OK?"
* * *
It was almost two a.m. before I got a call back.
"This is Officer Painter."
Thank God it wasn't anybody I knew on the Tucson PD. I'd changed my name to Dancingit was my middle name and my mother's maiden namebut there had been plenty of headlines back then that included it. Hopefully this guy wouldn't make the connection. "Did you find the Cadillac?"
"Yeah, just where you said it would be." He sounded young.
"How's Mr. Markson?"
"There's no one here."
Maybe Markson got a ride from the other driver or went to get a tow truck. But he wouldn't have needed to; I could have done that for him. HandsOn clients knew that. It's why they paid as much as my monthly food bill for the service.
"But ... ma'am?"
This kid was making me feel decades older than my thirty-two years.
"There's blood everywhere."
© Louise Ure, 2009
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