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The Hero Experience - Chapter 21

 
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Mon Apr 13, 2015 5:18 pm    Post subject: The Hero Experience - Chapter 21 Reply with quote


____________________________________________

Chapter 21

Carl, Stan, Doug, and I had decided a week earlier that the last Saturday before school started would be the perfect time to make one last appearance as the world’s very first, one-and-only masked crime fighters. It had been three weeks since the episode at the drive-in movie, which we referred to as the Starlight Fireworks Show. We knew we were pressing our luck, because the police now had the correct color, make, and model of the Bowmobile. They also had the numbers of two (possibly three) stolen license plates we had used.

Stan had gone back to the used car lot a third time a few weeks ago and swapped the plate we had been using for a different one. But after the incident at the Starlight Drive-In, we knew the police would trace that license number to the used car lot (again), and the owners would do a careful check of all their vehicles (if they hadn't already done so). After doing so, they’d tell the police which license number was missing. The police would then know that our Jeep Wagoneer had that particular stolen license plate, and they’d be on the lookout for it.

So, we ditched the stolen license plate and put the real one back on the Jeep. We reasoned that any blue Jeep Wagoneer the police saw would have its license plate called in, but the police would expect the number to be wrong — thus proving it must be the Bowmen. However, if a policeman spotted our Jeep and called in the actually license number, he would learn that it did match the vehicle's make and model. Therefore, it was not the Bowmen.

Sort of reverse psychology.

Besides, the plan for the evening was to keep the Jeep well out of sight and make a quick and splashy appearance that would serve as a fond farewell for Atlanta’s vigilante crime fighters. Matt Daniels could write it up as our official swan song.

The end of an era.

The birth of a legend.

We arrive downtown at seven-thirty. It was unusually hot and muggy for early September, and the city’s populace seemed to be just as conscious of the dwindling summer days as we were. An alarming number of Saturday night daredevils were on the road.

“A good opportunity to practice my defensive driving,” remarked Carl.

Our dark blue, long-sleeved, V-neck shirts were uncomfortable in the humid heat, but we were determined to wear them one last time. Thank God the Jeep was air conditioned. The masks lay on the seats next to us. The bows were in the back, covered with a blanket. The police band radio was hidden from casual view on the seat between Carl and me, babbling its series of numeric codes. But it was turned low, and we really weren’t paying attention to it. We just rolled along, cocky and confident and self-assured, feeling wistful about the fact that summer was almost gone and the Bowmen would soon be a minor footnote in the great book of history.

We cruised through the Varsity on North Avenue, the world’s largest drive-in restaurant, first established in 1928, serving enough greasy food between then and now to silence all the squeaky axles since the wheel had been invented.



We rolled slowly through the Varsity’s multi-deck serving lot, waving at the girls and looking steely-eyed at the guys. We gave scornful looks at their flashy cars, contemptuous of their gaudy colors and fragile chassis. Could any of these vanity vehicles leap like a gazelle across the undulating terrain at the south theater of the Starlight Twin Drive-in? Could any of them climb the kudzu-covered hill that bordered Funtown and leave a poor police car coughing in the dust created by our rocket-like ascent?

Of course not. I rest my case.



Admittedly we were less cocky whenever we passed a police car. Since we were determined to end our careers without the embarrassment of being arrested and thrown into prison until our acne years were just a dim memory, we resorted to desperate measures to avoid detection. Whenever we saw a patrol car, everybody but Carl would duck out of sight. Carl was wearing a faded blue denim shirt over his Bowmen uniform and an antique baseball cap pulled low on his head. He looked like the ultimate redneck, Bubba Joe Something-or-other. All he needed was a wad of chewing tobacco bulging his cheek and he’d be so convincing that the rest of us could sit up in plan sight and no policeman would give us a second glance.

However, each time we passed a patrol car, we would listen anxiously to the police band to see if the patrolman would call in a report. So far we'd been lucky, and we continued to patrol the city, ready to swing into action at a moment’s notice, eager to hunt down evil-doers wherever they may be, anxious to end the summer with one last adventure before returning to the grind and drudgery of our normal lives and our stressful final year of high school.

“Which way?” said Carl as we were about to pull away from the Varsity.

“Let’s got through the 10th Street section,” I announced firmly. “Crime runs rampant in that area.”

"Right. That's why we're staying away from it, remember?" said Carl.

"Oh. Okay, then turn right and we'll roll down Peachtree Street."

Carl pulled out into the traffic flow with a flourish, jolting us when he changed gears.

“How was your date with Ann last night?” Stan asked from the backseat.

“Terrific,” I drawled in a lazy voice. “I’m in love. Officially.”

Ann was something special, no doubt about it. Last’s night’s date at the Top of the Mart restaurant had actually topped the one we had last weekend, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. Last weekend we had gone to the Starlight Twin Drive-In (the hero returns to the scene of the crime — a twist on the old adage). The double feature was Barefoot in the Park and In Like Flint, two very different kinds of comedies, just what we wanted.

The dress code for that occasion was extremely casual. I wore faded blue jeans and a white t-shirt, going for a James Dean look. Ann wore short-shorts and a halter top, going for a Daisy Mae look that bulged my eyes, raised my blood pressure, and made me think thoughts that would have landed me back in her father’s jail cell if he’d been a mind reader.

The night was warm, clear, and filled with stars, and we were youth personified. We spent the evening laughing endlessly at each other’s wit. We goosed each other in the ribs at unexpected moments, like right in the middle of a tender kiss. We kissed at unexpected moments, like right in the middle of a tickling match. We gorged ourselves on food from the snack bar, and we marveled at the subtle aromas and delicious flavors of gourmet dishes such as corn dogs and French fries. Clearly, there was magic in the air, and we were breathing it in like trapped coal miners who had just been rescued.

During one of the serious moments, she had turned to me and asked a startling question. “Brad, am I just a summer girlfriend?”

I gaped at her, fish-eyed and open-mouthed with amazement, looking like a trout that had just been yanked out of his wet and happy home to be hauled up into the strange world of dry air and beer-drinking fishermen.

“No!” I said. “Lord, girl, what a question. Am I just a summer boyfriend?”

She kept her face straight as she leaned back and studied me carefully, cocking her head to the side. “Well, I might keep you till Thanksgiving. After that, we’ll just have to see how things are going."

I gave her a soft smile and an adoring look as I leaned closer and said. “If I can have you from now until Thanksgiving . . . I won’t need any Christmas presents.”

Oh boy, did that do the trick. I was a silver-tongued devil, and the kiss that followed that remark had not been interrupted by any tickling, no sir.

"What time is it?" said Doug, bringing me back from the Enchanted Land of Love.

“Almost eight-thirty,” said Carl. “Guess it’s time to make our final appearance.”

“Okay, but we never agreed on where to do it.” I turned to the guys in the back. “Come on, you two. We need to stop arguing about this.”

“I still say the High Museum,” Doug said adamantly.

“They've got guards there,” Stan pointed out. "Real guards with guns. Not just night watchmen."

This news angered Doug, and he looked at Stan as if the presence of the guards was his fault.

Carl had his own ideas on the subject. “Let's spend a few minutes in front of the Fox Theater saying hi to folks going in. They might even ask us for our autographs."

“That’s too friendly and cozy,” said Doug. “We want to walk through some place where they can see us carrying the bows, like we're on patrol."

Doug was right. We wanted to strut our stuff in some public place while we looked tough and diligent, all decked out in full uniform, toting the bows and wearing the nightsticks. It was a risky thing to do, but it would be our crowning achievement — the Bowmen, bold and brassy, tall and classy, risking our lives to protect the public.

If we could just keep from being grabbed by an angry mob and held for the police.

“The Grant Park Zoo,” Stan suggested. It was wild and wonderfully insane. However —

“It’s closed!” the rest of us said, all together, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy.

Stan made a quick comeback. “How ‘bout a stroll through the mall at Lenox Square?”

There was a moment of silence, and then our faces lit up like the lights of Macy's famous Christmas tree.

Bingo!
______________________________________________________

We were most definitely causing a sensation. People stared, pointed, and talked excitedly. Enough of them recognized us and said “It’s the Bowmen!” to clue the rest of the crowd as to just who was sauntering down the main promenade of Lenox Square Mall like visiting dignitaries. We nodded politely at the folks who waved, but we tried to maintain serious expressions as we walked along slowly, relaxed and calm and confident.



Naturally there were unfavorable reactions among the throng. An elderly woman gave me a look that told me she would like to personally arrest us. One man shouted out from the crowd, “Just keep showing off, guys! The police are on the way!”

We in were in full uniform — masks, bows, nightsticks, archery gloves, and of course Stan’s quiver of explosive arrows. People were starting to tag along behind us at a cautious distance, and shoppers stopped cold in their tracks along each side. Up ahead, we saw some of the approaching people spot us and move to the side to join the spectators.

A stunning blond came out of a shoe store just ahead on our right, her bright red dress swinging like a hula girl's grass skirt. Her white high heels clicked on the tile like the finger-popping beat of a hot jazz number. She was looking down into a large shopping bag, and she nearly ran into Carl. She froze in surprise when she suddenly found herself faced by four masked men in dark blue attire, carrying hunting bows with strange arrows attached. Her lovely blue eyes went large and round, and her pretty red lips were a petrified “O” as she let out a sharp squeak of shock. The surrounding crowd erupted with laughter. Carl backed up a step and gave the lady a slight bow as he spoke in a deep, suave voice two octaves lower than he’d ever managed before.

“My apologies, Ma’am. We didn’t mean to startle you.” He stepped around the transfixed damsel, and we continued down the promenade while she stood there wondering what had just happened and why it was drawing such a good crowd.

We had planned it pretty well. Lenox Square was a huge open-air shopping mall built just eight years ago in 1959 several miles from downtown Atlanta. It was anchored by Rich’s and Davison’s — the Greek Gods of department stores in Atlanta, located at each end of the mall, with sixty smaller stores lining the well-landscaped, quarter-mile promenade between the two retail giants.

Carl had dropped us off at the Rich’s end of the mall with all our equipment wrapped in the blanket we used to cover the bows in the back of the Jeep. Then he had driven around to the Davidson’s side of the mall and parked the Jeep near one of the three entrances. We waited on the sidewalk outside Rich’s until Carl returned on foot, twenty minutes later. Then we went into Rich’s, found the restrooms, and suited up in the toilet stalls.

It wasn’t exactly like Clark Kent changing into Superman in a phone booth, but we were safe from prying eyes until we were ready to make our royal appearance.

Stan carried the police band radio as we quickly walked through Rich’s and started our brazen parade down the promenade under the clear evening sky, right through the hundreds of people who shopped at the stores along the way. The hardest part was keeping the persistent grins from ruining our carefully set expressions of keen-eyed vigilance. It was like telling a joke at a party and trying desperately not to ruin it by laughing before anyone else did. We were determined to look like four steely-eyed superheroes on patrol in a crowded public place, safeguarding the law-abiding citizens from any sudden appearance by dangerous criminals.

After we’d passed the gorgeous blond and continued down the promenade, it was even harder to maintain straight faces as the crowd around us grew into a chattering throng. I glanced around at my fellow Bowmen and was amazed at how well they were pulling off this crazy stunt.

Actually, Stan was no longer making any attempt to hide his pure joy. He was wearing an impish grin below his mask as his eyes darted back and forth, searching for the sympathetic faces of people who realized that the Bowmen were just four regular guys who wanted to do something bold, noble, and different in a world that seemed content with things that were safe, self-centered, and normal.

Carl, on the other hand, allowed only the faintest of smiles to turn the corners of his mouth upward, giving him a smug look of casual competence. He gave the impression that even if he died in the next savage attack by the criminal element, he was too brave and cool to let it worry him.

But the Oscar went to Doug, who was working the crowd like a pro. His jet-black hair, bold chin, and muscular build made him the perfect casting choice for the role. He cradled his bow in his arms like a stoic Sioux warrior, his expression deadpan and dangerous while he scanned slowly left and right, as if villains might be hiding in the crowd, cleverly disguised as middle-aged women or pimple-faced teenagers.

And during all this, I just walked along with my head held high, drinking in every detail so that I could someday tell my children about it — after enough time had elapsed to preclude criminal prosecution, and all the wanted posters in the Post Office had been taken down.

Never in our wildest dreams had we expected it to come to this. I was dizzy with excitement and I felt my cheeks burning. This had started out as a silly summer project to create a lunatic hoax. The hoax had become a local phenomenon. The phenomenon had turned our hoax into a reality.

We were the masked vigilantes of a major metropolitan city.

We were the real-life counterparts of the comic book legends.

We were the Bowmen.

The crowd had grown considerably larger by the time we approached Davison’s, the big anchor store at the far end of the mall from where we’d started. The four of us were getting a bit nervous because we knew the police could show up at any moment, and the crowd might hinder our escape. There was also the possibility that some of the men in the crowd might run after us when we made our break for the exit.

During all this, the police band radio had been chattering away, barely audible above the increasing noise of the excited crowd. Stan tucked it under his right arm and turned the volume up, listening for any mention of the Bowmen from the dispatcher.

Suddenly there was a shout from the crowd.

“Go, Bowmen!”

There was an eruption of laughter and a brief smatter of applause. We smiled and waved, trying not to look nervous as we grew closer to Davison’s big front entrance. Once inside the store, we could start jogging in a dignified manner toward one of the three exits, using the maze of display racks and sales counters if we needed to evade pursuers — either civilian or police.

Twelve feet from the store’s entrance, Stan stopped and held the radio close to his ear, listening intently. The rest of us stopped and stared at him for a moment, then we glanced nervously at each other. We were keenly aware that hundreds of eyes were on us, and we didn’t want to do anything embarrassing.

Stan knew we were puzzled, but he kept his ear close to the radio, and the instant I opened my mouth to ask him what he was doing, he held his hand up to silence me. The crowd sensed that something was going on, and the chatter died away to an eerie near-silence. The voice of the police dispatcher was suddenly audible to everyone.

Copy, Unit 18. Advise when 10-8. Dispatch out.

Stan glanced over his shoulder at the crowd, and then he spoke to me in a loud clear voice, his expression dead serious. “Captain, there’s a 10-67 taking place at the Jiffy-Go Mart across the street.”

Everybody in the world was looking at me — including Doug, Stan, and Carl, who obviously wanted me to play my role in this little drama without any major screw-ups. A 10-67 simply meant “person calling for help.” And it was right across the street.

I turned to the crowd, stood straight and tall, puffed out my chest, and announced loudly, “Ladies and gentlemen, things seem to be secure here. But there’s a situation nearby that requires our attention. If you’ll excuse us please, we need to be going now.”

The four of us turned in unison and jogged through the entrance of the big department store. Behind us, the throng of people exploded with cheers, applause, and whistles. For them, it was the perfect climax to the show we had presented as we paraded through the mall.



Within seconds the crowd was thankfully out of sight, even though we could still hear them, and we were weaving in and out of the clothing displays. None of us were taking the same route, splitting up and zigzagging insanely. Stan, Doug, and I kept our eye on Carl, trailing him because he knew which exit would bring us out nearest the Jeep.

I glanced over my shoulder as we pushed open the exit doors and headed out into the night. No one was chasing us.

As we were climbing into the Jeep, we heard the voice of the dispatcher on the radio say that the Bowmen had been sited at the Lenox Square Mall. She asked if any police units were free to check it out. There were no takers. Things were busy tonight — hence the delay in finding a unit to investigate the 10-67 at the Jiffy-Go Mart across the street.

We were approaching the Jiffy-Go Mart in less than five minutes. As we pulled into the parking lot, Carl cut the headlights so we could roll up silently and unobserved. There was only one car in the parking area, an aging white Chrysler with big fins. It was located in the far right parking space, at the corner of the building. Carl pulled in almost directly in front of the store, slightly to the right, three empty slots away from the white car.



Inside the convenience store we saw an old man and a pimple-faced teenager standing behind the counter. The old gentleman was talking to a lanky man of impressive height who stood on the other side of the counter. The tall man had short black hair, a bushy mustache, and a bony jutting jaw. The guy was probably six foot six. He wore tattered jeans and an old t-shirt that might have once been white but would never be mistaken for that color again.

Next to the giant was a dumpy man with greasy hair and a loud shirt covered with huge red flowers. Both the dumpy man and the giant looked seedy and untrustworthy, but we saw no apparent disturbance. I wondered if some customer had made trouble for the old man and then departed. I was just about to suggest that we leave, but suddenly the giant appeared to get impatient with the old man. He leaned over the counter and brought his face close to the elderly clerk.

I began to realize how frightened the old man was. He stood absolutely still, in spite of the fact that the giant was inches from his face, and his shoulders were hunched up around his bowed head. The teenaged boy who stood next to the old man behind the counter was backing away slowly.

“Hey,“ Stan said in a quiet voice. “That big guy is threatening the old man.”

The dumpy sidekick in the gaudy shirt just stood next to the giant with his hands in his pockets, sporting a greasy grin, obviously enjoying the poor old man’s misfortune. Flower Shirt said something to the tall one, and suddenly the lanky giant grabbed the front of the old man’s shirt and literally yanked him halfway across the counter. The poor old clerk was leaning over the counter, held up by a big meaty fist while the tall man shouted directly into his face.

And then the gun appeared.

It must have been in the big man’s left hand on the opposite side from us, because it appeared suddenly while the old man tugged futilely at the fist gripping his wadded shirt. It was a revolver, and it seemed much bigger than the Western six shooters I'd seen on TV. The instant the gun appeared, the teenager behind the counter vanished as he dove to the floor. The tall man shoved the six-inch barrel against the old man’s right cheek so hard that his head was pushed around until he faced the front of the store. He caught sight of us — four men sitting in a car outside — and I saw his lips form the words, “Help me.”

And then the side of his head exploded.

The slug shattered the glass storefront on its way out into the night. Blood, bone, and brain matter splattered generously over all the glass that was left. Fragments of glass sprinkled across the hood and windshield of the Jeep. The four of us sat there for three horrible, stunned seconds while headlights swung across us and a police car screeched to a halt four feet to our left. The tall man inside the store dropped the limp ruin of the old man, and the body collapsed belly down across the countertop. He turned quickly and fired straight out at the police car’s windshield through the glass door of the store. The glass door disintegrated and the police car's windshield turned into a spider web of cracks radiating out from the bullet hole.

The patrolman dove down out of sight — after which we all did exactly the same thing.

A few seconds passed, and it occurred to me that the tall man could simply walk out of the store and kill us all. The idea terrified me so much that I popped up for a quick look. Just as I did, the man fired a second bullet into the grill of the police car. With so much of the glass gone from the front of the store, the flat, ear-hurting bark of the pistol was much louder than before. It was followed by the hissing spray and splash of the patrol car’s ruptured radiator.

“Stay down, Jones!” Carl shouted.

I had ducked back reflexively when the gun went off. During my quick look, I had seen the killer’s chubby accomplice staring down in horror at the boneless wreckage of the murdered man. Stan held the police band radio in his lap in the backseat, and it suddenly erupted with a garbled message. I wondered if the officer in the car next to us was calling for backup. His radio was so close that any transmission he made would be distorted by the fact that his signal was too strong.

I squeezed myself low on the seat for as long as I could stand it, then I popped up to take a quick look at the police car. The moment I did, the policeman sprang up from the front seat of his car and fired two rounds at the tall man. I flinched in surprise when his first shot rang out, but I was immobilized by all that was happening. I saw the chubby man take the slug right in the front of his flowered shirt, and he flew six feet backwards.

The killer threw himself sideways, crashing into a tall, rotating rack of comic books to the left of the ruined glass door. He and the rack toppled to the floor, and he crawled frantically on all fours until he was behind a large brightly colored cardboard box filled with stuffed animals that stood against the glass storefront beyond the fallen comics rack to the left of the shattered door.

The policeman scrambled out of his car and dashed around behind it. I continued to peek at this gut-wrenching drama with wide, unblinking eyes. After a few seconds, the officer stood up quickly and put two slugs into the toy bin, filling the air inside the store with flying glass and causing several stuffed animals to leap out of the bin. The gunman leaned out to one side of the bin and fired back through the last remnants of the glass, exploding both it and the lights atop the police car.

“Get down, Jones!” shouted Carl.

“What should we do?”

“Nothing, dammit! Stay down!” he barked. I knew he was right. We were completely out of our depth — just four teenaged boys dressed in funny outfits, caught in the middle of something that was deadly serious.

Bam! Another thunderous report cracked the night as the policeman fired again. I had my knees on the floorboard and my face pressed firmly against the seat, but I kept imagining the tall man stepping up to the driver-side window next to Carl and firing into the vehicle, like shooting fish in a barrel. If the policeman was dead or wounded, there would be nothing to stop the gunman from doing just that.

I popped up for an instant to take a snapshot glimpse, and then slammed my head back down on the seat while my brain developed the picture. It contained an alarming amount of unpleasant details for such a quick look. The fat man lay in a pool of blood on the floor of the store, as motionless as the belly-down body of the elderly clerk on the counter. The gunman was apparently still hidden behind the toy bin, an odd thing to do in view of the fact that his “cover” consisted of a cardboard box filled with fluffy bunnies and fuzzy pink pigs. Broken glass was everywhere, even strewn across the hoods of the police car and the Jeep.

“What do you think the guy with the gun will do?” I said softly.

“Good question,” said Carl. “I think I’ll take a peek this time.”

The steering wheel made it hard for Carl to hunch down on the seat. Before he could raise himself, I put my hand on his arm and said, “I’m in a better position.”

I popped up for yet another look. The instant I did, a gunshot slammed my eardrums and I saw the killer leaping over the ragged fragments of glass in the bottom edge of the window frame, firing at the policeman to keep him down. He ran toward the battered old white Chrysler that was parked near the corner of the store to our right. I continued to watch as the tall man yanked the door open, but the backseat window next to him exploded inward as I heard the policeman’s gun fire to the left of us. The killer turned and fired a quick shot in the policeman’s direction, then he leaped into the car and yanked the door closed behind him. He ducked out of sight, and for a few seconds the night became quiet.

I turned quickly to see the policeman crouched behind his patrol car while he reloaded his revolver with frantic haste.

“What’s happening?” said Carl.

A tense voice came from the backseat. “They’re both reloading,” said Stan. "I’ve been counting. Six shots each. All hell will break loose in a second. Stay down, everybody.”

Stan was right. Suddenly we heard the big Chrysler roar to life. Tires shrieked on the asphalt as we heard the white car back out. I figured the tall man couldn’t drive and shoot straight at the same time, so against my better judgment and Stan’s sane advice, I popped up and saw the Chrysler turn toward the policeman. I twisted around on the car seat and saw the Chrysler’s headlights suddenly illuminate the officer in a deadly spotlight, crouching by the right rear corner of his patrol car, using the Jeep for cover as he inserted the last bullet into his revolver.

I whipped around and saw the tall man’s left arm come out of the open window, the gun in his hand. He leveled it at the policeman. The officer slapped his reloaded cylinder closed and stood up. The Chrysler lunged forward and bore down on him. The officer brought his weapon up and fired three shots that dissolved the windshield in sections and sent the glass cascading back into the car’s interior.

But the man in the white car must have been leaning hard to his left, pressed against the car’s door while he drove. The gun in his left hand flashed twice, and the policeman caught one slug high on his left shoulder just as he tried to put a fourth shot through the fragmented windshield. He was knocked up onto the trunk of his patrol car just as the fleeing killer’s vehicle tried to run him down. The Chrysler missed the rear of the Jeep by inches and then raked its right side along the rear bumper of the police car. The sound of screeching metal made a noise like an angry banshee. The killer’s car veered toward the exit, fishtailed out onto the street, and roared off into the darkness.

There was a long moment of silence that seemed shocking after the barrage of noise our ears had just endured. We were all motionless for a long moment, then the four of us raised up and piled out of the Jeep. We rushed over to the injured policeman, who was lying atop his patrol car’s trunk. He was holding his right hand over the wound just below his collarbone, and his face was a contorted mask, teeth showing as he grimaced with pain, his eyes squeezed shut. He was in danger of tumbling off the trunk of his car as he rolled back and forth. The bullet’s exit hole in his back was gushing blood, and it ran down the trunk and mingled with the twisted metal of the ruined rear of the vehicle.

Doug pushed the policeman’s legs up onto the trunk so he wouldn’t fall off. Carl and I fumbled handkerchiefs from our pockets and placed them against the two wounds. Carl reached under him to cover the one in back while I pressed down on the one in front.

We saw his nametag on the front of his: B. Swan. I remembered the name from the news article about the couple that had fought in the rain. Still gritting his teeth, the officer opened his eyes and looked around at the four of us for a moment. His expression turned from agony to alarm as he realized he was surrounded by four strange characters wearing dark blue masks. He looked down quickly at the handkerchief I was pressing over his shoulder. I tried to smile reassuringly.

“Don’t try to move, sir. We’re putting pressure on the wounds to slow the bleeding.” I turned to Doug standing behind me — and remembered to use his code name before I spoke. “Duke, get on the officer’s radio and tell the dispatcher that we’ve got an 11-99 and an 11-41. Got it?”

Doug nodded. “Got it. Officer needs help. Ambulance required.” He hurried around to the open door of the police car and carefully picked up the mike from the layer of broken glass that coated the front seat. He called out to Officer Swan. “What’s your call sign, sir?”

Officer Swan was breathing heavily as he battled the pain from his shoulder wound. He looked uncertain for a moment about what to do. This situation was definitely not covered in the police manual. Finally he spoke in a hoarse voice.

“I'm . . . Unit 18.”

Doug keyed the mike and made a visible effort to keep his voice level as he said, “Dispatch, this is Unit 18. I'm at the Jiffy-Go Mart on Peachtree Road across from Lenox Square. Code 11-99 — repeat, code 11-99. Be advised that Officer Swan has sustained a gunshot wound to his left shoulder. Request a code 11-41. Do you copy? Over.”

There was a very uncharacteristic silence from the dispatcher for several seconds, then the radio said, "Dispatch to last calling unit. Request 10-37."

Doug gave me a puzzled look, I gave Carl the same look, and then all three of us gave the look to Officer Swan. He managed a labored smile and said, “10-37 is a request for the identity of the operator." His smiled widened a bit and he actually chuckled. "Boy, this ought to be real good. They want to know who the hell you are.”

I grinned as I looked up at Doug and spoke in a voice made hoarse with pride. “You heard the man, Duke. Tell ‘em who the hell we are!”

Doug keyed the mike and said it loud and proud, “Dispatch, be advised we are the Bowmen. Officer Swan has been shot and we’re giving him first aid.”

He let go of the mike button and waited for an answer. There wasn’t one. A few seconds later, the radio erupted with a flood of chatter as every police unit in the area requested a repeat of the downed officer's location and asked the dispatcher for instructions. Suddenly we were very popular. Everybody wanted to meet us — though I doubted they wanted to just shake hands.

“Tell them about the white car,” I said to Doug. He nodded and keyed the mike again.

“Dispatch, the man who shot Officer Swan drove away from the Jiffy-Go Mart headed south in a big white Chrysler, about ten years old, with large tail fins — ”

“And a busted windshield," Carl added.

“ — and a busted windshield. Sorry, but we couldn’t get the license number. Copy?”

This time the answer came back quickly. "Copy, Bowmen. And thanks."

Officer Swan spoke in a weak voice. "If somebody doesn't spot that car soon, that guy will ditch it and flee on foot. Or carjack a new ride."

I looked at the body of the old man in the store and thought about the two desperate words his lips had formed just before the bullet went through his brain. I glanced over at Carl. He was watching my face closely, and I saw him give one small nod. He knew what I was thinking. I turned to Stan. “Get that kid in the store to come out here. We need him.”

“Right.”

Stan walked into the store and made a wide detour around the body of the fat man lying on the floor as he went to the end of the counter and looked behind it. We heard him say something to the young boy who had ducked out of sight when the shooting started. After a few seconds, the boy stood up slowly and looked out at us. He was about my age, with a thin face, blond hair, and more than his fair share of pimples, bless his heart. We could see that he was terrified, and he turned back to Stan and shook his head a few times. Finally, Stan took hold of his arm and urged him to come out from behind the counter.

As the boy passed the bodies of his former coworker lying on the counter and the fat man sprawled on the floor, his face turned as white as a Wisconsin winter. Stan lead the dazed teenager out of the store, their shoes making crunching sounds as they walked over the broken glass that covered the floor inside and the sidewalk in front. The teen was staring around at all the masked men surrounding him, his eyes wide and fearful.

I continued to press my handkerchief firmly onto Officer Swan’s gaping entrance wound as I spoke to the teenager in a quiet, level voice, trying to sound reassuring.

“Listen, this police officer needs your help. Come over here, please. Come on, don’t be scared, it’s okay. He’s just been shot a little, that’s all.”

The boy was a zombie, easily led around, but not tracking too well. Stan pulled him up next to me. I thought I'd better get him to look at something besides all the blood, so I said, "Who called the police? Was it you or the old man?" The boy didn't answer, and he continued to stare down at the blood-soaked handkerchief I was pressing on the policeman's chest. I spoke sharply. "Hey. Kid! Look at me!"

He dragged his eyes up to my face, and I realized how close he was to fainting dead away. Quickly I said, "Who called the police? Was it you?"

He nodded slowly, then he said, "Mr. Bradden said to go into his office and call when those guys first came into the store. He was afraid of them."

"I don't blame him."

"They wandered around for ten minutes, but they didn't buy anything. They kept waiting for other customers to leave. Mr. Bradden figured they were planning to rob us."

"Obviously he was right. I'm really sorry about what happened to Mr. Bradden, but right now this police officer needs your help." I took the kid’s right hand and placed it on top of the handkerchief that covered Officer Swan’s chest wound. “I want you to press down hard, right there. Good. Yeah, that’s good.” I studied his pale, pimpled face for a moment. Gently I said, “Hey, you’re not going to faint or anything, are you?”

The boy shook his head quickly without looking up from the policeman. Carl took hold of the boy’s left hand and directed it toward the wound on Swan’s back, sliding it between his body and the trunk of the car. I heard the sound of several sirens in the distance.

I put my left hand gently on the boy’s shoulder and said, “Now, it’s very important that you keep the pressure on both wounds until the ambulance gets here. It won’t be long. Do you understand?”

The boy nodded, still staring down at the police officer with a frightened expression, knowing that the man’s life was literally in his young hands. When I was sure he was maintaining pressure on the wounds, I started backing away slowly.

Officer Swan was staring at me, his eyes groggy with shock and blood loss. In a slurred voice, he said, “Wait a minute. Where do you think you’re going?”

I was still backing away, meeting Swan’s gaze. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Carl turn and head towards the Jeep. Stan and Doug followed him. I spoke to Swan in a quiet voice that sounded a little strange.

“We’re going after the guy in the white car. Every second counts. We know what the car looks like. And we know what he looks like.”

Swan tried to rise up from the trunk, anger pushing its way through the pain that twisted his face. But the terrified teenager knew he had to maintain pressure on the wounds, so he dutifully pushed him back down, keeping the handkerchief firmly pressed against the chest wound. Still struggling, Swan spoke in a weak voice.

“Don’t do this. We'll get that guy. It’s not your job.” He collapsed back onto the trunk as he stared at me.

I shook my head quickly and said, “You’re wrong, sir. It is our job.”

Officer Swan spoke in a deep growl, “Stop, dammit! This isn’t just a game you’re playing now, boy!”

The Jeep had backed out quickly, and it pulled up next to me. I took one more look at the old man lying on the counter in the store, then I looked back at Officer Swan. I don’t know what my face looked like, but my voice had a deep and ragged sound as I spoke.

“We know it’s not a game . . . and we’re not playing anymore!”


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Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?
~ The Space Children (1958)
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