Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 4

Vic Olafson

Howie Slattery arose somewhat later than Chuck Winton, and there was no coffee awaiting him. Moreover, there were no mugs that didn't have various substances caked on their bottoms. There was also no clear route to the kitchen without stepping over obstacles. Howie didn't particularly mind. He was used to a home life which was only slightly less chaotic than it had been with the Brooklyn football players. Sam Herz had told him he needed a cleaning woman more than a wife. Herz had also pointed out that, given Howie's past record, he would have to advertize for any kind of woman at all.

It did seem that an ad for a housekeeper was likely to produce better results than an ad for a wife. Howie made a mental note about doing it sometime.

After getting his coffee, Howie sat down with it in the broken easy chair and ate some puffed rice straight out of the box. His chronic ailments were a jock itch, which he assuaged temporarily with vigorous scratching, and the familiar pain in his lower abdomen. The latter was very probably cancer, but he noticed it little more than the jock itch, perhaps fifty times a day. Chuck had told him that they could cure at least the jock itch, but Howie was inconsistent in the use of the ointment Chuck had given him. The best thing for both ailments, really, was to immerse himself in some activity, either physical or mental.

On the latter score, the first matter was the prosecution of a dirty book store for selling pornography. This was hardly a convivial task. In general, Howie didn't care who bought or sold pornography, and he thought it unlikely that it caused its readers to attack women on the streets. In fact, he had thought he liked it until the police confiscated some material from Mike's Adult Book Store and brought it to him. It was then that he discovered the true nature of pornography. What he liked turned out to be classified as mildly erotic literature. It was intended to be stimulating, and it was organized around sexual episodes, but it concentrated on the psychological rather than the genital aspects of the situation.

By contrast, the confiscated samples featured pictures of smiling gentlemen whose peni were half embedded in the rear ends of ladies, or, in some cases, in those of other gentlemen. Even the pictures of the women who weren't being molested were not fetching. Indeed, Howie learned that there could be such a thing as a picture of a naked woman which didn't excite him. At that point, he decided that he had no particular stake in trying to shield Mike or his store from prosecution.

A week or so earlier, Ken Seitz had taken Howie out to lunch. Once seated, the other man said,

"Myself, I don't give a fuck whether they sell pictures of people buggering their goats. If the people doing the buggering happened to look like my political opponents, I'd buy the pictures by the gross and distribute them free. The trouble is that these stores, Mike's in particular, are so sleazy. They attract bums and perverts who hang out around them, and, pretty soon, the stores next to them can't do any business. Then, other dirty bookstores move in. Before you know it, you've got a whole block of sleaze. Property values for some distance around are shot to hell, and the city is definitely poorer than it was before. Besides which, an election is coming up soon. There aren't many pornography votes. You'll find that every incumbent wants to get rid of the store so as not to give his opponent an issue."

As usual, there was no hypocrisy about Seitz until he got up on a podium and spoke to an audience. Moreover, he did have a point about not creating a district of sleaze. The minute Howie admitted as much, Seitz gave him his marching orders.

"You've got to win this case before the election. Then, even if the store's still there, we can say it's being closed down."

In theory, Howie took orders, not from Seitz, but from the district attorney. The latter, however, was an elderly man who wasn't running for re-election. Seitz was easily the most dynamic politician in town, and, since he was under forty, he would call the tune for many years to come. Howie's choice was simple: to please Seitz or leave Bollinger. He was sure that he would some day wish to leave, but, in the meantime, there was no reason not to please Seitz. He therefore answered,

"I'll certainly try, Ken, but, remember, the defense has Sturgis Caldwell."

"I know. Well, do your best. That's all we can ask."

In Bollinger, as in larger cities, most prosecutions were preceded by plea bargaining sessions. Howie consequently stopped by to see Sturgis Caldwell. They already knew each other as the two most active members of Bollinger's small and rather sluggish literary club. However, the similarity between them didn't go much beyond a common admiration for the works of Conrad and Henry James. Sturgis, in his sixties, came from the family that had practically owned Bollinger a hundred years previously. When Howie entered Sturgis' outer office and spoke to his secretary, Sturgis heard him and called out,

"Come on in, Howie. Good to see you. I've got something here that will interest you."

Sturgis, a tall handsome man, rose from his chair and reached across his cluttered desk to take Howie's hand. His jacket was now slung over one chair, his tie was on his desk, and one shirt cuff was undone. His considerable enthusiasm was directed to a new book on Conrad which he had already read.

"It takes the line that it doesn't really matter that Conrad didn't know anything about the Malays he wrote about. They're good characters even if they aren't really Malays."

They discussed the book for a while, and Howie took it on loan. He then mischievously reached into his briefcase and handed over a magazine the police had confiscated from Mike's Adult Book Store with the words,

"I've got something for you, too, Sturgis."

The latter's face changed abruptly as he opened the magazine, recoiled, and tossed it down on his desk. Then, suddenly, he spoke.

"Good heavens! Is this what they sell?"

"Yes. I had a feeling you weren't aware of it."

Sturgis again picked up the magazine and went further into it.

"Are there really people who enjoy this sort of thing?"

"Apparently so."

Sturgis then put it down.

"You can have this little gem back. I took the case not knowing or caring what they sell. I'm treating it entirely as a civil liberties case. This is a form of censorship, and any governmental censorship is dangerous and ultimately unconstitutional. I agreed to take the case only on the condition that I wouldn't be expected to plea bargain. I imagine the owner of the store accepted that condition because he knew he wouldn't be able to get a bargain which would allow him to stay open."

"I thought you'd feel that way. I might myself, but I have to prosecute what's given me."

Howie then told Sturgis about Ken Seitz' view. Sturgis replied,

"Seitz is an enterprising and energetic young man. I'm not opposed to him, but I don't think it's up to me to help him get re-elected. Nor would I be deterred even if I thought I'd be helping create a pornography district in Bollinger. I do hope it doesn't come to that, though. What do you think?"

"Well, it won't be like the ones in the big cities, but I suppose we might get one in proportion to the size of the town."

"The really unfortunate thing is that we have people who want to look at this stuff. Given that they exist, it's then just a question of whether to try to hide them. If they're out in the open, at least people will have to recognize the problem and try to do something about it, however difficult that may be."

The two men then agreed that, whatever the outcome, there would be judicial mistakes which would allow an appeal. Sturgis concluded,

"So you can go to it and make Seitz happy. You may even win. But I'll eventually get the Bollinger ordinance thrown out at some level."

"That's fine with me. I can see that, to prosecute this case, I'm going to have to learn to pronounce the phrase, 'a prurient interest,' in just the right way."

Sturgis waved his hand, as if to put an end to the foolishness, and the conversation shifted back to a higher literary plane.

Returning to his own office, Howie found Chuck Winton waiting for him in great agitation. It seemed that he had just received a letter from a friend who had been a resident with him in New York.

"He said that he saw a girl we both used to go out with, and that she wants to know where I am. He didn't tell her, but she'll find me if she really wants to."

It didn't seem to be a particularly serious matter to Howie, and he replied,

"If she does, can't you just tell her that you're married and don't want to fool around?"

"I was married at the time, but it goes far beyond that. She could blackmail me in other ways."

As Howie had already guessed, it was a matter of the seduction of a patient. It was his impression that doctors are, under certain circumstances, more or less allowed to seduce their female patients. The result could be a set of suburban love affairs much like those of lawyers, businessmen, and their wives. Chuck, however, had proceeded in a rather different way.

It came out slowly and painfully that Chuck, as a young resident, had seduced patients in the hospital, often in their own rooms. On one occasion he had had relations with a woman who was heavily sedated, so much so that she might not have been in a position to give her consent. When he was interrupted by the head nurse, there was quite a rumpus. In the ensuing investigation, a good deal else came out. Chuck was fired forthwith, and he assumed that his medical career was at an end. He was surprised only that his wife didn't leave him.

Just as young Dr. Winton was about to leave New York and disappear forever, he received a call from another resident, indeed the friend who had just written him. The other man had instructions for Winton from on high, from a doctor who preferred to remain anonymous. Winton was to apply for residency in another city as if nothing improper had occurred. He could say that there had been a family emergency, and that he had had to move. When Winton objected that he would surely be blackballed, the friend had said,

"It's my impression that they won't say anything about the incident. They wouldn't want to publicize it, and they do still bear you some good will. They'll give you good enough recommendations to get you through."

Winton tried Chicago, and, to his amazement, there were no problems. He was now in the third year of his practice in Bollinger, and there had been no repercussions at all.

While some men would have stopped worrying in that length of time, Winton hadn't. There had been a lot of women, and, as he said to Howie, any one of them might realize that she could still sue. A threatened suit could amount to legal blackmail. For that matter, he was also a prime target for illegal blackmail. As he said,

"Doctors are easy to trace, and one of these girls might meet a sleazy character who'll alert her to the possibilities. I feel like a spy who knows his cover has been blown."

Howie, had known many young men, particularly the more affluent, who thought it was all right to do almost anything to a woman as long as she wasn't killed, injured physically, or driven into a mental institution. Some of the things his friends and acquaintances did had made him somewhat uneasy, but he had never been able to put a name to that uneasiness. His reaction to Chuck's story was that, while he had himself never done anything in the least improper in the area of sex, it might be only because he had lacked the opportunities. He now replied,

"I think you're probably over-reacting to this letter. It could easily just be idle curiosity on the part of the woman. On the other hand, there are probably some things you could do to protect yourself."

Chuck replied,

"Look Howie, I'm going to need a certain amount of ongoing legal advice about what to do if and when this thing should break. And then, if it does, I'll need a whole lot more. Let's do a deal. I won't charge you for taking care of your stomach, or anything else that goes wrong, and you give me free legal advice and reassurance."

Howie accepted this proposal even more quickly than the one about scoring their golf matches, and gave Winton an initial piece of advice.

"Get out of national medical associations. Don't resign, that would make people wonder, but don't pay the dues. That way, they'll quietly drop you from their listings. Most blackmailers are stupid and lack any talent for research. If they can't find you easily, they won't find you at all."

It was a small thing, but Chuck was inordinately grateful. Howie then realized that the other needed, not so much legal advice, but to feel that there was someone who knew, and who would support him.

Chuck had hardly left when there arrived Sergeant Vic Olafson of the police force. Olafson was a man of some forty five years who had spent his youth on the notorious Chicago Police Force before coming downstate to an area of reduced crime and corruption. At first glance, he looked like an ordinary midwestern Scandinavian, his white-blonde hair thinning on top, and his rough red face suggestive of a life spent outdoors.

A more penetrating look showed a hard wiry body under the shapeless suit, and a long bony face with strikingly blue eyes. Most people didn't look him in the eye, but, if one did, the intense stare was unsettling. It didn't help if one knew that, in addition to being descended from a long line of Icelandic Vikings, he was the grandson of a Hassidic rabbi. Indeed, Olafson looked like a religious fanatic until he smiled, at which point he looked like a policeman.

Vic Olafson was, these days, a lawyer's cop. He might still make an occasional arrest, but the vast majority of his time was spent in preparing cases for prosecution. He then assisted the prosecutor in getting a verdict. In theory, it was Olafson who was competent to collect evidence and Howie who was trained to present it in court. In practice, Olafson knew as much criminal law as did Howie, and, having sat beside many prosecutors at innumerable trials, he had a good feel for manipulating a jury.

There were times in court when Olafson saw what the defense was up to, and whispered a timely warning to Howie. There had also been a number of times, particularly at the beginning, when Howie had known, by the look on Olafson's face, that he had just made a mistake.

On the other hand, Olafson had no law degree and no college education. He actually had everything else he would need, including the dramatic flair, to be a superb prosecutor. But he would never get the chance. Not only that, he had to treat a much younger man, who looked like a mere boy, as his superior. It would have embittered many men.

Howie had taken in the situation immediately. He was the young officer of little practical experience who had the right background. Olafson was the experienced non-com who knew everything, but who was willing to humor the young gentleman. At first, Howie asked Olafson what to do at almost every step. By the end of the first month, he needed only occasional advice. Most recently, Howie had convicted a couple of people who might have been innocent, merely by outmaneuvering their defense attorneys. Olafson was greatly pleased, and the relation was now more nearly equal.

Making himself at home in the visitors' chair, Olafson said,

"Mack Whitney came in this morning. You know him, don't you, the Buick dealer down on Willow St?"

When Howie nodded, Olafson went on,

"A real sweet guy. Real nice. Anyhow, he comes in with a pistol, he found it in his son's coat pocket. The kid's about twenty five, completely worthless. He went to college a while, worked in the dealership a while, nothing any good. He couldn't even keep a job as clerk down at Snyder's Drugs. So he got a gun."

"How did he get it?"

"He told his father he bought it from a guy he met in a bar in Chicago. So far, we have no reason to think he's used it to commit any crime. It may turn out to be unlawful possession of stolen goods, plus, probably, carrying a concealed weapon. But we couldn't prove that. Got the picture?"

"Yeah, he's thinking about a new career."

In talking with the police, Howie had learned to cultivate a certain cynicism. It seemed to go down well in this case. Olafson said,

"Whitney's real upset, of course. He probably spent the whole night with the wife, wondering whether to throw the gun into the creek and say nothing. Anyway, he came in, it looked like he hadn't even shaved. Now this is something that could happen to any of us, right? Who knows what the fuck kids will do? So here he is, this real decent guy, handing me a .38, some cheap shit I never heard of."

Howie had to suppress a smile. If the gun had been a Colt or Smith and Wesson, it would have been a more respectable matter. Olafson then continued,

"I asked him, "Was it loaded?" He said not. I said, "You're lying." He admitted it, and even started crying right there. I gave him a pat on the back and told him I'd do what I could."

It no longer surprised Howie that Olafson expected people to lie to him. In some ways it simplified matters. He could confront them and get the truth. If they told him the truth in the first place, he had to find out what they were using it to hide. Olafson now shrugged his shoulders and asked,

"Do we proceed, and try to find out if the gun's stolen, or do we say I was out on the golf course today?"

The problem posed was a complex one. If the elder Whitney had a certain standing in the community, political and otherwise, he would be given the benefit of the doubt in certain circumstances. If that question was answered affirmatively, and other conditions were present, Olafson was taking the unusual step of offering to drop the matter on his own responsibility. If it ever came to it, he would say, yes, a troubled father had come in with a gun he had found in the house. Since there was no evidence of how it had got there that would stand up in court, he, Olafson, had simply confiscated it. It was, as far as Howie knew, the furthest Olafson had ever been willing to go in that direction. He was impressed. He said,

"Well, Vic, we could let this one go. Whitney is certainly a respected member of the community. I imagine, if Ken Seitz knew about this, he wouldn't want the kid to end up with a record. On the other hand, suppose we let him go, he gets another gun wherever he got the first one, and then he holds up a liquor store. Then, we'd have shit and worse on our faces."

The other had obviously anticipated this possibility and replied,

"This is what I thought we might do. Don't let me talk you into it, though. I'm really not sure. Anyhow, suppose we bring the kid in for questioning. We don't read him his rights, and he doesn't have any lawyer. We give him an extended interrogation, maybe four hours. Hard man and soft man, the whole works. I'll be the soft man, we've got plenty who can do the other. We scare the shit out of him, but eventually hand him over to his father. Now I know this kid. He's got no resources, intelligence or character or anything. I doubt whether he would've ever held anyone up. But we'll find out the whole story and give him such a scare that he won't think about that particular career. I think that's what his father really wants us to do. What do you think?"

"Okay. I think it would be resented if we tried to make a major case out of it."

Olafson's face had a hesitant look, as if he were waiting for the right moment to say something else. Howie was sure that he was. He was now used to the other's being one jump ahead of him, and he knew that the thing Olafson would next happen to think of would be something he had decided before even coming over. Olafson said,

"You know, Howie, I just thought. If this is really going to be convincing and put a permanent scare into a kid who may be pretty sulky and hostile, we should leave the punch line to you."

"God, Vic, I can't do the third degree. You guys can all do it much better than I can."

"We can do some of it, but not all. Let us pick him clean. Then I'll go in and tell him that I'm sorry, it's too serious and we've got to prosecute. Then we leave him alone for maybe an hour. Then I come back with you. All you have to do is be real cold and formal. Use legal language and tell him the charge and the penalty, just mention the maximum one. Then, just as we're about to lock him up, you'll get a phone call. When you come back, you say that, out of respect for his father and for no other reason, we've decided to let him go in custody of his father. Then we hand him over. If that won't make the kid listen to his dad, nothing will."

Howie laughed said,

"Ok Vic. Then, if it goes bad, I'll also be involved."

Howie had long since learned that, in talking with Vic, or any other policeman, he had to use a certain logic. The assumption was always that things might turn out for the worst. One then had to figure out exactly who would be held responsible for what. That having been done, a rational course of action could be decided on. Since Olafson stood and smiled as he took his leave, the figures evidently came out right in this case.

Howie was back at his apartment, in the early evening, when the call came. He quickly put on a tie and jacket, and crossed over to the police station. He had been there often enough, and felt comfortable in the atmosphere of bare wooden furniture, taciturn speech, and handcuffs. Vic Olafson, now looking positively dapper, bounced out to meet him. Instead of taking Howie back to the interrogation room, he drew him off to a corner of the waiting room.

"We got the story of the gun right off. He really did buy it in a bar. Then we asked him what he was going to do with it. He said he was going to hold up the First National Bank. Now that's weird."

"Was he joking?"

"People don't joke in here. He also isn't the kind of wise- ass who might say something like that. So we asked him how he was going to do it. What about the guard, for example? Was he going to start by killing him? He didn't know there was a guard. Was he going to stand in line with a note? Or was he going to move all the customers into the back? Time of day? Any attempt at a disguise? Why this bank, where he'd be recognized? Why not one in Springfield, or even Orrville? He didn't know for shit."

"So he never really intended to do it."

"No. But it's not often people cover up their real intentions by telling us they're going to stick up a bank. You might as well say you're going to murder the mayor. It should've taken us about five minutes to break that story. But he's still sticking to it four hours later. He says he just hadn't gotten around to planning the details."

"I never heard anything like that before."

Olafson made a gesture of disgust.

"The first thing a robber thinks of is the way he's going to do it. Even an amateur one. Besides, you can't intend to do anything without having some idea how you're going to do it."

Howie then had an idea. There might not be many crimes more serious than holding up a bank, but there were actions that were far more dishonorable. Following police procedure, he didn't tell Olafson what he had in mind. He instead asked to see George Whitney.

The young man, looking disordered and exhausted, was sitting in an uncomfortable wooden chair, where he had doubtless been for the last four hours. They no longer used rubber hoses, but the bare light bulb on the wall facing the chair was, Howie judged, at least two hundred watts. George was, in fact, slumped and twisted, probably in an attempt to shield himself. He also appeared to be dangerously near a state in which he wouldn't be able to take in anything at all. To Howie's surprise, George snapped to when they were introduced. Evidently he wasn't beyond fear of a new interrogator. Howie said only,

"George, when did you decide to kill yourself?"

The other recoiled suddenly, as if hit in the face. Then the story began to come out in mumbles. George hadn't wanted to bring shame on his father, so he had gone to Chicago. He didn't want to buy the gun legally, because it could be traced to him after he disappeared. It took him several days to get the gun. His idea was then to climb into an industrial trash dumpster, put the gun into his mouth, and pull the trigger. His body would be dumped into the truck, and then into the incinerator. It seemed to Howie a rather clever idea for a supposedly stupid young man. It also seemed to suggest that here was someone who believed, quite literally, that he was trash. Howie asked,

"What happened?"

George was, by this time, talking in a more connected way.

"I found a whole row of dumpsters outside some kind of plant. I climbed up, lifted up the lid, and jumped in with the gun in my pocket. The stink was really awful, it must've been some kind of meat packing place."

George now paused, shaking his head. Vic Olafson suddenly burst out laughing.

"Jesus Christ, George. I can see why you said you wanted to rob a bank. So, anyway, at least you had the sense to get out of there. Then you came home and didn't know how to get rid of the gun. Right?"

George himself responded with a sheepish smile.

Olafson looked questioningly at Howie. Howie spread his hands helplessly, and Vic said,

"Ok, George. I'll tell your father you wanted to do yourself in. He has to know that. But I won't tell him the details. Now get your ass in gear. Anything is better than a dumpster outside a meat packing plant!"

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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