Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 17

A Bullfight

Howie felt even better after Barbara than he had after Amanda. His tactual contact with Barbara had been limited to taking her arm over the rough ground, and a final, half humorous, handshake in public circumstances. Despite that, much more had happened this time. By the time he reached Bollinger, he was sure that he wanted to marry Barbara. He would, of course, have to make himself over into a new and much better man to be worthy of the privilege. It was a good thing that he had already embarked on his conditioning program of running and lifting weights. That regime, in addition to enhancing his general moral fibre, might even cure the cancer. In that moment, all things seemed possible.

The first project, and a critical one, was to write the little Henry James scene he and Barbara had assigned themselves. He had hardly to think about it to realize that it would be virtually impossible for anyone, much less himself, to write anything that would sound very much like Henry James. Still, he knew the characters, and he could guess at the sort of wedding night they might have had. Beyond that, he would just have to make his sentences long and complex, and hope for the best. It would, in turn, be fascinating to see what Barbara wrote.

With these thoughts in mind, Howie parked a block from his apartment and walked past a vacant lot strewn with rubble. His building was originally a small hotel patronized mainly by travelling salesmen during the twenties and thirties. After the disappearance of the salesmen, the hotel came to be occupied by a varied assortment of criminally- minded drifters and vagabonds. Then, under pressure from the city elders, it was closed. Finally, it was bought cheaply by a developer who carved a dozen apartments out of the hulk, painted some doors and corridors, and cleaned the canopy in front. High and narrow with a gabled red roof, the building was still arguably the best piece of architecture in town.

Howie's apartment on the ground floor rear overlooked, not only the vacant lot on one side, but another one in the rear. Instead of going in the front door of the building, and through the lobby, he ducked in the back door. He then went through his kitchen into the living room, pausing only to turn on the overhead light before settling into his favorite armchair.

When Howie flicked on the light, it went off again with a flash and a pop. He was just wondering whether he had any extra bulbs when he realized that the flash and pop had been extraordinarily loud. Then he felt a cool draught and saw that there was broken glass all over the place. He looked toward the nearest window only to see that there was almost no window left, only some shards of glass sticking out of the frame. When it finally came to Howie that someone had blown out the window with a shotgun, he inspected himself for damage. He had a few little cuts on the face and hands from flying glass, and nothing more serious. Only then did it occur to him to get out of sight and call the police.

It happened that Vic Olafson was at headquarters when Howie called, and he was one of the first to arrive. As Howie gave him the story, a half dozen other policemen began to search the vacant lot off to the side of the hotel. It didn't take them long to arrive at their conclusion. Someone had fired a shotgun from behind a wrecked car some fifty yards away, and then fled without, as far as they could see, leaving behind any clue to his identity. One of the older policemen said to Howie,

"If he'd wanted to kill you he would've. He must've just wanted to scare you."

Howie knew that a reply in the right style was required, and said,

"Let's find out who it is and give him a scare."

Arriving soon after the police was a reporter from the local radio station. Short and square with a brown coat and hat, he spoke like someone trying to sound like a machine-gun. He also arrived at conclusions quickly, and with great and unwarranted confidence.

The most prominent of these was that Mike Abbott, the owner of the dirty bookstore, had hired the gunman. The outrage was intended as a warning to Howie to deter him from obtaining a conviction. This seemed highly unlikely to Howie, but, before he could say anything, Waldo Weston barked questions at him. Was he going to give up his case? Did he still expect to get a conviction? When Howie answered in the only way that he could, he immediately became the courageous fighting prosecutor who, despite desperate threats, was determined to prosecute the villains to the fullest extent of the law.

Olafson remained after the others had left, and followed Howie into the undamaged kitchen for a cup of coffee. Vic was smiling as Howie said,

"I'm sure that wasn't Mike Abbott, or anyone he hired. He must know by this time that he doesn't have anything to worry about."

Olafson laughed contemptuously and replied,

"He didn't until now. It was probably that man Sykes who threatened you, and was let loose. We'll fix him. But, in the meantime, this is the best thing that could have happened for our case. The jury isn't sequestered at night, and, of course, they won't take seriously the judge's instructions not to listen to the radio or read the papers. They'll be buzzing with the news tomorrow, and you'll win the case despite yourself."

The phone then rang, and Howie went into the darkness of the next room to answer it. When he came back he told Olafson,

"That was Sturgis. He wanted to see if I was all right. He said that Waldo Weston has been on the radio with the news. Weston apparently insinuated that the attack was connected with the prosecution of the bookstore."

"Sturgis must know that his client is too chicken-shit to do anything like that."

"I guess he must, but he was quite upset. He wondered if I thought it had anything to do with Abbott. I reassured him on that point."

"Yes. I guess the next thing is to see to Sykes. We can't have people going around shooting at you. I want to do it, though, in such a way that it won't take the pressure off Abbott and his store."

"How can you do that?"

"You'll see. If you don't mind, I'll tell the court tomorrow that you're recovering from your injuries, and ask for the case to be continued."

"I've only a few little cuts. There's no need to do that."

"It won't hurt to generate a little sympathy for you, and also give the jury some more time to hear the news. I've got some work to do now, but I'll call you in the morning about ten. Get some rest, we've got a big day tomorrow."

Howie had just awoken the next morning when the phone rang. It was Olafson.

"Up and at em, Howie. I got the case continued. There's sympathy for you all over the place. With any luck, a mob will form to burn the bookstore and lynch Mike Abbott."

"It sounds as if you're doing just fine, Vic. What do you need me for?"

"It's bullfight day, Howie. Our friend Sykes is the bull. We have a minor role for you. I'll be over in about half an hour, Okay?"

Howie managed to pull himself together and get dressed. The cardboard he had taped over the missing glass rendered the living room even more depressing than usual, but he had created some order by the time Olafson arrived. He then offered him a cup of coffee. When they were seated, Howie asked

"Are you sure it was Sykes, Vic?"

"Of course. He threatened you, didn't he? We rousted him out last night and searched his place. I didn't expect to find anything. He probably dropped the shotgun in the river, but I satisfied myself. His only alibi was that he was drinking at the house of a guy pretty much like himself. We checked that, and the other guy's story was just as lame. Someone who's been around as long as I have can tell immediately when these sleazeballs are lying. We don't have enough evidence for a charge, but we can do it this other way."

"What do you want to do?"

"Well, a bullfight starts with the picadors, who ride horses and stick the bull with lances to get him mad. Then there are other guys, I forget their names, who stick darts in him. That can't feel good, and he gets so mad that he starts charging blindly at the matador's cape. The bull is now at the felony stage. He's assaulting the matador with a deadly weapon, to wit, his horns. The matador, acting entirely in self-defense, kills the bull with his sword."

The strange light in Olafson's eyes was now particularly pronounced. Howie shifted uneasily in his chair as the other continued.

"The process has already begun. There's this awful old whore who owes us a favor. She's really disgusting, and has the foulest mouth I've ever heard. She'll be calling Sykes about now, probably waking him up. She's going to accuse him of getting her pregnant. If he hangs up, she'll keep calling back. She'll call him every name she knows, which will take a while. Then she'll threaten to sue him, charge him with assault, and whatever else occurs to her. I don't think Sykes has much of a sense of humor, and that'll put him in a bad mood. Come on, we'd better get moving."

As they were about to go out of the door, Olafson paused and asked,

"Do you have any bandages or band-aids or anything?"

Howie led the way to the bathroom and produced a cardboard box full of assorted band-aids. Olafson said,

"If you're going to be seen in public, you ought to be bloodied up a little."

Olafson then cut the back of his own hand slightly with a razor blade and began, despite Howie's protests, to smear blood over his face. Band-aids were then placed over parts of the bloodied areas. Having done that, Olafson smiled, and, with great care, covered the cut on his hand with a band-aid.

The car was unmarked, but had a radio. They drove past the railway yards and out through the poorest part of town. Running along the edge of the prairie there was a dead-end street with an auto-body shop, a junk yard, and several bungalows in disrepair. The last of these had a hand-lettered sign saying "Bewair of dog," a front-yard doghouse in better condition than the house, and a dog which might have had some German Shepherd in him. The dog jumped up and and barked as they approached, but was restrained by a rope. Olafson nodded toward the house.

"That's where Wellington Sykes lives."

"Does he live alone?"

"No, his sister rents the house. She's no good either, but she has some kids and gets welfare. She also shoplifts and passes bad checks."

They went to the end of the street, turned around, and came back past the Sykes residence. A little further on, they drew up opposite a patrol car which was parked in an alley facing the street. Olafson rolled down his window, and called to the officer in it,

"No signs of life yet, Marvin, but it shouldn't be long."

They then drove another hundred yards and parked in front of a large Buick whose front wheels were up on blocks.

During the next quarter of an hour they talked little. Howie realized that a great deal of police work consisted in waiting and watching. He himself settled into a state which was at once half asleep and alert. He felt not unlike a cat, enjoying the warmth of the sun, but with ears pricked for a certain kind of sound.

When they heard a car, both Howie and Olafson came alert. It turned out to be, not Sykes' old Chevvy, but an Olds with an elderly couple in it. False alarms, too, were a part of the routine, and Howie settled back again. It was, after all, rather fun to sample a new line of work.

Two more cars of no interest passed, and then one came faster with a broken muffler. It was a jarring ragged sound which disturbed the peacefulness of the prairie, and Howie was sure that it was Sykes. Before the car got to them, the patrol car came careening out of the alley behind it, lights flashing and siren wailing. They could see Sykes' face as he passed, but couldn't make out his expression. Olafson looked only slightly disappointed when Sykes' car rolled to a stop down the street. The patrol car pulled up behind him, lights still flashing. For some minutes, nothing happened. Howie asked,

"Is he going to give him a ticket?"

"Eventually. He'll be starting to write it up."

"I've always wondered why it takes so long to get a ticket."

"The officer seldom hurries. Part of the point is humiliation, and also showing other drivers that people get pinched. When someone's stopped with a patrol car flashing behind him, or with a policeman looking at his license, everyone who goes by looks at him. In a town this size, some people will recognize the culprit. Then he gets razzed when he meets them later."

"Was Sykes really speeding?"

"Certainly. The speed limit is twenty five, except where otherwise marked. Practically everyone goes faster than that."

Finally, the officer stood at Sykes' window, examining his license. Olafson spoke into the radio microphone,

"Ok, Hartwig, he'll be coming down Fifth in a couple of minutes."

They then started up and drove past the parked cars. Olafson drove slowly, sometimes letting the car wander slightly over the centerline. He said,

"If Sykes had a brain in his head, he'd realize that we're out to get him, and he'd be careful. But I don't think he will be. We'll put another dart into him a few blocks further down."

Just then, there was a furious honking. Olafson moved slowly to the right and Sykes roared by. This time, a patrol car was concealed in front of a parked truck, and it took off in pursuit. Olafson floored the accelerator, and all three cars bounced over a railway crossing at high speed. Howie was thrown painfully around, his head hitting the ceiling at one point, but he hung on as best he could.

Just when it looked as if Sykes might try to escape, he instead screeched and skidded to a stop. Olafson and Howie, some fifty yards in the rear, watched as two officers got out of the patrol car and approached Sykes' car from opposite sides with guns drawn. Howie caught his breath, but Olafson spoke casually,

"You have to be careful at this stage. You never know when one of these bums will have a gun."

There were no shots, but they could hear Sykes clearly as he yelled and swore. It reminded Howie vividly of the scene in the courthouse corridor.

When Sykes drove off again, this time with a ticket for reckless operation of a motor vehicle, he drove slowly. Howie said,

"I guess he's got the message."

"He's got one message, but we've got another one for him."

"What's that?"

"He'll be going to the bar next. The one he goes to every day at this time. There'll be a guy there who owes me a favor. I have a feeling that Sykes will get into a fight with him."

"Won't Sykes beat him up?"

"Sykes and people like him may be rough and vicious, but they don't really know how to fight. You'll see. We'll be looking in the window."

As expected, Sykes parked in front of a low bar called, oddly enough, 'The Yacht Club.' After he went in, Olafson said,

"Here's the story. You and I are driving along, conferring about pornography, when you wonder how on earth there could be a yacht club here. We stop to have a look. There's a rumpus inside, and I, naturally, go in to stop it. You follow me in, and you're a witness to whatever happens then. Ok?"

Howie laughed and replied,

"So there won't be anything about baiting the bull?"

"Certainly not. Those were just traffic offenses. I have a feeling that Sykes carries a knife, or may pick up something that can be construed as a deadly weapon. There's one thing I need from you. When we go in to break up the fight, make sure Sykes can see you. When you're sure he does, start laughing as loud as you can."

Howie, somewhat puzzled, agreed. As they approached the Yacht Club, he wasn't sure just what his companion had in mind, but he imagined that Sykes would get the jail term he should have gotten the first time. In any case, it was interesting to see unorthodox methods at work.

There was a man in a jeans jacket standing outside. He wasn't unusually large, but he looked purposeful and competent. He looked at Olafson quizzically, and the latter nodded. The man, whose name turned out to be Riley, went in without a word.

Olafson and Howie took up a position near the corner of the building, where they could see over the curtain stretched horizontally across the front windows.

The bar was almost empty, and Riley wasted little time. Whatever he said to Sykes, the latter, always strongly disposed to anger, was on his feet. Riley said something else. He then moved quickly to his left, easily avoiding the haymaker Sykes threw as he charged. When Sykes turned, he was hit by a series of quick lefts. As Riley moved fluidly, he threw no punches designed to put Sykes down or out. But he stung him and cut him at will. Howie was impressed. He couldn't himself have handled Sykes so easily if, indeed, he could have handled him at all. Sykes wasn't a polished boxer, but he was strong and mean, and he threw punches in flurries.

Sykes was soon bleeding from the nose and mouth, and was purple in the face from his exertions. Although he kept swinging, none of his blows came close to landing. Riley then hit him rather harder in the mouth with a straight right. It sent Sykes crashing back against the bar. Sykes grabbed a nearby bottle, broke it in half against the bar, and turned toward his tormentor.

Olafson was through the door so quickly that Howie could hardly keep up. Olafson stopped some thirty feet from Sykes, his badge displayed in his left hand, and said,

"You're under arrest. Assault with a deadly weapon."

Sykes, his face in tatters and blood everywhere, gave a horrible grin. Howie, remembering his instructions, started laughing.

There was an instant when everyone remained frozen. Riley was armed with a chair and Sykes with his broken bottle while Olafson stood upright with his badge thrust out stiffly like a shield. In the silence, Howie heard his own laughter, strange and hollow in the circumstances.

In the next instant, the bull charged, seemingly at the badge. Instead of drawing it back as if it were a cape, Olafson dropped it to the floor. It was only later that Howie realized why. Olafson shot two-handed. Indeed, the noise of the badge hitting the floor barely preceded the crack of the gun. Sykes's legs kept coming even as his upper body was halted, and he presented the absurd spectacle of a man running out from under his body. He wound up on his back with his feet only a yard or two from Olafson. The latter smiled, picked up his badge, and stepped over to the telephone on the bar.

Howie stared down at Sykes, laughter now the last thing on his mind. The broken bottle was lying beside Sykes as he clutched his chest with both hands. He moved his head slowly from side to side. Since there was blood all around his mouth, it was hard to tell whether it was coming out of his throat. Sykes was also making noises, mostly rather indistinct, but Howie realized that he was calling for his mother.

Olafson came back, took Howie by the arm, and led him outside. Speaking over his shoulder, he instructed Riley and the bartender not to touch Sykes. Once outside, Olafson said,

"The meat wagon will be here soon. They'll probably save him. But he won't take any more shots at you for a while."

Howie could only say,

"You knew this was going to happen, didn't you, Vic?"

"I didn't expect to have to shoot him. I wanted to catch him assaulting Riley with a deadly weapon and put him away for a few years."

For the first time, Howie was fairly sure that Olafson was lying. He was appalled by what had happened, but he realized that he had, himself, played a large part in it. There was nothing to be done. He replied,

"I won't spill the beans about the picadors, much less my own role. But I never want to be involved in anything like this again, Vic."

"You never will. But you have to understand a few things, Howie. Our system of justice only puts away a tiny fraction of all the violent criminals that there are. The rest are left to the police. We have to keep them away from decent people, and there are very few of us to do it. We have to inspire fear. There's no other way we could begin to protect people like you."

"Is it necessary to shoot them down like dogs?"

"There's an unwritten law. The scuzz are allowed to beat the daylights out of each other in bars like this. It's assumed that anyone else will have too much sense to go there. For the most part, someone like Sykes can indulge his violence and spend relatively little time in jail."

Apparently reminded of Sykes, Olafson glanced briefly in the window and satisfied himself. He then continued,

"The reason I put him down is that he broke the other half of the rule. This says that scuzzballs aren't allowed to mess with decent respectable citizens. They can steal their cars, and, maybe, burgle their houses when no one's home. But no confrontations and no violence directed against persons. When that rule is broken, we have to hit them hard and hit them fast. The court system alone is too slow and too uncertain for that. It doesn't inspire enough fear."

As the ambulance approached, Olafson gestured toward the interior and said,

"I can assure you that this won't be lost on Sykes' friends and acquaintances. They'll know why it happened."

As soon as Howie got home, he yanked the band-aids off his face and washed it. He then called Sturgis Caldwell. By the time that they met, an hour later, an account of the incident had been included in a news report on the radio. One Wellington Sykes had attacked an unnamed police officer with a broken bottle. Sykes had been shot, and was declared dead on arrival at Bollinger Hospital. The police chief had been interviewed, and had exonerated the officer. As he said,

"There was nothing to do but shoot or run. Policemen don't run."

After Howie told Sturgis what had happened, the latter replied,

"You said you wanted legal advice, Howie. Let's start with Vic Olafson's actions. He had a right to alert his men to the possibility that Sykes might speed, and to position them wherever he wanted. He didn't have the right to instruct someone to make an obscene and abusive telephone call, but that's an awfully minor matter. If I know Vic, he didn't instruct Riley to assault Sykes. I think you'd find only that he made some vague remarks which nevertheless indicated to Riley exactly what he wanted. A prosecutor would get nowhere with that one. Then, as for the shooting itself, no one could ever show that it wasn't self-defense."

"What about entrapment?"

"If Olafson had arrested Sykes on a felony charge without killing him, the defense might argue for entrapment. But, even if the defense had all the facts, which it certainly wouldn't, it might not work. It wasn't as if Olafson put the broken bottle in Sykes's hand, promised him a reward for assaulting Riley, and then arrested him when he did."

"To what extent am I involved?"

"As for you, there's certainly no question of any guilt. You have the right to laugh whenever you want."

"I guess. Still, I do have the feeling of having been involved in something that was both awful and extremely underhanded."

"Your trouble, Howie, is just that you're so young and inexperienced generally, and also a bit naive. Vic inveigled you into a game of cops and robbers which was much more deadly than you imagined. I don't blame you for feeling badly. On the other hand, it wasn't, by any stretch of the imagination, your idea to kill Sykes."

"I consented to short-cutting the law. I didn't like being shot at, and I didn't think Sykes should have been let loose in the first place. When I thought Vic was only trying to get him on a felony charge, I was happy to cooperate."

"I guess we just have to live and learn. I must say that it's rather bad luck that you have to deal with someone as deviously elaborate as Vic Olafson on your first job."

When Howie got home, he had hardly stepped in the door when the phone rang. It was Barbara. Having heard on the radio about the supposed attempt on his life, she was worried about him. Howie was extremely pleased that she was so concerned, but decided to wait until later to explain everything that had happened since. Before they hung up, the arrangements for Saturday night dinner with the Wintons had been completed.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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