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Authors: Susan Dunlap

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BOOK: Death and Taxes
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Already I could see figures ambling out of People’s Park. Whoever had left the patrol car there tonight might be real grateful for an assist. I picked up my pace. The patrol car was still half a block away but I could make out a blond officer bending over a man.

The street was dark there, shaded by one of the paperbark trees, the wind thwarted by the squat apartment buildings on the west side of the street. Still I got a whiff of decay from the paperbarks—they all had that foul smell.

It wasn’t till I was nearly to her that I realized the officer was Connie Pereira. “You call for backup?” I asked.

“Full moon,” she said, explaining why they had been detained. “I’m waiting for an ambulance too.”

I looked down at the form on the ground—a thin, dark-haired man lying facedown, arms at his sides as if he’d fainted. He hadn’t even lifted his hands to break his fall. Pereira was on the far side of him, feeling for a pulse. The red pulser atop her patrol car turned her tan uniform an odd shade of army green; her blond hair danced in the light and disappeared in the darker darkness that followed. But for the victim it did nothing. He seemed to consume its light with his own darkness. His hair was brown and curly, a Jewish Afro unmoved by the wind. Turned to the right, his nose just touching the macadam. Dark jeans covered thin but muscular legs. And despite his position, the flesh of his buttocks hadn’t relaxed; the muscles looked firm, as if he’d been standing. A black windbreaker hugged surprisingly narrow ribs; excess fabric lay at the sides—definitely not a natural way for it to have fallen. Closer now, I could make out the moisture on his hair—sweat. And that wind-breaker—stuck to his shirt with sweat? He still wasn’t moving.

I looked more closely at his face. The eye I could see was open. It was so deep a brown, I couldn’t tell how much the iris was dilated. But the man’s expression was not that of someone who has eased into collapse. His face was locked in fear.

Behind me I could smell the aroma of dirt-matted sweat—street people trying to see if the fallen was one of their own. They stood silently, but on the sidewalk a man was muttering to himself. Had we been in another neighborhood, house doors would be opening, neighbors wandering out. But here a body on the street was not an uncommon sight. In the shabby student apartments, group houses, and three-story flats, radios blared, but the curtains didn’t move.

“What do you think?” I asked Pereira.

“He’s not moving. But he’s still warm. Hot, really.”

“On a night like this,” I commented, pulling my jacket tighter around me. “ID?”

“Empty. No wallet, no cash.”

“How long has he been lying here?”

Pereira shrugged. “No witnesses. To the accident or the disappearance of his wallet. Big surprise, huh?”

I moved farther into the street where I could form a blockade against any driver who might see only the patrol car and not the victim.

On the sidewalk the crowd was growing, separated into dark clumps of street people, brighter clumps of students taking a break, and a third gathering of miscellaneous folk who milled together and apart like charged particles in a changing magnetic field. All three groups were oozing toward the spaces between the parked cars. In a minute they’d be pressing in on the victim and blocking the ambulance. “Keep back,” I yelled, letting my gaze move slowly from group to group. “Stay on the sidewalk.” The victim might have been rolled. Any one of them could have done it—a student on a dare, one of the users—for cash or at the whim of voices the rest of us couldn’t hear.

My gaze held them only momentarily. Damn. Where was the backup? Where was the ambulance? I glanced over at Pereira. She was hunkered down by the victim’s head, looking from him to the crowd, protecting his head. In the pulser light I couldn’t see the wry competence that was her trademark but a wary look as she eyed the growing groups on the sidewalk. She wasn’t trying CPR; the victim was breathing on his own.

I caught the movement from the eyes of the crowd first. Then I registered the footsteps. To my right, a guy was trying an end-around behind my car. “Moving,” I said to Pereira.

Then, careful not to race, not to up the anxiety level, I ambled over and stopped in front of him. He was under six feet, but he still had three or four inches on me and probably sixty pounds. He was wearing a brown wool cape and a green felt hat with a wide floppy brim with one of those party noisemakers in the band where a feather might have been. He didn’t have a handlebar mustache. Maybe he hadn’t thought of it. Maybe the goatee was enough.

“Stay on the sidewalk,” I said, not raising my voice. I’ve seen cops create incidents because they come on too strong. Mine may not be the popular method, but I try it soft first.

He strode more determinedly. “I have to see him.”

“Do you know him?”

“I must see him!” His voice was louder.

“Your name?”

“Now, madame!” No one on the sidewalk needed to cock an ear to catch that.

We’re trained to grab an arm and twist it behind. But that doesn’t work with crazies in capes. “We’ve got an injured man here. He needs his space,” I said, loud enough for all to hear. The crowd murmured uncertainly, finding it hard to choose between defying a cop and denying a fellow Californian his space. I hoped the ambulance would get here before they decided.

“Madame, I have to see that man.” He projected to the second balcony. His right hand held the edge of the cloak. He looked like a seventeenth-century Dutch flasher. Or an actor portraying one. And clearly I was the foil in his performance. The guy himself was harmless—probably—but he could trigger the crowd. It wouldn’t take much to knock them off the fence. And once they came down, they wouldn’t be rooting for me.

We were by my car now. He moved slowly, each step long, with a choreographed swagger. I did the only possible thing. I upstaged him. I stepped back into the street, forcing him to turn his back to the crowd. Then, using the width of his cape as a shield, I coordinated with his movement, and as he sauntered forward, I grabbed the edges of the cape and shoved him against my car. His shoulders hit the metal, his head jerked, but the floppy hat softened the effect for the audience. “This isn’t a stage here,” I growled. “We’ve got a man seriously injured. We’ve got our hands full dealing with him. You want to perform, try Berkeley Rep!”

Even I was surprised at my anger. I hate these grandstanders. Little boys who rule by tantrum.

“Release me, madame!” His voice was louder.

The crowd moved to its left, pressing behind the old Datsun. I could smell the dirt and sweat, the beer, and the heady anticipation. Behind me came music from newly opened windows. Footsteps slapped the sidewalks. We needed backup—now. But neither Pereira nor I could get free to call in.

I could toss this guy in the cage in Pereira’s car; that was the regulation move. But with this crowd it would be disaster, particularly in the full moon. I decided on a gamble. Lowering my voice, I said, “Give me a good reason, and I’ll walk you by.”

His eyes shifted. He was weighing his options—going for the maximum exposure? Finally he said, sotto voce, “Maybe I know him.”

I ground my teeth. I could hear my mother’s voice saying “If you’d said that when I asked …” Part of the reason I became a cop was to spite my mother. I never dreamed how often I’d end up sounding just like her. I eased my grip. “No theatrics!” To this guy I might as well have said “No breathing.”

Dammit—on any other night, three patrol cars would have rolled up by now. “What’s your decision?” I said.

“Okay.” Still sotto voce, but in twentieth-century English.

“You’re going to walk calmly, right?”

He grunted.

“Yes or no?” A grunt is nothing in this type of situation. A yes is commitment, for what that’s worth.


“Okay. We’ll walk by him slowly, not stopping. If I let you stop, everyone on the block’s going to want a look. We’ll have people tramping on his hair, you understand?”

“Yes,” he muttered. He was shaking, restraining himself. Seeing the victim was more compelling than a great performance. It made me curious. And worried.

But I’d committed myself. If I reneged here, word of it would be all over Telegraph Avenue by morning, and every patrol officer would lose credibility. I started toward Pereira, still holding on to the man’s cape. Pereira was standing now, hands on hips. The pulser light turned her blond hair orange. It glistened on her keys, radio, the butt of her gun, all hanging from her belt. In the distance I could hear a siren. Minutes away. Whatever happened here would go down in thirty seconds. I could feel the crowd moving with us.

We passed the patrol car. He was moving faster now. I was holding him back by the cape.

He came abreast of the victim, still lying in the street, still not moving. He yanked free and squatted down, the brim of his felt hat an inch from the victim’s. Before I could grab for him, he started to laugh. A deep natural laugh that quickly gained resonance. He stood up and threw his head back, flung open his cape, and guffawed for the last row.

He was facing the audience. I was just about to spin him around, the hell with the consequences, when he let his laugh subside. He turned to half-face me and said, “You are an officer of justice, right?”

I didn’t respond.

“Well, madame, here you have justice.”

“What kind of justice?” someone in the crowd called back.

Turning to them, he pronounced, “This man, who lies in the street like a defunct possum, waiting to be spat upon, trod on, run over—do you know who he is?”

“Who? Who?” they yelled.

“He is a revenue agent! With the IRS!”


—hell, anywhere else in the continental United States, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam—the becaped thespian’s announcement would have drawn guffaws and cheers. But here, right off Telegraph by People’s Park, he’d misjudged his audience. Had he declared the injured man a Cal professor or a police officer, he would have garnered applause. But an IRS agent lying in the street—that got no rise from this crowd of students and street people. Half of them hadn’t filed more than a 1040EZ, and the other half never would.

He had made his announcement and flung open his cape to near silence. Only Connie Pereira, who’d had her hassles with the IRS, cracked a smile, and one glance at the victim wiped that off quick.

Removing that cape exhibited a T-shirt with a huge foamy white
on top, a small sketchy city skyline beneath, and the words
in this case apparently a double moon. “Mason Moon,” he announced in a tone that hoped for a glint of recognition. But I was too caught up in the shock that I hadn’t gotten his name before. It’s the first thing we do. Always. It said something, something bad, about my state of mind that I hadn’t. I asked for his address.

While I was writing that down, a fire engine pulled up, and two firemen jumped out. I could see the worry on their faces. Firemen know first aid, but they aren’t medics; they’re not trained to carry the whole load of the injured. We should have heard the siren from our ambulance by now. There are only two rigs in Berkeley. We roll the fire trucks because we’ve got them at every station and they’re likely to make it to a scene well before either of the ambulances. But one ambulance was only a mile and a half away. It should have been here by now. The fact that it hadn’t meant it was out picking up some other full-moon casualty. Our IRS man would have to wait for the other rig, or failing that, one from Albany to the north. The pull of the moon wasn’t as strong there.

Another patrol car rolled up. Pereira motioned the driver to crowd-control while she stayed with the firemen. One of them knelt by the victim’s head trying to get a pulse at the carotid artery. Giving up, he put his hand by the victim’s nose, hoping to get some sign of life. The victim had been breathing adequately before. He was fading. If the ambulance didn’t make it soon …

But there was nothing I could do for him. A cop can’t wallow in pity, sorrow, fear. If you can’t shift gears, you don’t make it in this kind of job. I turned away and focused on the problem at hand—Moon. Shepherding him to the far side of the street, I asked for identification.

“Mason Moon,” he repeated.

“Driver’s license?”

“Take my word.” His volume was increasing.

Plenty of our citizens change their names, some at the behest of their gurus, some to align themselves with nature, some to separate themselves from their debts. Looking pointedly at his T-shirt, I said, “Maybe you drag out this name every full moon.”

Moon looked from me to the T-shirt and back again. His expression changed from incredulity to affront. He fondled one of the foamy O’s. “Madame, perhaps you lack artistic sense.”

Seeing the hand there clarified what his skill in textile art had not. I’d grown up in Jersey near the Garden State Parkway toll booths where mooning was born. Even then it had been considered a tacky outgrowth of youth and beer.
Moon over Berkeley.
I restrained comment.

Moon reached into his pocket and produced a card. Underneath the T-shirt picture was
Mason Moon, Artist of Opportunity.
The name was vaguely familiar, but neither that nor the card proved it was real. As for the T-shirt, the most it proved was that Moon was not a craftsman. “I still need the driver’s license.”

In the distance the siren rose shriller, louder. I felt a shiver of fear deep inside. The crowd felt it too. They quieted, a somber hush, and turned from Moon and me toward the victim in the street. Odd that ambulances are never seen as vehicles of hope, rushing the injured to the miracles of healing as opposed to providing a stop on the way to the morgue.

Maybe the siren affected Moon too. Whatever the reason, he pulled out his license and handed it to me. I glanced at it—Mason Moon was the name listed—and said, “So, Mason, who is the treasury agent in the street?”

“I don’t have a name. I’ve just seen him around.” He pocketed the license without fanfare. We both knew his show was over. The onlookers had shifted their allegiance to the firemen and the body in the street. Moon didn’t look at them, but he cocked his head, listening, getting the feel of them, poised for the chance of a comeback.

BOOK: Death and Taxes
10.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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