Gary writes “Grit Fiction,” because life isn’t always smooth. His stories are characterized by wit, wordplay, and plot twists that will leave the reader guessing.

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MARGARET SAVES THE DAY

 

I know I led with the headline, but I hope you’ll stick around for the rest of the story. You might find it entertaining. I lived it, and it was not, but perhaps reading it could be different. Let me know.

 

I’m a Californian and a police officer and a smartass, according to most. To the star-crossed high-profile people of the Los Angeles-Long Beach Combined Statistical Area, I’m what you call a “fixer.” If you are picturing a female Ray Donovan, well, that’s very weird, but you’re not far off. When my phone rings, it means there is a situation. Somebody needs a solution, something that calls for unorthodox methods. Somebody needs an issue quickly and preferably quietly resolved, without repercussions, at least, not to them personally. And, often, somebody just needs a scapegoat. Ring, ring.

 

Take for instance, the overturned tractor trailer out on the freeway a few months back. It caused about a million dollars of damage and cost countless angry Angelinos an extra ninety minutes commuting from hot yoga to their air-conditioned cubicles. The truck driver was high. He was also the Mayor’s brother-in-law. It was going to be quite damaging to the Mayor’s reelection campaign, until I fixed it. When I was finished, the story that went to press was all about a distracted teenaged driver swerving and causing the accident, and a heroic truck driver (standing proudly next to his famous relative in the front-page picture) who made sure there were no lives lost. When the half-baked clod tried to make an official statement for the press, I managed to edit it before it went to print. It resulted in those billboards you might have seen out along the 101, the ones that say, “Dude, Don’t Text and Drive, Dude.” As always, when someone needed to take credit and commendation, my name didn’t come up and my phone didn’t ring.

 

When there is blame to be assigned, I’m like a doorknob; everyone constantly hangs stuff on me. The Mayor’s office, the county police, Highway Patrol, billionaire businessmen, Hollywood stars, talk show therapists. I understand. None of those people need a black eye or a tarnished record. Me, I can afford it. Tarnished is my middle name, my eye color, the shade of hair dye I buy at Rite Aid. It almost hurts my feelings a bit, but, in the end, being a scapegoat pays off well for me. I take the lumps and the payola; it seems only fair.   

 

My phone rings. It’s O’Hara. “M!” he shrieks in my ear. He calls me “M,” even though half the officers in our precinct have names that start with it. “We’ve got a situation!” Just like I told you earlier. Here we go. “Let me guess,” I say to him. “Pongo.” “You’ve got your television on,” he says. Correctly.

Pongo is the L.A. Zoo’s pride and joy. Five million visitors per year shell out eighty bucks to visit the three-year-old orangutan and his furry friends.

Pongo’s all over the news this morning, his escape is the breaking story.

 

I’m on afternoon shift today, or I had been, but I guess my workout and my laundry can wait, and I can tape Dr. Phil. I tell O’Hara I’m on my way, he asks me what I’m wearing, and I hang up on him. Shrug my uniform shirt over my tank and yoga pants and leave the apartment and proper decorum behind.

 

I get about a two-minute break from O’Hara’s annoying voice while I drive. It makes me wonder what the television news was not saying. I mean, yes, a zoo animal on the loose is a big story, but why call me? Other animals have escaped from the zoo before, zebras, kangaroos, antelopes, my Captain, for instance. Legend has it there is still even an escaped wolf on the loose. There’s some other reason that this particular incident is now a job for me. What is it I don’t know? Ring ring. I’m about to find out.

 

“Don’t hang up!” O’Hara leads with. “Are you sitting down?” “No, I’m driving standing up today,” I snap. “What’s up?” With the ensuing insults and sputtering and terrible sentence structure, it takes a bit before I start to get more of the story. If I am translating my Doofus correctly, it seems the naughty orangutan is not just on the loose, he is on a school bus, with the even worse-behaved kids. And it isn’t the first time he’s done this, authorities have learned. That still doesn’t explain why I got the call.

 

“There’s more,” he says, meaning, clearly, more bad news. He communicates to me in a mix of whimpers and growls, that Pongo the orangutan is driving the school bus. You read that correctly. “I know it doesn’t sound believable,” O’Hara howls, “But Murphy and I have a wit!” “Yeah, maybe between the both of you,” I say, then let it pass soundlessly over his head. His eyewitness does seem to be reliable; it’s the bus driver, who stepped out for a smoke before his first stop, and before his vehicle roared off. “Great,” I say, to which my captain responds, “Yeah, great is right. I hope you have a plan, M! You need to get your sweet little –” I hang up on him for the second time in a quarter of an hour.

 

Now it makes sense that I would be brought in. It’s going to be a media circus. Animals in peril. Also, an orangutan. Something isn’t quite adding up, though. If Pongo stole (if we decide to charge him with the crime) an empty bus, how is it that he is now driving a school bus full of kids?  

  

Three minutes later, I roar up to the group of cruller-chomping fellow officers hastily parked just across from the zoo entrance. The bus driver, soon to be unemployed, is retelling his story for probably the eight time. “The little bugger was laughing at me!” I hear him say. O’Hara greets me with, “It’s about time.” “Unlike you,” I say, nodding across the street, “I had to travel from further away than the gorilla reserve.”  “Ha ha,” he spits pastry crumbs on the front of both of us. “We’ve got no time to lose,” he gets serious, “That monkey has by reports several dozen kids on the bus that he’s – ” He paused then, and grimaced, as if not saying the word would keep it from being true “ – Driving.” The sad driver manages to look even sadder.

 

Everyone else just looks lost. All eyes are on me to reveal a brilliant solution.  Except for Murphy, who is staring into the empty pastry box as if he can wish another cruller into existence. I am going to need to connect the dots for them. “So,” I say, “Does this mean that Pongo knows the bus route, and that he’s picking up kids at each stop?” It does, for a fact, mean exactly that, but I don’t have time to wait for the Mensa club here to reach that conclusion.

 

Everyone has their mouths open, but no sound is coming out, so I interrupt the slow and silent processing. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this!” Nobody reacts, because now they are all watching the zoo employee rush up with his tranquilizer gun. His face is bright red, and his wild hair makes me suspect that there’s a mop handle somewhere that’s missing its business end. The guy is young enough to be my grandkid, and I am only thirty. Him shooting at a school bus will be a story that not even I can spin. To make matters worse, which is Murphy’s job, Murphy unsnaps his holster and says to the zoo kid, “I’ll be your backup.”

 

“Captain!” I go over Murphy’s head. “Tell them absolutely not!” My biggest worry is that the two will wind up shooting one another. O’Hara glares at me as if he resents me telling him how to do his job but pulls rank and tells the trigger-happy duo to stand down for now. “Well, Miss Hot Pants,” he says, leering at me “You’d better have a better idea, then.” “It would be difficult not to,” is my retort, “But I need to get moving.” “Whatever you have better work, M,” he threatens needlessly, then leers, “Or you’ll get a whole lot more than a slap on the wrist.” Somehow, he just managed to make a double entendre out of the threat of lost lives and probably my job.

 

I have to say, it feels good shouting orders at these dolts. “Get me the bus’s twenty! And clear the highways between its current location and the school!” I think about saying “Please” or “Thank You” or “You’re all welcome,” and decide to just get on going. As soon as I spin away, I feel several pairs of eyes on my rear. Primates.

“Where do you think you’re…” I hear O’Hara whining, then I run until I don’t hear him anymore.

 

A few minutes later, on my way to intercept the school bus, I listen to the excited chatter on the police radio. Everyone’s favorite bus-hijacker, Pongo, is continuing to pick up kids at every single bus stop on the way. I suspect that some of the parents are fully aware of the situation and have still rushed their kids out the door. While the L.A.P.D’s finest are monitoring the situation closely, nobody has tried to intercede. Not yet, at least.

 

So, what we have here is pursuit of a vehicle that is reaching top speeds of thirty-five miles an hour, yielding, merging safely, coming to full stops, even leaving the crosswalks clear for gawking pedestrians. Pongo is a better driver than ninety-eight percent of the others out on the road, by my estimation.

 

If you are wondering why Byron Greeley Elementary School Bus number 20615 has not been forced off the road, why there are no roadblocks or nail strips placed in its anticipated path, well, I’ll tell you. Culpability. No matter how this ends up, plenty of parties are already in hot water. The bus driver. The Los Angeles Unified School District Transportation Department (for not fingerprinting the current driver of Bus 20615). The bus manufacturer, probably. The Zoo. The zookeeper. The zookeeper’s keeper. You get the idea. Lawyers all over California are likely licking litigious chops.

 

And, perish the thought, if one kid on the bus winds up with a single scratch, if one nose has one nosebleed, heads will roll. Captain O’Hara will not be a captain ever again. The entire Los Angeles police department will likely be sent down to Tijuana. Or worse, San Diego. Whatever it will take to keep Mayor Muldoon smelling like some kind of flower. If you have met the man, I feel for you, but you realize that any pleasant smell emanating from him is extremely unlikely. What I do I smell right now is trouble, and I am knee-deep in it.  

 

I know what you are thinking. My coworkers probably still will try something. They are not smart enough to realize they are better off remaining uninvolved. Or to realize that they could only make matters much worse. And, you are right. Left to their own devices, they would ram the school bus, shoot at it, maybe even detonate it. They would be doing one or all those things right now. The only thing stopping them is the fact that I have threatened them with a harassment complaint for the fourth time this week. That always seems to scare them into submission, just not enough to stop the harassment. To be more certain that they don’t do anything really stupid, I also promise to take full responsibility for Pongo, the bus, the zoo, and the forty-seven passengers. I even offer to spring for a refill of O’Hara’s anti-anxiety and blood pressure medications. 

 

Now you understand the present situation.  It is all on me. Whatever happens, I and I alone will be left holding the bag. The outcome will be directly attributed to my actions, and mine alone. No pressure at all. Ring, ring.

 

“M!” Somehow O’Hara is louder on the phone than he is in person. I think he even managed to spit on me. It’s a gift. “You better wrap this up, and fast! The Mayor is furious! And I don’t need to tell you -” I terminate the call. Like he said, he didn’t need to tell me.  

 

At eight-thirteen in the morning, the intersection of Piper and Kingston looks like this: Byron Greeley Elementary School Bus #20615 is approaching from the eastbound direction, slowing for the red light. It’s red in all directions but Pongo doesn’t know that, as far as I can tell. I am parked in my unmarked car, curbside, about a block east of the intersection. My hood is steaming, my head is spinning, and my heart is racing. Pongo and his bus full of kids are about to pass by me on the way to a resolution one way or another. On the south side of the intersection, perpendicular to my position, O’Hara sits in the passenger side of Muldoon’s cruiser. The captain is making sure that he has a front row seat if “my mess” goes sideways. Muldoon appears to be texting. It surprises me a little since I’m not even certain that the man can read. Then I see his lips moving, so it makes a little more sense. In the far intersection, facing the approaching school bus, is our own bus. The Los Angeles Police Department bus. The Armageddon bus, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a minibus, but it has enough room for a pair of primate keepers, zoo security personnel, Los Angeles Animal Services, a couple of armed officers, and Murphy. They are standing by to obstruct the bus’s path, should my plan fail, and prevent it from continuing to the school, “using whatever means necessary,” according to O’Hara. He has reminded everyone several times over the radio that I am the lead on this operation, for the official record. Not so that anyone will listen to me, but so they will remember to blame me for any hiccups. I’m fairly confident there won’t be any, unless Muldoon accidentally group-texts sexist remarks, again.

 

From the north side of the intersection, moving smoothly toward the traffic light toward my captain on the other side, is “The Margaret Solution.” A teal, late model Grand Marquis, tooting its horn politely. I can’t help but look away to my left and see the look on O’Hara’s face. Priceless. His face is fire engine red. He might have swallowed his gum. Not his tongue, though, unfortunately. I watch him angrily thumbing his phone. Ring, ring.

 

“M!” This time it’s a girlish scream. It’s higher pitched than even this girl can manage. “Just watch,” I tell him, and hang up, just as the school bus passes by me. I have my window open enough to hear kids laughing and jabbering excitedly. I swear, the Captain was three times noisier and a hundred percent more terrified than the forty-seven schoolkids, their ages ranging from eight to ten years old.  

 

Pongo slows the bus to a stop at the traffic light, like any law-abiding juvenile orangutan driver should. He looks to his right, as expected, hearing the horn honking. And, exactly as planned, he puts the bus into park, exits it to the right, and scampers around to the passenger side of the waiting sedan. The school bus rocks slightly as all the kids with their faces pressed to the windows on the right side of the bus rush over to the left side to watch. The Grand Marquis signals and executes a right-hand turn, the driver gives Captain O’Hara a slight nod as they pass by. I’m already dialing before my boss can put his lights and siren on. Ring, ring.

 

I don’t even let him talk. “Let it go,” I tell him, “Margaret knows what she’s doing.” He starts to sputter, and I cut him off. “Margaret. Knows. What she’s doing.” I know that I am right, and I suspect that O’Hara knows it too. This time I don’t hang up on him. I throw my phone on the front seat, as I pull forward into the intersection to block the police cruiser, should he insist on pursuit. Clearly O’Hara doesn’t realize I can hear him telling Muldoon in no uncertain or polite terms what he thinks of me. I’ll be able to use all his ill-advised vulgarities to my advantage at some future point, I am quite sure.

 

For now, I leave my car in the intersection, and board the school bus. There is a loud groan of disappointment from all the kids. They miss Pongo. I should have had Muldoon or one of the other primates drive the kids the two remaining blocks to Byron Greely. I hear one of the older and ruder kids start booing. Before it spreads, I whistle loudly. “I have good news!” I tell the ingrates. “You’re all going to get to class on time! You won’t miss a single minute of school today!” Now I don’t mind the booing so much at all.

 

In the time it takes for me to drop the kids off and for O’Hara to catch up to me, he’s worked himself up even more. But when he sees me, his mouth drops open without any expletives flying out. I am furiously wiping splotches off my shirt with a wad of napkins from Carl’s Jr. Earlier at the zoo, I took a shortcut through the aviary, and every single bird in there used me for target practice. Their aim is better than anyone in our entire department.

 

Unfortunately, Captain O’Hara has found his voice. He has both hands on his head to keep it from exploding. “What!” he demands. “What on Earth possessed you.” He can barely make himself say the words to describe what he just watched. “You gave a car and the keys to a full-grown ORANGUTAN!” He pronounces it “Orang-a-tang,” which I find hilarious. The more I grin, the deeper purple his face gets. “Captain,” I tell him, “I knew that Pongo would listen to his Mom. And, as you just saw, Margaret is an excellent driver. So, why don’t you call the Mayor, and tell him I said, ‘You’re welcome?’” Since I can’t hang up on him, I just walk away, smiling at the memory of Pongo’s mother driving him back to the zoo.

 

At least, I think that is where they are going.

 

Ring, ring.

 

END