"21, go ahead." The older officer responded to the radio. There'd been nothing for him or his trainee for almost an hour. The joint city/county dispatcher was going back and forth with a sheriff's deputy about a robbery out in the Township, but Ann Arbor was being law-abiding or at least getting away with its crimes unnoticed.
"21, suspicious person, walking south on State, 2000 block, up near the buildings. Male, possibly black. East side of the street."
"Good example of the crap we get this time of the morning," the officer said, speaking to the young man next to him. It was 4:49 AM, according to the dashboard clock. "A guy's walking along in the rain, and somebody calls it in."
"Let's go see him." The patrol SUV turned south off the residential street where they'd been waiting for the morning's traffic accidents to start.
Along the west side, there was no way for a pedestrian to walk suspiciously. The university's athletic buildings and fields and golf course were more than adequately secured, and they butted right up to the sidewalk. The light at the railroad crossing was green, and they went on past Stimson Street on the east, then past the Produce Station and a sausage shop. A vacant lot followed, then a body shop, and finally, back from the street, a small office building.
"There we go," said the driver. There was a man walking along the front of the building, partly shadowed from the street lights by the second floor overhang. There was a driveway just beyond it, and they pulled in, effectively blocking the man's path.
They got out. The older officer, Kurt, greeted their subject. "Good morning, sir. You're getting kind of wet, aren't you?"
"Yes, sir," said the man. He was, in fact, African-American, and he looked old, almost elderly. "Naturally, it'd start rainin' now."
"We just wondered if you were all right. Someone saw you, thought maybe you might need some help."
"No, sir, no. I'm just walkin' home."
"Home? Where's that?"
"Why, up there, off Ellsworth. In the apartments."
"That's a long way."
"Yes, sir. It is. But I'm used to it. I work for the university."
"Okay. Any reason why you'd be walking up close to these buildings? Not out on the sidewalk?"
The man smiled. "Oh, yes, sir. Plenty of reason." He held out his hand, palm up, and the rain splashed on it. "Keepin' out of the rain."
"I see. Do you have some ID I could look at?"
"Oh, sure." His coat came about to mid-thigh, and instead of hiking it up in back, he unzipped it and pulled it open. "I'm just reachin' for my wallet, now. All right?"
The younger officer had stepped slightly sideways, and he could see where the man's hand was going. He said, "Yes, go ahead."
The driver's license the man produced was current, and the address was a street Kurt knew, lined with townhouses. Across from the city's main landfill, in fact. "That's what, two miles or something?"
"Well, more like a mile and a half, sir. I cut over on Eisenhower, go down to Stone School and get over the highway there. I do it every day."
"Okay. Well ... it's just going to keep on raining, apparently. Can we give you a ride?"
"Oh. Well, that would be very nice of you, sir. Very nice. I'd appreciate it."
The man got in the back of the SUV, and they took him home, going the formal, right-angle way, crossing the freeway on State, then around the traffic circle and east on Ellsworth. They dropped him off, watched as he went up to a door and opened it with a key.
"You know, Mike," the older cop said as they turned the vehicle around, "he had a UM facilities uniform, ID, and everything. Walking two miles home in the dark, ducking under awnings to stay dry. And somebody called him in as 'suspicious'. What if he'd been white? Think we'd have ever heard of him, let alone stopped him?"
"If he'd been a deer, we'd have had SWAT out here." The city had just gone through a nasty period of shaming and counter-shaming among citizens and council members over a project to reduce the whitetail deer population.
"Oh, well. At least we could give him a lift home." They turned right out of the complex, headed back west toward State. The radio woke up again.
In the next few seconds, the early morning collapsed away on each side, tunneling into a narrow path, smoothing and streaking and blurring at the edges. The important features were lights falling away behind them as they sped up, rain hitting the windshield with increasing force, drops smearing with the wind and smearing the world. Things became more of a shooting script than a narrative.
The view shifted to a higher point, looking downward at the SUV as it slid out its rear wheels going around the traffic circle. North on State, with the flashers making the Quick Lube a surreal red and blue work of public art. No traffic on the other side of the boulevard, ominously empty. They went through the light at Research Park, a car braking hard to let them by. A glimpse of the driver's startled face, tinted blue. The radio still babbling. A U Haul office snapping by on the right. Ahead, the road going up to cross the freeway. Cresting the overpass. "Holy shit!"
To the left, at the westbound entrance ramp, two cars upside down. A third visible down the ramp, burning hellishly. A Pittsfield Township patrol car, sideways across the southbound lanes of State, both officers out with long guns. Fire trucks coming in from both directions. State police coming from the east on the freeway, bouncing over the shoulder and getting jammed up in the ditch. Our two officers out of their car, running in, side-arms drawn. A man weaving toward them, on foot, with his clothes on fire. In close-up, a woman standing in the rain, her arms over her head, and her face twisted into a grimace of sheer horror. Shouting. Sirens. And above all of it, rain, dark clouds, and a flash of lightening.
Two and a half hours later, Mac MacArthur set down his plate of toast and the first cup of coffee. He perched on a kitchen stool, got his phone out, and unlocked it. As he usually did, he opened the Detroit Free Press news site first. "Jesus H. Christ!" he said, aloud. His dogs looked up, surprised at his tone. Colleen MacArthur looked up, too. "What now?" she asked him.
"Look at this," was all he said, passing her the phone.
From Driven by the Trades Copyright by 2017 Joseph McConnell