“Am I under arrest, Detective?” I asked.
He paused, sighed. “No Mr. Terra, you are not.”
“A person of interest?” I added air quotes.
The heavy, graying cop scooted out the chair, flopped down a file and sat down, leaning back, non-threatening-like.
“You can call me Max. My mother’s brother was Mr. Terra,” I interrupted. His eyes shot upward in his oily head trying to piece together what I’d just said.
“No Max, no, you are certainly not of any particular interest, not to the PD, the city, myself or anyone else I can imagine,” he finally answered.
“Then why am I here?” I motioned my hands around the small, beige interrogation room.
“We’re counting on your cooperation, Max, your sense of civic responsibility, your concern for the welfare of your neighbors.” He smirked. I never really knew what a smirk was until Detective Peters demonstrated perfect ones in our many previous conversations.
“So what do you want to know Slim?” I asked. I knew he hated that nickname. He ignored it and pulled a notepad and short pencil out of the inside pocket of his cheap suit.
“Let’s start by you telling me what you were doing at Chang’s store this afternoon.”
“Sure, I was patronizing a locally-owned small business.”
“How long had you been there before the attempted robbery took place?” he asked, going straight for the meat. I respected that. No games.
I’d thought about lying, but the odds were stacked against me, I’m just not a very good liar, and also, there was apparently a tape.
“About three hours,” I answered, rounding down about two.
“Chang’s is a three aisle, twelve by twelve hole in the wall. What takes three hours to shop for in a store the size of a spare bedroom?”
“Chang and me go way back, we were just shooting the breeze.”
“Our investigation indicates that Mr. Chang barely speaks English Max, can you at least try to do a little better than that?”
I weighed my options, decided I didn’t have any good reason, other than my basic nature, to mess with the cops on this one.
“Mr. Chang hired me to hang around on occasion, to filter out certain potentially unwelcome customers.” This was true, though a little fuzzy on the “hired” bit. Chang’s store had been robbed more than once in the few years since he’d bought it from the previous owner’s young widow. He wasn’t paranoid, just street-smart. For me, things had been pretty skimpy the last few months. Chang would set me up with some booze and a few sandwiches from time to time. All I had to do was hang around there and intimidate anyone who might look a little hinky. It was a fine line in that part of the city, where there are very few jetsetters and celebrities, mostly addicts, bums and working girls.
“So, you were Chang’s bouncer?” Peters asked, grinning. “Things must be going really, really well for your private detective business.”
“Times are tough all over, Slim.”
“Yes, indeed they are, Max. Now why don’t you tell us about the robbery.” He flipped a page on the notepad and stuck the pencil tip to his tongue.
I leaned forward hoping to dominate the potential pissing contest.
“At about three fifteen P.M, I witnessed a young, Caucasian male enter the front door. He appeared nervous, twitchy, scared.”
“Did you recognize the young man?”
“I’d seen him around, didn’t know his name, a squirrely little guy, tries to look tough but too stupid to recognize his own ineptitude. You know the type.”
Peters smiled a little and nodded his head. “Then what?”
“I observed the man, boy, whatever. He pulled his coat open and I caught a glimpse of a handgun stuffed into the waistband. This raised my level of alertness and civic responsibility since the sign on Chang’s front door clearly says ‘no weapons allowed.’”
“So what did you do about it Max?”
“I blew my nose.”
“You blew your nose?”
“Yeah, it was our signal. Like you said, Chang doesn’t ‘sprechen sie English’ so well, so we set up a few signals. I blow my nose and Chang knows there’s something evil amiss.” I answered, stretching and shifting in the hard metal chair to indicate a lack of real concern and comfort.
“Slick,” he said, scribbling something down. “Did it get Chang’s attention?”
“Yeah, not so much that you’d notice though, he just stepped to the other side of the counter, away from the register.” I picked at a cuticle.
“And what did this accomplish?”
“That’s where Chang keeps the shotgun,” I replied. Peters scribbled down more doodles.
“Did you have a weapon on you as well, Max?” Slim was tossing out some bait.
“My weapon is registered, my ticket is up to date,” I answered, carefully. Peters smiled, realizing that I’d cut him off. He knew as well as I did that I had more than one gun, he also knew that since I didn’t actually pull a weapon in the store that this was a dead end, for now.
“And why didn’t you pull your lawfully blessed weapon, Max?”
“There wasn’t any need. I knew Chang already had his knuckle on the scattergun, the punk was more scared than fierce, I just figured another gun in play at that point would just amp up an already tense situation.”
“Smart thinking, Max. You some kind of psychologist now?”
“For the right price, sure, whatever. I do know punks though, this one was on the verge of pissing himself. I figured that from behind him I had some tactical latitude,” I added.
“So what then, Max?”
“I slipped up closer to the kid. He stepped up to the counter and made a motion for his gun, started spitting and shouting. Chang started acting all confused and scared, pretending to not understand him, he’s pretty good at that. This just made the boy angrier and louder. Then he grabbed at the gun-butt to pull it out.”
“And that’s when you clocked him with the can of pineapple juice?”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
There was a knock on the door. Peters got up and stepped out into the hallway. I shifted around, drummed my fingers, kept my eyes away from the mirror. I didn’t know if my presence actually merited any supervisory oversight, but you never know. Peters came back in the room after a few minutes, picked up the folder and stuck his notepad back into his pocket.
“I just talked to our tech team, they pretty much concur with your version of the story. They were quite impressed with the quality of the video,” he said, checking his watch.
I was surprised to find out Chang even had a surveillance camera, much more so that he had figured out how to use it properly.
“You know what, Max? Our tech team’s rookie, Mathers, is a hard-working, really ambitious kid. He went through the entire tape, not just the robbery attempt. He says he saw what appeared to be you lifting a couple of candy bars, and maybe a pack of smokes while Chang was in the back.”
I felt my face flush, more from embarrassment than shame or guilt. “So Chang’s going to press shoplifting charges on me now, Slim?”
Peters stood erect, hands on hips and smiled. He knew he had me against a wall. “Actually Chang wants to make you Pope, or whatever the Chinese version of that is,” Peters laughed.
“So does that also mean he doesn’t want the candy bars back?”
I left the station on foot, the evening’s slow gray drizzle had intensified. Silent lightning flashed somewhere overhead. I was soaked before I got back to my block. As I passed by Chang’s, he yelled and shook his fist at me. Things were apparently back to normal.
“Four more hours! Four more hours! For stolen candy bars, four more hours!” he yelled. I waved and smiled, a sign of accepting his barter.
Dennis C. Bentley is an IT consultant in suburban St. Louis. He lives in rural Jefferson County Missouri with his patient and inexplicably devoted wife, Angel, a dog trainer and rescue shelter volunteer. A member of the Writers Society of Jefferson County, Dennis maintains several blogs, serving as an every-man’s restaurant critic and as a scribe for the mundane and ironic aspects of his immediate surroundings. His essays have been published in anthologies such as My Dog is My Hero and My Teacher is my Hero (Adams Media) and he has upcoming work in Publishing Syndicate’s series Not Your Mother’s Book. Fine him online at dcbentley.com.