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Once Upon a Crime



[cover]The day changed dramatically when I turned off County D onto my short street in the northern Twin Cities suburb of Roseville. Half-way down the single block, just about opposite my driveway, two squads were stopped in the street, red and blue lights flashing in the late afternoon sun. There was a small crowd of people on the lawn in front of the newish redwood sided rambler across from my home.

I slid my foot off the accelerator and idled on down the street. I couldn't quite reach my driveway. The Roseville officer standing by the open driver's-side door of her squad looked over her shoulder at me and made a pushing movement with one hand. I recognized her, although I didn't remember her name. She'd shown up last summer at the block party some of the neighbors throw every year. The idea of the party was to get to know people living in our immediate neighborhood. It was a good idea.

This was no block party. The officer came over to me. "Oh, hi, Mr. Sean. I'll move so you can get in." She knew where I lived.

"What's going on?" I asked, squinting into the sun.

She ignored my question and moved the squad car a little closer to the opposite curb so I could get by. I swung left into my driveway and parked. Now I could see what everyone was looking at. By the opposite curb directly across the street lay the wreckage of what appeared to be a wheelchair. Some people might not recognize such a device immediately. In my suburban neighborhood wheelchairs are almost as ubiquitous as automobiles.

There are four retirement homes within a five-block area in my neighborhood. Three of them used to be public schools. Seemed to me an appropriate adaptive use. In the spring and summer the older folks living in the homes, those who can and who have such vehicles, could often be seen tootling up and down the paved pathways and streets, especially when the weather is nice. A few of them get an outing when relatives come by to push them around the streets. Others have battery-powered wheelchairs so they're more independent.

"What happened?" I said again, stepping out of my tired gray Taurus.

"Some old guy got killed," muttered a teenager wearing a reversed baseball cap on his close-cropped head.

"Killed? Car hit him?" Even as I heard the words come out of my mouth I knew that couldn't be right. There were dark marks on the pavement and the curb that might be scorch marks. The frame and two wheels of a shiny black wheelchair stood on the street at the curb, but the seat and upper part of the device appeared to be missing. One of the wheels in the street was bent. I could see that this particular wheelchair had been one that was powered by a big battery. The battery case was wrecked, its top bulged upwards. There was no civilian vehicle nearby. Looking more closely I noticed that other pieces of the chair, including the seat and arm rests were scattered on the lawn of my neighbor across the street. There was a blanket-covered mound on the lawn.

I saw a Roseville Police sergeant, one I knew from previous contacts, standing in the open door of the other squad. She rested one arm on top of the vehicle. Her collar insignia winked in the sunlight. The small group of people standing around were quiet, subdued. It was as if they couldn't believe whatever it was that had happened here in a quiet neighborhood of a peaceful suburb called Roseville. I didn't believe it either and I still wasn't sure exactly what it was that had happened.

I walked into the street toward the nearest squad until Sergeant Lasker noticed the movement and looked over. When she recognized me she shook her head and flicked well-manicured fingers at me.

"What's happening, Sergeant?" I asked.

"We're waiting for the ambulance and crime scene people to get here." Just then her radio squawked. Sergeant Lasker turned her head slightly and spoke into her mike. "Right. Come in the other way. Over by the home. Take Luther Drive."

There was an answering squawk. We all heard the ambulance approach when it was a couple of blocks away, and then, as it came closer, the siren dying. It was clear from the passive stance of the cops and bystanders there wasn't any hurry. If it was a person under the brown blanket on the lawn of the house across the street, he, or she, was long past any need for haste.

The ambulance pulled into my neighbor's driveway and reversed into the street so the rear was close to the blanket-covered mound. The emergency techs did their thing and loaded the body onto a gurney and then into the ambulance. The driver consulted briefly with Sergeant Lasker out of my hearing and they drove off. Ms. Lasker-I didn't know if she was married-returned to my side of her car.

She shook her head. "Man was running himself up the street here. There was an explosion that blew apart the wheelchair and killed the old man instantly."

"Some kind of malfunction in the battery?"

"No, although that's a reasonable guess."

"What then?"

"We won't have a definitive answer until the crime scene guys do their thing. But there was a peculiar smell when I arrived. Also bits and pieces."

"Such as?"

"Broken window over there." She waved at the house directly across from mine. "Largish explosion. Too big for a malfunctioning battery. But not huge. I think the window blowout is a fluke. Also I see stuff that doesn't look like it ought to be attached to one of these wheelchairs."

"Bomb?" I asked. "You must be kidding. Who's the victim?"

She consulted her notebook. "Unknown at the moment. No ID on the vic. An officer is talking to the staff at the home over there." She nodded at the nearest retirement home, a former junior high school a block away. We'll canvass the neighborhood in a little while, find out if anybody saw anything."

I glanced around again, fixing the scene in my memory and turned back to my own driveway. That's when I noticed the silver-blue Audi down the block toward Brenner. To this day I still don't know why that vehicle registered in my consciousness. Maybe 'cause I didn't think I'd seen it in the neighborhood before. Being a private detective, I'm trained to notice things that are even slightly out of the ordinary. The late-model Audi was parked just below the small hill that connected my street and Brenner. It was too far away to hear the engine but I had a feeling it was running and that one or two people were sitting inside watching. I couldn't be sure and I wasn't going to walk down there to check it out, was I?

I went up my steps and unlocked my front door. While I disabled the alarm system, the cats demonstrated their delight at my homecoming by rolling on the carpet and displaying their rounded bellies. I touched the shotgun bracketed over the door inside the front closet. I don't know why I do that. I guess it's just a habit to reassure myself it's still there, ready if I need it. I've noticed some guys have a habit of touching their fly occasionally. I touch my shotgun.

It had been a frustrating, boring and hot day, sitting in my parked car watching some clown who had a whopping claim for a job-related injury. The insurance company had heard the guy hadn't been as badly injured as he claimed. Apparently they also had some question about the ethics of the guy's doctor. So instead of paying the claim right away, the insurance company hired me to follow and observe. They wanted pictures of the claimant doing something they could take to court to disprove said claimant's back injury. So far, I hadn't seen anything useful.

I grabbed a beer out of the refrigerator and uncapped it. Took a long pull that disposed of about half the contents. Sitting in a car for six hours in the heat isn't my idea of fun. I can't run the air conditioner because I have to start the engine and that calls attention which I don't need. When I'd decided to become a P.I., after the cops said I was too short, none of the P.I.s I talked with mentioned how tedious surveillance gigs are, or that they are a large part of the biz. On the other hand, the death of the old guy in the wheelchair put my surveillance discomfort into perspective.

I slid open the deck door at the back of the house and went outside. I settled into my favorite chair and stared at the back lawn. The mosquitoes weren't too bad yet, but the lawn needed mowing. I sipped more beer and thought about the sudden violent death of a man I had never met. I also considered whether I was up for running the mower.

The doorbell chimed.

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