Silas Tully, enjoying early sun and early coffee, heading into another quiet and lonely day, dropped his newspaper and picked up the phone on the first ring. Old pal Jud Haley said, “Si, something screwy down here at Butch and Tony’s. I think my car’s been stolen but nobody wants to believe me. Damn it all, Si, the car they’re about to fix is not my car.”
That seemed cut and dry to Si; nobody knows a car better than the guy who parks his butt in the driver’s seat every day. As a result, Si Tully changed his mind on the day’s prospects. It was only one car, but it was a friend’s car and on other friends’ property. Favors were a part of his due and he’d never put off an old pal. If Phyllis was still here, eggs and bacon riding on the air, coffee gaining more ground, he would have heard her remarking from the kitchen, “One more freebie for the books, Mr. Tully. Will they ever let you go or will they never let you go? That’s what you get for being good at the job.” A long time at the job, he thought, a long time retired now, but with some minor recalls as a favor to the chief. Si Tully acknowledged at that moment that he was a damn good detective with a flair for detail examination and people inputs.
The two A-1 mechanics and the “sensitive and articulate” Lincoln owner, or pseudo owner or owner of a pseudo Lincoln, shortly thereafter were gathered outside the Salem Street Garage and recapping the car delivery for him, as it was lowered from a towing truck.
The sleek 2005 Lincoln, like a distortion of order, a misconception in the process, had come slowly off the back end of the towing rig, early sun blazing on every surface of the automobile. When the back end scraped hard on the Salem Street Garage driveway, Butch shook his head at the indifference of the driver, and envisioned underside damage. Jud Haley, who had just arrived as the car was being dropped off, Lincoln owner and long-time friend of Butch and Tony, Lincoln owner for all of his adult life, Lincoln admirer and astute collector at times of All Things Lincoln, of whom old Abe himself would have been a bonded pal, yelled out, “Butch, that’s not my car.” He was pointing at some acute detail not seen by Butch as yet, and obviously not by the driver of the tow truck who had retrieved it from the appointed place.
Butch, ultra mechanic, at odds for the moment, said, “Those are your plates on it, Jud. And it was parked right where you said it was when you called last night, on the corner of Appleton and Summer, against the guard rail near Eldon’s place. That right, Eddie?” He tossed the affirmative question at the tow truck driver, who nodded a yes.
“That’s not my car,” Jud repeated, then rushed up and pointed at the rear window. “The sticker’s not there.”
“What sticker?” Butch shook his head again and called Tony out of the garage. Tony came out of the shop door in a dark blue T-shirt already anointed with the day’s oil splatter. “Is this Jud’s car?”
Tony, standing outside the open garage door, a wipe cloth in one hand and a quizzical smile on his face, said, “Sure it is and those are his vanity plates.” He turned to Jud. “Those are your plates, aren’t they, Jud?” He pointed at JHALEY embolden on the Massachusetts plates. “Only time I ever saw those plates was on your car, Jud. What’s going on?”
“Damn it, guys, it’s not my car.” Jud pointed the rear window again. “My police alert sticker’s not there. It was there yesterday. Now it’s not there.”
Tony, rag in his fist on his hip, a smile hooked at one corner of his mouth, said, “You mean someone scraped off that sticker to use it someplace else? C’mon, Jud, give me a break.” The smile went wider on his face.
But, for a further qualification, Tony looked again at the back of the car. “Hey, look here,” he said, pointing at a spot on the trunk. “That’s been painted over. When did you have that done, Jud? Did Marty do that? I betcha he didn’t do that.” He was shaking his head in deference to Marty the body man whose shop was out back. “He does better work than that.”
“What the hell’s going on,” Jud replied, the agitation gaining ground as he studied the surface of the hood of the trunk. “I never had that work done. I never had a scrape on this car, or rather, on my car. But this is not my car. I never had that painted. Ask Marty. I’m calling Si Tully. Something’s fishy here.”
So, in less than 15 minutes Silas Tully was there, studying the Lincoln he could have sworn was Jud’s, but it did not have the special alert sticker on the rear window. Jud, he knew, would not have a car that did not have the special alert sticker on the rear window. Jud, a solid supporter of all police athletic activities for the kids in town, felt he had a special place with all policemen; Si never told him otherwise, the sense of security more a sense of ease, and of stature. Jud felt he was “in” with all cops.
Si walked around the car, saw the clear rear window, the sloppy paint touch-up on the trunk hood, and asked, “Are your papers inside, Jud? They in the glove compartment?”
“Well, let’s find out,” Jud answered, moving to the rider’s side door. The black plastic owner’s packet came out of the glove compartment, and from that came the registration.
Jud Haley stared at it.
“Well, what’s it say?” Butch said. “Is it yours?”
Jud appeared flustered, shaking his head. “Says it’s my car. But it isn’t. I know it isn’t.”
Tony looked at the registration. “You can’t beat city hall, Jud, or the damned Registry. You own this car. It’s there in black and white. What are you fighting?” The oily rag was still clutched in his fist, the oil stains on his T-shirt spreading.
Si Tully, nine years retired from the police department where he had risen to chief detective, too many times around the block and witness to too many oddities, took the registration and handed it to Butch. “Double-check the vehicle ID number, Butch. That’ll clear up any misconception about ownership.”
All the players watched Butch as he scanned the serial number at the lower left corner of the dashboard, just inside the windshield; the local retired cop, the vehicle owner, the tow truck driver, Tony as the second part of the ultra mechanic tandem, another mechanic… a younger guy who sauntered away from beneath the hood of an older Dodge Caravan parked in the driveway… all looking at Butch comparing the long vehicle identification number.
Butch looked up, first at Jud, and then at Si, his face wearing full-blown perplexity. “They don’t match,” he said. “They sure don’t match. It’s not your car, Jud. You were right all along.”
It was like a quiet oasis then, with no running water, no breeze in the palm trees. Just silence and deep thinking. Nobody moved for many seconds, the sun beating down on them, the puzzled and the contemplative, all wondering about the situation (theft, swap, replacement?) from sundry sides: why? How was Jud’s car immobilized so near home that he could walk and not worry about his car until morning? Somebody with a tape measure and a stop watch, who must have laid the whole act out in advance. Were there any practice runs? Witnesses? Jud’s neighbors just down the road on Appleton Street, or on Summer Street? Who was so scrupulous that he’d (they’d) swap owner’s packets and registration forms?
“Ever see the likes of this?” Si looked at Tony and Butch, at the young mechanic, at the tow truck driver. “Let’s face it… somebody someplace, with some expertise but not so infallible when we look at the vehicle ID number, has something to gain, or is planning on gaining something out of all this. It sure isn’t Jud’s car, because you all, except Jud, ever alert Jud, thought it was his car for sure. Who can gain what with such a swap? It has to be the vehicle, and not the man. He looked square at Jud. “You got anything going on that might shed some light here? Run into anybody strange enough to think of this? To do this? Any pals from the car trade want your car and not this car? That has to hang important here. Damned important.”
Silas Tully could hear his wife Phyllis, from an advance point in the resurrection of lost souls, answering back as if she had just gone into the kitchen to check on a pie in the oven. “Si, truth is more a clue than you can imagine, except in the mouth of a used car dealer or someone who wants to borrow your car.”
“Try your keys, Jud. See if they work the ignition. I guess you didn’t try to start it this morning.”
“No,” Haley said, still wearing the ultimate puzzled face, “I didn’t. I called for the tow truck right from the house and my daughter gave me a ride down here.”
Si nodded, still looking over every aspect of the vehicle, checking outer and inner neatness, hallmarks of Jud Haley for most of his adult years. “It’s clean as ever, Jud. Looks like they know you from the ground up. Anybody been following you around? Any strangers too close for casual company?”
Jud Haley, shaking his head as if daring the engine to turn over, sat in the driver’s seat. With a slow and casual gesture he inserted a key in the ignition slot, and tried to twist it for starter connection, but the key wouldn’t turn. He looked at them all, in further amazement. “It’s not the car I left near Eldon’s place late last night. It just died on me and I walked home. But this is not it. This is not the car I left there.”
Si put in a stolen car report to the station, but could give no plate registration number. He simply described in detail “the other car” parked in front of him. “It might have stolen plates on it,” he said, at the end of the call, but couldn’t figure out why.
He suggested that the vehicle be put in the garage so they could check it inside and out and then put up on a lift for further inspection.
Butch and Tony agreed, knowing they probably would not get paid for any efforts, and Jud said it was okay with him though he did not own the car.
Then Silas Tully had another question. “Where’d you go last night, Jud? Where were you when you started for home?”
Jud Haley said he had been at Kowloon’s Restaurant with a few cohorts from work. “We stayed until 11 o’clock. I was driving up Appleton afterward and the engine coughed a few times and then died on me. I was able to coast right to that small guard rail. I tried for ten minutes and nothing. I didn’t have my cell phone because I couldn’t find it. I thought I had left it in the car.” He shook his head again. “Obviously not in this car.”
“Did you find it at home?” Si could feel curtains and doors being shut on him.
“It must have been taken with my car. Whoever took the car and left the registration packet here in this car, probably has my cell phone. It was not at home.”
Si’s cell phone played its Puccini tune: “Si, Ryan at the station. Guess what we just got, in an APB out of Everett. They had a robbery last night, a home invasion, a couple beat up, a couple of shots fired, three guys involved.”
“Why’d you call me?”
“A neighbor tipped EPD about the car used, a Lincoln. 52J-L52 Mass. plates.”
“Tell me what time it happened.”
“Between 9:30 and 10:00 and then a prompt getaway. Neighbor marked three guys, the plate number and another car down the street that followed the Lincoln, like playing tag. But they scooped up the guy who lived in the house and abducted him, at the point of a gun.”
“They catch anybody yet?”
“Has the kidnapped guy turned up? The car been found?”
“Nope and nope.”
“We got the car’s twin down here at Butch and Tony’s, but it’s got Haley’s plates on it. Been switched.”
“What the hell for? To kill our trail? Knock the APB off the wire? Let us know down here if anything pops loose with the car.”
Si called over to Jud. “Somebody used your car in a robbery and a home invasion last night, Jud. While you were at the Kowloon. They hit a house in Everett and took a hostage with them.” He still had the phone to his ear. He whistled. “They ran off with Alfie Romagna, an Everett cop, a hostage it looks like.”
Jud voiced his confusion. “What’s going on here, Si? Why my car?”
“I’m guessing,” Si offered, “but I think maybe they got caught up in a scheme of using the same kind of car as your car. Possibly an ID kind of arrangement; know the vehicles involved. Theirs might have been running poorly, developed a problem, might even have been at the Kowloon last night, saw your car, fixed it to die on the way home, followed you until you had to leave it near Eldon’s place. When you left it, for the night we assume, they swapped cars, and hoped you wouldn’t know it until whatever was wrong with it came up. I guess they missed the police emblem on the rear window. It’s not very big. In the dark they must have missed it. So they use your car with their plates. You have their car with your plates and bingo, you get the full problem with their car and here we are.”
“Seems kind of easy to say that. Think it’s fact?”
“Close as we can come until we get close to them, or to Alfie Romagna,” Si said. “I suspect he’s a little dirty, or they’re trying to peddle some cockamamie idea, or masking a current situation, like getting even with Alfie for something. Been done before.”
The old detective, alone in the world, gloried now and then in old connections, chief among them were former Marines who had come home to be cops. A couple of them were in Everett. They voiced their opinions about the abducted cop; “Something fishy there, Si. Bet on it. His connections go in reverse order. All the way back to a few Walpole Correctional inmates.”
“Like who?” Si said. “Anybody I know?”
“Your old pal Chump Beggley who runs his old man’s pool hall on Eastern Ave in Malden.”
Si, nodding, knew Chump Beggley, his father, and the place on Eastern Ave.
He felt the old itch coming back on him. The big red Ford-350 pick-up, his own power trip, hummed under him as he drove to Malden for a look-see. “Just a peek,” he said to himself, and to Phyllis who was most likely listening in. “Promise,” he added, above the purr of the engine on the highway.
From the hill above the pool hall, he looked down on the parking area behind the building. There, lonely as a beach ball in a backyard, sat a 2005 Lincoln with New Jersey plates, his binoculars picking out the registration number. He would swear later on that he heard Phyllis say, “Careful, Big Boy,” the way she always said goodbye as he left for work.
From a nearby mom & pop store he got a plastic trash bag and bought a half dozen empty recyclable cans from the puzzled owners. With the bag in hand, he walked in behind the set of buildings in the small mall and began to check out contents of dumpsters and trash barrels. Loafing, lazing about except when he was distinguishing redemption cans from straight trash, he was up to $1.10 in cans when he reached the back of the pool hall, the Lincoln parked 60 feet away in the corner of the lot, a shiny black dinosaur with the sun coming off chrome portions in laser fashion. The black smoothness reminded him of mastodon rocks at Nahant Beach at a half tide mark. As he approached the car he heard knocking at the back end. The hood was warm to his touch, as if it had just been parked a few moments before.
Up in the right hand corner of the rear window was the small blue, police-friendly logo
Jud Haley had stickered on every vehicle he had owned for at least 30 years, a prompt if there ever was a prompt.
He rapped on the trunk. A rap came back, and then another followed by a couple of solid thumps. Perhaps a knee or elbow at signal. Or Alfie’s head butting away. Now he was positive he knew where Alfie Romagna had been temporarily stashed. He called the Malden police station, knowing he had rescued poor Alfie from one problem and was about to drop him into another. If he was dirty, he’d have to fend for himself. After all, Si Tully was retired. It’d be like a lawyer refusing a case on the moral merits of an indictment.
He explained it all to Butch and Tony and Marty at the Salem Street Garage.
“How the hell did you tie all that in, and get to that place in Malden, and why did they take Jud’s car, go through all that trouble when they had enough trouble on their hands?
Alfie said they were screwed up from the beginning, like wanting to put pepper on their trail. Said they saw it in a movie with Paul what’s his name, the salad dressing guy. Throw the cops off their trail when they were scooping up a cop, confuse them. Hell, you guys would have torn that car apart to get it going right. Right?”
“Yah,” they both said sheepishly. “But how do such connections work for you, Si? How much do they count? You a mind reader?”
“Connections always count,” Si Tully said, thinking all the way back to the Corps and the lasting contacts. “Just ask Jud Haley about that.”
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