DEATH ON THE FREEWAY
by Susan Pierce
The sun set and the lights of Old Sacramento sparkled. Sissy navigated the White Cloud over the bricks of Front Street and turned into the area marked Delta King Valet Parking. He and Lewis helped Agatha Bliss disembark from the comfort of Sissy’s SUV and escorted her across the wooden street. Auntie Ag enjoyed the short, slow walk to the nineteenth century-era paddle wheel steam boat.
“Lovely,” she said. “It’s as if we’ve travelled back through time to the California Gold Rush.”
“The Sacramento River always looks better in the dark,” Sissy mumbled.
The two men helped Auntie Ag down the gang plank and onto the narrow covered deck of the Delta King. They walked along the land side of the steamer, each engaged in fantasies of early California. They entered the narrow wood and glass double doors and climbed the carpeted stairs.
The top of the stairway was the hub of the Delta King’s social life. To their right was the Pilothouse Restaurant and to their left, the piano bar. They entered the restaurant and were seated at a table next to windows at the nearest corner of the room. Auntie Ag sat facing into the restaurant with her back to the windows. Lewis and Sissy chose places to either side of her.
The waiter made some suggestions, took their order for wine and appetizers, and withdrew with the grace of man who had done it many times before.
Auntie closed her eyes and smiled. “It’s such a pleasure to place our evening in the hands of an artist.”
If she’d been a cat, she’d have purred.
“Food here’s supposed to be very good.” Sissy nodded. “Sort of a spy mission tonight. Wanted to come see what’s new from the kitchen.”
Lewis said, “But you don’t do full meals, Hon.”
“Dinner is much more than the entree. I’m looking at the appetizers, the breads and pastries, the presentation . . . ”
Auntie Ag nodded approval, “A student always finds something to learn. Lewis dear, I don’t know if I mentioned it, but you look very smart in your new sweater.”
“What? This old thing?” He made an Oh, get out of here gesture with his hand.
She said, “It’s new, darling, and very handsome. The tangerine color looks lovely against your skin.”
“Well, tangerine is on my color palette. I picked it up at Macy’s last week. I got it for our lunch on the Wine Train but of course I couldn’t wait to wear it. It’s not too bulky, is it?”
“No, dear, not at all.”
Sissy added, “And it doesn’t make your butt look big.”
Lewis swatted at him with his cloth napkin.
Their waiter brought appetizers and the Bliss family enjoyed them immensely.
Two men entered the dining room. They were shown to the window table directly behind Sissy. Both were forty-something. One had salt-and-pepper hair, classic tortoise shell glasses, and a perfectly-fitted grey suit. The other was slightly taller and wore his blond hair combed straight back from his tan face. He wore a white linen sports coat, a peach polo shirt, and dark blue trousers.
Both men were angry and it showed.
“Anyone else feel a ripple in the energy of the room?” Sissy said softly.
“Tsunami,” Lewis replied.
The tension at the next table hung heavy in the air.
Alan and Phillip gave their orders for drinks and the waiter withdrew. Then Alan spat in a hoarse whisper that was clearly audible to the little family at the next table, “I don’t care whose son he is, Phillip. He’s a nit-wit and he’s out.”
Phillip shot back his reply like a machine gun with a silencer. “If the kid’s out, the entire project is gone. I’ve pitched every money source in town. Everyone loves the concept but no one’s willing to put up cash. They’re all scared to death in this economy.”
Alan said, “But . . . ”
“We’re broke, Alan. Over the past three years, we’ve used every nickel we had. Without the kid’s dad, we’re done.”
The two sat without a word until their drinks were served. Then Phillip added, “I swear to God, Alan, if you screw this up I’m gonna blow your friggin’ head off.”
Alan snarled, “You don’t have the cajones, Phil. The kid’s dad has yours at home in his trophy case.”
A young man approached the table where Alan and Phillip were sitting. He wore a tee shirt, baggy pants, and flip flop shoes. His eyes were fixed on his cell phone and he thumbed its keyboard at the speed of light as he vaguely took the seat next to Phillip.
The waiter brought entrées to Sissy’s family table.
Lewis said quietly, “You know, I worry about young people today. Their morals are shocking and their manners stink on ice.” He shook his head.
Lewis worked with lots of young people at the hospital—patients, staff nurses, assistants . . .
“Don’t get me wrong. Lots of them are smart and lots of them have good hearts. But a whole bunch of them are socially retarded.”
Auntie Ag said, “Well, dear, every generation thinks its young lack morals and manners. I’m sure it’s very painful to be young today. So much technology puts a plethora of data instantly at one’s fingertips. One can’t help but wonder if some of today’s young mistake virtual reality for actuality. It must be very difficult for them to know what, in life, is real.”
They turned their attention to the food in front of them. Everything was superb. As they thoroughly enjoyed their dining experience they chatted lightly about one thing and another.
Conversation at the table behind them heated up. Phil stared at the kid incredulously. “You want to run the project? Are you kidding?”
Alan’s voice was quiet but filled with rage. “This is a mega-friggin’-million dollar rebuilding of six blocks of downtown Sacramento. Kid, you’ve got a bachelors’ degree in engineering. Big deal. You’re not qualified to work on a crew, much less run the project.”
The kid tried to be conciliatory. “Look, guys. Dad’s up at Lake Tahoe tonight. Let’s just go up there and I’m sure we can come to an understanding.”
“Anyone getting dessert? What do you think, Auntie Ag?”
“Oh, my” she said, sheepishly. “I’ve just been reminded of two boys I grew up with in St. Mary Mod on Thrashing.”
“How delicious,” Lewis said with relish. “Dish it, girl.”
“Well, the two were best of friends. When they became adults they acquired some property and went into farming. They both bought homes and raised families.”
“But . . . ” Lewis added with anticipation.
Auntie Ag favored Lewis with a fond smile. “But as their business grew it became necessary for them to acquire more land. Money was in short supply and, after a great deal of searching for an investor, they found a wealthy man who was interested. The man had a nineteen-year-old son. They decided that, if they hired the son, the wealthy man would surely invest.”
“Slick,” Sissy grinned.
“Yes. But there were two problems. First, the young man was a complete slacker. Second, he wanted to be manager of all the new farmland they acquired.”
Lewis said, “Hmm.”
“The ill will between the two friends grew until one day they had a terrific brawl. Each had put up his own home as security for the new land. Each knew the boy was not competent to manage dressing himself properly, much less manage a large farming enterprise. One wanted to give him the boot; the other insisted upon hiring him lest his wealthy father decide not to put up the money. Sadly, they came to blows and injured each other quite seriously in the fracas.”
Lewis and Sissy shook their heads and each tsk-tsked a time or two.
Lewis helped Auntie Ag out to the deck. Sissy settled the bill and caught up with them. The valet brought the White Cloud and they began the drive back to Auburn: Left on J Street, left on 16th Street, east on the Capital City Freeway, across the American River, and onto Interstate 80 east toward Reno. Auntie Ag fell asleep in her recliner.
As they approached the curve and underpass just east of Newcastle, Sissy and Lewis saw a flash inside the Escalade in front of them. Bits of glass, red foam, and tissue hit their windshield. Sissy’s reflexes kicked in. He tapped his breaks and swerved to the left.
Lewis threw an arm in front of his face. “What the . . . ?”
Their years of military experience kept them calm.
Lewis said, “That flash . . . ”
Sissy said, “Gunshot? Where’s the shooter? In the car or on the side of the freeway?”
Lewis shook his head. “Something’s totally wrong. I’m calling the Highway Patrol.”
They watched the Escalade. It didn’t slow down and it didn’t swerve. It kept a steady speed of sixty-five miles per hour in the center lane.
“Driver isn’t hit,” Sissy said. “He’s set his cruise control but someone is still driving that car.”
Lewis relayed this information to the CHiPS dispatcher and then turned to Sissy.
“What caliber gun would it take to go through someone and blow out a window?”
“Minimum .357 magnum hand gun. What I don’t get is why he doesn’t pull over.”
Sissy kept a distance between the White Cloud and the Escalade. They passed Auburn and began the long, uphill grade into the Sierras. The Cadillac gave no sign of stopping.
East of Colfax, the freeway narrowed to just two lanes eastbound and two lanes westbound. The east and west traffic was separated by a solid cement wall about four feet high. Heavy, long-haul trucks dominated the right lane as they trudged up the long, winding climb. The Interstate snaked among the pine trees and through the canyons of the Sierra.
There were no towns of significant size between Auburn and Reno. CHiPS monitored traffic in that region with aircraft but the canyons made that impossible at night. Attempting to stop or intercept the Escalade along that stretch of road wasn’t feasible.
Sissy followed at a safe distance and Lewis continued reporting speed and position to CHiPS. “Passing Auburn, sixty-five miles an hour. Passing Colfax, sixty-five miles per hour.”
On they went, into the mountains.
The Cadillac finally began to slow down just west of the Dutch Flat exit. “Good,” Sissy nodded. “There’s a CHiPS station at Dutch Flat.”
“They’re on it,” Lewis answered.
The Escalade turned off the Interstate and onto the steep, winding exit ramp. It came to a stop just one hundred feet from the freeway. Sissy followed and stopped ten feet behind it.
“Bet he’s out of gas.” Sissy snatched his snub nosed .38 from the compartment in his door, jumped out of his truck, and ducked behind the Escalade’s left rear bumper.
Just then, Lewis saw the back passenger’s door open and a frantic man in glasses scrambled out. He was covered in blood. He ran toward the White Cloud yelling, “Help. Phil’s dead.”
Sissy leapt forward, yanked open the driver’s door, and barked, “Freeze. Both hands on the steering wheel.”
The kid sat behind the wheel. Phillip’s body, minus most of his head, slumped against the passenger’s windowless door. The kid was in a sobbing rage. “Bastards. It’s my dad’s money. I get to be boss. Those guys have to respect me.”
CHiPS arrived and took charge of the scene. In less than half an hour, Sissy and Lewis climbed back into the White Cloud. By that time Auntie Ag was awake. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes, Auntie Ag, everything’s fine. We had a little detour but we’ll be home in twenty minutes,” Lewis assured her.
Her keen old eyes surveyed the scene in front of her. “I wanted to tell you the end of my story about the two friends in St. Mary Mod. They had such a terrible disagreement about the boy who wanted to run their farms. You remember? His father was going to finance their expansion.”
“Oh, yeah,” Sissy looked at her in his rear vision mirror. “How’d that turn out?”
“Well, they went with the boy and spoke with his father. The father couldn’t believe that the boy wanted to be boss. ‘You have no experience at all,’ he told his son.
“Then he said, ‘I’ll gladly fund your farm expansion, gentlemen, but not a quid if you put him in charge. Hire him as a worker if you like. Maybe he’d get some experience. But the idea that he could be a manager is beyond the pale. This is business.’ ”
She sighed and closed her eyes again. “So everything works out in the end, doesn’t it?”