"Hey dude. Check this out " Marcus called to his roommate. They had stopped for gas at a station off the interstate a little south of Atlanta. Joel was filling the tank of his Honda and Marcus stood looking at the pickup truck parked at the pump in front of them.
"This bumper sticker. You gotta' see it."
"Just a minute. Soon's I'm done here."
Joel replaced the nozzle, screwed the filler cap on, took his credit card receipt, then walked to the front of the car.
Marcus pointed to the truck's rear bumper. "Look at that."
The center of the bumper sticker was the Confederate stars and bars, overprinted with the letters CSA. To the left it read, 'Fighting terrorism,' and to the right, 'Since 1861.'
"CSA?" asked Joel.
"Confederate States of America," replied Marcus. "You didn't take Black American History."
"American History. Same thing."
"Not really. You didn't know what CSA stands for."
"Touche," said Joel. "Didn't know we were terrorists either."
"We's in de land ob cotton now." Marcus did a little jig, rolling his eyes and smiling a toothy, minstrel show grin.
"Gotta' get a picture of this," Joel said. He fished his cell phone from the pocket of his baggy shorts. "Stand next to it, will ya'."
Marcus struck a pose, pointing at the bumper sticker and grinning widely.
"Got it," said Joel.
"Whatchew boys doin'?"
The menacing voice startled them. The questioner was a short wiry man in jeans and a plaid shirt. He stepped closer. A ball cap with the CSA-Confederate insignia was pulled low, hiding his eyes, but his jaw jutted out, square and whisker-stubbled. "Well?" he said.
"Just taking a picture of my buddy," said Joel.
The man lifted his chin, as if waiting for more.
"We're headed to Florida. For spring break. I'm a journalism student, just documenting our trip," Joel explained.
Marcus retreated, placing his hand on the Honda's door handle.
"Spring break," the man said in a contemptuous tone. "Journalism. I think mebbe you're FBI, takin' a pitchur of my license plate."
Marcus glanced at the plate. Splattered with red dirt, the numerals were almost impossible to read, though the rest of the truck was fairly clean.
Joel said, "FBI? That's too funny. We're college students."
"I don't care what you are. You don't take no pitchurs of my truck. I want that film back." He held out his hand.
Joel replied in a mocking tone, "No film. It's, you know, digital. Twenty-first century stuff."
The man stood glaring, as if trying to think of what to say next.
Joel turned and got in the car. Marcus had already gotten in the passenger side. Joel backed up, did a quick U-turn, sped up the frontage road and turned onto the ramp heading south. Marcus watched out the rear window to see if the pickup was following them.
"What a hick," Joel said. "FBI. What the fuck was that about?"
"Don't know. I'm from Chicago, remember? Don't know nothin' about these crackers down here."
"We must be in Deliverance country, said Joel. "Hope you brought your Anal-Ease."
"Won't do me no good, man. They'll just string my black ass up."
"What a waste of fine black booty," Joel said with a laugh.
"Hey, man, don't you be turnin' gay on me. You be sleepin' out on the beach, you hear?"
"Don't worry," said Joel, laughing again. "I'm looking for some of them Girls Gone Wild.
"I hear ya', bro. Hey, gimme your phone. I want to send a picture of that bumper sticker to my mom. She'll have a cow."
A short while later, Joel said, "Uh oh."
He nodded at the rearview mirror and Marcus turned to look behind them. A big black car with flashing red and blue lights was closing rapidly.
"Shit. How fast're you going, man?"
"Seventy, seventy-five. Same's everybody else."
Joel slowed and Marcus watched the black sedan move in behind them. It blinked its headlights and emitted a short yowl of a siren. "This don't look good, man," Marcus said.
"Shit, shit, shit!" Joel put on his right blinker and pulled to a stop on the shoulder. A semi blasted past, shaking the little car.
The big sedan stopped close behind, roof lights flashing. Marcus watched through the rear window as the door opened. The car was a Ford Crown Victoria, all black with no police markings. The man was dressed in a black uniform, a large man with a broad chest and broader belly. Ominous implements hung from his wide leather belt.
Joel rolled down his window and switched off the engine. Marcus slumped down, as if trying to make himself smaller. A large round face peered Joel's window, a pink pumpkin wearing mirrored sunglasses and a smirk.
A rumbling voice matched the man's girth. "Know how fast you were goin', boy?"
"Just keeping up with traffic," said Joel.
"Oh, you were more'n keepin' up. I'll have to see your license, registration, insurance. You know the drill." He said this as if Joel were some kind of habitual offender. The man straightened, his belly blocking the window like a black curtain.
Joel dug out his wallet and fumbled in the glove box for the other documents. "Here you go," he said, handing them out the window.
The cop looked at the license. "What's this here? Jo-el Sucker-man? That you?"
"It's Zuckerman, with a zee."
"Sucker-man," the officer repeated. "From the 'Land of Lincoln,' no less."
"Yeah, we go to the U of I."
The officer turned and ambled back to his car.
"Asswipe," Joel said. "That's no state cop."
"Probably some local sheriff," said Marcus. "I've heard that's how they make money, pulling over out-of-state cars."
"Thought that was only in small towns. Not on the interstate."
"The Man," said Marcus. "He's everywhere."
The dark curtain again blocked the window. The rear door handle rattled.
"Unlock this door, please," the sheriff growled.
"I said, unlock this door!"
Joel pressed a button and the locks clicked. The rear door opened and the man leaned in. The door slammed and the voice said, "Step out of the car, please."
"Why?" Joel said again. "What's wrong?"
A fat hand appeared through the open window, shaking a plastic baggie containing some crumpled cigarettes. "Get out of the car! Now!"
"What the hell is that? What is this, some kind of rip-off?"
Joel's outburst evoked a sneering grin, as if pleased by a challenge. The man stepped back and reached for something on his belt. "For the last time, Sucker-man, step out of the car!"
Reluctantly, Joel complied. His hands were cuffed roughly behind his back. Then the florid face and mirrored glasses leaned in. "Don't you move, boy. Don't you fuckin' move."
Marcus felt rage boil up within. Getting ripped off by some Podunk sheriff in broad daylight, and there was nothing he could do about it. Call 9-1-1? What a joke. He looked down the embankment beside the car, and the field and trees beyond, then turned and watched Joel being frog-marched to the patrol car. While the cop was busy getting Joel inside, maybe he could make a run for it. No, he wouldn't leave his buddy, and besides, where would he go? They'd probably be hauled to some rinky-dink town and have to pay a big fine for 'marijuana possession.' It would be alright, a story to tell their buds back at the dorm.
A porcine hand reached in the open window and jerked out the ignition keys. The man walked around the front of the car, unhooked a thick black rod from his belt, and yelled, "Get out of the car, boy!"
Shakily, Marcus got out and stood facing the officer.
"You know what this is, boy?" he called, waving the black rod.
"A taser, sir?"
"You're goddamn right, a taser. So don't you give me no trouble."
Marcus had seen pictures on YouTube of cops zapping little old ladies at traffic stops. This bubba would like nothing better than to fry him. "No sir, no trouble," he said.
He walked slowly toward the patrol car, the sheriff following several feet behind. On the front bumper was a Confederate flag plaque. Looking up at the flashing lights, Marcus saw they were attached to a removable luggage rack. His heart and stomach exchanged places. This was no sheriff. More like some kind of vigilante. The horror stories he'd studied in history class - Schwerner-Chaney-and-Goodman, Emmit Till - seemed suddenly, sickeningly, real.
Marcus reached the rear door and turned, knees trembling, to watch his captor approach. The man was carrying the taser in his right hand and reached with his left to open the door. When it clicked open, Marcus, without thinking, grabbed the top of the door and shoved it hard as he could against the big man, knocking him off balance. The taser clattered to the ground.
He leaped down the embankment and sprinted toward the woods, perhaps fifty yards away. The knee-high grass slowed his progress and he expected any moment to feel a paralyzing sting. He heard three sharp pops and realized the man had foregone the taser for a pistol. He stifled the urge to look back, cutting to the right and then left, hoping the zig-zag pattern would make a more difficult target. As he dove behind the first tree he heard the thud of a bullet. Wood chips flew around him. On elbows and knees, he scrambled into the covering trees, then rose and dashed deeper into the woods.
When he could run no further, he threw himself behind a fallen log, chest heaving, nauseous almost to the point of vomiting. He listened intently. Freeway traffic made faint sighing noises, like waves on a far off seashore. Branches rustled in a passing breeze, birds twittered, squirrels chattered. But there was no tromp of footsteps crashing through the underbrush. The man didn't look like he was built for running, but he might go for help. Hunters would have no trouble tracking him down. He had to get away. He felt in his pocket for his key ring, the key to the Honda Joel had given him for late night pizza runs.
Cautiously, Marcus peeked over the top of the log. On any other day, it would have been a beautiful scene; rays of sunlight dappled the forest floor, pine scent filled the air. He got to his feet and moved from tree to tree, back toward the highway. When he reached the edge of the clearing he saw the black car had gone, the Honda sitting like an abandoned puppy.
Taking a deep breath, he dashed from the from the forest and zig-zagged his way up the embankment to the car. Only when he was underway, just another drop in the traffic stream, did he exhale and try to think. What to do about Joel? He had to call the police and report his kidnapping. The real police, not some fake sheriff. He turned off at the next exit, stopped on the shoulder at the top of the ramp and took Joel's phone from the glove compartment where he'd stashed it. The radar detector began beeping. It hadn't gone off when the guy in the black car pulled them over, just one more confirmation that he wasn't a real cop.
Marcus looked around and there, directly across the road, at the top of the onramp leading back to the interstate, sat a blue and white car, 'Georgia State Trooper' emblazoned on its side. A radar trap. He wouldn't have to call 9-1-1, just tell the cop across the road what happened.
Marcus hesitated. Here he was, a black guy in Georgia who'd never been further south than St. Louis, and so far everyone had lived up to the worst stereotypes of the South he'd heard since he was a kid. Not that he was from the 'hood. He'd grown up in a middle-class, integrated neighborhood. But he'd had his share of unwarranted police attention. And the civil rights battles weren't that long ago - his parents' generation. Well, hell. If they could face fire hoses and attack dogs and worse, he could talk to a state trooper. Times had changed. In this day and age, the trooper might even be black.
He drove across the intersection and pulled behind the police cruiser. He got out and walked toward it, waving his arms like a semaphore to show, he hoped, he was not carrying a weapon. The driver's side window slid down, revealing the stony visage of the trooper, steely gray eyes, a gray moustache. White skin. A flat-brimmed mountie hat sat squarely on his head, a look of annoyance on his face.
"Excuse me, sir," said Marcus. "But I want to report a kidnapping."
The trooper scowled. "A kidnapping?"
"Yes sir. My roommate. We were stopped by a guy posing as a sheriff or something, and he took my buddy away in handcuffs. I got away, though the guy started shooting at me."
"Shooting?" The trooper's scowl disappeared, replaced by a look of concern. He nodded toward the seat beside him. "Get in."
"Name's Hendricks," the officer said when Marcus was seated. "What's yours?"
Marcus started to speak but began trembling and gasping for air. He fought back an almost overwhelming urge to cry.
"Take it easy, son. Just take a deep breath, take your time."
A kindly tone. 'Son.' Such a difference from 'boy.' Marcus relaxed and recounted what had happened.
When he finished, the trooper asked, "Do you remember the license number of the pickup?"
"No sir. Like I said, it was all covered with dirt... Wait a minute, it's probably on the picture we took."
He punched some buttons on Joel's phone and they peered at the tiny screen. "Too small," the trooper said. "Maybe the lab can get something out of it. Let's take a look at where this happened."
He rode with the trooper north on the interstate, then back south from the interchange where they had left the gas station. "It's right around here," Marcus said after a few minutes. "I think those are the trees I ran to."
The trooper came to a halt on the shoulder and they both got out. "See, down there," said Marcus, pointing. "I was halfway to those trees when the guy started shooting." He felt a surge of exhilaration at his narrow escape.
"Shooting," the trooper said again. He walked back and forth through the grassy verge below the paved shoulder, eyes fixed on the ground. He stooped and picked up several objects, then held up a brass shell casing. "We'll have the lab check these out. If you'll come to headquarters with me, we'll take your statement and see if we can't get to the bottom of this."
In the squad car, Marcus sat back with a sigh, the first feeling of relief since this nightmare began.
An old farmhouse, its white paint peeling and splotched with gray, dry-rotted wood, crouched behind clumps of weeds and bushes. Inside, a telephone rang. A thin man wearing a plaid shirt picked up.
"What the fuck do you and Dobbs think you're doin'?!"
"Who is this?"
"You know who it is. Hendricks. Whata you have? Worms for brains? Kidnapping some college kid?"
"We was going to call you about that. Tonight, after you got off duty." Wilson sat heavily in a ratty cushioned chair next to the telephone table, shook an unfiltered Camel out of a crumpled pack and lit up. He took a deep drag and blew streams of smoke out his nose. "How'd you find out? That nigger kid call it in?"
"That 'nigger kid' is sitting outside in my patrol car. Through some stroke of dumb luck that you shitheads don't deserve, he found me at the next exit and told me about it. Just thank your goddamn lucky stars his story didn't go out over the wire. What the fuck were you assholes tryin' to do?"
Wilson took another long drag on his cigarette before answering. "Well, they was takin' pitchurs of my truck, the license plate. Which, you prob'ly know, don't exactly go with the truck. I figure mebbe they're FBI. We know they're nosin' around. Ever since they put that damn nigger in the White House, FBI's been thicker'n crabs in a cat house around here." He sucked in another lungful, then ground out the cigarette stub on the tabletop.
"You think a couple of college kids are FBI? That is the goddamn stupidest thing I ever heard! Kidnapping is a federal offence. The FBI'll be down here for sure."
Wilson could almost feel the spittle flying out of the receiver. He lit another Camel. "Well, they coulda' been workin' for 'em, told to snoop around. Anyways, they was right snippy. Cocksuckin' Jew boy and nigger, needed to be taken down a peg or two. We weren't gonna kidnap 'em. Jes' get the camera, scare 'em a little. Take 'em to Judge Finley and fine 'em, then turn 'em loose. That damn fool nigger spoiled it by running. Dobbs shoulda knowed they run any chance they get. Them boys can run like the wind."
He smoked in silence a few moments. "So, whataya wanna do?"
"Where's the other one?" Hendricks asked.
"Jew boy? Down the basement. Got him tied to a chair. Trussed up like a roast pig. He ain't goin' nowhere."
Another silence. Then Hendricks spoke. "Okay. Here's what you do. I'll give you a number to call. When the man picks up, you say, 'we got a mess in the basement of the old Fillmore place that needs cleaned up.' Don't bother about an answer; just hang up. You got your truck there?"
"Yeah, it's out back."
"Leave it there. I'll have Dobbs pick you up in the Crown Vic."
"Aw man, not my truck," Wilson whined.
"Leave it! Take all the cop lights and shit off the Vic and put it in the house. Then you boys haul your asses up to our place in South Carolina. Greenville. You know the place? Think you can handle that?"
"Yeah, yeah. Greenville. I know. What about the black kid?"
"I'll take care of that. Already had Larry tow the car. It'll disappear. This will all disappear unless you shitheads screw it up."
Outside, as if on cue, a horde of cicadas burst into a screaming chorus.
In Chicago, Mrs. McHenry noticed she had a message on her cell phone that her son, Marcus, had given her. She could send and receive calls, but all that other stuff, texts and pictures and such, she couldn't get the hang of. She'd wait until his sister got home from choir practice to see the picture he'd sent.