The post lamps flickered to life, illuminating the beige Model B that sat idle by the curb. Within, Detective Rick Sawyer brushed the back of his hand across his forehead pulling away thick beads of sweat. He had spent the last few years riding solo, his last partner, Mitch, had been taken down during a failed robbery attempt and sharing it with someone else almost felt wrong. He simply had to be more careful. A thin paper roll sat between his lips and smoke billowed occasionally from the driver window. He would finish it off and head off for his rounds.
The air was molasses but Rick could smell the rain coming. It was mid-July in Cincinnati, the heat would almost make the Devil cry and storms were as unpredictable as Jerry Lewis. In an instant the heavens opened and the police cruiser was bombarded with droplets. He cursed a bit before flicking what remained of his cigarette out into the flood and rolled up the window. His shift was almost over but he would need to make one more round through the neighborhood before heading home. “Might as well get the show over with,” he told himself while the engine roared to life.
A replay of the Red’s game lulled on the radio, the announcer commenting on the talent of a pitcher named Joe Nuxhall. Rick shook his head at the thought of a fifteen-year-old major leaguer. Just as the thought had passed his eyes caught sight of a man standing under a street lamp about a block down. He leaned against the post despite the rain pelting him. He was a tall, slender man with a light gray business suit clinging to his frame. One could easily tell the weather had destroyed what might have been a clean-cut look. Rick couldn’t quite understand why he would just stand there in this downpour but figured he must be stranded or something. The tires of the coupe diverted to the other side of the road and the brakes squealed to a stop. As the detective leaned over the passenger side to lower the window he noticed the man was flipping a coin in one hand. This seemed even odder considering the circumstances. Once the barrier between them dropped Rick called out in the elements, “You alright, pal?”
“Just waiting on my ride,” the stranger said not seeming phased by the fact he looked as though he just fell out of the local swimming pool. Rick’s brow furrowed, feeling slightly unnerved by how nonchalant this guy seemed to be.
After a moment of silence the detective spoke again, “It’s getting pretty rough out here, is there somewhere I can take you?” The man’s hand snapped closed on the coin finally and the sudden motion made Rick’s hand slide to his service pistol by instinct. Rick’s eyes trained on the other hand that remained in the guy’s pocket during his approach. The hand pulled free of the stranger’s slacks and held nothing in it. Rick relaxed and watched as the man leaned down to the window before agreeing. Most people would not have taken the offer so lightly but this man honestly didn’t seem bothered in the slightest by his plight. Something was wrong, Rick could tell, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Something in his smile and the ease of his words only served to unsettle the detective and as the passenger door opened Rick’s .38 Special slid from its holster and rested on his lap. Rick knew the weapon would be covered by his coat and this way it was ready if he needed it. His passenger took a seat, closed the door, and gave the detective a smile.
“Thanks,” the man’s words came dripping like the rest of him. Rick tried not to think of having to clean the upholstery because he was sure that was the least of his problems at this particular moment. Rick asked his destination and when he received his answer he fought the urge to curse at the thought of having to drive across town. The trip would put him an hour late coming home and he knew his wife wouldn’t be too happy. Instead, he simply put the car in gear and made his way out of the neighborhood in silence.
The quiet was unnerving, Rick’s hand tightening on the steering wheel. His words tried to cut the thickness, “So, what you doing out in this mess anyway?” The man’s head tilted slightly and his eyes squinted a bit as if he had to think of a good answer. Rick had seen many guilty men look at him this way when trying to come up with an alibi and the whole scene caused his thumb to rest on the hammer of his pistol. The man began turning the coin between his fingers and gave a slight smile before ever responding.
“Just headed down south to visit an old friend of mine. I hear he’s a musician now and doing pretty good for himself,” the guy’s voice became upbeat. Rick wasn’t sure what was more unsettling, the silence or the smile. “Speaking of which,” the stranger paused and pointed to my dash, “You mind if I find us some music?” Rick wasn’t really in the mood for music now but it would be better than listening to his new passenger talk. A nod signaled an agreement and the man’s fingers twisted at the dial. Static and garbled signals whipped by for a few seconds before the station came in clear. Wailings of a guitar and the slow somber tunes that old colored folk spoke about came blaring through the speakers. This definitely hadn’t expected a well-dressed white man to listen to this kind of music but if it kept him quiet that was all-the-better.
Twenty minutes later the cruiser came to a stop in front of an apartment building that took up the block. The windows seemed boarded and the whole neighborhood felt more like a grave. It couldn’t have been someone’s home and Rick knew this. The concern must have been clearly printed on the detective’s forehead because when his passenger noticed he laughed slightly. The sound snapped Rick from his thoughts and a low metallic clink could be heard as the pressure of his thumb became more than the hammer spring could hold back anymore. Rick brushed the sticky liquid away that collected under his hair-line again as the man began to point out the window. The detective’s eyes followed and came to rest on the flickering light of a phone booth. It sat upon the corner of the intersection approximately twenty-feet away. Rick wanted to scream but bet against it. They had passed at least three dozen payphones during this trip, what made this one so special?
The detective couldn’t take it anymore, “Not trying to be rude, mister, but why did we have to go across town to this payphone?” The man gave that sick toothy smirk again and slid his hand toward his coat breast pocket. Rick’s hand gripped the pistol now and readied to bring it into play. The hand emerged holding a pack of cigarettes that the passenger shook slightly, the smile growing. Rick felt like he was being taunted by this guy and every second his pistol shook more in his hand. He hadn’t had to discharge his firearm since he lost Mitch. The incident still left a mark on his memory and right now it made it difficult not to draw on the stranger. The possibilities of what would follow streamed through his head. The man had brought him to a secluded part of the city and every look and word seemed to mock the detective. Even now, as his passenger pressed the cigarette between his lips and lit the tip, that smile still lingered on the corners of his mouth. The lid to the lighter snapped closed, causing Rick to jolt slightly.
“Where I am headed is this way. Thanks for the ride, friend,” the stranger said as he flipped the coin into the air. It turned a few times before coming to rest on the dashboard. It wobbled along the edge for a moment before stopping flat. Now that it was closer the detective could see that one side appeared gold and the other silver. A star was etched on the face of it but not any star Rick had ever seen previously. The marks weren’t machine made, that’s for sure. The click of the door opening pulled the detective’s eyes back to the passenger. He was already lifting himself back up into the rain with a still lit cigarette. The drops quickly snuffed out the smoke and the man awkwardly just held it there at any rate. Then the man leaned back to the window and pointed to the dashboard again. “That’s my friend singing now. I think you might like it,” he quipped before turning to walk toward the phone booth.
Rick watched the man for a moment but the words to the song drew his attention. A young man’s voice wailed over sharp guitar riffs. The voice seemed to be asking for help and not receiving any. The next verse began and the words seemed to echo in Rick’s ears. He turned to look up at the man again, now standing in the phone booth.
"Yeoo, standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Ooo eee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by"
Rick watched intently as the stranger pulled another coin from his pocket. It caught the glow inside the booth and the detective could tell it was a duplicate of the one that now sat on his dash. Rick took the small sliver of metal in his hand, running his thumb along the etching as the song continued to flow through his cab.
"Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, risin’ sun goin’ down
Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, eee, eee, risin’ sun goin’ down
I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down"
A chill rose up Rick’s back and he could feel the hair on his neck rise. Rick put the car in drive and eased forward, watching the man lift the receiver. As he passed the figure waved and gave another smirk before fingering in his desired number. The wailing permeated throughout the cruiser for the next verse.
"And I went to the crossroad, mama, I looked east and west
I went to the crossroads, baby, I looked east and west
Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress"
The song ended while Rick put the car in reverse. He came to a stop once more under the light of the phone booth and the announcer began clamoring about the previous artist, Robert Johnson. The voice elaborated on his talent, but changed to a sorrowful tone when he expressed his condolences to any friends or family that may be listening. Then another song was announced, stating the artist released it the year he died, 1938. Rick had been staring at the booth until those words rang out and was pulled back to the radio. He spoke to himself in the dark, “That can’t be right, that was six years ago.” The next song began to play as Rick sat dazed at his experience. He looked down at the coin, turned it in his fingers again to see the opposite side had another crudely drawn star symbol. He had been shaking, pistol still gripped in his palm. The stranger smiled at Rick again as the detective stepped from the car finally. His gun drew across the top of the car as he yelled out, “Who the hell are you?”
The stranger stepped out of the booth still holding the phone, “You can call me Scratch,” he said with a wink, “I’ve got to be goin’ now Rick.”
“You’re not going anywhere until I find out what’s going on here,” the detective yelled out into the night.
Scratch laughed in a sly and amused tone, “I don’t think you quite get it, my friend, but when you do, just use that coin I gave you. I will be seeing you around, maybe you and I can make a deal too.” And with that he stepped back into the booth and dropped his coin into the slot.
Rick barked at the man, “Freeze!” Just as the words rang out the man faded away, his body dissipating like smoke across the stars. The shock caused the detective to pull the trigger and the crack of the shot and breaking glass echoed through the street. The receiver shattered still in mid-air before tumbling to the floor of the booth. Rick’s eyes drew open wide and his mouth hung agape. Slowly, his knees gave out beneath him and his body sat back to the driver’s seat. Then sliding his hand under his coat he removed a small chrome tin container. Twisting the cap loose he turned it up to his lips. He rarely drank, but this moment seemed like the right opportunity for a few sips. He took another drink as he contemplated the previous forty-five minutes. The thought came slowly but like a slap in the face, “Who had been in my car and how the hell did he know my name?”
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Written by L0CKED334