Green Taxi From Oakland
Copyright 2012 by
The man slithered through the trees, no longer concerned with how much noise his feet made in the half foot of leaves he was plowing through. He’d heard the cab door on the driver’s side slam shut and knew he would not be heard. He reached the passenger side of the vehicle, quickly yanked on the back door and slid in and slammed it in one fluid motion.
“What the bloody hell?” were the last words uttered by his mark as he raised his pistol and shot him in the back of the head. He carefully returned the pistol to its shoulder holster and got back out of the car. He was wearing gloves, so there would be no fingerprints. Unfortunately, the stupid fat sod had decided to die while face-planting forward onto the car horn, which now was bleating non-stop. He opened the front door, reached in with his left arm and repositioned the dead man back to an upright pose. The horn stopped immediately. Blood and viscera coated the front window and the steering wheel.
Within seconds, he was gone, quickly picking his way through his pre-determined escape route in the opposite direction from which he’d entered the park.
North London is home to some serious quid. In particular, the Winchmore Hill neighborhood, a ward of the Borough of Enfield. It’s a leafy little burgh that has a low crime rate and other than the flow of pounds through the town, it flies well under the London radar.
Until this year. Two murders within 30 days. Scotland Yard has been called in as the local authorities are simply not equipped, manpower or technology-wise, for a multiple murder investigation. Police are convinced the two killings are related, but have very little to go on.
My name is Eric, and I am that ‘very little to go on’.
Grovelands Park in north London’s Winchmore Hill neighborhood is an oasis plopped right down in the middle of million-dollar homes and broad, tree-lined streets. If you’ve driven much in London, then you know that ‘broad’ streets are in evidence only where there are million dollar homes and maybe also in central London where limousines need to move about. The rest of us navigate the one-lane-wide streets, which are legally designated to accommodate two-way vehicular traffic. Replacing shattered side-view mirrors is a burgeoning business in London.
So, when my trusting, loving and energetic four-legged mate Waldo and I make our daily jaunt to Grovelands, we park my rusty, banged up black jeep on a mansion–lined street, enjoying that incongruity, and then stroll into the park through the prettiest of its five separate entrances,. All gateways into Groveland are very nicely appointed and patrolled by huge wrought iron gates. Each entry has a distinctive look. The entrance on Broad Walk has an ornate double-gated opening into an almost lightless tree-canopied corridor. When you stop and gaze in before passing through the impressive gates, it feels almost sepulchral in its reverent and silent salute to nature. This dark lane, about 300 yards long, feels like you are going up (down?) the fallopian tube, especially when you get to the end and turn left to where a wide expanse of grass amiably greets the eye as it runs down a gradual slope; then the sudden infusion of light, as if the sky was taking a flash photo, and in the distance the gorgeous vista of the lake sits serenely, waiting, supporting a wide variety of wildlife.
In fact, all of the houses on Broad Walk near the park are fronted with very similar gate apparatuses. Somehow, these wealthy Londoners manage to avoid having their yard, driveway or the imposing face of their multi-story house appear fortress-like. It seems that the ones who desire to fortify, those whose design sense is more exclusionary than inclusive, tend to surround their estates with walls, not gates and fences through which the unwashed might peak. To each his own. Walls can evoke as much thought as do gates and are often equally as appealing visually.
Watching the well-heeled drivers of Mercedes and BMWs pause while their electronic gates open slowly like a horizontal drawbridge, is an image I find soothing. I am a capitalist. Most people earn their wealth. I want to be them one day. I simply won’t begrudge them their affluence, earned or otherwise.
This street scene is overshadowed, however, once we enter the park proper, with the large lake centered in the park’s bucolic 91 acres like a liquid jewel, with a wide variety of water and air fowl dotting its surface, floating on the water like feathery supporting-cast diamond chips. They are also waiting on the good blokes and birds of north London, dog owners who are giving their house-bound-for-days canines an exercise session. These Londoners bring and fling hunks of bread from the bed of rocks set aside on the lake’s edge for such activity. The variety of ducks, geese, swans, moorhens, coots and the peskier and aggressive airborne seagulls can turn any feeding session into a visual and audible display of splashing and darting through the air that it is often mesmerizing. I would bring a loaf of bread whenever I could, as Waldo was fascinated by the ensuing display and feeding frenzy. He’d become a little too familiar with one huge, rather cantankerous white swan who lingered closest to the rocky shore and would hiss at Waldo like a cobra whenever he ventured too close to the water. Waldo thought it was a form of play, but I knew better. That swan could lop one of his ears off with little or no effort.
Waldo was a rather fascinating combination of Staffordshire bull terrier and Dachshund. It is a conjoining of breeds that has resulted in a stunningly attractive dog in a mid-sized body that blatantly defies all genealogical predictions such a pairing might prompt. Though his features are incongruous when taken individually, when looked at obliquely or in my case, lovingly, he is symmetrical and a beautiful amalgamation of snout, head, ears, neck, torso and muscular haunches all supported by strong-looking stubby legs on which he surprises many a smaller dog by simply outracing it. People stop and stare at him occasionally and invariably ask his breeding story. I tell them and am rewarded almost always with a pleasant yelp of surprise and wide-eyed appreciation of the originality at the two breeds involved. Drily, I follow such queries with, ”Well, I’ve tried not to envision the actual consummation process, as it likely broke a law of nature or three.”
I stand a shade over six feet, having remained in fairly decent shape into my late 40s, and feel a silly sense of superiority as I notice so many similarly-aged London men have lost their hair, while my thick Irish thatch of blond straw, though untamable, remains flourishing and roams rogue-like wherever the ubiquitous London wind blows it. My dark blue eyes are supported by a small, unobtrusive nose and the goatee I have steadfastly maintained since I started growing it on my 35th birthday has chosen to become speckled with grey, which I happen to enjoy.
I have what women tend to refer to as a ‘welcoming’ face. I prefer ‘disarming’, but we are merely engaging in a silent battle of semantics. Women tend to like and trust me and are rarely wary. I enjoy the effect mainly because there is not an ounce of contrivance in the look. I’ve heard men say that there are equally effective benefits to looking sinister and threatening, though a lady who is drawn to that countenance would not like the quiet evenings Waldo and I spend in front of the fire listening to Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins.
The park seems equally populated by men and women, with a very liberal sprinkling of young and old; solitary hooded walkers and couples in love; and as stated earlier, most are not only dog owners and lovers, but the unspoken rule is if your hound is affable, letting him off the leash is encouraged. The mad dashes that ensue between the trustworthy, leash-free dogs can be comical. Waldo will bait any dog, large or small, in order to lure it into a circular, top speed pursuit that is like watching eight legs, instead of eight wheels, swapping paint around Talladega.
And with that reference, I reveal and cement the fact that I am indeed a Yank who has moved from California to this rather tony, posh little enclave in north London. Winchmore Hill smells like money, to put it simply. There appears to be many affluent couples in their 30s and 40s with the wives usually pushing a stroller during the days, after the husband has tooled the Mercedes through the byzantine streets into central London, where most serious commerce is proposed and acted upon. The more established (older) women of Winchmore Hill are quite well preserved, sporting fashions that take a degree of confidence, not to mention an ability to defy gravity. They have survived the stroller era of their womanhood and now can relearn the art of being selfish and self-indulgent. Many combine manicures, pedicures and visits to the hair salon with sharing a magnum of champagne with friends at The Kings Head to end the afternoon.
The youth of the U.K. does not go unrepresented on the Hill. At early morning intervals, one can view from a strategic perch on a bench in the Green the young legs of the still idealistic, sprinting up the hill from down where the rentals are and around the square and the Green and then down the block to the rail station. Young men and women, stern faces creased in concentration, dreams of working in central London already under way, hurry to catch the express as the subsequent trains stop at dozens of stations along the way, and will surely delay them on their road to capitalistic greatness.
The train station is a stone’s throw from the Green and is, as with most train stations, a fascinating venue from which to observe humanity.
When I hear the screech of train brakes as the 7:04am southbound pulls in, I imagine this happening all over London, and am often awarded a front row seat as to the different ways people respond when one’s train is pulling into the station. From panicked full sprints in hard-soled shoes along the perpetually wet and slippery pavement; to the sudden applying of the brakes and slowing to a walk, shoulders slumped in resignation, the decision to visit the newsstand and maybe the little coffee kiosk having been made for them, since they now had ten minutes to kill. I find it intriguing as I watch this phenomenon each morning. It appears quite stressful and a lousy way to begin one’s day.
Even the newsagent’s shop is unique. Situated 100 feet from the station on a corner, inside this tiny store run by Pakistani immigrants one can find the usual accoutrements available at such an establishment, but there is not a single wasted inch of space, and simple stroll through the two aisles will often surprise you with the oddity of some of the merchandise. A mouse trap? Right over here, sir. All-day, one-time-only London bus and rail pass? Certainly, sir, 10 quid. Office supplies? Right in this corner. Ice cream bar? What flavor? Dog whistle? For a small or large dog, sir?
On my very first visit the proprietor, a nervous, thin Pakistani man with pock marks from an apparent aggressive battle with acne, was quite friendly and helpful, and more than a bit curious about my moving from California to London. In exchange for a truncated version of my recent journey, he explained patiently the different denominations of British money, how the England lottery system functioned and finally introducing me to his mother; a short, shuffling older woman with a scarf around her head and a slanted, suspicious look for Waldo.
I remember my initial trip to the little train station because it provided me with a rare instance of a British faux paus. Given the paranoia inhabiting the smoky back rooms of most British minds, how this station has green-lighted an uncovered, concrete, 30-step cement stairway as the only access to the downstairs platform from where one boards a train, is a mystery. It rains almost every day. Women in heels prance down these stairs to try and catch their train each morning. It is almost chilling to watch, and though I’ve not seen anyone take a spill yet, the scenario practically screams out for litigation. Yet this architectural oversight is an exception in London, as I am often left shaking my head at little pragmatic yet unique innovations here and there all over the city that make me think, “they think of everything over here”. One example is a grocery store in central London that has flat-surfaced electric walkways, like in the airport, which go up and down as well as over horizontal surfaces, and as people are usually pushing shopping carts, they have equipped the wheels of the carts and the moving walkways themselves with magnets so that the cart will not roll once its wheels hit the rubber matting. Brilliant in its simplicity.
Another oddity stands directly across the street from the station. A one room shanty with a steeply-sloped moss covered A-frame roof with a large front window running its small length. About a 20 foot by 20 foot structure that I discovered one day was a barber shop. Run by a Greek immigrant. A chalk board sandwich board-type sign stands just to the right of the glass front door and appears to be kept outside permanently, as some of its pricing information has been washed away by the perpetual British drizzle, and other notations, such as services offered, are actually out of date and no longer available. I spoke with the tiny Greek man, a youngish looking 35, who simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “I no longer can give shampoo.”
The Green is the small centerpiece to the hill, not unlike what the lake provides for the park. The two little patches of lawn, bisected by a busy two-way street, are home to Christmas Festivals, Caroling Parties, outdoor produce markets in the spring and summer, and the occasional impromptu game of football (soccer for this Yank) between impetuous boys while their mums and dads get a mid-day bracer of anti-freeze at the nearby corner pub, The Kings Head.
Perched defiantly on the northern most corner of a busy round-about, 50 feet from the Green, The Kings Head is a major cornerstone in this little slice of London’s pie. As with many pubs in London, it is a gathering place that is far more than what we Yanks might call a bar. Most serve food for lunch and dinner and have separate rooms for private parties, and do a particularly brisk business at Christmas time with office parties and family gatherings. The Kings Head sports an attractive, impressive three story edifice that overlooks the Green. Its spire spikes the dusk sky in dramatic fashion, looking sinister against the backdrop of scudding dark clouds and a darkening sky. It looms castle-like over this little enclave that is home to so much money. Though not as old as many of the pubs in London, The Kings Head does not try to be what it can’t. Its interior is more modern, without offering the charm that comes from walking into the interior of a thick-beamed ancient pub that is well over 400 years old. The wealthy Winchmore Hill clientele seems to approve of the more modern set-up, as The Kings Head remains one of the more profitable pubs in all of London.
On a rainy Wednesday (honestly, you can plug in your own choice for day of the week before ‘rainy’ and not be inaccurate) in late December in that oddly soothing week between Christmas and New Years, Waldo and I decided to use a different entrance, the one on The Bourne, to enter Grovelands. It was a misty, foggy morning with limited visibility and the air so thick it was like walking into a sneeze. As we peered through the ornate gates, the gloaming was so thought-provoking, I pulled the little notebook I always kept with me out of my overcoat pocket and scribbled some brief, immediate thoughts and ideas and words. Maybe they would coalesce into a story idea later, maybe not.
Once through the narrow open gate, I unleashed Waldo and watched him dash off as if shot from a cannon. It usually took about 100 yards before he realized he was destination-less and he would stop his full sprint suddenly, turn to look quizzically at me and wonder why I had not followed his mad dash. Usually, he would sheepishly start back toward me as if in retreat.
Not on this 28th day of December, 2012.
He went into point.
Visibility was such that I had to walk up to him to see what had his sudden attention. He rarely focused his body physically in this fashion unless an approaching hound was big and intimidating. It usually spelled trouble for him and, by extension, me.
It took me a minute to get to where he was crouched and poised, staring into what appeared to me to be only thick fog. I squinted my
48-year-old eyes, then decided to look obliquely.
And in the distance, on a green expanse that in the spring and summer is pressed into service as a golf driving range but currently unoccupied by small white dimpled orbs, I see an odd shaped large object. Almost box-like. Painted green. Kelly green. At least it appears as such. I start toward the oddly shaped object sitting in the middle of the grassy field.
Waldo followed, probably even more curious than I.
As I approached the object, it became larger as the shroud of fog became thinner. And it was indeed a box, shaped about 12 feet high and 20 feet long, and painted a brilliant green, probably the shade of green the grass I was standing on would look like in May.
The bizarre incongruous placing of this object so starkly out in the middle of a field where virtually no one could miss it made me wonder. I reached out to touch it. Plywood. Rough cut. Was this thing just dropped from the sky? Thoughts of New Mexico and aliens flitted about my brain pan.
Reality came bashing back into my psyche, as it always does.
You’re in London, north London, you big lug. The Brits like their ghosts, but they’ve been battling the Irish for years, the Brits hate green. This may be a boxed bowel movement from the IRA, but it probably has a more logical explanation.
I pressed on the board in front of me, the horizontal piece of wood about 20 feet long, heard a click, and pulled my hand back.
I had to jump back and pull Waldo away to avoid the wall of plywood falling on us. It came down and gave a soggy slap as it landed on the muddy grass.
I stared at what was suddenly revealed.
I stared some more.
W T F…?
Waldo sat placidly beside me, completely unaware of the impact this was having on me.
What was revealed as the huge piece of plywood slowly cascaded to the grass was at once almost indecipherable, yet also simplistically obvious.
A London taxi cab, its famous, iconic shape purposeful and obvious, and painted Kelly green like its plywood coffin and, and this is where I would have sat down if there had been a chair:
Festooned on the front driver’s door was an Oakland A’s logo.
The Oakland A’s? An American professional baseball team?
Baseball was not even played in this country.
As if that total disconnect was not incongruous enough; Oakland, California was my home town.
Fuck it. I sat down on the damp muddy grass.
Waldo was sniffing the logo, as if the paint was fresh.
Was it? Turns out it was a magnet.
I looked around. Not another soul in sight, though the fog kept visibility to about 100 yards. I don’t believe in aliens or things of that nature. I subsist in a world of logic and reason and pragmatism. Not a dry, scientific approach to life, just a practical, utilitarian, even cynical way of looking at things.
What now stood before me was testing the strength of each one of my fundamental psychological tenets.
It was the ‘Oakland’ angle that had me most perplexed. What were the odds? Almost incalculable, even in London where they will place odds and take a bet on virtually anything.
And why paint a cab that color and adorn it with the logo? And then put it here, like it was dropped out of the sky, behind and under a total of five equally green plywood walls?
This was only the second time since we’d been coming to Grovelands that Waldo and I had used this particular exit. Had we not, I would not have come within 500 yards of this, and thus never seen it.
I heard the sputtering of sticky lifters on the engine of a Cushman cart that the staff used to drive around the park. I could hear it but not see it. I would certainly see the driver before the brown Cushman, as all park employees wore lost-at-sea bright yellow jackets. I watched and waited, turning to where the sound of the misfiring motor came from.
Waldo had moved to the other side of the cab, out of my line of sight. I heard the creak of plywood, a second of silence, and a muted thump and then Waldo yelped in fright and pain. I sprinted around the other side and pulled the fallen wood up and off of him. He was rattled but unhurt. As I was about to pick him up, the piece in front of the cab fell away, then the roof of the structure slid off the top and landed at my feet while the piece at the back of the cab plopped harmlessly to the soggy turf, splattering muddy rain water 10 feet in the other direction. The wood had fallen away like a magician’s trick coffin after being sawed through, in almost perfectly-timed sequence. It was as if the cab went through a quick, well-timed strip tease.
Now the cab was unadorned, unprotected and, oddly, looking even sillier without its enclosure. It still looked shockingly out of place.
The park employee pulled up about 20 feet away on the stone path and stopped. He had on the requisite bright clothing and a dark brown leather cowboy hat. He did not look pleased.
“Hey mate, what the hell you doin’? You can’t park that thing there.” He started to walk toward me. Waldo gave a low, guttural growl and I watched the row of hair that followed his spine rise ominously. I hooked my index finger under his collar.
I waited until he was within earshot so I didn’t have to yell and said, “It’s not mine. I just came upon it about ten minutes ago. I have no idea where it came from, or who put it here. It was enclosed in these pieces of ply wood.”
The guy looked skeptically at me and took a circuitous route around the cab. I’d noticed there was a matching A’s logo on the front passenger seat door as well.
He finished his loop and stood on the driver’s side and watched me over the roof of the cab while he fumbled in his jacket breast pocket for a walkie talkie.
Of course, when I say ‘driver’s side’ and ‘passenger’s side’, I am speaking from my American experience. In this case, here in England, where I stood facing the right side of the car was where the steering wheel was.
After turning a dial on the side, which resulted in scratchy static sounds, he finally got a person on the other end. I couldn’t hear what he said.
Finally he finished the conversation and walked around to me. Waldo eyed him warily but did not growl.
“I have to ask you to stick around. My supervisor’s gonna be here straight away. He’s got some questions for ya.”
I nodded. “Sure thing.”
We stood in an awkward silence until we heard a similar sounding malfunctioning Cushman engine. The fog had raised some and visibility was now probably 300 feet.
The supervisor, sporting the same jacket as the guy next to me, pulled up behind the first Cushman and parked. He surveyed the situation for a minute, then climbed out and walked over.
Apparently, the guy next to me had told him I was a Yank, because the first thing he said was, “I don’t know or give a rat’s ass what they do in the States mate, but you can’t park a fucking cab in the middle of Grovelands Park. And why the hell did you paint it that ghastly shade of green? And who the hell are the Oakland A’s?”
I sighed and glared at the underling next to me, who was grinning like an idiot, which I was willing to bet he was.
“I can only answer one of those questions, mate,” and I loaded that last word with as much sarcasm as my American cynicism was capable of.
“First, I already told this guy the situation. It’s not my cab. I have no idea how it got here. I just stumbled upon it while walking my dog. I’m not a taxi driver. And I like that shade of green.”
The supervisor, whose name and title, ‘Nigel Collingwood, Park Supervisor’, was stitched in flowing pretty black script on the left breast of his yellow jacket, eyed me speculatively for a second.
”And the question you can answer?”
“The Oakland A’s are an American professional baseball team that has won the world championship four times since 1972.”
“Can’t truly call it a ‘world’ championship now, can we mate, if jolly old England isn’t involved.”
“Our athletic standards kinda keep jolly old England on the outside, if you get my drift.”
“Oh do they now? Rather fascinating defense of exclusion.”
“We’re getting off the subject, Nigel. Do you need me anymore?”
He pulled out a small spiral bound note pad, flipped open the cardboard cover and touched the tip of his pencil to his tongue.
He nodded, dutifully jotting it down. “R e g g i e?”
Confirming his American baseball ignorance, I told him simply, “Yes.”
“How long before my mate Colin here came along had you discovered this thing?”
The awkwardly-worded question seemed irrelevant, but I wanted to get out of there, so I decided to cooperate. I’d found it increasingly easy to fuck with Brits. When they would quickly ascertain I was from the States based on the manner in which I spoke, to a man they immediately assumed an air of superiority. I made up fake names, jobs, vacations, adventures, you name it, and they would swallow whole whatever I told them. I would literally out droll them. I found their arrogance both unearned and rooted in insecurity.
“He rolled up about ten minutes after Waldo and I found it.”
Nigel made an exaggerated motion to look at his watch and wrote down the time. He would be a tiresome chap to work for. I was suddenly more sympathetic toward the smirking smug Colin beside me.
“Why did you pull down the pieces of plywood?”
“I didn’t. They fell away. Maybe it was the wind. One of them fell on Waldo, then the final three followed suit almost immediately.”
He grinned. “You mean like a magician’s box when he’s done sawing through it?”
“Yeah, like that.”
“How long you been in England?”
“I don’t see how that is relevant.”
“Bloody hell. I’ll decide what’s relevant.”
“Where in the states you from?”
And I committed my second tactical error of the exchange, the first being lying about my name. “Oakland, California.”
He raised his eyebrows and stared straight at me.
“Would that be the same city as this here baseball team?
“One and the same.”
“Small world, I’d say. Wouldn’t you?
“Shrinking every day. I was stunned at the irony. Still am.”
“Irony? Sounds like more of a suspicious coincidence.”
“Nothing suspicious about it. If I left the damn thing here, why the hell would I stand around and wait to be caught?”
“There’s that. But this ‘Oakland’ thing is rather hard to ignore.”
“It is strange, but I simply can’t explain it. Look, you aren’t the police. I’ve got nothing more to help you with. We’re gonna take off.”
I leashed Waldo up, who’d sat placidly watching the conversation between the supervisor and me, and we exited the park.
When I got back to my flat, high above The Kings Head where I had the whole third floor to myself for 1350 quid a month, living under the gables, I called my best friend Chuck back in the Bay Area. He was the only guy I knew with the resources, imagination, and willingness to bust his hump for such a practical joke. If this was not his doing, then I was truly flummoxed.
“Charles Arthur Anderson the third. Can I help you?”
“You fuck-tard. Did you Jackie Chan a green London cab onto my park with A’s logos on it?”
“Hey Hendu. I’ve no idea of what you speak.”
“You did, didn’t you? How in the fuck did you manage that?”
“Jackie Chan drops into rain forests to fight bad guys. London makes a rain forest look like the Mojave. I sent Aqua Man for this one.”
I could hear his loud, almost out-of-control laughter over the phone line.
It felt good.
“I was interrogated by a wanna-be British park ranger who thought he was Jack Fucking Webb. He actually wrote down the name I gave him.”
Again the roaring laughter. I could feel him put the phone against his chest as he muffled the guffaws.
“You and Reginald are twins from the ankles down.”
“So why did you do this? Hell, how did you do this?”
“Still don’t get the big brain thing, do you? I got a buddy in London; he put a tail on you for a week. You and that ugly fucking hound. He, ah, ascertained that you might be vulnerable to certain activities. I thought about planting drugs in your flat and having the Bobbies employ their gun-less “Stop!…or I’ll yell ‘Stop!’ again,” as they burst in to find your bathroom vanity covered in talcum powder. Then I thought I’d get my photo shop guy to ‘capture’ you blowing Hugh Grant in a West End nightclub while a dead Jimmy Saville spanks it between high-fives with Hugh.”
“And those scenarios weren’t tawdry enough?”
“Not even close.”
“But a green cab? What the fuck? It’s over, right? I’m out of it now?”
There was silence.
“I am, right?!”
And more silence.
Then the laughter again.
“FUCK!” I slammed down the phone.
Waldo looked at me, looked at his empty dish, and back at me.
When my buzzer rang the next morning, I was stunned awake. The only times it had been pressed before were by late night drunks leaving the Head thinking there were hookers upstairs.
It was a London policeman. With Nigel. And Colin.
I buzzed them in.
Chuck still had his tenterhooks in this one and the more I thought about it, the more I saw his fingerprints all over it. And I finally was figuring out why. My last joke on him had been so compellingly effective, even devastating; he simply had to one-up it.
It was two years ago. I was still in Oakland. Chuck was a psychologist who ran a non-profit clinic that offered low-income people heavily discounted services, including counseling. It was not government subsidized but instead relied on private donations, some of which came anonymously. Chuck was the main fundraiser and could be very persuasive.
I spent three weeks thinking about and then acting on the idea I hatched to get him.
First, I had a paternity suit mailed to his office, but made it look inauspicious, just shy of being identified as junk mail, not at all affecting a personal look, to ensure that his secretary would open it. She was such a major gossip hound that she made Joan Rivers look like Marcel Marceau. By the end of the day the news was spreading like cholesterol through Pavarotti’s arteries…slowly but certainly. I’d chosen an obvious ethnic name of Guatemalan descent for the mother of his child.
I knew he would eventually put that fire out, so I had a second event already lined up for the following week. One of his patients, a guy I’ll call James, also happened to be a friend of mine. He had a wicked sense of humor and was well-versed on the life-long, ongoing practical joke competition between Chuck and myself.
I convinced him to have a particularly stress-filled session with Chuck, then show up back at the clinic a half hour afterwards very agitated and waving a gun, talking gibberish. The desired effect was accomplished on Chuck, who completely panicked, hitting his knees and begging for his life. However, Oakland police thought otherwise, after some alert staff member had typed 911 on their cell phone when James had come noisily back into the office, Glock 9m in hand. It took some fast talking by me and even Chuck, once he realized that he was not in danger, came to James defense, and eventually the cops let him out of his handcuffs.
I had moved to London two months later.
When the three men got to my door, I had it open and was standing in the doorway. I was not looking pleased to see them.
As they approached from the door to the stairwell, I noticed the cop had a sidearm, which was rare in this country. Only a chosen few, I’d been told, were allowed to carry a firearm.
Colin still looked smug; Nigel looked like he’d had a bowl of Brussels sprouts for lunch that had been boiled a bit too long in brackish water.
This was not going to be fun.
“Nice little place of business ya got here mate.” Nigel was attempting to be convivial without being able to hide his insincerity.
“I live here. It’s not a place of business. I have no connection to the bar below other than as a tenant.”
“Mind if we come in, Mr. Jackson?” It was the Bobby, who’d moved to the front, his tone changing suddenly on my last name to one of disdain. Maybe my jig was up. Who knew there might be an A’s historian in Scotland Yard.
I stepped aside silently and the three men entered my flat.
I heard Colin sniff loudly, as if trying to ascertain if cannabis had been smoked in here recently. The Bobby walked all the way to the other end and then slowly turned and retraced his steps. His hands were folded behind his back. His helmet looked like he was born in it; the chin strap as if it had never been unsnapped. His sidearm held most of my attention.
Nigel walked over to my leather couch and sat.
“What can I do for you gentlemen? I’ve already told you everything I know about the damn green cab.”
The Bobby had returned to this end of the flat and now stood before me. “You’re all we’ve got, mate. You discovered the thing.”
“And that’s all I did. Hell, it could have been anybody.”
He cleared his throat, but his eyes never left mine. It was a cop look. Apparently it was universal. He waited, as if prompting me to expand. I chose not to.
He turned on his heel and, hands still clasped behind his back, began to walk again to the other end of my flat. Colin had sat on a stool next to the small oak bar I’d bought in central London and had had delivered. He was eyeing my two beer taps, both hand-carved out of Ivory and quite expensive: Guinness and Watneys.
Other than the ‘place of business’ crack, Nigel thus far had not said anything.
The Bobby wandered over to the huge window that overlooked the Green of Winchmore Hill. He looked out for a moment, then turned and said, “That cab has not been stolen. In point of fact, it has no record at all in our auto database. It appears to have, shall we say, fallen from the sky.”
“Do you have any idea, Reggie Jackson from Oakland, California, as to what sky that cab may have fallen from?”
Again, he loaded my name with such sarcasm that it was clear he knew it was not my name. I suddenly realized my smart-assed lying about my name was at the root of their suspicion.
“My name is Eric Stollard. I made up the name Reggie Jackson as a joke, because of the Oakland A’s baseball angle.”
The Bobby eye me speculatively, then slowly walked over to me. He came face-to-face, the short rounded brim of his helmet almost touching my forehead. He was invading my personal space, and he knew it.
“You did that for a jolly, did you mate?”
“I did. These two clowns were pretending importance. It sort of begged for a ‘fucking with’, if you will.”
The Bobby knew instinctively we were having several conversations at one time. The two Groveland troglodytes were suddenly on the outside looking in.
“Yes, I see.”
“Do you?” I was not above fucking with a cop.
His hand reflexively moved to his sidearm, but he caught himself and moved it back to a neutral position.
“Why did you lie about your name?”
“I just told you.”
“So, it was not to hide your true identity, Eric Andrew Stollard?”
So he knew my middle name. Scotland Yard was good. But how?
“I prefer Andy.”
“Apparently, you also seem to prefer incarceration. Lying to a peace officer is a crime, mate.”
“I never lied to you.”
He did not like being one-upped conversationally, and he was clearly not used to it happening.
“You lied to them. The same as lying to me.”
“Really, officer…they are your equal? Good luck with that. I see a career directing Trafalgar Square traffic in your immediate future.”
He stepped back, almost as if I’d struck him.
“You got a mouth on you, sod.”
“I’m feeling harassed. This stupid cab is your problem, not mine.”
“Unfortunately, you are part, the only part I’m afraid, of an official investigation. The direction of which I will decide, not you.”
I had nothing to say to that. Pissing off this guy was not going to be a good career move, I realized suddenly. If possible, Colin was looking even smugger.
“I’m afraid I’ve told you all that I know.”
He nodded, said “To be continued,” and strode toward the door. The two park hacks obediently followed. Colin grinned at me.
I bolted the heavy oak door after they’d left.
How did they get my middle name?
There was no contact from the police or the park for almost a week. I’d practically forgotten about it. Chuck had not returned my email. I surmised the incident was over. Score one for Chuck.
The day after the incident, Waldo and I had returned to the park and there was no sight of the cab. I didn’t expect it to still be there, but I’d learned not to underestimate Chuck.
When on the 1st of February, my buzzer bleated and I let someone in, it was not Nigel that I was expecting to walk through the door on my floor, breathing heavy from the stair climb.
This time I remained blocking my open doorway as he approached.
He slowed when he realized I was not intending to invite him in.
He was clad exactly the same, his scripted name and title staring defiantly from his left breast.
“Now what?” I asked him.
“If you let me in, I’ll tell you.”
I sighed and stepped aside. “This better be good.”
“Or bad,” he said as he slid past me. He stopped, took off his jacket and hung it on the brass coat rack I had attached to the back of the door.
He stood with his hands in his pockets and watched me close the door. “I could use a Watneys, if you would be so kind.”
I hesitated, then went to the small bar and poured him a Watneys and filled a pint glass with the beer of my people, Guinness, for me.
He sat on the couch once again and I dragged a bar stool over and sat a few feet from him, remaining above him, a conversational advantage I’d learned from a cop in New York.
He took a long sip, let his head loll back till it rested on the sofa, and said with his eyes closed, “Colin has been murdered.”
I didn’t know what to say to that so I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t liked the smug prick, but I didn’t want him to die.
He brought his head back to level, opened his eyes and sighed, drinking another huge gulp of the delicious English ale.
“Guess you need some back story before you can figure out why I’m here telling you this. Colin went to a police auction about two weeks ago and bought the green cab you found in the park. Yesterday, he was found in the driver’s seat shot to death. One bullet, back of the skull. Execution-style.”
“Ok.” I hesitated. I didn’t want to be insensitive to someone’s death, but this was really irrelevant to me. I continued. “Not sure where I fit in. Sorry he’s dead, but I didn’t know him and won’t pretend his death means anything to me.”
“Well, as far as Scotland Yard is concerned, you don’t fit in…yet. My visit is unofficial and I’m looking for help. Colin was my friend as well as my employee.”
“I don’t see how I can help.”
“I guess now is when I put my beer down, get my coat and pretend to leave, but stop with the door half closed, poke my head back in and ask one final, revealing question, a la Peter Falk.”
I chuckled. “I loved Columbo.”
“It was very popular here in the U.K., as well, I’m afraid.”
His next question sent chills up and down my spine and shattered what I felt was a pretty good poker face that I’d donned since he’d arrived.
“Do you know a Charles A. Anderson?”
I was silent. In fact, I could not speak if I wanted to. How could this simple London park ranger know Chuck, or even of Chuck.
“Did you hear me, Mr. Stollard?”
I nodded and found my voice. “I do know Chuck. He’s a friend of mine in California.”
“Oakland, California, am I right?”
I nodded again. “How do you know about him?”
“I have taken the liberty, Eric, thus far, to keep Scotland Yard out of this. A different Bobby, of course, was assigned to Colin’s murder, so no one has made the connection to our incident of a little more than a month ago. Yet.”
That was the second time he’d invoked that threatening three letter word.
“So, you obviously know something I don’t. Spill it or take your empty threats and get out.”
“On the day he was murdered. Colin received in the mail a letter from your friend Mr. Anderson. I took the liberty of opening it in lieu of what had occurred.”
I was baffled.
“You’re gonna have to fill in some blanks. For starters, like what did the letter say?”
“Au contraire, my sneaky Yankee fuck. You first. You weren’t honest with us last month. What is the damn cab story?”
He was no longer disguising his anger and I realized the stakes had gone up, way up. This was becoming a maze, I felt like the rat, and I couldn’t even smell the cheese let alone see it.
I realized he held most if not all the cards. He knew the contents of Chuck’s letter, I didn’t. It was time to come clean. Hell, I hadn’t killed anybody.
I told him about the practical joke Chuck had played with the cab. I guessed aloud that Colin was Chuck’s inside man and the letter probably had a check for payment of services rendered. But I couldn’t figure out where the bloke getting shot to death made any sense.
“His murder could have nothing at all to do with the cab, you know.”
He got up and went and refilled his pewter stein with more Watneys. From the bar, he pointed to my pint glass, which was still half full. I shook my head.
He returned and reclaimed his seat. Long pull on his second beer, placed the stein carefully on one of my cork coasters with marble bottoms and said ”Correct on the check. Lucrative little prank for Colin, not so for Mr. Anderson, I’d say. $1000 American. And that was the second payment. Apparently he sent Colin the same amount back in December to get the ball rolling, as it were.”
“Nigel, didn’t you think it had to be an inside job? I mean, there was no other explanation, logical or illogical, for that fucking cab.”
“I thought about it, but Colin was not the strongest tea bag in the tea caddy. I would have thought something this, ah, labyrinthine, would be beyond the bloke’s capabilities. Live and learn, I guess.”
“It explains that smug fucking look he had on his face the whole time he was in here last month. He knew. Pulling off the prank wasn’t enough. He enjoyed watching me sweat-out the Bobby.”
“He was harmless, mate. A simpleton. Probably why your friend chose him.”
“Whatever. Now what?”
“Well, the police will need to know all of this if they are to get to the bottom of the crime.”
“Yes, ‘if’. On the other hand, should you and I decide to link up and have a go at it, maybe we can make some headway in an unofficial capacity.”
Both options scared the shit out of me. Murder was clearly out of my jurisdiction on every level. And I still didn’t trust Nigel, though I was starting to like him a little bit.
I needed to talk with Chuck.
I told Nigel I would see what Chuck could add to the scenario and call him. He gave me his business card.
“Call my mobile, Eric. And don’t dilly dally, chap. What we are doing, by sidestepping Scotland Yard, is a crime. One taken seriously by the Gendarmes.”
“Let’s agree that if Chuck cannot shed any light on this that we turn it over to the police.”
He stuck his hand out and we shook. “Ring me as soon as possible, Eric.”
He put his empty stein down, shrugged back into his coat and let himself out quietly.
Five minutes later my phone rang.
“What the fuck is Scotland Yard calling me about a murder?”
“Hello to you too, Chuck.”
“Eric, I just got off the phone with a real live Shamus and I need some fucking answers.”
“Well, I was under the understanding that Scotland Yard does not know about you…yet.”
“Well, you’re wrong. I guess this Colin clown got smoked, and this flatfoot who called me was very curious about the deposit of a check written on an Oakland bank in Colin’s account about a month ago.”
“A thousand bucks, right?”
“How do you know that?”
“I think you might want to stop payment on the second thousand. Colin won’t be depositing that one.”
“No shit. Have you been talking to the police?”
“They dug up enough to make me tell them about the cab prank. But that was a month ago. Haven’t heard from them since. Then today, Colin’s supervisor shows up here with news of his murder, and the knowledge that on the same day Colin was killed, your second payment had arrived in the mail. This Nigel now knows the whole story. Scotland Yard does not know about Colin’s connection with you or the prank. Oh, and this stupid dipshit bought the cab from a police auction about two weeks ago. He was shot, execution-style, while sitting in the driver’s seat.”
There was silence on the other end.
“Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack. That is what I was told today by Nigel. He wants to see if we can avoid the cops and get to the bottom of Colin’s murder.”
“This ain’t an episode of Columbo, Eric, This is serious shit. Real life. I would not fuck with Scotland Yard.”
“So, you know nothing about this Colin getting whacked?”
“I didn’t say that.”
That sounded ominous. “Are you kidding me? You knew this was going to happen?”
“I didn’t know for sure. I’d been warned that the waste-wad had ruffled some feathers while procuring the cab and getting it painted.”
“Warned by whom?”
“My buddy over there. The guy who put me in touch with Colin. He kind of orchestrated the whole thing. With his end, this whole damn thing cost me a lot more than two grand, I might add. Anyway, he said Colin tried, unsuccessfully, to screw the guy he bought the cab from, and then did screw the guy who painted it. Apparently these guys had friends in low places, if you get my drift.”
“Well, I still don’t see how any of this spills over onto our shores. We are free and clear, right?”
“I would think so, other than you lying to Scotland Yard, Mr. Jackson.”
“Yeah, well they have bigger fish and chips to fry than that, it would seem.”
“Sorry buddy. I wanted to get you back after that gun thing in my office, but not like this. Are you still gonna pursue it unofficially with this Nigel chap?”
“I don’t know. He seems to want to try, but he also has threatened to tell all to the police regarding the prank, though I don’t see where there was any crime committed.”
“Do you trust this guy?”
“I don’t really know him. He seems legit.”
“Be careful, buddy. You’re in a foreign country. Fucking around with the power structure could be a very bad career move.”
And that is just what Nigel and I got.
I spent the afternoon mulling over what to tell, or not tell, Nigel. Then, over morning coffee, I decided on full disclosure. Trying to keep track of lies would be too tricky, and like I said, I was beginning to like the guy.
When I told him the whole story, he went silent for a long moment.
“I’ve been going through Colin’s desk here at the office. Serendipitously, I’ve found an unpaid bill from an auto body shop near the west end. Three hundred quid. That might explain why the paint guy could be a suspect.”
“Yes, it does. Chuck did not know where Colin bought the cab. Could be a private citizen or a used car park. We have no way of knowing. Where did the cab end up?”
“Cops have it back. They will probably double dip on it and sell it again. For now it’s evidence in a capital case.”
“And if I remember correctly, they had no electronic record of it ever even existing.”
“Indeed they did not. Wouldn’t matter. We couldn’t ask them about it without raising suspicion.”
“So, should we check out the auto body shop?”
“I see no place else to start.”
He gave me the address off the bill and we agreed to meet in front of the shop at 10am the following morning. I told him to make sure to bring the bill.
During a steady drizzle the next morning, I took the W9 bus to the underground station in Southgate and caught a train on the Piccadilly Line south to Holborn station, exited and walked west to Tottenham Court Road. Nigel was waiting for me in front of Aberdeen’s Paint and Body Shop.
We were awkward for a second, then shook hands and sat at a bus stop to talk strategy.
“I can’t read the signature on the bill, so I don’t have a name. We should probably just ask for the manager.” Nigel had the bill folded into his gloved right hand.
“But what’s our angle?” I felt we were truly in over our heads.
“I think we tell him the truth. See how he reacts. If he is the kind of guy with either the access to have someone killed, or the ability to do it himself, he might show something.”
“Executing a guy is kind of a harsh reaction to getting screwed out of 300 quid though, if you ask me.”
“I think we’re going to find that it’s the car guy who had it done. Colin almost certainly would have gone to some shady character rather than a legitimate car dealer. Black market dealers are capable of anything, especially the Ukraines.”
“Ukraines? When did they come into the picture?”
“I did a little internet research last night. The Ukraines are serious players in the stealing and then selling of cars here in the west end. Most of south London, actually. In fact, just over in Kensington is the Ukrainian Institute of London, not that car thieves are pursuing a higher education.” He grinned at me.
“Okay. You’re probably right, but since we’re here, let’s talk to the paint guy and see how pissed off he is. If he no longer seems upset about it, that might be because he, ah, already exacted his payment, making Colin pay the ultimate price.” Nigel did not grin at that. It was an insensitive remark.
The manager was in his office, clad in a pair of blue overalls over a sweat-stained grey t-shirt and a black baseball cap that said simply, ‘Man You’. We were ushered in by an underling in the same garb, even the same hat. The manager had a thick eastern European accent. Nigel glanced at me and then handed the man the unpaid bill.
He read it and gave a stern look to Nigel, who explained that he was trying to find out if the bill had ever been paid.
“No, has not,” he said curtly. He had not introduced himself nor offered his name. He was gruff and distracted. A patch on his overalls near where the right shoulder strap buttoned to the front bib read BOSS on block letters.
“Do you remember the guy who ordered this work to be done?”
He shook his head. “No.”
Not a real talkative fellow.
Nigel then volunteered the news of Colin’s demise. The man simply stared back at him, emotionless.
“Do you know anything about that?” It was the first time I’d spoken. Nigel had suggested my Yankee accent would probably not help things, so I had agreed to lay low. Until now.
The man remained impervious. He shook his head slowly and then, oddly, grinned. “He was bad man. I not sorry.”
He thrust the bill back at Nigel and barked at him, “You pay?”
Nigel got up. He did not suffer fools gladly, apparently. “Not a chance. You can eat it.”
I followed him out.
Nigel walked me back to Holborn station. He’d taken the bus.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked finally. He hadn’t said anything since telling the asshole to ‘eat it’.”
“I think that prick could have had Colin killed. His accent sounded Ukrainish, if you will. Colin was just brave enough and just stupid enough to think he could get away with a short-sighted stunt like this. These guys, like I told you, don’t play around.”
I remained silent.
“How do we find where he got the cab?”
“Well,” and he looked around as if to re-orient himself. “I found no such talisman from that transaction as with the unpaid paint bill when I rummaged through his desk. He probably paid cash for it, especially if it was stolen. Car thieves don’t usually operate with receipts and such.”
He looked deep in thought. He turned back to me and said, “You go catch your train. I’m going to knock around a bit more down here, see if I can kick some vermin loose.”
I nodded and we shook hands again and I went down the escalator to the platform.
While walking Waldo the next day at Grovelands, Nigel tooled up to me in his Cushman. It was a clear day, but cold. He had his jacket on and a black knit ski cap pulled down over his ears. Our breath plumed in the air between us as we talked.
“I had a rather interesting afternoon down in the west end yesterday,” he began. “First of all, the guy at the body shop that we spoke with is the son of the actual owner. The owner is, allegedly, a Ukrainian mobster and the shop is a front for the sale of coke and heroin.”
“Don’t you think now, Nigel, that it’s time we brought the cops back into it? I mean drugs, murder, mysterious and probably violent eastern European crime syndicates. We are out of our league.”
“It does appear so. I’d like a day to think on it.”
“Fine. It’s been your baby really, anyway. I was not going to be in contact with the police. In their minds I have no connection to Colin’s murder.”
I told him Waldo and I would be there the same time the next day.
He never showed up.
When my buzzer bleated the next evening, just after sunset, I punched the button that unlocked the door and walked to the stairwell and opened the door and waited. It sounded like two sets of feet shuffling up the three flights. As they came around the final bend, the two Bobbies fell silent.
I rolled my eyes and held the door for the two men and they passed me and then waited in the hall as I lead them into my flat.
Two cops, this time.
They verified my name, age and address, and my home in California. The shorter one took notes while the tall, angular one did all the talking. Both men looked around the flat, cataloguing what they saw in the way all good cops do.
“Did you know Nigel Collingwood, Mr. Stollard?”
I did not like the past tense of the question.
“I did and do know Nigel, yes.”
“I’m afraid the past tense will have to do, sir. Mr. Collingwood was found apparently murdered at his desk in his office this morning at Grovelands Park.”
“Indeed. When did you last see Mr. Collingwood?”
“Yesterday, at the park while I was walking my dog.”
“And the nature of the visit”?
“To walk my dog. I do it almost every day.”
“Not to the park, sir. What was the nature of your gathering with the deceased?”
I could feel things closing in around me. Nigel had told the sinister body shop guy to ‘eat it’, and now he was dead.
I decided to be coy for as long as possible. I was wary about telling them everything.
“We discussed a possible potential mutual project we would be working on.”
The change in tone of the next question from the tall, thin cop with the two day growth on his angular chin was sudden and chilling.
“’Possible potential mutual project’? Overwrought prose aside, Mr. Stollard, what does that even mean?” His sarcasm was clearly meant to be a warning.
I realized suddenly the futility in trying to be coy. It may be too late, but it was time to come clean.
“We were looking into the murder of his friend and colleague, Colin.”
“Looking into it? In what way, sir?”
“I don’t know. Unofficially investigating.”
The short cop snorted and continued writing in his notebook.
“And what training, exactly, would qualify you to do that?”
“Neither of us had any formal training. I was helping Nigel because I was starting to like him, and he was trying to find out who killed his friend.”
“Where, exactly, does the green cab fit into this?”
“So, you know the connection between Colin and the cab and now Nigel and me with the cab.” It wasn’t a question, exactly.
“We know some of it. We’re hoping for you to fill in the blanks.”
“I have a friend in California with whom I have been exc