US 1 was, for many years, the main highway linking the eastern United States, running north/south from Maine, near the Canadian border, to the tip of Florida. For long-distance automotive travel, it was supplanted by I-95 decades ago, and has since become something of a run-down main thoroughfare for towns both large and small, lined with shoddy strip malls, fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and carpet outlets that are forever having “going out of business” sales (I solemnly vow to buy a carpet from the first such store that advertises, “Now Celebrating 20 Years of Going Out Of Business”). We choked along the stretch of US1 running through Stafford County for hours, stopping to take a gander through the dusty and often broken windows of abandoned filling stations, garages and even a boarded-up motel. Our venture had been a long-shot, and hadn’t paid off, so we decided to call it a day and return to the city. Too late to avoid the rush-hour traffic, however, which clogged not only US 1 but the roads leading away to the west where we might have picked up I-95 (which would also have been extremely slow at this time of day; as they say, a bad case of six of one, half a dozen of the other).
We were… not cruising, exactly, more like crawling along, when we pulled to a stop at yet another red light. Sheila’s eyelids had been drooping from fatigue and boredom, when suddenly they shot up like window shades that had been yanked too hard (I half-expected them to go flappita-flappita-flappita!). “Look!” She pointed out of her window.
A hundred yards ahead, a gleaming red Durango was trying to pull onto US 1 from the tiny parking lot of a dilapidated, free-standing one-story building. As we got closer, the driver finally managed to bull his way into traffic, ten car-lengths in front of us. The building, we noted, had a banner hanging over the front door – “Greens For Obama”. Traffic stopped again, and Wronwright started hollering. “Let me out! I’ll go pull that guy from behind the wheel!” Before I could stop him, he had clambered out of the open window and sprinted up to the driver’s side of the Durango. He began beating on the window and shouting, but the driver had locked the door and was doing his best to ignore him. Wronwright came running back.
“Paco, you’ve got to do something!”
“Wronwright, if he’s got the door locked, all I can do is shoot the tires out.”
He blanched. “No! Don’t do that! They’re brand new!”
“Then get back in the car, and I’ll call the sheriff’s department.”
I pulled out my cell phone, called the sheriff’s office, and got hold of a deputy. He told me that they had somebody close to our location and that the officer would intercept the thief shortly.
About ten minutes later, as we continued inching down the road like a caterpillar with sore feet, I noticed a car pull off of a side street into traffic behind us, ten car-lengths back. It was a van from the sheriff’s department, and the officer driving hit his flashers and turned on the siren. I got on the phone again and confirmed that this was the officer who had been detailed to apprehend the Durango-napper. But nobody could move out of the way: construction work on the shoulder gave motorists nowhere to go, except straight ahead.
Thus began what was surely the strangest pursuit in my experience: two cars – mine and the sheriff’s department's – separated by ten vehicles, chasing a stolen car, ten car-lengths ahead of my little squad, all of us lurching ahead a few yards, then halting for minutes at a time . Wronwright was beside himself.
“What kind of car chase is this? Why doesn’t the deputy get out and do something?”
I decided to ask that very question. When our wave of traffic was cut off by another red light, I got out of my car, jogged back to the sheriff’s van, identified myself, and asked what he planned to do about the situation. He was a gawky young fellow with pimples and a pencil neck who gave every appearance of wanting to do his duty, but being at a loss as to what to do.
“Well, sir, you see, I’m actually with animal control. I just happened to be in the neighborhood and the dispatcher told me to intercept a red Dodge Durango that had been stolen. But I’m not armed, and I’m supposed to wait for backup.”
“Don’t worry, kid. I’m your backup.” I flashed my PI identification, and opened my jacket, exposing to his view and obvious admiration Shiny Sal, my Ruger Police Service-Six .38 caliber revolver. “If he sees your uniform and my gun, he may give himself up.”
I ran forward to the Durango, took out Sal, and tapped lightly on the driver’s window with the barrel. The driver was now desperately looking in all directions for some kind of escape route, but there was none. A moment later, the deputy approached the car; bereft of the sterner regalia of office – to wit, a pistol – the animal control officer manfully brandished a pair of snake tongs. He told the thief to get out of the car slowly and to put ten fingers on the hood. Wronwright had gotten out of my car again and had stomped up to the scene. He was rolling his sleeves up.
“Just give me five minutes with this chump, just five minutes!”
The thief, seeing that the jig was up, opened the car door. He didn’t so much step out of the vehicle as balloon out of it, like a rubber raft on which somebody had pulled the inflation chord. He was an enormous young man, probably six feet four, broad-shouldered, hands like catcher’s mitts. Wronwright began buttoning up his shirtsleeves. “Well, I wouldn’t want to jeopardize the case by hurting the guy. Maybe I’d better let the law handle this.”
(To be continued...)