Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 22

      The next morning Jet walked smack into the chaos. Six TV crews milled around in front of the school, taking turns stalking approaching group of students, reporters thrusting microphones at the nearest open mouth while cameramen zoomed in on the wide-eyed star struck faces.

     "What was Johnny Kasouska really like?"

     "How well did you know him?"

     "Did his behavior during your gym class give you any indication of why he committed these seemingly senseless crimes?"

     There were five print reporters on hand. The morning newspaper, the afternoon newspaper, UPI, AP, and Reuters were all represented, each with a standard issue reporter's spiral-bound notebook in hand and a photographer in tow, except for the neophyte stringer for UPI, who wielded a brand new pocket recorder like a saber, parrying and thrusting for his interviewee's less than enlightening comments, periodically tucking it under his armpit while he fumbled for the shutter on his photographerless camera. Unfortunately, in the excitement of his entrance into Twentieth Century reporting he forgot to press the small orange record button, so later that day when he sat down to transcribe his interviews all he heard was a full ninety minutes of the white noise hiss of blank tape. There were also three radio reporters on the scene, microphones in hand and tape recorders slung over their shoulder like faux Gucci bags.

     "What did Johnny say to you the last time you talked to him?"

     "Did he keep a lot of coat hangers and paper bags in his school locker?"

     "Okay, so you weren’t in any of his classes, did you ever see him walking down the hall?"

     Students stood impatiently in line waiting for their turn to be interviewed, the longest lines of course being for the TV reporters, who the students considered to be local celebrities. By far the longest line was for James Fischer, who wasn't popular just for being the only anchorman on the scene, but also for his rumored propensity for just-a-wee-bit-too-young girls, a story which had absolutely no basis in truth, though he had been known to travel forty-five miles to a well isolated bookstore where he could anonymously purchase magazines featuring full-color photographs of naked pre-pubescent boys.

     "Was Johnny a good student?"

     "When was the first time you, uh, had sexual relations with Johnny."

     "I know I look taller on TV, but let’s get back to Johnny."

     Although the media massacre appeared to be completely anarchic, it was actually extremely democratic, for the reporters asked anyone who would stand still long enough to give their complete name exactly what they knew about Johnny and the robberies. They did such a thorough job—their nymphomaniacal appetite for fresh blood being insatiable—that between the fourteen of them they managed to speak to every single student who entered the front of the school.

     When the homeroom bell rang, there were nearly a hundred students still standing on the sidewalk. Thirty-seven seconds later only the fourteen reporters remained. Since none of them had been able to get permission to enter school property—which is why they were being so careful not to stray from the sidewalk—they suddenly found themselves confronted with the options of interviewing each other, tracking down more background information, or filing their stories.

     They adjourned to Charlie's Charcoal Pit for coffee, danish, and lies.

     * * * * * *

     "Okay, let's settle down," Mr. Saleek told his first period history class. When the murmuring and book shuffling and other time-honored forms of loud student procrastination finally subsided, the teacher crossed his arms in front of his chest and, fighting the intense need for a third cup of black coffee, tried to look awake and interested in the hopes that he could fool the class enough so they would feign alertness and interest in return. Early morning classes are a bitch for everyone.

     "Now who remembers what we were discussing yesterday before we were so rudely interrupted by the bell?" The class looked at him in collective unconsciousness. "Surely someone must remember. Bucky?" Blankness. "Rob?" Nothing. "Jesse?" Utter vacuousness. "Stacy?"

     "Yes, Mr. Saleek?"

     "Debor..." Whoa, back up. "Stacy?"

     "I'm still here, Mr. Saleek"

     "Is there any chance you might demonstrate your finely-tuned sense of informational recall by elucidating your classmates as to what historical event we were bandying around for their proposed edification at this admittedly ungodly hour on the previous morning?"

     "Huh?"

     "What were we talking about yesterday?"

     "Oh, the Monroe Doctrine."

     "Which was?"

     Stacy looked up at the ceiling. "In 1823 President James Monroe warned the European nations not to colonize the Americas or interfere in the business of the Western Hemisphere," she said, reciting the first sentence of the chapter word for word. Having a photographic memory had served her well in school and would continue to do so, at least until the day she would see her parents and brother die in a fiery car crash, an event which was to leave an indelible, fluorescent image which she would never be able to erase from the foreground of her photographic mind.

     "Very good," the teacher said as he turned to the blackboard to pick up a piece of chalk. Mr. Saleek, like most teachers, thought it was important to emphasize every possible word, phrase, and concept by writing it on the blackboard as he said it. "The......Monroe...... Doctrine......" he would say as he wrote each word in large, sprawling script. But this morning he said nothing, instead stopping in mid motion with his hand outstretched, looking curiously at the empty chalk tray under the blackboard. "Now who can tell me what repercussions, if any, Monroe's speech had?"

     Four children raised their hands in what may have been a new school record for voluntary responses during a first period history class, but the rare show of interest—which none of them could have realized was effected by the highly distorted magnetic field resulting from a strong solar flare rising up from the sun's photosphere—went unseen by Mr. Saleek. All those years of college which culminated in his attaining a Master of Education degree made the urge to reiterate in writing what he spoke aloud something of a compulsion, and his rhythm and meter were being thrown off by the lack of chalk at the blackboard. Teaching in 5/8 time is an unnatural act.

     "The Monroe Doctrine," he said as he rummaged through the top drawer of his desk looking for chalk. "Was this in fact a restatement of existing policies, or a new warning to the European countries?" He closed that drawer and searched the top left one, then the middle, then the bottom. Ten children had their hands raised.

     "Was it a much-needed statement of self-destiny resulting in isolationism, or a subtle form of imperialistic Machiavellian land-grabbing?" he asked as he walked to the storage closet and searched the shelves. More than half the class had their arms in the air, waving them back and forth and grunting "Ooh, ooh" as they ached to answer the questions. As he continued to rummage through the closet, the students started dropping their exhausted hands one by one.

     "Jocko," he asked without turning around, "would you go next door and ask Mrs. Hazlett if I could borrow some chalk?"

     Jocko Carroll, who had the dubious distinction of being the skinniest person in the entire school, stood up and nearly dashed out of the room. "You got it, boss," he said just before the door slammed behind him.

     "The question is, was the Monroe Doctrine a bold step on the part of a United States President, or just a restatement of a policy Europe had already resigned itself to?" the teacher asked into the closet as he pushed everything back into place. Still more students dropped their hands and rubbed the circulation back into their arms; most of them weren't used to holding their hands up to volunteer for anything more than a trip to the bathroom.

     Mr. Saleek closed the closet door and turned to face the class, his face scrunched up in bewilderment. Everyone had lowered their hands; it was obvious to the class that "Sleek" Saleek, as his students called him behind his back, was on another one of his well-known kicks of asking rhetorical questions.

     "Can't anyone tell me about the Monroe Doctrine?" he asked, deeply disappointed that no one in the class was interested in contributing. The door opened and Jocko raced into the room.

     "No chalk, boss," he said.

     "And why, may I ask, not?"

     "Well, I went to Mrs. Hazlett's class like you asked..."

     "As I asked."

     "Right," Jocko said. "Anyway, she was trying to make the class understand that the square of the length of the hipat, hapit, hippopot..."

     "Hypotenuse."

     "Right. Is equal to the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides."

     "In a right triangle."

     "Right. But she's got the dummy class and they just don't get it."

     "The chalk?" Mr. Saleek asked impatiently.

     "Right, the chalk. You know, if it wasn't for the posters she had showing right triangles and all that jazz, she would have already known the answer."

     "She's the teacher, she's supposed to know the answer."

     "I know, but she didn't. She had to look for it."

     "She had to look for the answer?"

     "No, the chalk," Jocko said, looking at his teacher like he belonged in the dummy class.

     "Well, where is it?"

     "She couldn't find any."

     Mr. Saleek arched his right eyebrow and tapped his front teeth with his index finger. "Thanks," he told Jocko as the boy sat down. "I want all of you to reread the information in your textbook about the Monroe Doctrine and be ready to answer some questions when I get back." He walked to the door, then turned back to the class. "And I want it quiet."

     The hall was full of teachers. Down at one end, Mrs. Hazlett was talking animatedly to Miss Boucher and Mr. Enrock. At the other, Miss Hellstrom and Mrs. Kitchen were intently listening to Coach Johnstone. Mr. Saleek could hear bits and pieces of each conversation, which were so eerily similar they were very nearly in stereo.

     At that exact moment this scene was being repeated in every hallway on every floor of the school, as one by one the teachers met in ever-growing discussion groups outside their classrooms, some angry, some frustrated, a few laughing, for as word spread from group to group they started to come to the mass realization that there wasn't a single piece of chalk to be found in the entire school.

     * * * * * *

     With a name like Zachary Irving Peter Cody—abbreviated since childhood as Z.I.P. Cody—there was no surprise he would ultimately rise to become Postmaster. As he walked into the Post Office the morning after the rally, he ran through a mental checklist of his pre-opening chores. It was truly a miracle of modern self-doubt that caused him to do this every morning, since after twenty-five years in the Postal Service—including eight as the assistant Postmaster and six in charge—there was absolutely no reason he should even have to think twice about his early morning work routine. But if Zip was nothing else, he was methodical, and the truth is he wasn’t much of anything else.

     He picked up the clipboard and started his pre-opening walk-through, greeting everyone he saw with "Good morning, it's the start of another beautiful day at the Postal Service", the same thing he'd said each morning since the very first day he became assistant Postmaster. The workers smiled and nodded their heads, saying "Good morning" but thinking that if Zip greeted them that way one more time they would pick him up by the scruff of his neck and ram him head first into a sorting machine.

     After doing a cursory check of each work area to make sure it was neat and tidy, Zip went to the large floor safe along the back wall and knelt down. He grasped the dial and turned it slowly to the right, looking to find the first number of the combination. Something wasn't right. He blinked twice, shook his head, then looked at the dial again. Yes, something was very wrong.

     The dial had no numbers. Someone had filed them off.

     Zip had to move fast, since the stamps were kept in the safe and in less than twenty minutes people would be lining up to purchase their rolls and sheets and booklets. He walked quickly into his office and called Plant Maintenance. It would be at least an hour until they could get someone there.

     "We won’t have any stamps for a while," he told the assembled crew just before opening. "All you can do is apologize for the inconvenience and ask them to come back later." Then he unlocked the glass doors.

     The lobby filled up quickly. And of course everyone wanted stamps.

     "I’ve got two hundred wedding invitations to mail out," a woman said.

     "I walked three blocks to get here, can you deliver them when they come in?" a man asked.

     "Who ever heard of a Post Office without stamps?" they heard over and over again.

     Finally a man walked up and put a small package and two envelopes on the counter in front of Michelle Trevay. At last, someone didn’t need stamps.

     "First class?" Michelle asked as she put the package on the scale.

     "Yup."

     She punched a couple of buttons and a piece of meter tape popped out into her waiting fingers. She pressed the tape on the upper right hand corner of the package and smoothed it down. Something was wrong. She punched a few more buttons on the keypad and another tape flew out. Yes, something was very wrong.

     Zip was hanging up the phone when Michelle walked in. "Tell the other window reps it’s still gonna be a while until they get the safe open," Zip told her, "but in the mean time they’re transferring some stamps from Capitol Station to tide us over. They should be here in about ten minutes."

     "We've got another problem," Michelle said matter-of-factly.

     "Just what I need," Zip said as the other window reps appeared behind Michelle.

     "The ink cartridge is gone from my meter and I can't find any spares in the supply cabinet," Michelle said.

     "Mine too."

     "Me three."

     "Same here."

     "Wait a minute," Zip said incredulously, "are you trying to say we've got no stamps and no meters?" The workers looked at each other and nodded. "Then how the hell’s anyone supposed to mail a fucking letter?"

     * * * * * *

     Old Man Cordin stood in line at the bank, watching Tami Green effortlessly go about her business as she sat behind the third teller window from the left. He’d spent quite a bit of time cultivating bank tellers, frequenting each prospect until he found one he liked, one who was friendly yet not too informal, talkative yet not nosy, and above all, one who gave him a lollipop every day. When he found a pet teller he made it a point to visit her—for it was unfailingly a woman—no matter how long he had to wait in line. But the bank had recently added a new wrinkle in order to expedite service and lessen Cordin's morning enjoyment: one long snaking line so the person at the head of the queue could go to the next available teller when it was their turn. While this did result in a faster moving line, it also meant it was now up to the whimsy of the fates as to whether Cordin would transact his business with his favorite teller.

     So he devised strategies. Like bending over to tie his shoelaces and telling the person behind him to go ahead. Or feigning a coughing fit while waving the next person away from attempting the Heimlich Maneuver and over to be waited on by the next available—and to Cordin, unwanted—teller.

     On this particular morning, as he moved to the head of the line, Cordin anxiously watched Tami punch in the figures and count money, keeping an eye on the progress of the other tellers. It began to look obvious that a young, freshly-scrubbed male teller at the other end of the line was about to finish his transaction and signal for Old Man Cordin to approach and be served. Cordin decided to go with the tried and true Whoops-I-Forgot-To-Endorse-My-Checks routine so the poor sucker behind him would have to make a deposit with Mr. Clean. He pulled the checks he planned to deposit out of his jacket pocket, along with a silver Cross pen engraved with his monogram—$34.95 including three initials, engraved while you wait. His face started to sprout an exaggerated expression of shameful surprise when he suddenly stopped and squinted at the deposit slip. He wouldn't have to fake his actions after all, for in his rush to leave the house that morning he'd forgotten to list the amount of cash he wanted back and would have to write out a new deposit slip.

     Sometimes reality imitates intent.

     Shrugging his shoulders and looking slightly embarrassed—for real this time—Cordin slipped out of line and walked to one of the mahogany stand-up tables in the center of the room. He looked back and saw Tami motion to the woman who had taken his place in line.

     Sometimes reality has the last laugh.

     He walked the length of the table, looking in the small compartments which were built into the edge. Each one contained printed slips of paper, yet none were the ones he needed. He walked to the next table. Still none. After checking the remaining tables, he walked right up to Tami's window.

     "Excuse me," he said to the woman waiting for her change, then turned to Tami. "Good morning dear. I may be losing my mind, but I can’t find any deposit slips at any of the tables."

     "Did you look real well?"

     "I checked all the compartments."

     "Did you look in the middle of the stacks?" she asked. "Someone might have put withdrawal slips on top of each pile. Some people have a strange sense of humor."

     Cordin walked to the nearest table and pulled a slip of paper out of the center of each pile. He looked at Tami and shrugged his shoulders. Still no deposit slips.

     Tami told the head teller, who checked the cabinets behind the line. The head teller told the assistant manager, who looked in the supply closet by the safe deposit boxes. The assistant manager told the manager, who had the privilege of telling the president, Mr. Myana, personally.

     "I'm telling you, there had to be twenty thousand of them in the building when we closed last night," the assistant manager said, her hands fluttering around her flustered face.

     "Are you positive of that?" Myana grilled.

     "I've got the requisitions, packing slips, and every piece of paper I need to prove it."

     "And where do you think they got up and went to?" Myana asked.

     "How do I know?" she replied. "I order 'em, I don't follow 'em around."

     "So what you’re telling me is that because you can't find twenty thousand deposit slips, anyone who walks into this bank without their paperwork in hand can withdraw all the money they want but can't deposit a cent, is that it?"

     "I guess so."

     Myana leaned back in his chair. "What next?" he asked the ceiling.

     "If I were you I'd call the police," the manager replied.

     "I don't need you to tell me how to run this bank," Myana said coldly. "I'll handle it from here."

     The manager turned and left Myana’s office and, against her aching desire, gently closed the door.

     Myana pressed a button on his intercom. "Miss Parker, get me the police."

     * * * * * *

     Officer Milo Jenkins walked into the Chief of Police's office without knocking.

     "Sir, that makes three robberies that we know of last night. Where do you want us to start with this thing?"

     The Chief rubbed his eyes; it was going to be a long day, all right. He leaned back in his chair and let out a big puff of cigar smoke.

     "You can start by letting Johnny Kasouska go," he said.

     Then he burst out laughing.

 

Chapter 23 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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