The Rest Was Easy
Jules-Pierre Malartre currently resides in Rigaud, Quebec. "The Rest Was Easy" is his first short story. In 2005, he quit a promising aerospace engineering career to go into freelance copywriting. Since then, he has become considerably poorer, but much happier. When he is not writing technical manuals or newspaper features, he is busy working on his first novel.
"She's stuck in the wheel well, chief."
"What do you mean stuck?"
The volunteer fireman lowered his eyes and shook his head. Tears welled up in his eyes.
"It's not pretty, chief," he whispered as he walked away without being dismissed.
People often wonder why cops and firemen do the job, what keeps them going, and what saves them from going insane.
Chief Roberts did not know what other cops were in it for; the volunteer who had just walked away had never signed on for this. But Andy, the department's youngest officer, standing not twenty feet away by the chief's cruiser, with his sidearm swung low and the restraining strap off, ready for a quick draw, was another story. Roberts tried not to think about what the kid was in it for.
If anyone had asked him, Roberts would have laughed and said he did it for the money. As for surviving the horrors he had witnessed, he used a very simple trick: all he had to do was think of Anna. The rest was easy. Anna was his baby daughter. She had been taken away four years ago, cut down by a drunk driver. Still, when things got tough, Roberts thought of Anna, and the rest was easy. Usually. Nowadays, he got a lot of help from his friend Jack Daniels.
"Don't give me that 'she didn't feel a thing' crap," someone yelled close by, driving needles into his eardrum. "I heard her scream."
Roberts resisted the urge to look at the rabid babysitter. Whatever she saw that had driven her into such frenzy, he was about to see for himself.
It was harder to look at the beat-up Honda, but he could not steal his eyes away. He had been a policeman and fireman for twenty years. He had seen plenty of horrors in that time. Still, as he rounded the front of the Honda Civic straddling the broken section of wooden fence, he knew he was not ready for what awaited him.
A small dirty hand, a foot that stuck out at an awkward angle, and a bright patch of blond hair peeking out from the front wheel well were the only mangled remains of the four-year-old girl the souped-up Honda had mowed down.
Roberts tried to think of Anna, but the thought of his own little girl made the pain of what he was seeing harder to bear.
"I'm fucked!" someone cried out.
Roberts turned his head toward his police cruiser where the cry had come from. He saw Nathan Bridger, leaning against the side of the cruiser, one hand over his eyes, the other holding his cell phone. Nathan had been behind the wheel of the Honda. He was crying and screaming into his cell phone.
Nathan had not been racing, he insisted; but the street was residential, and the speed limit was twenty-five miles per hour, hardly enough speed for him to go over the sidewalk, slide over thirty feet of grass, flatten a cedar edge and a fence, and mow down a little girl before being able to come to a full stop.
Roberts looked away; looking at the kid made him itch for the feel of the butt of his handgun. Nathan was only sixteen. He did not have a steady job, but he had managed to pay for the mods on his piece-of-shit car.
His eyes were drawn once again to the remains of the little girl, the dirty locks of blonde hair sticking out between the fender and the wheel. He tried again to think of Anna, but couldn't—it only made the horror harder to bear. The girl had been about the same age with the same blonde hair.
"You want me to pull her out of there, chief?"
Andy had snuck up to him. The young officer was chewing gum, churning it in his mouth like an old-style clothes washer, making watery noises.
Firemen were expected to pry victims out of wrecks, but Roberts had never had to deal with something like this before.
"The morgue guys won't touch her," Andy added. The sounds of his chewing made Roberts close his hands into fists.
"Andy, go back to the cruiser. Watch that idiot until Youth Protection gets here. Make sure he doesn't split."
Andy did not leave right away. Roberts would not look at him, but he knew from the chewing sounds that the younger cop was still there, watching him.
"Get me a jack," Roberts added. "Not a manual one, a big pneumatic one."
Andy chewed on for a few more seconds before answering. "Where am I supposed to get one of those, chief? Only got the reg jack in the cruiser."
"Call a tow truck, then. Make it quick," Roberts snapped.
Andy left. Roberts breathed in relief when he could no longer hear the watery chewing sounds.
It took over twenty minutes for the tow truck to get there. Roberts knew the driver. Everybody called him Beans.
"Beans," Roberts called out, beckoning the tow truck driver over.
Beans came forward. He had been called on site to a few roadside crashes over the years, some of them bloody, but none like this. The burly man had enough class not to ask questions. He cast the car a quick look, glancing at the broken body of what had been a little girl jutting from the fender. Roberts heard the big man's sharp intake of air.
"I need a pneumatic lift."
Beans looked at Roberts for a few seconds, his eyes wide. He then looked at what was left of the little girl, wrapped around the wheel of the Honda. He took off without saying a word, walking toward his tow truck.
The seconds ticked by. The chief tried to look at everything except the car: the broken fence, the police line that everybody was respecting—so far, the throng of onlookers that kept getting larger. They were far enough away that they could not see much except for the car and the broken fence. They craned their necks, stood on tiptoes, and pushed against the yellow tape of the police line, their vacant eyes willing recipients for the blood they yearned for. He overheard someone saying the little girl should not have been playing there . . . in her own backyard. He could not decide what made him sicker—the crash or the crowd.
Beans reappeared pushing a heavy pneumatic lift. He stopped by Roberts's side, waiting for instructions. Roberts grabbed the lift away from Beans. The big mechanic did not resist. Roberts pushed the lift in front of the car and shoved it underneath the front bumper.
Roberts came back to stand next to Beans. He pointed at the lift.
"Lift it gently," Roberts whispered. "Only a few inches at a time."
Beans moved next to the lift. Roberts nodded. Beans activated the lift. The heavy metal piston shot upward and hit the bottom of the car's bumper. The dead car responded with the creaks of many metal parts. Roberts closed his eyes as if that would protect him from the sounds. He opened them again almost right away so he could supervise Bean's work—just in time to see a small leg drop out of the wheel well.
"Stop!" Roberts nearly screamed. The piston came to a stop. The car had lifted only a foot off the ground.
Roberts came closer to the fender. The smell now assailed his nose. Mangled flesh, blood, urine, and feces, he had smelled those before; he had never gotten used to the stench. He tried to think of Anna, but the image of her smiling young face drove a knife into his mind.
Fighting the tears welling up in his eyes, Roberts took a closer look. The little girl's body was wrapped around the upper part of the tire. What had been her head was bent backward, snapped and stuck in the suspension work. Her right arm was wrenched out of its socket, hanging only by the skin. He could not see her face. He only saw the back of her head, a tangle of dirty blond hair, matted with grease, dirt, and blood.
"Jesus Christ," Roberts cried out, bursting into tears.
"I'll do it, chief," Andy said from behind Roberts. The chief could not see Andy, but he could hear the watery sounds of his exaggerated chewing.
"No," Roberts said without turning around. "Go take care of the idiot who did this. I don't want to see you on this side of the line again."
For a few seconds, the only thing that Roberts could hear was the watery chewing noise. The sound made his skin crawl. Then the sound receded as Andy walked away.
"Chief—" Beans began.
"She's stuck in the suspension work. If we lift the tire off the ground, the spring will extend, and we can pry her out."
Beans seemed about to say something, but a commotion by Roberts' patrol car interrupted him.
"I'm fucked!" the kid was shouting even louder this time.
"Andy," Roberts yelled. "What's he still doing here?
Andy gave his boss a weak look. "Still waiting for Youth Protection, boss."
"I don't think YP will mind if you sit his ass down in the back of the patrol car," Roberts nearly screamed.
Roberts turned his attention back to the car. He noticed the blood on the rubber for the first time. It suddenly hit him that he would not go through the day without getting some of that blood on himself, his clothes, and his hands.
"Beans, can you operate the lift again, please?"
Beans gave the chief a pleading look. He was just hired to drive a truck, hook up cars and deliver them to the pound. He did not have the guts to do this, but something in the chief's face prevented him from saying no.
Beans went to the lift. Giving Roberts a last dark look, he hit the button. The lift came to life, its piston slowly shooting upward with a low hiss of air.
Roberts lifted his hand. The lift came to a dead stop. Predictably, the front portion of the car had lifted up while the wheel had stayed on the ground, extending the coils of the front suspension's spring. The little girl's body did not come fully loose. The mangled body sagged, slipped out of its metal prison, but the spring still held on to its prisoner.
"Jesus," Roberts whispered as the little girl's body almost came loose. A little blood-caked hand came into view. Roberts bit his lips to keep from crying out. Beans kept his eyes locked on the chief's.
Roberts gulped down. It hurt. He knelt down and looked into the darkened wheel well underneath the fender. The spring's coils had extended, but the little girl's body was still lodged in there. Her body had folded in two, almost into a ball. Backwards. One arm hung limply off the face of the tire. There was no sign of the other. One leg was still stuck in the suspension work. He still could not see her face, and Roberts offered a silent prayer of thanks for that. Her hair shone brightly. Blonde—just like his little girl's.
Roberts then heard the whimpers coming from the teen driver. He wished he could not hear the pathetic sounds, which came even over the voices, screams, and exclamations of the three-dozen onlookers gathered along the police line. When is YP getting here, he thought. His service revolver felt heavy on his belt.
"Beans, do you have your tools with you?"
The tow truck driver looked at Roberts without answering for a second or two. "Yeah."
Beans left without a word. He came back two minutes later bearing a large metal toolbox.
"Pop the hood," Roberts asked.
Beans nodded. He went to the driver's side door, leaned through the open window and fumbled around inside the car. A loud pop rocked the car as the hood latch released. Roberts winced at the sound.
Beans came around to the front of the car. He fumbled under the hood and released the safety latch. The hood lifted up, the moans of the springs making Roberts flinch.
"Can you undo the suspension's lock nuts? Do you have the tools for that?"
"Not really. But I can make do."
For the next few minutes, Roberts watched the mechanic work. Beans grunted and huffed as he tried various tools to undo the fasteners that held the upper end of the suspension works to the frame of the car.
Roberts kept his back to the throng. He could feel Andy's eyes bearing on his back. He could no longer hear Nathan's cries, for which he was grateful. A loud clanking sound interrupted Roberts' thoughts. He looked at Beans.
Beans pulled away from the front of the car, wiping his brow with the sleeve of his coveralls. Roberts came closer. He tried to ignore the smell, which had only gotten worse with the midday heat.
"Lift the car a little bit more to get the suspension to slip out of its socket."
Beans went back to the lift without a word and activated the system. The car started to rise on the pneumatic lift as the mechanic and police officer watched. Beans' eyes were riveted to the holding cup inside the engine, waiting for it to come undone, but Roberts had to watch for the coil spring to come free. He tried to pretend he did not see the little girl's body move in a grotesque imitation of life as the coil extended.
The coil came out of its retaining socket with a big ripping and popping metallic sound.
Beans cut off power to the lift even before he heard the chief's barked order. He did not want to look at the results, but merely seeing the chief's face was enough to make him want to turn away.
Roberts' face had turned ashen and then white. His mouth was twisted, caught in the agony of a scream of anguish that would not come out. The coil had slipped out of its mounting bracket at the top of the wheel well, but it had not shifted down. It still remained more or less stuck, held in place by the flesh and bone object so tightly imbedded into its coils.
Roberts ground his teeth until the muscles in his jaws hurt. He tried to think of Anna, but her image only brought more tears to his eyes. The dirty locks of blood hair, matted with grime, mud, and blood evoked images of his own little girl's hair covered in the same muck. He shut his eyes tightly.
He took a few deep breaths. He needed to stand, but he was afraid he'd lose his balance if he did. His head was swimming. He needed coffee, water, or, hell, whiskey
"Beans! Get the jaws."
The mechanic gave the chief an uncertain look. "I don't think they can cut through those coils, chief."
Roberts gave the big man an angry look. Beans resisted the urge to step back. He stayed in place, his eyes betraying only a slight flinch.
Roberts took a couple of deep steadying breaths. He managed to stand up, his head going light. "Get a metal saw, then. A big one."
Roberts shook his head. "I don't have one of those, chief."
"Go get one, then."
Roberts shook his head, more slowly this time. "Chief . . . I . . . I don't think I can do this."
Roberts' expression lost some of its hard edge. "It's okay, Beans. Just get the saw. I'll do the rest."
Beans went back to his truck, giving the chief a wide berth as he left. A few seconds later, Roberts heard the big tow truck come to life and rumble away.
He turned around then, trying to ignore the onlookers. He looked at his deputy and at the sorry excuse for a kid sitting on the back seat of the patrol car, his legs dangling out the side, his head between his legs, as if he were about to vomit. He was not crying or talking on his cell anymore, but his body was wracked in silent sobs.
"Andy! When is YP getting here, for fuck's sake?"
"They should be on their way soon, boss."
"Call them back. If they're not here in twenty minutes, I'm throwing him in lockup."
Andy's eyes went wide. "Might be longer than that, chief. They said they were all tied up at the moment."
He looked at the young driver again. Nathan had lifted his head and was looking straight at the chief. His eyes were red. The chief expected to see defiance in the young eyes, but he only saw dejection and despair. He tried to think of Anna, but that only made his hand itch for the butt of his side arm.
It was almost half-an-hour before the tow truck came rumbling back. Youth Protection still had not shown up. Bean jumped out of the truck bearing two slim metal saws in his hand. He had to make his way through the onlookers. He held the saws high over his head as he plowed through the human wave. Roberts watched him with a passive eye, expecting the towering mechanic to bring the saw down like a scythe to mow his way through the throng.
Beans made it through. His face was brick red by the time he cleared the mob. He kept his eyes on Roberts. He handed the two saws to the chief with a shaking hand.
"I didn't know what size to bring."
Roberts looked at the two flimsy saws. He picked the larger one. He knelt down and stared at the mess of metal and flesh in front of him. He had not looked at the corpse of the little girl for the past thirty minutes, and while he hoped he'd be used to it by now, the horror struck him anew, hard and cold. He sobbed, once.
"Jesus, Tom, don't put yourself through this," Beans burst out. "Let Andy do it. He doesn't seem to mind."
"I want to give her to her parents in one piece, Beans."
The big man stared at the cop's back in silence for a few seconds. He then stood back—and watched as the cop went to work on the thick metal coils of the suspension works. Beans only saw the chief's shoulders moving. And there was the sound.
Roberts worked for almost an hour. By then, he had cut through most of the metal. The little girl's body only hung loosely.
"Beans. I'm going to need your help."
"Tom, I can't . . ."
"You only have to finish sawing through one last piece."
Roberts turned around to look in the mechanic's eyes. "I'll hold on to her and pull her out when the coil breaks."
The mechanic took a few seconds to consider the chief's request. He then lowered his eyes and nodded. Roberts handed him the saw. The saw felt hot in the big man's hands.
Beans knelt down next to Roberts and took his first good look at the mangled body. Roberts heard the big man's sharp intake of air.
"Breath through your mouth," Roberts suggested. "It helps."
Beans nodded, biting his lips.
"Saw through here. I'll hold her."
Roberts placed his hands under the bloody remains, one hand under the matted mess of blond hair, the other behind her broken back.
Beans took a deep breath. The mechanic started sawing through the metal coil. For long moments, all that could be heard was the sawing sound and the progressively labored breathing of the mechanic.
The coil chinked as it finally gave way under the insistent abrasion of the saw. Metal clanked down as it hit more metal, and the body of what had been a little girl fell softly into Roberts' waiting hands.
Roberts stood, cradling the young body close to him.
"Get the morgue."
The mechanic departed without a word. He came back minutes later with two men bearing a stretcher. The two men worked wordlessly, getting their cue from the chief's movements and expressions. They opened the body bag, which was much too large for its intended burden.
Roberts deposited the body inside the bag. The zipper was swiftly pulled closed. Beans let out a low sigh. Roberts did not say anything as the two men carried the body bag away. They disappeared through the throng like ghosts, the onlookers parting like a wave in front of the stretcher.
Roberts watched as they opened the rear doors of the minivan and put the stretcher in the back.
A car pulled in, coming to a stop in a sharp scream of tires. Finally, YP shows up, Roberts thought.
But the man who came out of the car did not look anything like a social worker. Roberts started for the car when he saw the man's tear-streaked face.
"Pete," someone screamed out of the mass of people, waving at the man who had just gotten out of his car. Roberts recognized the voice of the babysitter.
"Where's my little girl, where is she?" the man asked the babysitter.
"Move. Out of my way," Roberts screamed as he tried to move through the onlookers to reach the bereaved father.
The man was desperately looking at the many people standing in front of his yard. He then saw the morgue van and his face went ashen. He screamed.
"It was him," the babysitter cried out, pointing at Bridger, now standing in front of the patrol car.
"Shit," Roberts spat as he elbowed his way through the onlookers. "Andy!"
The father saw the kid by the patrol car. He saw Andy. He screamed in anger as he launched himself toward the two men.
Andy's eyes opened wide. He put himself bodily in front of the teenager. He raised his arms to stop the charging father.
Roberts heard the grunt of his junior officer as the bereaved father tackled him. "Andy!"
He saw Andy go down, the father falling on top of him. The father got up. Andy struggled to keep a hold on him, but the enraged man kicked the young officer, a wild kick that managed to connect with Andy's face. Andy went down.
Roberts saw the father reach for Andy's sidearm—the low hanging Colt that looked so much like a cowboy's pistol in its thigh holster with no safety loop.
Roberts saw the bereaved father grab Andy's sidearm. He had very little time to act; yet he wasted a few of those precious milliseconds to think about Anna. And for the first time today, thinking of his little girl did not hurt. He thought of Anna, and the rest was easy.
The milliseconds ticked by and instead of reaching for his side arm to stop a madman from doing the stupid thing, the chief kept running, knowing he could not get to the man in time. He watched as a desperate father reached for a gun, grabbed it, and did the stupid thing.