The faint hint of sulfur was unable to overpower the smell of the grisly roadside barbecue. Malone stared past his nose at the struck match, his cupped hand protecting the harmless flame as it caressed the end of his cigar. When did his hands get to be so wrinkled? The deep shadows jumped back and forth in his palm, chased by the flame’s flicker and the pulse of red and blue light from the top of his squad car. Cigar lit, Malone tossed the charred match stick. He drew in deeply and leaned back on the hood of his car.
In his hoarse voice, “You alright back there, Greene?”
From behind the car, “Yeah, just give me a minute.”
“No rush, Greene,” Malone called back. He crossed his ankles and puffed on his cigar. “We’ve got a wait ahead of us anyway.”
That’s how it always was when Malone responded to these kinds of calls. It always seemed to happen about dusk, when the light started to fail. It was always so damned far from the office too–took almost 30 minutes to drive to this one. These calls kept Malone on the clock, kept him from getting home in time for supper. Probably for the best though. An empty stomach on these occasions was better than the pain Greene was suffering through.
Greene leaned against the hood next to Malone. “Sorry Sarge. I’m good now.”
“Yeah?” Malone eyed Greene, his newest deputy, barely 2 months on the job. Even in the faint light Greene looked pale. He still had a bit of saliva on his chin too. “Well, good. And don’t worry, you’ll get used to this kind of thing.”
Green swallowed loudly, his mouth still salivating. “Why?”
What the hell kind of question was that? “Well, Greene, when you’re repeatedly exposed to something unsettling, you just…you develop a kind of resistance to it.” Malone looked back down the bank of the road.
“No, I get that Sarge.” Greene leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees to focus on his breathing. “What I don’t get is why this happens often enough for me to get used to it. This is the third wreck along this road in the last 6 weeks alone.”
Malone pulled deeply on his cigar, the ashy end illuminated to a blood red, matching the sun as it fell over the western range of mountains. The expansive valley was in full shadow now. Malone stood and faced Greene, looked him up and down. His shirt was pressed so nicely, the creases visible even now, at the end of a long day. His brass badge caught the orange flickering behind Malone, its surface still polished to a sheen. Malone’s own badge had started to dull. His own uniform carried yesterday’s wrinkles.
“Well, Greene,” Malone plucked the cigar from his mouth and let his arm fall to his side, “what would you suggest?”
“I don’t know, sir.” Greene looked down at the insects hovering around his knees, bathed in the beam of the car’s headlight. “Maybe lower the speed limit?”
“Hmmm. Lower the speed limit, huh?” Malone brought the cigar back to his mouth.
“This road sir, I know there are a lot of straight stretches, but there are curves too, just like this one we’re parked on. I think they just sneak up on people and,” his eyes drifted down to the twisted remains of a car frame, barely recognizable, “well, you know what happens then.”
Malone forcefully exhaled, pursing his lips and directing the smoke at the mosquito that had been hovering in front of his face. “What’s the speed limit on this road, Greene?”
“And how fast do you reckon that car was going?” He reached his arm backward to the smoldering remains, his cigar held between his pointer and ring fingers.
From Greene’s perspective against the squad car hood, the smoldering end of the cigar was right below the wrecked car. “Maybe 70, 75.” It looked as though the Sarge was using his cigar to set the car alight.
“Right. What do you think that driver felt?” Malone’s pulse quickened.
With a raised voice, “What he felt, Greene, physically.” A few beads of sweat formed on Malone’s brow. “If that would’ve been you in the car, what would your last moments on Earth have been like?”
“I’m not sure, sir.” Greene eyed the carnage just below the level of the road. The car was totaled. Frame distorted, panels missing, glass shattered. The spilled gasoline still fueled what was left of the flames. “I don’t imagine they would be much of anything.”
“Exactly, Greene. At those speeds, you’re damn near guaranteed a quick death.” Malone turned back to look at the remains of the car and its driver, still inside. “He didn’t have to deal with any of this disaster. His time spent suffering was limited. He was dispatched quickly.” Another deep draw. Malone, eyeing the aftermath lowered his voice. “Probably at the pearly gates right now.”
Malone looked back at Greene. The saliva still clung to his chin; now moisture appeared at the corners of his eyes too. “There are always going to be wrecks on this road, Greene, awful ones. Like you said, the turns sneak up on people. If we lower the speed limit though, we risk people dying slow. You know how long it took to get here. Do you really think we can do anything for them?”
Coming down the road was another set of headlights, large, mounted high. Either the fire department or the wrecker. Almost time to get to work. Greene spoke again. “No sir. Our response times are too slow.”
“Exactly, Greene. The high speed limit nearly guarantees a quick death.” Malone could hear the engine now; almost here. “If anyone could guarantee my death would be as quick as these poor souls, I wouldn’t question it.” The fire engine pulled past the squad car and against the side of the road. The exasperated hiss of the air brakes was the call to action, but no one inside the engine made an immediate appearance. They weren’t in any hurry.
Greene stood. “I understand, sir.”
“Good.” Malone dropped his cigar butt onto the asphalt as a few men stepped out of the fire engine. He stamped on it and rotated his foot to smear the ashes across the road. He ran his hand down his cheek and across his chin, the prickle of his facial hair a reminder of the late hour. “Now let’s get to work.”