This is the fifth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them not familiar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 5 Title — Rainman — was chosen by Gary. Perry will choose the title for the next round.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same thing goes if you find yourself not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is my submission, written last night and edited this morning. I know, I know . . . I had three weeks to write something, and I wait until the last minute? Unconscionable!
Oh, before we begin, I solicited blurbs from each writer. Here’s mine:
A puzzling crime, interpersonal conflicts, and a touch of woo. It’s all in a few days’ work for Officer Wright.
Copyright 2022 — E. J. D’Alise
(3,500 words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Wright sat in his cruiser, the AC close to full blast when the call came in.
“Say again?” he asked, forcing himself to avoid the discontinued 10-code speak in favor of plain speech.
“Report of stolen vehicle,” Dispatch said and provided the address and vehicle registration.
“Responding. ETA ten minutes,” he replied, his calm and confident tone belying his internal uneasiness. Everyone knew that vehicle, which meant the media would get involved, and that meant politicians would get involved, and that meant complications.
Eight minutes later, Wright saw the man waiting just inside the storage complex and toggled his vest radio.
“10-23 … I mean, arrived at scene,” he said.
He could visualize Emma smiling as she replied.
“Understood … I mean, 10-4.”
“Funny. What’s the code for the gate?”
The man waited as Wright exited the vehicle and punched the code to unlock the side gate. They exchanged names and a handshake before making their way to the open and empty storage unit. On the way, Wright noticed the paint splats on the cameras. Based on the size and pattern, probably done with paintball guns.
They stood silent in front of the empty unit for a few seconds before Wright pulled out his pad and started asking questions.
“When did you notice it missing?”
“Right before I called,” the man replied. “I arrived to take it for a drive in preparation for the event and noticed the storage bay door was open.”
“When did you last see the car here?”
“Last night, after yesterday’s drive, so around seven. The office should have a record of the exact time.”
“Is anyone here yet?” Wright asked.
“No. The office doesn’t open for another half hour, but I called the manager, and they’re on their way.”
“Who else has the code for the unit?”
“Only me and the office, I presume, but anyone in the facility could have opened my unit,” the man said.
“No,” Wright answered. “Opening any unit other than the one associated with the entry code would trigger an alarm.”
“Well,” the man replied, “then it’s an inside job.”
“Before we continue down that path, are you sure no one but you had the code? Friend, girlfriend, wife, business associate?”
Wright watched the man’s reaction to the question. The man remained poised and gave no indication his negative response was anything but sincere.
“OK,” Wright said. “We’ll wait for the manager and—”
He stopped, and both turned to the sound of cars coming to a screeching halt outside the entrance gate. Just then, Wright’s cellphone rang. It was Emma, but he knew that as she was one of two people with the number.
“Hey,” he answered
“Heads up, Casey,” Emma hurriedly said. “The Sheriff’s Office has been called in. They’re taking over the case. Harold is …”
“I see him, Emma. He just arrived.”
“Don’t do anything rash,” Emma said.
“You know me,” Wright replied. “I only do deliberate.”
“Well, don’t do anything deliberate, then.”
“Gotta go, Emma. There’s a big ego heading my way.”
“Casey! Don’t make it—” said, but Wright missed her admonition, already putting the phone away as he hung up the call.
Wright was pretty neutral about most people, a result of keeping his interactions to superficial levels, but County Sheriff Lieutenant Harold Lloyd was a rare exception. Wright didn’t like the man from the moment he had met him, and that feeling solidified after an incident in which Lloyd pulled rank on Wright and, as a result, an innocent bystander got shot. The girl survived, but Wright had pushed for disciplinary action against Lloyd, a move that didn’t endear him to Lloyd, the Sheriff’s Office, or his own department, specifically because Wright had also agreed to be a witness for the plaintiff in the ensuing civil suit.
The man approached them, followed by a couple of Deputies and a two-person forensic team. He walked with the swagger of a person who thinks himself important, one of the reasons for Wright’s initial dislike of the man.
Lloyd ignored Wright and stopped in front of the man.
“You must be Trevor Lowe,” Lloyd said, a perfunctory smile gracing the thin lips. “I’m Lieutenant Harold Lloyd. The Sheriff’s Office is taking over this case.”
Wright turned and headed back to his car, but not in silence.
“Better get yourself some body armor, Lowe. Good luck.”
“What?!” Lowe asked, a worried look on his face.
Simultaneously, Lloyd’s face lost its smile, and he yelled out at Wright.
“You got something to say, Officer?!”
Wright didn’t answer or turn around and continued calmly walking back to his cruiser. Lloyd followed, a slight blush visible above his collar and his voice now rising.
“I’m talking to you, Officer Wright!”
Wright didn’t reply, reaching his car just ahead of Lloyd. He opened the door, but Lloyd stopped its travel and shoved it back closed.
“I’ll ask you again. You got something to say?” Lloyd’s stance matched his verbal challenge, his body as tense as his voice.
Wright slowly moved his hand and switched off his body-cam.
“If you want your team to see you beat to a pulp, go ahead and take a shot.”
Wright’s tone immediately affected Lloyd, and he stepped back a couple of paces. His face now a nice rose color, he turned and walked back to his team and the waiting Lowe.
“That wasn’t smart,” Emma said as they sat at the diner at the edge of town. They lived on opposite sides of the county, and this was a convenient place, halfway between their respective homes.
“It was worth a try,” Wright replied.
Emma stopped eating to look at him, and after a moment, she smiled.
“You didn’t turn off your camera, did you?”
“No, I just paused it.”
“What if he would have taken a swing at you?”
“Well, that would have been an interesting few minutes,” Wright replied. “What can you tell me about the investigation?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Not much,” she replied. “Whoever took the car disabled the cameras and used the correct code, but the manager swears up and down that no one in his staff would have done this. There is a staff of two plus the manager, and while all three are under suspicion, there’s nothing to tie them to the car’s disappearance.”
“Who stands to gain?” Wright asked. While directed at no one in particular, Emma answered.
“That’s the thing; the County had only put down a small deposit. The Sheriff’s investigative branch looked at Lowe’s liability insurance, and there’s nothing he gains other than the car’s value. He probably could have sold it for more money than the insurance payout.”
Lost in thought, Wright munched on the few remaining fries as Emma patiently sat and sipped her tea.
“The theft makes no sense,” Wright eventually said. “The car is too recognizable to be safely moved or sold. So something else is going on here.”
“It could be an out-of-county job,” Emma volunteered.
“I suppose. They could try and use it on the sly, but why take the risk? The fees aren’t that much.”
“Anyway, I need to get home,” Emma said. “Are we still on for this weekend?”
“Sure,” Wright said. “What time do you want me to pick you up?”
“Seven should be fine,” Emma answered as she got up, picked up her check, and dropped a few bills to cover her share of the tip. She stopped and looked at Wright for a few seconds. “You’re going to work the case, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Informally,” he replied.
“Are you looking to butt heads with Harold again?”
“No. I want to help irrespective of Lloyd’s involvement.”
Wright watched her leave. Neither had spoken of feelings beyond friendship, but introspection into his state of mind had him admit this was more than friendship. Still, neither of them made any moves. The weekend trip to the bird refuge touched on one of their common interests, but both had kept an emotional distance in their interactions, at least outwardly.
As he watched her car leave, his mind returned to the case. After a few minutes, he gulped down the rest of his coffee, added a few more bills for the tip, and collected his check. As he paid his bill, he watched the local news on the television. Lloyd had just finished giving an update, and the report switched to footage from when the car had arrived in town. Wright watched for a few minutes with mild interest and almost missed it. In fact, he wasn’t even sure he saw it. He finished paying and hurried home; there were YouTube clips to be watched.
The following day, Wright stopped at the storage place.
“I thought the Sheriff’s Department was handling the investigation,” the manager said as they sat in the small waiting area.
“They are. I’m not here in an official capacity.”
“You want to rent a storage unit?”
Wright smiled before answering. “No. I don’t own much. I’m interested in this girl,” he said as he slid a print of a screenshot toward the manager.
“Why do you want to speak to her?” the manager said as he looked at the print showing him, his niece, and his older brother attending the car’s arrival event.
“Who is she?” Wright asked, avoiding the question.
“That’s my niece, Audrey, and that’s her dad—my brother—Stan,” the manager replied.
“Where do they live?” Wright asked, flipping the printout over and grabbing his pen.
“Look,” the manager said, “my brother has stage-four terminal cancer. That’s why he’s in a wheelchair. He doesn’t have long to live. Please don’t drag her into this.”
“You suspected, didn’t you?” Wright asked.
The manager hesitated but finally nodded.
“Why keep quiet?”
“They are family, but more than that, they’re good people. I can’t imagine why she would be involved, but if she is, it’ll destroy my brother.”
“Give me their address, and I’ll see if I can sort it out.”
“We’ll be taking a detour,” Wright said as he and Emma drove toward the refuge. “There’s something I want to check.”
Emma looked at Wright for a few seconds before speaking.
“You found something.”
“Yeah, and I wish I hadn’t,” he replied.
She didn’t interrupt while Wright outlined what he knew and suspected as he took the turnoff to an isolated homestead bordering the refuge.
The house had some years on it but was in pristine shape, as were the grounds and the detached barn. The owners hadn’t skimped on the upkeep.
Two people sat on the covered porch, and one, Audrey, stood and came to meet them halfway.
“You’re Wright,” she said.
“Yes, and this is my friend, Emma. Did your uncle call?” Wright asked.
“I wish he hadn’t. The Sheriff’s probably pulling phone records, and it won’t take them long to figure out a few things. Where’s the car?”
Audrey nodded toward the barn.
“How did you know?” she asked.
Wright pulled the printout of the screen capture from his pocket and handed it to Audrey. Unfolding the paper, it only took her a few seconds to understand. “Oh,” she said, “my t-shirt”.
“Let’s go talk to your dad.”
“He had nothing to do with this! It was all my idea!”
“I know, but we still need to speak to him.”
“It was a stupid comment,” Stan said.
“Audrey mustn’t have thought it was stupid,” Wright said.
“I know she meant well, but this could ruin her life, and it’s all my fault,” Stan coughed as he finished the sentence, and it took a few seconds to subside.
“Well, we’re going to try to keep that from happening,” Wright said.
“It’s not just the comment, you know. Audrey meant to return the car before morning, no one the wiser, but I had an attack, and she stayed with me until it was too late.”
They sat silently for a few minutes before Wright asked more questions.
“What was the comment?”
“What was your comment that had her spring into action?”
Stan smiled a sad smile before answering.
“It was the self-pity of an old man and former Rainman. I said, ‘I wish I could ride that car once more before I go.’”
“No. When I realized what Audrey had done, I got too stressed. That’s what triggered the attack.”
“Did you yell at her?” Wright asked.
“No … she’s 17, and I’m all she’s got since her mom died. I won’t be around much longer, and I don’t want her last memories of us to be memories of conflict and strife. Besides, it’s one of the sweetest things anyone could have done for me. Inappropriate as hell, but her heart was in the right place.”
They sat in silence for another few minutes.
“I’ve always thought it was a scam,” Wright said.
“What? … oh, you mean … It’s not exactly a scam, but it’s also not as presented. We play the odds. The thing is, it sure seems like we beat the spread, especially with that car. It’s why it’s lasted so long and why they take such good care of it.”
“Wouldn’t that just be confirmation bias?” Wright asked. “Remembering the hits and forgetting the misses?”
“Maybe, but we keep records, and they show a better than 50-50 chance.”
“Yes, but they turn down all formal challenges to prove or disprove the effect.”
Stan shrugged and turned his gaze skyward.
“There’s no upside to accepting. Some say that people’s belief plays a part in it, while others maintain there is no fair way to test it. Besides, we only charge for results.”
When Emma and Audrey drove up, Wright was just about to ask about the small but not insignificant non-refundable deposit.
Emma and Audrey had just gotten out of Wright’s truck when two Sheriff Department cruisers drove up and pulled into the circular drive from opposite ends, leaving enough room for the unmarked car to squeeze by them and stop behind Wright’s truck. Everyone got out, and Harold marched to stand in front of the covered porch.
“Emma,” he said in the way of a greeting. He seemed less than pleased to see her there.
“Harold,” she responded, acknowledging the greeting.
“Wright,” Harold said. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“It’s my day off. I like visiting the refuge.”
“This isn’t the refuge.”
“I stopped in to ask for directions.”
“I see. Well, I’m actually here to see Audrey,” Harold said. “It seems she’s an ex-employee of the storage facility. Coincidentally, she now works part-time at the Paintball Palace in town.”
Audrey didn’t say anything as Harold continued to address Wright.
“Facts that you apparently knew but failed to disclose, Officer,” he said, sounding almost gleeful. “That’s called obstruction, and I intend—”
“Lloyd, a word in private, if you would,” Wright said and walked off toward the barn without waiting for an answer.
Lloyd hesitated, knowing that Wright’s action undermined his authority. But, in the end, curiosity got the better of him, and he followed.
Wright stopped in front of the barn and waited.
“If you’re trying to cut a deal—” Lloyd started, but Wright interrupted.
“I don’t like you, Lloyd, but I’m open to doing you a favor.”
“A favor?! I got you to rights obstructing an investigation. You’re going down.”
“Do you want me to spell it out?” Wright asked. “Fine. My story will be that I was concerned by the lack of progress and incompetence exhibited in the ongoing investigation. So I took it upon myself to look into matters on my own time, something I can legally do. Like you, I had no evidence and decided to question Audrey and Stan informally. That’s what I was doing when you showed up.”
“You’re on shaky ground with your department and the county over that civil suit,” Lloyd said. “I don’t think you’ll find many sympathetic ears.”
“That may be, but it will get me a few good marks with the townsfolk when I find the car. Meanwhile, you’ll be harassing the underage daughter of a man with terminal cancer, a daughter who’s valiantly taking care of him in his last days.” Wright paused before continuing.
“OR, you can be the one to find the car, be the hero, and score some points and favorable media exposure. Who knows, it might even help in the civil suit.”
“Are you stepping down from being a witness?” Harold asked.
“No, but favorable exposure might make you seem less incompetent than you are, and the County might see the good exposure as mitigating having to pay out a settlement.”
Lloyd’s features hardened, and his face reddened.
“You’re not selling it, Wright. So what say I take my chances, arrest Audry on suspicion of theft, and charge you for obstruction or even as an accessory? I’m pretty sure her dad will tell me where the car is in exchange for leniency, and I’ll still look good in the end.”
“She’s not the only one you’d have to arrest,” Wright answered.
It only took Lloyd a few moments staring at Wright before he got it. Then, without saying a word, he headed back to the house, Wright following.
As they got close, Lloyd motioned to Emma and pointed to a spot away from the group.
“Emma, a word, please,” he said.
Wright stepped onto the porch as Lloyd and Emma spoke out of earshot of the group, Emma looking calm, Harold restrained but agitated.
“Is he going to pressure her into telling him where we stashed the car?” Audrey whispered.
“Lloyd never could pressure his sister into anything,” Wright answered. “If he could, she wouldn’t be spending time with me.”
“Are you two an item?” Audrey asked.
Wright looked at her, then at Harold and Emma walking back. Emma looked calm, and Harold looked very much like a person not happy with the current state of the world.
“After this, we might have to be,” Wright answered.
The day had finally arrived, and the park was packed with people wanting to watch the ritual and, of course, to see if it worked.
Promptly at ten, the 1960 Cadillac Sedan de Ville Flattop made its way to the center of the baseball field. Sporting the dust from two weeks of driving on unpaved roads, it looked like Cinderella before the godmother’s intervention. First, Lowe stepped out of the vehicle and took a small bow at the crowd’s applause. Then, after removing his jacket and rolling up his sleeves, he motioned for the firetruck to approach.
Once near, the fireman working the water cannon directed a low-pressure jet to thoroughly drench the car, washing away the loose dust and dirt. Lowe reached into a large bucket, pulled out a soft, soapy sponge, and got to work. A section at the time, with a rinse in between each wash, he washed the whole vehicle.
After a final rinse, Lowe got busy drying the car with a large suede double-sided drying towel. The crowd applauded when he wrung the last of the water from the towel, but he held up his hands.
“Not yet,” he said.
Opening the cavernous trunk, he pulled out the wax kit; wax paste, applicator, and buffer wheel. Again, working one section at a time, he waxed and buffed the whole car.
When done, the car looked magnificent. The crowd applauded and applauded even louder when someone yelled “Look!” and pointed at the gathering clouds.
Lowe called for quiet, and after a few moments, he had the crowd’s attention.
“Today, we have the honor of having a special Rainman among us,” he said. “Twenty-seven years ago, Stan Hoist first used this car to bring relief to drought-afflicted areas during the summers of ‘47 through ’52. He then passed it along to my father, who then passed it along to me. Give it up for one of the rainmakers pioneers!”
The crowd cheered and clapped as Audrey wheeled Stan to the car, helping him get into the passenger seat before she got into the back seat.
Waving, Lowe got in the car and began his slow drive through the town streets. By the time they got to the edge of town, the first few drops were splashing and beading on the car’s hood, roof, and trunk. The rain-bringing power of a newly washed and waxed car once again reasserted itself.
Wright and Emma rushed to get back to Wright’s truck and barely made it before the sky opened up.
“The Rainman really came through for us today,” she said.
“Well,” Wright answered, “we did have a fifty-five percent chance of rain.”
“Yeah, but we had that for the past week, and this is the first time it rained.”
“There’s one thing I know,” Wright replied. “We’re not inviting him to our wedding, that’s for sure.”
“Our wedding?!” Emma asked in mock protest. “We just moved in together.”
“Didn’t I tell you? I plan to ask your brother for your hand in marriage. Think he’ll approve?
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