Mike Sweel had thirtyfive years on the job in Hamilton. He’d made detective on his twentyninth birthday, twenty-seven years ago, and lieutenant before he was thirtyfive. But he never accepted a desk job, and was passed over after that, which suited him fine.
“I grew up here, went to Hamilton High West when it was just Hamilton High,” he said. “My Mom and Dad, all their families… hell, my Mom’s family farmed here back in the 1820’s. All good, productive citizens. Not even one louse back five generations, and that’s rare. Not just nobody with a record – nobody with any black mark, ever. They were all tough but fair. I figured, I’d be a cop, I’d be home free! No looking over my shoulder, nobody even near my shoulder. Ever. Hah!”
No Sweel had ever worked in law enforcement, either. Not knowing “the rules”, they pretty much left him alone. But some cases had peculiar twists in them, and all Sweels (and Malcolmbs, his mother’s family) believed they were endowed with uncanny insight. They considered it their obligation to pass on to Mike what they were sure they knew. Then he’d have to talk them down. Sometimes, it added days to an investigation.
His last case was a carjacking. Someone had been relieved of a 2011 Lexus RX350 SUV in the parking lot of the Center for Sleep Medicine. An odd place for a carjacking, Mike thought. It was just down White Horse Avenue from the police station, in the middle of a small wood, practically inaccessible by foot.
His mind involuntarily referenced a Lexus SUV for comparison. Along with that picture came the data that it belonged to his uncle, John Sweel, his father’s brother, and also two images featuring his Aunt Beverley, his wife Natalie and a great-nephew, all looking uncomfortable together in the back seat. He was fairly certain he’d never seen these three people as a group anywhere.
The call had come in the middle of an afternoon when he happened to be at his desk, reviewing his pension. He’d just re-read the paragraph where it said his pension was calculated as 70% of his salary in his twentyfifth year, and wasn’t due for recalculation until his fortieth year, when it was set at 71.5%. Taking into account his salary raises in the intervening years, it amounted to $1,050 a year additional pension. Less than $100 a month, it was still nothing to sneer at. It could provide an annual vacation for him and Natalie, or a month in Italy every two or three years if he could keep his hands off it that long. Nadi would love that.
He drove out of the parking lot and turned right onto Judge Joseph J. Alioto Jr. Road, then left onto White Horse, then right into the Center’s lot. Standing in the middle of the lot was his Uncle John. The Lexus in question was his. He took a statement from Uncle John, and some pictures of the parking lot on his phone, called a cab for his Uncle, and returned to the house, to spend the rest of the afternoon filling out and filing his report. His Uncle called once, just to check in, and his Aunt called twice, with insights.
In between, thoughts of retirement occasionally jangled in. Trouble was, he was lousy when it came to cash management, and he had no hankering for time in Italy, himself. He’d pretty much decided he’d have to think about it a little more when the phone rang, and then he had no peace in which to think about anything for the next eight weeks, by which time he’d decided. Writing the letter of resignation was an enormous relief.
Six weeks at home thereafter confirmed his decision, particularly in regard to extended periods in which Natalie would be the only English-speaking person in sight. Mike was a patient man, but he had limits. Fortunately, just before rancor built to the boiling point, he went to a ballgame with his friend Bruno, who, having retired a month earlier from his job at the airport had stumbled on the Auction and had already signed on.
The Lexus was never found. But the traffic camera at Klockner Road captured a surprisingly clear portrait of the driver, good enough for facial recognition. That positive identification led to cracking the Trenton carjacking ring. By that time, though, Mike Sweel was on Lane 18.
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When a car was first registered at the Auction, a work order was generated and its number was printed on a sticker. Affixed to the very top of the windshield, it gave access to the car’s entire status. Other stickers showing lane and run numbers for a specific auction were added to the front and back windshields. On the 2010 Toyota Corrola, these lane and run number stickers were not there.
“Take this car up to the Chute and get Elion to put run stickers on it,” said Ben, the Lane Leader. The auctioneers relied on the run stickers to identify the vehicles, so they knew which car they were auctioning off.
Sweel had to drive the entire length of the Chute twice before he found Elion Canno. It wasn’t hard to imagine Elion had been dropped on his head as an infant, His facial features seemed squashed, thickened and mashed together. Talking to him did nothing to dispel that impression.
Canno smiled and raised his right hand, as if he recognized a confused soul and wanted to offer direction. Sweel drove towards him.
“Yessir. What can I do you for?” said Canno.
“Mark this car up,” said Sweel.
“Is it a dealer’s car?”
“I don’t know. What difference would that make? I just know its Lane 18, run number …”
“I’ll tell you the lane number,” said Canno, “And the spot, too.” Canno held a scanning gun/computer in his left hand, but he did not scan the work order barcode .The computer had a keyboard for manually entering the number. Canno didn’t use that, either. He just stood there like he was waiting for something.
“Lane 18,” said Sweel. “In fact, I’m told that it’s 18:79.”
“I said, I’ll tell you that, Driver,” said Canno sternly. He was looking at the keyboard as if he had never seen one before in his life. But in a second or so his brow cleared, and he began entering the code by hand.
Sweel sat in the car, mildly bemused by Canno’s behavior. But since things seemed to be progressing, he relaxed.
Canno punched in the seven digit work order. There was a three second delay before the car’s data appeared on the twenty-line alpha-numeric display, and another five seconds before Canno looked up.
“There it is,” he smiled happily at Sweel. “18:79.” An electrostatic printer hanging from Canno’s left shoulder whirred softly and produced the two run labels. Canno transferred the computer to his right hand. He reached down with his left and in one motion peeled the top sticker off the waxed-paper ribbon and slapped it onto the top of the passenger side of the windshield,. He walked to the back of the car, and with one motion peeled off the bottom sticker, and stuck it to the top of the passenger side of the rear window. He walked back to the front of the car, and then crossed to the driver’s door.
“Do you know where Lane 18 is?” he asked Sweel.
“Well, I work there,” said Sweel.
“I know that,” said Canno. “Do you know where it is?”
Sweel inspected Canno’s face closely. He found it bland, free of sarcasm, untroubled by guile or arrogance, simply waiting for Sweel to respond.
“Yes,” Sweel said.
“Very good,” said Canno. “Off you go, then.” He turned away, the issue resolved.
Wednesdays, the Sales Lot is crazy with hysteria, thick with fear and flop-sweat. Furthermore, there is no way to organize traffic so as to provide clear driveways between the parking lots and the auction blocks. And if there was, there would still be The Clients, near-sociopaths almost to a man, “Used Car Salesmen”, wandering mindlessly through the lanes yakketing endlessly on cell phones, staring fixedly at printouts as if they were racing forms or the still-smoking stone tablets of The Law. Crossing the Sales Lot is analogous to crossing a World War I battlefield, and with roughly the same odds of doing so unscarred.
Lane 18 is at the rear edge of the lot. Sweel, used to the Wednesday mayhem, easily kept his cool and threaded his way through the hazards and mental cases, and swiftly located the Lane Leader.
“Hurry up, park that thing on spot. We found another one.”
This was the first time Sweel had come across unmarked-up cars on Sale Day, and now there were two of them. More to the point, he would now have to face Elion Canno once again.
“Canno. He’s not dangerous, is he?” The Lane Leader stared at him. “I mean, he’s just unbalanced a little, right? He doesn’t go off on people, or anything, does he?”
“Frankly, you’re more likely to go off on him than the opposite,” he said. “No, Elion is completely harmless.”
“I’ve seen some really crazy shit that started off looking like him, is all,” said Sweel. “Never mind.”
It took him ten minutes to cross back to the Chute. Again, Elion Canno was nowhere to be found, and again Sweel drove the length of the Chute twice, and at the end of his second course, there was Canno in front of him, staring directly at him. When he got within twenty feet, Canno seemed to recognize, not him, but his errand. He began beckoning Sweel, using the exaggerated movements Sweel would expect if they were at opposite ends of the Chute. A look of hopefulness was on his face, as if he was most concerned that Sweel could somehow miss him. Sweel kept rolling until his front bumper was two inches from Canno’s shins; Canno was still waving broadly when Sweel stopped,
He turned the car off and got out, curious to see how close to Canno’s legs he’d come. When he saw, he was impressed. He looked into Canno’s serene face.
“Yessir,” said Canno. “What can I do you for?”
“Got another one,” said Sweel before recognizing that was a mistake. “You can mark up this car, if you please.”
“Ayuh. What lane is it for?” Again, Canno was standing still looking at the car. Sweel wondered if he saw the same car Sweel saw, if in fact he saw a car at all.
“This is another one from Lane onothingimportant …” Sweel began, automatically, and then faded into incoherence as Canno began entering the work order number.
“I’ll tell you what lane it’s from,” said Canno. Got me again, thought Sweel. After studying the keyboard a full eight seconds, he looked up at the windshield. Digit by digit, he checked his work. “And the Run number, too,” he added.
Sweel said, sympathetically, “What is your diagnosis?” Elion Canno didn’t appear to hear him.
“Lane 18,” said Canno definitively as the stickers began to emerge from the printer. “Run 80.”
Canno crossed to the passenger side of the windshield, arriving there just as the second sticker finished printing. In stride, he reached down, acquired the sticker from the streamer of backing paper and smoothly applied it to the windshield as before, then walked back and affixed the other sticker to the top of the passenger side rear window.
“You know where Lane 18 is?”
Sweel smiled. “Yep, I sure do,” he said,.
“Off you go, then,” said Canno. He took two steps, and then turned back toward Sweel.
“What? You still here? Are you absolutely certain you know where Lane 18 is? Do you?” he said.
“Yeah. Yeah sure,” said Sweel. He bolted for the driver’s door, but he wasn’t fast enough. Elion Canno stepped one step forward, and his knee slammed the door.
“Why don’t you tell me where Lane 18 is?”
Sweel said, “It’s on the perimeter behind the Auction building, beyond Lanes 11 and 8, just east of Lane 5. Benny is the Lane Leader. OK for you?”
He considered this for five or six seconds. “I would have said, ‘Between Lanes 17 and 19,” he said.
“Ah. Well, Benny’s waiting for me to get back with this car, properly marked-up.”
“Are you saying this car is not properly marked-up?”
“NO! Not at all,” said Sweel. He was speaking rapidly and precisely. “This car is marked-up superbly, formal as a penguin in white tie and tails.” He had begun to sweat along the back of his neck. The Chute seemed stuffy.
“If I get back immediately, there will be no risk of any hesitation in the auction procedure. We don’t want to risk that, do we? Having anxious clients pawing the ground on the entrance side or even in the lanes themselves? It would be the last thing we would want, don’t you think?”
“Why would you want me to think of the last thing we would want?”
“Look, this is doing us all no good,” Sweel said. He reached for the door handle. “I’ve really got to get going now.” Elion Canno’s leg still blocked the door. Sweel was wondering if he would actually have to knock his co-worker ass over teakettle when a woman’s voice came from behind them.
“Elion, do you know where the Maxxi Motors cars are?”
They turned toward the voice. Forty feet behind them stood a woman about four feet tall wearing a supervisor’s green safety vest and carrying a radio. “Come here a minute, will you?”
As Canno turned towards her, her eyes met Sweel’s. She raised her eyebrows a sixteenth of an inch. Sweel nodded in return, a sixteenth of an inch, and moved swiftly through the car door. He got in, started the engine and headed back to another death-defying crossing of the lot,
He arrived at the Lane to find a third unmarked-up car staged in the driving lane, a 2005 Nissan Pathfinder, motor running, four-way blinkers blinking, Benny the Lane Leader beside it. Sweel pulled up to Benny, who opened Sweel’s driver’s door, bowed and gestured broadly toward the blinking Nissan.
“Jesus”, said Sweel. “Does this never end?”
“Yeah, I think this is the last one,” said Benny. “Exhausting, dealing with Mad Elion, isn’t it?”
“I’d rather repel ten hordes of boarding Dealers in the auction lanes. I’m beat.” He got into the Pathfinder. “Maybe we should set up a little stable of dashboard saints we could trot out, dealing with him. Anything to throw him off his game.”
This time, unable as usual to find Canno, Sweel went off to find the little woman in the green vest. She was in the office adjacent to the Chute.
“Sometimes you got to distract him,” she said. “Then you got to move fast. You did that, I gotta say.”
“Is there any way I can see if there’s any more Lane 18 unmarked-up cars?”
“There aren’t,” she said, “This is it. The dealer’d registered them for today’s auction but he didn’t receive them until late last night. The weather, you know.” The last three weeks had been laced with snowstorms. “They might have been marked up last night, but they weren’t. Here’s Elion.”
Sweel saw him through the window. He didn’t seem to be moving quickly, but by the time Sweel was back in his car Elion was twenty yards up the Chute. Sweel had to chase him almost a minute before getting his attention.
“What can I do you for?” said Elion, not a trace of recognition in his bland, eager face.
Before Sweel could mount a reply, several waves of separate emotions washed across the marker’s cow-like countenance: recognition; surprise; alarm; interest; puzzlement; and acceptance.
“Of course!” said Elion. “Third time’s the charm, isn’t it? What? Surprised?” He began entering the work order number.
“Hmmm, 18:81? Then there’s only seconds to spare!” The stickers were printing out. “How could this have come so late? You’ll have to go straight to the block.” Elion moved to the passenger side of the windshield, at the same time reaching for the sticker. In one move, he had it on is fingertips and pasted onto the glass, perfectly positioned.
He got the sticker on the rear window (also perfectly positioned) without breaking stride and came around to the driver’s window.”You know where Lane 18 is? Between Lanes 17 and 19. Of course, it’s labeled. Everything is.”