©2018, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.
"Have you got it?"
"Yeah, almost... one more turn, and... got it!"
The three teenage boys leaped into the old car and sped away. In their possession was a highway marker denoting Skunk County Route 506. Left behind, the post on which it was bolted not thirty seconds before. The Skunk Valley Highway Robbers had struck again.
"Alright, that's number five!"
"Good going, you two!" the getaway car driver exclaimed. "This one didn't even take as long as the 503 sign!"
"Well, practice makes perfect," the young man who had unbolted the sign replied, as the three sped down the now-unmarked Route 506 and into the night.
Assigned to track down these criminals was one Attila Harig, who was the Deputy Assistant of the Skunk County Sheriff's Department. In other words, he was the third in rank among the all of three officers in the entire county. Nearly all of the communities had their own police presence as it was, including River City, the county's major population hub-- population about five thousand, that is-- so the Skunk County Sheriff largely had little to do. The crime wave of highway robbery was one of the major cases of the year, a fact that had Skunk Valley residents thanking their lucky stars.
But Attila wasn't amused. Thinking himself well above the type of cases he was given, he yearned for the challenge of a more serious, and better paying, position in law enforcement.
Except that "yearn" was probably not one of the words in his vocabulary.
"They did it again?!? I'LL KILL ‘EM! ...yeah! Where? THERE?!? Well, what d'ya want ME t' do? AW, C'MON, BEETLE BRAIN, I CAN'T COVER THE WHOLE COUNTY! Yeah, yeah, yeah... well,... yeah... Alright... Yeah."
A click as Attila replaced the telephone receiver as carefully as he could manage, considering he'd already replaced four broken ones at his expense in the past three months.
"What a pain in my..."
He was interrupted in mid-swear by his nephew Graham, who walked in with Attila's afternoon coffee.
"Hey, Cracker, what's up?" "Cracker", from Graham, of course, the nickname that Attila picked over Graham's objection. At least it was better than "Beetle Brain," which was Attila's chosen name for his superior officer.
"Not much, Uncle Attila. How ‘bout..."
"DON'T ASK. Them sign stealers..."
"Really? That's terrible!"
"Yeah, they got a marker off 506 last night. Unbelievable, just unbelievable."
"How many is that so far?"
"Well, we didn't get straight with County Roads so far, and they can't count anyway, those slimebreaths, they don't know what they're doin' either. But they said they're definitely down one on 513, an' they're missin' one on over on 507 in Springville, and that one on 504 just inside th' county line. And they don't know where else. It's a real bucket of saliva, ya know?"
"How horrible," Graham conceded. Whether he meant the situation with the highway markers or Attila's figures of speech was anyone's guess. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know... BEETLE BRAIN wants me to go out and patrol myself around the area. But who's gonna take care of the station?"
"An auxiliary?" Graham questioned. Given that the station consisted of three desks, a water cooler, some file cabinets and a holding cell that had been used exactly five times in the past fourteen months, one of those times being when Attila accidentally locked himself in, minding the place would not be terribly difficult, unless staying awake was part of the job. So an Auxiliary Patrolman could easily have provided substitute staffing for the Deputy Assistant.
Attila thought otherwise. "Yeah, Dumb Buns—" that would be the Sheriff—"laid that one on me, but I told him to stick it where the sun don't shine! No way! I mean, shove the Auxies out there on the road! Don't tell me to go pedal pushing—uh-uh!"
"Of course. You can only do so much," Graham offered.
"Yeah, that's true, even for me," Attila replied. Graham rolled his eyes.
Deputy Assistant Harig's shift was also Noon to 8 PM, which was a little early to catch the Highway Robbers. That night, the trio was back at it.
"Where should we go tonight?" Number One asked as the other two climbed into the car. "I have a full tank of gas."
"Well, then, let's go pretty far," Number Two offered.
"North or South?" Number Three questioned.
"Well, what signs do we need yet?"
Taking a quick inventory of highway markers covered by a blanket in the hatchback of the vehicle, Number Two announced, "We've got 503, 504, 506, 507 and 513."
"A long way to go yet," Number One noted.
"What's on the east side of the county?" Number Three asked.
"There's 501, we don't have that yet," Number Two replied "Also there's 508. And if you feel lucky, there's 510."
"510? That's only in River City!" Number Three gasped. "We'd have a tough time with that one, for sure."
"It won't be easy," Number Two agreed. "There are only three or four of those signs up, and they are in or near the business district. And most of those are on posts with the sign for US 558."
"We'll consider it a challenge," Number One said.
"508 is going to be enough of a challenge," Number Three advised. "There's only six signs on the whole road. Two each are at the junctions and two are right in the exact center of the route, and you know where that is. Cougar Point."
The local Lover's Lane, as the teens fondly recalled.
"Uh, I guess you're right," Number Two conceded. A Friday night might not be the best time to go after those."
"Don't give up yet. We can grab the signs at the junction," Number One replied as he pointed the car towards Cougar Point Road.
The next day, Attila was driving along Route 501 from his residence in the north end of the county, cursing, screaming and generally carrying on because he had pulled another Saturday—the sixth in a row. Last week's tour had been an all time low; he spent most of it out in Mohawk Township trying to help a woman get a chicken out of a tree.
"And chickens don't even fly!" he ranted to an otherwise empty car. "What a stupid way to spend a Saturday!"
As he approached his turnoff onto Cougar Point Road and thence to County Police Headquarters, he sought but could not find something:
"WHERE'S MY ROAD?!?"
The road was, of course, where it had been all along. What was missing was the sign marking the junction for Route 508. Chalk up highway marker number six. Attila was so mad that he nearly ran some poor motorist coming in the other direction off the road as he screeched around the corner.
"@#$%&!" quoth Attila.
By the time he arrived at the station, Deputy Assistant Harig had calmed down enough to be able to park his car without hitting the others already in spaces (which he'd done three times since joining the force). He entered the building and noticed his nephew there.
"Hi, Cracker, how ya doin'?" Attila asked. A rare occasion.
"Oh, alright, I guess," Graham said through an impressive yawn. "I didn't get that much sleep last night, though."
"Gotta stop scopin' out the chicks," Attila joked. "Least that's better than scopin' out signs—and takin' ‘em. They got another one. Right at the corner of 501 and 508."
"That's not all," Graham answered, handing his uncle a sheaf of papers. "This just came in."
Attila shuffled through the reports, becoming redder with each one. "HOLY ANTEATERS! They got FIVE OTHER ONES?!? I don't believe this!" He glanced up at the obsolete but still somewhat serviceable map of the county and attempted to trace the route. The highway robbers had probably started with the 508 sign. They then proceeded to clip a marker off 501, a second sign denoting 503, and one each from 502 and 505 in Springville. As near as Attila could figure it out from the reports, anyway.
"It looks like they like the north end of the county," Attila surmised. "I wonder where they'll strike next?"
"I don't have the slightest idea," Graham chuckled.
"WHAT'S SO FUNNY?!?" Attila challenged.
"I'm sorry, uncle, but it just seems... so silly, really. That's all. Stealing highway signs? It's pretty ridiculous!"
"You bet your outhouse it is! But what ain't gonna be funny is catchin' ‘em! Beetle Brain's gonna be all over my tail fins ‘till I nail ‘em! It's makin' me sick!"
"Well," Graham joked, "Maybe you could take all the signs down. Then there wouldn't be any left to steal."
Graham's tongue-in-cheek proposal met with only silence for a few long moments. Graham cringed. Uncle Attila did not have much of a sense of humor beyond his colorful verbiage.
"I LOVE IT!!!" the Deputy Assistant suddenly boomed.
Graham doubly cringed.
"We gotta do that! We GOTTA! That's perfect! Cracker, you are really the cat's pajamas! How'd you come up with something like that?"
Graham was asking himself the same question. "Uh, lucky break, I guess?"
"Wow, what a great idea," Attila repeated to himself as he dialed the County Road Department. "Hello? Hey, this is Deputy Assistant Harig... soon to be Sheriff Harig, no doubt... Put your boss on, there, shovelnose." A few seconds passed. "Yeah, Butler, this is Harig. Lissen... I know how we get these slime-breaths who've been liftin' them signs... How? It's easy! We take all of ‘em down! Leave ‘em up on just one road as a plant! Then we NAIL ‘em! WHAT D'YA MEAN, I'M CRAZY?!? Look, dumb buns, if we don't get these llamas soon, we'll both be hitch-hikin' those roads! Right! What road...? I don't give two bird droppings... Hold on..."
He motioned to Graham. "What do you think?"
Graham studied the map. "How about 504? They didn't get any of those yet, right?"
Attila rejoined the phone conversation. "Alright, 504, you got your road. Perfect! Alright, see ya... we'll get medals for this. Yeah. Right. Bye."
"Well," Attila announced, "We're all set. The signs will all be down by Monday morning, except on 504. When them flat foots try to get one of those, we get them, and then it's off to the can-er-oo! Then they'll be MAKIN' signs instead of stealin' ‘em!"
Graham smiled weakly. Fortunately, neither the Road Department nor the County Sheriff, including its Deputy Assistant, knew that the gang of highway robbers already had a Route 504 marker. Fortunately for Graham, that is.
"We got less than 48 hours," he announced later that night to his two co-conspirators. "We've gotta move really fast. They'll all be down starting Monday."
"Not if we can help it," Number One, the Sheriff's son, replied.
Number Two, the son of the second in command, agreed.
"But it won't be easy," Graham, also known as Number Three, pointed out. "We still have to get a 510 sign."
"We might as well take a look there," Number One decided, and drove in that direction.
"I think we'll make it," Number Two counseled. "My dad's on patrol tonight and he doesn't know I exist."
"He will after this is over," Number One delighted. "They'll all know." Graham nodded somewhat uneasily. He did seem to be getting more attention from his Uncle Attila given this "crime wave," but he was never as dismayed as his two accomplices were about their collectively being ignored.
The three presently arrived in the business district of River City and took a look around. Even for a somewhat late Saturday night, the streets appeared to be deserted.
"I don't see anybody around," Number One observed. "Let's go for it!" He pulled the car onto a side street and armed with trusty wrenches and socket set, they did get their marker.
This time, however, it was not without being seen for just a moment.
Monday morning dawned with Attila congratulating himself on a job well done. Going into work, he noticed, or didn't notice, signs. All along the entire way, he didn't see a single county route marker. "Those beanbags actually did something right for a change," he grudgingly admitted.
The Deputy Assistant walked into the station with a bounce in his step, to immediately note Graham doing his best to answer every phone in the building simultaneously. "County Sheriff, hold on... Yes, I'm back, but please hold again... yes, thank you for waiting, yes, we do know... I'm sorry, I don't know... please hold on again, thank you..."
"HEY! WHAT'S GOIN' ON?!?" Attila boomed.
"I don't know..." Graham asided in between telephone rings. "Everybody... please hold... in the whole Valley... hello, County Sheriff, please hold... is calling... looking for the signs... hello, please continue to hold, I'm sorry... they all want to know what happened to them."
Attila slapped his hairless head as something finally dawned on him that should have been obvious from the outset-- that some people might actually use the highway markers. Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea. Perhaps that promotion was not already in the bag. And maybe he was in the doghouse...
"Oh, @#$%&!" he summarized.
Taking control, Attila slammed down all of the phones and cut off the extensions. "I know you're tryin' to help but we need the lines open here for emergencies!" he directed. "Tell ‘em to call County Roads!"
"I started to do that but they said County Roads told them to call here," Graham explained.
"WHAT? OH, @#$%! GET COUNTY ROADS FOR ME... AW, NEVER MIND, I'LL DO IT MYSELF!" Attila boomed. "AND GET AN AUXIE IN HERE TO PLAY OPERATOR... YOU AIN'T DOIN' THIS!"
"I'll try," Graham replied between "Hold on"s.
Meanwhile, Attila furiously dialed up County Roads. "HEY, BRICKBUTT, WHAT'S TH' BIG IDEA OF FORWARDIN' CALLS HERE? WHAT D'YA THINK THIS IS, MA BELL?"
"Well," the voice on the other end answered testily, "We figured we'd let you answer the calls, since you took down most of the signs."
"OH, YEAH," Attila blindly replied somewhat more calmly, "The signs. I forgot, I was gonna tell ya how ya did such a great job takin' down the... WAIT A MINUTE? WE TOOK DOWN TH' SIGNS?!?"
"Yeah, pretty quick too. We were surprised. We only had twenty-one left to pull after you guys were through!"
"I think I got bad news for ya, shovelhead. We didn't take down any signs. SO WHAT'RE DOIN' TRANSFERRIN' EVERY CALL TA..."
"You didn't? And we only got twenty-one?"
"Yeah! So what? How many are ya suppose't have? You sure ya didn't lose ‘em, dum-dum? I know how stupid you guys are down there..."
Ignoring Deputy Assistant Harig's latest insult, the voice responded, "Well, not counting the one we left up as a plant on 508, we ought to have fifty-eight."
"And that means..." Attila quickly calculated. "HOLY CAT FUR! WE'RE MISSIN' THIRTY-SEVEN SIGNS!"
Graham heard that and couldn't suppress a loud chuckle. He knew they had a haul the past couple of nights, but even he didn't think it was that much.
Just then the boss, Chief Watson, stormed in. "CAN'T I EVEN GO AWAY FOR ONE FOOL WEEKEND IN ATLANTIC CITY WITHOUT THIS WHOLE COUNTY GOING TO PIECES? WHERE ARE ALL THE SIGNS? AND WHAT IS THAT REPORTER DOING OUTSIDE THE STATION?"
"REPORTER?" Attila questioned.
"Reporter?" Graham asked shakily under his breath. This prank was just supposed to help point the Sheriff's and Deputies' collective attention more toward where it belonged, not get the general public's attention, and certainly not the media's.
"Yeah," Watson replied angrily. "He wanted to know if we were on the case of the missing road signs already. I looked like an idiot out there, even saying ‘no comment!' I don't even know what's going on!"
"Not like you usually do," Attila sneered to himself.
That night, the local news led with the story of Highway Robbery and the report did not paint a favorable picture of the local Sheriff's Department. The piece closed with the reporter on camera in front of the station, noting that "Sheriff Watson had no comment on this, and having just returned from a gambling junket, apparently had no clue either."
"Oh, @#$%!" Deputy Assistant Harig summarized. Soon to be Unemployed, no doubt.
The phone rang. It was Watson. "DID YOU SEE THAT SMEAR ON THAT IDIOT CHANNEL ZERO NEWS?"
"Well, guess what? This happened on YOUR watch, and YOU'RE GOING TO FIX IT... OR ELSE!" This command was immediately followed by the loud sound of a handset being slammed down on its phone.
Soon to be Former Deputy Assistant Harig, no doubt, unless he figured this out. If those Highway Robbers would only strike again! But for sure they would lay low after all of this publicity. They had more signs than County Roads anyway, and they wouldn't possibly go for the last one left standing.
The phone rang again.
"YEAH?" Attila gruffly answered.
"Hello, is this Officer Harig?"
"YEAH? WHADYA WANT?"
"Well, you don't know me, but I'm a concerned citizen..."
"I'M OFF DUTY! HOW DID YOU GET MY PHONE NUMBER?!?" Attila gruffly interrupted.
"...from River City," the citizen continued. "I saw the story on television about the signs, and I thought it was just terrible..."
"YEAH, HEARTS AND FLOWERS ALREADY."
"...just awful. So I decided to call you, since you said that if I ever..."
"I TOLD YOU WHAT?!?"
"...saw something suspicious."
"Oh, excuse me! You saw something suspicious?" Attila replied, changing instantly into as close to a pleasant tone as he could muster.
"Yes, I certainly did. I was down in the business district on Saturday night and I saw some people taking down one of the road signs. At first I thought it was the road department, since they were in one of those funny looking little green cars and they worked so quickly."
"Perhaps it was the road department," Attila semi-suggested.
"That's what I thought. But then I remembered that it was Saturday night. It couldn't have been the road department. You know how lazy they are. They wouldn't even repair a pothole on the main highway unless they broke their own car..."
"Yes," Attila simply acknowledged. "Well, I think you may have something there. Did you get a look at them?"
"Not really, since it was pretty dark even with the streetlights. But I did see that there were three of them."
"Well, that's plenty good enough. Yes, sir, that's great. Can I call you if I need anything else?"
"No. I will call you back if I think of anything. I would prefer to remain anonymous."
"Alright, then. Thank you very much."
"You're welcome. Goodbye, now."
"WHAT A BREAK!!!" Attila boomed. "SHERIFF HARIG, HERE WE COME!"
On Monday morning, Deputy Assistant Harig was still beside himself with glee about the hot tip he'd received about the highway robbers, and oblivious to the concept that one hot tip does not always crack open a case. But the next bit of information came to Attila as he pulled into the parking lot of the Sheriff's Office. Actually, he ran into it...
"WATSON, YOU BLANK TAPE BRAIN! WHY'D YOU LEAVE YOUR LITTLE GREEN BOMB IN MY SPACE AGAIN?!?"
Those three words – "little green bomb"—seemed to stick for a few seconds in Attila's brain. And then he remembered. That was what the concerned citizen had mentioned... "a funny looking little green car!" And that was exactly what he was looking at—with a dent now, but certainly funny looking anyway.
"WELL, AINTCHA COMIN IN?" Watson boomed. "WE GOT WORK TA DO..." Then he saw his somewhat caved in hatchback. "AW, @#$%!"
"Sorry," Attila non-boomed.
"SORRY?!? DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH THAT'S GONNA COST TO FIX?!?"
"Probably no more than the car cost new," Attila replied. "Maybe a coupla bucks," he added under his breath.
"@#$%!" Watson repeated.
Attila backed up his car a bit and the two officers opened the hatchback and began to offload the contents. And Attila quickly found what he thought was another clue.
"A ratchet set!" he noted with some suspicion.
"What's that doing in here..." Watson began, then, picking up on Attila's tone, added, "...And what's so unusual about that?"
"Nothing, never mind." The wheels slowly turned inside Attila's head. And then...
"What are all these bolts doing in here?" There was an entire box full, it had to be at least four dozen, some brand new, some quite rusted, but all the same size and all with heavy duty nuts still attached. Next to that, a half-empty container of industrial strength solvent, just the thing to get stubborn fastenings loose from signposts.
"How did this stuff get here?" Watson questioned again.
"I don't know. I thought perhaps you could tell me," Attila replied accusingly.
"WHAT?!? This is no time for jokes!"
"I ain't jokin'. Now, I'll be right back," Attila advised, grabbing the box of bolts and the socket set. He stuffed himself into his car and started it up.
"What about my car?" Watson demanded.
"If I'm right, beetle brain, that will be the least of your problems," retorted Attila as he drove off with "conspiracy" on his mind, leaving Watson with his mouth wide open.
And watching the proceedings with his mouth open was Graham. He knew it wouldn't be too long before someone put it all together. And with the television report on the route marker crime spree, things had gotten pretty far out of hand. Had he known just how far off base his uncle was, he might not have been as concerned, but he didn't know and he called an emergency meeting of the gang behind the Highway Robbery.
Meanwhile, Deputy Assistant Harig didn't stop until he was in River City at the site of what was supposed to be a road sign denoting Route 510. He jumped out of the car with the box of bolts and in an extremely rare fit of patience, tried every one of them on the markerless post. They all fit, every last one of the 74 bolts, or exactly enough to mount 37 signs.
"HOLY SPRAY CANS! I GOT IT!!!" Attila rejoiced. "I've solved it!"
"Solved what?" A man with a voice somehow familiar to the Deputy Assistant appeared. "Oh, I know... the sign thefts. Like I said, it's horrible, just horrible."
"Yeah... Hey, wait," Attila deduced, "You're the guy who called with the suspicious information, aren't you?"
"Uh, yes, I am," he replied quietly. "I decided to come over and tell you I remembered something else. But since you say that you have solved it, I guess I don't need to bother you."
"Oh, no, please go ahead," Attila offered. Another evidence nail in the coffin wouldn't hurt.
"OK, then. One of the guys kept calling one of the other guys Cracker."
Deputy Assistant Harig's mouth dropped open, as did his hands. Four bolts and a socket wrench neatly found his left foot. No response from the foot, just stunned silence followed for a few moments.
"Officer, are you alright?"
"Uh,... I think I just nailed the wrong coffin."
"HOW COULD YOU DO SUCH A STUPID THING?!?" Harig screamed at Graham, back at the police station. Simultaneously, Highway Robbers Number 1 and 2 were getting their tongue lashing from their respective fathers, and after the ways of expressing the same point were exhausted, were marched out to join Attila's nephew for a collective encore.
Not being as creative as the others, Attila merely repeated himself. "I MEAN, HOW COULD YOU DO SUCH A STUPID THING?!?"
"Well, at least we have your attention," Highway Robber Number 1 noted. "We haven't had that in a long time."
Graham smiled weakly, hoping that the true nature of the mission had been accomplished. Although the time with his uncle was usually not exactly quality, it was for the most part an order of magnitude higher in quantity than either the son of the Sheriff or the Deputy normally received.
Yet it was the Assistant Deputy that spoke first. "WHAT D'YA MEAN?!? I'M NOT SUPPOSE'T GIVE YOU GUYS ATTENTION..." Attila caught himself in mid-question. "Uh, am I?"
Graham and the other boys nodded affirmatively.
"WELL, YOU GOT IT. NOW, WHAT'RE WE GONNA DO WITH 37 SIGNS?!? WE'RE GONNA GET SLAUGHTERED IF ANYBODY FINDS OUT OUR KIDS STOLE THE SIGNS! WE GOTTA GETEM BACK UP BEFORE TH' WHOLE FORCE GETS BUSTED!!!"
Graham sighed. Maybe two seconds of attention, then back to the same old same old.
Proving, once again, that Crime Does Not Pay.