A Mightier Penn (90)

Despite the long shower, shave, and fresh clothes, Penn looked twice his age, a fading grey ghost of a man in his twilight, with deep dark wells beneath his eyes and a pale complexion. Fatigue pulled down his face, like water on a fresh painting.

“I’m sorry,” said Penn. “I haven’t been sleeping well recently. I’m up like all night long.”

Holly couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or dramatic for effect. “What time did you get up this morning?”

“I didn’t”

“What do you mean, you didn’t?”

“I didn’t get up, because I never fell asleep. Last night, like the night before and the night before that, I just lay there. I try to sleep, but I can’t. My mind races. A thousand random thoughts a second.”

“Have you tired reading or television or something?”

“I swear it’s like quicksand, the harder I try to fall asleep, the more awake I am. And it’s strange, it’s like I’m too tired to read and all I want to do is sleep, but I can’t. I just can’t.”

“I wonder if you should see someone, a doctor or a sleep specialist.”

“They have sleep specialists?” asked Penn, his eyes widened in curiosity and in defiance of his weariness.

Holly smiled and took a sip of the chardonnay from the delicate glass. “They’ve got specialists for everything.”

“If it keeps up, I might need a doctor. I’m not joking, it’s like I have the flu, my head aches, my muscles are sore, joints creak, and in the morning I feel nauseated, jittery, lightheaded.”

“You’ve got an insomniac flu.”

“Exactly, and now that we’ve diagnosis it, I just need a cure.”

“And you’ve tried counting sheep?”

“Approaching two million.”

“Are you eating well?”

“I am tonight.”

“Ha.” Another flame caught Holly’s eye. “Don’t jinx it, I’m notorious for charring pretty much everything I cook.”

The two spent the better part of two hours on the back porch. Penn’s demeanor eased with the food and wine, and he began to resemble her man. Despite the darkness, the two went for a lengthy walk around her neighborhood and the conversation wandered towards Penn and his philanthropy.

“You know, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but what you’re doing for Bayer, Bob and the Colonel,” said Holly. “You should feel really good about yourself.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“I would. Look around and let me know when you see other people reaching out to strangers in that way. It’s remarkable – I’m impressed.”

“Stop,” he said. “I had the extra rooms and the food is nothing. Now, the beer, on the other hand…” Penn shook his head. “The beer goes. You need to meet the Colonel, he’s a character.”

“Yeah,” said Holly, stopping in her tracks. “When am I going to see your place and meet the guys? It’s like I haven’t met your parents or seen your house. You’re not embarrassed of me are you?”

“Embarrassed? No.”

“Well?”

“Well, my roommates weren’t home when I left.”

“But your apartment was.”

“That’s true, but it’s not much to see. Actually, there’s nothing to see other than a TV and some beach chairs.”

“And?”

Penn took the gauntlet that Holly had thrown down. “And nothing. Let’s go.”

 If the above made little sense but you kind of liked it, I’d recommend beginning at the beginning.

A Mightier Penn (89)

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

That afternoon, Holly spent a little more time feeling the tomatoes in the grocery store, took a little while longer in talking with the resident fishmonger, and was little more selective in choosing the wine that would accompany the evening’s salmon.

When she returned home, she mopped her hardwood floors two times over, cleaned her countertops with the same thoroughness before she thoughtfully arranged throw pillows and picture frames. The evening had been circled since their last conversation and a teenage excitement accompanied her as she readied herself.

When Penn arrived, she was on her second glass of wine and comfortably manning the grill. Penn let himself in and emerged in the doorway to the back porch.

“Smells fantastic,” he said.

His words startled Holly, whose back was turned to the house. She put her large tongs down and covered the grill before turning to face Penn. “Thanks.”

The shared a smile before falling into a lasting kiss.

“Before the apartment, when I had my house, I had a charcoal grill,” said Penn when they broke apart. “I miss that grill, miss that charcoal.”

“To Hell with gas,” said Holly. “You lose half the flavor and half the fun. If I wanted to cook with gas, I’d use my oven.”

Penn laughed and politely offered the bottle of wine he had brought.

Holly took the bottle and looked down at the label. Unfamiliar with the vineyard or wine in general, she nodded approvingly. “Looks good. Thank you. I have a bottle of white open, but if you want me to open this, by all means.”

“No, I’m good. Whatever you have open is fine.”

Holly poured Penn a glass and guided him to take a seat beside an eloquently set teak table.

“This is quite the setup,” commented Penn. He pulled a grape from the fruit and cheese plate nestled among the tea candles on the table.

The sound of a flare returned Holly’s attention to the grill. The edge of the cedar plank beneath her fish caught fire and she rotated the wood from the coals piled off to the side. “So, what have you been up to lately? Any leads?”

The question drew Penn’s eyes directly to Holly’s. His look was intense, searching and stern. His expression and non-answer, was cause for pause.

“What? Did I ask you that already?” Asked Holly.

“Did you ask me what?” Penn’s tone was curt.

Something felt off, as though this rendition of Penn was somehow different than the one she carried in her infatuated mind. Unlike the man she met, this Penn seemed angular and edgy.

“Let me start over,” said Holly. “Any developments in your job hunt. Any traction?”

Penn’s expression softened. “Why, you getting nervous? Like maybe this meal is more soup-kitchen than dinner for two?”

Holly laughed. Perhaps she was caught up in her head, and it was her interpretation of Penn that was off. “Yeah, but I don’t know too many freeloaders that bring bottles of wine.”

“And some dessert is in the fridge,” said Penn before a deep yawn eclipsed his face.

“I’m not trying to sound mean – and I hate it when people say it to me,” said Holly with compassion, “but you look tired. And I mean really tired.”

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A Mightier Penn (88)

While Avery was finishing her smoothie, Michael was down the hall in the communal break room trying to solve the new automated coffee machine. He was swearing under his breath when Bruce Hall, a detective in the department’s robbery-homicide division, entered the small room.

Watching Michael fumble with the modern convenience, Bruce commented in his baritone voice, “I thought you terrorist folks were sharper than the rest of us flatfoots.”

Michael recognized the voice and replied without turning around. “So did I. But if that were the case, then no one in this building would be able to use this machine. We’d all be sitting around waiting for IA to make our coffee.”

Bruce was a brute with a thick push-broom mustache and thinker glasses. He reached past Michel and kindly interrupted the stalled transaction by selecting the correct pre-set size from the menu, along with the coffee type, before pressing the “Brew” button. Magically, the machine gurgled to life.

“I wish someone could explain to me what is wrong with a simple coffee pot,” said Michael before thanking his colleague for the hand. “How’s the world of murder and mayhem?”

“All quiet on our front.”

“A world without crime.”

“Within our entire group, we’ve got one small bank robbery and that’s it.”

“Gone are the days when s felonious bank robbery is enough to captures the hearts and minds of the police and public.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” agreed Bruce. “With this one, there’s some funk and flash, but nothing to write home about.”

“Close to a collar?”

“Nah.”

“Where’s the optimism?” prodded Michael with a smile as he retrieved his cup of coffee and doctored it with powered cream and sugar.

“I’m too old to be optimistic.” Bruce began washing out his stained coffee mug in the sink. “These criminals are getting slicker and slicker. Too much television and too many movies. The dicks in Hollywood sit in room and come up with a million fancy new ways to rob a bank, and the knuckleheads watching the tube at home get the bright idea to transform their lazy-asses into criminal masterminds.”

Michael laughed.

“You can laugh, but I’m not joking,” Bruce said as he went to brew his own cup of coffee. “This suspect we’re working on was wearing some type of disguise or crazy mask. The teller said he looked like a disfigured black man, but that his face was so strange, it looked like he was a fake.”

“Clever.”

“Professional F/X mask or makeup, fancy suit and a cowboy hat. “

Hat rocketed into Michael’s ears and ricocheted about. He paused and regrouped. “Like an actual cowboy hat?”

“I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t an official cowboy hat. I’m not up to speed on my Jesse James fashion. But it was some sort of hat with a brim that kept the cameras from his face.”

“You got a picture?”

“Yeah.”

“Not sure where you guys stand, but can you tell me what happened?”

“Suspect casually enters the bank, heads to an open teller, slips her a note written on a deposit slip, gets the money, and hits the bricks.” Bruce popped a few antacid tablets from a foil roll and chewed them up before taking a hearty slug of caffeine.

“And not much to go on?”

“Slim pickings,” said Bruce with a shake of his head. “We have the security footage and three witnesses – two tellers and another customer. But if the suspect’s face proves to be disguise, the witnesses and cameras won’t be of much use.”

“I’m guessing there weren’t any prints.”

“You guess correctly. Gloves. And just before the robbery, a man, presumably the suspect, called the bank and had the branch set aside the amount of money he later robbed.”

“How much did he ask for?”

“Five thousand six hundred and seventy – all in fives,” replied Bruce as he leaned against the front of a vending machine and drank his coffee. “Obviously, the call and specific the amount was not lost on us. We ran it a thousand ways, but haven’t pinned anything down. The closest link, if you want to call it that, we have is a fellow who came into that branch a couple days back disputing a similar amount and a busted loan.”

“Pendleton Ashe?”

A look of humored surprise gripped Bruce’s mug. “One of my guys babble to you about our case work? I tell you, my team never listens when I tell them that loose lips sink ships.”

The serendipity exhilarated Michael but he muffled his excitement. “Did you bring him in?”

“Nah.”

“Why not?”

“Even though he has an account with the bank and was recently there, Ashe is white. Far was we know, the bank robber is black. Secondly, the amount associated with his mortgage was different from the amount stolen. And lastly, we placed a call to his apartment and spoke with one of his roommates – a Bob something or other – claimed to be with Ashe sitting by a pool at the exact time of the robbery. I didn’t speak with the guy, but evidently he was so adamant that he volunteered himself for a lie detector test.”

The parallels ricocheted within Michael’s head. “I know you guys are still working through it, but can you email me what you have and include a copy of the robbery note?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“I don’t know yet.”

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A Mightier Penn (87)

CHAPTER TWENTY

Avery caught up with her other casework and decided to revisit the smoke bombing for the umpteenth time. The case, despite the initial efforts, political prioritization, and promise, had begun to slip towards the back burner.

Bright-eyed, she shelved her initial preconceptions, disregarded the abundance of photographic evidence, ignored the link to the bombs, and altered her approach to dissecting Pendleton Ashe.

Focusing on the man and not the crime, she painstakingly sifted through the details of his early life. She arrived at the events immediately preceding the smoke bombing, specifically, the death of Eve – the name on the card that had been found at the site and that had garnered a flicker from Ashe when Michael mentioned it.

On a tangent, she took a cursory look at Eve, which brought the officer to the cancer that had consumed Eve’s life. What Avery read – the medical terminology, grim statistics, and wrenching anecdotes – combined with Eve’s obituary, the included family photo, and weighed on Avery, who took a sip of her lunch, a protein-laced strawberry smoothie, and leaned back in her chair. After a moment she reengaged the case file and delved into Eve’s medical file where a tangle of oncology numbers, shorthand physician notes, and pharmaceutical orders, dizzied Avery. From all the jargon, the only item that proved indelible was the recurring name of Eve’s doctor, Dr. Steven Janney.

Despite the likely futility, Avery initiated a search in the central law enforcement database, and returned to the straw buried in the Styrofoam cup as she waited for the response. After a few seconds, the computer yielded “3 Results”. Avery stopped sipping. Two of the three glowing hyperlinks were labeled “Pending Cases” and identified Janney as the victim or complainant. The third was a Driving While Intoxicated charge that was currently being processed. Aside from the results themselves, which caught her by surprise, the dates of the reported incidents were curious – all were recent.

Avery disregarded the DWI as unfortunate, and clicked on the first pending case, a workplace vandalism in which an unidentified person walked into Janney‘s hospital and released several clusters of balloons attached to signs defaming the doctor. The handful of interviewed witnesses offered nothing of consequence, nor did the surveillance footage, which was not accessed within the retrievable twenty-four-hour window and therefore no longer in existence. The incident was interesting, entertaining, but appeared to be a non-starter.

The second case centered on Janney’s residence and a nine-one-one call spurred by the activation of his home and car alarms. Avery read the call’s transcript, unimpressed, until one word seized her attention – Jeep. During the call, Janney had relayed to the operator that he had seen a Jeep driving from or passed the house. At the time, the detail must have been deemed immaterial or irrelevant by the operator and ignored by the responding police.

Avery rocked forward in her chair. She brought up the FBI file on her screen and scrolled through the report. Under a file pertaining to his divorce was a sub-folder titled ‘Asset Allocation’. Penn’s vehicle was listed.

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A Mightier Penn (86)

Penn sprang to life. He gripped his plastic casks of herbicide, vaulted over the side of the bunker like he was storming the northern shore of France, and took to the green. He uncorked the first canister and poured it as he backpedaled across the green.

Twice over, he traversed the green, laying down wide stripes of eradicate.

He was emptying the third jug when a golf cart hummed around the side of the clubhouse.

Penn looked up from his negative gardening and was greeted by a face full of flashlight care of a lanky security guard.

The scarecrow of a sentry fumbled an unsure “Halt” before stuttering, “You there – on the putting green – I can see you. Stop what you’re – – -”

It was too late; Penn was in motion before the word “doing” crossed the thin lips of the thin guard. Penn ran as the guard yelled.

Penn flew. The guard gave chase, but a debilitating car accident hampered his ability to painlessly walk, much less run. Knowing a foot race would be over before it began, the guard stayed in the cart and floored it down the eighteen after what he thought was a punk teenager.

Clinging to his hat and the last container of grass killer, Penn bolted down the fairway. He ran with long fast strides, the cool golf course air flying past his face as the spot of flashlight bounced about his body and the grass at his feet.

Both men knew the only chance the guard had in hunting down his prey was exhaustion. With Penn running at full speed, the guard could not rein him in, but after a hundred yards Penn’s run would invariably slow to a jog, then a walk, and eventually a doubled-over gasp. At that point the hired gun could limp over and slap the non-existent country club cuffs on the perp. Knowing that, and knowing that linear flight would not get him much further than the upcoming tee box; Penn cut a quick ninety degrees, and at full speed and without the benefit of light disappeared into the woods.

The guard cut the wheel and skidded to a stop. He shined his light into the trees, and managed to catch a glimpse of the fugitive’s back as it vanished into darkness.

“Damn,” he cursed before returning his weight to the gas pedal.

At the end of the woods that separated the holes, the guard spotted Penn jogging towards the horizon. A cartoonish chase ensued in earnest. Penn ran, hid, and ran some more from the cart-based cop, who did his best to corner, trap, and rundown the merry prankster.

Penn was fortunate that the guard’s pursuit remained a solo effort. Fearing the wrath from his clique, the guard was reluctant to reach out to the police or his corporate headquarters for much needed assistance. He went it alone with nothing more than a flashlight, golf cart, and pepper spray. For the better part of twenty minutes, the chase continued, but the hot pursuit eventually cooled in conjunction with the cart’s battery.

Penn was gone, leaving the guard stranded in his stalled-out cart in the middle of the course with nothing more than the empty container of grass killer that he had scooped from the course when the suspect jettisoned the container in flight. Dejected, he looked over the evidence. His eyes were widened by what he read. “Shit,” he uttered at the words in his lap and knowing where he first spotted the suspect.

Several hours after Penn reverse fertilized the grass; a hideous ‘X’ began to claw its way to the surface of the green. The letter was steeped in vagary, meaning anything or at the same time nothing. Was it the conclusion of a treasure hunt? A representation of Malcolm’s surname? The signature of an illiterate slave? Or the sign of something negative and wrong? Conjecture at the club was about.

The meaning was soon supplanted by the extent of the damage. The ground was contaminated by the concentrated chemical, and the putting surface required reconstruction at considerable cost and missed golf to the members.

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A Mightier Penn (85)

Back in the Jeep, he changed into his ninja sweats and hat and sat parked in the hardware store parking lot waiting for darkness to consume the remaining daylight.

He watched a woman of trifling height and considerable weight, unload a spent cardboard twelve-pack and sack of fast food refuse from her passenger seat onto the ground, against the concrete base of one of the parking lots light posts as though the location was somehow an improvement over just throwing the waste to the ground.

The littering triggered a swell of anger within Penn, and when defiler drove off, he followed, unsure of his intentions but resolute in his conviction. Nine seconds into the tail, it occurred to Penn that she might not be heading directly home, and therefore ascertaining her identity could prove challenging. He wonder if there was a more efficient was to track down the identity. Could he take down the offender’s license plate number, make a few calls to the department of motor vehicles, and back in to the owner’s address, without having to sleuth about town? Probably, he concluded, but he didn’t want to risk reaching out to the authorities or letting the lunker get away. So, he followed, patiently trailed behind her as she navigated the minutia of her life: shopping for groceries, ironically washing her truck, and popping into a drug store before making her way home.

She pulled into the driveway and paused to allow the double garage door to clang open before parking inside and waddling into her home.

Penn drove from the neighborhood and stopped at the first dumpster he came across. With the fortitude of a seasoned garbage man, he loaded the Jeep with bags of refuse and waste.

He promptly returned to the squat woman’s house, and without hesitation, drove up onto her lawn, where he began offloading his cargo. Standing in the rear of jeep, he ripped apart plastic bags of garbage and sprinkled the contents across the lawn like he was throwing seed or laying fertilizer. In seconds the lawn at his feet was blanketed in garbage.

As he finished deposing of the rubbish, the front door of the home swung open and a slight man, presumably her husband, flew from the house yelling at Penn.

Penn responded with a genuine lighthearted wave of his hand and returned to the driver’s seat and drove from the yard.

Down the street, he noticed a large run of yellow mustard streaking from his right palm down the sleeve of his black shirt. The mustard, a byproduct of blindly reaching into garbage bags, stirred a smile. The next time I re-gift trash, thought Penn, I’ll tether an entire dumpster to the back of my Jeep, tow it to the litterbug’s house like a water-skier, and launch the dumpster onto a lawn with an automotive crack of the whip. Penn figured he could return not only a literal ton of trash to the front steps of an offender’s house, but do so without getting his dirty.

The Jeep’s headlights were finally needed, and Penn made his way to the upscale neighborhood that lined the fairways of the Charlotte Hills Country Club. He slunk along the forefronts of the stately homes, until he came across a house in the process of being overhauled in a massive remodel. He pulled into the driveway and to the back of the house where he tucked the Jeep near a port-o-john and portable cement mixer. Grabbing the grass killer, he headed for the golf course through the backyard.

The course was dark. With nothing more than moonlight and haphazard wedges of light coming from homes and spilling onto the course, Penn stuck to the first cut of rough and headed down a fairway to the nearest tee-box, where he ascertained his position from a course map. Once he had his bearings, he headed towards the clubhouse.

He was determined to generate fascination, conversation, and scrutiny, and had decided upon agrarian graffiti to deliver his message. For a canvas, he selected the eighteenth green just off the rear veranda of the formidable clubhouse. As for what exactly he would draw or write, he was still at a loss. A crisp swastika would suffice in highlighting the club’s elitist racism, he thought, but then he feared such a horrific symbol might actually backfire and garner sympathy for the offenders. Likewise, he felt a topical, albeit extremely offensive, racial slur carved into the green could prove not only counterproductive but would be unfair to the club’s families and children.

Penn was undecided when he arrived at the end of the eighteenth and hunkered down in a bunker that was defending the front edge of the green. He peered over the sand trap’s rim and surveyed the green and clubhouse. The landscape murky, the only light coming from pathway lights and a few clubhouse windows. He took a few moments for his eyes to grasp the innocent two thousand square feet of pristine tightly clipped blades of bent grass and the possible symbols, slogans, and profanity. He lowered himself back to a seat in the cool sand and rolled a few grains between his fingers. What to write, what to draw, what to do, he thought until an idea blossomed.

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A Mightier Penn (84)

Over breakfast, the Colonel and Bob whipped around an array of interrelated topics pertaining to race and affluent private clubs, while Penn and Bayer remained on the bench satisfied to listen to the back and forth.

The argument drifted into the legality of discrimination, with Bob debating the compassionate side of humanity, and the Colonel, for reasons lost on the others, vehemently arguing that the club was within its rights to behave as it saw fit.

“Bob, what’s the point of a private club if they can’t decide who gets in and who don’t? Same goes for the pool. They paid for it, they clean it, they get the water for it, so if they don’t want people swimming in it, that’s their right. It’s got nothing to do with race.”

“It has everything to do with race,” argued Bob. His soft-spoken voice quivered when it rose. “The club pulled the pool once they realized that the children were black, they canceled that dude’s application because he was black, or Jewish, or both. It’s racist and you can’t have clubs or organizations discriminate. It’s just not right.”

“I’m not arguing right or wrong, I’m saying I don’t think it’s illegal,” said the Colonel as he looked to towards Bayer for confirmation of his statement and to ensure that he was not offending the only minority in attendance.

“Of course it’s illegal. It’s discrimination, pure and simple. Right, Bayer?”

“It’s more complicated than that,” said Bayer, wading into the conversation. “But private clubs, are more or less free from anti-discrimination laws. So, to the Colonel’s legal point, he is correct.”

The Colonel’s head bobbed in agreeable rhythm.

Bob appeared unimpressed. “So you don’t have a problem with the club?”

“I didn’t say that,” said Bayer.

“Do you have a problem with the club?” followed the Colonel.

“Most definitely,” said Bayer. “I have a huge problem with racism, sexism, and discrimination at any level. I think it’s unfortunate we need the government and laws to combat it. I wish people did the right thing without being legally or contractually obligated.”

“Ain’t never going to happen,” said the Colonel.

“And why’s that?” asked Bob.

“People are real messed up in the head. Folks love to hate people that are different. I don’t know why, but for some reason it makes ‘em feel good. And race makes it easy. Race is the dummy’s difference.”

“That may be true,” said Bayer.

“I think its ignorance,” said Bob. “Like the Redskin argument at the shelter.”

“Redskin?” asked Penn, his eyebrows raised with wonder.

“The football team,” said Bob before he angled towards Penn. “At the shelter, our friend here got into with an Indian fellow about the whether or not the name was racist or offensive.”

“Bob, you weren’t even in that discussion,” said the Colonel.

“You too were yelling so loud, the whole shelter was in on it.”

“I still say, if it were truly racist it wouldn’t be the name of DC’s football team. No way all those politic types would let a racist flag fly above their PC heads.”

“Well, they do,” said Bayer. “And with the country club, I can’t help but think that had the members been more sensitive or thoughtful, none of this wouldn’t have happened.” Bayer looked at Penn. “They just need to have their eyes opened.”

The look was all it took.

That afternoon, Penn stood shoulder to shoulder with a vested employee at a hardware store studying the labels of different types of weed and grass killers.

Penn asked the employee, “What will kill absolutely everything I spray? Weeds, plants, grass. I’m looking for Agent Orange.”

After carefully reading the grim chemical compositions, warnings, and advertised effects, the pair whittled their selection down to two potent options. Penn opted for six gallons of the more violent defoliant that boasted a faster kill time and total annihilation.

“Will you need a sprayer?”

“No, thank you,” replied Penn, “I’ll be pouring it directly onto the grass.”

The employee warned against that application. “That concentration and that amount could cause permanent damage to the soil. If you pour it on the ground, you’ll be dead and gone before the next blade of grass surfaces from that spot.”

“That’s the idea,” he said with wink.

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