A DUCK ON THE POND
by Fred Miller
What, pray tell, could eclipse the satisfaction of a stroll in the park on a summer evening, that is, once the hoi polloi scurrying about to late dinner engagements have all but disappeared. Nothing, I say, as I emerge from the flat at exactly eight-twenty, umbrella in hand for unforeseen showers or defensive measures if necessary. I’ll return my door in precisely thirty-two minutes, every moment in timed sequence, every turn in specified order. Discipline is the centerpiece of my existence. And to those who might risk an obstruction or abridgement to my routine, I say, beware. Toleration has its boundaries. Count on it.
Ah, now to settle into my favorite chair with a preferred smoke and a vintage sherry and listen to the best of Beethoven on the parlor Victrola. A life of business dealings with nerve and cunning leads to rich rewards for those wise enough to toe the line. I know.
My word, who could that be at this hour? No one’s expected, no appointments on the calendar, I’m quite sure. “Who is it?” I say.
“Police. Open up, Mr. Harman.”
First to check my appearance in the hall mirror. Must stand erect, project confidence, exude an air of surprise. Ready.
“Why, Officers, won’t you come in,” I say. Two in blue flank the door, one with his hand on a billy club. Two wallets appear, badges flashing.
“Robert Harman?” the one with pinched eyes says.
“Why yes, gentlemen, do come in.” Neither moves. One looks over my shoulder to confirm I’m alone. Best to remain calm, keep a serious demeanor. Sudden movements or visible emotions might prove imprudent in this situation.
“We’d like for you to accompany us down to the station for a few routine questions, Mr. Harman,” the other says in an unassertive tone. He’s had practice at this. Must watch him closely.
“Why, pray tell, officers? What’s this concern?” Give them the innocent furrowed brow. Keep the voice evenly modulated. Not a hint I may know what this is about.
“Just routine, Mr. Harman. We can sort this out down at the station.” There’s a pregnant pause. No doubt, they’re waiting to see if I’ll make an ill-timed move.
“Are you coming willingly, Mr. Harman? That would be best, you know,” the soft spoken one says. Ah, the expected challenge with subtilty. Shrewd, I’d say. These two are well practiced at this routine. Must play along, leave no ideas I may have anticipated this intrusion.
“I suppose so, but I’d still like to know the nature of this inquiry.” I cock my head to one side and wait though I’m confident neither will reveal anything now.
“Oh well,” I say and turn back toward the hall closet for my coat. But before I can take three steps, one of them grabs me from behind and pushes me to the floor, face down. This is quite unacceptable.
“Unhand me, sir. I’m no criminal,” I say. My face is burning and I’m aware of a blush washing over my face. But I cannot help it. “This is quite uncalled for, officers,” I say.
“Don’t make this any more difficult than it already is, Mr. Harman. Best to cooperate, make it easy on yourself,” one says as the other cuffs my wrists behand my back.
As they pull me upright I decide to make one final protest. “I’ve breached no laws, and I know my civil liberties. Uncuff me, sirs,” I say.
They study my face for a moment, then force me out the door toward their waiting vehicle. It is at this point I elect to alert them to their judicial peril. “My solicitor will hear about this. You’ve overstepped your authority, officers,” I say as I’m shoved into the backseat of their car and a door slams in my face. Uncivil, that’s what it is, uncivil.
Plain white room. One-way glass on the wall. No doubt I’m being watched. Must remain calm and unmoved by their tactics. Be as still as possible and stare directly into the glass. I’ve planned well for this scene, I may add. They have nothing, nothing at all.
Time passes, nothing happens, I can almost hear my heart beat. How’d I end up in such a predicament? T’was his fault, Nelson, that unattractive little man, that fastidious bore with an insatiable appetite for gossip. Just the thought of him makes my skin crawl.
Yet I must say, we did hold a tacit agreement between us: the park, his for morning walks, the evenings mine, and never the twain should meet. Until that night. How dare he, my path, my walk, my time. And to encounter that little wretch on the pond’s narrow bridge. Mine, I said, and said it clearly enough. And charged ahead.
But did he give way? Well, in a manner of speaking, I suppose. The scene unfolded with such abruptness. A solid blow to the temple with my umbrella staff and down he went.
From the edge of the bridge, I paused to look back. Just a duck on the pond, he was. Slow concentric patterns began to excite the lily pads into stately pavanes. A lovely sight, I say, quite.
Moving smartly up the path making up for lost time I mused, no villainy here, none at all. Just tidying the park a bit. Adolescent of Nelson to challenge me on my path and my schedule, adolescent indeed. No social rectitude to the man.
And if it weren’t for the bobby, Officer Nick, with a courtesy nod at the park’s entrance, t’would have been a flawless crime in every respect. The poor dear fellow must have slipped, hit his head on the rail, I’d say, and fallen into the drink. How lamentable.
Opportune for me that Officer Nick, cheerful chap that he is, has had recent financial difficulties. T’is a weakness of today’s society, I say. No planning, no discipline, no keen sense of scheming. Well, the oaf is in my pocket now, so to speak. No worries from him, I’d say.
Hmm, no doubt those behind the glass wish to see me emotionally unhinged. They’ll receive no such satisfaction. Posture remains important, erect, shoulders back, chin out. Fine habits, fine indeed. They’ll get nothing from me, nothing at all. Yet somehow, I need to throw them off, sidetrack them from their planned strategies. Hit them with what they’d least expect.
Getting warmish in here. Wonder if they’ve deliberately cut the air. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least. A bead of sweat scoots down the center of my forehead onto my nose and pauses on the tip. I dare not move. No satisfaction for the opposition, none, I say.
My wrists are beginning to throb. Cuffs are much too tight. Wonder why they chose to leave them on? Ah, further efforts to fluster me. The blokes expect me to fidget. Do not worry, my worthy foes, I can outwit you any day. Ha, you’re wasting your time with this adversary.
Damn, it’s been over an hour, and it’s stuffy in here. What? Two suits stroll in and eye me. Took your jolly good time getting here, I’d say.
“And who are you?” I say with an air of controlled command.
I’m Detective Wolfe and this is Detective Hoppmann. Are you ready to talk now, Mr. Harman?”
“Of course, detectives. I’m Robert Harman, I live at 2435 Euclid Lane, Mayfair, I’m widowed, and retired from my investment business. And you?”. I say this with a twinkle in my eye to throw them off. Now I’ll look for nonverbal reactions and wait to see who’ll choose to speak first.
“You want to tell us about it, Mr. Harman. You can save us all a lot of time. We’ve got a witness, you know.”
At this wild card he’s played, I show no emotion. I know better. “First things first, gentlemen. I believe I have a right to know if I’m under arrest.”
“You want to tell us where you were the night of July 16th, Mr. Harman?”
“You want to tell me if I’m under arrest, Detective Hoppmann?” He’s taken aback I even remember his name. And they must wonder why I’ve remained unruffled. Meticulous habits, I say. Good for the soul. And with scrupulous care, I’m ready for them.
“No, Mr. Harman, you’re not under arrest. Yet. Now answer the question: where were you the night of July 16th? And don’t play games. As I said, we have a witness.”
“That was some time ago, detective. How on earth should I be able to recall that particular evening?” I say.
“Wednesday, two weeks back, Mr. Harman. Were you in the park?”
“Quite possible. I take a stroll every evening when weather permits.” Now he thinks he’s gotten a break. T’is evident in his face.
Now sloe-eyed, he leans forward. “Who did you see in the park that night, Mr. Harman?”
“Didn’t say I was in the park, detective, just that it was quite possible,” I say. He leans back, trying to regroup his tactics, I’d bet a quid.
“Tell us about that particular evening, Mr. Harman. Where did your stroll take you?”
“Not a clue, Detective. I’ve no idea the route of my walk that evening.”
“Did you see a policeman that night, Mr. Harman?”
“No idea,” I say and wait.
“Are you sure, Mr. Harman? There’s a bobby on the evening beat in that neighborhood. Are you sure you didn’t see him?”
“Ah, I see what you mean,” I say. Both unconsciously readjust themselves in their seats. No doubt they’re sure they’re on the cusp of breaking the case open. “You want to know if I saw Officer Cochran that evening. Well, I can tell you definitively, I did not. It’s been quite some time since I’ve encountered the good officer who patrols our neighborhood.”
The detectives look at each other and frown. No doubt they wonder if I know that Cochran retired six months ago. They’ve painted themselves into the proverbial corner. Ha.
“Enough of this, detectives. Uncuff me and allow me to call my solicitor.” One of them takes a deep breath and sighs. Not the piece of cake you thought it’d be, old chaps? I muse.
“Jim, take the cuffs off Mr. Harman.”
“But—” the other begins to protest.
“Take them off. Mr. Harman is uncomfortable.” Ah, we’re getting somewhere. Now I’m in the know on the roles each plans to play.
Wolfe takes the cuffs off, and I visibly rub my wrists. And make a face. ” My hands are quite numb, gentlemen.”
“Now, you want to talk with us, Mr. Harman?”
“Why, yes, detectives, once I’ve had an opportunity to talk with my solicitor.” Their faces look as if each has just been obliged to take a sip of soured milk.
They glance at each other and leave the room. The door slams. Well, at least the cuffs are off and the room has cooled down. And they still have nothing. Unless… unless Officer Nick let the cat out of the bag. But he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He’s been well paid. And I can prove it. No, that won’t do. I need to speak with my solicitor, now, not later.
Hmm, how to handle them when they return. Candor and directness along with naïve innocence, of course. But once again I need to throw the blokes off balance.
Minutes pass. No doubt eyes are watching. Mustn’t weaken, must exhibit a bland face, a man with clean hands, inculpable. When they return I’ll focus on every gesture I see, every nuance. Stay one step ahead.
The door opens. A new face.
“I’m Detective Johnson. Sorry for the wait, Mr. Harman. If you’ll just answer a few brief questions for me, we’ll see that you’re promptly returned to your residence, and you can then resume your usual evening activities.”
Activities indeed. “I need to relieve myself, Detective,” I say. Yes, it appears I’ve caught him off guard.
“Of course, Mr. Harman. I’ll have someone escort you to the loo shortly. Now if you’ll—–”
“Now,” I say with some fervor. “And if I’m not under arrest, there should be no delays.” My voice is insistent. Heads behind the glass must be turning. Must play the ruse out with self-assurance.
The door opens. Another suit appears and nods to Detective Johnson. He rises and says, “come with me, Mr. Harman.”
“Where are we going?” I say.
“To the loo. You did say you needed to be relieved, did you not?”
Thank goodness the fool’s left me in here alone. Let’s see, windows are too high to reach. No way out. But I do see a vent in the ceiling. Ah hah. No doubt there’s a camera up there behind it. And they’re watching me. Can’t outsmart me for a moment, chaps.
Must make it look as if I did have a genuine need. The door behind me opens and someone shuffles in toward the sinks. I hear a water tap turned on, but I know better than to turn around. I pretend to finish, flush, and turn.
It’s him, Officer Nick, lathering his hands, I see. And ignoring me, he is. Waiting to spring a trap on me, are we?
From behind him, I could easily seize his billy club from his belt. But there’s a camera on me, I’m quite sure of it. And he’s the plant. Yes, they’re expecting a friendly chat to erupt now while they record it. Shrewd chaps, they are, I’ll give them that, but not shrewd enough.
I casually step up to a sink, wash my hands and turn. And without speaking I stroll out the door.
And in the hallway, I find several officers milling about. And in an instant, with astonished looks, they are transfixed on me. T’was a lark fooling you chaps, I muse.
And with a chuckle, I say, “Thought I’d pause for a chat with Officer Nick, did you?” At once I gasp at my faux pas, my face flushing.
“Cuff him. Book him”, words that echo through my mind and haunt me still.
About the Author:
Fred Miller is a California writer who specializes in penning short stories with eclectic themes. His first was selected by Constance Hunting, the New England poet laureate in 2003. More than fifty of his stories have appeared in publications around the world in the past ten years. Many of his stories may be seen on his blog: https://pookah1943.wordpress.com.