Part 7: Benson: The Fire Alarm
Do you believe in God? I have always considered a belief in God to be the most fundamental, rational thing any human being can do. When we try to work Him out of our lives, we are left with what Freud called the “oceanic feeling” — this great distance in our souls as if we had been cut off from our very reason for being. An internal longing for a Creator that modern society is so quick to deny. I have never felt the void myself, but have been told from many others — both in my personal life and on the job — how completely dehumanizing this feeling is.
Sigmund Freud himself was an interesting individual. Many consider him a great psychologist, but I am not one of those people. I think he was a quack who spent more time with childhood sexuality and talking about the anal stage than was really necessary. Most modern-day psychologists seem to agree with my assessment. But what Freud was good at was philosophy. His thoughts on religion and human behavior in general were very insightful and thought-provoking, leading other people to form what would becoming respectable psychology. Skip the psychoanalysis books and read “Civilization and its Discontents” or “The Future of an Illusion”.
Belief in God in general may be rational, but few would consider my personal belief rational. I am, and always have been, a Calvinist. I believe in an all-knowing God who has seen our lives written out before Him before we were even born. We are enslaved to destiny, driven by fate — and condemned to eternity in Heaven or Hell before we are even conceived. Predestination is a difficult belief to have, and hard for many to accept. Why bother being good if we are already determined to spend forever the way He wants us to?
You could say being good is the right decision “just in case” we’re on the list of those who inherit His Kingdom, but there is a larger issue at hand. We cannot choose to be good at all — we have already been determined to act and think as we do. No matter how hard I try to do what is “free” and “my own”, my action is always exactly what God has foreseen. We are all His servants. There is no choosing, but only the grand illusion of choice. What is the point of a system where we are condemned for things we had no control over? This is something I have never been able to come to terms with. But the system seems to me to be true.
In a strange contradiction, the more we remove the mystery of God from our lives and our natural world the more we prove the God-fearing Calvinist vision, or at least pile on the evidence. Each new scientific advance strengthens the theory that all can be reduced to an infinitely regressing chain of cause and effect, or as a part of some great natural law. Even solipsistic, egotistical atheists have come to see we have little choice in how we are. Those who promote free will know that even if they are right, this freedom only extends so far in a material body governed by genetics, chemistry and biology. As long as Mother Nature continues to be domineering, we are trapped.
This has shaped my views tremendously when we insert Calvinistic beliefs into the prospect of law enforcement. I know the men and women I arrest had no more choice in the matter of their crime than I had to arrest them. The contrast between my occupation and the role of God is an interesting parallel, really. I know they have no freedom if my religious beliefs are correct, but I still send them to be judged and imprisoned. Some are condemned to life behind bars much like God condemns us to Hell for the same crimes — and both myself and God know there was no rational reason for this punishment. All I can do is roll with the changes, and embrace the subtle irony of the coincidences God leaves for us to find.
The call from dispatch was about to lead me into one of the biggest coincidences of my career. Probably the biggest of all, though stranger things may happen yet. A man who had been in the street was struck by an oncoming Westbound car. This was Wisconsin Avenue, the second busiest street in Appleton behind College Avenue.
Appleton is a modest town in terms of both size and values. We have roughly seventy thousand people, with expansion slowly extending to the North. The town is big enough to avoid the pernicious inbreeding concerns of the feeble minded, but small enough to still be considered a “home” by those who grew up in the nearby suburbs of Kaukauna and Little Chute. Appleton is the capital of Outagamie County, and probably the fifth largest city in the state of Wisconsin. Lastly, we were the home of both the rabid Senator Joseph McCarthy and illusionist Harry Houdini. What the connection between these two is, or whether or not a link can even be made, I’m not entirely sure yet.
The informant who saw the man getting hit had called from a bar called the Eternal Flame. We’ve never really had any problems with this establishment, though its reputation as a hangout for loose women is well known. Perhaps the police can be blamed in part for the reputation this place received for being a drug dealer’s haven. We initiated several raids under the direction of the owner and the media may have gave off the impression this place was dirty. In all fairness, I don’t know that any one bar has more or less of a drug problem than any other. Finding cocaine or marijuana in a tavern on any given night is not rare.
There are two main dance clubs in the town — Park Central and Route 66 — and those who couldn’t get past the dress code of these places ended up at the Eternal Flame. Some distinction can also be made between what is called “the light side” and “the dark side” of College Avenue. The light side, which is actually more poorly lit, signals the East End where patrons generally go for a friendly atmosphere and a bartender they can get to know personally. The dark side, which is much better lit, consists of dance clubs and franchised bars, which are little more than “meat markets” for some people. They are crowded, and the police presence is considerably higher.
Paradoxically, my daughter is at the Eternal Flame fairly regularly. Why she would hang out at a bar known for its loose women is beyond me. She has always been a responsible woman, keeping up with her schoolwork and assisting her family whenever possible. I have met a few of her boyfriends — we didn’t allow her to date in high school — and they seemed like fine, upstanding gentlemen. And she has recently started a new career as a nurse — so I’m fairly confident she wouldn’t want to jeopardize anything in that area of her life.
I pulled into the illuminated parking lot, which by now had been cleared out. The time was past bar close, and in a few short hours people would begin their Thursdays. As for me, I never quite got the hang of those. A heavy set man smoking a cigarette was outside the entrance beneath the canopy, so I stepped out of the squad car and talked to him.
“Are you the man who called about the hit and run?” I pulled my notepad from my breast pocket.
“Yeah.” He nodded slightly.
His appearance was well-kept and handsome. Short black hair, a small scruffy goatee. Glasses, a few piercings — modest by the standards of most people his age, which I guessed to be in the early twenties. Light complexion, appeared to be of either French or Jewish descent. He was a larger man in the gut, but carried the extra weight well like a Samoan or Bam Bam Bigelow.
“Tell me what you told them.” By “them” I meant the dispatcher, which was rather poor English on my part.
“Well, I was leaving the bar and was waiting for Yellow Cab to pick me up. They’re some slow fuckers, I tell you that. Well, anyway, I heard a loud ‘thud’ noise coming from the street and when I looked down about a block I saw what looked like a man in the front of a car.” From his concise and steady speech, I realized that despite being after hours and outside of a tavern, this man was stone cold sober.
“How could you tell from this distance and from behind?” I asked with my pen at the ready.
“That’s the fucked up part. When they reached the lights at Ballard, the car did a half-assed U-Turn in the intersection and came back this way. They drove right past here in front of probably twenty people and turned down some side road a little bit aways.” Translation for those who could not see his hand gestures: the car in question left the parking lot and headed East towards Little Chute on Highway 96. A block away is the intersection of Ballard and Wisconsin, where the driver turned around and ventured West, driving past this parking lot again and finally turning North several blocks from here.
“I see. Can you describe the vehicle?”
“Sure. It was a car, it was blue, kinda low….”
“You don’t know what kind of car?” A low-riding blue car could be just about anything. Heck, you could make a sedan such as a Ford Contour a low-riding blue vehicle if you made slight modifications.
“No, I never really got into that. I just deliver pizzas, man.” He puffed one last time on his Kamel Red and put the embers out unflinching on his wrist, much to my amazement. He dropped the butt into the bucket outside the canopy — Appleton has no smoking allowed in taverns, making these buckets common.
“Did you get a plate number?” I asked, not expecting much in the way of results.
“Oh, yeah. It was unforgettable man. AYBABTU, whatever that means.” Perfection. The witness’s lack of automobile knowledge was more than redeemed by his apparently excellent vision.
“That’s all I need, just give me your name and you can be on your way.” With the license plate handy, I did not technically need the informant’s name. But after reading some of the incident reports that come from the Neenah Police Department, I have been more aware of how a thorough report can make a world of difference.
“Mike. Michael Champeau.” French. I figured as much.
“Alright, Mike, head on home.” He swaggered over to a blue station wagon with faux wood paneling, climbed inside and warmed up the vehicle.
I called in the license plate, eager to find where this car had likely gone to.
“Yeah, dispatch, need a plate lookup on Alpha-Yankee-Bravo-Alpha-Bravo-Tango-Uniform.”
A few short seconds later. “Comes back to a Grant Marshall Zwilling. Short list, no wants. The rest should be up on your screen.” The dispatcher on duty was still Rachel, who was probably nearing the end of her shift — usually we cycle through around three in the morning, as well as 1100 hours and 1900 hours (11 a.m. and 7 p.m.).
Sure enough, the laptop in my squad had already brought up the physical description and address of Mr. Zwilling. Soon, with any luck, this technology will also be able to show us photos of the suspect wired over from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Most DMV offices now store computerized versions of the driver’s license photographs, so the extra networking would be minor. Zwilling only lived a few blocks down from here, probably the same street Mike had told me he turned on to.
I didn’t see any point in calling backup just yet. Drunk drivers, which is what I suspected Zwilling was, rarely put up a fight as long as guns weren’t involved. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he had passed out in the garage with the car running, probably not even noticing the man he had hit. Perhaps he was unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning. Another vehicular manslaughter and another young life wasted.
Zwilling lived in a small apartment complex of eight sections, four upper and four lower. There was no inside entrance, the upper residents had to use an outside balcony. Each apartment also had its own carport across the street, a small storage unit that could probably fit just a car and nothing else. In some cases, climbing out the car windows was probably easier than attempting to open the doors. Zwilling’s carport was closed, with no window. And I saw no sign of a car matching his vehicle’s description; a Trans-Am — the same make and model as KITT from Knight Rider, just a different color. The coincidences were beginning to mount.
Zwilling’s residence was on the first floor, so I proceeded to knock on his door with that unique rapping they had taught us to appreciate. Three short, but firm, pounds on the door. The paneling was solid oak and the noise resonated well throughout the apartment. I waited, knocked again, and still nobody came to answer the door. Passed out, probably.
I called his listed number on my cellular telephone, only to hear the ringing inside without an answer. The machine picked my call up.
“This is Grant. You know what to do.”
I didn’t bother to leave a message. I was determined to find this guy by daybreak. So I took the next logical step and called up the landlord, whose number was printed on a large “Now Renting” sign in the front yard. Maybe this was unorthodox police work, but you don’t get to be a glorified gumshoe like Columbo by pussyfooting around with the proper procedures.
“Yo, Penny here, what do you want?” To my surprise, the landlord was a landlady, and from the sound of her voice a fairly attractive one at that. I was even more surprised to find she was awake.
“Penny, this is Officer Tony Benson from the Appleton Police Department. I am trying to find the location of one of your tenants, a Grant Zwilling. Would you happen to have a number other than his residence where he might be reached?” I used my assertive, professional voice. This is the most effective way to get civilians to do what you ask before they realize they are not obligated by law to assist you.
“Um, sure. Hold on.”
I could hear her rummaging through her drawers, and to be honest I was quite impressed she was so quick and alert for being the time of day — or rather, night — we were dealing with. She was back on the line within two minutes.
“Okay, I got something for you.”
“Give it to me.” I clicked my pen once more.
“His alternate reference number is listed as his girlfriend, Stacy. Her cell number is…” Penny read off the number and I thanked her for her cooperation. If Zwilling wasn’t at home, chances are he was shacking up with his lady friend after a night of hard drinking. That seemed reasonable enough. So I called Stacy up — who turned out to be a member of the locally prominent Moskewitz clan — only to be verbally attacked and abused.
“What the fuck do you want now, creep!?!!?” She was huffing and puffing in frustration, moaning and groaning like she could take on the A-Team.
“This is Officer Benson of the Appleton Police Department. Have I caught you at a bad time?”
“Oh, shit. I thought you were my piece of shit boyfriend.” I can see there is lots of love in this relationship.
“I take it he’s not with you?”
“Fuck no. I hope that prick rots for what he’s done.” Click. For what he’s done?
Something was going on. Part of me wanted this to be the case that made my career and bought me a promotion, and the other part was already missing the speed demons and the restful sleep I have become accustomed to. I was quite certain at this point, though, that this was a bigger deal than I had first thought.