My memory ain’t what it used to be, but I reckon this happened in ’67. Well, that or ’68.
Back then I was a city cop. Nothin’ fancy – just a beat cop in a black & white. My partner was a tall, rangy guy whose real name I can’t remember. The guys at the precinct all called him ‘Scooter’. It suited him and he seemed to like it.
Anyway, one morning Scooter and me was on patrol. We’d stopped for coffee at Nellie’s Donuts, a kinda low-rent joint out near the airport. It wasn’t much to look at and the coffee was only so-so, but Scooter had his eye on one of the waitresses there. It was my turn to drive, so Scooter went to fetch the coffee while I minded the radio in the cruiser.
I guess we’d been there for maybe 20 minutes when Dispatch came through on the radio. It was a hot day and I’d turned the volume up in case I dozed off, so Dolores the dispatcher’s voice boomed out the speaker like an angry mother. It cut through the morning air so loud that the feller in the next car spilled coffee all over his shirt.
Dolores had bad news for us: there was a 507 in progress at the K-Mart on Jefferson, and Scooter and me were to get our asses over there. I hollered to Scooter and he ambled over to the cruiser and hopped into the passenger seat, wincing as his butt made contact with the hot leatherette.
The city’s changed some over the years, but back then the quickest way to get from Nellie’s to Jefferson was to hang a right at the intersection of Wilding and Chapel and then blat straight down through the Layton district. It’s been – what’s that word you young fellers use – gentrified now, but in my day it was home to every wino, wise guy and punk in the city. I tell ya, just passin’ through it in a black and white was a wild ride: there was hardly a time we wasn’t shot at or stoned.
So you can imagine that we wasn’t taking her easy. I guess we musta been doing 80, maybe more, as we hit the main drag past the Wilmington Theatre. Well, what was left of it after a nutball set it alight during some sorta ‘peace and love’ rally. Peace and love, my ass!
We was nearly out of Nutville when we saw her lying in the middle of Ventura Avenue: a white woman, mid-30s with long black hair and wearing some fancy looking clothes.
Scooter had the passenger door open before we came to a stop. He ran over to the woman while I grabbed the Remington from its mounting bracket – ya couldn’t be too careful in that neighbourhood.
I had one eye on Scooter and – as the joke down the precinct went – the other two on the local nuts who were gathering on the side walk. Normally we’d have called it in and waited for an ambulance to come. But that wasn’t an option in The Layton; the locals coulda taught piranha fish a thing or two. So Scooter carried her over to the cruiser, carefully placed her on the back seat and covered her with a blanket we always carried.
By now quite a crowd had gathered on the side walk, and let me tell ya they wasn’t exactly concerned passers-by. It says something about a place when the nicer inhabitants are the ones shouting “Death to all pigs” at ya.
I poked the Remington out of the window in the general direction of the mob while Scooter climbed back into the cruiser. He’d just shut the door when a rock shattered the side window, hit him square on the head and caused him to slump forward in his seat.
That was the cue for the assembled nuts to charge towards us, so I buried the throttle and the cruiser lurched forward in a cloud of tyre smoke.
My foot stayed planted to the floor even after we reached the safety of McKinley Heights. Scooter looked in a bad way but stopping to check on him and the woman made no sense – not when Mount Cedars Hospital was no more’n a couple of minutes away.
I called it in. Dispatch said they’d radio ahead to Mount Cedars and tell them to be ready for us.
When we reached there maybe a minute, minute and half later, the ER guys were waiting for us. They took Scooter out first. He was bleeding heavily from a gash on his right temple but was starting to come around.
And then they opened the cruiser’s back doors. A blanket lay neatly folded on top of the back seat. The woman, whoever she was, had gone.
Now, it ain’t exactly easy to escape from the back seat of a police cruiser, least of all one that’s moving at 100 or better. Heck, even that David Copperfield feller woulda struggled with that one. But I’ll be damned if this woman didn’t do it.
It took some explaining to the Lieutenant, I’ll tell ya. But he knew that Scooter and me wasn’t liars. Besides, the injury to Scooter’s head was real enough. So it all blew over eventually, though some of the boys down the precinct liked to remind us of it every now and then.
Scooter quit the force a year later. He joked that ‘Nam outta be safer than The Layton. Happens he was wrong ’bout that. The bravest man I ever knew, he was killed trying to rescue a wounded buddy in the middle of some firefight that history ain’t recorded.
But before he shipped out, he sent me a letter. It contained a newspaper cutting with a picture of an actress. Her name was Erin Charters, she had long black hair and the picture’s caption said she was 34. She was the woman we’d found on Ventura.
A note in Scooter’s scrawl said “I KNEW I’d seen her before.”
Problem was the article said that she’d died in ’66, burned to death in the Wilmington Theatre. She’d fallen over something, broke her leg and couldn’t make it to the exit. The article also said that the police and fire department had got there soon enough, maybe even in time to save her, but pulled back when they came under attack from the rioters.
Now, you can’t always believe what you read in the papers, but they got that one right. Scooter and me was there, dodging rocks and petrol bombs thrown by the crazies as we worked our way to the theatre doors. We was maybe ten yards from them when some punk started taking potshots at us with a rifle. The Captain decided enough was enough and ordered us to pull back until the SWAT team arrived.
I followed orders, but Scooter was hell bent on getting into that theatre, orders or no orders. It took three guys to stop him. I don’t think he ever forgave ’em for that.
What’s that got to do with the woman on Ventura?
Well, I’ve had a lot of time to think on this, and I wonder if maybe Erin Charters gave Scooter and me a second chance to save her.
Call me crazy, call me a liar, call me what you like. I could care less. But just remember this: I was there.