by Dale Marlowe

His illicit on-the-job pastime rudely interrupted, Office Martinez talked the kid down the ladder and wrapped his skinny wrists in a zip-tie. He hoisted the kid's backpack and marched him down a dirty alleyway between the low, narrow buildings, to where Martinez's cruiser sat parked, still running. He tossed the bag in the front passenger seat and stowed the kid in the back. Allowing himself a long parental sigh, Martinez dropped into the driver's seat. 

The boulevard traffic roared past them in noisy, irregular intervals--mostly semi-tractors here, on the edge of town, where the city ran abrupt against the grim heat of the New Mexico desert. The sidewalk and a phalanx of humble stucco apartment buildings yielded full-stop to low-desert cactus, rough sand and well-camouflaged, hardscrabble fauna. Silence. In the rear-view mirror, the kid's face showed in profile, dim, a silhouette against the stratified, multicolored sunset ripping through the cruiser's back window. 

The boy wore a buzz-cut, but kept his bangs long, dyed purple, hanging in his eyes. That was worse than when they wore sunglasses. You need to see the eyes when you ask a question. You can make a dirt-bag remove sunglasses, but you can't cut hair. They'd get a lawyer after you for that.

Martinez retrieved his camera from the dusty dashboard, closed the flash, pressed the OFF button and replaced the lens-cap. The camera was only four years old; it still worked, but was relatively obsolete, especially for the purposes of a future well-known photographer. The LiO battery would barely hold a charge more than an hour. That was the main thing. It would cut off just when you needed it.

He stowed the camera between his legs, under the driver's seat. There would be other big skies, other thermonuclear, apocalyptic dusks. The joy was in the chase, anyhow. This one was too perfect. A postcard shot, Ansel Adams nonsense. The kid had probably done him a favor. 

Finally: “You got a name?”

The kid took a deep breath, puffed his lower lip and exhaled. He looked down; then: the squeak of sneaker-soles rubbing on the plastic floor. 

Martinez shrugged. 

“Suit yourself. You can tell me or you can tell them.”


Martinez chuckled.

“You know what building that was?”

“Some bank.”

“Fed relay. Where they put money so they don't have to leave it in trucks overnight. It's a vault with a roof. Sometimes empty, sometimes full.”

“The Fed can eat a bag of dicks,” the kid grumbled.

“Yeah, well,” said Martinez, “Tell the FBI. They'll be here tut suite. Expecting cooperation.” 

The kid sulked.

“Didn't know it was a government building. Not that I care.”

A pack of late-teen Indian boys passed in an SUV, looking tough. When they saw the kid in the back seat they pointed, laughed, and yelled something obscene. Martinez wasn't listening closely, but knew the calls were rude by the mocking tones.

“So, if it was some little state bank it'd be different?” Martinez asked.

The kid shook his head. 

“It's not about the building.”

“What's it about then?”

“You'd never get it.”

Martinez stretched his right arm across the passenger's head-rest and turned. With his left hand, he raised the backpack. It bag rattled and clanked; ball bearings in liquid, crashing against aluminum, aluminum crashing against itself. An unmistakable sound--spray-paint cans. 

“Let's see: No ID, no name, bag full of half-empty spray cans, climbing the utility access to the roof. Right. I'd need to make Detective before I connect those dots.”

“Can you loosen this zip tie some? It's cutting my wrists.”

“It ain't supposed to be comfortable.”

Martinez lowered the backpack and faced front again. He looked at his watch. The FBI took forever, always. They acted like anything locals called them on put them out. It might be half an hour before they bothered to show. They'd send a rookie, for sure, some fellow just out of the academy who couldn't find his ass with both hands, much less figure out what to do about some barely-eighteen delinquent vandalizing federal property.

If the kid wanted to play games, he might as well get some shots in. Martinez pulled the camera from beneath the seat, opened the door, and stepped out.  He rested his knee against the seat's side and lay his elbow on the car's roof. He turned the camera on and raised it to his eye.

Martinez managed only three shots before he felt the car rocking. He leaned over and peered into the backseat. The kid's face filled the window, big and oval, eggwhite pale. His bangs had swung to one side, revealing wide, brown pupils; they glimmered, electric, turned-on. Martinez hung the camera-strap around his neck, bent at the waist, and ducked into the cruiser.


“See?” said the kid, nodding forward, agitated. “See it? Look!”

Martinez raised himself and turned to the relay, where the bronzed roof trim caught a ray of sunlight and for a few silent, sacred seconds, the metal burned like seams of molten steel. The illusion flowed around the pediment, rimming it in cords of orange fire, then it expired suddenly, dying fast with onrushing night-rise. Martinez's breath caught. He wanted to roar, whoop, spin the world backwards and watch it over and over again. 

He waited a moment, collected himself, and resumed his seat at the cruiser's wheel.

“Wasn't that sweet?” demanded the kid, rocking back and forth, laughing. “Just...just straight-up amazing. I was gonna write a word in that triangle up there, man. In the middle. Write a word, a single, powerful, magic word. See it laced in sunset. I've dreamed about it.”

“What word?”

“I have no idea,” the kid said. “I figured I'd know when I got up there.”

His own laugh, which Martinez had not expected, broke his bad-cop pose. Again, the mirror. The kid's face was still sour with sass, barely concealing heavy worry, but there was something new in it. Relief, like the lonely show when company comes. 

Martinez thought for a few seconds, then exited the cruiser again. He opened the back door.

“C'mon,” he told the kid, resettling into his bad-ass persona, his voice crisp. “Out.”

The kid scooted to the seat-edge and wriggled from the car.

“What you going to do?”

Martinez drew a pocket knife from his duty belt and unfolded it. He pressed the blade cutting-side up, between the kid's palms. He cut the plastic; the zip tie, split at the center, fell away. The kid brought his hands around and massaged his wrists. Martinez waved him off. 

“The fuck outta here.”

“For real?”

“No,” said Martinez, “for fake. Go. Before I come to my senses.”

The kid had taken a few steps up the sidewalk, toward town, when Martinez called for him to wait. The kid stopped. Martinez took the camera from his neck and motioned for the kid to catch. 

The camera looked right in the kid's hands: large and useful, a professional's tool, a thing for making. The kid examined it, turning  it over and back again. That hair, back over the eyes. Like a damn sheepdog.

“I don't understand,” he murmured. 

“Get another hobby,” Martinez said. “I'm keeping the paint.”

The kid departed, waddling a low-waisted, saggy-drawers semi-strut. Still, his back had straightened; the bulges of his spine no longer jutted through the thin cotton of his wife-beater. A weight had gone, and he seemed raised by the sudden lightness following close on shirked burdens. A new posture, if not a new walk: the stride of a peson who just remembered he's got somewhere to get.

Martinez pondered the brief span of time before shift-change and decided he'd shop for a new camera. But first, he'd pick a lie to tell the FBI when they came. It crossed his mind to tell the truth, but he knew they'd never get it.