Three years ago
The bomb pop. Ta-da!
Pepper Ryan grinned—he'd finally chosen his winner. The original bomb pop was the greatest ice cream truck treat of all time.
It was a tough call, and no disrespect to his semi-finalists (Choco Taco and Klondike Bar—well fought!), but the cold sting of cherry, lime and blue raspberry was a hot summer afternoon, deep down wherever the simplest memories of his childhood were stored. Just thinking about a bomb pop made Pepper's mouth start to water, all these years later.
Pepper was now a twenty-six-year-old police officer, sitting on an overturned plastic milk crate in the back of a dirty old ice cream truck, waiting. Hence the frozen treat debate, even though its coolers were completely empty. He'd been on stakeout since 11 PM, so almost an hour. And for three hours each of the last two nights.
He was parked on the edge of Shore Road, just short of a beach parking lot at Rogers Lighthouse that his super-confidential source (Pepper's best buddy, Angel Cavada) had tipped him might be used as the handoff location of a hell of a lot of little blue pills at midnight, some night this week. Angel was an entrepreneurial spirit. He knew all kinds of people who heard things from all kinds of even worse people…this gossip was so thin it didn't include names. But supposedly the pills would be dropped by a Rhode Island scumbag in a blue Honda to a more local scumbag in a red Jeep Wrangler Sport. The local scumbag being—Pepper believed—the source of the benzo analog pills poisoning New Albion's middle school and high school for the past three months.
Pepper's patrol shift had ended at 6 PM, so his current activity was a bit of unofficial, unpaid overtime. He didn't inform his boss, New Albion's Chief of Police Donald Eisenhower, about the tip or his stakeout. Eisenhower would have told him to go home. He'd have handed it to his School Resource Officer investigating the pill epidemic, who would have shared it with the county and state police on their task force.
But Pepper's theory was either the local scumbag was a very lucky dude, or else the task force had an info leak. So what was wrong with testing his little theory? Pepper was way too pumped to care how Eisenhower would lecture him after the bust. Pepper fucking hated drug dealers and the misery they sold. It wasn't at all about competing again with his dad's old legacy, or even worse the raw memory of his brother Jake, no matter what some would inevitably say.
Outside the truck's split back window, a bit of moon dimly lit the parking lot, the beach and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. A blinding sweep of the lighthouse's beam across the sky occasionally turned midnight to noon, then flashed away. It was early June and chilly, both in and out of the truck.
Pepper waited, happy but impatient. All bottled energy. He realized he was whistling the beginning of Led Zeppelin's killer summer song, "Dancing Days"—its electric guitar riffs of adrenaline—over and over… He should have brought his guitar on the stakeout, he could have jammed with himself.
Finally, just after midnight, a blue Honda Civic with tinted windows cruised by but didn't enter the parking lot. Pepper watched it slowly disappear around a curve further along Shore Road. A minute later, a red Jeep came from the opposite direction and slowly pulled into the lot without using his turn signal. Okay, clearly a bad guy. The Jeep backed into a spot with its rear end to the ocean and killed its engine. And waited. Pepper crawled forward to the ice cream truck's cab, shaking pins and needles from his legs. Staying low, he used his phone to record video of the Jeep.
After five minutes the Blue Honda arrived again, from the same direction as before. The driver had made a loop. It pulled into the lot (signaling!) and pulled in nose first next to the Jeep, real close. Its lights stayed on.
Arms holding a backpack, followed by a head, poked out of the Honda. A black baseball cap and arms emerged from the Jeep, taking the backpack.
Without stopping recording, Pepper dialed the hot number for the New Albion police station. Barbara Buckley on Dispatch answered.
He gave a quick description of the vehicles and the situation, requesting backup.
"Uh, Pepper?" asked Barbara. Pausing, maybe trying to figure out how to deal with Pepper's foolishness over an open channel. "What're you—"
Pepper missed the rest because he dropped his phone in his lap as the Honda backed out of its spot. Pepper started the engine of the ice cream truck and jammed it into gear. It lurched forward, blocking the lot's only way in or out.
The Honda slid to a stop, almost hitting the ice cream truck. Pepper could see a woman behind the wheel—somewhere between thirty and fifty, lean, pale white face. Curly brown hair. Her mouth and eyes were wide open with fear.
Then two developments happened at once. The woman backed up the Honda and raced at an extreme angle at the lot's curb, aiming to jump the curb onto the sidewalk then to the open street. And the Jeep was also moving across the lot now in a slow wide circle. As if watching.
Pepper could hear a police siren, far in the distance.
The Honda's front left tire hit the curb and it went airborne, flipping over on its roof. It slid across the asphalt, spinning like a kid's toy.
The Jeep completed its circle and hit the curb on the beach side. Its oversized tires had no problem with the curb and it bounced onto the grass then disappeared down the walkway to the beach. With the backpack of pills.
So Pepper stomped the clutch and yanked the ice cream truck into reverse gear. He backed about fifty feet in a swaying line as fast as he dared, then yanked the truck forward onto a service path with beach access.
Pepper roared forward down the packed dirt and sand path, snatching his phone from his lap.
"Dispatch! The Honda's disabled in Rogers Light lot. Female driver, maybe armed. Ambulance needed. I'm pursuing the Jeep."
A pause, then Barbara asked, "What's your twenty?"
The service path ran out and the ice cream truck hit deep, loose sand and beach grass. The truck slowed hard, its engine whining high and rough. Pepper could see the rear lights of the Jeep disappearing down the beach.
"I'm ah, off-road. Driving north on Roger's Light beach." Pepper flipped the toggle for the ice cream truck's music and its loudspeakers crackled into full volume, "Da da Da da Dum, da da da da DA da Dum"… the same tinny, hissing tune he remembered running after in his youth with his brother Jake and their buddies. He realized it was the goofy old song "Do Your Ears Hang Low".
I miss you Jake, thought Pepper. His brother Jake had died a little over a month ago and it still felt unreal. Like it was part of a nightmare from last night that haunts you the next morning. "Tell backup to follow the music," he said.
"Goddamn Pepper! What—"
But Pepper dropped his phone in his lap again, needing both hands to control the steering wheel that was jerking wildly from side to side. The ice cream truck was lunging and rocking over the sand. Not good. So Pepper angled toward the wet, packed sand of low tide, closer to the waterline.
Which turned out to be nice and almost firm. He had the gas pedal pinned to the floor and appeared to be gaining on the Jeep, which was having a much easier time with the sand but kept slowing as if looking for a way off the beach. Pepper knew the Jeep's next good choice was a half-mile further along—a pedestrian right-of-way between beach houses.
He snatched the phone from his lap. "Send a car north to the beach access path next to the Kendalls' house. Suspect's in a red Jeep."
But no response from Barbara. Pepper saw he'd disconnected the call somehow during the chase. Fuck.
The Jeep was only 100 yards ahead of him now and was nearing the pedestrian walkway.
The ice cream truck hit a tide pool and slid to the right, Pepper dropping his phone again. The truck almost stopped but with tires spinning furiously Pepper forced it forward. Smoke was now coming out from under the hood, swirling in his headlights.
If it wasn't for the smoke, Pepper was sure he would have seen the motorboat. But he didn't. He t-boned its large, curved side—a dark black, twentyish-foot boat beached on the sand, waiting for the tide to come back in. The boat shattered in a burst of fiberglass. The ice cream truck jerked to a stop on the remains of the boat's stern. Pepper was thrown forward, his waist seatbelt jackknifing him to smack his forehead on the steering wheel.
Pepper felt a quick, fiery pain and then instantly he was almost completely lights-out unconscious.
From a very far and small place in his mind, Pepper was still conscious enough to realize he had right and truly fucked up this time—the stakeout, his job, his life. And he also knew he wasn't dead because he could still hear the ice cream truck's relentless music, but somehow fainter: Da da Da da Dum, da da da da DA da Dum--
Not dead, just a damned sight worse…