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The Backwards Detective

by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

Wilbur came to me on a Thursday. He was in jogging clothes and tennis shoes. He was wearing bandages on his head, partially covered by a New York Yankees baseball cap. He seemed to be just out of college but when I looked at him a little closer I saw he was a bit older than that. On his face were the biggest, thickest glasses I’d ever seen.

He was standing by the rack that held weapon improvements. He was holding a package right up to his face and he was trying to read the name of the device. “It’s a laser sight for a rifle,” I said. He looked startled and then fumbled trying to put the package back.

I asked him, “What part of the business are you in? That is... if you can tell me.” I always talk to customers as though we’re in some secret organization and we’re facing torture if we talk openly.

“I’m in loss prevention,” he said.

That meant he was mall security, probably at a Wall Mart. I didn’t care, I always treat every customer the same. I try to get money from them.

“Did you need a holster or maybe a stun gun, some military-strength pepper spray?”

“What I’d really like is something that keeps me from getting lumped on the head every time I’m on stakeout.”

He took off the baseball cap. There were obvious signs of wear and tear on his head. His right eye looked bloodshot, the pupil big as a penny.

“I’ve got something,” I said, “but it takes some getting used to.” I brought it out from the back room. I took it off the hanger and let him hold it.

“It’s heavy,” he said.

“Twenty-four pounds, including the batteries. It’s experimental. It’s not for sale, but I can rent it to you if you promise to fill out an evaluation and give it an endorsement, if possible.”

“What’s to endorse? It’s just a trench coat with a big black piece of plastic built into the back. Not even stylish, if you ask me.”

He was putting it on. I showed him the straps and how the buttons on the sleeves worked. I got him in the thing and then switched the control to “demo.” He shivered and looked back over his shoulder.

“What you’re feeling is the enunciator adjusting itself to your contours,” I said. “It shapes itself to your back. Later, you’ll want to get your back waxed. You’ll learn which shirts to wear, you’ll want to wear shirts that don’t interfere with the transmissions. Wash and wear cotton works well enough, but silk shirts are best.

“What you’re feeling should be the letter T. A series of tiny pixels are pushed out against your skin. There should be a vertical path, and running across the top of that, a horizontal path. If someone cut the letter T out of plywood and put it inside your shirt, and if you paid attention to the pattern as it touched your skin, you could eventually guess which letter they had hidden in there. And then they could put a different letter inside and you’d eventually be able to read that letter also.

“This machine is equivalent to having raised messages. About now you should be feeling the letter “U.” The machine is going to spell out the word ‘TUTORIAL’. It’s all capital letters, so it shouldn’t be that hard to read.

“When you’re ready to learn more, twist the button on the sleeve. This is a learning process and it takes time. I suggest you take the coat home and practice with it.”

He agreed. I took an initial deposit from his account, gave him some manuals, and he was gone.

The next week he came back in. He was pretty excited. “You didn’t tell me about the cat.”

“Most people don’t believe, so I don’t tell them.”

“When it showed me the cat I was very impressed.”

“I don’t see why.” I said. I drew a cat on a piece of paper.

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“Every piece of information can be conveyed with pictures or geometric shapes or lines and circles. The Chinese use pictures of houses and pictures of birds in everyday conversation. Even the ancient Egyptians used pictures when they wrote.”

“I guess I mean I was impressed when it started to show me a moving cat,” he said.

“You got that far?”

“Oh yes.”

“That’s about six weeks’ worth of lessons.”

“I wore it a lot,” he said. “I’m interested in how it’s going to be a help. You said it might keep me from getting knocked about while I’m doing my job.”

“It has the ability to look behind you.” I turned on the scanning function. “Face the door.”

I was standing behind him. I leaned right and then left. He moved as if he was being tickled slightly.

“I can feel it,” he said. “I get a picture of you, a silhouette.” Without turning to look, he pointed over his left shoulder. “There you are,” he said, aiming at me with remarkable precision.

He talked me into going with him. He said he was going to confront a group of crooks and he wanted me to go along.

I said, “Only as an advisor. Only as this relates to the equipment.”

He agreed.

We drove down to the docks. Fog was rolling in. I taught him how to adjust the device so it could read through haze and fog and bad lighting. The device paid off quickly. I was across the street under a street light.

I could see a thug sneaking up on Wilbur. The bad guy was wearing rubber soles and rubber heels so even on the cobblestones he wasn’t making any noise. I almost yelled a warning but it wasn’t necessary.

Wilbur turned and had the drop on the bad guy. Wilbur started to pistol-whip the guy. He must have determined that the man he had just caught was the one who had kept bouncing bricks off Wilbur’s head. So Wilbur was getting even.

It wasn’t right. I ran across the street. “Stop,” I said. I pulled something out of my pocket. “Look at this gun, Wilbur. If you want to pistol-whip somebody this is the gun you need.”

The gun had a special button built into the grip. When the button was pushed the barrel of the gun swung back and forth while the handle held steady.

Even though his would-be assailant was unconscious and lying on the sidewalk, Wilbur bent over the man’s body and used the gun to slap him in the face six dozen times.

Wilbur stood up. He looked at me. His eyes were burning with justice but I couldn’t see them. The fog had fogged Wilbur’s glasses on the outside, and exertion had fogged Wilbur’s glasses on the inside. And Wilbur’s glasses weren’t very good to begin with.

“The stolen cookware is inside the warehouse,” he said. “I’m going in.”

“It’s dark in there,” I said. “Remember how to adjust the settings on your coat.”

He twiddled with the button on his sleeve. “I want to thank you,” he said. “I’ve never gotten this far before. I’d always meet the woman in the red dress and she’d want me to recover the stolen art and she’d hint that the reward would include her and her crazy sister, the one who killed the man at the racetrack, and I’d go meet the old general and then on the way out to my car somebody would hit me over the head.

“I never got very far. I was always being beat-up. It’s a new day. This is one shamus that ain’t afraid to make his own rules.”

He turned so he was facing me. He walked backwards across the alley. Almost moon-walking. Facing me the entire time. He kicked in a door using a backwards thrust of his legs. Kicking back like a mule.

Right inside the door he got into a fight and he had to use his elbows a lot; the man he was fighting looked confused. I’m old enough to remember Muhammad Ali, one of the best fighters in the world. Ali often fought using strategy and wiles and one time he invented a whole new style of fighting, calling it “Rope a Dope” where Ali allowed himself to stand close to the ropes and he leaned back into the ropes so the force of his opponent’s punches was transferred to the ropes.

Ali was inventive but I don’t think he’d have ever invented a style of fighting like Wilbur was using. A style where the fighter faced away from his opponent. To keep an eye on his opponent, Wilbur was doing just that, fighting while facing away from his opponent. I was glad the black square on Wilbur’s back was thick and sturdy.

It was a long evening: gunshots, broken windows, a safe blown open using household chemicals in the proper proportions. At one point I watched as Wilbur raced up a long winding stairway, all the while facing the wrong way, running up the steps backwards two at a time, firing shots behind him as he went.

I wish I could tell you I was along on the car chase, but I wasn’t. I wish I could tell you I was there when Wilbur arrested the big cheese, the head honcho, the white-collar thug behind the theft of fifty crockpots and numerous spatulas, but by then I’d been left far behind.

The last I saw of Wilbur that night was when he put the top down on the red convertible and threw the car in reverse and, standing in the seat so his coat could lead the way, he sped off backwards at ninety miles an hour, leaving behind a trail of black marks on the black asphalt and black smoke from his screaming tires darkening the night.

I yelled after him,“Watch your back.”

“Always,” he said.

Copyright © 2009 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

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