Another New Guy
by Gary Clifton
“Boy, sign up for that government job, you gonna end up in someplace like Detroit City.” Uncle Billy was sitting on the weatherbeaten front porch of the Proctor home on Leg Holler Road just east of Skeeter Creek in the piney woods of far Southeast Texas.
“Aw, Uncle B, they already told me I was assigned over in Dallas or Houston.”
Billy spat tobacco juice over the broken porch rail. “Near ’bout as bad. And they could always move you to that Detroit place or, God forbid, New York City any day. They both the same kinda dens of evil, sin, and degeneration. Wicked city women all over the place.”
The idea of being some kind of cop had never crossed Dennis Proctor’s mind as he grew up in the comfortable confines of the East Texas family compound. A pensive young man, inclined to write poetry, he’d always leaned toward a vocation in the ministry or teaching.
Then Providence intervened and quickly had Dennis in a step-over toe-hold. A month before graduation from LBJ State University, the U.S. Department of Justice recruiter visited the campus.
The recruiter laid on lurid details: “Car chases, machinegun fire, dope dealers, bank robberies... hell, Dennis, it’s something new every day.”
None of the recruiter’s words would have made never no mind, but the salary scale was electrifying: three times the pay of the preacher of the Limb of the Lord Pentecostal Church of Skeeter Creek. Dennis signed right up.
After sixteen weeks of running ten miles before breakfast at the Academy in the Georgia swamp, Dennis was commissioned as a Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, known as ATF. Dennis had never heard of the outfit and hoped he hadn’t joined a cult.
During graduation in the swamp, a gray-haired guy congratulated him for not being eaten by gators, as he surely would have been, had he wandered off the jogging trail. The man handed him credentials, a badge, and a map to Dallas.
* * *
Dennis located his necktie, brushed off his suit and, early on a hot August Monday morning, was perched on a bench in the shabby Dallas ATF office. The bench gave him the strange feeling the building might be leaning slightly off-center.
Although the sound of laughter wafted up an adjacent hallway, he sat, ignored, uncertain.
The receptionist, a slender, bespectacled lady of thirty dashed in at 8:15. She shot a paranoid glance down the hallway, quickly slid into her chair, and instantly assumed the “damn, I’m busy” position. Then she noticed Dennis.
“Who are you... IAD? I swear I never been late before... The bus driver... uh... died.”
“I... I’m Dennis Proctor. I report to work this morning.”
“Another one of them damned temps who cain’t read?”
“Uh... no ma’am. I’m an agent. Finished the academy Thursday last.”
When she sprang to her feet like an Olympic gymnast, Dennis started to bolt for the door.
“Siddown, dude,” she commanded. In lieu of an intercom, she shouted with incredible volume down a battered hallway: “Somebody get your ass up here. We got another new guy!”
A slender, semi-handsome man of thirty, coatless in a starched white shirt and silk tie, appeared in the hallway, a large revolver on his hip.
“Hey, dude, I’m Fenwick Gulliver, Supervisor, Bomb and Arson Group. Shoulda walked on back,” he gestured down the hallway. “Here, step into my office. You realize Eliot Ness was an ATF agent?” he pointed to a portrait of an average-appearing man on the wall.
“Uh... yessir,” Dennis lied. He’d watched reruns of the old Untouchable TV series and the Kevin Costner update, both starring a character named Eliot Ness, but had never connected them with ATF.
Dennis followed into a cluttered office where Gulliver motioned him into a plastic chair. Gulliver stepped out of the office and returned with two Styrofoam cups of steaming black coffee.
“Pritchard, if you wanna make it in ATF, grow some ‘nads’, you gotta drink coffee. It’s part of Southern police etiquette and, by God, everybody does it.” He shoved the coffee across his desk.
“Uh... Procter, sir.”
Dennis, who had never tasted coffee in his life, stared at the oily, black liquid, trying not to vomit. He sipped at the coffee. The taste was boiled linoleum. Perhaps next time he’d ask for kerosene?
Gulliver explained ATF policy. New hires were to remain neutered until they learned the “ropes.”
“That means no street activity, and weeks sitting in a conference room reading a manual that makes absolutely no sense to anyone. I throwed that sucker away three times, but the janitors brought it back every dad-gummed time.”
“Do I have to run ten miles first, sir?”
“Huh? Hey, we hadda new guy jump out the doggone sixth floor window last year. Manual-rejection-depression-psychosis-syndrome, the shrinks called it. Splaaat...landed on a homeless paper-hanger from Waterloo, Iowa. Never got that mess scrubbed off the sidewalk down there.”
“Dear God,” Dennis gasped.
“But, Porter, we can bend the rules a tad. We gotta problem.” Gulliver leaned close. “We’re doing a surveillance... right downtown this afternoon. We need more bodies. Range guy can take you upstairs and qualify you.”
“Proctor, sir. Qualify? I already shot about ten thousand rounds at the academy.”
“Don’t trust them academy humps. Gotta be done again in the field. You shoot a few targets, we issue you a revolver, and you can look mean as hell if you happen to get it out and wave it around.”
“Of course, you don’t get no bullets at first, but hell, you’ll rarely need to actually pull the trigger. It just looks official at 3:00 a.m., if the uglies get restless. Understand, Powell?”
“It’s Proctor, sir.”
* * *
The range officer, a fat guy badly in need of a haircut who smoked a cigar suspiciously resembling an alien life form, showed Dennis to a musty vault down the hall. He handed Dennis an official Colt Police Special, complete with a loop on the butt for a lanyard, vintage 1898.
“Better take two of them old busters to the range, Presley. Maybe one of ’em will actually fire without blowing up in your face. You get a real gun later.”
“Uh, sir, it’s Proctor.”
“Huh? Naw, hell boy, it’s a pair of them old wore-out Colts.”
He then led Dennis, now coffee-nauseous, with a rusty .38 in each hand, down the elevator and two hundred feet east on the sidewalk to an attached building.
Dennis tried smiling to show he meant no harm, but the effort came off as a demonic leer, scattering pedestrians like grass from Uncle Billy’s riding mower back in Skeeter Creek.
In the stifling heat of an ancient, tiny, pistol range on the top floor of what appeared to be a vacant building, Dennis commenced shooting. He used only one pistol, expecting to be beheaded at each trigger pull. He crouched and actually fired the first six rounds blindly over the loading counter.
The Range Officer encouraged him. “Stop worrying, kid. If she don’t blow on the first pull or two, she probably won’t. Besides, if she explodes, fragments would get you anyway, hunched down like that. If it wasn’t fatal, you’d be blind and brain-dead.”
“Oh, dear God,” Dennis gasped.
“And don’t breathe too deep in here. Building is condemned. Air ducts all fulla pigeon crap. Causes bubonic plague or some-such.”
“Dear God,” Dennis involuntarily held his breath until he became light-headed, hoping death from pigeon-crap poisoning might be gradual enough to write a final farewell to his mother.
The Range Officer hid behind a pillar, and Dennis, standing upright, trying not to breathe the poisoned air, blazed away, finally managing, lightheaded with early-on asphyxia, to actually put a few rounds in the target. The heavily perspiring range officer declared him qualified.
“Hey, I know, Gulliver said you didn’t get no bullets, but here’s a couple, ’case somebody needs shootin’ later on.” The fat guy grinned. “Matter o’ fact, better keep both these old hog-legs. No tellin’ when one of ’em won’t fire. Now hide them guns in your belt and report back to Gulliver.” He exhaled a cloud of toxic cigar poison, which Dennis prayed might be an antidote to the deadly pigeon-droppings malady.
* * *
Dennis stopped at the lobby coffee shop and bought a Milky Way candy bar before elevatoring back up. He had no way of knowing that simple act would prevent his death from starvation as the day bore on. Dennis felt a twinge of doubt about his chosen profession. But, what the heck, he’d only been on the job two hours.
Gulliver took Dennis to the sixteenth floor, where a sour-looking old man in a black judge’s robe swore him in, mumbling, head down, from a text on his desk. Dennis didn’t understand a word but comprehended the general nuance that he was agreeing to only shoot the ones he had to... or something like that.
Back in the office, Dennis pulled from his inside coat pocket, a tooled, leather holster given to him by his grandmother just before she died. Granny swore it was carried by Dennis’s great-great grandfather, a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. The glossy leather was embossed with a horse and rider which looked suspiciously like Roy Rogers and Trigger, but Dennis doubted Ol’ Roy had been in the Civil War.
Gulliver spotted the holster and retreated as if Dennis had produced a six-foot rattlesnake.
“Holy mother of pearl, Pearson. You carry that on the street and some badass is gonna pull off your ears sure as sundown, boy. Throw that thing in the first large body of water you come to.” Dennis stuck Ol’ Roy in the rear of his belt, now growing heavier with gear.
“Sir, it’s Proctor.”
“Huh?” Gulliver motioned for the now qualified, pistol-heavy new guy to follow.
In a small cubicle down the hall, behind a cluttered desk sat a thirtyish, black-haired man surrounded by guns, talking on the telephone. There were fifteen or eighteen pistols laying on the desk or hanging on wall-pegs, augmented by a double-barreled shotgun, an old M1-carbine, and a Thompson submachinegun in a rack behind him. Dennis knew instantly where to hide if the Russians attacked.
“Peabody, meet Special Agent Dave Long. He needs your help on a deal this morning. Later, he’ll drop you off at the surveillance.”
“Sir, it’s Pr...” Dennis began.
Long, tall and slender stood and extended a hand. “Glad to meet you, Powers,” he grinned, covering the reciever. “We gotta pick up a fugitive this afternoon. You just stand in the background and watch. You’re a witness in case I have to smoke the sucker.” He pushed a stack of gun magazines off a chair and gestured for Dennis to sit.
The magazines scattered, blending into numerous cupcake wrappers and assorted trash on the floor, an effect that rippled through much of the strewn paper.
Long poured Dennis a cup of black, viscous liquid from a pot on a credenza behind his desk.
Great God, it’s coffee, Dennis quaked. It smelled like gangrene might have set in. Dennis looked for a receptacle to dump the smelly concoction, but as a rookie in a valiant new world, he bravely begin sipping again. This batch could have been used as black tire paint.
Gulliver leaned back around the partition. “And, Perkins, don’t shoot nobody.”
“Uh...sir, it’s...” But Supervisor Gulliver was gone.
Dennis sat motionless, doggedly trying to sip at his black tire paint for the next twenty minutes while Long talked on the telephone.
Suddenly, he became frozen in the rapt, paranoid expectation that a large rat might emerge at any time from the debris on the floor and scurry up his pants leg.
Long’s back was turned, allowing Dennis to slip the two bullets surreptitiously into one of his rusty Colts, then slide it back into his waistband. If he couldn’t hit that damned rat with two rounds, he’d run for it.
He could catch a bus back to Skeeter Creek before any of this bunch missed him. None of them knew his name anyway. He’d mail the Colts back to the office.
Just as Dennis took his eye off the debris-covered floor for a half heartbeat, Long shifted in his chair, causing a chain reaction. Junk near his feet moved the whole pile, causing movement in the paper against Dennis’s newly shined shoes.
Dennis sprang to his feet and yanked out one of his rusty Colts. Involuntarily, he tossed his cup. Nasty black coffee spewed up a wall. “Rat!” he shrieked like a high school cheerleader. Roy Rogers fast, he snapped the Colt twice.
“Click, click,” the Colt responded. Dennis’s life was altered forever. He’d yanked out the unloaded Colt. Had he fired two rounds into the debris pile, he probably would have burned down the Federal building or shot Long in the back. God only knows how this story would have turned out.
Long, not the most alert of government stalwarts, glanced at Dennis from the corner of an eye and motioned for him to resume his seat. He had heard neither the “rat” scream alarm nor the clicks of the pistol.
Dennis would eventually learn people around that office often made strange utterances. And several of the employees were further gone than any diagnosis covered under the AMA umbrella.
Suddenly, Long slammed down the telephone, jumped to his feet, yanked the Thompson off the rack and whirled. “By God, I hope you’re ready, boy.” Long’s face was a mask of macho “I’m-gonna-shoot-somebody’s-ass” anger.
Assuming eternity was imminent, Dennis cringed in the fetal position on the debris-covered floor, praying the end would not be too painful.
“I swear on Grandma’s casket, I really thought it was a rat. Spare me and I’ll just go back to Skeeter Creek.” A miracle prevented him from losing both the stomach- and bladder-load of caffeine.
Long stepped around the desk and stared at the quivering mass on the floor as if Dennis had an ear of corn growing out of his forehead. “What in the flaming fever is wrong with you, Pearson? Are you ready to go bust a bad guy or not?”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton