Driving Lessons

Ed McBain

Driving Lessons

The girl looked sixteen and blonde, and the man looked thirty-two and dazed. The responding blues were questioning the girl and trying to question the man who’d been in the vehicle. They weren’t expecting much from the man, not in his condition.

They thought at first he was drunk even though he didn’t smell of alcohol. The girl was cold sober. Hysterical because she’d just run somebody over, but cold sober nonetheless. She was the one who’d been driving the car.

‘What’s your name, miss?’ one of the blues asked.

‘Rebecca Patton. Is she all right?’

‘May I see your license, please?’

‘I don’t have a license. I’m just learning to drive. I have a learner’s permit. Is the woman all right?’

‘May I see the permit, please?’

The officer should have known, but didn’t, that in this state, within many sections of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, a learner’s permit was deemed a license to drive. All he knew was that here was a sobbing sixteen-year-old kid who’d just run over a woman who looked like she was maybe twenty-eight, twenty-nine years old.

They were standing outside the vehicle that had knocked her down, a blue Ford Escort with dual brake pedals and oversized yellow and black STUDENT DRIVER plates on the front and rear bumpers. The impact had sent the woman flying some five feet into the air, tossing her onto a pile of burning leaves stacked on the sidewalk near the curb. One of the witnesses had dragged her off the smoldering fire, onto the lawn, and had immediately called the police. Other blues at the scene were still searching for the handbag the witness said she’d been carrying. But the stricken woman was wearing red, and the leaves on the ground were thick this fall.

They kept scuffing through the fallen leaves, searching for the camouflaged bag, hoping to find a driver’s license, a business card, a phone bill with a name and address on it — anything that would tell them who she was. Anonymous, she lay in the gutter some twenty feet from where a highway patrol car was just pulling in behind the Ford. Red coat open over a blue skirt and jacket, white blouse with a stock tie. Eyes closed. Hands at her sides, palms upward, fingers twitching.

The blues took the highway patrolmen aside and informed them that they’d tested the guy’s skills and he’d failed with flying colors and seemed to be high on something. Nobody smelt alcohol but they gave him a breathalyzer test, anyway, and discovered no trace whatever of methyl alcohol in his system, the guy blew much lower than point-one-oh. One of them asked him his name, which the blues had already done. He still didn’t know. Shook his head and almost fell off his feet. They opened the door on the passenger side of the Ford and let him sit.

‘He’s Mr Newell,’ the girl said. ‘He’s been giving me driving lessons. I don’t know how this happened, she just stepped off the curb. Oh my God, is she all right?’

‘Can you tell us his first name?’

‘Andrew. Will she be all right?’

The ambulance arrived along about then. It was almost three thirty. Paramedics lifted the woman onto a stretcher and hoisted her inside. The ambulance pulled away from the curb. Nobody yet knew who the woman was. The street seemed suddenly very still. A fresh wind sent withering leaves rattling along the curb.

‘I think you’ll both have to come along with us,’ one of the blues said to the young blonde girl and the man who seemed stoned.

The girl nodded.

‘Will you call my father, please?’ she asked.

The phone was ringing when Katie got back to the apartment that afternoon. She put the two bags of groceries on the table just inside the door and went swiftly to the kitchen counter, sitting on one of the stools there and yanking the phone from its wall hook at the same time.

‘Logan,’ she said.

‘Katie, it’s Carl.’

‘Yes, Carl.’

‘Can you get down here right away? Lieutenant needs you to question a female juve.’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Give me ten minutes.’

‘See you,’ Carl said, and hung up.

Katie sighed and put the phone back on its hook. This was supposed to be her day off. But she was the only woman detective in the department and whenever they got a young girl in, the job went to her. She was wearing, on this bright fall afternoon, a tan plaid skirt with low heels, opaque brown pantyhose and a matching brown sweater. The skirt was on the short side; she’d have to change before driving downtown. She’d also have to call Max again to see if there was any further word from her dear departed husband. Worst thing about a detective squadroom in a small town was the lack of privacy. River Close claimed a mere 50,000 inhabitants — well, some fifty-five during July and August, but all the summer renters were gone now.

She went to the kitchen window and cranked it open. A gust of cool air rushed into the apartment, carrying with it the aroma of woodsmoke. From the junior high school across the street, she could hear the sounds of football practice. Today was the sixteenth of October, a clear brisk day during one of the most glorious falls Katie could recall. Spoiled, of course. Autumn spoiled forever. Stephen had left her on the twelfth of September. Easy come, easy go, she thought. She’d only known him since she was sixteen.

Until now, she’d always thought of autumn as her time of year. Sometimes felt she even looked like autumn, the reddish-brown hair and freckled cheeks echoing the season’s colors, her eyes as blue as any September sky. She’d hated the freckles when she was a little girl, but at thirty-three she felt they added character to her face. Made her look a bit more Irish, too, as if she needed any help with a name like Katherine Byrne Logan.

She wondered all at once if she should go back to her maiden name after the divorce. She was so used to being Katie Logan, so used to being Detective Logan, so used to being just plain Logan that...

Call Max, she thought.

She looked at the wall clock. Ten minutes to four. Better get cracking.

First the frozen stuff, she thought, and began unpacking the groceries.

Max Binder had been recommended to Katie by a lawyer she knew in the State Attorney’s Office. A portly, avuncular man with white hair and chubby cheeks, he seemed uncommonly well-suited to the task of consoling forlorn women seeking divorces. Katie supposed she fell into this category. A forlorn woman. Deserted, desolate and forsaken. If she were any more Irish, she’d be keening. Instead, she was dialing the three b’s and hoping Max wasn’t in court.

‘Binder, Benson and Byrd,’ said a woman’s voice.

‘Ellie, it’s Katie Logan,’ she said. ‘Is he in?’

‘Second.’

Max came on the phone a moment later.

‘Hi, Katie, what’s new?’ he asked.

Same question every time. What’s new is my husband left me and is living with a twenty-two-year-old waitress is what’s new.

‘Have you heard from him?’ she asked.

‘Not yet.’

‘What’s taking him so long?’

‘He only got our counter-proposal a week ago. You’re being eminently fair, Katie. I can’t imagine him refusing at this point.’

‘Then call Schiffman and light a fire under him.’

‘Schiffman’s trying a big case this week/

‘Shall I call him myself?’

‘Schiffman? No, no. No. No, Katie.’

‘How about Stephen then? My alleged husband.’

‘No. Certainly not.’

‘I want a divorce, Max.’

‘Of course you do. But be patient just a little longer, Katie. Please. I’m handling it. Please.’

‘OK, Max.’

‘OK, Katie? Please.’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Let me know.’

She hung up and looked at the clock.

‘On my way,’ she said aloud.

Rebecca Patton’s dark-brown eyes were shining with tears. Behind her, the high windows of the room framed trees bursting with leaves of red, orange, yellow and brown. They were sitting in what the local precinct had labeled the ‘interrogation room’, after those in big-city police departments, though normally the cops at Raleigh Station didn’t put on airs. Katie hadn’t yet told her that the woman she’d hit was in a critical condition at Gardner General Hospital. She hadn’t yet told her that so far the woman hadn’t been able to speak to anyone. Still anonymous, the hospital had admitted her as Jane Doe.

‘Rebecca,’ Katie said, ‘your father just got here. If you’d like him to come in while we talk...’

‘Yes, I would, please,’ Rebecca said.

‘And if your mother would like to join us...’

‘My mother’s in California.’

A sudden sharpness of voice which startled Katie.

‘They’re divorced.’

‘I see.’

‘I hope no one called her.’

‘I really don’t know. I’m assuming the-’

She almost said ‘arresting officers’.

She caught herself.

‘— responding officers called whoever...’

‘I didn’t give them her name. I don’t want her to know about this.’

‘If that’s your wish.’

‘It’s my wish.’

‘Let me get your father, then.’

Dr Ralph Patton was sitting on a bench in the corridor just outside the squadroom. He got to his feet the moment he saw Katie approaching. A tall spare man wearing blue jeans, a denim shirt, loafers and a suede vest, he looked more like a wrangler than a physician — but Wednesday was his day off. His dark-brown eyes were the color of his daughter’s. They checked out the ID tag clipped to the pocket of Katie’s gray tailored suit, and immediately clouded with suspicion.

‘Where’s Rebecca?’ he asked.

‘Wa ...

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