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updated: Jun 19, 2010, 8:30 AM
By Frank Frost
Harrison was on his way to the office when he remembered the article in the morning paper about the roundabout. The city had put in a European style roundabout at a troublesome intersection and despite two months of helpful reminders in the paper and on the local television station, drivers were still having trouble with the concept, Yield to traffic from the left; otherwise don't stop. Harrison had driven in France and Spain on vacations and it seemed absurdly simple to him. So he decided to go out of his way and try out the new roundabout.
At mid-morning traffic was light and his silver Lexus entered the roundabout without stopping. Halfway through the roundabout Harrison noted an old red Datsun stopped at the entrance to the roundabout to his right, the driver looking wildly in the wrong direction for some clue as to what to do. He chuckled at the typical Santa Barbara airhead drivers, then suddenly tensed, as he realized she was about to launch out into the intersection without looking. His car was just going by when she crashed into his right rear fender. Not really a crash, but that crumpling sound that means buckets of money to men in oil-stained blue coveralls at body shops, who can barely restrain their snickers as they scroll through their computer software to find the unbelievable estimate for a Lexus fender-bender.
Harrison rapidly exited the roundabout and pulled to the curb. He had expected the other driver to follow him but she had stopped in the middle of the intersection and was now out of her car, inspecting her damage. A few cars began to toot their horns behind her.
He trotted back to the scene of the accident, holding his hands up as she began to expostulate.
"Please miss, why don't you get back in and I'll push you over to the curb. Then we can talk about this."
She looked at him in bewilderment, a wiry looking girl, on the edge of tears. But she understood and got back behind the wheel. Harrison put his shoulder to the rear of the car to no avail, realizing that she hadn't depressed the clutch. Two young Hispanic men, who had been lounging against a fence watching the whole incident with amusement came to help. One leaned in her window, obviously telling her to put it in neutral, the other joined Harrison behind the car and very quickly they were able to push her car to the curb just behind the dented Lexus.
Harrison was calm. He wasn't in a hurry and his car didn't seem to be damaged very much. The young woman, however, was now in tears, her hands cupped over her cheeks, as she regarded the two cars. From beneath the old Datsun a steady flow of some dark liquid began to fill the gutter.
"Oh my God! I wrecked my car! And I banged yours too! I never could figure out this dumb intersection! And you're probably going to get some big time lawyer to--"
"Actually," broke in Harrison, "I am a big time lawyer. But I'm certainly not going to make a big deal out of this."
He had been angry at the stupidity of the accident, but his bad temper receded quickly before the helplessness of a girl in tears.
She only sobbed louder. "And I was rushing home to phone in my orders. Now I'll have to close down my stand this weekend!" She broke down completely.
Harrison looked closely at his assailant. She was boyish, curly-haired, wearing an extra-large T shirt and cut-off jeans, a jaunty outfit, but right now she was simply vulnerable. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Actually, it's no trouble for me to drop you off at home, miss..."
"Oh, would you?" She gazed at him with amazement, almost disbelief. "But after--"
"It's no problem for me," Harrison said. "I'm not really in a hurry today. I'll take you home. And then we can decide what we're going to do about your car." He'd been about to say ‘my car' but caught himself at the last moment. As they drove away he looked back and saw the two young men inspecting the car. "Let's hope it's still there," he chuckled.
Ten minutes later he was following directions up a gentle hill, past a school, down a street lined with trees, a nice neighborhood.
"It's that one, after that blue van."
Harrison was surprised at the prosperous looking two-story home, but she wasn't through.
"No, turn in the driveway and go all the way back."
Her home turned out to be a shack, obviously a former garage, turned into a cheap, and probably illegal rental. It could be cute inside, Harrison was thinking.
But it wasn't. The one room contained a bed, unmade, an old stained couch, a small refrigerator, and a kitchen sink module with a hot plate on the counter.
She turned around and faced Harrison, her hands on her hips.
"Now we're going to figure out my payments for fixing your car," she said. "I don't make very much, but I can maybe give you a hundred a month? I'll write you a check for the--"
Harrison stopped her. "Why don't I get an estimate for the repair. Then we can--"
She was shaking her head. "No," she said stubbornly, "I want to write you out the first check right away. You've been so nice, and...and then I wouldn't keep feeling so dumb. You want some coffee or something?"
Afterwards Harrison was never sure how it had happened. Sitting and chatting on the couch, exchanging names. "Harrison Bradford? You're one of those two-last-name guys?" She was Ginger, short for Virginia, but she'd always hated ‘Ginny.' And the ‘Ginger' went with her reddish hair. Although she'd always wondered, because real ginger wasn't really reddish, you know? Against the squalor of the room she was bright, and funny, and sexy, with her long bare legs tucked up on the couch. And when he got up to go there was a hug that turned into more than a hug, and then a kiss that was more than a kiss, and then somehow they were on the unmade bed removing clothes.
Driving away, Harrison felt numb with disbelief. And yet there was the scrawled check on the seat next to him. In his office he tried to compose himself during what was left of the morning. And his wife was coming to meet him for lunch.
"Hi," she said, coming unannounced through the door, wearing her tennis togs and carrying her racket, a slim, athletic woman, looking much younger than her mid-forties.
"What in God's name happened to your car, Harry? I thought it was someone else's car at first!"
And of course he'd never thought about her seeing the car, worrying that she'd detect something more related to his guilty secret.
"You know," he lied. "I stopped at the mall to get something and when I came back to the car, it was just a few minutes, but someone must have backed into me and then driven away."
"What did you need at the mall?...Never mind, we're going to be late." And she grabbed his arm and they left, Harrison thinking that as a lawyer he was supposed to lie a little more professionally.
In the lot she bent down to inspect the dent. "It's a red car, anyways."
That afternoon Harrison was busier than usual. An old client had been denied a building permit and was going to sue the City Council. Not an unusual case, but it took careful preparation and citation of all the right precedents.
So he had almost forgotten the morning's adventure when his secretary put through a phone call from his insurance broker.
"Harry! Otis here. Heard about the little fender-bender! Madge called me from the club, asked me what to do."
Harrison was going to say he'd planned to get some estimates, but Otis was way ahead of him.
"Look, I called Tri-County Lexus already. Told ‘em to go ahead and fix your car, send me the bill. You're all covered for hit and run. The shop said bring it in first thing tomorrow. They'll drive you to work, pick you up the end of the day when the paint dries. No problem!"
Harrison had always enjoyed his status as a recognized community leader, accepting the respect, the eagerness of others to make matters smoother for him than they might be for someone else. But now he was almost cross, wishing people would just leave him and his little problem alone.
His mood was not improved by finding two policemen inspecting his car when he left. A uniformed cop was scraping something out of the dent in his fender, supervised carefully by a wiry older man in jeans and a warmup jacket. The older man turned to Harrison.
"Mr. Bradford? Sorry we didn't call ahead, but we're rushed today."
"What...what's that you're doing?"
"Santa Barbara PD. I'm detective sergeant Kline, and this is officer Lopez. Sorry. We're taking a paint sample from the car that hit you. Put these little bits in the chroma...chroma...the machine they got in Sacramento and we got it all computerized. Ten seconds and we know from the paint what kind of car hit you." Detective Kline shrugged. "Of course, if it's a late model white Chevy, a Honda, like that, forget it. You're going to get twenty thousand registrations. But maybe it's an old car, or a rare model. Anyway, we just got the software and we like to try it out."
"Don't get too impatient," added officer Lopez. "The gas chromatography takes ten seconds, but we gotta get in line. Three weeks, usually, except if there's a fatal, they get ahead of us too."
Detective Kline spread his hands, smiled. "What can you do? We get the technology, suddenly we get half a million people need to use it."
Harrison shrugged, trying to appear casual. "Look. It's not a big deal. Some lady in the parking lot, maybe didn't even know she hit me."
"Maybe, maybe," said Kline. "Could you give us an approximate time? Your wife said you were on your way to work, so you musta known when you were gonna get there. So you go to the store, what was this? Maybe close to ten? We can ask store clerks there in the mall, they're all looking out the windows. We could get lucky."
Harrison made a dismissive motion with his hand. "What do we have here...a dent worth, what, three hundred bucks? You guys probably have other things to do."
Officer Lopez stood up, holding the little plastic envelope. "Three hundred? We talked to Lexus, Mr. Bradford, and they said twelve hundred, at least. That makes it a serious crime."
Harrison drove away sweating, wondering what the hell he could do. In three weeks they'd know what car they were looking for. They'd arrest Ginger, and she'd say...she'd say... He knew what she'd say. Should he warn her? He kept seeing her face, not really pretty, round and freckled, hair short and wiry, not really much of a chest... He decided to think about suing the City Council about the building permit.
It was two weeks later when he was stuck in downtown traffic on the way home and heard someone calling his name.
"Harrison? Harrison! Over here! The flower stand!" And there she was on the corner, selling flowers. She came over to his car, laughing.
"Hey, buy some flowers, big guy! What you been doin'?"
"Uh..." He was desperately hoping for the light to change. It did, but there was gridlock ahead.
"Here, take a bouquet. Surprise your wife!" Harrison started to fumble for his wallet, but she waved him off. "No, my treat. And I gotta see you. And soon. How about tomorrow, on your way to work? We know how that goes down, right?" She giggled, and the traffic began to move. "Nice looking fender!" she called after him.
All the way home Harrison worried why she had to see him. At the same time he kept remembering how she had felt under his hands, how she had sounded when...
He was in the kitchen pouring himself a drink when Madge came in from the garage with a bouquet of flowers.
"Harry? Did you bring these home for me? I found them in the front seat of your car..."
It was so ludicrous that Harrison was able to guffaw realistically. "My god! I got stuck in traffic by this flower stand and I thought, why not bring home some flowers." He slapped his forehead. "And then I started thinking about this case and completely--"
Madge was laughing too, but she looked curious. "What case was that? Pete said the other day that it was slow at the office, trust accounts and like that."
Once again Harrison wasn't lying well. "Yeah. Well. You know me. I can get preoccupied with anything..."
The flowers had put Madge in a romantic mood that night but Harrison was unable to perform.
"That's alright, darling, don't worry." She kissed him. "Just don't be like Bob Dole, telling everyone about it."
He had no such problems the next morning. Ginger met him at the door and almost tore his clothes off. She wasn't wearing any, which saved time. If anything, their lovemaking was more passionate and Harrison worried at the end what the banging of the bedstead against the wall sounded like outside.
Afterwards she cuddled next to him. "I've been wanting to talk to you for weeks, you know, but I didn't want to phone you, even at the office." He started to speak but she put a hand over his mouth.
"The big news is, my mother called from Oregon. My great aunt Emily died--she was almost a hundred or something--and out of the blue she left me five thousand dollars! Can you believe it? She always said I was her favorite of all the kids but I never thought she had any money. Who knows up in Oregon? Nobody ever acts rich, you know what I mean? Anyway--no, let me finish--here's the deal. I called Lexus and asked what a little fender-bender would cost and they said about a thousand, or more. Anyways, now I can pay you the whole thing, maybe even buy insurance from now on. I'm so happy!" And she reached down and squeezed him in an intimate way.
Harrison didn't know what to say. But Ginger went on anyway. "And you know the funniest thing? The other day? You were worried about those Mexican kids? Maybe stealing my car? Well, a friend gave me a lift down there to maybe call a tow truck, and those guys were there. You know what they did? They were so sweet! This guy says ‘We popped your hood, lady, just to take a look, and it was only your radiator hose shook loose.' And they had put a new clamp on and filled the radiator. And you know what now? I want to get on top."
Driving away, Harrison felt enormously relieved. He'd been worried about a steady stream of mysterious hundred dollar checks coming into the office. He had tried to tell Ginger to forget about paying him but she had been firm. "No siree! Then it would be like, you know, tit for tat! Ha ha, so to speak." He figured he'd have to give Otis back the insurance money...but how to explain it? So he put it off, thinking about it, and then forgot.
It was a week later when he came down to find detective Kline and officer Lopez inspecting his car. They were not as pleasant this time.
"Mr. Bradford? Looks like you got your fender fixed."
"Uh...yeah. The next day, actually."
"That would have been at Tri-County Lexus?"
"That's right. Is something wrong?"
"And your insurance paid for it? Is that right?"
Harrison was trying to think how he could avoid the line of questioning. But he had the feeling they knew all the answers already.
"Because, Mr. Bradford, we got the chroma... the ID back on that car that hit you."
"It was an '87 Datsun," added officer Lopez. "'Toro Red,' the color, that's what they called it, that year."
"And, it turns out, CHP's computer shows one, just one red '87 Datsun in all of the county. You wouldn't know who owned that red Datsun, would you?"
Harrison started to say something, stuttering, but detective Kline went on.
"Actually, it's a Virginia Jones, right here in Santa Barbara. So we go to find Ms Jones, and you know? It's a funny thing, ‘cause we were going to take her in, book her, for leaving the scene of an accident. But you know what she said?"
"She said she'd paid for the dent." said Harrison. He wondered if they could see him sweating.
"That's right. Now here's the big question: did she pay you for the dent?"
"Yes, she did." It was like in court. If they had you dead to rights you just had to tell the truth.
"And she shows us her checkbook and there were the checks made out to you, and she says there was some Mexican kids saw the whole thing, even fixed her car. So we went down to the roundabout and they're still hanging out there, and one kid says, ‘Oh yeah, we saw the whole thing. And the guy drove off with her.'"
"That ‘Toro Red' color, it's named after ‘toro,' you know? In Japanese? It's the belly meat of the tuna," said officer Lopez. "It's the best part. I asked the guy down at Nissan and he's like, just go to any sushi place and--" Harrison looked at him, mouth open, a total lack of comprehension.
"Okay, Lopez," said detective Kline. "We're not trying to get Mr. Bradford confused, here. The thing is, we find some little grifter getting paid twice, it's insurance fraud. Now we gotta give you the benefit of the doubt, Mr. Bradford, someone like you in the community, know what I mean? Let me ask you, were you going to return the insurance money?
Harrison was stricken with a sudden thought. "Did you talk to Mr. Selig? Otis Selig, at my insurance company?"
Detective Kline and officer Lopez looked at each other.
"A couple weeks ago to ascertain the claim was settled," said Lopez, in formal cop-speak. "Not since this new information came up," added Kline. "You want to go settle up with him? It's gonna make this whole thing simpler."
Harrison bridled. "Of course I was! You want to come along? Right now! Let's go see him!"
Otis was not as friendly as before. They were sitting in his little office downtown and he was shuffling through papers and staring at his computer screen. Finally he looked up at Harrison and his police escort.
"Harry, this is going to be a problem. No wait, let me finish. Because there is no way on this software program for anyone to give back money. The thought process on the software the company put together is that no one would ever give back a settlement without a court case." He looked at the police officers.
"Obviously we're not going to court over a fender-bender."
"Then Mr. Bradford here defrauded Ms Virginia Jones." said detective Kline. "Is that what we gotta go with?"
Harrison felt he had to speak up. "Now wait a minute! Ms Jones insisted that I take her check. She said that otherwise it would be as if--"
There was a dead silence and everyone looked at him. Then detective Kline gathered the papers before him into a neat stack, looked at Otis.
"You're satisfied there's no fraud, if Mr. Bradford here gives back the money to Ms Jones?
"No. No way. Listen. Harry here is covered for accidents. Doesn't matter whether someone hit him in the parking lot and drove off, or in the roundabout and he settled with her. It's just an accident. And it's just money. Okay? Why Harry wanted to say it was a hit-run I dunno." Otis was looking right at Harrison and was not happy.
Harrison figured the ball was back in his court. He forced himself to get a little hot.
"Okay! I said I never wanted to take her check. So let's go pay her back, if you're so worried I'm trying to defraud a flower girl."
"A flower girl?" asked Otis.
"Yeah. That's what she does," said detective Kline. "She buys flowers down at the greenhouses in Carpinteria and sells them on the street in town."
Recognition flashed across Otis's face, then a knowing smile. "Skinny girl, right? Not so pretty but always cheerful? I get flowers there maybe twice a week. Something we ought to know about you and her, Harry?" The smile became a smirk.
Harrison had been a lawyer long enough to know when not to say anything. Also, to realize when he was off the hook. He stood up.
"Gentlemen? I don't believe we have any remaining business. I was actually on my way to refund Ms Jones her money." He looked at detective Kline. "You are at liberty to check with her, to make sure I'm no longer in the business of deflowering fraud girls...I mean, oh crap! Goddammit!"
That hadn't come out exactly as he had wanted but he managed to maintain his dignity and stalk, as he thought of it, out of the office and over to his Lexus.
The three men in the office looked at each other. Otis was grinning.
"He's been screwing her."
"Pinche, man, no doubt," said officer Lopez.
"If that's what I think it means, you're right," said Kline.
Otis turned serious, leaned forward. "Okay. But let's keep all that in this room, okay? Harry's a big guy in town, got a great wife. This isn't like him. I think he learned a lesson. Okay?"
"My lips are sealed," said Kline.
Lopez was smiling, shaking his head, and no one knew what he was thinking.
Harrison drove up the hill still steaming about his ordeal, being pinned down by three miserable little shits, Otis of all people, who everyone knew took long lunch hours with any temp dumb enough to think it meant something. Now he was looking forward to seeing Ginger, giving her the refund in cash, all eleven hundred dollars of it. And then maybe celebrate a little.
He was dumbfounded, reading the note pinned to the door.
"Hi Harry! I had a long talk with Mom and decided maybe I should go back to Oregon. Business isn't so great here and other things are getting too ‘hot to handle.' Thanks for everything!" There was a picture of a heart and a smily face.
He never thought he'd feel so crushed. This little romance, just sort of a treat on the side, he could take it or leave it. And now she'd dumped him. And he felt absolutely rotten.
He hadn't been paying attention as he reached the bottom of the hill and entered the roundabout without looking to his left. There was a scream of brakes and a crunching sound, he felt his Lexus lurch to the side and then his horn started to blow and blow and just wouldn't stop.
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