George mumbled a string of cursewords under his breath as he turned on his blinker and cautiously made his way through two lanes of traffic to the slender shoulder of I-95. Blue lights swirled in his rearview mirror. Twenty minutes outside of North Carolina and his day was already ruined.
The sound of rocks crunching beneath tires usually soothed George. It reminded him of rain on rooftops; a gentle auditory massage that left him relaxed and hopeful. He’d made many detours in his life just for the pleasure of that sound, but now it did nothing to lighten his mood.
George shifted into park and opened the packed glove compartment. He riffled through old receipts, fast-food wrappers, and his Academic Publishing Convention materials, until he located his registration. His stomach jolted and threatened to release the half-digested bagel he’d had for breakfast as his fingertips slipped over a hardened, brown banana peel that he’d left there who-knows-when. He had just retrieved his license from his wallet when he heard a tapping on his window.
“Hi Offic...Oh my god!” George yelped, unable to stop himself. Before him stood a four foot woman whose saggy skin and moles paled in comparison to the pink wetness of her missing upper lip. Gums and teeth showed huge beneath a narrow layer of wrinkled skin just below her nostrils.
“Lishensh and Regishration,” the cop said, her voice gravelly and wet.
“Absolutely officer.” George pulled his own lips back until it looked like a reasonable approximation of a smile. He swallowed hard and forced his eyes to lock with her impenetrable shades.
“Exshpired,” the cop said, handing his registration back.
“Sorry about that.” He flipped through a stack of forgotten napkins in his glove compartment until he found the current registration. George ignored a wave of nausea that twisted his stomach into knots. He took a deep breath as he mustered his strength. It took an act of will he did not think himself capable of to not stare at the woman’s mouth when he turned back to face her.
“What was the problem officer?” he asked as he handed her his crinkled registration.
“You were shpeeding.”
“Was I?” He glanced at his speedometer, hoping it could help his denial. He’d been passed twice in the last five minutes, once by a mini-van.
“Yesh, 82 in a 70.”
George blinked his baby blue eyes at her as if trying to clear them from sunspots. He had to clench his jaw to keep from saying, “But this is I-95.” Anything less than 90 wasn’t really considered speeding.
“Okay. Well, sorry about that,” he muttered instead. “Is this a warning type of situation?”
The cop turned her head slightly and spoke into the walkie talkie attached to her shoulder. “Dishpatch, we’re gonna need a tow at mile marker 23. Copy.”
“Copy that. Tag and bag on the way,” the tinny voice squawked from her shoulder.
George held up his hands in protest. “Whoa. Tow truck? My car’s fine.”
“Shtep out of the vehicle, shir.”
“But I have no priors, no speeding tickets, no parking tickets even. I pay my taxes early every year.”
“I’m gonna need you to shtep out of the vehicle shir. Pleash do not make me ushe forsh.”
George undid his seatbelt, hoping he wouldn’t be late for the convention.
He walked back to the cop car, asking for an explanation on the way.
“Shtand with your handsh on the hood, pleash.”
“Shir, handsh on the hood.”
“But I haven’t done anything...”
The cop didn’t wait for him to finish. She grabbed him and slammed him onto the hood, his head bouncing off the shiny blue metal before coming to rest at an odd angle.
Even dazed, George was amazed by the strength of the ancient officer. He flinched as she cinched cold metal cuffs around his wrists.
“You can’t do this!” he screamed.
“Shir, I shuggesht you shut up.”
“Are you reading me my rights now?” he asked as she pulled him off the hood.
“Shir, thish ish Greeneville. You have no rightsh.”
She shoved him into the back of the car and started the motor. “At leasht you’re here at the right time of year. Winter’sh hell.”
The officer pressed the gas pedal and pulled into traffic, cutting off a tractor trailer.
“Where are we going?”
“Shentenshing. Now shut up.”
They pulled off at an exit with a faded green sign for Greeneville. George tried to open the backdoor but it was locked shut. He searched his pants for his phone, but then he remembered he’d left it in his car.
He stared out the window as they wound their way through tree lined streets, stopping finally at a large white building with a marble sign that proclaimed it to be the Greeneville Courthouse.
George was still reeling in confusion when the cop, much stronger than her ancient appearance implied, dragged him into the courtroom.
“Well now, traffic case is it?” the Honorable Henry J. Long said from behind the bench, jowls shaking as he spoke.
“I think there’s been a mistake your honor,” George said. “I was only going twelve miles over the speed limit. I’m on my way to a conference in DC. Just passing through. Surely I can pay a fine.”
“Six months mandatory citizenship,” the Judge said pounding his gavel.
George stood, his face grown flush with anger. He wanted to throw something at the judge but nothing was handy, and his hands were firmly cuffed. “What? Six months? Six months of what?” he asked the cop, the bailiff, the judge and everyone else in the room.
A young man at the table opposite stood up and cleared his throat. He ran a shaky hand through his loose, black curls. “Umm, Your Honor...” His voice faltered as he picked up a piece of paper, dropped it, then picked it up again. The man’s eyes did not leave the paper as he spoke, delivering the address in fits and starts. “Your honor, I’d like to throw my client on the mercy of the court and the mercy of our benevolent dictator. This young man is new to our town and unaware of our ways. It’s clear he meant no harm.” At the end of his speech, the man looked up, his smile almost bright enough to cast away the shadows under his eyes. Almost.
The judge’s cheeks wobbled as he thrust a finger at the man. “This court shows no mercy as you very well know Quint. Not another word out of you or I’ll hold you in contempt.”
The man folded his skinny frame into his tiny, wooden chair and averted his eyes from both the judge and George.
“Our benevolent what?” George asked.
“Thish way,” the cop said. “Prosheshing.”