Collision, p.1Al Nussbaum
Collision by Al Nussbaum. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Albert F. Nussbaum. Copyright © 1974 by H.S.D. Publications, Inc. First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
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Al Nussbaum was one of those rare individuals who was good at everything he tried. Before reaching the age of thirty, he was an accomplished pilot, locksmith, firearms expert, restaurateur businessman, and bank robber. It was the latter which earned him a 14 year stint in federal prison, and which marked the beginning of a long friendship and collaboration with hardboiled fiction novelist Dan J. Marlowe – a favorite of Stephen King.
In addition to this long list of accomplishments, Al was also a husband and father – my father. Al passed away in 1996 but interest in his story, and his stories, has never waned. I am offering this tale as an introduction to the future release of unpublished manuscripts and an anthology of Al’s short stories scheduled for release in December 2012. I hope you enjoy this small peek into the mind of Albert F. Nussbaum.
I do a lot of traveling by car. In fact, since the airlines began searching passengers and their luggage, that’s the only way I travel. I have secrets and I want to keep them.
I probably see the remains of one or two wrecked cars every day I’m on the road, and I sometimes arrive at an accident scene before the mess has been cleaned up. I had thought I was hardened to the sight of crash victims, but one evening on the Pennsylvania Turnpike I discovered I was wrong. I had slowed to pass a parked ambulance and a pair of state police cruisers, and I saw, framed in searchlights, a sight I wouldn’t be able to forget in a hurry.
She had been young, no more than sixteen or seventeen, and she was never going to get any older. She wore high heels, jeans and a legalize-marijuana T-shirt, a typically incongruous, youthful combination. Her hair was long, blond and straight. She had on flame-red lipstick and blue-lensed sunglasses dangled from one ear.
No, she wasn’t lying peacefully alongside the roadway – she dangled crookedly ten feet above it, impaled on the steel rung of a telephone pole that had pierced her back and burst through her chest. While two white-garbed medical technicians worked to free the body and lower it to the ground, the state police stared at the passing traffic or their shoes.
The scene was easy to read. There was a beat-up little car parked on the shoulder of the road with a flat tire. A pale-faced boy sat in the front seat, tears making shiny tracks down his cheeks. Before the police arrived with their flares and spotlights, this had been an exceptionally dark stretch of road. The young couple had pulled onto the shoulder to fix the flat, and a passing car had hit the girl with enough force to send her body soaring. There was no other civilian car near the cluster of official vehicles, so the other driver had hit and run.
A couple of hundred yards past the accident scene, several drivers had pulled off the road to be sick. I had a sour taste in my mouth. I lowered my window, cleared my throat and spit onto the roadway. It didn’t help.
I always drive carefully, never exceeding the posted speed limit. Now, because of the hit-and-run, I reduced my speed to ten miles per hour below the maximum. The police would be out in force, and I didn’t want to take any chance of being stopped. I figured I could survive police scrutiny provided it wasn’t too thorough, but I didn’t want my faith put to a test if I could avoid it.
I drove for another thirty or forty miles before deciding to stop for food and fuel at a service area. It was two in the morning and Philadelphia, my destination, was still a long way off. I had an attendant top my tank, then pulled around and parked beside the restaurant. I got out and carefully locked the car. There’s no use placing temptation in anyone’s path.
I was at the counter, drinking my second cup of coffee and thinking about the score I had planned in Philadelphia, when I got the feeling I was being watched. I swung around on the stool. The only one behind me was a well-dressed man with graying temples, sitting in a booth. Through the window beside him I could see my sedan with its Utah license plate.
The man didn’t seem to be interested in me, and he was far too well dressed to be a cop. His suit, cuff links, watch and diamond ring gave him a net worth of over $5,000 right where he sat. My face isn’t the one I was born with. He could not have recognized me from some old picture, so I put him out of my mind. I turned back to my coffee.
When I got up to leave, I noticed that he followed me out. I turned right and he went left. I paused, pretending to look at something in the gift shop window, and watched him walk to an expensive-looking foreign sports car that was parked by itself at the rear of the lot. The bright red finish of its rear deck looked like about twenty coats of hand-rubbed lacquer.
He wasn’t behind me on the ramp leading back to the turnpike, and I watched my rear-view mirror for following headlights. There were none. I settled down to a comfortable forty mph, but continued to glance in the rear-view mirror from time to time. Something about that guy back at the service area was bugging me.
Then, after I had gone about two or three miles, I noticed a dark shape rapidly overtaking me. It was a car, traveling without lights, and it had to be going at least eighty mph. Instead of pulling out to pass, it seemed to be using my taillights as a target. When a collision seemed certain, I jammed my accelerator to the floor and leaned back against the headrest to minimize the shock of impact.
It probably didn’t help much, but I managed to keep from snapping my neck. I lost control of my car and it was literally catapulted off the road and into a nearby drainage ditch. The car came to rest, leaning precariously with its right-hand wheels in the ditch and the others on the road shoulder. The other vehicle continued along for another couple of hundred yards, spraying the road with water, oil and pieces of its engine, before skidding to a halt.
The driver climbed out and came strolling back to me with a flashlight in his hand as casually as an old lady out for a morning walk. Predictably, it was the well-dressed man from the restaurant.
I unfastened my seat belt and shoulder harness and pulled myself out of the wreck. The rear end of my car had been caved in at least a foot. The gas tank had been ruptured and raw fuel was leaking into the ditch and forming a puddle under the car. The gasoline fumes were strong.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
I ignored him. I was too angry to talk. I made a mental vow to cut his heart out with a rusty tire iron if my car burned before I could get everything out of it. That seemed fair.
By the time the state police arrived, I had retrieved my suitcases from the trunk, and my sample case and clothing bag from the back seat. I was seated comfortably on the sample case and no one would have suspected I was thinking of murder.
As soon as the cruiser came to a stop, the well-dressed man ran up to it. “Officers! Officers!” he shouted. “Arrest that man. He cut me off and deliberately wrecked my car.”
I glanced up to find him pointing an accusing finger at me. There was a defiant gleam in his eyes, as though he were challenging me to contradict him.
“Calm down, Mr. Anderson. We’ll take care of him,” one of the troopers said.
If I had been planning to argue, that’s all I would have needed to change my mind. The police know him. He was “Mr. Anderson” to them. His word was automatically better than mine.
I remained where I was until the troopers approached. Then I stood up and presented my Utah driver’s license and the registration for the car. They were impressive documents. I didn’t know what a genuine Utah driver’s license or registration looked like, but I was sure they couldn’t look any more authentic than the ones my printer had designed. It wasn’t necessary for the papers to be duplicates of the real thing because few people in the East would know what they were supposed to look like anyhow.
The driver’s license was printed in royal blue on gold paper, and carried both my thumb print and an embossed photo of me in full color. The registration was also printed in blue, but on a lighter-weight gold paper, and it carried a serial number that matched the license plates on my wrecked car. The metal tags would have to be removed and examined carefully before anyone could tell they were actually several years old and had been altered and repainted.
The trooper looked at the papers and put them in his pocket. “You heard Mr. Anderson. What d’ya have to say for
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