Lady Justice and the Watchers
Author: Robert Thornhill

Chapter 2
Chapter 2

CHAPTER 2

Ahhhhhh, springtime!

There is nothing like the first warm rays of sunshine, the buds popping open on the trees and jonquils pushing their golden heads from beneath the soil to lift one's spirits.

My name is Walt Williams and I’m a cop --- a sixty-eight year old cop, and at my age I figure that every new springtime is a gift.

After a cold winter made even colder by the death of one of my recruits in the City Retiree Action Patrol and the upheaval caused by a vigilante stalking the streets of Kansas City, Ox, my partner, and I were eager to embrace the warmth and promise of the new season.

And, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, "In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love."

Ox was completely smitten with his new lady friend, the lovely Officer Judy DeMarco, and to his delight, she seemed to be smitten right back.

The first anniversary of my marriage to Maggie McBride was rapidly approaching and it seemed that we were going to weather the first year of the first marriage for both of us without any serious turmoil.

Not bad for two old fogies in their late sixties.

We were cruising south Kansas City, planning a double date for the weekend, when the radio barked, "All units in the vicinity of Brookside respond to the QuickTrip. A 911 call has reported a carjacking."

I keyed the mike, "Car 54 responding. ETA, five minutes."

We pulled into the lot of the QuickTrip and saw a young woman weeping uncontrollably, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers.

When she saw us approach, she ran to us pleading, "My baby! My baby! He took my baby! Please! Do something!"

Ox did his best to calm her, "Just slow down and tell us what happened. Let's start with your name."

"Uhhh, Janet --- Janet Randall. He has my baby!"

"Who has your baby? Tell us what happened."

"I --- I stopped to get gas. I had just gotten out of the car when a man approached, grabbed the keys from my hand and pushed me aside.

"He climbed into the car and sped away. I --- I tried to tell him that my baby was in the car seat in back, but he just drove away."

"What did the man look like?"

"I didn't see much --- it happened so fast. He was wearing one of those 'hoodie' things. He was white and had a moustache --- that's all I can remember."

She broke down and cried again, "He took my baby!"

"I understand," Ox said. "We're going to get your baby back to you. What kind of car do you drive?"

She regained a measure of composure. "Cadillac --- a 2011 black Cadillac Escalade."

Ox turned to me, "Call it in."

I reported what we knew.

The dispatcher asked me to find out if the vehicle was equipped with a functioning OnStar service.

I asked and Mrs. Randall said "yes, she thought so."

At that moment, detectives arrived on the scene and assumed control of the situation.

We received another radio transmission.

"Car 54, the subject vehicle is at Eighty-fifth and Wornall proceeding south at fifty-five miles an hour.

"We are initiating Stolen Vehicle Slowdown. Proceed to that location and we will keep you apprised of the vehicle’s movement."

We jumped into the cruiser and headed to Wornall Road with lights and siren blaring.

"How in the world did they get a bead on the car that fast?” I asked.

Ox looked at me dumbfounded.

"OnStar. You don't know about OnStar?"

I shook my head.

"Have you been living in a cave? Oh that's right --- you drive a 2006 Ford Escape."

"So?"

"So, all OnStar equipped vehicles have Stolen Vehicle Tracking, which can provide the police with the vehicle's exact location, speed and direction of movement.

"Starting in 2009, General Motors began equipping some new vehicles with Stolen Vehicle Slowdown. This feature allows OnStar to remotely slow down the stolen vehicle."

"So just like that, they looked up the vehicle ownership and contacted OnStar which is now tracking the car and shutting it down?"

"You got it!"

"Holy cow!"

The radio came to life again. "The subject vehicle is stopped at the intersection of Ninety-third and Wornall. Proceed with caution."

We arrived at the intersection five minutes later and sure enough, the Caddie was parked on the side of the road.

There didn't appear to be anyone in the driver's seat, but we approached cautiously.

We peered into the Caddie and saw that it was empty.

The driver was long gone and so was the baby!

XXX

We stayed with the car until the CSI guys arrived and then resumed our regular patrol.

We were heading east on Gregory Boulevard when the radio squawked again.

"Car 54, what's your twenty?"

"We're eastbound on Gregory just past Prospect."

"Continue east on Gregory through Swope Park. We have been notified that there has been an accident involving a Chevy Impala on Gregory just east of the park."

"Roger that."

Gregory Boulevard winds through the eighteen hundred acre Swope Park and just past the Lake of the Woods, the terrain becomes very wooded with deep ravines on each side.

We drove Gregory until it emerged from the woods and intersected with the I-435 overpass, but found no vehicular accident.

We turned around retracing our route but still found no accident.

I called in our report.

"Car 54, there is definitely an accident on Gregory Boulevard. It is exactly a mile and a quarter east of the Lake. Look again."

We headed back measuring a mile and a quarter on our odometer. When we were getting close, Ox slowed to a crawl and we spotted a set of faint skid marks that we had missed on our first two passes.

The skid marks veered off the road and into a deep ravine.

We parked the cruiser and looked over the edge of the ravine and spotted a 2010 Chevy Impala with its front bumper curled around a big oak tree.

We slid down the steep bank and saw that the airbag had deployed and the driver was unconscious.

Ox felt the driver's neck. "He's alive! Call it in!"

I scrambled up the hillside and made the call and within fifteen minutes paramedics were on the scene.

When we were headed back to the station I began to wonder.

"How did dispatch know that accident was there? There were no witnesses. No one called it in."

Ox smiled, "You're getting quite an education today. I'm guessing it was OnStar again. The car was probably equipped with Advanced Automatic Collision Notification. When an airbag is deployed, it has sensors that automatically relay the exact GPS coordinates and the condition of the car."

"You're kidding!”

"Nope, it's the real deal."

Twice in one day, this technological miracle had assisted us in doing our job and before today I didn't even know it existed.

What a coincidence!

XXX

When I arrived at home that evening, my old friend and tenant, Professor Leopold Skinner was sitting on the front stoop soaking up the last rays of the April sun.

Maggie and I live on the top floor of a three story apartment building on Armour Boulevard in midtown Kansas City .

The other five units are occupied by my Dad, Bernice, his current squeeze, Jerry The Joker, Willie, my maintenance man and the Professor.

All the way home I had been thinking about OnStar and wondered how I had missed this technological wonder.

I was eager to share my newfound, but belated knowledge with someone and I figured my octogenarian friend was as good as any.

"Hi, Professor. You got a minute to spare?"

He smiled, "Well actually, at my age, my remaining minutes may be somewhat limited, but since it's you, I might be able to spare a few."

I sat next to him on the stoop and shared my day as it related to OnStar.

He sat quietly listening while I rambled and when I finished he drew a deep breath.

"So, I see Big Brother has gained another convert to its' 'spy in the sky'."

He saw the look of bewilderment on my face.

"Big Brother --- spy? What are you talking about?"

"Your introduction to OnStar today barely scratched the surface of what it represents."

"There's more?"

"Oh yes! Were you aware that the system is also equipped with a digital cell phone that operates with Hands Free Calling and that OnStar operators can talk directly to drivers, remotely unlock doors or start the car if keys are lost or even totally disable the vehicle if it's reported stolen?"

"Wow! All of that! It's even better than I suspected!"

"Were you also aware that same technology makes it possible for not only OnStar operators, but other third parties as well, to listen to your private conversations in your car?

"Were you aware that in 2011, OnStar announced that it would start retaining all the information collected by the GPS and internal system, so that it could be sold to third parties. OnStar now reserves the right to share details about owners' location, speed, and other factors with third parties, and even worse, OnStar says it will continue collecting that data even after folks cancel their subscriptions."

I was speechless.

“Are there any doubts that ‘Big Brother’ might be watching you?”

“Surely the government wouldn’t use this wonderful technology to spy on us. That’s totally a violation of our civil rights!”

“Walt, you’re really naive for an old guy. The FBI has already forced OnStar to give it access to its data for surveillance in a criminal case.

“And don’t forget the Patriot act. After September 11, pretty much anything goes when it relates to national security.”

“How come you know so much about all of this?”

“Walt, I may be old, but don’t forget that I am also a Professor in the field of Philosophy.

“When I was just a young buck, George Orwell wrote a novel describing a society of the future where the activities of all the citizens were closely monitored by the government. It was from this novel that the phrase, ‘Big Brother is watching you’ came into being.

“Over the years, my colleagues and I have been quietly observing as technology has developed that could make this Orwellian society a possibility.”

“So are you saying that OnStar is a bad thing?”

“I’m not saying anything. What do you think?”

“Well, on the one hand, we couldn’t have accomplished what we did today without it and I can certainly see how using its features could make driving safer and more convenient, but on the other hand, I can certainly see its potential for abuse.”

“Perfect!!!”

“Perfect example of another of Orwell’s predictions --- doublethink!”

“Ok, what exactly is doublethink?”

“Doublethink describes the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct.

“When we first started this conversation, you were totally convinced that OnStar was the greatest thing since sliced bread and listening to you now, you still believe that.

“But I am sensing that you might now also believe that OnStar could be a threat to our basic freedoms.

“OnStar is evil --- OnStar is good. Doublethink.”

“Now I’m thoroughly confused. You see, this is why I hated philosophy in college. Nothing personal. No offense intended.”

“None taken. All I’m saying is just think about the ramifications. If a government’s agenda was to monitor the activities of its citizens, what better way would there be than to offer the means to accomplish that goal in a package that was filled with wonderful technological benefits to make their lives better.”

“So, like ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’?”

“It’s something to think about.”

As I climbed the stairs to my apartment, my feelings of awe and wonder at what I had learned today had turned to doubts and misgivings.

Life would be so much easier if things could just be black or white.

Why do they always seem to be shades of gray?

XXX

It had been a long day and I had been looking forward to a nice meal and a quiet evening with my sweetie, but it wasn’t to be.

I opened the door and was met by Maggie. She planted a big kiss on my cheek.

“Do you want to go now or after supper?”

“Go where?”

“Walt, what day is this?”

I thought for a moment. “Uhhh, Wednesday. So what?”

Then it dawned on me. “Oh crap! Grocery store!”

She nodded, “I knew you could figure it out eventually. Now, back to my original question, before or after supper?”

I sighed, “Let’s get it over with.”

Wednesday had been designated as ‘grocery day’ in our household because the local HyVee supermarket had proclaimed Wednesday to be ‘Senior’s Day’ with all shoppers over fifty-five receiving a five percent discount.

Since we routinely spent a c-note stocking up, we saved a whopping five bucks.

Another reason we go on Senior’s Day is that the music that is piped into the store is all 50’s rock ‘n’ roll. This brilliant marketing ploy was a blatant attempt to pander to the tastes of old farts like me and it worked.

If I have to shop I would much rather be serenaded by the likes of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis than Taylor Swift or Justin Beber.

I absolutely love the music of the 40’s and 50’s and as far as I’m concerned, the recording industry had very little to offer after 1965.

I have a fantastic collection of 45’s and LP’s dating back to my high school years of the fifties.

I know every song by heart and much to Maggie’s chagrin, I am constantly singing around the house.

The fact that I am tone deaf only adds to her frustration.

On more than one occasion she has pleaded, “Please, not this morning. Anything but Little Richard!”

We grabbed our shopping cart and dutifully performed our pre-shopping ritual which consisted of Maggie securing her purse into the cart with one of those cursed straps that we can never get undone and me wiping the handle of the cart with a little sanitizer wipe just in case the previous shopper had picked their nose and left a booger for us.

A part of my wiping ritual involves intoning a mantra that I devised to remind me why this is so important.

I boogied in the parking lot

I boogied in the mart

I boogied on my finger

And I wiped it on my cart

Having completed our pre-shopping ritual, our first stop was the produce department.

Maggie and I have developed a shopping strategy that seems to work for us.

I do the fruit and she does the vegetables.

The bananas were on board and I had headed to the grapefruit section when Gene Vincent’s raspy voice filled the store.

I immediately felt compelled to sing along and I began bouncing to the beat singing, “Be bop a lula, she’s my baby. Be bop a lula, I don’t mean maybe.”

Then I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a young mother had grabbed her child and was hurrying him away from the old guy bouncing up and down with a grapefruit in each hand mumbling strange words.

On reflection, I probably would have done the same thing.

Maggie joined me with the lettuce and tomatoes and we headed to the meat counter.

An old guy about my age was standing behind a skillet where little pieces of something that looked like doggy doo were sizzling in hot grease.

“How about a sample of our link sausage?” he asked proudly.

I looked into the pan and swore that I saw strands of LDL cholesterol swirling around.

“No thanks,” I replied. “I’m trying to cut back.”

My first time shopping with Maggie had been a traumatic experience for me.

After sixty-some years of bachelorhood, my shopping habits consisted of roaming the aisles and filling my cart with stuff that looked good and tasted good.

On our first outing together, she grabbed my Twinkies out of the cart. “Sorry, artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated corn oil. It’s filled with poison.”

Thus began my induction into the world of healthy eating.

Since then, I have dutifully studied the material she gave me to read and I have become a convert.

I’m not saying it’s easy when the Ding Dongs are calling my name from the shelf, but I know it’s the right thing to do.

When our basket was full, we headed to the checkout.

Another of our rituals is to split up and head to two different checkout stands. The one who has found the shortest line signals to the other.

We probably should scrap that part of our ritual because it rarely works.

There was only one woman in my line so I gave Maggie the high sign.

I had just loaded everything from our cart to the counter when the checkout girl picked up the microphone.”

“Price check on five.”

Oh crap! Not again!”

Of course the store was busy. After all it was Senior’s Day.

We waited and waited and I was able to glean from the conversation that the woman ahead of me thought that she had been charged twenty-five cents too much for a can of peas.

Finally, I couldn’t resist.

I pulled a quarter from my pocket and handed it to the lady.

“Ma’am, I feel your pain. Here, let me take care of this and we can all get on with our day.”

The lady grabbed the quarter, finished checking out and huffed out of the store.

She didn’t even thank me.

When it was our turn, the checkout girl asked the usual question, “Paper or plastic?”

I looked at Maggie and she shook her head, but I couldn’t resist.

“Actually,” I replied, “I could go either way. I’m bi-sackual.”

I learned that line from a customer when I was undercover at a BuyMart store.

Maggie hates it but I have to throw it in once in awhile just for grins.

The checkout girl looked at me and then at Maggie.

Maggie just shrugged her shoulders and the checkout girl gave her a look that screamed, “My sympathies, you poor girl.”

When the last item had been rung up, Maggie handed the girl a wad of coupons.

“Where did you get all of those?” I asked.

“They came in the mail.”

I swiped my credit card in the machine and asked, “But how did they know what coupons to send. You buy such weird stuff. How did they know?”

The checkout girl answered my question.

She pointed to the hardware on the counter in front of us. “You just told us. The machine has all the personal information from your credit card including your mailing address. Every time you shop, the bar code scanner records your buying choices and over time, develops a shopping profile for you. Then the company sends coupons that fit your profile.

“It’s a pretty good system, don’t you think?”

The conversation I had with the Professor came to mind and I began to wonder if it was indeed a good thing or maybe just another wolf in sheep’s clothing.

I was deep in thought when we left the store.

When we reached the parking lot I stopped. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember which lane we had parked in.

“Uhhh, Maggie, do you remember where we parked?”

“Not again! Walt you’re the one driving. It’s YOUR job to remember where we parked.”

“Well you were riding shotgun. You were there too. Why can’t you remember?”

This had always been a sore spot in our relationship.

I think we both hated the fact that we were constantly losing our vehicle because it was a persistent reminder that we were getting old and losing some of our faculties.

The worst was one evening when we had attended the Starlight Theatre.

After the show, as we looked over the thousands of cars in the lot, we realized that we didn’t have a clue where we had parked.

We roamed the aisles, dodging cars, and finally just waited on the curb breathing exhaust fumes until the lot was nearly empty.

Not the greatest way to end the evening.

We were just standing there with our cart full of groceries looking befuddled when an old guy my age approached.

“Lost your car, didn’t you?”

“Is it that obvious?” I replied.

“I used to do that all the time until I got one of these,” he said holding up his phone. “Watch this!”

He punched the phone a few times and showed us the screen.

“There’s my car,” he said proudly.

“How did you do that?” I asked amazed.

“Do you have a smart phone?”

“Yes.”

“Then you can download this app for ninety-nine cents. It’s called ‘Find My Car’.”

I turned to Maggie, “We gotta get one of those!”

When we finally located the car and the groceries were safely tucked away, we were ready to embark on the second half of our regular Wednesday ritual --- gassing up.

The supermarket had their own gas station at the far end of the parking lot. Utilizing another brilliant marketing ploy, when the customer takes his grocery receipt and his gas receipt to the gas station counter, he will get a cash rebate, and in this age of astronomical gas prices, who doesn’t want a rebate?

Depending on how much we spent on groceries and how empty the tank was, I would usually walk away with a buck and a quarter in my pocket.

Whoopie! But as my Grandma used to say, “It’s better than a sharp stick in your eye.”

I had swiped my card and filled the tank and was patiently waiting for the receipt to print out so that I could collect my reward.

The receipt popped out and for the first time I noticed the printed words on the bottom of the receipt, “Thank you, Walter Williams.”

I suddenly realized that I was standing there having a conversation with a gas pump that knew not only my name and address, but my credit card number and shopping history as well.

All for a buck and a quarter.

 

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