The Circuit Riders

by R.C. FitzPatrick

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: On the Board, they were just little lights that glowed. But out there in the night of the city-jungle, they represented human passions-- virulent emotions-- and deadly crimes-to-be.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

He was an old man and very drunk. Very drunk or very sick. It was the middle of the day and the day was hot, but the old man had on a suit, and a sweater under the suit. He stopped walking and stood still, swaying gently on widespread legs, and tried to focus his eyes. He lived here ... around here ... somewhere around here. He continued on, stumbling up the street.

He finally made it home. He lived on the second floor and he dragged himself up the narrow staircase with both hands clutching the railing. But he was still very careful of the paper bag under his arm. The bag was full of beer.

Once in the room, he managed to take off his coat before he sank down on the bed. He just sat there, vacant and lost and empty, and drank his beer.

It was a hot, muggy, August afternoon--Wednesday in Pittsburgh. The broad rivers put moisture in the air, and the high hills kept it there. Light breezes were broken-up and diverted by the hills before they could bring more than a breath of relief.

In the East Liberty precinct station the doors and windows were opened wide to snare the vagrant breezes. There were eight men in the room; the desk sergeant, two beat cops waiting to go on duty, the audio controller, the deAngelis operator, two reporters, and a local book ... businessman. From the back of the building, the jail proper, the voice of a prisoner asking for a match floated out to the men in the room, and a few minutes later they heard the slow, exasperated steps of the turnkey as he walked over to give his prisoner a light.

At 3:32 pm, the deAngelis board came alive as half-a-dozen lights flashed red, and the needles on the dials below them trembled in the seventies and eighties. Every other light on the board showed varying shades of pink, registering in the sixties. The operator glanced at the board, started to note the times and intensities of two of the dials in his log, scratched them out, then went on with his conversation with the audio controller. The younger reporter got up and came over to the board. The controller and the operator looked up at him.

“Nothing,” said the operator shaking his head in a negative. “Bad call at the ball game, probably.” He nodded his head towards the lights on the deAngelis, “They’ll be gone in five, ten minutes.”

The controller reached over and turned up the volume on his radio. The radio should not have been there, but as long as everyone did his job and kept the volume low, the Captain looked the other way. The set belonged to the precinct.

The announcer’s voice came on, “ ... ning up, he’s fuming. Doak is holding Sterrett back. What a beef! Brutaugh’s got his nose not two inches from Frascoli’s face, and Brother! is he letting him have it. Oh! Oh! Here comes Gilbert off the mound; he’s stalking over. When Gil puts up a holler, you know he thinks it’s a good one. Brutaugh keeps pointing at the foul line--you can see from here the chalk’s been wiped away--he’s insisting the runner slid out of the base path. Frascoli’s walking away, but Danny’s going right aft...” The controller turned the volume down again.

The lights on the deAngelis board kept flickering, but by 3:37 all but two had gone out, one by one. These two showed readings in the high sixties; one flared briefly to 78.2 then went out. Brutaugh was no longer in the ball game. By 3:41 only one light still glowed, and it was steadily fading.

Throughout the long, hot, humid afternoon the board held its reddish, irritated overtones, and occasional readings flashed in and out of the seventies. At four o’clock the new duty section came on; the deAngelis operator, whose name was Chuck Matesic, was replaced by an operator named Charlie Blaney.

“Nothing to report,” Chuck told Charlie. “Rhubarb down at the point at the Forbes Municipal Field, but that’s about all.”

The new operator scarcely glanced at the mottled board, it was that kind of a day. He noted an occasional high in his log book, but most signals were ignored. At 5:14 he noted a severe reading of 87 which stayed on the board; at 5:16 another light came on, climbed slowly through the sixties, then soared to 77 where it held steady. Neither light was an honest red, their angry overtones chased each other rapidly.

The deAngelis operator called over to the audio controller, “Got us a case of crinkle fender, I think.”

“Where?” the controller asked.

“Can’t tell yet,” Blaney said. “A hot-head and a citizen with righteous indignation. They’re clear enough, but not too sharp.” He swiveled in his chair and adjusted knobs before a large circular screen. Pale streaks of light glowed briefly as the sweep passed over them. There were milky dots everywhere. A soft light in the lower left hand corner of the screen cut an uncertain path across the grid, and two indeterminate splotches in the upper half of the scope flared out to the margin.

“Morningside,” the operator said.

The splashes of light separated; one moved quickly off the screen, the other held stationary for several minutes, then contracted and began a steady, jagged advance toward the center of the grid. One inch down, half an inch over, two inches down, then four inches on a diagonal line.

“Like I said,” said Blaney. “An accident.”

Eight minutes later, at 5:32, a slightly pompous and thoroughly outraged young salesman marched through the doors of the station house and over to the desk sergeant.

“Some clown just hit me...” he began.

“With his fist?” asked the sergeant.

“With his car,” said the salesman. “My car ... with his car ... he hit my car with his car.”

The sergeant raised his hand. “Simmer down, young feller. Let me see your driver’s license.” He reached over the desk for the man’s cards with one hand, and with the other he sorted out an accident form. “Just give it to me slowly.” He started filling out the form.

The deAngelis operator leaned back in his chair and winked at the controller. “I’m a whiz,” he said to the young reporter, “I’m a pheenom. I never miss.” The reporter smiled and walked back to his colleague who was playing gin with the book ... businessman.

The lights glowed on and off all evening, but only once had they called for action. At 10:34 two sharp readings of 92.2 and 94 even, had sent Blaney back to his dials and screen. He’d narrowed it down to a four-block area when the telephone rang to report a fight at the Red Antler Grill. The controller dispatched a beat cop already in the area.

Twenty minutes later, two very large--and very obedient young toughs stumbled in, followed by an angry officer. In addition to the marks of the fight, both had a lumbering, off-balance walk that showed that the policeman had been prodding them with his riot club. It was called an “electronic persuader”; it also doubled as a carbine. Police no longer carried sidearms.

He pointed to the one on the left, “This one hit me.” He pointed to the one on the right, “This one kicked me.”

The one on the left was certain he would never hit another cop. The one on the right knew he would never kick another cop.

“Book ‘em,” the sergeant said. He looked at the two youths. “You’re going in the can ... you want to argue.” The youths looked down. No one else said anything. The younger reporter came over and took down the information as the cop and the two toughs gave it to the sergeant. Then he went back to his seat at the card table and took a minityper from his pocket. He started sending to the paper.

“You ought to send that stuff direct,” the card player said.

“I scribble too bad,” the reporter answered.

“Bat crap,” said the older man, “that little jewel can transcribe chicken scratches.”

The cub scrunched over his minityper. A few minutes later he looked up at his partner, “What’s a good word for hoodlum?”

The other reporter was irritated. He was also losing at gin. “What are you, a Steinbeck?” He laid down his cards. “Look kid, just send it, just the way you get it. That’s why they pay re-write men. We’re reporters. We report. O.K.?” He went back to his cards.

At 11:40 a light at the end of the second row turned pinkish but no reading showed on the dial below. It was only one of a dozen bulbs showing red. It was still pinkish when the watch was changed. Blaney was replaced by King.

“Watch this one,” Blaney said to King, indicating an entry in the log. It was numbered 8:20:18:3059:78:4a. “I’ve had it on four times now, all in the high seventies. I got a feeling.” The number indicated date, estimated area and relation to previous alerts in the month, estimated intent, and frequency of report. The “a” meant intermittent. Only the last three digits would change. “If it comes on again I think I’d lock a circuit on it right away.” The rules called for any continuous reading over 75 to be contacted and connected after its sixth appearance.

“What about that one?” King said, pointing to a 70.4 that was unblinking in its intensity.

“Some drunk,” said Blaney. “Or a baby with a head cold. Been on there for twenty minutes. You can watch for it if you like.” His tone suggested that to be a waste of time.

“I’ll watch it,” said King. His tone suggested that he knew how to read a circuit, and if Blaney had any suggestions he could keep them to himself.

Joe Millsop finally staggered home, exhausted. He was half-drunk, and worn out from being on his feet all day, but the liquor had finally done its work. He could think about the incident without flushing hot all over. He was too tired, and too sorry for himself to be angry at anyone. And with his new-found alcoholic objectivity he could see now where he had been in the wrong. Old Bloomgarten shouldn’t have chewed him out in front of a customer like that, but what the hell, he shouldn’t have sassed the customer, even if she was just a dumb broad who didn’t know what she wanted. He managed to get undressed before he stumbled into bed. His last coherent thought before he fell into a drugged sleep was that he’d better apologize in the morning.

8:20:18:3059:78:4a stayed off the board.

At 1:18 am, the deAngelis flared to a 98.4 then started inching down again. The young reporter sat up, alert, from where he had been dozing. The loud clang of a bell had brought him awake.

The older reporter glanced up from his cards and waved him down. “Forget it,” he said, “some wife just opened the door and saw lipstick on her husband’s neck.”

“Oh Honey, how could you ... fifty dollars...” She was crying.

“Don’t, Mother ... I thought I could make some money ... some real money.” The youngster looked sick. “I had four nines ... four nines ... how could I figure him for a straight flush, he didn’t have a thing showing.”

“ ... How could you,” sobbed the mother. “ ... Oh how could you.”

The book ... businessman dealt the cards. The reporter picked his up and arranged them in his hand, he discarded one; the businessman ignored it and drew from the deck, he discarded; the reporter picked the discard and threw away a card from his hand; the businessman drew from the deck and discarded the same card he’d drawn; the reporter picked it up, tapped it slowly in place with his elbow, placed his discard face down, and spread his hand.

“Gin,” he said.

“Arrrgh,” said the businessman. “Damn it, you play good. You play real good.”

A light on the deAngelis flashed red and showed a reading of 65.4 on the dial.

“Can’t beat skill,” said the reporter. “Count!”

“Fifty-six,” said the businessman. “That’s counting gin,” he added.

“Game,” the reporter announced. “I’ll figure the damage.”

“You play good,” said the businessman in disgust.

“You only say that ‘cause it’s true,” the reporter said. “But it’s sweet of you all the same.”

“Shut up!” said the businessman.

The reporter looked up, concerned. “You stuck?” he asked solicitously. He seemed sincere.

“Certainly I’m stuck,” the businessman snarled.

“Then stay stuck,” said the reporter in a kindly tone. He patted the businessman on the cheek.

The same light on the deAngelis flashed red. This time the dial registered eighty-two. The operator chuckled and looked over at the gamblers, where the reporter was still adding up the score.

“How much you down, Bernie?” he asked the businessman.

“Four dollars and ninety-six cents,” the reporter answered.

“You play good,” Bernie said again.

The deAngelis went back to normal, and the operator went back to his magazine. The bulb at the end of the second row turned from a light pink to a soft rose, the needle on its dial finally flickered on to the scale. There were other lights on the board, but none called for action. It was still just a quiet night in the middle of the week.

The room was filthy. It had a natural filth that clings to a cheap room, and a man-made, careless filth that would disfigure a Taj Mahal. It wasn’t so much that things were dirty, it was more that nothing was clean. Pittsburgh was no longer a smokey city. That problem had been solved long before the mills had stopped belching smoke. Now, with atomics and filters on every stack in every home, the city was clean. Clean as the works of man could make it, yet still filthy as only the minds of man could achieve. The city might be clean but there were people who were not, and the room was not. Overhead the ceiling light still burned, casting its harsh glare on the trashy room, and the trashy, huddled figure on the bed.


He was an old man, lying on the bed fully clothed, even to his shoes. He twisted fretfully in his sleep; the body tried to rise, anticipating nature even when the mind could not. The man gagged several times and finally made it up to a sitting position before the vomit came. He was still asleep, but his reaction was automatic; he grabbed the bottom of his sweater and pulled it out before him to form a bucket of sorts. When he finished being sick he sat still, swaying gently back and forth, and tried to open his eyes. He could not make it. Still asleep, he ducked out of the fouled sweater, made an ineffectual dab at his mouth, wadded the sweater in a ball, and threw it over in front of the bathroom door.

He fell back on the bed, exhausted, and went on with his fitful sleep.

At 4:15 in the morning a man walked into the station house. His name was Henry Tilton. He was a reporter for the Evening Press. He waved a greeting to the desk sergeant and went over to kibitz the card game.

Both players looked up, startled. The reporter playing cards said, “Hello, Henry.” He looked at his watch. “Whoosh! I didn’t realize it was that late.” He turned to the businessman. “Hurry up, finish the hand. Got to get my beauty sleep.”

“Whaddaya mean, hurry up,” said Bernie, “you’re into me for fifteen bucks.”

“Get it back from Hank here,” the reporter said. He nodded at the newcomer, “Want this hand? You’re fourteen points down. Lover boy’s got sixty-eight on game, but you’re a box up.”

“Sure,” said Tilton. He took the cards.

The morning news reporters left. The businessman dealt a new hand. Tilton waited four rounds, then knocked with ten.

Bernie slammed down his cards. “You lousy reporters are all alike! I’m going home.” He got up to put on his coat. “I’ll be back about ten, you still be here?”

“Sure,” said Tilton, “ ... with the score.” He folded the paper and put it in his pocket.

The businessman walked out and Tilton went over to the deAngelis board. “Anything?” he asked.

“Nah,” said King. He pointed to the lights, “Just lovers’ quarrels tonight; all pale pink and peaceful.”

Tilton smiled and ambled back to the cell block. The operator put his feet up on his desk, then frowned and put them down again. He leaned toward the board and studied the light at the end of the second row. The needle registered sixty-six. The operator pursed his lips, then flicked a switch that opened the photo file. Every five minutes an automatic camera photographed the deAngelis board, developed the film, and filed the picture away in its storage vault.

King studied the photographs for quite awhile, then pulled his log book over and made an entry. He wrote: 8:20:19:3142:1x. The last three digits meant that he wasn’t sure about the intensity, and the “x” signified a continuous reading.

King turned to the audio controller, “Do me a favor, Gus, but strictly unofficial. Contact everybody around us: Oakland, Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield ... everybody in this end of town. Find out if they’ve got one low intensity reading that’s been on for hours. If they haven’t had it since before midnight, I’m not interested.”

“Something up?” the controller asked.

“Probably not,” said the operator. “I’d just like to pin this one down as close as I can. On a night like this my screen shows nothing but milk.”

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