BY MARCUS DAY
It seemed like a routine job – a photo at the hospital of healthcare workers and RCMP officers, who are trying to outdo each other in contributing to the Salvation Army’s Christmas toy drive. When I arrived at 4pm on Friday, November 15, I was told that the officers had been called away, so I would have to take separate pictures of the parties in this fun charity challenge.
At 4.15pm I returned to my car. The next 15 minutes would prove anything but routine as I was soon caught up in unexpected drama. The following account is based on a statement I hand-delivered to the police on Monday.
The hospital photo assignment over, I sat in my Ford Fiesta outside the main entrance to the emergency department, ready to drive back to the newspaper office. It was 4.15 pm.
The weather was warm – anything above zero feels that way now – and most of the snow and ice from a wintry storm had disappeared.
As I turned my head, preparing to reverse, I saw a young man emerge from behind rows of parked cars and run towards the hospital.
My first thought was that he was an orderly attending a medical emergency.
He then saw me, changed direction and knocked on the front passenger window.
Oh hell, I thought, I’m probably parked in a physician’s spot or am blocking the way of hospital staff who will be appearing any moment with stretchers, gurneys, and all manner of health paraphernalia. I could hear them yelling at me: “Get out the way – can’t you see this is an emergency! You are illegally parked.”
The man was dressed casually – jeans, I think. Nothing remarkable.
I pressed the button for the back window. It slid down with barely a whisper.
“Could you give me a lift to the highway?” he said.
Relief that I wasn’t being bawled out by officialdom immediately flooded through me.
Close-up, the man looked wild-eyed, flustered and a shade desperate. I wondered what highway he meant. It must be Highway 21, I decided. Maybe he needs me to drive a few 100 metres, then he will rush out and go about his business. Maybe he needs to attend a medical emergency, after all. Maybe he is indeed an orderly.
He looked pleadingly at me and I relented.
Why not, I thought. He seemed harmless enough, scrawny even. Could I hold my own against him in a fight? He would have youth on his side, for sure, speed and agility, but muscle-wise there was little between us. He was also panting heavily. I felt almost sorry for him.
I opened the front passenger seat, believing I would be safer with him there than behind me.
The first thing that struck me was his steadfast refusal to buckle up, even though the seatbelt warning sign was flashing and emitting a squeal.
“That’s the seatbelt symbol,” I said, nodding at my dashboard.
He ignored me.
At the entrance/exit to the Southwest Integrated Healthcare Facility, I said: “Where now? Left or right?”
“Left,” he said.
To the right I noticed police cars at the intersection. Lights were flashing at the mouth of the road leading to Ghostown Blues and Fort Walsh.
I felt the first prick of suspicion and asked him what he was doing. He said he just wanted to get to the highway. I was aware of him sitting slightly twisted in his seat, head down, unbuckled, monosyllabic, resistant to questions, tense.
There was nothing outwardly scary about him. He wasn’t aggressive or unpleasant or covered in skull tattoos. Nevertheless, a stranger was next to me and I was uneasy.
The image of a weasel entered my head. I read somewhere that weasels come across as disarmingly charming, but are ferocious predators, known to rip prey apart with their razor-sharp claws and teeth. Threatened or cornered, they will bite people.
I didn’t want my driving companion to feel threatened or cornered. Besides, I couldn’t help but wonder whether he had a concealed weapon, such as a knife.
If only I knew some Bruce Lee moves, knives wouldn’t be a problem.
I drove slowly up to Caroline’s, wondering how this unexpected journey was going to play out.
“Do you want to go over the tracks?” I asked.
He said: “Yes.”
Over the tracks, there was the option of going up a gravel road, or right, past the industrial buildings.
“Where now?” I asked.
He said: “Right. I want to go to the highway.”
I drove to the junction near the railway crossing and said: “I suppose you want to go left.”
“Yes, to the highway.”
So he definitely had the Trans-Canada in mind. I told myself: there is no way I’m travelling up that highway with this man. I will pull into the unofficial lay-by where I watched the pro-pipeline truck convoy in February and tell him he has to leave.
I pictured him protesting, then turning violent. I pictured us fighting, pushing, pulling, kicking, punching, yelling. Would I be any good in such a scenario? When did I last have a scrap? At school, I thumped a boy in the face and bust my hand. God obviously hadn’t designed me for pugilism.
I pictured a knife flashing across my face.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know the highway was so far. I really appreciate you giving me a lift.”
With the picture of us fighting becoming more defined, and an imaginary knife glinting at me, my travelling companion began apologizing. He repeated the apology … twice, no three times, I think. Was he getting more relaxed?
I continued to drive slowly – believing this might force him to reveal his intentions – but he didn’t become noticeably agitated or tell me to hurry. Nor did he duck his head or try to hide.
I got the impression we were playing a mind game: he was pretending to be a regular dude catching a lift to a main road, I was pretending to buy his tale of innocence, even while I imagined us fighting.
At least while we played this game nobody was getting hurt.
Emboldened by his apologies, I tried again to get him to open up.
“It seems like you’re in a hurry to get away,” I said.
He replied: “Not really.”
I decided against pressing him for answers and drove in silence up Highway 21, past the cemetery and towards the Trans-Canada. The red seatbelt warning sign continued to flash and squeal, but he still made no effort to buckle up. Why? Was he planning a quick getaway?
At least twice he asked me for my name. I didn’t respond.
Two or three kilometres from the Trans-Canada intersection I saw a police car behind me, flashing its lights intermittently. Thankfully, there was no siren.
Was this the endgame? I braced myself and gradually slowed. No sudden movements, I warned myself. Just play it easy. That’s right, lift your foot off the gas very, very slowly, as if it’s the most natural movement in the world.
I indicated right and pulled over to the side.
“Why are you stopping?”
I was amazed. The question – quietly, almost timidly, asked – seemed to contain genuine bafflement.
“There is a police car behind me,” I replied.
Had he been too immersed in his thoughts to detect the flashing lights?
A policeman got out of his car and told me to switch off the engine and hang my car keys out of the window. I complied.
It was a relief no longer having to think for myself, unburdened by the consequences of my actions.
The policeman took the keys and put them on the roof of the car. He then went to the front passenger door, which I opened for him with a curious element of pride.
By now, other officers were at the scene. They told the man that he was under arrest. He made no effort to escape. There was no struggle.
I heard him protest his innocence – and I wondered whether he was still putting up a front for my benefit. Was he still playing his role in our mind game?
The police officer who told me to switch off the engine returned my car keys, thanked me for pulling over and said I would be required to make a statement the next day or on Monday.
He then made sure it was safe for me to complete a U-turn and drive back to town. I returned in a slightly dreamlike state.
Over the next few days I replayed the incident endlessly in my mind – 15 minutes of psychological drama in my undramatic life – wondering whether I should have done things differently, beyond not letting an out-of-breath stranger into my car.
What would you have done?