CHAMELEON – By Ray O’Bannon
I never meant to kill Elgin Banks. I want to make that completely clear. Fact is, I thought he was a really nice guy. At first, anyhow...
That’s why I offered to give him a lift. I’m usually a bit reluctant to trust strangers, and sometimes that’s wise in a town like Denver, but he seemed completely harmless standing there in the parking lot.
I had just gotten off the plane and was cramming my camera bag into the trunk of my car, looking forward to getting away from the busy airport and back home to my humble little apartment. His hesitant voice was barely loud enough to be noticed.
“Ummm… excuse me, sir?”
I looked up, probably with an impatient scowl, and saw a man in his late twenties or early thirties, average build, wearing a plain blue shirt and jeans. He was holding one hand to his forehead.
“Ummm” he continued, “Hi, my name’s Elgin and, ummm… I kinda need a favor. I hurt my head a little and I sorta think I need a ride to the hospital. I thought since you’re a fellow photographer you might not mind giving me a lift maybe?”
He seemed too shy to maintain eye contact for more than a moment, but had smiled in a very disarming way while speaking. Also, I was a little flattered to be called a photographer since I’m only an amateur. And also, I noticed a thin trickle of blood seeping down from his hand.
“No problem” I found myself saying, concerned about how badly he might really be injured. “Hop in.”
He slumped into the passenger seat rather weakly, but seemed to sit up a little straighter as I drove by the airport’s flight control towers.
“Name’s Banks, Elgin Banks.”
He extended his free hand and I found his handshake surprisingly firm. His voice sounded much more confident now, and I was relieved to think he might be feeling better.
“Thanks for the ride, appreciate it. I coulda just asked somebody in the tower but they’re havin’ a busy day so…”
“Oh, you work in the control towers?” I asked.
“Yep, been landing ‘em for seven years now.”
As a child I had always had a fascination with airports, and wasn’t surprised to find I still felt a certain awe at hearing my passenger was a flight control operator.
“That sounds like a really fascinating line of work” I offered enthusiastically.
“I dunno, I suppose it’s OK” he responded, “Not the glamorous thing everybody thinks it is, though. Actually gets pretty dull sometimes…”
I was somewhat surprised but didn’t pursue the topic. He was looking pale again and I decided to let him rest while I headed towards town, trying to remember the quickest way to the Hospital. We rode in silence until reaching a detour on Interstate 70, still a few miles from town.
“Stupid construction!” I mumbled impatiently as we crept by the worksite, heavy equipment tearing the concrete away as new soil was being packed down. “Seems like this stuff just never gets finished” I continued sourly.
A huge grin had appeared on Elgin’s face.
“Yeah, well, that’s the thing!” he spoke with a surprisingly deep chuckle. “Palmer and Floyd, they do OK. But the crew chief, Monty, he don’t never know how to get anything done with! Guy just can’t get organized, you know?”
I was amazed to think Elgin might be personally acquainted with the nearby crew of road workers. Not impossible, but it’s a big enough town to make such a notion tremendously unlikely. And my momentary confusion deepened with his next remark.
“Don’t think we’ve met, buddy” he smiled, extending his free hand. “Name’s Elgin Banks.”
I felt a chill, realizing his head wound must be much worse than I had suspected. I gripped the wheel tightly, feeling a vague sense of desperation as the endless line of cars continued through the detour lane. The nearest hospital exit stood just at the limit of my vision. As we continued forward I heard one of the road workers behind us call out to someone else on the crew “Hey Palmer! Get Floyd over here a minute!”
Elgin became quiet again but spoke with an indignant huff as we reached the detour lane’s end.
“MY corner” he grumbled mysteriously.
I looked over with a questioning glance and he pointed to a man selling flowers by the side of the highway.
“That was MY corner till that jerk came and made trouble. I been sellin’ flowers there all summer an’ he comes an’ he shoves me on down the street and takes my corner. You know, them flowers he’s sellin’, they ain’t even really red? No sir, he DYES ‘em red, an’ then they don’t last no more’n a day.”
He crossed his arms with a pout. I focused on the distant hospital exit, my sense of desperation growing substantially.
After what seemed an eternity we reached the hospital. I parked the car and we began the short walk to the emergency entrance. I had a momentary urge to just point him in the right direction and go my merry way, because he was beginning to make me seriously nervous. What if he became dangerous or something? But he hadn’t acted in a threatening manner thus far. I decided it would be heartless to just abandon him at this point. Which show’s how foolish I am.
Ahead was a bus stop, where two elderly ladies sat chatting quietly. As we drew closer to them, Elgin’s stride became slower. He seemed to slouch forward, and his expression became somehow troubled, as though he couldn’t see well, or as though his teeth hurt.
“Hope you know I appreciate your help” he said softly as I held his upper arm for support. “Can’t move the way I used to. I’m not a young man anymore, you know. Did you know I used to be a dancer?”
We passed the bus stop but were only a few steps from it when Elgin suddenly stood very straight and brushed my hand off his upper arm.
“Hey, man, what you all about? Grabbin’ on me like that! Man, you’re worse than Suzy.”
I stood staring in bewilderment as the bus pulled up behind us. Its doors hissed open and several younger people came shuffling out, dressed mostly in black and carrying what looked like guitar cases.
“Your head. Remember?” I began to explain.
“Oh yeah, that” he answered, giving me a sarcastic smile. “Happens now and then. Get a crowd who doesn’t expect to hear a goth band, add lotsa alcohol, add one goth band, add lotsa alcohol, mix well… and POW, somebody usually gets smashed in the head with a beer bottle.”
I was pulling him in the general direction of the hospital doors as one of the kids in black turned to one of the others and smirked “Suzy… nice gig you booked us!”
It seemed an enormous relief to finally be inside, and we walked briskly towards the admittance area. But Elgin’s pace suddenly increased, and he again brushed my hand away, this time with a distracted manner. I called out as he stalked forward.
“Whoa, pardner! What’s the rush? You should probably try to stay calm right now. You know, try not to get too upset.”
He turned upon me with an indignant look.
“Upset? I’ll have you know I’m quite calm, but a life hangs in the balance even as we speak!”
I was about to reassure him that his injury probably wasn’t as severe as all that, but his actual meaning became all to clear as he continued.
“My name is Dr. Eglin Banks, and I’m due in surgery in two minutes. If that little girl is kept under anesthesia too long the entire brain surgery could be jeopardized!”
I think I stopped breathing for a second or two. I clearly remember having a very strong desire to scream. He was going to try to do SURGERY! Maybe the hospital staff could keep him out of trouble, but what if they couldn’t? What if he hurt somebody? What was I gonna DO with this guy?
I was pulling him back out of the hospital before I had any coherent plan. By the time I got him back to the car I realized there was nothing I could do but drag him to my apartment, throw him on the sofa for the night, and hope this whole increasingly nightmarish situation might seem somehow more manageable in the morning.
Quite naturally, my car refused to start.
We were within walking distance of my apartment building, but it was one of the longest and strangest walks I’ve ever had. I can’t accurately recall how many different people Elgin became during that walk, but I was inexpressibly relieved to reach the final stretch. At last all that remained between us and the hopeful safety of my apartment was Cheesman Park, which was nearly devoid of a living soul.
Entering the pleasant shade of the surrounding trees, we stepped onto the pathway leading into the park. Elgin paused momentarily beside two old men who were playing a game of chess.
“Queen to king’s bishop three. See? That’s how he beats ya ever’ time.”
One of the men chuckled with delight as the other stammered disgustedly, and we continued on our way.
Looking across the park, I could now see my familiar old apartment building rising above the distant tree line. I began to think everything was going to work out alright after all. And Elgin suddenly stopped moving forward.
“What’s wrong, pal?” I coaxed. “We’re almost there.”
But he seemed reluctant to speak, suddenly nervous and confused, his face growing alarmingly pale. And he simply didn’t seem to want to take another step.
“Come on, Elgin” I half pleaded, “You’ll be OK but you gotta trust me!”
I couldn’t believe it. So close to our goal and now this! I looked around frantically, searching for some answer to this latest disaster. My desperate gaze fell upon a cop patrolling a distant corner of the park.
“What about him?” I asked Elgin. “Won’t he get mad if you don’t patrol the park?”
I didn’t have any other plan, and was desperately hoping this ploy might be effective. And it was.
“Who, Wally?” Elgin scoffed. “He’s mad all the time, so what difference does THAT make?”
Elgin started forward briskly, a determined look on his face.
And fell dead in his tracks.
It was only later that night, watching the news in my apartment, that I realized what I had done. After the report about the man found dead in Cheesman Park, and the footnote about my being questioned and released, there was a quick recap of the park’s long terrible history.
In 1858 a man named William Larimer founded Mount Prospect Cemetery. Burials were mostly of the poor and of criminals, and the cemetery became badly neglected. It was renamed City Cemetery in 1873, and was owned by a cabinet maker named John Walley. Public outcry at its continued state of neglect led the city, in 1890, to take over the cemetery and form a plan to get rid of it. Ninety days were provided for anyone wanting to remove a relative’s body, but over 5,000 bodies were left unclaimed. In 1893 the city hired an undertaker named E. F. McGovern to relocate the bodies. Boxes smaller than the original coffins were used and the bodies were broken as necessary to fit inside them. An angry mayor, who had been out of town, put a stop to the exhumations immediately upon his return. But whatever bodies had not yet been removed were simply left where they were. By the year 1907 City Cemetery had a new name, one it carries to this day… Cheesman Park.
And that’s how I killed Elgin Banks.