Red Light, Green Light

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“If that ain’t the strangest thing I ever saw.” Frank brushed his hand over the red lens. “You see this, Lou?”

“We’re paid to install it, not admire it.” Lou tucked a screwdriver into his belt. “Traffic’s backing up, Frank.”

“It looks defective. Check this bubble.” Frank tapped the red lens.

“Red lights still stop traffic. It don’t matter if the lens got a bubble. We got three more installs today. I want to get home to my son’s ball game. Hand it over.”

Frank brushed his hand over the red lens once more before handing the traffic light to Lou. “I still say we should get it checked. They’re gonna make us take it down and fix it if we don’t. I don’t like driving way out here.”

“So we get paid again for fixing it. Where’s the problem? I wish you’d shut up and let me get this job done. I don’t have time to sit around listening to your yap.”

Frank’s mouth snapped closed. He stepped back, working the controls for the cherry picker.

Lou rose into the air, the new traffic light balanced on the hand rail. His hand spread over the strange bubble in the red glass. “Never seen him shut up so fast before,” he muttered. A strange shiver ran down his spine. The red lens caught the light, like an eye, watching him with malevolent interest. He hefted the traffic light. “I wish I were already done.”

A gust of wind shook the cherry picker. Lou blinked grit from his eyes. He fished the screwdriver from his tool belt with his left hand, then stopped. The light hung in place, fully installed. He frowned.

“Hey, Frank! Get me down.” Lou shivered again, despite the desert heat. “Strangest install I’ve ever done. Be glad to get away from this one.”

The men climbed into the truck, slamming doors. The DoT truck sped away, leaving rooster tails of dust.

The red lens of the traffic light flared as the signal changed. Demonic laughter floated on the gritty wind.

***
Traffic wound into the brown hills, a long snaking line of commuters. Evan slapped his hand on the horn button for the fourth time in as many minutes. Desert dust blew through the open window, sticking to the sweat dripping from his face. He swiped a hand over his brow, cursing his lack of air conditioning. Traffic crept slowly through the intersection.

“Idiotic place for a traffic light.” He stuck his head through the open window. “Come on, lady! Move your stinking car. The light’s green, you blind old bat!” Evan blinked rapidly, rage surging. “I wish you’d just all clear out! Get out of my way!”

The red lens of the traffic light caught the sunlight, flashing brightly.

Drivers swarmed frantically to the sides of the road, horns blaring as panic spread. Dust billowed from the shoulders as tires spun. In no time, Evan faced a clear path. He smiled as he pushed the gas pedal, ignoring the snarls of traffic lining both edges of the road. He gunned his engine, roaring into the now empty intersection. He never saw the truck barreling down the mountain, brakes smoking as it fought to stop.

The cackle of the genie’s laughter followed Evan into death.

***
“Hey, detective. Boss has a case for you.” Deevers dropped a file on the desk. “It’s a real hot one, too.”

Tori Drake flipped open the thin folder. “What is it this time? A lost dog, stolen candy bars, or some other horribly significant crime spree involving gangs of old women from the retirement home?”

“New detective gets the real gems. It’s tradition.” The other cops collected behind Deevers, watching for her reaction.

Tori shuffled through the papers. “Traffic accidents?”

“Three last week, since the light was installed.”

“I thought lights made the roads safer.” She tapped the pages, wondering if this were another practical joke.

Deevers grinned. “You get to drive out there and investigate. Just like a real cop.” The other cops snickered.

Chief Marcoff stuck his head out of his office. “And you get to go with her, Deevers. Get some real detecting done for once.”

Tori smiled. “I’m lead, I’m driving. You can ride shotgun, but only if you promise not to spit out the windows.”

Deevers rolled his eyes. “Lead on, Detective.”

***
Tori rolled the car to a stop a hundred yards from the intersection. Hot wind gusted, leaving trails of dust hanging in the air. The light hung where the canyon road joined the highway at the base of Hawk Ridge.

“Almost no traffic, this doesn’t make sense.” She opened the door, leaning on the top as she studied the intersection.

“Except at rush hour. Commuter route to Hanley cuts past. And truckers take the canyon shortcut, despite warnings about the steep grades. Shaves off nearly a hundred miles.” Deevers leaned out the window, spitting into dusty wind.

“You promised not to do that. You want to ride in the back seat?”

“At least then I get some sleep. Forty minutes listening to that crap you call music is more than I can stand.” Deevers levered his bulk from the car, hitching his belt one-handed.

“It’s called jazz. Grow a little culture, Deevers.”

“I do. It’s called yogurt.” He sniffed, kicking at dust.

“Grab the sketch book, I’ve got the camera.”

“We’re walking?”

“There and back. It’s the best way to notice details.” She clicked a long shot of the road. “Three accidents, two fatalities. All involving dry roads and good visibility.”

“The last one, that guy in the sedan, they blamed it on faulty brakes of the semi that smeared him through the intersection.”

“But witnesses said something weird happened right before the accident. Everyone moved to the sides of the road, except him. Why?”

“They saw it coming. You sure we have to walk this?” Deevers mopped sweat from his face.

“Every inch.” Tori crouched, scanning the shoulder. “Tire marks. They drove off the shoulder here. But they can’t even see the canyon road yet. How would they know the truck was coming?” She snapped a quick photo.

A car passed, dragging hot tails of wind in its wake. Tori paused to watch it speed through the green light.

Deevers mopped his face. “Hotter than Hades out here. We call them all accidents and report back.”

Tori clicked another photo. “Something doesn’t add up. The accident report doesn’t make sense. They all moved out of his way. The truck driver swears he had a green light. So did the other drivers.”

“So get city maintenance out here to check the light. Faulty switches, you think?”

“Maybe. Let’s go check the switch box.” Gravel crunched under her feet.

“We’re walking? How about I drive down and meet you at the light?”

Tori tossed a grin over her shoulder. “The exercise will do you good, Deevers.”

He grumbled as he followed, his face flushed and sweating in the hot desert air.

***
Tori slammed the cover shut. “Everything checks. The cross over switch is working fine. You can’t get green both ways, no matter what you do.”

“Electrical overload, maybe.” Deevers wiped a sleeve across his dripping face. “I wish the breeze would pick up. Cool it off a bit.”

The red light flashed, catching the westering sun. On cue, a breeze whispered from the canyon. The temperature dropped at least fifteen degrees. Echoes of demonic laughter floated as an undercurrent.

“That was weird.” Tori shivered as the breeze tousled her hair. “You okay, Deevers?”

“Fine. Just let me catch my breath.” He wheezed, his face flushing deeper red. He pulled at his collar, tugging his tie loose.

Tori handed him her water bottle. She squatted in the gravel, resting the case files on her knees. Wind pushed hair into her face and ruffled the pages. She flattened her hand on the paper, scanning the accident reports.

Deevers sneezed. His bloodshot eyes and labored breathing concerned her.

“Maybe I should have left you in the car. Are you sure you’re okay?” She tucked the papers into the folder.

“Allergies,” he croaked, waving one hand. Yellow dust followed his movements. Pollen powdered the ground around him, lingering in his hair. Five feet away, where she crouched, the ground was clear.

Tori straightened, brushing her hair behind one ear. The breeze whispered past, carrying the lingering echoes of demonic laughter. The red lens of the traffic light caught her eye. She frowned as she pulled her phone from her pocket.

“Hi, Klein,” she said when the call was answered. “I need a couple of favors. Can you pull accident reports for the intersection of Highway 254 and Hawk Ridge Road for the last year? I also need a unit out here for Deevers. He’s having an allergy attack. Ambulance?” She studied Deevers’ purplish face. Sweat trickled down both cheeks, leaving tracks in the yellow dust. “Maybe you’d better. He doesn’t look good. Thanks.” She kept the phone at her ear.

“I’ll be fine.” Deevers tugged at his collar.

“Better safe than sorry. Something isn’t right, Deevers. Why are you covered in pollen but nothing else? Why three major accidents right after the light was installed?”

Red light glittered, like an eye watching her.

“I’m still here, Klein.” She listened intently. “You’re sure about that? Thanks again.” She flipped her phone shut, tapping it against her lip while she studied the traffic light. “Five reported accidents in the year before they put the light in. Two caused by icy road conditions, two DUI fender benders, and one deer collision. No injuries. The light goes up and within a week, three major accidents with fatalities. Weather isn’t a factor in any of those.”

“Bad luck.” Deevers unbuttoned his collar.

“What did you say right after we got here?”

“We should drive down.”

“No, as you sat there on the rock.” Tori tapped the phone on her lip.

Deevers frowned. “Is it important? I think I wished for a breeze.”

“And you got one, along with enough pollen to make anyone sick.”

Deevers grunted, coughed, then sneezed. “Are you saying there’s a genie in the traffic light that grants wishes? You’ve been in the sun too long.”

Tori dropped the phone into her pocket, her attention fixed on the odd glow of the red lens. A traffic genie that granted wishes? “Wish for something, Deevers.”

“You’re nuts, Tori Drake.” Deevers shook his head. “I wish for a million bucks.”

Nothing happened.

Tori cocked her head, watching the light. Mocking laughter echoed in her mind. “Maybe it only grants one wish per person.”

“So, you wish for something.” He slumped against the rock, his breathing heavier than before.

Sirens sounded in the far distance, a lone wailing signaling help.

“The ambulance will be here soon,” Tori said. She squinted at the red light, imagining the genie inside. The whole idea was ridiculous, couldn’t possibly be true, and yet, it fit much too well. “Maybe I am crazy.”

The old stories warned genies were tricky, twisting your wish to cause as much harm as possible. Maybe that’s why the cars all cleared off to the sides. Maybe the driver wished for the traffic jam to move. And got smeared by a semi with faulty brakes.

The light winked, cycling even though no cars were anywhere near the intersection. Red light glowed from the lens, flashing through the flawed glass. Laughter floated on the pollen-laden breeze.

Tori smiled, accepting the challenge. “I wish you were in the middle of Antarctica.”

The laughter ended abruptly. The light shimmered. Wind raged from the canyon, flinging her hair into her eyes. She shielded her face with one hand, clutching her accident reports in the other.

The wind died as quickly as it arose. Tori shoved her hair behind her ears. Empty brackets hung from the pole overhead.

The ambulance crunched to a stop on the gravel. The EMT poked his head from the window. “What happened?”

“Freak windstorm took out the light,” Tori answered.

The EMT helped Deevers into the back of the ambulance.

Tori walked back upslope to her car. She riffled the pages of the reports. “Traffic genie,” she whispered to herself. “Chief Marcoff will think I’m nuts.” She shook her head as she slid behind the wheel. What lie would he accept instead? Either way, the freak accidents would stop, she believed that much.

She drove slowly to the ambulance, following it down the highway.

The intersection lay silent, traffic absent for the moment. A deer, twin horns adorning its head, stepped cautiously from the brush above the highway. Another followed, and another, then another, until a stream of deer poured towards the intersection, turning to follow the fading wail of the ambulance siren. A million bucks; Deever’s last wish was granted.

end

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Jaleta Clegg

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