Chip tagged meekly along behind Lurlene as she walked down the stairs from the loft and out onto the street. She looked practically demure now with her down coat, leggings and stiletto heels. Chip worried about the health of her ankles at such a great height, but Lurlene was even outpacing him at this point. He picked up the pace so that he could at least talk to her over her shoulder.
“Do you want me to drive?”
Lurlene laughed, “Of course not, sugar. Why should we ride in your elctro-box when my car is much more fun?”
Chip realized that he had no idea what sort of car Lurlene drove, but he was sure that he was going to be in for some kind of surprise. Lurlene’s aesthetic was such a mishmash of 1940s glam with solid 2020 design purity that he had no idea what her ideal choice of automobile would be. She had cracked wise at his efficiency oriented electric, so he was expecting something purely internal combustion, but even then he wasn’t prepared for what he was sitting in at her invitation.
She drove a 1968 Ford Mustang drag racer. It looked like she had won the pink slip off some guy the previous weekend. It shone and gleamed with a bright red paint job that was a disturbingly close match to the color of her nail polish. Chip was well aware that he was out of his league in more ways than one so he just slipped into the form fitting racing seat and tried to buckle his seat belt. After she let him fumble around for an embarassing number of seconds, Lurlene reached over and deftly snapped the five-point restraint into place over his shoulders, around his waist and between his legs. She gave him a little pat on the upper thigh when she had clicked him in and winked at him.
When she turned the key, it put an end to the conversational possibilities of the ride. Chip had wanted to ask her about Rhonda and what she knew about her friendship with Don Mockson, but the sound of the V-8 engine made that impossible. In an era of constant fret and worry about pollution and carbon emissions, a ride in a car like this was like a giant fuck you to the cilmate-industrial complex. A car that ran on what felt like so many small explosions felt as quaint and unusual as an Amish horse and buggy on the road. Granted, horse and buggies were increasingly popular with the steampunk hipster set and they might have significantly lower carbon emissions than this monstrosity, but the stares they attracted from bystanders were much less aghast than when they roared down Main Street on their way to the other side of town.
Rhonda Richards lived in a small three story apartment building on the garden level, whose only relation to the garden is that that level of the building is actually set down into the ground as some parts of a garden might be. When she answered Lurlene’s knock, she seemed genuinely happy to see her, but her face hardened when she saw Chip over Lurlene’s shoulder.
“Who’s he?” she quizzed Lurlene.
“This is my old friend Chip. He wants to ask you some questions. Don’t worry, he’s harmless.”
They breezed through the door into a dimly lit space hung with tapestries on the walls. Rhonda invited them to sit on some cushions on the floor and asked them if they would like some herbal tea. Both Lurlene and Chip declined and Rhonda sank pliably down onto a round meditation cushion facing the other two.
Chip wasn’t sure if the trapping of Rhonda’s hippie existence were entirely earnest or if there was a subtle hint of self-mocking that had become quite popular in the last few years. Thick glasses and skinny jeans may have launched the hipsters, but they found their most fertile expression when they infiltrated the authentic lives of other groups of people and inflected those same lifestyles with a pervasive irony. From his dim glances at the surroundings, it could have gone either way with Rhonda. She could be a true believer or a post-modern fraud, but if she was good at either one, he wouldn’t ever be able to detect a difference. Without pigeon-holing her right off the bat, he did have a first question prepared.
“What were you guys doing to do next?” was perhaps not as well phrased as he could have hoped, but judging by the startled look on her face, he figured he had been sufficiently incisive.
“Next after what?” she asked somewhat ingenuously.
“After you were chanting, what came next? I mean, what if Don Mockson hadn’t died and then you and I would never meet in person, but if he hadn’t, you know, uh, if not, then what?”
“Then we were going to move to submit a community rights ordinance.”
“Why not just do it right off the bat? Why chant so much first?”
“What are you trying to imply? That our choice to generate some energy and awareness is what killed Don?” She obviously had been thinking this very thing quite a lot over the past few days and the way she phrased the formulation showed where her mind had settled on the issue.
“No, that wasn’t what I was trying to say. I mean, you don’t know this yet, but, uh, Don didn’t die because of your little stunt.”
“How can you know that?” She looked relieved and almost horrified by how much she wanted to believe the word of a complete stranger on this point. “Everyone is saying that he died because he got so excited.”
“I know everyone is saying it. They’ve been saying it to me too. But do you believe them?”
She cast her eyes down with a mixture of shame for how she had been beating herself up and doubt that what she had known before had somehow become irrelevant. “Don wasn’t the excitable type. I think it came from his time in the anti-nuke campaigns. He was always the one sitting on top of the missile silo when the cops came for him. Or maybe from before that. He was a Vietnam vet you know. Nobody wants to hear from an anti-war vet when he gets back, but Don had been through plenty before he ever got into activism. Chanting at a board meeting hardly even registered on his radar as something exciting.”
Chip was pleased to hear the confluence between Mrs. Mockson’s evaluation of her husband and the results of his snooping and what Rhonda was reporting. He didn’t want to reveal too much about his methods, but he felt like he owed her a justification for his claims.
“I, uh, made use of some city government websites and, uh, analyzed some, uh, video from the night of the meeting.”
Lurlene’s eyes narrowed as he said this, leaving Chip to feel again like she was onto all of his evasions, no matter if she said anything about them or not. Rhonda began to look more elated that Chip’s suggestion of her own exoneration was based on something approaching real evidence.
“I ran the video through a, uh, program that can tell a person’s pulse rate from what a video camera sees. Don Mockson’s pulse rate was completely normal right up until the moment that he died. If he had been excited by what was going on, it should have been much higher than it was. It should have been climbing over the course of his speech, but it wasn’t. The chanting and the shouting didn’t have anything to do with the death of Don Mockson.”
He stated it much more confidently than he felt, but his confidence seemed to help Rhonda a great deal. She brightened and uncurled a little from the grief-stricken slouch she had been holding herself into. She began to babble a little bit from the emotional release.
“Oh, thank god, yes, that’s what I thought, I mean, I knew it. It just came out of nowhere, it wasn’t caused by anything, it was just dumb luck. Right?”
Chip knew that the terminal interrogative was probably just a verbal tick caused by emotional stress, but he figured that if he was coming clean with this stranger on what he knew, he didn’t want to deceive her further but in a different direction.
Rhonda cringed back a little towards her protective slouch and Lurlene threw a glare at Chip that could have blistered the paint on her hot rod.
“When I went to see Don’s body at the morgue, there was a mark on his chest. I don’t know what caused it, but it could have been caused by the same thing that caused his aneurysm.”
Lurlene again narrowed her eyes, this time in surprise that Chip had gone so far as to go see the dead man’s body. Rhonda looked like she was going to be beside herself again.
“But why would someone kill Don?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Maybe someone thought that Don was going to do something that had to be stopped.”
“That’s crazy. How can proposing a new ordinance be a reason to kill a man?”
“I guess it depends on what is in the ordinance. What were you going to be proposing?”
“It was a proposed ban on frac sand mining in the county.”
“Well, it seems like there would be one person who would have a reason to want to stop that from happening.”
“Corporations aren’t people,” Rhonda corrected him reflexively, but it threw Chip off his train of thought enough that he had to ask what she meant.
“I meant that corporations aren’t people. You said that the mining company would be a person who wanted our ordinance to be stopped. But corporations aren’t people, no matter how much lawyers and judges want to pretend that they are.”
“Why would someone pretend that a corporation was a person?” Chip asked, even though he had just done the very thing.
“Because people have rights. Governments can recognize and act to protect those rights, but the rights come from the people themselves.”
“So you mean that the Constitution doesn’t create the right to free speech?”
“No, you have that right as a human being. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects your right from infringement by the federal government. And the First Amendment is a great example of why corporations want to be considered as people too. If a corporation had a right to free speech, then they would also have a right to run political advertisements or support candidates for office. They would even have a right to not speak, so government couldn’t compel them to disclose nutritional information if they didn’t want to.”
“But why would anyone think that a corporation was a person?”
“Because it got them what they wanted: rights.”
Chip was a bit surprised that someone could speak the presence of a colon so clearly, but he figured that Rhonda had delivered this speech a number of times. He had to shake his head a little bit to clear the proliferating thoughts of what the implications of corporate non-personhood might be. Refocusing, he asked “Is that what your ordinance was about?”
“Not in so many words. The ordinance just claimed that we as citizens have a right to a healthy natural environment and that frac sand mining infringes on that right.”
“That doesn’t seem so controversial.”
Rhonda gave him a pitying stare as she realized she need to take him back to the beginning of the whole issue.
“What were we chanting?”
“‘Commerce clause has got to go.’”
“Very good. And why were we chanting that?”
“Because it got people excited?”
“Yes. And also because the Commerce Clause prevents communities like ours from making laws that protect our rights. The Commerce Clause has been used by the Supreme Court to claim that they are the only place where rights can be protected. If five justices think that you don’t have a right to something, then in this country you don’t.”
“So, what about that right to a healthy natural environment that sounded so good earlier?”
“As far as the Supreme Court is concerned it doesn’t exist.”
“So, then it doesn’t exist.”
“I didn’t say that. Our ordinance makes it very clear that the right exists and that we are protecting that right by banning frac sand mining.”
“But, uh, isn’t that, uh,” Chip stammered, not quite ready to expose his tiny, newly formed understanding, “uh, isn’t that law illegal under the Commerce Clause?”
“Yes, exactly!” Rhonda seemed relieved that he had gotten to this point in his understanding.
Chip wasn’t sure what point he was at, but he had had enough re-education for an afternoon and he tried to politely extract himself from the situation.
“Well, uh, thank you for your time, Ms. Richards.”
“Rhonda, please. It was kind of nice to meet you, Chip. Thanks for what you told me about Don. You’ve made my heart a lot lighter.”
Ever the literalist, Chip doubted that he had changed her organ’s mass, but he knew enough to nod and extend a hand. He was surprised when she took the hand and pulled him to his feet and gave him a completely earnest hug.
When Lurlene and he were back in the cockpit of the drag racer and Chip had done up his own safety harness this time, he thanked her, “Thanks for bringing me out here and introducing me to Rhonda. She was a big help.”
“A big help with what, your investigation Sherlock?”
Chip blushed at her needling and tried to explain “I’m not investigating, I just like to know exactly how things work. I want to get to the bottom of things.”
Lurlene batted her eyelashes playfully and chuckled, “Yes, I’m sure you do. That must explain your skill with women.” And then she winked at him again.