Where Green Lights Meet
A detective stumbles into a dark mystery


It was supposed to have been a good day. Sunday, high of ninety-two with a cool breeze. Then my phone rang. It was Theresa, police dispatch.

I sighed. "What've we got?"

"Car crash at Beckett and Slaughter Lane."

I slapped the cherry-light on top of my car, whipped my 1998, beige Mustang around and sped the whole way.

Austin, TX is a weird city. It's home to streets like Slaughter Lane, Perishing Road, and "William Cannon". But the names are just a start. Sometimes it feels like the whole city was designed by four psychopaths and a Crayon. Sloping hills turn sharply to meet the highway, bike lanes vamp across the street abruptly, three-lane roads merge suddenly to one, and road construction is endless.

And all of this, the whole chaotic snarl, is held together by a shitload of stoplights.

After hitting my fair share of red-lights and traffic, I parked a block away and ran the rest. The crash was bad. A hulking Cadillac SUV had T-boned a Tesla Model 3, and the momentum had slid them over to one quadrant of the intersection. Emergency vehicles were surrounding them with traffic cones surrounding the area, and a cop was stationed in the middle of the intersection, directing the impatient Austin traffic through. One road was blocked completely. I jogged up and flashed my billfold, glinting my Private Investigator badge (which means jack-shit, by the way). The officer rolled his eyes. Not happy to see me. I really have worked with the police occasionally, but the bigger reason I got the call is that I happened to be dating one of them.

"Hey, Brittney!" I called. She had her blonde hair pulled in the police's standard-issue bun. She turned around to glare at me. She strode over.

"Hi, Detective Sanderson. You know that's your title out here, right? You're Detective Sanderson. That would make me…"

"Officer Jansenn," I replied dutifully, "Sorry, rank slips me. What do we have here? Looks pretty bad, if she's not getting the first hospital ride."

I pointed at the woman in a pink halter-top who sat on the curb and stared blankly at an EMT's flashlight.

"Another is on its way, but there were three more in the crash. Horrible. Others are getting priority right now. Two are borderline cases, I wouldn't hold my breath. The Tesla driver had blood coming from both ears. Skull fracture, I'd guess"

"Awful. Was the Tesla chasing a yellow?"

Brittney shook her head.

"Oh. Shit. Another one?"

She nodded, then pointed to a street corner, where a couple guys in matching grey Polos huddled over a computer. A wire dangled out of an uncovered steel hatch on the traffic-light pole.

"They informed me that the logs show both lights were green at the same time, but they also assured me that that was impossible."

"Just like the last one?"


Two weeks before this there'd been a similar accident in an intersection. I had only thought to check the traffic-control system after I heard the witness testimony. Obviously, the major question for the court and insurance lawyers had been: "Who ran the red light?"

Both drivers had multiple eye-witnesses. One side testified that they had a green light going East, the other side swore that they had green going South. I'd called in a favor with Brittney, and she called a couple civil-engineers that worked on these systems to take a look. They'd said that a) both lights had been green, and b) that was impossible.

Now we were looking at another crash caused by two drivers who unknowingly entered the "Twilight Zone", driving through an impossible glitch in traffic control.

I lowered my voice. "Have you asked around yet? Any other city seen this yet?"

"San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, I contacted all three stations. None saw anything like this. Of course, it's possible that they might've missed it."

"Maybe…" I scanned the surrounding area. Spired buildings of glass and metal jutted up next to unassuming four-story buildings and parking garages. Here, the Austin Center for the Arts, and there, catty-corner to it, a Starbucks.

"And our traffic systems are all the same?" I asked.

"The very same."

Something occurred to me. "Hey. Did anyone talk to Starbucks about that CCTV camera yet?"

"No," she replied. Then after seeing my smile she said quickly, "It was on the list."

"Course it was. I think I'll pop by for some Joe, see if they're recording anything or just showing off."

I ordered a no-fat latte, tipped five dollars where they'd notice, and asked the question. The barista Jackson, nodded, "Sure we record."

I flopped my badge down and his eyes went big. "We want to see the footage from when the accident happened."

The TV was in the back. Brittney and I stood behind Jackson who scrubbed back and then forwards again until the time read "2:42PM".

"Alright, looks like this is where it happened." He pressed play.

The video showed the Tesla driving from the lower left, northbound. Then, westbound from the lower right, here comes the SUV. The accident was silent and looked unreal on the grey camera-feed.

"Look at that," Brittney pointed.

Right out front of the Starbucks, with their back to the camera, a construction worker stood with surveying equipment. His orange hat covered any identifiable hair. Once the crash happened, they grabbed their surveying tripod and left in a hurry.

"When did they setup?"

Quickly Jackson had the answer. "Ten minutes before, about 2:30."

"Can we get any identifiable image? Brittney, you'll want to see if that guy can be identified."

"Don't tell me— I know what to do here."

"Sorry, sorry. You're right. We'll be in touch, Jackson."

Brittney and I left the cool fluorescent for the noisy ninety-three degrees outside. We stood on the corner under the forest-green awning.

"You think he's our guy?" I asked.

"The construction worker? I'd sure love to ask him or her some questions," Brittney said, "But I don't understand how this could've been pulled off."

"Well, I've been wondering. You know those clicker doohickies that y'all use to change the traffic lights? "

"Infrared. Some company–"Opticom", I think–makes them. Only for emergency vehicles, only for emergencies. I thought about that first thing, but they don't just instantly change our lights green. Everyone else gets the red first."

"Sure, but what if someone else got one, or made one. Possible?"

She nodded.

"Ok. And then what if they tried to signal both receivers at the same time? Say, I'm standing some place equidistant from both lights," I said, positioning myself forwards a few steps, right where orange-hat had been, "and say that I'm pointing my little gizmo on my little tripod. Timing wouldn't be perfect, but maybe close enough to fool both lights to green?"

"Woah. Mitch, that might actually work."

"Mitch? Surely you meant Detective Sanderson," I said, grinning.

"Oh shut up. Listen. I'll call you later. I gotta get on the phone with Opticom, run your theory by them."

We exchanged a brief, chaste kiss. She ran back to her car, and I walked back to mine. I drove home, thinking.

Green lights were flipping on in my brain, with no red lights in any direction, causing pileups as I wondered at how many stoplights were relied on nationwide. Surely there had to be some that got flipped wrong. Said "yellow" too late and "green" too early? But no one would buy that in court. Humans were the famously unreliable link in the man-machine circuit.

I turned onto Congress Avenue, a road famous for its mile-long chain of nine traffic lights that were synchronized to change in succession, so that with the right timing, you could hit Green lights all the way to the State Capitol. Of course, that ran both ways, and I hit red.

I was staring, wondering about blind faith and traffic lights, when I saw something curious. In the middle of the chain of red lights, one set of stoplights suddenly turned green, right in the middle. A broken chain? Impossible. Impossible…My brain whirred. Maybe there was an emergency? But I could see the road, no emergency vehicles.

I slapped the cherry back on my roof. The road ahead was mostly clear, except for two red intersections between me and that green light. No way but through the gauntlet.

The cars up at the green light hadn't moved, probably not realized they had green. Please don't. Then I heard the honk of a driver up there, and I saw cars start moving. "No!" I hit the gas, running the red light I was stopped at. A sedan nearly sideswiped me from the right, honking furiously.

I heard the collision, and it sounded bad. I was almost at the second red light. I slammed my brakes to avoid a U-Haul barreling through. After that, I burned rubber and launched through the intersection. I could see some of it, a black truck had rammed into an even larger green truck. Monster Mash at Congress. I couldn't see any orange hat though. The cars around them had all come to a halt as onlookers got out. Where was he? The other side? I laid on my horn. "Move, people!"

I spun my wheel towards the curb. My front bumper squealed as I bah-dumped onto it, and I spun my wheel back, so that two wheels road the curb with the other two in the bike lane. I drove by the parked cars with flashing hazards and then dropped off the curb into the intersection. I scanned. The accident looked bad but better than the last. People, more people, and then there! A little man in a construction uniform carrying a long pole. He was walking quickly away from the scene.

"Oh no you don't." I sped after him. He glanced back and broke into a run. I drove up next to him, and he juked into an alley. My tires crunched the gravel, and I jumped out. It was a closed alley, he was trapped. I pulled my pepper spray. (Yeah yeah, laugh. I still say it's better than a gun most days. Though Brittney says the day a gun is better will be a bad, bad day for me, which is probably true.)

I found him hiding behind a large brown dumpster, looking tiny in the corner. It only took a four second hold of the pepper-spray to convince him that he should tell me where his tripod was. Well, technically he told me as soon as I asked, but I don't hear too good and I was mighty fired up to spray him.

Got a little backsplash myself, and I called in the cavalry with a burning throat and snotty nose. Brittney—Officer Jansenn—wasn't happy about my red-light and curb exploits, although she was mollified when I asked how many crashes it would've taken for him to be caught. At least one more was a safe bet. So, my traffic tickets were coming, but I judged them a small price for justice.


A few weeks afterwards, Brittney told me something that really messed my stomach up. She confirmed, yes there had been an Opticom light-changer on the tripod, but there'd been something else too. A high-speed video camera. Apparently he'd been recording every moment in lurid detail. There were even shots from the previous accident still on the card. Which is great for prosecution—he's bound to rot in jail now—but I try not to think much about what kind of diseased mind…forget it.

I also got the traffic violation stubs in the mail, finally. I'm gonna fight them. Nearly fifteen hundred dollars! "Reckless endangerment" my ass. I wonder if the court will accept the argument of "reckless un-endangerment". That's pretty much the ol' Sanderson special right there!

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