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Borrowed Car

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It was just after 2 AM when Steve Archer was ripped from a deep sleep by the explosive roar of a car gunning through the alley beneath his Wicker Park bedroom window--his deepest sleep, the loudest, fastest car.

He bolted out of bed, expecting to see a police chase. Struggling to open the old wooden window, he saw a gold sedan skid to a stop under a cone of yellow light about a dozen yards away. He thought it looked familiar. Two teenagers wearing black baseball caps jumped out, and driver and passenger switched sides. Before they could charge away Archer read the license plate, repeating it to himself in his thick sleep fog. After the third dull intonation he suddenly went wild-eyed. "Hey! That's my car!"

It disappeared down the alley in a cacophony of combustion, moving metal parts, burning rubber, blaring horn.

He dove across the bed and grabbed the phone to punch 911. Plunging into hysterics, he was scolded by the man who answered, who yelled "STOP! Just answer the questions as I ask them!"

After rattling off the requisite information--name, address, phone number, make and description of car--Archer was told to wait in front of his apartment building for the cops. Outside he walked to the spot where the car had stopped in the alley and found chunks of glass he sentimentally hoped belonged to his stolen car.

Archer isn't his real name. He wanted it changed because he's concerned the gangs might come after him, perhaps shoot him. He's about 30 and has a bad history with cars.

The new bits of glass would join a collection started when his previous automobile was crunched against a concrete wall by a semi piloted by an oblivious driver who was turning left at the top of an expressway off ramp. Archer, who was on his way to a wedding, was stopped alongside the truck, and as it turned, its trailer pressed against his car He remembers glass from his rolled-down driver's window jumping like popcorn from inside the door. As the truck scraped away, he got out and chased it down the middle of the road, hollering and waving his arms.

A half hour after the call to 911 a pair of cops arrived. Matter-of-fact yet sympathetic, they had him repeat his story. In the background a muffled radio squawked continually from their squad car, hinting at a hundred other crimes across the city. The cops tore off a copy of their report for Archer. "Sorry," one said, "but it's not too likely that your car will be found." They left him on the curb and drove off toward Humboldt Park.

Back in bed at about 3 AM Archer was wide awake, angry, frustrated, dazed by the surrealistic quality of the entire episode. It had happened fast in a fog and felt unreal. He gradually slid into a tentative sleep, the type where reality blurs as the waking situation is augmented in dreams, details crisscrossing in a web of confusion.

He was finally snoozing solidly when the phone rang, an electric call back to reality. It was 5:10. A cop on the line said, "I've got good news and bad news. We've located your car, but it's been torched."

Suddenly Archer was acutely awake again, though disbelief offered a dash of hope: Anything that lousy had to be a nightmare.

The charred car was in an alley a couple miles away. The cop said it was a hazard and the city would have to tow it. Did Archer have towing insurance? It would cost $110. He reminded himself that he had recently dropped $400 into repairs.

The cop told him what had happened in the three or so hours since his sleep had first been blown apart. The two teenagers, Latin Kings, had hot-wired the car not for a joyride but as a quick and disposable vehicle for a vendetta. They'd used it in a drive-by shooting against the Royals.

About an hour after its roaring run through the alley the car had been driven to a spot on Damen between Division and Augusta. Driving slowly past a group of Royals standing around the front steps of a three-flat, the Kings opened fire through the open window of Archer's car--a shotgun blasting from inside his own car, the trigger squeezed by a screaming stranger, shot exploding through the barrel, the air, and into a boy's body, slamming him like a truck, tearing flesh apart.

The Kings then kicked the accelerator and sped south on Damen, an enraged pack of Royals running to their cars to follow. The Kings, racing through red lights, stayed well ahead and ditched the car in an alley in Ukrainian Village. Meanwhile the boy's blood mixed with dirt on the sidewalk. His condition was later listed as critical at a nearby hospital.

It didn't take the Royals long to catch up to the abandoned car. They smashed its windows, splashed the seats with gasoline, and tossed in a burning match.

The detective told Archer to expect another call and hung up. Archer was dazed and bewildered. He called a friend who had grown up in Pilsen and knew the ways of the gangs. "Go back to sleep," his friend told him. "I'll call you later."

Later turned out to be about 8:30, after another fragment of sleep. The two agreed to take their cameras to where the car sat dead.

They were to meet a few minutes later in the alley behind Archer's building, but when he got there Archer realized he'd forgotten his camera.

Walking back into his apartment he saw the red light on his answering machine flashing. There was a message from a cop named Foley. Archer called him back, but Foley put him on hold. Archer got a call on the other line. It was his friend. "Your parents just called me," he said. "They're pretty worried."

In the few minutes Archer had been out of the apartment, Foley had called and received no answer.

Without hesitation he called Archer's parents, who live in the northwest suburbs, and said, "This is Detective Foley of the Chicago Police Area 4 violent-crimes division. We're trying to locate your son. Do you know his whereabouts? "

Archer's mother, who later said she had felt the gray spread through her hair, asked Foley what it was all about. He said they'd received two reports--of a shooting, then of a fire. Apparently Foley didn't realize their son had already been in touch with the police. Archer's mother asked Foley if he'd looked for her son in the trunk of the burned car. "Well, no," he said.

Archer hung up with his friend in time to catch Foley coming back on the other line. He arranged to meet the detective at the torched car, then called his mother.

The rear tires on the four-door--a big, early 80s American model--had burst. The back end sagged to the ground. Explosions in the engine had buckled and dislocated the hood. Every window had melted, dripping liquid glass into the blackened interior. All that remained of the front seat was a thin metal frame. The gold paint on the doors and roof had burned away, revealing the aqua primer.

When the car was stolen its gas tank had been three-quarters full. The neighbors said it exploded three times in columns of orange fire two stones high. The heat had peeled the aluminum siding off a nearby garage. The groaning wails of two flashing fire trucks had crowded the alley, bringing out more neighbors in their slippers and robes. When he saw the car Archer felt violated.

The cops seemed to suspect him of something. "Where were you?" they wanted to know. "What were you doing?" Pale and exhausted, he slowly answered their questions. Their suspicion seemed to fade quickly, but then the cops wanted to know if Archer could identify the thieves. He said he didn't think so.

When he inspected the car Archer was surprised to see a copy of the police arson report--with his name and phone number--lying inside it.

A few days later he received an unsettling phone call from a young man speaking in Spanish. Archer could only muster a "No espanol." There was a long pause, more Spanish, then a click.

The next day he had his phone number changed--it's now unlisted. The car was taken to a police auto pound, then to a junkyard. The teenager who was shot survived.

Archer plans to stay in Wicker Park, but he's planning to try to get around without a car.

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