“Yo, bro, you got a minute to hear me out? I’m not looking for a handout.”
He was a small guy, wiry and bearded. His baseball cap, cotton hoodie, and battered jeans were streaked with grime. The ripe odor coming off him told me it had been a while since he’d bathed. He didn’t have nut-bag eyes, though; there was no meanness in him, no crackhead edge.
I stopped. “What’s up?”
“I’m not a beggar.” He held out his hands to ward off my assumptions. “I want to make that clear.”
“But I got a kid, you know? And there ain’t no jobs. My old lady, she’s sick, and my baby boy he just needs some formula. Shit’s, like, seven bucks and I—”
I never saw his arm move, but he snatched my laptop bag off my shoulder just the same. He took off with it, tear-assing for the back of the nearest abandoned house. The bag held my case notes, my laptop, and a picture of my daughter.
“You dumb shit,” I said, not sure if I was talking to myself or to the homeless guy, maybe to both of us. Who knew the fucker had such long arms?
I pursued him down the side of the house through knee-high weeds and crushed beer cans, empty Styrofoam egg containers, and broken bottles. It was probably a squatters’ house these days. When I was a kid, it was the Cowans’ house, then the Ursinis’. A Vietnamese family bought it next and did a lot of rehab on it. Just before the father lost his job and then the mother lost hers, they’d begun remodeling the kitchen.
It was still missing the back wall there; some of the plastic tarps nailed to the framing flapped in the afternoon breeze. As I reached the backyard, the homeless guy was only a few feet ahead and about to be slowed by a chain-link fence. I sensed movement to my left. A plastic tarp parted and a dark-haired guy swung a length of pipe into the side of my face and I spun into the plastic and fell into the unfinished kitchen.
I’m not sure how long I lay there—long enough to notice, as the room shook behind watery waves of air, that all the copper had been stripped from beneath the sink and behind the walls. Long enough to feel reasonably certain my jaw wasn’t broken, though the left side of my face was simultaneously numb and on fire, and blood leaked steadily from it. I got to my knees and a nail bomb detonated in my skull. Everything that wasn’t directly in front of my nose vanished behind black cloaks. The floor shimmied.
Someone helped me to my feet and then pushed me into a wall, and someone else laughed. A third person, farther away, said, “Bring him in here.”
“I don’t think he can walk.”
“Lead him, then.”
Fingers vise-gripped the back of my neck and guided me into what had once been the living room. The black cloaks receded from view. I could make out a small fireplace, the mantel torn away and probably used as firewood. I’d been in this room once before, when a bunch of us sixteen-year-olds followed Brian Cowan in here to raid his father’s liquor cabinet. A couch had sat under the windows facing the street. A garden bench sat there now and a man sat on it, his eyes on me. I was dropped on the couch across from him, a ratty orange thing that smelled like the Dumpster behind a Red Lobster.
“You gonna puke?”
“Curious about that myself,” I said.
“I told him to trip you, not hit you with a pipe, but he got a little excited.”
I could see the guy with the pipe now—a slim, dark-haired Latino in khaki cargo pants and a wife-beater. He gave me a shrug as he tapped the pipe back and forth in his palm. “Oops.”
“Oops,” I said. “I’ll remember that.”
“You won’t remember shit, pendejo, I hit you again.”
Hard to argue with logic. I took my eyes off the help and considered the boss on the bench. I would have expected prison-lean and prison-mean, gin-pale eyes. Instead, the guy wore a yellow-and-green-plaid shirt under a black wool sweater and a pair of tan corduroys. On his feet were a pair of canvas Vans with a pattern of black and gold squares. His red hair was a little on the longish side and flyaway. He didn’t look gangsta; he looked like a science teacher at a prep school.
He said, “I know you got some rough friends and I know you’ve been in some serious scrapes, so you don’t scare easy.”
News to me. I was scared shitless. Pissed off, instinctively memorizing every detail I could about the two guys I could see, and thinking about ways to get the Latino’s pipe into my hands and straight up his ass—but scared out of my mind, just the same.
“Your first instinct is going to be to come after us, if we let you live.” He unwrapped a piece of bubble gum and popped it in his mouth.
“Tadeo, give him a towel for his face.” The science teacher gave me a cocked eyebrow. “Yeah, I said his name. Know why, Patrick? Because you won’t come after us. You know why you won’t come after us?”
It would hurt too much to shake my head, so I simply said, “No.”
“Because we’re bad fucking guys and you’re a soft fucking guy. Maybe not once, but this isn’t ‘once.’ I hear your business went to shit because you started bailing on anything that smelled like a rough case. Understandable for a guy who got shot a bunch of times, almost bled out and shit. Still, the word’s out you don’t have the stones to do this at our level anymore. You’re not part of this life. And you don’t want to be.”
Tadeo came back from the kitchen area and put two paper towels in my hand. I fumbled for them, listing to my left, and he ran the end of the pipe along the side of my neck with a soft chuckle.
I snatched the pipe out of his hand and drove a foot into his knee at the same time. Tadeo fell backward and I came off the couch. The science teacher yelled, “Hey!” and pointed a pistol at me and I froze. Tadeo scrambled backward on his ass until he reached the wall. He stood, favoring his good leg. I remained frozen, the pipe in my hand, my arm cocked. Science Teacher lowered the gun as an indication I should lower the pipe. I gave him a tiny nod of agreement. Then I flicked my wrist. The pipe tomahawked across the room and hit Tadeo between his eyebrows. He let out a yelp and bounced off the wall. The gash above his nose opened and flooded his eyes. He took two steps toward the center of the room and then three more steps to the side. He took a few more steps and walked into the wall. He put his hands on the wall and gulped for air.
“Oops,” I said.