By James Strauss
Holder didn’t engage the man because he had a kid with him, not that the son-of-a-bitch didn’t deserve to be properly encountered in spite of the child. Coffee shops suck in Boston. They aren’t the warm fuzzy places that dot Seattle’s landscape, where people are running around, talking and generally being friendly. No, the Boston Common coffee shop, in what they call the North End, is a cold place where riff-raff gather in numbers. Unemployed young people, looking for some place to hang other than home, low life Irish annealing themselves for the day against terrible hangovers from the night before, and Italian would-be Soprano actors filling the shop every morning.
Holder had come in, set up his Mac on a window facing counter, waited for a cheap small coffee, and then come back to do a bit of work. He hadn’t noticed the creep until he tried to wedge into his corner space. The guy pressed him against the wall, making it appear accidental. No “sorry,” or anything like that came from his lips, however. Holder ignored him by simply sliding along the wall until he was onto his stool.
The guy got on his cell phone. His loud talking was irritating. Then the clown moved Holder’s coffee. Actually picked it up and moved it with one idle hand while he talked. Holder stared, but again did nothing. He was a professional, after all. A professional killer of refined distinction. He didn’t kill people in the United States. That was home and the statute of limitations never ends in the USA for murder. He’d had never killed U.S. citizens abroad either, except when the situation had truly merited it.
Being a hit man was easier if the people you killed really needed the killing pretty badly. If they did then it was merely a process of conversion. Moving meat to fertilizer, he’d once told a would-be friend, but the man hadn’t gotten the humor.
In short, Holder was an International Pro. He wasn’t proud of it because there was nobody to be proud to. He simply knew what he was, and he knew he was really good at it.
The loudmouth cell phone creep got louder. He did it by moving to sit sideways on his own stool. Holder sighed, hands frozen over the keys of his laptop.
He decided to fight fire with fire. For months he’d been searching for a ringtone download for his iPhone. The score from the television show Magnum P.I. Holder loved Magnum. The producer’s of Magnum had done a great job of portraying post traumatic stress. Holder had been in the Nam and had the syndrome. Not that he jumped from loud noises or woke screaming from bad dreams.
Holder starting scanning ringtones from the internet. Slowly, listening to different tune, he turned up the volume. Soon the laptop was singing away, completely drowning out the voice of his obnoxious neighbor. Holder was about to smile to himself over handling the situation so well when the guy punched him on the shoulder. Holder twisted his head instantly, in shocked surprise. The blow had only marginally hurt so he didn’t react further.
“Hey, turn that damn thing down,” the creep said, “I can’t hear my cell phone.”
Holder couldn’t believe his ears. He moved to rub the offended shoulder while looking in to the other man’s eyes.
“I turned it up because of your phone,” he replied to the man, his voice flat and level, while his hand massaged his shoulder. “It’s rude to talk in here on a cell phone.”
The guy ignored him, saying some more idiot things into his phone. Holder appraised him. The guy was not much more than a kid, maybe twenty-seven or eight, he guessed. Good build. Not too tall. Thin-waisted. He’d be quick, most probably, if athletic, and his appearance was fairly fierce. Big black eyebrows penciled thick above his eyes. His facial planes were Slavic with the kind of jaw muscles that bulged, and moved constantly. He glanced into Holder’s eyes with a derisive expression. Holder saw himself in the guy’s eyes. Old. Short. Weak, with clothing way too delicate to indicate any kind of threat.
“Turn it down,” the guy said, flipping his phone closed and dumping it hard onto the counter, so that it struck Holder’s laptop.
Holder liked his Mac. A lot. He looked down at it, his arms having dropped to his sides.
“No, I don’t think so,” he responded softly to the man’s demand, pushing the offending cell phone a few inches away from the Mac with his left index finger.
“Fine, asshole,” the man said, his voice going up in scale and volume, “let’s go outside and settle this.” He climbed off his stool, retrieving the small phone with one hand while grabbing for a coat draped over the back with his other. He bumped into Holder again.
This time Holder was ready, with his shoulder out protecting the .410 Public Defender. He didn’t want the young predator to have any idea that his harmless seeming ‘prey’ was armed.
Holder congratulated himself on his choice of weaponry. Only hours before he’d sat in his hotel room considering. There was no mission, as he was between jobs. He’d decided to go out among the citizenry with a five shot Taurus revolver. It fired only four-ten shotgun shells. Holder had loaded birdshot rounds. At close range the little pistol could not miss, and the birdshot would scar and disfigure rather than kill. There was just no sense having wild-eyed Boston Police personnel angrily in pursuit of some murderer. Not if the object of their intent was Holder, anyway.
Holder let the clown get out the door before he made his own preparations. He looked through the glass at the unsuspecting young man, who was once again on his cell phone.
“What the hell is it with this new generation?” he whispered to himself, stepping down from the stool. He was packing the laptop up and getting his coat on before the unintended question was answered.
“You going to hurt my dad?” a nearby voice asked.
Holder looked around, and then down in front of him. A child was wedged in between the nasty young man’s stool and the front wall. He was under the overhanging counter. Nearly invisible. The words of question had come over the top of the man’s vacated stool.
“You going to hurt my dad?” the boy said again, this time thumping his chest with his clenched fist when he spoke. Holder stared down at the young boy, squinting, and then bending a little closer. He noted that the boy’s eyes were huge pools of deep shiny brown. When the child blinked he did so with lashes almost an inch long.
“Ahhhh,” Holder said, snapping his glance up to keep track of the pacing man on the other side of the coffee shop window.
“U,” the boy said, more loudly, striking his own chest again.
` “You?” Holder asked, his eyebrows coming together in question.
“U,” the little boy repeated patiently, his tone indicating exasperation.
“U is a letter of the alphabet,” the boy thumped himself again, “see?” he inquired.
Automatically, Holder’s hand struck his own chest weakly, in imitation. Then he did a double take. The boy was trying to teach him how to talk.
“I know how to talk,” he said to the little boy.
“Oh,” the boy answered, this time making an ‘O’ with the index finger and thumb of his right hand.
Holder laughed. He couldn’t help himself. The kid was so damned cute, and so serious.
“Are you going to hurt my dad?” the boy repeated, not smiling back at him.
“I don’t know,” Holder said, realizing that he was telling the truth. He didn’t tell the truth very often. He didn’t have anyone in his life to tell the truth to.
“My dad is mean to people,” the boy went on, no longer signing with his hand.
Holder nodded, his gaze still going back and forth between the man outside and his son under the counter.
“Why do you suppose that is?” Holder asked.
The boy stared, without responding. Holder enjoyed watching him. He could see the little boy’s mind work. Holder knew that ‘suppose’ was not a word that a little boy was likely to know. Not even a smart little boy.
“My Mom said that he had a hard childhood,” the boy answered. Holder was impressed that that the boy had chosen to simply ignore the big word he didn’t know. The kid was very smart. And funny, even though he probably didn’t know that.
“Where’s your mom?” Holder inquired.
“Dead. She got sick, went to the hospital and died. My dad said she got sick from Roughie, so he put Roughie down.” The boy’s eyes seemed to grow bigger as he talked.
“Roughie was your dog?” Holder asked, pulling his eyes from the boy’s with effort.
“Is my dog. He’s down, not dead. Mom’s dead.” the boy answered, his voice more forceful. “Are you going to hurt my dad?” he repeated, when Holder did not speak.
“I’m old,” Holder said, after a time. “Your dad’s young. He’s tough. I’m weak. Why would you think I could hurt your dad?” Holder asked, wanting to get as far away from the word ‘down’ as he could.
“Statue,” the boy said, his answer coming instantly.
“What?” Holder asked, the boy again making him feel like he was a complete idiot.
“Statue of Michael, the angel, in church,” the little boy said, making both hands flap at his shoulders behind the stool.
“What’s that to do with me?” Holder asked, not understanding.
“The angel’s hard. I touched him. He’s cold. He’s strong. He’s not alive. Like you.” The boy thumped his chest once, when he said the word ‘you,’ as before.
Holder drew back from the stool. He felt a cold draft, although he knew there wasn’t one.
“Do you want me to hurt your dad?” He asked, his voice feeling a strain he didn’t understand, and wasn’t comfortable with.
The boy didn’t answer, instead producing a sheaf of papers stapled together. He plopped them on top of the stool before him, as if tired of holding them.
“What’s that,” Holder asked, staring down at the rows of print on the many pages.
“Text. My dad has to learn text for his job. I’m helping him,” the boy answered.
“Text? For his cell phone? You can read?” Holder asked the questions one after another, his voice registering amazement. “I need to learn to text too. Life is passing me by,” Holder went on.
He picked up the sheaf of papers, and then idly flipped through them, his eyes still keeping track of the man outside, pacing and talking into his cell phone.
“Of course I can read. I’m five,” the little boy answered. “You can have that, if you want,” he pointed at the papers. “Dad’s got another more at home. We use flash cards too.”
“What does your dad do?” Holder asked, absently, while he scrolled through
the list of text acronyms.
“He’s trying to get a new job. He has to learn to text to get it,” the little boy answered.
“What’d he do before?” Holder asked
“He was a…., he took care of animals,” the boy finally got out.
“You father was a veterinarian?” Holder said, more to himself than the boy, “Jesus Christ.”
He watched the boy’s father pace back and forth outside. He watched him walk right into the side of a pedestrian. The contact was brief but apparent. The man he’d run into stopped. He swung back. He was wearing a black leather coat with a black turtleneck sweater under it. All of a sudden he was not alone. It was like he’d been cloned. Four men stood around the boy’s father. Holder watched the argument grow rapidly more heated. Unwittingly, the boy’s father had run into one of the little mafia don’s who inhabited the North End. There were teams of the macho scruffy creeps all around. Holder avoided them carefully.
As if sensing what was going on behind him, the boy climbed out from under the counter, got onto the stool and stared out.
“My dad’s in trouble again. I think those men are going to hurt him before you do.”
Holder watched the situation deteriorate. The men encircled the boy’s father. At any moment the pushing and shoving would begin, Holder knew, which a brutal beating would follow.
“Do you want me to help him?” Holder said to the boy’s back, surprising himself. The words came out without any volition on Holder’s part. He shifted his gaze back to the developing scene in front of them. Everyone had disappeared off the street on both sides, as if they had things of vital business to do elsewhere.
“It’s really none of my business,” Holder said, after another minute.
“I don’t have a Mom. I need dad to get Roughie back up,” the little boy said, not looking at Holder.
Holder stretched, extending his shoulders out, and then pulling them back in. He felt familiar heat flow through his body, as if somebody had poured hot water into an opening at the top of his torso. He carefully folded the texting papers before putting them into his coat pocket with his right hand. That same hand traveled casually up to the left side of his chest. A very faint snap came from under his arm.
“For Roughie, then,” he whispered softly, not looking at the boy.
Once outside he rested his rip-stop nylon case against the side of the building, and then walked over to the only gathering on the street. The four tough looking men were bouncing the boy’s father around, from one to another, as if he was a large rag doll. The man still clutched the offending cell phone tightly in his right hand.
“I say, what seems to be going on here?” Holder said, very loudly, as he walked up. Then he laughed out loud, allowing some of his personality to flow out before him in a strange joyous wave. He knew by experience that he would draw the group’s full attention.
“Well, what have we got here?” the biggest of the men said, shoving the boy’s dad to land in a heap at Holder’s feet. Holder helped him up, the smile never leaving his face, and his eyes never leaving those of the leather coated leader. Smoothly, he brought the younger man’s head close to his chest, letting the coat fall slightly open. The man’s eyes bulged as he caught sight of the nasty looking revolver, only inches from his nose.
“Your son needs you inside,” Holden said, then pushed him on his way toward the coffee shop entrance.
“Some kind of aging tough guy?” the leather-coated North Ender began, an evil smile coming to his face, “Think your Lloyd Bridges or somebody.”
“Bridges is dead. You oughta know that. I think he died like this.”
Holder reached in, disengaged the Taurus from its high riding holster, and then dropped his filled hand down at a forty-five degree angle to the ground.
“This thing’s called a Public Defender. Never shot it before. Carries only shotgun rounds. Got double ought buck loaded just now. If I was you guys, I’d move on up the street.” The smile was suddenly gone from Holder’s face. He thought briefly of the Archangel the boy had mentioned. He thought about being cold hard and dead.
“You brought a gun to our neighborhood?” the lead Italian hood said, “You crazy? We live here? You’re a dead man.”
“Maybe that’s true,” Holder said. “I waited a respectful time, since your local, but I also lied. The gun’s only loaded with birdshot.” He fired three quick rounds into the concrete among the men, making sure to hold the muzzle down. As expected, the birdshot rebounded from the hard surface, scattering as it bounced, before hitting them in the legs. The effect was like that of a flock of birds taking off. They ran screaming, limping and dragging themselves as best they could.
Holder watched them run for a few seconds before holstering the weapon. His ears rang terribly from the muzzle blasts at such close range. He turned back to the coffee shop and recovered his laptop bag from against the wall. When he leaned down he saw the boy, clutching his father tightly. The man seemed to be crying.
The boy pulled away, and then thumped himself once on the chest. With his right hand he signaled with his fingers. Four fingers, then five fingers, and then nine with both hands out.
Holder sat alone in his room back at the Battery Park hotel, staring out to the wintered Coast Guard ships across the slip from his window. He looked down to examine the list of text acronyms the boy had given him. Four Five Nine, in numbers, was among the first items at the top of the list. Holder laughed.
“I love you,” Holder interpreted, thumping himself on the chest for the ‘you.’ The boy’s text message was clear.
“Sorry about Roughie,” he murmured, the smile slowly leaving his face, his gaze returning to the frozen tableau beyond.