Roughy, A Short Story by James Strauss
By J. 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 gathers 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 phonies 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 gone back to do a bit of work. He hadn’t noticed the creep next to him until he tried to wedge into the small corner space. The guy twisted as Holder tried to move past him wedging Holder against the wall, while making his move vaguely appear accidental. No “sorry,” or anything like that came from his lips. Holder ignored the man 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 operational deliverer of necessary violence. He didn’t kill people in the United States or get involved with anyone who did. The USA was home and the statute of limitations never ends for murder. Holder never killed U.S. citizens abroad either, except when the situation had truly merited it.
Being what some people called a hit man was easier if the people 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 player. 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 what he did. And he wasn’t nearly as much of a hit man as he was a team leader of hit men. Only Hollywood and idiots thought professional violence was a business of solitude.
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 just the right 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 knew about the syndrome and also knew he evidenced some of its symptoms, 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 hadn’t really 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 glancing into the other man’s eyes.
“I turned it up because of your phone,” he finally replied to the man, his voice flat and level, his left hand still massaging his offended 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 truly 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 slightly bulged through pulled skin and moved constantly. He looked into Holder’s eyes with a derisive expression. Holder saw himself in the guy’s eyes. Old. Short. Weak, with clothing way too expensive and delicate to indicate any kind of threat.
“Turn it down,” the guy said, flipping his phone closed and dumping it hard onto the counter. It struck Holder’s laptop and bounced off to the side.
Holder liked his Mac. A lot. He looked down at it, his arm having dropped to his side.
“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.” The creep 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 a murderer, especially if that murderer was him.
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 his verbalized but 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 whispered words had come over the top of the man’s vacated stool.
“You going to hurt my dad?” the boy asked 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 and talking 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 reflexively, knowing he was being a bit too defensive in talking to a small child.
“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 probably didn’t know the meaning of. The kid was street smart. And funny, even though he probably didn’t know it, or think he was.
“Where’s your mom?” Holder inquired.
“Dead. She got sick, went to the hospital and died. My dad said she got sick from Roughy, so he put Roughy down.” The boy’s eyes up again to take in the creep. They seemed to grow bigger as he talked.
“Roughy was your dog?” Holder asked, pulling his attention from the boy’s to keep track of his father outside.
“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. Dead? He wasn’t dead. He was talking to some kid hiding under a stool.
“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 language 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, still pacing and talking into his cell phone, like he challenged other men to come out and fight him all the time.
“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 copy 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 beginning of an argument grow toward physical violence right in front of him. 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 they were so easily identifiable.
As if sensing what was going on behind him, the boy climbed out from under the counter, got onto the stool and stared out, resting his elbows on the old wood, as if he sat at such counters all the time.
“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 guessed, after which a short 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 Roughy back up from being put down,” 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 snapping sound, not audile enough for anyone to hear, came out from under his arm.
“For Roughly, then,” he whispered softly, not looking at the boy.
Once outside he rested his nylon computer 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 creep still clutched the offending cell phone tightly in his right hand.
“I say, what seems to be going on here?” Holder asked, very crisply, as he was a British tourist out on a stroll. Then he laughed out loud, allowing some of his personality to flow out before him like a gentle lapping wave. He knew by experience that he would draw the group’s full attention. He was classic prey material. Old, prosperous, foreign and certainly deserving of attack for his ignorant interference alone.
“Well, what have we got here?” the biggest of the men asked, shoving the boy’s dad to land in a heap at Holder’s feet. Holder helped the young man up, his 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 his coat fall slightly open. The boy’s father’s eyes bulged slightly, as he caught sight of the nasty looking revolver only inches from his nose.
“Your son needs you inside,” Holden said, then pushed him off, stumbling 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.” Instantly the boy’s appraisal of Holder himself raced across his mind, as he reached in, disengaged the Taurus from its high riding holster, and then dropped his filled hand down to hold it at a forty-five degree angle to the ground.
“This thing’s called a Public Defender,” he said, conversationally to the hoodlum. “Never shot it before. Carries only shotgun rounds. Got double ought buck loaded just now. If I was you, I’d move on up the street.” The smile was totally gone from Holder’s face and eyes. He thought briefly of the Archangel the boy had mentioned. He thought again about being cold, hard and dead.
“You brought a gun to our neighborhood?” the lead Italian hood stated angrily, “You crazy? We live here. This is our street. You’re a dead man.”
“Maybe that’s true,” Holder said. “I waited a respectful time before acting, as you are local to the area. Actually, this thing’s only loaded with birdshot.” He fired three quick rounds into the concrete before the men, making sure to hold the muzzle down so none of them were directly hit. 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, waving their arms while limping and dragging themselves off as best they could.
Holder watched them run for a few seconds before holstering the weapon. His ears rang a bit 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 to look at Holder through the glass, 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 nodded once, to acknowledge the boy’s unknown message and then retrieved his bag and headed back to the hotel.
Holder sat alone in his room, 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, the numbers were among the first items at the top of the alphabetically organized list. Holder began to laugh softly out loud.
“I love you,” Holder interpreted, thumping himself on the chest when he said the “you.” The boy’s texting message was clear as a bell.
“Sorry about Roughy,” he murmured, the smile slowly leaving his face. He looked up and his gaze returned to the frozen tableau beyond.