(Formatting will be fixed)
Tuesday, September 2, 1996 H: 0300
The Bronx, New York, Highbridge Neighborhood
Chaz Mariette, 15
It was the middle of the night. Chaz had just been jolted suddenly from his sleep. It was happening again.
He was paralyzed.
He struggled as he had so many other times before, but as always happened, he was stuck. A bizarre white light suddenly filled his room and he felt small, cold hands touching and prodding his body. Up and down they moved along his stiff body and soon they stopped. He wasn’t able to see them, but he knew it was the small gray beings.
He began to float off his bed.
It was just like when he was in school. He was too weak to defend himself. In school, he was too skinny, his bargain fashions and discount glasses made him an easy target to be picked on. His hidden tears afterwards often conjured thoughts of anger and revenge. Still, this was worse than what happened in school, at least with the jocks, drug dealers and gangs he had a hypothetical chance of some kind.
The beings taking him now, he was completely in their power. He believed them to be aliens, and in the books he’d read, he’d never heard of anyone being able to stop them. Now that they had him, he was at their mercy. They floated him along the beam of light and out through his window. He passed through the glass, which felt semi-solid and offered some resistance, as though he were passing through gelatin.
Except that his whole body felt like electrical tape being ripped off of a hairy arm.
He wanted to scream, but his mouth failed him. Silent, and motionless, he rode the beam of light through the cold night air into what past experience told him was a waiting craft of some sort. At least that’s what they always told him. As he neared the saucer, he blacked out.
Tuesday, September 3, 1996 H: 0600
Near Nelson Playground, Bronx, New York
Snake E. Ruth, 16
Then came the dawn, covered with gray, cold clouds accompanied by a brisk wind. The streets dampened from the light mist that had been spraying persistently throughout the night. With the first light of this new day, even this pitiful rain had stopped. Discarded newspapers, junked Metrocards and the occasional plastic bag were stuck to the wet sidewalk here and there. This assorted refuse also found the occasional home on the fences barricading each house.
Making his way through this dilapitated landscape, Snake E. Ruth pushed his heavyset, stiff frame onward. He often thought of himself as yet another piece of the city’s refuse. His clothes were battered, worn and dirty. He washed them when he could, though not often enough for both his liking and certainly not enough to avoid the looks of disdain from those he would encounter throughout the course of a day. Despite this, he did at least make an effort to keep his underwear clean and shower every day. The hood on his sweatshirt was up, and his backpack of extra clothes was slung over one shoulder supported by his hand. His other hand played with the toothpick at his lips. He shambled his way along the sidewalk, past the rows of cars and graffiti covered walls that made up the Highbridge neighborhood’s custom décor.
He stopped, then glanced around. He was always keeping careful watch of his surroundings.
Though there were very few others up and around on the streets this early in the morning, Snake was fully aware that letting his guard down would be foolish, or in the worst case fatal. Especially with those blasted Tiburones acting up again. They had recently robbed him of his only source of warmth, his black duster. If it wasn’t absolutely necessary for his survival, he might have let it slide. Since it was necessary, it would be reclaimed at the first opportunity.
Snake made his way south on Nelson Avenue, cutting through yards and alleys to the “neutral zone” that was West 164th Street. Before long, he had found his way to the outskirts of his destination. One of the worst places in the neighborhood. An establishment in the Bronx considered so horrendously unsafe and filled with reprobates of the worst kind that even the N.Y.P.D. S.W.A.T. teams refused to set foot there for even the direst situations.
Alphacowomooga Senior High School.
Snake chucked the toothpick onto the filthy sidewalk, then made his way along an exterior wall to the main gate, and turned to face the school. The clouds had parted slightly behind the decrepit, yet grand building revealing an ominous, though young crescent moon that would soon disappear with the morning sun. The large, five-level facility had stood for nearly seventy years. It had been founded, financed and built by an occultist who was not only the first principal of the school, but a prolific pulp writer in the 1930’s. He had named it after his mysterious and exclusive college fraternity, presumably, the absurd name likely shrouding their sinister goals.
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Snake muttered sarcastically to himself, though still audibly enough for a passing student to probably believe he was talking to himself. Which technically, he was.
Walking through the gate towards the schoolyard, the youth removed his hood revealing long, poofy and unkempt hair which was scarcely restrained in a wavy, shoulder-length pony tail. As had become a daily ritual since the first time he had set foot on school grounds two years previously as a freshman, Snake clutched the cross necklace that hung about his neck tightly in his hands as a reminder of his only hope. He let it drop back to his chest and silently prayed.
Lord God, please help me. I’ve been coming to this horrible place for far too long, and still a while yet to go. Keep me free from temptation and help me...
As soon as he stepped onto the grounds, the atmosphere seemed to change, as though the sky had become somewhat darker, or that less light fell within the schoolyard. Was he imagining things? Ignoring his sense of dread, he walked towards the main entrance.
Must be the moon. I’m sure.
The schoolyard was packed with the usual rogue’s gallery of students delaying their inevitable trip into the maw of the colossal beast waiting to devour them. Some of the students were freestyle rapping and beat-boxing, while others were selling bootleg merchandise, and a few were selling drugs, porn or other illicit goods. In the case of Top Jimmy’s girls, even their bodies. The various merchants were often persistent, but Snake had long since shown them that he was far from interested. The one or two examples he had set were enough to keep most of the scum at bay.
Once inside, Alphacowomooga didn’t get any better. The interior was at least a decade behind décor-wise, and a number of the fluorescent lights weren’t working. These flickered on and off sporadically creating an annoying lightning effect reminiscent of a bad horror movie. The usual “positive propaganda” posters were prominently displayed, and vandalized. “Read,” “Stay in school” and “Say no to drugs” had all been defaced to convey the opposite meanings. Mustaches had been drawn on presidents, teeth had been blacked out of actresses. Many of the lockers were in disrepair or covered in various forms of graffiti and gang tags.
Most of the students seemed to have developed what Snake viewed as a rather unsettling apathy toward their surroundings and went about their business. Usually, business meant cutting class and trying to hustle for fast cash. Much of the activity taking place outside was occurring with more audacity and frequency inside, as there were more places to conceal such activities inside than out. Hustlers, dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and pillagers made up an alarming percentage of this most motley student body. With little chance to make a decent future, socializing and making a buck–honest or otherwise–pushed attending class and being indoctrinated to the back burner. After all, if your future was a choice between finishing school, then working a dead end job for minimum wage; or living large–crash and burn as a dope dealer, why bother to go to class?
I wouldn’t even be here if that blasted diploma wasn’t my only hope of ever getting off of the streets and into a job. I never learn anything valuable in class, not with the way things are taught here anyways.
As he walked through the bustling halls, Snake casually looked over at the police liaison officer, J. D. Mitchell who was standing outside of his office near the main entrance, perhaps fifty feet past the abandoned display case. Mitchell had started the previous year, but this was the first time that Snake had ever actually seen him up close. The officer was watching all of the shenanigans and illegal activity, though with seemingly no hint of concern. Snake glared as he continued on his way.
Well, he’s probably corrupt. Big friggin’ surprise.
He continued through the halls towards the gymnasium where a number of students were playing basketball. On the sidelines, some placed bets and still others placed bets on the bets. How everything was kept in order was a mystery to Snake. There was even a nearby craps game being run by a kid with a backpack and another wearing glasses. Nearby, a roulette wheel had been improvised by means of an old bicycle tire and pieces of cardboard. Supervising the whole affair was a Latino kid smoking a cigarette wearing a black duster coat. Snake looked at him with disdain.
Nice coat. Looks mighty familiar. We’ll have to see about getting that back from the leader of Los Tiburones.
Snake went into the locker room, certain that the cadre of criminals outside had been watching him. After a quick shower, he had just finished getting fully dressed when he heard a loud shout. At least they’d given him that much warning today.
“Alright Snake!” a masked figure in the familiar duster yelled. “What do you got for me today?”
Snake was quickly surrounded by several students, the gangsters he had just seen outside really, all wearing a variation of a dark, shark-themed luchador mask, complete with fin on top, and brandishing some sort of blunt object. The duster-Tiburon again caught Snake’s eye. Dirty looks were briefly exchanged, and, Snake stood ready to face his challengers. He figured the Lord would understand him defending himself since there was an unfair advantage against him. At least he hoped so.
“That’s a nice coat.” Snake said. “Doesn’t really go with the shark thing though.”
Duster chuckled. He signaled to one of his comrade Tiburones, who was wearing a backpack. The others watched, cracking their knuckles or patting their weapons while they waited. Backpack reached into the depths of his bag and produced a cassette player. He hit play, and Michael Bolton’s Steel Bars began blaring. Duster cleared his throat, and informed his toady loudly that it was the wrong side. Backpack stopped the player, flipped the tape and pressed play again. Concrete Jungle by the Specials started playing.
At least it’s not Beat it again. They’ve overplayed the crap out of that song.
“I figured since we were gonna mug you again, we might as well have some good tunes, no?” Duster said.
Duster gestured to his entourage and then Los Tiburones attacked before Snake could respond.
Tuesday, September 3, 1996 H: 0615
Northeastern HIghbridge Neighborhood, Bronx, New York
Kesley Malcolm, 43
Kesley Malcolm entered the foyer of a large mansion in a northeast portion of the Bronx. He had been admitted by a butler who had instructed him to wait in the entryway. Malcolm did so, glancing around impatiently while he waited for the butler to return. The house was more or less the same as it had been on previous visits. There were the usual bizarre pieces of art that Malcolm thought stretched the meaning of the word, but those who wanted to appear cultured oohed and ahhed over. The butler returned and led him to a small study a few rooms away. Malcolm stood in the doorway and saw his sometime business partner, Salvatore Gazzo, often referred to as “The Boss,” “Boss Sal” or “Mr. Gazzo,” depending on how formal one wished to be, or how much trouble one was in. The butler implied that he should await further instruction in the doorway.
Sal was seated at his desk, smoking a cigar and reading The New York Times. He was a man perhaps in his fifties, overweight from years of excess living and leisure. This apparent obesity concealed the fact that the man was as strong as a bear. Despite the apparent luxury and hedonistic pleasures Sal’s life afforded him, stress lines that would have made canal-happy Percival Lowell jump were etched across his face. As he laid down the business section and picked up the sports section, the butler signaled for his attention. Irritation crept through Malcolm as Sal seemingly ignored the butler, with his attention captured by the paper. After a few moments, he replied to the summons.
“Yes Mr. Deal?”
“Sir.” Mr. Deal said. “Your guest, the former school administrator has arrived. Shall I see him in?”
“Of course, please.”
Sal put the newspaper away and Mr. Deal escorted Malcolm into the office.
Malcolm seated himself as directed while Mr. Deal departed. Malcolm was always impressed that Sal’s private office was decorated in better taste than the main entry. The floor was a deep and dark wood, with a grand carpet in the center. Book shelves and impressive artwork adorned most of the walls. There were also several small tables with old sculptures upon them. As he sat, Malcolm rubbed his hand over the fine leather of the chair, and then crossed his legs.
“Cigar? Brandy? Both?” Sal asked.
“Yes please.” Malcolm said.
Sal gestured to a small fancy table with a box, a bottle and several small tumblers between the two chairs, and Malcolm poured himself some brandy, then expertly prepped and lit his cigar. He took a few transitory puffs, then savored it.
“Cuban?” Malcolm asked.
“Please,” Sal said. “That’s so clichéd. Dominican Republic. Nearly as good, easier to get and far cheaper for us Americans. ”
Malcolm tried his best to hide his chagrin and disappointment.
“I see. Yes. Well sir, I wanted to let you know that I am interested in your unique offer.”
“Well Malcolm, you are certainly qualified.” Sal said. “You have been the principal of several high schools, and you have the appropriate extracurricular business ties to my family. Our only potential problem is that you’re in trouble.”
Mainly because of those business ties.
Gazzo took a puff of his own cigar.
“You’re on the hook for having an affair with your secretary, in your office. I don’t blame you, I would have too. Hell...I have. But, unlike me, you my friend were foolish enough to get caught.”
He probably wanted me to get caught. He did provide me with the woman after all.
“Yes Mr. Gazzo.” Malcolm said. “I understand that you can not only help with my problem, clearing my name and such, but you also have some more lucrative investments that you can help with.”
“You needn’t worry about your problem. Since you’re up for my challenging offer, the appropriate parties will be silenced tonight. Peaceably if possible. Violently if they don’t cooperate. That is, if you agree with my conditions.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem sir. I’ve had enough time to consider your most generous offer, and it seems like the best way out of my predicament. I think it may even prove to be profitable.” Malcolm said.
“Despite the ‘official’ drop in pay?” Sal said, then broke into a guttural laugh.
“Well, you have some attractive incentives. Financial, or otherwise. The Russian mail-order secretary is a nice touch.”
Provided she doesn’t talk as much as the last one…
“So I’m told. So I’m told. Just be a bit more discreet with her. Well. This makes me very happy, which is good for me, and it’s good for you. This is my plan. There is a school in my territory that needs a new principal. The last one, was…how shall I say, disagreeable? Not to mention this school, while good for illicit business, will soon become bad for my legitimate business.”
“How so?” Malcolm asked.
“Too many students are using the drugs we sell, or are involved with other, carnal aspects of my business. Attendance is beginning to drop as the good students want to avoid the dangerous atmosphere, and the rest that do go, are doing poorly in class and are typically part of the problem. Let’s just say that people are starting to notice.”
Sal paused for some brandy, and a puff on the cigar, Malcolm looked confused.
“So you’re sending me in to improve test scores?”
“That’s the official story, but in reality most definitely not. Rather than this crime and whatnot leading to the school closing, which is desirable, this condition may lead investigators back to me and a real effort for improvement there. With you moving in, it will look like efforts to reform are underway, when in reality my interests will be protected. Meanwhile, my hope is that you can foster an environment that will accelerate this decline, and get the school closed. But, I want it to look like rogue gang activity, which will draw attention away from our operations. With the school permanently closed, I can gain unfettered access to the building without kids or cops snooping around, and you will be rewarded.”
“Wonderful.” Malcolm said. He smiled realizing the full scope of his task. “And for the duration of the decline, we raise the prices, and profit in the short term.”
“Yes, one of my better schemes. Simple, perhaps crude, yet effective. It’s worked a number of times before. You start tomorrow, and you have until New Year’s. If you’re done by Christmas you get a bonus. If it’s done by Thanksgiving, I’ll triple it and give you another complementary Russian. Or whatever strikes your fancy.”
The men stood, and at Sal’s insistence, Malcolm followed him to the bookshelf behind the desk that was lined with old books. Many of the books were leather-bound, and a good few of them were cracked and aged. Despite the age of these tomes, there was no dust to be found. Sal scanned the shelves and quickly found the book he was looking for. When the book was removed from the shelf, the shadows around them seemed to grow slightly darker. The book itself was aged, and somewhat charred looking. Sal handed it to the now Principal Malcolm.
Malcolm was about to open it, but Sal held a hand up.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. This book contains powers that even we should hesitate to call upon. I wouldn’t have even touched it except that I was told it can’t wreak significant havoc unless opened by someone pliant enough to be manipulated by it. It seems to know that it is going to the right hands soon.”
“These must be far more powerful than the spirits we typically deal with then? I’m not crazy about calling on that kind of power, but I suppose that would definitely speed up the moral decline.” Malcolm said.
“You won’t have to do much.” Sal said. “Just get the book to the right person in the school somehow.”
“Where’d it come from?” Malcolm asked.
“I have…a contact at the museum who gave this to me years ago. Actually, it was once a scroll and originally part of a long standing collection of sarcophagi, amulets, idols and other nasty trinkets. The mummy has actually been on display for some time, but for obvious reasons, not everything can join him on display.”
“Is that why he gave you the book? So not just anyone can look at it?”
“SHE gave me the book for a number of reasons, most of which are between her and I. But suffice it to say that with some of these artifacts, including this book, the plans of other powerful people will be fulfilled.”
“What if Uncle Sugar sends some super hero to come in and figure out what’s happening?”
“You know as well as I do that there haven’t been super heroes doing anything less than covert ops since the government banned them in early 70’s, and even then their influence wasn’t great. The World War II heroes died or retired, the so called “Silver Age” pretty much was the end of the rest. Why do you think nobody gives them a second thought anymore? They’re merely legends and bedtime stories. At any rate, there hasn’t been a mask of any kind out here since the Phantom Bowman died. His last raid against Dr. Cycloptika, over that very book in your little paws, was the last real instance of super powered or costumed activity east of Los Angeles in twenty-some years, and even that was written off as a gas explosion. That is, until that book finds a reader.”
Malcolm was awestruck at how much Sal seemed to know. But was his information correct? Malcolm would find out soon enough once the operation was underway.
“Mr. Gazzo, if I may ask, before I get the official paperwork, which school are you sending me too?” Malcolm asked
“Alphacowomooga High.” Sal said.
Sal let out a subtle, gravelly chuckle, and Malcolm gulped noticeably. His heart sank.
“Sir, I’ve heard the horror stories. They can barely keep any faculty for an entire year! Calling the student body ‘unruly’ would barely begin to explain them. How can I be assured of my safety?”
“Don’t worry about it Kesley. One of my best boys, Mitchell, is your police liaison.”
“Can I trust him?” Malcolm asked.
“Yes, you can trust him. His loyalty to dead presidents with occult symbols on their backs is unquestioned.” Sal said. “Just like yours.”
“When do I start?”
Tuesday, September 3, 1996 H: 0640
Alphacowomooga High, Bronx, New York
Snake E. Ruth
Snake had taken a few solid punches despite having been able to put a serious hurt on several of the Tiburones who had attacked him. The one who had started the cassette player went down with surprising ease, Snake had merely grabbed his shirt and then the gangster had fallen limp and slumped to the locker-room floor. He hadn’t even been hit. Snake then had turned his attention—and his fist—to the others. One or two Tiburones later, the rest had run off, including Duster, the apparent leader. The injured gangsters limped away not long afterwards. Snake sighed, and reflected on the states of his renegade classmates.
Lord. Is there a better way than living like this? Must everyday be a battle?
He sat for a few minutes in silence, wondering where he had gone wrong in his walk with the Lord.
“Man, I’m sick of those guys.” Snake said to no one in particular.
“You said it!”
Snake jumped in surprise at the voice coming from a nearby locker. He moved in closer and could see someone inside of one of the lockers.
“—whatmadness?! Who are you? How’d you get in there?” Snake said.
“I’m D-Dan. Dan Gandolfi. Those fiendish Tiburones put me in here. I didn’t have any money, so they gave me a wedgie, stuffed me in this locker and said I’d have to serve my sentence. Can you help me out? My back hurts real bad, I think I slipped a disc, and I can’t breathe that well. I’m allergic to jock-itch.”
Snake agreed to help, and after several failed attempts to crack the combination of the lock, he decided to destroy the locker dial. He gave it several hard kicks, with no effect. Finally, he hopped up onto the bench for a higher angle and stomped down hard on the dial, popping it off. The door latch gave, and Snake opened the locker. As the door opened, a pudgy, oily Goth kid and several dozen filthy jockstraps squeezed out of the locker. Dan got up.
“Thanks. I’m Dan. Dan Gandolfi.” Dan said.
Snake helped him to his feet.
“I know, you told me already.” Snake said.
“Right…I did. Sorry. I suppose I should run…But you wouldn’t mind coming to class with me, would you?” Dan said.
Dan’s fear was obvious as he glanced fearfully around the locker room.
“If you can keep your shirt on.” Snake said. “I have some business first.”
Snake led Dan out to the gymnasium where the kids he had seen earlier were still playing basketball or gambling. Or maintaining the façade of such activities. Oddly, their moves were suddenly lackluster, probably because they were the Tiburones who had just attacked him and been wounded in the locker room. Snake wasn’t impressed with their sham. Several Tiburones, who were pretending not to be members of the infamous gang, sat on the side, showing obvious signs of injury and fatigue. More than likely they were the ones Snake had injured the most. Snake approached Duster, who was no longer wearing a mask. As he looked at Snake approaching, he was about to say something, but Snake walked up and dealt him a haymaker right to the side of the jaw. Duster let out a yelp of surprise and pain, and fell to the ground. The rest of the Tiburones watched in shock. Some developed enough sense to pull their masks on. Snake noted that Dan was clearly impressed.
“I’ll take my coat back now, and if you look at me funny again, you’ll regret it.” Snake said.
Snake retrieved his coat from the lead gangster as he lay unconscious on the ground. The leader began to stir once Snake had donned his coat. He considered kicking the leader, but thought better of it. It really wasn’t his way. Snake looked over at the rest of the Tiburones. They stood nervous, not sure how to act with their leader down or a backup track to fight to. Snake gave some of them a hardened stare of warning, then, walked off with Dan close behind. The Tiburones, some with masks, some without, crowded together, and in an effort to intimidate, followed Snake to the entrance of the gym. As Snake left, they stood and stared, then turned back to their own business. Snake and Dan left the gym then disappeared into the crowded and corrupt hallways of the school.
Snake felt a pinch of guilt over the anger he had in his heart towards the Tiburones, and even for taking the coat back. It was his to begin with, but he wondered if he shouldn’t have sought an alternative.
At least the Tiburones would hopefully think before they attacked him again.
Snake eventually separated from Dan on the pretense of going to class, Dan reluctantly allowed him to do so. After they had parted ways, Snake went about his normal school day in a half-attentive daze. One class was more or less the same as another, yet it was called a different name. Moreover, the classes were pretty much slightly more detailed recaps of the things he’d been learning since first grade. Propaganda and social conditioning that would hardly help him in the real world. The only time he seemed to learn anything new was when he was reading his own books during the class lecture.
What was the point of even coming? The piece of paper he would get at the end? Was what he learned on his own worth anything?
Snake dozed through much of the remainder of his day in classes after lunch period. When all was said and done for this school day, he headed back home, rather, the sheltered stoop that he called home. He liked to believe that it was temporary, but a couple years of praying and searching hadn’t yielded any results. He still prayed for a better way to live, for a home, but so far it had been unanswered.
He had been living this way ever since....
Thinking about it won’t change anything or bring him back. Please Lord, he’s with you now, comfort me and be my strength to carry on and fulfill your plan for me. Whatever that is.
He fought back tears, and tried to compose himself. Several deep breaths later, he had been able to at least maintain his mask of self control. It had, after all, been his own choice to run away. Then again, what choice had there been?
Hold it together. You’ve been out here for a year-and-a-half now. What’s another two? Don’t give up!
As he wrestled with his inner demons, he continued home. It was then he realized he’d made a mistake. The route was indeed the same that he had taken to school. Normally he avoided using the same route twice in a week, let alone in one day. He had learned the hard way once that retracing the same steps was rarely a good idea. Routine was dangerous.
The garbage-littered streets hadn’t changed much during the day, except that they were less moist. That and the streets had begun to buzz with activity as folks were out and about by now. While most were likely out on legitimate pursuits, there were also a fair number of pushers and pimps, underlings of Top Jimmy, out as well. Snake loathed them, but gave them credit that they at least knew who their target market was and paid him no mind. Snake cut into an alley marking the final approach toward his home.
Halfway home, his mistake proved to be exactly that, scarcely a surprise. In the alley, he found trouble.
The first thing he noticed was that there were six Tiburones in the alley. The second thing he realized was how loud it was. The thugs were reveling over something while some annoying song played in the background. As Snake caught a closer peek, it became evident that they were harassing an old man who was missing his left arm. Snake’s best guess was that this guy was perhaps in his fifties. In any event, the man was surrounded, though ready to fight and actually holding the punks at bay with his cane.
Without thinking, Snake charged into and tackled a Tiburon that was brandishing a knife. The shark-masked brute dropped the knife and fell to the ground. With surprise still on his side, Snake got up, and smashed the school library’s hardcover copy of Lee Takes Command, the book he’d been carrying, into the face of another who had turned to face him. That left four of them to deal with.
“You again!?” The leader shouted.
The old man stuck something to the neck of the leader, then there was an electric pop and zapping sound and the lead Tiburon lay on the ground unconscious for the second time that day. He twitched periodically, and not that Snake was looking, but he could swear it looked like the dude had pissed himself.
The old man’s not totally defenseless after all.
Two Tiburones advanced, one with a baseball bat, towards Snake, the other turned his attention to the old timer. Snake stood ready. The baseball bat punk swung and Snake was able to duck, as he came back up, he grabbed his attacker, and drove him face-first into the alley wall. Snake picked up the bat and advanced towards the remaining Tiburone and one other that had gotten up. These Tiburones began to retreat slowly. Snake turned his attention to several of the downed Tiburones who were stirring and getting up. None of them were in any shape to fight. The leader was being helped to his feet as well, he appeared to be fairly delirious from the stun bolt.
“Next time lardo.” One thug said.
The barely able-bodied ruffians limped off.
Wow. Not bad for a one armed guy. Seems all he needed was just a distraction.
The old man extended his solitary right hand to Snake, and they shook. The man’s face had some horrific burn scars on the right side and an eye patch covered his left eye. The old man smiled at Snake then began walking towards him, out of the alley. Snake caught himself staring at the scars, and tried to politely look away. He tried to tell himself the man’s face did not look that much like Freddy Krueger as his heart palpitated.
Just tell yourself he looks like Harvey Dent. OK, that’s not any better…
“Thanks.” The old man said. “By the way, the scars sometimes get that sort of reaction.”
Snake kicked himself mentally for staring. The old man seemingly brushed off Snake’s obvious embarrassment, then suddenly had a twinkle in his eye.
“You know, kid. Why don’t you come with me? I think I got something you need.”
“Oh? And what would that be?” Snake asked.
“You’ll see.” He said. “I doubt I could’ve lasted that long in that fight without you. Just wanted to repay the favor.”
Snake looked at him with deep suspicion.
What does he want from me?
As if the old man were reading his mind, he smiled in a way that reassured Snake in an odd way.
“Don’t worry.” He said. “I’m not gonna try anything funny. Anyways, if I did I think you’d be able to outfight me. I just want to thank you for saving my life. Or at least for keeping me free from the hospital.” The old man said.
“I don’t need repaying.”
“Why should I go with you?” Snake asked.
“I own a restaurant around here. I see you in the area once in a while. Thought maybe today you could use a good meal after that workout. Rather than taking it from my back garbage can later.”
Snake was embarrassed that the man knew his dining habits so well. He was more ashamed that he had to resort to such methods for food.
“Thanks. That sounds good. Sorry, it’s just one has to be careful out here. You never know when someone might be some sort of pedophile or something.”
“I understand completely. You might like to know that long ago, I put an end to the career of one or two of those in my time. By the way, I’m Robbie. Robbie D’Imperio”
“…of course you are.”
What’s the old man mean by that…watch out Snake…
They walked through the neighborhood without further incident and arrived at Robbie’s restaurant, Single-Handed Sandwiches. Snake winced at the pun. The restaurant wasn’t much, a small dining area with seven tables, each with a candle in the middle and tacky place mats. The walls were lined with various artwork, most of which was quite pedestrian, not that he was a critic. Snake made particular note of Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker.” Robbie did take the trouble to identify a few of his Japanese woodblock prints. One of which was a Hiroshige. He told Snake that he thought Hokusai was highly overrated, though in all honesty Snake didn’t know who either artist was. When Snake excused himself momentarily, he noted that the single bathroom tucked away on the side had a small bull’s-eye in the bowl with a cute phrase about making sure to hit the target.
The building was a small, corner location at the intersection of Ogden Avenue and West 165th Street, quite close to Snake’s home stoop. The bricks and battered wood floor gave the place an air of age, but rather than decaying and crumbling like some local buildings, it actually seemed refined. It had jumped the line from garbage to antique quite nicely. There were a few customers sitting, eating, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. They were tended by a waitress who had her long, fire-red hair in a bun held in place by two chopsticks.
Snake noted that she was about his age, with a fair complexion and a rather impressive figure as well. Athletic, yet, still curving in the right places. Snake felt flushed at the sight of her. It took a moment to register, but he recognized her from school, he had passed her often in the hallway and had hoped against hope that he would actually meet her. Opportunity had not only knocked, it was beating down the door. She smiled as Robbie and Snake made their presence known. Her eyes lingered on Snake for a moment, but then she returned to her duties. Snake found himself staring as Robbie led him up to her. She finished collecting the bill from a customer then turned to her boss and Snake.
Snake then flubbed up and felt even hotter as he realized he hadn’t heard as Robbie had been trying to introduce him for several seconds already.
“Uh, sorry. My name’s Snake.”
“I know. Again, I’m Scarlett. Nice to meet you.” She said.
How does the hottest girl in school know my name?
Robbie and Snake sat down at a table. Robbie ordered the “usual for two,” whatever that was. Snake just held out hope that it wouldn’t be something that would make his breath stink or give him gas, as that would just be too embarrassing with such a pretty girl around. Scarlett left to put the order together. Snake’s eyes followed her past the vacant bar and into the kitchen, and Robbie smiled at Snake’s flagrant interest in Scarlett.
“Well, I see that you’re already on the fast-track to fitting in around here.”
“Sorry!” Snake said. “She’s just…really beautiful.”
“I don’t want to be cliché, but beauty isn’t everything.” Robbie was silent for a moment, then continued. “So rough neighborhood, huh? You wouldn’t believe it, then again, maybe you might. But it was worse once upon a time.”
Snake met Robbie’s eyes and shook his head in disgust.
“Those Tiburones are nothing but trouble. And it’s not just them, I’ve been keeping tabs on just about every gang I’ve run into at school.” Snake said. “I’m probably worse off than they are and I’m not robbing folk. They’ve all jumped me more than a few times, and I’m sick of their shit...pardon my cussin’, but, know what I’m saying? Just got my coat back today from the guys trying to rob you.”
“Well, you must have had a better moral upbringing.” Robbie said.
He pointed at Snake’s cross necklace that said ‘Try God.’
“Living how I live, without God, I have no hope.”
“Well said.” Robbie said.
Robbie was lost in reflection for a moment.
“So, why a sandwich place?” Snake said.
“Well, a man’s gotta make his way someway.” Robbie said. “After retiring from my chosen profession, I had to find something.”
“How’s it working out for you?” Snake asked.
“Not bad. I can do it with one arm, hence the name. Probably faster than you can with two. Scarlett makes ‘em too.”
Not long after, Scarlett brought out a tray with two large hot pastrami-sandwiches, a large garden salad, six chocolate chip cookies and two tall beers. Scarlett laid the food out on the table then began attending the other customers.
Robbie opened his beer and offered one to Snake, who declined.
“I don’t drink.” Snake said.
“Nonsense. It’s a special occasion and you’re basically an adult. I mean, you’re seventeen-or close to it. You can die for your country next year after all. Hell, you could die on your block in the next ten minutes.”
Snake took a sip of beer, to be polite, made a face and set the bottle down. It had tasted just as bad as he had expected. To compensate for the bad taste, Snake took a huge bite from his sandwich. Robbie glanced at Scarlett, who had seemingly been semi-eavesdropping nearby. She immediately grabbed an Australian ginger beer from the front cooler for Snake. He returned her kindness with a broad smile on delivery.
“Thanks. Much better.” Snake said. “How did you know I would like this? You a mind reader or something?”
“Ummm, noooo.” She replied. A half-smirk showed on her face. “You only got two choices for drinking here, beer or ginger beer...”
“Oh…” Snake said.
Shut up before she writes you off as a total yutz.
“…and if that don’t suit you, you’re S.O.L.” Robbie added.
The old man laughed at his own sad attempt at a joke.
Another patron was waving wildly to get Scarlett’s attention, which took her away from the table, much to Snake’s dismay. Robbie seized the opportunity to resume their conversation.
“So, if you live on the streets, where do you stay?” Robbie asked.
“I got a place.” Snake replied.
“A place, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s right. A place.” Snake said.
What is he getting at? I don’t like the looks of this…aww grimpf, he’s probably looking to Daddy Warbucks me or something, which means he’s gonna pry into my personal mess...
“Look I don’t want to seem ungrateful, or rude, but I don’t want to be a charity case or a burden to anybody.” Snake said.
Snake got up from the table, and began walking away. He stopped as he heard Robbie speak to him.
“Who said anything about charity?”
“What do you call this dinner?” Snake said. He turned back to face his would-be benefactor.
“As I said before, it’s thanks for saving my life.” Robbie said. “Now act like a human being and sit your tukhus back down, would you? In addition to thanking you, I wanted to see if perhaps you might be might be interested helping me out, for a reasonable fee, with some projects.”
Snake kept eye contact as he sat back down.
“What kind of projects?” Snake asked.
“Finish feeding your pie-hole and I’ll tell you.” Robbie said.
Snake and Robbie ate in silence for a few moments. The food disappeared as they chatted about nothing in particular. Robbie finished both beers and four of the cookies. If such was indicative of his regular diet, how he had managed to stay so slim was a mystery. At last, he informed Snake that he was looking for some part-time help around the restaurant. Before he elaborated on that though, he quickly changed the topic.
“I’ve lived in the Bronx for pretty much my whole life, which is a good many more years than I’ll admit to. I ended up buying this restaurant after I retired about twenty years ago.” He said.
“What’d you retire from? You don’t look that old.” Snake said.
“Well, I was in…” He paused. “Law enforcement, and was allowed to retire early due to these injuries.”
“Yeah, I was young and idealistic. I thought I could make a difference and I was sick of getting robbed. I was sick of seeing my loved ones live in fear, seeing these criminal bastards always getting off easy with their crimes. I wanted to make this neighborhood a better place.”
“Did it help?” Snake said.
“Not as much as I’d like. So anyway, I see you around, you live around here too. What do you think? Aren’t you tired of the bad stuff too?”
“Yeah.” Snake said. “That’s why I stopped being a victim and started fighting back. They were gonna beat me up either way. I figured, why not make them regret it? Violence of action they call it in the military. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go around looking for a fight. Like you, I just got tired of getting pushed around by the gangs, seeing others get pushed, and fighting seems to be the only language they understand.”
“You probably know by now that they’ll want revenge, don’t you?” Robbie said.
“I don’t give a damn anymore if they hurt me. At this point, I'm just looking to survive until graduation next year, then, to paraphrase Meat Loaf, ‘like a bat out of hell, I’m gone.’ Piss on the Tiburones, the rest of the crooks and this whole friggin’ neighborhood.”
“So leaving the helpless people around here to save your own tukhus. Not a very Christian attitude.” Robbie said.
“Yeah, well neither is becoming a cop and possibly being forced to choose whether to beat them up or shoot them.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“’Cause I got no choice. I hate doing it, and it’s hard to turn the other cheek when they’re knocking you around every day. They get done with the left cheek and right cheek, and then they move south and they’re kicking your butt cheeks. Anyways what’s this got to do with the help you need here at the restaurant?”
“Well, it’s sort of related to a neighborhood watch kind of thing I was thinking of putting together, which may benefit from your help also.” Robbie said. “Sort of a two-for-one kind of thing. Restaurant help. Community help. Speaking of your faith, doesn’t your Bible tell you to help others? How can you help those in need here if you jet out? What would your God say to that?”
For a seeming unbeliever, he’s sure pressing the right buttons. Dagnabit! How am I supposed to help people here? I don’t see how working for him slinging sandwiches or helping with his project is gonna help me do that.
Snake sat in silent thought for a few moments.
“‘Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me.’ So you’re saying if I keep doing what I have been, see someone getting beat up, then helping the victim, then I’m helping Jesus? Are you saying that if I keep doing that, that’s the Christian thing to do?”
“I don’t know…you’re the Christian here.” Robbie said. “Somehow I can’t see Jesus endorsing a good fist fight. On the other hand, I can’t think that He would stand by while someone’s life was in danger. I mean, He’s got better things to do than help people’s sports teams win, but He stepped in to help with people’s legitimate, personal problems, no matter how small. Remember the woman He saved from getting stoned? Maybe you can stop the people around here from getting stoned, you know, put a stop drug dealers and the customers.”
“That’s not what you think.” Snake said.
“Come again?” Robbie said.
“The woman was going to be killed by stones. Jesus stepped in to stop the crowd.” Snake said.
“See! Even better! He intervened to save someone’s life. And he didn’t have to even use violence. You could do the same to the gangs and pimps.”
“He didn’t have to fight. I probably won’t have that luxury in some neighborhood watch thing, or in becoming some rent-a-cop. Or did I forget to mention that I have a huge moral dilemma with the whole ‘violence as protection’ routine?” Snake said.
“How you help people without beating others up, isn’t my problem, yet, kid. It’s yours. And don’t push your beliefs on me either.” Robbie said.
“I didn’t! You brought it up.” Snake said.
“So I did.”
“And you’re pushing your beliefs on me.” Snake said.
“So I was.”
“Anyways, what do cops do?” Snake said. “What’d you do when you had to shoot someone?”
“You can shoot to maim, just make sure they can’t tell it’s you. Even if they’re shot while committing a crime, they somehow have the right to sue the person who was defending their property and merciful enough to let the scumbag live. Ambulance chasing, liberal lawyer BS, if you ask me. At any rate I don’t know what the Christian cops do, ’cause it’s pretty damned tough to be a pacifist and a cop. Long story longer, I just wanted to see where you stood on helping your neighborhood. You know, challenge your faith, rock your boat a bit and show you your own hypocrisy. You don’t want to beat people up to help those in need, yet you’re beating people up for your own benefit. Even though your beliefs tell you that you shouldn’t, and instead, love your enemies. How are you going to reconcile that?”
“I don’t know.” Snake said.
“You also told me that you took your coat back from someone. Isn’t there something there that says if someone needs a coat, give them your shirt too?”
“That’s different!” Snake said. “Look, so I took my coat back. Mainly because I have nothing else to keep warm at night with. I had no choice. Besides, he didn’t ‘need’ my coat, he only wanted it to humiliate me. And, there’s some verse that says if you take someone’s coat you should return it at the end of the night!”
“See, that’s the kind of stuff you need to think about. When do you get to a point where violence is OK and acceptable within your faith? When does not doing something result in more harm to yourself or others and trump your ‘moral dilemma?’ I say that’s when you should consider acting, and perhaps doing some ‘law enforcement.’ If there’s no one enforcing the law, then you need to step up and do your part so that others aren’t harmed. You know, get Old Testament on people. Well, the New Testament has some good judgment too…”
“I’m living my faith as best as I can, and unfortunately that means struggling to avoid fights. Besides, how is beating up some criminals for you gonna solve anything? To say nothing of the fact that I still don’t bloody well see how any of this even remotely relates to working for you here.” Snake said with obvious frustration.
“We’ll get to that. Look, I’m saying that you’ve used violence to help yourself, and me. Why not go out, try to stop stuff peaceably, and when that fails, put the smack down. Punish those who are oppressing others. Maybe then, other scum would think twice. Wouldn’t you say that is within the bounds of your faith? Sort of like Samson, Elijah, and all those cats?” Robbie said.
“I’d say, for the moment, I really don’t friggin’ know.” Snake said.
Snake sat in silence, looking down at the table in deep thought.
How can I reconcile what I believe with what I’ve been doing? Where do I draw the line? Do I beat these punks up still? Will they learn, or just seek revenge? Do I turn the other cheek? Will that example set them back on the right path? Lord…
“For someone who claims to not believe, Mr. D’Imperio, you sure seem to know enough scripture to make me even more ashamed of actions that I already wasn’t proud of to begin with.” Snake said.
“Look, I’m just saying that maybe you can make some difference, and that your faith implies, to me anyways, that you should help me with my neighborhood watch project. That’s all. You already stood against those clowns twice in one day, helping me in the process. Why not go legitimate? Or maybe keeping an eye on them and stopping them before they hurt someone? At any rate, you’re the one who has to decide how to live out your faith. Remember, I don’t have any.”
They sat in silence again for a few moments.
“So.” Robbie finally said. “What’s the scoop with you anyways? I know you’re homeless. Why?”
No sense telling him everything…
“Well, you could say I was abandoned. With nowhere else to go, I chose to live on the street. I shower at school. Eat what I can and try to avoid getting robbed, killed or both. I got no family anymore, I’ve stayed at some of the missions, but I don’t like to ‘cause there’s people that need the help more than I do. Not to mention that a good secluded spot on the street is oftentimes safer.” Snake said.
“Okay…and say you survive past graduation. What then? Leave the Bronx?” Robbie asked.
“Maybe. I’m just trying to decide where my life is headed. Don’t want to join the military because they’ll expect me to kill, and I won’t do that. I was always brought up to believe that you if you kill someone, then, they won’t learn anything.”
“So you think you don’t have much of a future after high school, and you don’t know where to go and the military isn’t an option.” Robbie said. “You know. Don’t think I’m weird, but I have another proposition for you. In addition to giving you a job here, you can stay in my spare room. You obviously need a place to live, and despite your, please don’t take offense to this, obvious weight problem, you need decent food to eat. Before it hits my dumpster. I need a dishwasher and someone to take the garbage out. That will at least give you some job skills when you graduate. In the meantime, you think about what to do with yourself.”
Whatmadness?! That’s a good start anyways. Man, it would be nice to be off those streets. Maybe there’s some hope for me after all.
“Ummmm, okay.” Snake said. He sat for a moment in silence. “Can I see the room? I don’t wanna jump into this.”
“Sure.” Robbie said.
They went through the kitchen area and Robbie led Snake up a spiral staircase and onto the second floor. There was a narrow hallway that looked even older than the dining area downstairs, although it too managed to pull off a graceful aging rather than deteriorating into ruin. Robbie stopped just past the top of the stairs and pointed at a door straight across from the stairway.
“That’s my room.” He said. “Please stay out of it. I won’t be going in yours.”
The next door to the left of the stairs was the bathroom. Robbie emphasized that the handle for the toilet did have to be jiggled for approximately thirty seconds after being flushed—don’t over do it thought—or the water would run for ever, and no amount of repairs had ever fixed the dripping faucet. He’d had a new one put in a number of years ago, and even that took to dripping in a matter of months. The last door, which was a complete 180 from Robbie’s room, would be Snake’s room. Robbie encouraged him to go have a look.
Snake walked down the creaky hallway to the room, opened the door and had a look inside. The room was small and inside there was a small bed. Behind the door was a small, incredibly small, closet. Aside from the rather Spartan accommodations, there was a solitary window across from the door. The shade was open, and Snake could see the sun making its way towards the west. He stepped towards the window, and looked down into the back alley behind the restaurant. It had an impressive view of the familiar dumpster. Bags of trash surrounded it, as did the baseball bat Snake had taken from Los Tiburones and a few pieces of old kitchen equipment that likely should have been hauled away years previously.
Well, it does beat the street anyways. Not to mention a chance at getting to know Scarlett better.
“I’ll take it.” Snake said. “When do I start work?”
“As soon as you walk downstairs.”
“Fair enough.” Snake said. “Thanks Mr. D’Imperio.”
“You don’t have to be so damned formal, kid. I prefer, and insist that you call me Robbie.”
Wednesday, September 4, 1996 H: 0815
Alphacowomooga High Offices
Principal Malcolm had barely obtained his morning cup of coffee when his secretary—make that, mighty fine Russian secretary, Ms. Oksana Zhukov—informed him that he had some disciplinary action to initiate. Was she flirting with him as she spoke? The way she looked at him, or fixed her blonde hair? It was so hard for him to tell with her alluring Russian accent. He sighed inwardly as his attention was required for the discipline case before him. There was a teen boy dressed in the standard poor nerd attire, discount jeans and flannel shirt. He was sitting in a chair just outside Malcolm’s office.
The boy had been beat up, and though it wasn’t serious, it didn’t look all that pleasant either. A few painful looking scrapes and bruises that would go away soon. Malcolm ordered the boy to follow him.
The boy was quite skinny and wearing thick, taped black glasses that accentuated his nerdiness. His dark, mousy brown hair was unkempt and in no particular style, and it was a tad on the oily side too. Malcolm couldn’t quite tell what his nationality was, yet another of the many melting pot kids of the city.
He doesn’t look especially bound to snap, I wonder what Mitchell was thinking. Although I shouldn’t rule that out. Bullied kids have a lot of anger.
They went into his office, and he informed the student to sit. He did, then Malcolm took his own seat. Though the kid’s wounds didn’t seem to be especially bad, he carried himself as though he had been beaten in a horrible way. Malcolm surveyed him intensely, trying to gauge how useful the boy might be for his assignment.
“So.” Malcolm said. He glanced down at the office referral that he had forgotten his secretary had handed him. “Mr. Mariette…Chaz. Are you going to tell me who beat you up?”
Mariette…the kid’s a descendant even…how much more perfect does it get?
“I’m not stupid.” Chaz said. “I know what happens to NARCs around here.”
“Have you spoken with Officer Mitchell? Perhaps there’s something he can help with?”
This should cover my ass at least.
Chaz sat in silence.
“My secretary informed me that your bag and things were missing. If we see it, or your other belongings we’ll make sure you get it.” Malcolm said. “And if you want to talk about it or press charges, my door is always open.”
“Thanks.” Chaz said under his breath.
Malcolm showed Chaz the way out. A few minutes later two gang members from the Stockboys, Butcher-block and Produce, showed up, escorted by Officer Mitchell. Mitchell was carrying a book bag that he handed to Principal Malcolm. Malcolm assumed this was Chaz’s bag. He smiled as he took the bag from the liaison officer and rifled through it. There was nothing but school materials, a book about UFOs and a science fiction paperback. He could feel the two gangsters watching him, perhaps wondering what his reaction would be.
“Officer Mitchell, thank you for your hard work.” Malcolm said. He smiled at the trio in his office. “And you two as well. It’s unfortunate to put someone like Chaz through that. Sad actually, but if you want an omelette, you’ve got to break some eggs, and I do love omelettes.”
Malcolm sat again, as did Mitchell and one of the gangsters. Malcolm then reached into his drawer, counted out a few notes from a wad of bills and placed them on the desk in front of the gangsters. They seemed happy with the amount.
“Leave us.” Malcolm said to the two teens.
After they left, Mitchell ensured the door was securely locked, and took his seat across from Malcolm.
“Well Mitchell. Do you think he met the criteria?” Malcolm asked.
“Yes sir, he’s always gettin’ pushed around, and always pissed about it later, he hits lockers and stuff, or he tries to find someone smaller than him to push around. I’ve seen it enough times.”
“Good.” Malcolm said.
Malcolm opened another drawer, and the room seemed to get darker. Mitchell looked around, but Malcolm was un-phased. He took a somewhat charred and insidious looking book from this drawer and placed it into Chaz’s book bag and the light returned. He breathed a sigh of relief and wiped his hands on his pants, hoping that Mitchell wouldn’t pick up on it. He handed Chaz’s bag off to the liaison officer, more than happy to be rid of the foul thing. Ever since he had taken it from Sal, he’d had bizarre dreams and felt a constant anxiety that he couldn’t explain.
“Make sure you get that to Los Tiburones. I hear they have a unique way of dealing with nerds. I think in this case, it’ll get our mark to make use of his new gift.”
“Sure thing. I hope this works. I’m looking forward to my bonus when it’s all said and done.” Mitchell said.
“It’ll work. This should definitely accelerate the oppression by the gangs, and what better way to do it than with magic? No one will be able to stop him once he gains some sort of super powers. Then there’ll be no one to stop our plan. After all, there are no more super heroes.” Malcolm said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of. If he gets out of hand, there’s no one to stop him. Then we’ll really be in a rough spot, and I don’t like being in a rough spot.” Mitchell said.
“Neither do I, but I have some contingencies.”
Mitchell seemed to mull over what exactly Malcolm had in mind to counter the powers of dark magic. Malcolm suppressed a laugh.
Don’t strain yourself Mitchell. My plans are beyond anything that a roughneck cop like you could concoct. I can’t imagine you’d have a plan that didn’t involve a massive amount of bullets.