CHAPTER 1 – Sunday, 2:20 p.m.

As I revolved through the brass door, into the hotel, I knew I’d lost her. I’d hung back too far on Tremont Street and the shortcut through the Parker House was a bad idea. Conferences had let out, and the lobby was chock-full of people as aimless as amoebae. I squeezed and bumped my way through them with their bags, pamphlets, and smart phones.

Exiting onto School Street, I turned right and hustled down the sidewalk. My wooden cane clicked among the Bostonians and visitors out on this late Sunday afternoon. My pace was fast, considering my attire—droopy brown pants, a matching vest, and dress shirt, all that were picked up from the Salvation Army yesterday.

Debbie Stapleton was her name. I looked down a sliver of an alley, but couldn’t see her; checked a dim side street, not there either.  I veered onto Washington Street. On a vendor’s grill to my left, sausages sizzled, incongruously close to the Irish Famine Memorial: a starving couple embracing their dead child, cast forever in bronze. I paused and stared; maybe never having a child was better than having a dead child.

On my right was a bookstore, its façade a wall of windows. I adjusted my bowtie and scanned the people inside for a flash of blonde hair, but didn’t spot her, so I walked into the heart of Downtown Crossing. Wide sidewalks hosted carts of souvenirs and snacks being hawked between retail store entrances. Bargain hunters with shopping bags shuffled along the cobblestones and tinted pavers.

A block ahead, a woman looked both ways before crossing the sun-drenched intersection at Winter Street. It was Debbie. You don’t often see a dress like hers; vivid red with a broad white stripe running diagonally across her chest, taut against her body, but fluttering along the knees like a sail’s luff—and this feminine craft, she had great lines.

Head down, I concentrated on my movement, just some old man in a hurry. The edge-worn wingtip shoes affected my gait, but my cane barely touched the ground as I picked up speed, anxious to see where she was going. All I knew was that she wasn’t where she was supposed to be.

I looked up to keep her in sight—and sucked in my breath. She was right in front of me, twenty yards and closing; she’d turned around. I coughed and turned to face a boutique’s display window with tight-clothed mannequins standing on high. I pretended to search my pockets as my heart thudded away.

In the reflection, Debbie appeared and looked my way.

Then she passed behind me, her face as blank as the female mannequin in front of me; the bony hips and shoulders of the mannequin posing like a question, to which I answered, No, plastic anorexia doesn’t look good on you.

I followed Debbie out of Downtown Crossing. She turned onto Bromfield, where foot traffic died off. Old buildings faced each other across the street’s narrow longitude, their edifices in shadow. I tossed a look to the side, just a pedestrian catching his reflection—in my case, a gray-white head of hair, a white mustache, and a posture properly stooped. Several buildings ahead, she slowed, slipped her cell phone from her purse, and looked at it—an address for a private rendezvous?

As I stopped, a motion to my left in an alley distracted me. Teenagers at the other end faced a white-haired lady standing near a dumpster. She wrapped her purse strap around her arm and clutched it to her chest.

Up the street, Debbie slowed, slightly turned to the wind channeled by the buildings. She checked her phone again.

In the dusky alley, the elderly lady shook her head and stepped back. The tallest kid, in a studded leather jacket, pushed her shoulder and held out his hand. No one else was around.

I growled in frustration and turned down the alley. My cane clicked loudly as several times I glanced up to them and down to the ground. Surely, they wouldn’t want a witness. One spotted me, pointed me out. The tall one backed off; the other three did nothing. But then he was nodding at me, smiling like it was a two-for-one day at Macy’s, with misguided youths receiving senior citizen discounts. I dug my nails into my palms. Crime was one thing. Picking on the weak was an entirely different animal. I was a victim once.

“Yo, yo, yo, what we got?” Head tilted, he pointed his thumb at her. “This your old lady?”

The lady pursed her lips, looking ghostly in the dim light. She sported a daisy brooch on her pastel blouse over an ivory-colored silky skirt. Her pink skin glowed through white hair thin enough to blow off like the head of a dandelion gone to seed.

I scrutinized the four guys from twenty yards away, watching for hidden hands, bulging pockets, glints of sharp metal. A skinny kid, about seventeen, wore a spiked bracelet around his wrist. I hoped it was just to draw attention away from his acne scars. He moved behind the tall guy.

The other two guys looked older and heavier; they stepped to the side—to stand off or to jump me? One was dressed in faded Old Navy-like jeans and sweatshirt, but the other resembled an escaped P.O.W. behind enemy lines with his filthy clothes, tangled hair, and mean face. Altogether, they could do me damage.

“Yo, grandpa, this lady owes us some money, courtesy pay for walking her across the street. You know,” he checked his friends, “like Boy Scouts.” They laughed on cue. He reached out and they bumped fists. He appeared to be the oldest, about nineteen. I knew he was the one to concentrate on.

“That’s-that’s a fib, a fib,” the elderly lady blurted.

“I’m here to pick her up,” I said, trying to ignore the palpitations in my chest. “We’re late.”

The woman opened her mouth briefly.

“Hey, prince charming.” The tall guy grabbed the lapels of his jacket, head cocked. “She ain’t gonna make it to the ball, man.”

“Why don’t you guys leave her alone? I mean, really, come on.” Guilt him out of it. “She’s a lady, an elderly lady.”

He hesitated, checked his guys, who appeared undecided.

“Mind your own business, old man,” he said.

“I will if you will. Let’s all leave.” I stepped closer and straightened my posture. He was a wise guy; we’d see if he was wise enough to recognize determination. “Okay?”

“Fuck you.” He grabbed at the purse, causing the lady to stagger.

“She’s coming with me,” I shouted as I lifted my cane and shook it.

This was getting absurd.

He started laughing. His accomplices joined in, and he reached for my cane. He was a bit taller than me, about six-two. He pulled, but I held on. He tilted his head, eyeballing me. “Better let go, papa.”

I stepped in and twisted the cane away. He was surprised, thought it was luck, and didn’t notice that my slate-blue eyes weren’t blurred with age. The P.O.W. look-alike circled behind me, but the tall one shook his head to call him off, then he grabbed my cane again. “Come here, geezer. You wanna mess with me?”

I let him get a good grip. He tugged hard. I twisted it away again, same technique, against the thumb, stance firm, controlling my center of gravity. He was flabbergasted.

“Check it out,” skinny kid said, leaning side to side. “He crazy.”

The tall guy’s face darkened. Adrenalin hit my bloodline—he was coming. I didn’t need this.

“I’ll fucking—” He lunged.

I stepped right, my left foot stayed, and he tripped over it.

“Oh,” the lady gasped, stepping back. “Please! Let’s just go, get my skirt and go!”

The skinny kid guffawed, and the other two mustered a laugh at their fallen comrade, which only pissed him off more. I kept my eyes on them, but the lady’s comment about her skirt confused me. Maybe one of them had her shopping bag.

He leapt to his feet.

I checked the other punks and dropped the cane behind me, hoping to diffuse the situation.

He lunged. I dodged wider, whipped out my corncob pipe, and as his arm grazed at my chest, I jabbed the pipe tip at the nerve by his carotid artery.

“Ah. What the fuck?” Sitting on the ground, he rubbed his neck. I knew the pain.

He pulled out a knife—I didn’t know that pain. Didn’t intend to, but I couldn’t abandon this lady. I stepped back into a fighting stance, my hands and arms loose in front of me.

“Come on, Johnnie,” the Old Navy kid said and glanced down the alley.

I snatched my cane from the ground and nodded to the lady to move behind me.

“My skirt,” she pleaded.

Stepping backward, Old Navy crushed a soda can. “Uh-uh.” He leaned toward Johnnie and whispered, “Let’s get out of here.”

Johnnie glared at me.

The Johnnie-whisperer tugged his arm. “Forget it, man. We ain’t looking for that. We got shit to do.”

Bad-boy Johnnie pulled away, scanned the area, then he jumped at me, thrusting the blade in front. I dodged and smashed his wrist with my oak cane. The knife flew out of his hand as he cried out.

“Oh fuck, man, look at your arm,” urban P.O.W. guy said.

Johnnie held it up. His wrist was fine—I must’ve missed it—but his forearm was noticeably bent. Well, I had swung hard, but - suspected that he was vitamin-D deficient. He tried to straighten his arm, winced, and went pale.

“Fuck that.” P.O.W. lunged closer to me, his grimy hair swinging, grinning wildly. “We ain’t taking that, muthafucka—you dead.” He rolled up his sleeves to display the grim reaper and skull tattoos on thick forearms. He pulled up his pant leg; no tattoo, but tucked into his boot, a sheathed hunting knife that he whipped out.

Skinny boy moved behind me and grabbed the old lady by the neck. She cried out.

“Kid,” I said, “you better let her go. No one else needs to get hurt.”

He laughed. “You the one gonna get hurt on, man.”

Knife be damned. I turned, grabbed his scrawny neck, and squeezed for all I was worth. He twisted and pushed the lady against the wall. She went down. He slammed his wrist spikes into my shoulder.

P.O.W. guy hovered, waving his hunting knife.

And that was when I saw it, the lady’s blue skirt on the ground. The silky garment she wore wasn’t a skirt; it was a slip. Near the skirt was her plain white underwear, messed with alley dirt, or worse. Rage flooded into me.

I spun skinny kid by the arm and shoulder, smashing him face-first into the brick wall and a lifetime of dental issues.

Then I turned to the last contender, the fake P.O.W. with a long blade and short temper. His heightened posture belied his lack of training. His belt buckle jangled. Fists raised, he ran at me, which I countered with a leg sweep. It landed him on his ass, but as I moved in for the finish, he scrambled up and slashed my shin with the knife.

His expression was less confident, but then he came at me, slashing diagonally left and right, left and right. I moved backward. This was where Indiana Jones would whip out his pistol and shoot the attacker; alas, no gun on me.

He lunged with an overhead stab. I blocked, moving sideways, and used both hands to continue his downward stab, completing the arc of his attack all the way into his own abdomen.

He froze. The moan and big “O” of his mouth weren’t gratifying enough; with an upper elbow strike, I shut him up, and he slid to the ground.

I stood over him, blood dripping down my shin, wanting to do him more damage, wanting to kill him.

Johnnie ran off, unsteadily, cradling his arm. Skinny was out cold.

The elderly lady whimpered. “Please. Help me.”

I helped her up and tried to calm her. She had cheek abrasions and was unsteady. Otherwise, she seemed all right. My shin had a one-inch cut; not too bad, but weird to see the white of my shinbone.

Oh my,” she said. “They’re all gone?” She glanced at the last one, who’d moved to the wooden fence and was trying to climb it.

I retrieved her skirt and helped her step into it. Neither of us mentioned her underwear. Images popped into my mind that I shoved aside. I straightened my gray wig then gave her my arm, in keeping with my character. When we reached the street, I checked behind. Several tracks of blood were on the fence, but P.O.W. punk was gone.

She was steady now, and flush; excited, I assumed, from my surprising chivalry. I never imagined what a thrill it could be to cause such a glow on an elderly lady’s face.

“Thank you,” she gushed. “Thank you, I never—”

“You’re welcome,” I said, turning to leave. “And yes, I never either.”

Walking up Winter Street, I smiled, until realizing that I’d lost Debbie and the bleeding reached my ankle.

A memory surfaced, of high school. I’d been attacked and abused by a guy named Paul Arena, a name and a face I’d never forget.

Prickles rose on the back of my neck.

I quickened my pace, checked left, and took a right. At the corner of Boston Common, I passed the brick-and-wood Park Street Church, scanning pedestrians, and hurried up Beacon Hill toward the golden-domed State House. My sock was bloody. My quarry wasn’t in sight, and I might not get a chance to tail her for a few days. Debbie might have found whatever building she’d sought.

I should have checked the city hall area, but couldn’t delay any longer. I had to get an article in before the deadline. I straightened my posture and tossed the cane and corncob pipe into a trash barrel.

Funny, what suddenly maddened me was the hot dress Debbie was wearing, the red one with the white stripe. I’d bought it for her for our sixth anniversary.


 

 CHAPTER 2 – Monday, 7:30 a.m.

The dusky confinement made it hard to focus.

Block the punch, attacker’s wrist to my hip, forearm to the back of his elbow. Twist torso, bend him at the waist, then push down on the elbow to break it or force submission, depending on intent.

It was tight quarters in my barn’s second floor practicing go shina kata, but little room was needed for these Japanese close-in techniques. Yesterday, some punks; this morning, I defend my head against roofing nails penetrating the age-blackened wood. Cuts would easily show through my pate’s stubble veneer, and my shin would definitely scar, but it was wrapped in a butterfly bandage.

At each end of the barn, windows relieved the claustrophobic feeling; one was filled with blue sky, the other with colorful foliage against the glistening backdrop of Sunset Lake. It was a good place to forget one’s troubles or to imagine beating some guy’s ass. I felt uneasy about inflicting serious injuries in the alley, but those punks got what they deserved.

It was easier to exercise without the gray wig and worn-out shoes. I was in my thirties, not seventies. My left knee hurt, but the stratified heat should be good for ligaments and my lofty goal of staying in form. My eighty-pound punching bag and speed bag were on the ground level. I’d hit those for fine-tuning. I was back to my ideal weight range, around two hundred, complete with resurfaced stomach muscles wrought with hundreds of sit-ups, crunches, and planks weekly, plus snacks of raw green beans and carrots alternating with bananas.

I climbed down the steep, open-plank stairs with a glance at the old dog leash hanging on the wall. I toweled my face and neck then started on the speed bag establishing a rhythm. My enterprise piece on a spat of liquor store robberies came to mind; due today and still choppy. I switched to my right fist.

A shout came from outside. I peeked through the barn door and saw my wife leaning over the deck rail.

“Dax, we have to go,” Debbie called out.

Her smooth, light-brown skin, a gift from her Trinidadian grandmother, contrasted with her blonde hair, soft and frizzy. Her body was oh-so toned, and as she turned and brought all those nice features inside I couldn’t help but wonder, if she had also brought them to another man yesterday.

I smashed the speed bag, which stuttered to a diminishing bobble. “Okay.”

Leaving the barn, I passed the paint cans and brushes I’d use for the house trim. Inside, I rushed through my shower and put on cologne as olfactory insurance. Debbie slapped my bare butt as she passed me exiting the bathroom. I was conditioned to smile, knowing her grin was for the loving tease.

“No time to shave, huh?” she said. “I’ll be in the Jeep, hon.”

I nodded. “Be right there.”

She had an appointment this morning with the local OBGYN, who referred us to the fertility doctor last spring. Debbie told me she may have an issue, and my sperm count was a little low, but there was no clear answer. She was taking my Jeep Wrangler 4x4. It wasn’t her style, but her Lexus was getting detailed. The only problem was, she wouldn’t drive the Jeep on the highway. She’d watched a program on deadly SUV rollovers, and now getting her into my Jeep for a highway trip was like getting her to swim to Martha’s Vineyard after watching a Jaws marathon in an IMAX theater.

Sore from yesterday, I stretched out in the driveway. She had the soft top up, windows zipped, and A/C on against the muggy September morning. I hopped into the passenger side, and we left. She appeared well rested, but wore unnecessary makeup, like the shading around her nose she applies to make it look smaller.

“Oh, by the way, don’t let anyone snatch your iPod in the subway. On Channel 7 news—” She turned left onto Central Avenue.

I glanced at her. “What?”

“According to the Boston Police, there’s a rash of that going on,” Debbie said.

As if I cared about that now. “Don’t worry, honey. I’d give the guy a lot more than a rash if he tried that with me.”

She shook her head. “Violence begets violence. Besides, people get shot for much less these days.”

“So we just roll over?”

“Report it, of course.” She glanced at me, not rolling her eyes but her tone implied it. “Let the system handle it. You can’t single-handedly stamp out the urban culture of guns and gangs and so forth, can you?”

Debbie was a thirty-nine-year-old psychologist. We’d joked that I was her number-one patient, but in the last year, there seemed to be an element of truth to it when at times she’d hit a nerve with her spontaneous analyses. I’d told her my black belt in karate was nothing to her black headband in psychology.

“I suppose the system works at times, but some lessons are better learned the hard way.” As we drove past Tremont Street, I glanced at the elm trees fronting French’s Common. “It’s like that Smashing Pumpkins line about having to be there until your kid’s old enough to get laid. If they haven’t learned their lesson, they should.”

“Dax. How can you say that?”

“You mean, how can I say that to you, knowing how much you empathize with urban youth and—”

“It’s—”

“I know, I know,” I said, “but people should be able to stick up for their rights.”

She wagged her finger. “That’s not how the police commissioner says to deal with it.”

I made a face. “He says whatever the mayor tells him to say.”

“Of course; the mayor’s a leader. He might even become governor.”

I watched her. “Up on your politics, are you?”

“I do read the Boston Times, you know.” She smirked. “Governor Leno escaped that old campaign finance scandal and might run for president, so—”

“The point is,” I said, “that even if the police arrest kids they get sucked into the system, and—”

“And that’s what the district attorney is for, Dax, prosecution. But there’s the prevention side, too, which is more important,” she said, tapping her thigh.

“Of course, you’re right, but if you make street crime more immediately risky you’ll have a larger impact. Maybe they’ll stay clear of trouble in the first place and not end up doing worse. Slap their hand right away, or whatever it takes.”

She pulled into the parking lot of the train station. I unbuckled and shifted in my seat, the image of flowers in my head—a bouquet that I hadn’t given her, but that I’d seen on the floor of her car recently; flowers that never made it into the house, but disappeared for some reason, a reason I’d like to know.

“Well, look.” My heart beat faster. “If something is risky, you know, if you risked getting caught with immediate consequences, wouldn’t you think twice?”

“What?” Debbie faced forward. I couldn’t read her.

Her cell phone rang. A car behind us beeped.

She checked the rear-view mirror. “Well, bye.”

“Okay then. Bye.” I hopped out and waved at her through the window.

She waved back by releasing a few fingers from her cell phone—a microwave, I supposed. I wondered if she could recall when our greeting and parting consistently mandated a kiss.

A romantic dinner was probably overdue; a romantic dinner that’d be productive, I hoped, assuming she wasn’t screwing around, which was something my inner investigative reporter would determine, one way or the other.

Of course, I didn’t believe she was unfaithful. I’d been performing an exercise in investigative journalism. I had to pick someone to follow, and it made sense to follow someone I knew. I could cross-check surveillance information with my own knowledge or what I could easily find out. That way, I could double check myself.

Still, just the thought of . . .

From a window seat, I stared out at a train on an adjacent track. It appeared to inch forward until a tug from our train showed it was us departing Braintree. Passengers had their faces in books, monitors, or windows. None appeared to be the type to snatch another’s property. I pulled out my cell phone.

The issue of crime and injury was broader than my debate with Debbie, and simpler. If something was going to hurt you, and the police or the school or whatever authority couldn’t protect you, then you protected yourself. Sometimes, you had to take things into your own hands.

Still, I regretted our clash and that I hadn’t curtailed it with a compliment to her which would have made us both feel good.

After scanning our newspaper’s online edition, I plugged in my earphones and tried to relax to Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene. I was late for work and hoped that I wouldn’t get assigned to a distant story today and have to rent a car.

At the JFK station, I got out and walked to the Boston Times, a brick and glass structure sprawled between Morrissey Boulevard and an ocean inlet. Dark-green box trucks loaded newspapers at the docks near the massive, high-speed presses. The second floor held scores of offices with employees in circulation, advertising, accounting, and personnel.

On the third floor, I looked out over a sea of information, waves of desks with people, paper, and electrons circulating until coalescing into stories in print or on the web. Reporters, researchers, editors, clerks, and secretaries all worked in the sports, art, national, and foreign divisions. At the center was the local news operation, my area. Walking briskly, I avoided eye contact. About to duck into my cubicle, I sensed a figure looming.

“Grantham. Dax Grantham. I thought I recognized you.”

Too late, Leo Kravitz spotted me. I straightened up, so he wouldn’t misinterpret my stooped posture as cowering rather than the lingering disguise affectation it was.

“Glad to see you recognize your office,” Kravitz said. “It’s been too long. What, a vacation you forgot to mention? Hit the lottery?” He’d been city news editor here since before I started my career seven years ago. Like me, he was a little over six feet tall; unlike me, he had a thick mid-section and a weathered face.

“Good morning, Your Excellency,” I said, checking out his paisley tie from an uncertain era.

“Knock it off. You think I’m a prick? Just tell me and we can have a nice intellectual discussion about my being Lou Grant on steroids and Prozac, but tougher, because this ain’t—I said ain’t—a TV sitcom. Is that what you want, Mary?”

I shook my head.

“And you can tell me how hard you work out there gathering information to spread to the populace as part of your First Amendment-in-action life.”

I smiled. He was tough, but a straight shooter. “Okay, I gotcha.”

He pulled off his thick-rimmed eyeglasses. “Gotcha? Gotcha? Please tell me you know why I’m upset. This is not my usual mini-tirade. You’re slipping, Batman.” He jutted his head forward and waited.

I shrugged.

“You missed the meeting.”

“The meeting? Oh, fu—” I almost swore. “Damn, Kravitz, I’m sorry. I totally blanked on that. My wife needed my car and I was sidetracked.”

“I don’t care if your wife was on the train tracks. Pick her up on the way back—twice if you have to.”

I twisted my lips. “Not funny.”

“I’m an editor, not a comedian,” Kravitz said.

As city editor, he chose which local and regional news stories ran where, especially the half-dozen or so on page one and Metro Front. A good guy to keep happy.

“Get here on time for meetings, especially ones like that. I give you leeway, so work with me, won’t you?” He shifted on his feet. “Listen, go to police headquarters and get statements on recent crime prevention developments. And take Cinderella here with you.”

He nodded toward Jimmy’s cubicle and marched off. Too late to tell him I’d worked overtime at home last night; I wouldn’t get his sympathy anyway.

Leo Kravitz’s friends in city hall thought crime might worsen since high school would start again soon, adding new sources of youth conflict. The police department’s Youth Violence Strike Force and School Police Unit were ramping up. They approached Kravitz for him to oversee story coverage with a sense of civic responsibility. Not compromise journalistic integrity, of course, they’d said to him, but to rally the teams, encourage solutions without raising a vigilante counter wave—or bad press. That was my take on it, anyway, a tad cynical. I haven’t covered crime and politics long enough to develop many contacts in those areas, but I didn’t need them to know such was the way of the world.

Yesterday, Kravitz told me I was to take a couple of newer journalists to cover the purported increase of crime in Boston. With 100 to 150 gangs, there were 1,100 to 1,400 youth actively involved in violence. Incredibly, only one percent of them committed over fifty percent of the violence. I had to find a way to get close to some of them, as safely as reasonably possible, for my story. I’d work my police contacts for an in, maybe starting with my friend Sunny.

In my cubicle, I checked online how the Red Sox were doing. Catching up to the Yankees; not unusual, but I had to have faith the Sox would come out on top. Next, I reviewed the crime material I’d gathered. It suggested a possible record crime rate in Boston, with violent offenders on top. Mayor Grasso was taking a lot of heat and passing it on to Police Commissioner Weston and others down the line. To their credit, they were reaching out to inner-city areas, where the most crime was occurring.

I stuck my folder in my backpack. Exit stage right. Forget “Cinderella”—Jimmy, that is. Let him take the pumpkin. I stepped out into the breeze easing in from Dorchester Bay. My cell phone rang. It was Kravitz, so I answered.

“Listen, Grantham, skip police headquarters for now. Get over to Downtown Crossing, a little alley off Bromfield Street. Some crazy old guy saved an elderly lady from a mugging by hoodlums yesterday. See if you can get witness statements, then—”

I hung up, stunned, already trying to think of an excuse for having done so. I powered off my phone. What the heck? He’d just assigned me to cover the story of what I’d done.



 CHAPTER 3 – Monday, noon

 I arrived in Roxbury at the muster point of an anti-crime march, which was long, but nothing compared to the five, ten, or twenty kilometer walks for hunger, cancer, and other things that could kill you. The crowd was dense. I flashed my reporter ID around, asking questions; the ordinary but outraged citizen angle. A woman in her thirties was flattered by my request to photograph her. I jotted her responses on my pad. Two men in their forties said no thanks. Actually, the second one said, “Whoa, no thanks,” and waved me off like I was about to take his mug shot.

Kravitz came to mind. I could be scouring Downtown Crossing for witnesses, pulling a police report, and getting the old lady’s address, but no way was I going near that alley or the story to get caught in a news photo or video. God forbid the old lady or one of the punks recognized me and tipped off the police or the media. What if I got charged with assault and battery or assault with a deadly weapon, or worse, attempted murder? Besides, it would be unethical, even creepy, to cover the story of my own actions. I certainly couldn’t report that it was me there, incognito, and that I’d been following my wife—that could be a double play, damaging a marriage and a career.

I turned on my cell phone, having conjured the best excuse for disobeying Kravitz’s instruction.

My phone rang—Jimmy. I answered.

Jimmy said, “Kravitz was asking me about—”

“Hello? Jimmy? Are you there? I—” Pause. “Kxszssh.” I hung up and turned off my phone again, planting the seed of my excuse so Kravitz wouldn’t skin my ass.

A Hispanic state representative stood on the platform. We made eye contact, and I saluted her. She accentuated her smile and waved. I’d interviewed her by phone already. It was a good example to my boss that I worked effectively, but a good example I couldn’t share until he saw results from the crime story series and was open to my self-praise. Perhaps I should show more initiative, like requesting an interview with Mayor Grasso to discuss his possible bid for governor. If I spotted any city councilors here, I’d corral them into decipherable opinions and see if they differed from the mayor. Street crime was a hot issue in several elections.

On the platform, a dark-skinned man in his late-twenties wearing a maroon beret wielded a megaphone, getting the crowd riled about the safety of our streets, our homes, and our schools. People waved, shouted, and raised arms or fists. Some held personalized placards for dead loved ones or bobbed their messages for peace and justice or against crime. I photographed the area to verify my written descriptions later.

The man spoke about integrating ex-convicts to prevent recidivism and insulating youth from those who fell back into crime. I jotted notes with a blank line for attribution. Volunteers in teal-blue T-shirts handed out flyers. I took one and was surprised. I knew the speaker; Terry McCall, a/k/a Terry X, T-bone, and Father Time. The latter name earned during his bad days, fighting for survival in high school and on the streets, at one time homeless. A few years ago, I wrote an article about kids missing the transition from high school to higher education; he was a featured example. He’d made good, which made me feel good.

If you put aside the crime cycle’s repetitiveness, the energy here was great. Eventually, the anti-crime march started, and I had enough material to cover my butt. Heading back to the train station, I entered an area of two-story brick buildings, a mix of retail and service shops. I crossed to the shady side of the street.

A block ahead, a guy sprinted my way. He was thin, olive-skinned, and held a box. A middle-aged guy followed, limbs pumping, stomach-stretched shirt heaving with each step, flashing crescent moons of underbelly. They certainly weren’t coach and competitor, unless you counted the young man as competing with other thieves and the older man as trying to coach him out of it.

The older guy flagged pedestrians ahead by raising one arm higher than the other as they pumped. He kept yelling, “Stop him,” between huffs and puffs.

Pedestrians stepped deftly aside, letting the young man fly by with his box of trophies. It seemed this competition was over.

I stopped and stared. Why should I risk my life for a few goods? Maybe he had a starving baby at home or this was the only time he stole before being hired by someone who wouldn’t discriminate but would pay him a fair wage—or was that just Debbie’s voice in the back of my head?

The young man spotted me and read my face and posture for intervention. He checked behind and then smiled for having outrun the shopkeeper and passed through the faux gauntlet of citizens.

I noticed that the logo on the box he carried matched the shopkeeper’s shirt logo. It irked me, and my left leg shot out as quickly as the thought that brought it out. The thief tripped. The box flew out of his hands. Dozens of sparkly metal lighters flew onto the cement and tar.

He rolled, cursed, and jumped up, glaring at me with hunched shoulders, clawed fingers, and destruction in his eyes. He resembled the Hulk, except for the lack of bulk and green skin. His clothes were so baggy, though, they’d probably fit upon metamorphosis.

I shrugged. The shopkeeper was almost here. Hulk growled at me as if sending me a message. I should interview him: So, tell me, what are the latest punk communication techniques? But he took off.

The shopkeeper arrived, breathing hard. Exertion boosted his complexion to that of a Mediterranean sunbather slathered with rouge.

Standing beside me, he watched the thief fade into the city. “Thank you . . . Thank you so . . . much.”

“It was an accident,” I said, thinking this was messed up—two crimes in progress I’d stumbled upon in two days. “Besides, I needed a light.”

“Ha.” The shopkeeper picked up a lighter and handed it to me.

“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t smoke.” I noticed his swelling cheek and red eye. I bet the punk had clocked him.

“I don’t care, sir. I’m sick of them,” Shopkeeper said. “I just want to thank you.”

What could I say? Tell Debbie I had a guy here in favor of citizen intervention? “You’re welcome.”

I pocketed the lighter and continued my journalistic journey like a vignette in the inner-city version of the Canterbury Tales. What was the moral here? Don’t run with sharp scissors or hot lighters?

*                   *                   *

I stopped at a pub to have a celebratory bite—alone. I certainly couldn’t share this do-gooder deed with anyone back at the office, and I needed to think, to figure out Debbie.

I hoped for a good old Irish draft. With the looks of this dingy place, though, I should be ordering Schlitz or Old Milwaukee. I didn’t even see a Guinness tap. No Guinness? Someone should shut this place down.

“Could I get a draft beer, please,” I said from a stool.

The bartender, adorned with a Rastafarian cap, asked what kind.

“Anything cold and fresh.”

He went for the Pabst Blue Ribbon and served it up.

“Thanks,” I said.

He nodded and walked to the other two-thirds of his crowd—that is, the two other patrons sitting a half-dozen stools away. I combined my first sips into a chug; the beer was good, cold. Pabst and I hadn’t met in a long time.

Dropping my forearm and mug onto the bar, I exhaled an, “Ahhhh.”

They looked over at me.

I lifted my mug. “Fresh draft.”

The elderly guy nodded, and they all turned away.

I appreciated the novelty of the ancient black and white television overhead. Its thick metal wall-mount looked like it could secure a safe. The news reporter of color—or of tint, for this television—was Bella French. She was covering the anti-crime march live, interviewing people and regurgitating politicians’ sound bites; the same thing I did. The only difference was she had sound and color, and my words were collected into coherence later—hardly “live.” Forget “Extra, extra, read all about it!” That was long gone. Now it was simply “turn on CNN” or just check your smart phone.

What happened to those punks who’d mugged the old lady in that alley? I hadn’t been in a real fight since high school, if losing in an attack like that counted. Two seniors had cornered me alone after school, one of them an especially twisted bastard. So . . . bad. But I’d survived. I stared at the scarred wooden bar. The punks I hurt in the alley? Yeah, I shared a bit of my pain with them. That was justice, for once.

I noticed my tight grip on the mug. My appetite disappeared. I dropped a few bills onto the bar.

“Downtown, crime is increasing,” the TV reporter said. He introduced a pre-recorded interview by reporter Brad Seitz. They showed the victim—and I nearly spilled my beer.

She still had that glow about her; or maybe I had to face the fact that brushed on blush had caused it, not my rescuing her. One cheek was bandaged. She was chastising the camera and wagging her finger as if that tall young hoodlum was watching. At least she wasn’t holding a parasol.

I laughed. The bartender and patrons looked at me, then at the TV, and laughed a bit. I laughed harder, knowing that they weren’t thinking what I was thinking. They went back to guarded expressions and stared at me, as if I might be going off the deep end, which they might have experience spotting. Alas, I left without the benefit of their feedback.

On the sidewalk, my face flushed at the thought of those punks victimizing an old lady like that. It was cruel. I hoped it wasn’t also a sexual assault. No word on the cops catching them yet. I could’ve killed one of them, literally, which made me nervous, but defense of another was legal to the extent the other person could use self-defense. If I was an old lady, and could bust his bones, what the hell, why not put him out of commission for a while, like I did to Johnnie. Or like P.O.W. man, whom I helped stab himself. Yes, I had exceeded Guardian Angel guidelines. So what?

I turned on my phone and retrieved a message, Kravitz asking if I’d hung up on him. Demanding to know where the hell I was. If I had any interest in still working for the Boston Times, he’d said, I will cover the city hall press conference tomorrow and see if I could write up the mayor’s anti-crime efforts in a decent light. He left a press release from the mayor’s office on my desk to “give me a head start.”

I didn’t like that.

And there was another thing I didn’t like, about the mayor’s office, something personal. While leaving the driveway the other day, I saw flowers on Debbie’s car seat. They didn’t come from our garden. They didn’t appear later so I could ask her about them, either. I slipped out to check her car. No flowers. On the floor mat I found a note saying that she was a beautiful woman, he liked the way she thought, and he looked forward to spending time with her. No signature, but it had letterhead: Office of the Mayor, City of Boston.

I’d get to the bottom of that political stationery, but first I had to play my office politics right by facing Kravitz. I needed his help in more than one way.

THE DANDY VIGILANTE

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