The Window Washing Boy

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THE WINDOW WASHING BOY

By Jeff Elkins

November 2014

 

Chapter One

 

“What’s he supposed to be doing with Dad’s laptop, again?” Maddy whispered to Tuck.

“Staring blankly at the screen,” Tuck replied sarcastically.

It was Thanksgiving.  Maddy and Tuck had loaded up their three kids and left the city for a huge turkey dinner at Maddy’s parents’ house in Towson.  The small condo was packed.  Maddy’s three brothers, their wives, and their kids had all come.  Tuck’s mom and sister were present.  It was a full family affair.  Tuck, Maddy, and John (one of Maddy’s brothers) were huddled in the dining room next to the food table.  From their position they could see across the house, into the living room, where Chris was sitting in a corner staring blankly at a laptop.

Chris was the strangest homeless man Tuck had ever met.  He was slender and muscular.  He kept his sandy blond hair cut short and pristinely parted.  His skin was tan as if he had recently returned from vacationing at the beach, and his eyes were deep blue.  Strangest of all, Chris’ clothes were worn, but always clean and wrinkle-free.  Today he wore a yellow polo shirt tucked tightly into blue jeans.

“I don’t think he’s blinked in the last five minutes,” Maddy said.

“Do you think he needs help?” John asked.

“I ask him every few minutes and he keeps telling me he’s got it,” Tuck replied.

Tucker had met Chris the day before.  Tuck was putting away leftover pizza after a church youth activity when Chris wandered into the front door of the church looking lost.  After hearing how Chris had hitchhiked from Cleveland to Baltimore, that Chris was homeless, and that he had no friends, no money, and no plan, Tuck and a few generous church members agreed to put Chris up in a local motel for a few nights.  Tuck met Chris that morning for breakfast to try and figure out Chris’ next steps.  Unfortunately, the more Tuck spoke with Chris, the less Tuck felt he knew about the man.

The three family members stood in silence for another minute, watching Chris stare.  The man’s stone-like concentration was hypnotizing.

“I can’t believe you invited him to Thanksgiving dinner,” Maddy teased Tuck with a smile, breaking the silence.

“I can’t believe your parents said it was okay.  What do you think he’s doing over there?” Tucker replied.

“Maybe he’s looking at porn?” John laughed.

Maddy and Tuck made panicked eye contact.  The realization struck both of them at the same time: they honestly had no idea who this guy was and it was actually possible he was looking at porn in a house full of their family and friends during Thanksgiving dinner.

“I’m gonna go check,” Tuck said.

“Good idea,” Maddy called after him as he briskly walked away.

Tuck took up a position behind Chris so he could see the screen over Chris’ shoulder, but Tucker’s attempts at stealth were a complete failure.  Chris looked up at him as he approached.  “How’s it coming?” Tuck asked.  Relief washed over Tuck when he saw the Amtrak website up on Chris’ screen.

“Fine,” Chris said in his standard monotone.

“Need some help?”

“With what?”

“With buying train tickets?”

“Oh.  No.  I’ve got it.”

Tuck looked back across the room to see Maddy and her brother John making faces at him and laughing.

Thanksgiving dinner had ended about an hour ago and people were starting to head home.  Tuck was proud of his family.  They accepted Chris like he was one of the gang.  Almost everyone had sat with the odd man at some point during the day and chatted with him.  After dinner Chris had told Tuck how special the day had been.  “People just don’t do this kind of thing.  This was an amazing day,” Chris said in what Tucker assumed was a rare moment of vulnerability.

Tuck made his way back over to Maddy and her brother.  “Is he alright?” Maddy asked.

“Yeah. He’s just staring at the web site looking…oh, wait.”

Chris’ hands had suddenly erupted in a flurry of typing.  After a few seconds, Chris stood, closed the laptop, and began making his way across the room, over to the trio.  “Is there somewhere I can print my tickets?” he asked Tuck.

“Sure,” Tuck said.  “The printer is upstairs.”  Chris turned and started for the stair case.

“What an odd guy,” Maddy said.

“Yeah,” Tuck replied.  “I think we’re just starting to unpack the mystery that is Chris.”

“Good luck with that,” Maddy joked.

Chapter Two

“¿Puedo lavar la ventana?” said José with a hopeful smile.  The ten-year-old was not Mexican.  In truth spoke very little Spanish, but white grown-ups couldn’t tell the difference between a local and an immigrant.

José wore his usual uniform: a white, oversized undershirt and jean shorts with beat up tennis shoes.  In his right hand he carried a black, plastic window squeegee he had stolen from another gas station a few blocks south.  They always worked gas stations.  This one was small, but on a busy street.  There were only eight pumps.  The attendant locked in his tiny box was watching a movie on his iPhone.  Only two people were pumping gas – a teenage girl with earbuds in and a man in an expensive suit.

José moved into the young professional’s eyeline and said again, waving the squeegee, “¿Perdón señor?  ¿Puedo lavar las ventanas por un dólar?  Wash the windows?”  He faked broken English to complete the deception.

The thirty-something professional didn’t look up from his iPhone.  His suit was charcoal, his tie hard red, and his shoes freshly polished.  He leaned against his black Escalade, pumping gas with his left hand and gripping his phone with his right.  His sunglasses looked expensive.

José was sure this was the one.  He had to be the one.  Lucky number thirteen.  None of the other twelve candidates that day had given him the deep, spine shaking chills he needed to assure a guilty verdict.  Sure, some had given back small tingles; but no one had spiked José’s internal meter.  Close was not enough.  Not in this work.  José had to be sure.  He couldn’t live with himself if an innocent was executed.

“Mister?  Mister?” José called in his best Hispanic accent, waving the squeegee to catch the man’s attention. José needed the subject to touch him. He didn’t think it would work the other way. José couldn’t touch the man, at least he’d never tried. The candidate had to be the aggressor. “Mister?  I wash your window?  ¿Puedo lavar la ventana? Okay?  Mister?”  José put the dirty, dry squeegee on the window and scrapped it across with a bumping screech.

The business man didn’t respond.

The boy ground his teeth.  Impatient he ran the squeegee down the side of the door.  The hard plastic scrapping down the car’s exterior produced a terrible squeal.

The man looked up from his iPhone to José. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” he said.

José flashed an apologetic smile and shrugged.  Then he moved to scrape the window again.

“Here, here.  Just take it and go!” the man said placing his phone on the top of the car while retrieving his wallet with his other hand.  He grabbed José by the arm, pulled him away from the Escalade, and extended a five dollar bill toward him.

Jose was paralyzed by the man’s touch.  Electricity ran up and down his spine.  It spread through his limbs and threaten to shoot from his toes and fingers.  The boy steadied himself on the Escalade to keep his balance.  He willed his shaky hand to reach forward and accept the bill.  “Th-th-th-thank you,” he managed to mumble.  “Thank you, mister.”

The guilty man grumbled and returned to pumping gas.  José knew he needed to hurry now or the wrong-doer would finish filling his car and escape.  He forced his skinny legs to walk.  The first few steps away from the front of the SUV were painful.  In the four other days he had worked with the Reaper, never before had he experienced a guilty vibe so strong.  “Who was this man?” José pondered.  “A sadist?  A child molester?  Did he have a girl chained in his basement?  Today his reign of terror ends!” José assured himself.

With renewed confidence in his mission, José pushed the vibes aside and increased his pace.  The Reaper was only a few yards ahead, sitting on the dirty bus stop bench, hunched over as if in a hung-over slumber after a long night of drinking.  He also wore his usual battle gear: a faded and worn army jacket with a black hoodie underneath, black cargo pants, and black boots.  There were several empty, plastic, tipped over forties at his feet.

José sat next to the horrifying figure and whispered, “Black Escalade.  Hurry.  He’s almost finished.”

The Reaper looked up at José from his slump.  His broad nose and his thick lips made him appear African-American, but his skin and tightly trimmed goatee were ghost white.  Two black pools of moving liquid filled the caverns where eyes belonged.  He smiled menacingly at the young boy.  His jagged teeth gleamed.  “Thanks kid,” the Reaper’s heavy voice boomed.  “Good work.  See you tomorrow.”

With lightning speed the Reaper rose from the bench, revealing the power and agility of his six foot four, muscular frame.  As fluid as a professional basketball player on a fast break, the Reaper moved around the SUV, into the business man’s blind spot.  He approached the man from behind, head down and concealed under the hood.  As the Reaper glided toward his prey, he retrieved a straight razor from his jacket pocket and palmed it blade out in his massive hand.

José was transfixed.  He loved to watch the Reaper work.  Watching him carry out justice was like watching a master potter at his spinning wheel.

As the Reaper passed the business man, he effortlessly slid the razor across the business man’s neck and then slipped the razor back into his pocket as he strode away.  Justice only took seconds to deliver.

The business man looked up from his phone, uncertain of what had just occurred, unable to catch his breath.  He tried to scream; but no sound came. Like water overflowing from a bathtub, blood began to pour from the fresh line on his throat.  He fell to his knees and then collapsed face forward into the concrete base of the gas pump.  The red life pooled around him.

José wondered how long it would take people to notice this one.  He counted to himself, “One-one-thousand.  Two-one-thousand.  Three-one-thousand.  Four-one-thousand.  Five-one-thousand.”

The pool peaked out from the under the tailgate.

“Six-one-thousand. Seven-one-thousand.  Eight-one-thousand.  Nine-one-thousand.”

A woman screamed.

That was José’s cue.  He jumped up from the bus stop bench and strolled away, satisfied with the day’s work.  Tomorrow he would find the Reaper and once again they would liberate their city from the tyranny of evil.

Chapter Three

“I think he’s military,” Bernard said.

Tuck and Bernard were sitting in Tuck’s minivan, parked in a McDonald’s parking lot.  Bernard sat in the front passenger seat.  He was much taller than Tucker, five years older, bald, African American, and wore thin glasses.  Today, he sported an old Metallica t-shirt and blue jeans.  Tuck had pulled his green minivan into the parking spot backwards so they could spy on Chris as he stood in line.  Currently the two friends had a clear view of Chris ordering at the counter.

“I mean, look at how he is standing.  He’s got perfect posture.”

“He hasn’t said anything about the military,” Tucker replied.  “He told me he used to be a contractor and then he got injured so he had to quit.  Lost his wife.  Lost his house.  It’s a seriously sad story.”

“Look at him.  Look at how he’s getting his drink,” Bernard argued.  The friends watched as Chris filled his soda cup with robotic precision.  “Military.” Bernard concluded confidently.

“Maybe, man,” Tuck said.  “Oh, crap.  Here he comes.  Act like we weren’t spying on him.”

“Yeah or he might pull some Green-Beret-Kung-Fu moves out and kill us both.  Did you give him your address?  Cause if you gave him your address, he’s totally going to appear on your doorstep one night an kill you in your sleep.”

“Shut up.  He’s coming.”

Bernard made the face of a man swinging from the gallows and discreetly pointed to Tuck as Chris opened the van door and climbed inside.

“What’d you get?” Tuck asked.

“Fries and a coke,” Chris replied in his typical monotone.

Tuck pulled the car out of the McDonald’s and onto the street.  “So where are you headed now?”

“Florida,” Chris said.

“Why Florida?  Do you have family there?”  Tuck pressed curiously.

“I have some unfinished business.”

“Are you going to bump someone off?” Bernard asked sarcastically.

“What?” Chris replied as if he hadn’t been paying attention.

“Who are you going to stay with?  Do you have any friends there?”  Tucker wasn’t worried about Chris.  The odd homeless man seemed to survive just fine.  Rather, Tuck was curious as to how Chris could just show up in a new city with no money and no contacts, yet still land on his feet.

“My cousins are there.”

“I thought you said your family was in Michigan?” Tuck challenged.

“They are.”

It was Bernard’s first encounter with Chris.  Bernard had simply come along for the ride, but was increasingly becoming hooked on the mystery that was Chris.  “So you have family Florida?” Bernard clarified.

“I have two cousins there. And there are a bunch of kids.”

“Your kids?” Tuck asked.

“My cousins’ kids.”

“That’s cool.  Do you and your cousins get along?”

“Don’t know.”

“Do they know you’re coming?”

“Yes.”

“Well, at least you’ll have a place to sleep.”

“Oh.  No.  I won’t be staying with them.”

Tucker pulled into the Amtrak station parking lot.  Unsure if he wanted the current conversation to end, Tuck said tentatively, “Well.  We’re here.”

Chris jumped out of the van and went to get his huge, black, duffle bag from the trunk.

Bernard laughed to himself and then whispered to Tuck, “We’ve been talking for five minutes and I think I know less about him. Seriously though, he is absolutely going to show up on your front porch one day and murder you in your sleep.”

Inside the Amtrak station Bernard and Tucker watched in awe as Chris opened his duffle bag and checked to make sure he had everything.  The bag was neatly arranged in tight, organized stacks.  The bottom compartment was full of compressed files, each with a thick rubber band around it.   In the top compartment, his clothes were perfectly folded and his socks were rolled into tight balls.

“Hey Chris, were you ever in the military?” Tucker asked.

“”No.   Why do you ask?” Chris replied without looking up from his bag.

“No reason.”

He zipped up the compartments of his bag and turned to face the two friends.  “Thanks for everything.  I’ll never be able to repay it all.  Thanksgiving dinner was great,” and he extended a hand to Tuck.

Tucker grabbed his hand and moved in for a hug. Chris was stiff and didn’t receive it well. “Any time,” Tuck said as he patted Chris on the back.

Tucker and Bernard left Chris in the station and hopped back into the minivan.  Bernard grinned and said, “One day.  2 am.  At your front door.”

“Shut up, dude,” Tucker replied laughing.

Chapter Four

José shivered.  The grey hoodie wasn’t doing its job.  He stood up from his spot on the curb, hoping movement would inspire his circulation and fight off the cold.  Baltimore weather was like this.  One day it felt nice, then, with no warning it was rough.  It had been two hours and no hits yet.  Only three cars had come through.  Why had the Reaper picked this spot?  There was no one.  José just wanted the morning to be over.  He paced back and forth and spun the stolen window squeegee in his hand, flinging dirty water everywhere.  The cold liquid sprinkled across his leg and woke him up.

Yesterday’s kill had made the news.  José watched with pride as the reporters had described how the businessman bled out without being noticed.  “This morning, a tragic Thanksgiving trauma,” the anchor woman had said with concerned eyes.  The authorities were completely baffled.  No one had seen anything.  There was speculation that maybe debris from the road had been kicked up and cut the man?  Or maybe it had been some sort of crazy bird?  Or a strange suicide?  José played the three T’s over in his mind as he paced, struggling to keep warm.  “Tragic. Thanksgiving.  Trauma. Tragic.  Thanksgiving.  Trauma.  Tragic.  Thanksgiving. Trauma.”  It was hard to say.  José skipped a little as he tried to say it aloud five times fast and then laughed to himself when he became tongue tied.

He had wanted to hear about all the victim’s sins, to hear the man had slaves chained in his basement or kiddie porn on his computer; but the news reporters did not satisfy.  All they would reveal was that the man had been on the way to his mom’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, so José was forced to wait.  He knew it would all come pouring out at some point, once the shock over the event had died.  Then the man’s evil would be dragged into the light.  Then, they would thank him.  Then, they would see him for the hero he was.

A car pulled into the station.  José glanced over his shoulder and made eye contact with the Reaper.  The monster was hiding in the shadows of an alley.  His black eyes swirled with delight.  He grinned and his pointed teeth gleamed.  He nodded approvingly to the boy, signaling for José to go and test the driver.

José spun the squeegee once more, rolled his shoulder, and then put on his most innocent expression.  “¡Hola!  ¡Hola amiga!” he yelled in his best Spanish.  The woman stepping from the blue minivan wore loose fitting grey yoga pants and a blue windbreaker.  Her blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail.  She was young, maybe in her thirties.  José figured she was either coming from or heading to the gym.  He noticed an empty toddler sized car seat behind the driver’s seat.

“¿Puedo lavar la ventana?” said José, hopefully waving the squeegee.

“Oh?  Um.  Sure?” the woman said.

José didn’t know how to respond.  No one had ever said “yes” before.  He decided to play the part.  He ran around the car and with the spongy side of the squeegee began smearing the windshield with old dirty water.  The woman smiled at him as she pumped gas.  He spun the squeegee in his hand and used the hard plastic side to drag the water from the glass.  Then he ran around the car and did the other side.

He began to worry.  How was he going to get her to touch him?  He finished and then stood back extending his hand for payment.  Some of the water from the windshield had splashed on his face, causing his shivers to return, but he fought them off and forced an excited smile.

“Oh? Um.  One sec,” the woman said.  She finished pumping gas and then reached into the front seat of her car.  She returned and extended a five dollar bill to José.  “Thank you,” she said slowly, unsure if he spoke English.

José decided to go with it.  He repeated back equally as slow, “Th-an-k you.”  As he took the bill he made sure her hand brushed his.  He hoped for the explosion of yesterday, but instead there were only small pings in his toes.  Nothing exciting.  No evil here.

He nodded graciously to the woman and jogged off toward the alley.  The gleaming smile and expectant swirling eyes met him as soon as he turned.  José shrugged and shook his head “no.”  The Reaper glared and sneered.  José returned to his seat on the curb and examined the five dollar bill.  He wondered if the Reaper got cold.  Did he want to leave as badly as José did?

Then he noticed the woman stumble.  She braced herself on the hood of her minivan with her right hand and held her throat with her left.  She looked as if she was trying to scream but no sound came.

José leapt from the curb in a panic.  He ran toward the woman screaming with desperation, “Help!  Help!  Help her!  Help her!”

The blood began to run from under her hand.  Her eyes widened.  She understood.  She looked to the car seat.  She reached for it.  Tears formed in her eyes.

José grabbed her.  Sliding under her arm, he tried to hold her up; but her weight was too much for him.  They fell together. He lay on the ground next to her, pressing his hand to her neck, crying, screaming for help.  Her blood was warm.  It washed over him.  The gas station attendant appeared over him.  Terrified the young man fumbled with his phone.  José closed his eyes and sobbed.  The woman was limp in his arms.  He could feel the life flowing from her.  He could feel her heart run dry.

Then adrenaline came.  Rage filled him.  He stood and screamed, “Reaper!  Reaper!  Reaper where are you?”  José ran.  He sprinted toward the alley, into the shadows.  Fury drove his legs.  He was a mindless beast chasing prey.  He would tear the Reaper to shreds.  He would see the Reaper’s blood.

José collided into the chest of the monster.  He felt as if he had run head first into marble column.  The Reaper leaned over him.  José tried to turn away from the swirling eyes, but the Reaper grabbed his hoodie and held him in place.

“You lookin’ for me, boy?” the Reaper’s deep voice resonated.

“Why?” José wept in anger.  “I didn’t say.  She wasn’t one.  There was nothing.  Why would you do that?”

“Don’t question me, boy,” the Reaper grinned.  “I’ve been at this a lot longer than you.  I know what I’m doin’.”

“But she was innocent!” José screamed in the monster’s face.  “There was no justice there.  We’re about justice.”

“I am justice,” the Reaper snarled. “And none of them are innocent.  Not one.  I come for them all.”

José pushed off the Reaper’s hand and curled into a ball in the alley.  He was cold.  He shook and cried.  The blood was beginning to harden.  He could feel it pulling at his skin.

The Reaper stood back, disgusted. The monster examined the boy.  “Get up.  You have to go back.  The cops are there and they’ll come looking for you.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”  And then, the monster was gone.

Chapter Five

“This one?” Chris asked in his usual flat tone, pointing to a battery on the shelf.  He wore his usual blue jeans with a faded pink polo.

Why doesn’t he have any fingernails on his left hand?  Is that new?”  Tucker thought.  He pretended to look at the car battery Chris was pointing at to get a closer look at Chris’ hand.  The nail bed was hardened indicating Chris’ nails had been missing for some time.  How have I never noticed that?” Tucker pondered.  “There’s grooves where his fingernails should be…so at some point he did have fingernails, right?” Tuck thought.

“No,” Tuck replied.  “I don’t think that’s the right one.”  The battery Chris was pointing to wasn’t even close to the old one in Chris’ cart that they were hoping to replace.  The one on the shelf was far too small.  The leads were coming out of the wrong side.  The shape didn’t even match.  The batteries weren’t remotely similar.

Chris stepped back from the large rack of batteries.  He put his weight on his back leg, crossed his arms, and looked intently at the display as if he could make the battery he wanted appear through sheer will power.

“So what happened to your fingernails?” Tucker asked, unable to think about anything else.

“What do you mean?” Chris replied with total bewilderment not making eye contact.

“You don’t have any fingernails on your left hand.”  Subtlety was a waste of time.

“Yep,” Chris confirmed.

“Never mind,” Tucker said as he began searching the shelves for the right battery.

It had been a week since Tucker had put Chris on a train to Florida.  Tuck didn’t think he would hear from the strange homeless man again, but then that morning Chris had walked into Tuck’s office at ten in the morning, claiming he needed help with his car.

“I didn’t know you had a car.  When did you get a car?” Tucker asked.

“I’ve always had a car,” Chris said.

“How did I not know you had a car?” Tuck said confused.

“I don’t know,” Chris replied simply.

Tuck followed Chris to the parking lot where he was greeted by a forty-year-old BMW.  It was light blue with leather interior.  It looked like Chris had been living in it for a few months.  Chris explained that the battery was dead and he needed a new one.

“When did the battery die?” Tuck asked.

“A week or so ago.  I was in Virginia.” Chris said.

“How did you get it here?”

“I drove it.”

“Okay.  Well?  Let’s go see if we can find you a new battery.”

That was how Tuck and Chris ended up in Wal-Mart in the automotive section.  Tuck wanted to go the BMW dealership across the street from the church, but Chris thought Wal-Mart would be a better option.  Tucker didn’t feel like arguing.

“There it is,” Chris said.  He reached down to the bottom shelf and hauled out a battery that looked exactly like the one in the cart.

Tucker laughed in amazement.

“What?” Chris said nervously.  “Do I have something on my back?”  He put the battery on the floor and started bending to try and see the back of his shirt.

“No man,” Tuck said.  “I’m just surprised we found it so fast.”

“Yeah,” Chris agreed.  “Let’s go put it in!”  He turned and headed toward the cashier.  Tucker followed behind.

The cashier rang up the battery and looked at the two men, wondering which would pay for it.  Chris looked off into space.  Tucker waited another few seconds, wanting to see if Chris would notice the tension.  Chris made no move, request, or apology.  Tuck took his wallet from his back pocket and paid for the battery with a credit card.  Chris lifted the battery and strode toward the door.

Back in the church parking lot, Tucker stood back and watched as Chris fit the new battery into the empty slot under the hood.  Chris slammed the hood closed, moved into the driver seat, and revved the engine.  He backed the car out of the parking spot.  Tucker thought he was simply going to drive away, but Chris surprised Tuck when he rolled down the window and called, “See you on Sunday?”

“I’ll be here,” Tuck replied with a grin.

“Great!” And with a wave Chris pulled away.

Tuck would see Chris once more, but not on Sunday.

Chapter Six

José stared at his shoes.  They were stained with the blond woman’s blood.  He couldn’t stop looking at them.  He stared so hard the shapes seemed to move.  The spots looked like faces screaming in agony.

“Get up kid,” the Reaper’s deep voice rumbled.  “Go check that one.”

José looked up.  An old, blue clunker was pulling up to a gas pump.  “No,” he said.  “No more.”

The Reaper sat silent for a moment considering.  Then he leaned forward and said softly, “Listen kid, I do need you.  You’re special kid.  You just got that one wrong last week.  You need to trust me.  I know.  I’ve been at this a long time.  Justice was served.  I promise.”

“You promise?”

“I promise kid.  I need you.  I need you to touch them.  I need you to get close to them.”

“You promise she was evil?”

“I promise kid,” the Reaper leaned back on the bus stop bench and stretched his arms to the sky.  The sun shone on his grey skin.  He rolled his neck.  Then the monster returned to his slump, allowing his hoodie to hide his face.  “Now go on.  Let’s do some good.”

José rose from the bench slowly.  He picked up his squeegee and trudged toward the light blue car.  The clunker’s driver was already out of the car, sliding a credit card into the pump.  He was lean with sandy blond hair.  He wore a faded yellow polo tucked tightly into blue jeans.

“Hey, mister,” José said.  “Hey, yo!  Mister!  Can I wash your windows?”  He waved the squeegee in the air.

The man cocked his head to the right and looked at José with utter confusion.

“Do you speak English?” José snapped.  “¿Habla usted Inglés?  Você fala Inglês?”

The strange man’s mouth hung open.  He squinted back.

“Yo, mister.  I ain’t up for games today.  Do you speak English or not?  Washy-the-windows?”  José made an exaggerated swiping motion with the squeegee.

The man gave a sharp snort, let go of the gas pump, stepped toward José, and gently placed his right hand on José’s cheek.  The man’s touch was warm.  José’s body relaxed and he mindlessly dropped the squeegee.  The strange man’s eyes slowly began to glow a burning blue.  José was transfixed.  He was at peace.  He never wanted to move.  He wanted to hold onto the warmth of the stranger forever.

The man pulled his hand away and reality rushed back.  “Well, you explain why Ernie couldn’t find him. You were masking him.  Clever, clever monster.  Run along and do your thing,” the man smiled kindly.

“Thanks mister,” José said stumbling backward, unsure of what he was doing.  He turned and walked toward the Reaper trying to shake the fog from his head.  He stumbled into the bench and then turned to sit.  He wanted to sleep.

“Well?” the Reaper asked.

“That’s a weird one,” José replied.  “Never had one like that before.”

“Excellent,” the Reaper smiled.  He stood and stretched his arms behind his back.  Then he began his loop.  José, still dazed, watched, as the Reaper began his graceful approach.  Once again the monster had perfectly placed himself in the prey’s blind spot.  He picked up speed.  The Reaper removed the straight razor from his pocket and flicked it open.  José saw the monster’s menacing smile.

The Reaper was on the man now.  He raised the razor to slice the man’s neck, but the monster missed.  The man pivoted on his right foot, stepped back with his left, and smoothly crouched under the Reapers arm.  The Reaper passed by, a look of shock on the monster’s face.  Before the Reaper could turn, the strange man wrapped his right arm around the Reaper’s waist.  In the same motion, the man slammed his left fist through the Reaper’s back.  The man’s eyes burned so bright the light gave José a headache, but the boy couldn’t look away.  The surprise on the Reaper’s face turned to terror.  The monster’s back jerked straight, and the razor clanged on the ground.  The strange man jerked hard with his left hand.  José could see the Reaper’s black spine tear through the skin on his back and then snap in the man’s hand.  The Reaper’s body went limp, but the man caught the monster before it fell.  He lifted the Reaper’s massive, muscular frame with ease, tossed it in the back seat of his car, and covered it with a blue tarp.

José was fully awake now, but paralyzed with fear.  The strange man walked toward him.  The fire in the man’s eyes was fading.  José thought about running but the man commanded, “Stay put!”

The man sat next to José and put his arm around him.  Looking forward he said, “So explain to me, how exactly does a new Gracanjo come into the service of a Mardock? My fault really. I shouldn’t have waited so long to find you.”  The man’s voice was even, without expression.

“Don’t kill me, mister,” José said.  His voice cracked.  He gripped his pants tightly in his fists.

“Kill you?” the man laughed.  “How old are you?”

“I’m twelve.  I’ll be thirteen in two weeks.”

“Where is your mom?”

“She died in a car wreck a few years ago.  I live with my uncle now.”

“Mom’s brother or Dad’s brother?”

“Mom’s I think.”

“Huh.” Then the man stood and began walking back to his car.

José jumped up and followed him.  “Where are you going?  What are you going to do with the Reaper?”

“The Reaper?”

“Yeah, the Reaper.  In the back seat of your car?”

“Wow,” the man stopped and began to laugh.  He turned to face José. “You gave it a name?”

“Um, no,” José replied confused.  “That’s what he told me he was.  He was the Grim Reaper.”

“That’s nonsense,” the man with the blue eyes laughed again. “You’ve got a lot to learn kid.  Get in the car.”  He took three more steps, returned the gas pump to its slot, screwed the gas cap back on, and climbed in the driver’s seat.

José stood outside the car, unsure what to do.

The man raised his eyebrows at the boy and then rolled down his window.  “Are you coming or not?  We’ve got to burn the body before it starts to stink.  It only takes an hour before a Mardock really starts to smell.”

José remained motionless, in shock from the last five minutes of action, still unsure.

“Come on kid.  Get in the car.  I know this is a lot to take in.  You and I, we’re the same.  We’re Gracanjo, the protectors of the city, the wardens of the chaos, the guardians of the Veil.  We’re family now kid. You’ve been called. And you’ve got a lot to learn, so get in the car and let’s get started.”

José thought about his options.  He looked the man in the eye trying to read the man’s soul through those blue eyes.

The man sighed and started the car.

José scrambled around the trunk, swung open the passenger side door, and jumped in the front seat.

“Welcome to the good guys, kid,” the blue eyed man smiled and they pulled away together.

Chapter Seven

“So, then, I was like, ‘Do you ever charge people money for these?’ and he was all like, ‘No?  I don’t think so?’ and I was all, ‘How many people use these?’ And he was all like, ‘I think you’re the only one who ever checks them out.’  Which totally made me mad ‘cause he was trying to make me feel like they got used all the time.  Can you believe that mess?” Tucker leaned back in his chair with a triumphant expression, satisfied with his description of the injustice in his story.

“That’s crazy stuff,” Bernard said sipping his coffee.  He liked the mugs.  They were heavy.  Taking a sip from them made him feel like he was drinking something of merit.  “Did you get the moon bounces then?”

“Oh yeah, totally,” Tucker said looking out the window.  “The kids loved them.  They were a great addition to the block party.  Maddy even got in one when we were cleaning up.  The kids kept yelling, ‘Ms. Maddy!  You’re too old!  You’re too old!’  It was really cute.  Those things are an instant hit.”

“Oh crap!” Bernard suddenly exclaimed.  He jumped from his seat and dashed out the front door of the coffee house.  Tuck turned in his chair and looked out the large front window to see what Bernard was up to.  To Tuck’s shock Bernard was coming back in the door with Chris.  Bernard held the door open.  Chris entered followed by a Hispanic boy.  When the two had passed him, Bernard shot Tucker a can-you-believe-it smile.

“Hey Chris,” Tucker said standing to greet the odd man.  “What a surprise!  How’s it going?  Want some lunch?”

“Sure,” Chris said.  He pulled a chair up at Tuck’s table.  Today he was in a green polo, once again tucked tightly into his jeans.  The boy pulled a seat up next to Chris.  He was in jeans as well with a black hoodie and white shoes with red splotches.

“Nice shoes,” Tuck said.  “Is that paint?”

“Uh.  Sure, mister,” the boy replied with a soft smile.

Bernard asked Chris and the boy what they wanted and then called over to Steve the Barista, “Hey Steve, could you bring them two powerhouse sandwiches, a coffee, and a chocolate milk?”

“How’s the car running?” Tucker asked.

“Great,” Chris replied.

“Who’s this little guy?” Bernard said.  “Where did you find him?”

“He’s my nephew,” Chris replied.

“Oh, from Florida?” Tucker guessed.

“No,” Chris said in his typical monotone.

“From Michigan?” Tuck guessed again.

“No,” Chris replied in the same fashion.

“Oh, ‘cause I thought you had family in Florida and Michigan?” Tucker pressed.

“I do,” Chris said.

“I’m going to see some family in DC tomorrow,” the boy offered. “I’m going to stay with them for six months.”

“Wow,” Bernard replied. “That’s a long time. What are you going to do there?”

“Learn how to be a super hero,” the boy said.

Chris laughed.

Steve arrived with two overstuffed sandwiches, Chris’ coffee, and the boy’s chocolate milk.

“So what are you guys doing in our neck of the woods again?” Bernard asked.

“Patrolling,” the boy said through a full mouth of ham and cheese.

Chris laughed again. Bernard thought that there was clearly an inside joke between the odd pair.

“Doing some monster hunting?” Bernard said hoping to join the joke.

“Yep,” Chris said with a grin as he looked at the boy.

“I think that’s the first time I’ve seen you smile,” Tucker said to Chris leaning back in his chair with interest.  “Looks like having a sidekick is good for you.”

Chris’ eyes beamed their normal radiant blue.  He put his arm around the boy.  “I think it is,” he said.  “I think it is.”

“Well,” Bernard said jokingly to the boy, “with two of you walking around, the city is definitely a safer place.”

The boy put down his sandwich, smiled, and said, “Thank you, mister.  I hope so.”

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