What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
It had been a long week. Bryan had had his confrontation with Paul at the mall on the previous Sunday. It was now Saturday. A lot had transpired.
Dr. Warren had spoken to the boys several times since their dinner Saturday night. He didn’t tell them what he was doing, but did tell them he was working on Bryan’s problem and they didn’t need to be worrying about it. In addition to trying to provide reassurance, what this did in the end resulted in Bryan becoming even more attached to him. Bryan had gained a deep-seated respect for Josh’s father as he’d lived in the house with him during the past couple of weeks. Dr. Warren was occasionally distracted, his eyes buried in a book, but at other times he was warm and caring. He was always soft-spoken and easy-going and had a ready and quirky sense of humor. There was also a profound aura of intelligence in his face and manner, and it colored his speech and heightened his perception of what was going on around him, when he was paying attention to that. When he looked at Bryan, it was with a penetrating interest but fond tenderness and care, a complex involvement with him that Bryan had never experienced before. His own father was a man of average intelligence. He found himself amazed by Dr. Warren, and responded strongly to the feelings the man had shown for him. Now, this response was becoming attachment, and the attachment was growing roots.
Dr. Warren, for his part, seemed to now accept Bryan without question, and to Bryan’s delight and puzzlement, treat him just as he treated Josh. Bryan didn’t understand why this was, but saw it in little nuances. He saw it when there was one chicken thigh left at dinner and he was reaching for it at the same time Dr. Warren was. They both pulled back. Bryan realized, if Dr. Warren was thinking of him as a guest in his house, he’d offer the thigh to him. He didn’t do this. He offered to split it with him, then got a concerned look on his face as he was cutting it, making sure each had half and not a bit more than half. He saw it when Bryan left the milk out on the counter instead of putting it back in the refrigerator. He’d seen him chew out Josh for this. Now, he chewed out Bryan. Same intensity, same words. Bryan felt very warm when he realized this. It made him stop and think. Dr. Warren had been a little surprised. Usually, when he was rebuking his son for something, his son didn’t smile at him and hug him. Bryan realized he was being treated as one of the family.
He was being treated as one of the family.
There were several conversations with Paul, and on Tuesday, there was a meeting at Police Headquarters. Dr. Warren had taken both of them, then sat in the conference room on the uncomfortable folding chair provided and listened when Josh had spoken up. He’d been shocked. This wasn’t the Josh he knew. This Josh was not shy or deferential; he was polite but positive, determined and decisive. He controlled the meeting with his focus and conviction. One of the policemen started out being condescending and dictatorial. Josh just smiled at him and refused to talk to him. He stormed out of the office, to be replaced by another officer who had better manners.
At that point, Josh spoke. His positions were considered by everyone in attendance and found cogent. Discussions and questions kept ending with Josh’s comments and convictions carrying the argument. The attitude of the adults going into the meeting was, they would control the agenda, they would determine the course of events, they were in charge. The attitude of the adults leaving the meeting was, let’s do it the kid’s way, he seems to have thought this through better than we have, he’s covered all the bases.
They had another meeting during the week. It had been a long meeting at school with Dr. Collins, Dr. Warren, Vice-Principal Tunnell, a police lieutenant, Paul, Eric, Frank, Bryan and Josh. It was held on Thursday, as a courtesy to Dr. Collins, in one of the empty classrooms where there was more space. The boys had helped the vice-principal pull some student desks into a ring so they were all facing each other. Once the meeting was underway and the plan had been laid out, there’d been some hard words. Dr. Collins was appalled by what he heard was the plan. Frank had balked. Eric was squeamish, but when Bryan supported the plan totally, Eric did too. There was final, reluctant acceptance. No one could come up with a plan that was as complete and as likely to produce results as Josh’s. The risks were mostly Josh’s, and, everything considered, everyone was on board, even if there was some nervousness evinced by some of the participants.
On Friday, Josh had been the one who was nervous. Now was the first step, and everything depended on this part working. If he couldn’t sell what he had to do now, it was all over. The success of the entire plan depended on him, and this was the beginning, the first step.
Bryan was sitting next to him at the police station. So was his father and the lieutenant, a burly, red-faced Irishman who would have scared the daylights out of Josh a month earlier. Now, he was a colleague, and Josh sort of liked him. Lieutenant O’Brien. He was gruff and dour and sarcastic. Josh liked that. And marveled over the fact that he felt comfortable with it.
They were again in the conference room. Some equipment had been brought in. Josh was holding a telephone receiver in his hand. He could hear ringing through it. The police department tape recorder reels were slowly turning.
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“This is Josh Warren. Remember me?”
“The pansy dork? Yeah, I remember you. Whata you want?”
“I want to meet with you guys. You, Pan Tsai, Bill Griffith and Sam Connors. All you guys. At the mall. Tomorrow.”
“What the hell! What is this?”
“Hey, I saw your picture! I was at the mall, and they had pictures of you guys on a bulletin board. You guys are famous, but nobody seems to know who you are. Sketches, you know? But good enough that I recognized you. Nobody knows who you are except me. Got to be worth something, huh? So I figure, you gave me a hard time, now it’s payback time. You be there, 1 o’clock tomorrow afternoon in the food court, and we’ll talk. Oh, and bring some money. Starting tomorrow, you’re paying me. Making up a little for past grievances, if you get my drift.”
“Uh, you sure this is Josh Warren? The little dork we use to, uh, is this you?”
“Yeah, it’s me. I think you might want to meet me tomorrow. Bring $20 each. I want the money. Every week, and I figure you’re getting off cheap. I recognized you guys’ right off from the sketches. I can see why no one else did. They don’t look too much like you. Except for the eyes. The guy you almost killed? He got the eyes right. The rest, I can’t blame him too much. But the eyes, yeah, he got them just right.
“And Tom, I’ve seen those eyes. I’d know them anywhere. I can’t seem to forget them. They have that look in them just like when you were pounding on me. Hate, and disgust, and cruelty, but especially joy. You just love beating up someone who won’t fight back, don’t you Tom? It really turns you on. Yeah, I know those eyes well. The artist did a real good job with those eyes.”
He paused a moment, the hardened his voice. “One o’clock tomorrow, Tom. All of you. Or the cops are going to know who those pictures are. Oh, and Tom? Fuck you!”
Lieutenant O’Brien took the receiver from Josh’s shaking hand and cradled it. Josh had his eyes closed. Bryan reached over and put his arm around him, and his father stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Josh, this isn’t too much, is it? We can call it off.”
“No, Dad. I want to do this. I have to do it. I think this went just right. Lt. O’Brien? What do you think?”
“I liked it. It sounded fine. You were just right. No fear. He’s got to be shaking in his boots. If our taps on his and the other guy’s phones pick up anything incriminating, we might not even need to go through with this tomorrow. I thought you were perfect, Josh.”
And now it was Saturday. Tom Beddings had called his friends, and they’d agreed they had to meet with Josh on Saturday. In their phone calls they’d come close to incriminating themselves, but they hadn’t done so. Phrases like, ‘He can’t prove anything’ were certainly suggestive, but not proof. The meeting was still necessary.
Josh was sitting at a table in the food court. One o’clock in the afternoon was a crowded time there. Josh had picked that intentionally. The police technician had said it would be better if they were in a quieter spot, but Josh liked the feeling of security a crowd gave him and even Lt. O’Brien had agreed he was safer there. Frank was sitting next to him. Frank was a reluctant participant. Josh had wanted him. He was big and intimidating and a kid. If Josh were sitting next to an adult, the four guys very likely wouldn’t have shown up. A kid their own age, or even younger as Frank was, wouldn’t scare them away. The problem was, Frank wasn’t a tough guy. He was big, he was strong, but he was a panda bear, not a grizzly. Today, he had to act like a grizzly, and he wasn’t sure he could do it, which was why he was reluctant. He was afraid he’d screw up his part, that he couldn’t pull it off. Josh thought he could. Frank wasn’t sure, and it worried him. He knew what was going on, what was at stake, and was afraid he’d ruin everything.
At 1:15, Josh and Frank had finished their lunch and were sitting waiting. Then Josh saw Tom and Pan approaching. The two boys were both considerably larger than Josh, and Pan especially looked dangerous. They came to the table and stood next to it.
Frank stood up. He was taller than either boy, and considerably heavier. He’d been rehearsed, and while reluctant and nervous in training, he didn’t look that way now. He stood over the other two and didn’t say anything. He simply looked at them. His presence slightly abated the menacing atmosphere brought by the arrival of the two older boys.
“Sit down, guys.” Josh was nervous too, but had a role to play and was going to do his best. He didn’t sound nervous. He sounded comfortable and in charge.
Tom stood without moving. Josh knew he had to take control or this wouldn’t work. “Sit down, Tom. Or don’t. Your choice. But I’m not going to stay here unless you do. What’ll it be?”
Tom looked at him, anger in his eyes. He pulled out a chair and sat. Pan looked at Frank. Frank met his gaze, no emotion showing. Pan sat too, after making a show of indifference towards Frank. Frank waited a moment, then carefully sat down himself, watching Pan steadily.
Josh was about to speak, then thought better of it. He thought maybe there was something to be gained by showing patience and calm. So, he sat, looking back and forth between Tom and Pan. They were both scowling at him. He recognized their attempt at intimidation. He smiled at them. And remained silent.
Finally, Tom spoke. “Okay, we’re here. What do you want?”
“What do you mean, ‘you’re here?’ Half of you are here. I told you, all four of you. It’s already twenty after. I’m about ready to leave. If they aren’t here in another five minutes, I’m gone. And, I’d guess the police will be at your door looking for you within, say, a half hour? Makes no difference to me, which way it goes. I make more money the one way, I see your ass hung out to dry the other. I win either way.”
Tom’s look slowly changed from an intimidating scowl to bemusement. He didn’t know this kid in front of him. When he was bullying him in the past, Josh cowered in front of him, offering no resistance at all. Which was what he liked, the power that gave him. Now, here Josh was sitting comfortably in front of them calling the shots. He didn’t appear to be the same meek kid at all. Tom was confused. But still angry and intense. He still felt completely in control of the situation. He had too much history with Josh not to think he was anything but in charge.
Josh looked at his watch, then up at Tom, and raised his eyebrows. The reason behind the glance was clear. It was Tom’s move.
Josh stared at Tom. Tom’s confusion was apparent. He dropped his eyes, then said to Pan, “Get them.”
Pan stood up. Frank did too. Pan looked at him, then walked away, trying hard for nonchalance. Frank remained standing, and a few minutes later, saw Pan return with two other boys.
Bill was a gangly teen with acne, bad teeth and an unpleasant expression. Sam was the smallest of the four, although still larger by far than Josh. He also had a baby face and didn’t look like someone who’d be involved in beating a little kid senseless. Josh knew, however, that he kicked just as hard as the others. He’d felt it. He felt no compassion for any of them. They’d all made his life hell at Kennedy.
It was a large, round table, and they ended up sitting with the four of them bunched as much as possible on one side with Frank and Josh close together on the other. When they’d all sat, Frank last, at the round table, Josh smiled at them all, a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Glad to see you could all make it. I’m glad you took me seriously, because I wasn’t kidding. If you hadn’t showed up, I was going right to the police. Now that you’re here, I won’t have to do that. As long as you brought the money. $20 each. And the same thing, right here, every Saturday at 1 PM. Next week, it’s got to be $30. I don’t like you being late. It’s disrespectful, and I’m not going to put up with it. $120 next week. If you’re all on time, we can go back to $80. It’s up to you of course. We can end this any time you want. I think the statute of limitations on attempted murder is what, ten years? I’ll have to check on that. You did try to kill that kid, didn’t you?”
Tom had always been the leader of this group. He took charge now. “Look, dipshit, we’re not paying you anything. You and this guy you have here are going to get seriously hurt. There are only two of you, and you aren’t going to get any help from this ape you got here at all. It’ll be three to one against him, and we’re going to fuck him up real bad. Sam alone can take care of you. This isn’t going to work out the way you planned it.”
Tom had moved forward in his chair, closer to Josh, and was staring at him with his most intimidating glare.
“Nice talk, shithead,” was Josh’s response. “But I’ve got you dead to rights. You can beat up some little 13-year-old, four against one, but that’s not what you’ve got here. You don’t know how many guys I’ve got sitting around here. For the money you’re going to be paying me, I can have a whole bunch of guys on my payroll, watching my back. I’ve got guys all over, right now. I’ll point out a couple of them. Just a couple.”
Josh waved his arm behind him, and Bryan stood up for a second, then sat back down. He was sitting at a table several yards away with three tables between them. There were two bigger guys sitting with him, looking towards Josh’s table. Josh waved in a different direction and Eric stood briefly. He was at a table with three other guys, all of whom turned to look. Josh started to wave in another direction, then stopped. He looked at Tom. “I’ve got two more tables of guys, but there’s no point in identifying them to you. You might as well get your money out. Or leave. Makes me no difference.”
Tom looked at him. He wasn’t sure what to do. Josh’s manner was beginning to rattle him. Tom’s threats didn’t seem to be affecting him at all, and this kid had always trembled when he’d even just talked to him before. Did he really have all those guys waiting to back him up?
Frank had only one thing to say, and when Josh kicked him under the table, he knew it was time to say it. He used the deepest voice he could without making it sound fake or forced. “You sure these were the guys who messed up Ryan? They look like pussies to me. I don’t care if they pay you or not, I want to hurt them.” He looked at Tom. “Why’d you do that? Ryan isn’t gay. He’s a little kid. I can’t let you get away with that. Paying a little money’s too easy a way out for you.”
Tom looked at Frank but didn’t answer. Frank met his eyes. Josh spoke up, first addressing Frank, then letting his eyes move to Tom’s friends as he spoke. “Tom’s gay himself. Except he’s afraid everyone will find out, so he likes to beat up other kids, calling them fags so no one will realize that he himself is. I don’t know if his friends here know that, but I do. He offered not to beat me up if we would do things together. I told him to piss off, and then he hit me. He’s the fag.”
Josh turned to Tom. “Is that why you started picking on me in the first place, Tom? You were attracted to me? You thought I was hot? Funny way to show it. You guys broke my arm once, did you know that? That was you, Pan. Did you do that on purpose?”
“Yeah, but that was nothing. Just wait. You won’t have all these guys around all the time.” Pan looked straight at Josh, his eyes cold and unwavering, and Josh felt a tickle along his spine. He felt greatly comforted that Frank was next to him. Tom was complicated. Pan was evil. Tom, it had always seemed to him, had a reason behind his bullying, even if he also seemed to like inflicting pain. Pan, on the other hand, merely liked hurting people.
Josh turned back to Tom. “So how long have you known you were gay, Tom, and who’ve you been doing things with?”
The other three boys had shocked expressions and were all looking at Tom. Tom was red in the face. He glanced at the other three and read their faces, then turned back to Josh. His voice was low and hard. “I’m going to kill you. We could have killed the other kid. I thought maybe we had. I kicked him in the ribs a couple times after I heard them snap. Thought he’d have a punctured lung for sure. Then Pan kicked him in the nuts hard enough I was sure he’d bleed to death. You should have heard him squeal, then get real quiet, his face all pale and all. That’s what we’ll do to you. Just worse.
“I saw who you had stand up here when you waved. They’re both little guys. Those guys with them were just curious. They didn’t look like they were part of this at all. You don’t have anyone else, and this guy isn’t enough to save you. You’re dead, asshole. We’ll just make this look like a fight that got out of control. You got killed. In the fight, somehow your neck got twisted too far and it snapped. Too bad, but just an accident.”
He started to rise. Frank was quicker. He was on his feet as soon as Tom moved and when Tom was still rising, he reached out and hit him in the jaw with his considerable weight behind it. The other three boys jumped to their feet, their flimsy chairs flying out behind them, but whether it was to help Tom or simply to run, they were trapped by all the tables and chairs around them. The tables were occupied and the people sitting at them had their chairs pushed out randomly into the aisles. The boys didn’t have a clear path for flight, Tom was now on the floor, and before the boys could go anywhere, four large and very businesslike policemen, led by Lieutenant O’Brien, arrived and grabbed them. Tom wasn’t running, either; he was lying on the floor, holding his jaw.
“Frank! You weren’t supposed to hit him!” Josh said.
“I’m sorry, Josh. He pissed me off.”
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