The rain took Baltimore by surprise. It was fast and all consuming. Then as quickly as it had begun, it was gone. The squall had soaked the city like a building being demolished with TNT blankets its surroundings in debris. Hunter breathed deep and let the clean, wet air fill his nose. It was revitalizing. He loved quiet calm of downtown after a late night downpour. There was a unique peace that only came after all the rats had scurried into their holes to escape the storm.
Federal Hill was abandoned. There were no kids on the swings, no owners wondering if they should let their dogs off the leash. It was just Hunter and remnants of the rain. He leaned back on his bench, stretching his arms across the top wooden slat. His t-shirt soaked through and clung to his skin, sending a chill up his spin; but he refused to shiver.
Drumming his fingers on the bench in a spastic non-rhythm, Hunter looked out over the city. He closed his eyes and imagined what it would be like to be in charge. Hunter had no aspirations for political office. He had no dreams of becoming the mayor or governor or anything of that sort. All those occupations looked like too much work.
Years of abuse and bullying had created a hunger in his gut for the respect that came with power. He wanted to be a man people whispered about when he came down the street. He wanted the waitresses to jump to when he walked into one of the fancy coffee shops on Cross Street. He wanted them to bring him his usual before he had a chance to ask. He salivated over the idea of people knowing what his “usual” was. The thought made him smile.
Hunter knew he just needed to find his thing. He needed to find something that would make him famous, something that would separate him from the herd, something that would bring recognition. Options were limited for a kid in his income bracket. The Hip-Hop road was closed. He couldn’t rap, sing, or play an instrument. He was a horrible student. He day dreamed too much to earn A’s, so the title “doctor” probably wasn’t in his future. Sports were also out. His fifteen-year-old frame was less than ordinary, unimpressive at best. He’d once seen a pastor driving a Bentley and briefly considered pursuing a career in religion, but church services put him to sleep.
Hunter rubbed his eyes with his palms. He was sure it was close to two in the morning. He wasn’t worried. His thing would come to him. He was sure he would stumble into it. He knew in his soul that fate had big plans for him. He just wished it would speed things up a little so he could get past this poor, nobody teenager chapter.
Hunter leaned his head back to catch rain drops from the tree branches over his head. Sliding his neck from left to right, he snatched the drops in his mouth as they fell. It was then that he noticed it in his peripheral vison. Almost behind him, on the other side of the park, there was a sharp, blue glow.
Hunter swiveled on the bench. He crouched behind it and, using it as a shield. Carefully, he peered over the top of the wood slats to investigate. Across the park Hunter saw the bright burn of three cell phones, each held by a man perched on the cusp of the hill. They were sitting side by side in the grass, facing away from him. Hunter grinned like a fox stalking its prey.
As he slid from behind the bench, Hunter rushed forward, using the playground equipment as cover. The tower of the spiral slide gave a perfect hiding spot to plan his next advance. His feet made a scraping shuffle as he half crawled and half ran to take cover behind at the tip of the final slide, he crouched low and listened. The three men were still too far off for him to make out the specifics of their conversation. He looked at the fifty yards between them. If he chanced it, he’d be in the open. He drummed his fingers a-rhythmically on the plastic slide, weighing the risk and reward. He decided. What else did he have to do? He crept forward, walking lightly, hoping not to make a sound.
At ten yards away he lay down on his belly in the wet grass. He could make out the content of their whispers. The three men were arguing. They were angry about a house across the street. One of them was contending they should simply kick in the front door. Another was demanding they “be smart about the whole thing.”
“What we need,” the biggest one said, “is someone to test it for us. I ain’t getting’ stuck in no trap. We need some punk to go, check it out, and let us in.”
The middle one leaned backward on his left hand. Turning his torso toward where Hunter was hiding, he yelled, “Yo, kid in the grass. Come here.”
Hunter didn’t move, hoping they were talking about some other kid laying on his belly in the mud.
“Yo, you, stupid kid in rolling around the grass. You ain’t slick,” the middle one yelled again. Hunter could hear the other two laughing. He made a mental note. Spying was not his thing. “Come over here or I’ll come over there. And you don’t want me to come over there, you little bitch.”
Hunter stood and brushed himself off, trying to retain a sliver of dignity. He walked over pretending there was nothing unusual about a fifteen-year-old lying in the grass of Federal Hill Park at two in the morning.
The men sitting on the right and left were in full hysterics by the time Hunter arrived. They shoved at each other with glee of toddlers as they laughed. Hunter’s head ached with rage. He hated it when people laughed at him.
“Don’t make me call you a third time,” one in the middle said. “Get your ass over here and present yourself.”
Hunter continued his current pace, pretending as if he was coming of his own choosing rather than in response to a summons. Finally, standing in front of the three men, Hunter looked them each in their eyes. They were fierce. He wanted to look away. His eyes longed to drift toward his shoes, but Hunter denied them their desire. He kept his stare firm, feigning the absence of fear.
Hunter knew them all. He had seen them in his travels through the city. The one on the right was a high up in the Latino Broadway Street crew. He wore a black t-shirt, black running pants, and blue sneakers. Only two of his tattoos were visible: the Roman numerals XVIII filled his neck, and the numbers 666 were seated over his right eye.
The one on the left leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. He loosely gripped a sleek, black pistol in his right hand, and stroked it with his left. He wore simple blue jeans and a white undershirt that partially covered the gun. He had the look of a man who enjoyed routine prison work outs. Hunter had seen him on the east side and knew he was important in the Black Family gang.
The one in the middle was Hunter’s cousin, Nate, or “Nate Dog” as his crew called him. Nate was in an over-sized, red, baseball jersey with the letters DAMU across the front where numbers should be. Family by blood only, Nate and Hunter cared nothing for one another.
All three were giants on their blocks, heads in their gangs. Hunter thought it strange to see them together. This must be a momentous occasion to place them all in Federal Hill together.
“Oh shit,” Nate laughed. “Lil’ Hunt?” Nate looked his younger cousin up and down. “Auntie Nan know you’re out here past your bed time?” The other two laughed. Hunter held firm, unbending.
“You know this kid?” the one on the left said.
“He’s hard, yo,” the one on the right added. “You think you’re tough lookin’ me in the eye, yo,” he said menacingly to Hunter. “I’ll pluck’em right out of your head, little bitch. Keep it up and see what happens.”
“He don’t look like much, but he can do it, right?” the one on the left said, looking Hunter up and down.
“Yeah,” Nate said with a smile. “He’ll do fine. And if shit go wrong, ain’t no one going to miss him.”
The one on the left stood and brushed his pants off. “Here’s how this is going to work,” he said to Hunter. “See that house over there?” He gestured with his gun to a row-home behind Hunter. It was less a question and more a command. Hunter turned to look at the house. It was a four story, red brick, row home with marble steps and an ornate front door.
“Yeah,” Hunter said with apathy, still angry he was discovered in the grass. He’d hoped spying might be his thing. The truth was painful. “I see it,” he said. “What about it?”
The gang-banger shoved his pistol into pants at his back and continued, “We want in that house. We paid a lot of money to call off the guards. But we don’t know what else might be waiting for us. So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to throw you over the back fence. If you get eaten by dogs, or arrested, or shot, then we’re going leave you small, worthless ass. But if you can figure out how to let us in, then maybe after will have stuff for you.”
“Like what stuff?” Hunter said.
“How ‘bout I promise not to rip your fucking ears off for trying to listen to conversations you shouldn’t be listening to,” the Hispanic man on the right said, standing.
“Why do you want inside?” Hunter asked looking at the house. It wasn’t that he felt bad about letting them in. He was simply curious.
“Lil’ bitch asking too many dam questions. Who we want is none of your dam business,” Nate snapped.
“How are you three together and not shooting at each other?” Hunter said turning back toward Nate.
Before he could see it coming, Hunter was answered with a back hand across his cheek. The impact knocked the wind out of him and lifted him off his feet. He flew across the sidewalk and off the curb. Like a lion who’d drawn first blood, Nate followed, fuming for more. Before Hunter regained is breath, Nate slammed his foot into the boy’s ribs. Hunter yelped. Looming above, Nate bent down. He brought his lips close to Hunter’s ear. “Ask another dam question,” Nate whispered, “and watch what else I do, lil’ bitch.”
The blood in Hunter’s mouth was salty and warm. He swallowed as he rose to his feet. Brushing the dirt off his pants, he replied, “Fine. Let’s do it.”
“That’s a good boy,” Nate said as the other two laughed.
Hunter sat atop the old brick wall before dropping into the strange backyard. The plot was narrow and thirty feet deep. The un-gated, thick brick wall ran all around it, creating a green oasis in the middle of the city.
All the lights were off. Through the windows of the back door, Hunter could make out the green glow of a security pad on the kitchen wall. “One problem at a time,” Hunter mumbled to himself.
Hunter’s more pressing obstacle was the large, muscular dog asleep on the back porch steps. Hunter didn’t know dog breeds, but he knew this dog wasn’t a pit bull. All the gang bangers had Pits. Hunter was familiar with them. This dog had the muscles of a Pit, but its nose was pointy. Hunter had no doubt it was deadly. He scanned the yard for something, anything he could use against the beast if it awoke while he was creeping through its yard.
One of the three gang bangers in the alley nudged Hunter from behind. Hunter grabbed the wall tight to keep from falling forward and glared back.
“Hurry up, lil’ bitch,” Nate whispered.
“There’s a dog,” Hunter hissed loudly.
The three thug giants stared back at him with apathy.
Hunter shook his head in anger. He could see the fear in their faces. He could smell it oozing from him. They were too cowardly to do the deed themselves. That’s why they needed him. Not because they needed a guinea pig, but because something in that house terrified them.
Hunter looked along the wall. He spotted something he could use. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. Confident, he let himself down the other side of the brick, trying not to make a sound. He grabbed a flat head, iron shovel that was leaning against the wall to the right. He gripped it tight with both hands, ready to swing it in case the dog woke up.
He tip toed through the yard, trying to keep down the squishing sound of his shoes in the mud. He kept both eyes locked on the dog. It lay on its stomach, snoring. He timed his steps with the rise and fall of its belly. The animal looked peaceful, completely unaware. “Maybe spying is my thing?” he thoughts.
The dog stirred.
Hunter froze mid-step. He was close. If the dog awoke and came after him, there would be no escape. Hunter commanded his heart to stop pounding. He’d never owned a dog. He had no attachment to the beast. He inched forward another pace and wondered what having pets would be like. He thought he’d like having a dog, but not a big one like this one. Maybe a small one. But it would have to be smart. He’d have no patience for a stupid dog who slept through home invasions.
He was upon the beast now. He stood over it. He could see the breath flowing from its nostrils. He watched it snore, unaware of the danger. Hunter raised the shovel above his head with both hands until the blade was even with his eyes. He inhaled deeply and then held the air in his chest. With all his might he released his breath and brought the blade down on the animal’s neck. The sweep of the blade through the air and the muffled clink were the only sounds. There was no bark, no yelp. The animal’s eyes sprung open with terror. Its legs flailed and then went still. Blood sprayed across Hunter’s legs. Hunter kept pushing on the shovel as it dug deep into the beast’s spine.
Hunter was disappointed. It was the first time he’d taken a life. He thought there would be more to it, more return on investment. It felt no different than killing rats in the courtyard of his apartment complex. It was mundane. Looking at the dog he wondered if it was more peaceful sleeping or in death. Which was better? He decided on death. It lasted longer.
Hunter tossed the shovel into the grass behind him and walked up the back steps, stepping over the dog’s corpse. He surveyed the back wall of the house. There was a strong looking door with six small windows in it and a small dead-bolt. He moved closer and looked through one of the glass pains. The alarm panel read “DISARMED.” He strained to see the dead-bolt. He couldn’t get a clear view, but it looked like a simple turn latch on the inside. This all seemed to easy. Could he really just break a window and unlock the handle?
Hunter decided against it. He didn’t trust it. It was too easy. Nothing that easy went his way. To the left of the door was a thin grass alley that ran between the house and the brick wall. Tucker glanced down it. The other end was blocked at the front of the yard by a tall, black, iron gate. On the opposite side of the gate, he saw one of the three gangsters standing, arms crossed, glaring at him. Having no desire to have his every move scrutinized, Hunter chose not to investigate the alley.
Next to the door on the right, about three feet over, was a small, thin window several feet off the ground. Hunter deduced it probably sat above a sink. He slowly pulled over a black, metal patio chair that lightly scraped across the patio and stood on it. Pressing up with his palms, he tried to force the window open. To his surprise, it moved with ease.
This gave Hunter pause. What type of person felt so secure at night in downtown Baltimore that they didn’t lock their windows or set their alarm? Whose house was he breaking into exactly?
He hoisted himself up onto the window ledge with both hands and shimmied through the small window head first. Hunter slide across a white marble sink and crashed to the floor. He lay still on the black stone tile, waiting to see if anyone had heard his clumsy arrival. The house remained silent. He stood and took in his surroundings.
The kitchen was immaculate. There was a long black granite counter top under ornate white wooden and glass cabinets. The counter ended in a massive silver refrigerator and freezer. In the middle of the room was a black granite kitchen island. Various pristine appliances were spread out along the counter-top: a large silver blender, a fancy looking coffee pot buttons all over it, a wooden block filled with gleaming silver knife handles.
Hunter stood and soaked it all in. He wondered what it was like to live in such a fancy castle. “These people get respect,” he thought, enviously. “I bet they have a usual.”
Beyond the kitchen was a large dining room, then a living space with comfortable couches and chairs facing stairs and a bathroom. Past the stairs was another living space and the front door.
Hunter spent time in each. He was in awe of the pictures from strange places scattered through the rooms. He soaked in the radiance of the beautiful lamps. He ran his fingers along the soft rugs. The owners of this home knew luxury the likes of which Hunter had never seen. He felt like a five-year-old left alone to explore Disney. Everything was delicate, and strong, and valuable, and specifically placed.
He could have simply opened the front door and finished his work for the evening, but he wanted to see more. He wanted to know what treasurers the other floors held. Surely this was only the beginning. Turning away from the front of the house he quietly ventured up the stairs.
After the last step there was a hallway with two doors that led to another set of stairs. Each door opened to a large room that occupied half of the second story. One was an office. Excluding the front wall, which was dominated by two tall windows looking out onto the street, the room was wall to wall books in dark wooden shelves. The floor was matching tongue and groove flooring. There was a giant desk in the middle of the space with a leather rolling chair behind. There were no papers or computer on the desk, just a lone pen in a thin holder. Facing the desk were two identical wooden chairs. They were thin and straight.
The second room was a workout area. The floor was white, but padded. It gave slightly as Hunter walked across it. He paused to bounce on it. He’d never felt anything like it. The side walls were mirrors with a waist high brown hand rail that ran the length. In the far corner was a weight bench with a rack of free weights on either side. Just as Hunter was thinking about trying out the weight bench, his cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He took it out and read the text. It was Nate. “HURRY THE FUCK UP BITHC” it read. Hunter ignored it. He didn’t want the gang-bangers coming in until he’d taken in all there was to see in this magical place.
Hunter left the room, crept along the hall and continued up another flight. The third floor was not what he expected. It was one expansive room. The carpet was soft under his tennis shoes. It was difficult to tell in the dark, but the walls appeared to be some shade of pink. To his right was a king sized, white canopy bed overflowing with white rumpled sheets and pillows. On either side of the bed were small white end tables filled with knick-knacks, an alarm clock, and small jewelry boxes. On the right side of the bed was another door. Hunter bet it led to a walk-in closet housed over the kitchen.
To Hunter’s the left was a white desk. On both sides of the desk were matching white bookcases filled with volumes of all sizes. Under the windows on the wall adjacent to the desk was a long, padded bench. Hunter thought about trying it out, but he was worried the three thugs would see him in the window. On the opposite wall from the desk there hung a huge flat screen TV. In front of it was a brown, leather couch with purple throw pillows.
Hunter couldn’t help himself. He crashed onto the couch and stretched his arms along the back. He imagined what it would be like to watch a Ravens game on the massive screen while relaxing on the fabulous couch. He laid his head backwards and saw the railing for the steps that led to the fourth floor. He put his feet up on the small, round coffee table in front of him, closed his eyes, and laid down a quiet a-rhythmic beat on the leather with his fingers.
Another text buzzed in his pocket. He set forward and retrieved it. “WHERE THE FUCK R U?” it read. Nate again. Hunter put the phone back in his pocket and re-assumed his position of comfort, imagining again that the couch and TV was his.
A stirring to his right startled him. Hunter sat up straight, alert and ready to run. His heart was pounding. It was all he could hear. He slowly looked over toward the rustling. Then he saw. How had he missed it? There was someone in the bed.
Hunter stood and crept over to the bed, doing his best spy walk. Mixed into the sheets and pillows was a girl, a spectacular girl. She was like painted glass, delicate and perfectly crafted. She had long blond hair and smooth, untouched skin. She was stunningly beautiful. She was a work of art, like a marble statue of a sleeping goddess.
Hunter stood still, admiring her. She couldn’t have been too much older than he was. He thought she should be put in a glass case and placed in a museum for the whole world to appreciate.
Thoughts began to collide in his mind, and his head hurt from the realization. He realized that to let in the three thugs meant violence for this house, and more importantly for her. There was no way he would allow that to happen. There was nothing else in the house so beautiful, so valuable as the creature in front of him, the perfect princess in the pink room.
They would spoil her, put their hands on her, ruin her. Violent men like them were always destroying beautiful things. Hunter knew he needed to prevent them from entering the house, but wasn’t sure how.
He stared again at the girl again, and absorbed her beauty, and the way the entire room accented her beauty. Determination built in his soul. Racing through scenarios and possibilities, a plan began to assemble itself in his mind.
Forgetting about exploring the fourth floor, Hunter strode back to the stairs. He paused before heading down. He needed a trophy. Something he could hold and remember the luxury and beauty of the magical castle. He walked over to the first white book case and scanned the titles. He ran his fingers across the books, strumming their bindings. His eyes fell on one that appealed to him: “The Talented Mister Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith. Hunter took it and then marched toward the stairs.
“All clear. Come in small window in back,” he texted as the entered the kitchen.
“OPEN THE FUCKING FRONT DOOR,” his cousin texted back.
“Cant. Back window,” Hunter sent. Then he waited.
He heard them discuss the bloody dog. They were laughing. They thought it was funny. It wasn’t funny. Hunter grit his teeth. He prepared his mind.
Hunter heard a grunt as the first of the three giants lifted himself through the window.
“What if they don’t come in head first? What if they come in feet first?” Hunter worried for a brief moment, but it was too late to turn back now.
Hands shot through the open window and he knew who it was. One more second. “Wait for the 666 tattoo,” he told himself.
The Hispanic gang-banger’s head followed as hands shot forward toward the sink to break the fall.
Hunter’s anxious grip caused the metal kitchen knife to bruise his palm. As soon as the top of the thug’s head appeared, Hunter struck. He leapt up from his crouch next to the sink and stabbed the blade with a single, hard thrust into the base of the bangers skull. The man’s body went tense, then limp. Hunter pulled him smoothly through the window and onto the floor against the cabinets, partially hiding the body, and he returned to his crouch.
Unable to see what had happened to the first, the second thug grunted and wheezed as he lifted himself up in the same way the first had. Hunter’s plan was working perfectly.
Again, he waited silent and still until the man’s hands were planted on the sink and the back of his head was exposed. Again, with a single motion he drove the knife through the base of the man’s skull. Again, the man fell without a sound. Two down. Only Nate to go.
In the days to come, as he reflected on the night’s events, Hunter would wonder why he felt no remorse driving the knife through the base of his cousin’s skull. The first two he did not know and cared nothing for. But the third was kin. Ending Nate was easy, same as the other two, but it troubled him that he’d hesitated more when he killed the dog than he did when he spilled his family blood. Looking in the mirror later that morning, as he washed the blood spatter from his face, he was surprised by his lack of remorse. “Maybe this is my thing?” he asked himself. It came easy enough.
Before leaving, Hunter riffled through the pockets of the three men. He left their wallets, watches, knives, and guns. None of these things had any value to him. All he took were their cell phones. He needed proof of what he’d accomplished. Digging out the phones was messy work. He slipped and slid in their blood as he turned their bodies over and searched their pockets.
Once the phones were in hand, Hunter stepped back to admire his work. Each gang wore different colors, but they all bled red. He felt like an artist. He needed to sign it. But how? He searched the room for something to use. Then it occurred to him. Like a kindergartner finger painting, he rubbed his fingers in the blood on the floor and then scrawled on the kitchen wall, “The Hunter Was Here!”
Hunter looked at the window, worried he might get hurt if his blood soaked hands and shoes slipped on the sleek sink. Then he laughed. “No need for a window when you can walk out the door,” he said aloud to the three dead men. Hunter strode over to back door, undid the latch, and stepped out into the night without looking back.
It was raining again. The cool drops on his face soothed his heart and made him smile. He stretched his hands over his head and let the rain hit him in the face. He grabbed the patio chair, carried it to the back wall, and used it to help him climb over.
Abby’s eyelids were rough. Her throat tasted foul, probably from the late night coffee she’d downed just before going to sleep. She rolled her tongue in her cheek, hoping to generate some moisture. Still only partially conscious, she stretched out with her right hand, plodding the end table with her palm, searching for the blaring alarm clock. Her fingers connected with the plastic black box and, relying on muscle memory, she flicked the snooze switch.
Burying her face in the soft, fluffy pillows, she pondered staying in bed longer. Her hands found the covers and she tried to yank them up over her head, but they tangled in her legs. The pull left her right foot cold and exposed. She sighed and sat up. No use fighting it now.
Before going downstairs in search of breakfast she slid into her soft robe and white, cushy slippers. She could hear commotion coming from below. It sounded like there was a construction crew in the kitchen. “What’s Daddy up to now?” she thought.
“Abigail dear,” her father called from his study as she passed the second floor. “Come in here for a minute, Sweets.”
She was irritated to be derailed. She hated being summoned, especially in the morning.
“My dear,” he said in his thick Louisiana accent. “I’m sorry to slow you, but you can’t go down stairs just yet.”
Abby leaned against the door frame and stared at him with apathy, communicating with a role of her eyes that she didn’t have time for this delay.
Even though it wasn’t yet seven in the morning, Abby’s father was already in a suit. She rarely saw him outside of one. As was his typical style, the black coat was draped across the back of his large leather chair, his red tie was loosened at the neck just a tad, and his sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. His head of security, Michael something-or-other, was sitting across from him.
Abby never bothered to learn the helps’ names. They were her father’s toys, none of her concern. In moments of honesty, she would admit that they made her angry. There was never a modicum of privacy with all of them flitting about.
“Miss Abigail,” the security man said, nodding to her with a tight smile. He wore a well-tailored grey suit, white shirt, and expensive looking black dress shoes. His jaw was strong and his hair cut tight. She hated that he would dare look at her. Who did he think he was?
She didn’t look at the security man. Instead raised an eyebrow, directing her disgust at her father.
Reading the impatience of her body language, her father spoke again. “Dear, do you have somewhere to be? What is the hurry to go downstairs?”
“I’ve got work today, Daddy,” she said with exhaustion. Then adding with opportunistic, artificial innocence, “But if the kitchen is closed I’d be more than happy to go back to bed and blow off the shop today.”
Her father leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. He was a fit man, but not large or muscular. Nothing visible about him was imposing. “But Abigail,” he said with a smile, “what would people think?”
She grinned, “Maybe that a rich kid like me didn’t need a job?”
Her father smiled back. This conversation was a game they played routinely. Like studied chess masters, they both knew the coming moves. “But what about the plan, dear?” he said. Then he repeated each word with deliberate pause, “What about the plan?”
“I know, daddy,” she replied playfully. “The plan is important. The plan must be kept.”
“And what is the plan, Sweets?” he asked as if he’d never heard it before.
“Council, mayor, governor, president,” Abby chanted.
Her father repeated the words back slowly, with calculated purpose. “Council. Mayor. Governor. President.” Looking to his security guard he said, “Now Mr. Wellesley, don’t you think that is an excellent plan?”
“Yes, sir,” the security man snapped back. “An excellent plan.”
“And Sweets,” her father said leaning forward in mock confusion. “When exactly did this plan start?”
“Why, it started yesterday, Daddy,” Abby replied with a grin. She enjoyed this verbal play with her father. The answer was always “yesterday.” It was something her father had taught her when she was a little girl: always work like you’re playing catch up, especially when you’re killing the competition.
“Then you should absolutely go to work,” her father said smacking his desk with his hand. “Or what would the voters think?”
“This is why, dear father,” she said standing up straight like a soldier coming to attention, “I was headed downstairs. In order to arrive at work on time and impress the future voters who are already watching my every move, I must have a hearty breakfast.”
“Ahhh,” her father said, pointing two fingers at her like he always did when he was making a point. “And there is the rub. You see, last night three very terrible men attempted to break into our kitchen. Thankfully the brave Mr. Wellesley was here to stop them.”
The security guard beamed with pride.
“Unfortunately,” her father continued in a disappointed tone, “he made quite a mess doing so. Thus our kitchen is unavailable until the cleaners are through.”
Curiosity raged in her gut. There were a thousand questions she wanted to ask. Who were they? Did they know who her father was? Did the security man fight them off hand-to-hand? What time was this at? How did she sleep through all the excitement?
She knew her father would give her nothing, so she didn’t bother interrogating him. Although this frustrated her, on the outside she maintained her composure. She decided to try and get something out of the situation. “Well if I can’t go into the kitchen,” Abby said, “Then I’m going to have to stop for some coffee and a danish at Spoons.”
“I guess that is true,” her father said, clearly curious at where this was headed.
“Sadly,” Abby said sticking her bottom lip out in a pout, “I do not have any cash. What is a future President of the United States to do?”
Her father laughed and then looked at Mr. Wellesley again and said, “Can you believe this? Just a few years ago she was a sweet little thing without a care in the world. Now she’s an eighteen-year-old shark, using blood and tragedy to her advantage. I’m so proud.” He reached into his back pocket and produced two twenties. Extending them to her he said, “Have fun, Sweets. But make sure you get to work on time.”
“Thanks Daddy!” she said taking the cash and then happily walking back toward the stairs.
“Oh and Sweets,” her father called behind her. “You’ll be taking Mr. Wellesley with you today. If these children were brazen enough to come in through my kitchen window, then they’re brazen enough to try and snatch my baby girl off the street.”
Abby groaned and hung her head in frustration, but she didn’t reply. She knew there was no use arguing. Her father’s men didn’t answer to her. The security guy would follow her regardless of what she said.
Abby hated the coffee house, but she put on a happy face. As her father had said, working here wasn’t about the money. They had money. Working here was about resume building. Few stories played better than a wealthy girl sacrificing her time and energy to volunteer at a place designed to take care of suffering citizens.
The name of the coffee house was, “Today Free. Tomorrow Sold.” The well intending owner, a fiery redhead named Meg, had hoped to create a space where anyone could get a cup of coffee at any time, even if they couldn’t pay. Meg was a moderately successful artist and ex-school high school English teacher who wanted to change the city. Her idea was that if you couldn’t pay today, you would pay later when you were able. She hoped people would pass the kindness forward. Had it not been for a twenty-something hipster following who thought the concept was cool, the homeless of Baltimore would have drained the shop dry and sent Meg into bankruptcy years ago.
Abby looked out over the shop. There was nothing out of the ordinary for a Saturday morning. Three guys with overgrown breads and ironic hats sat at different tables typing away on their laptops. A sweating, overweight high-school boy with bad skin tried to make conversation with an average looking girl who didn’t realize until a few minutes ago that she was on an early morning date. Stinky Joe was half-asleep at the corner table. Crazy Will and Spencer the Laughing Bum were outside arguing about something inconsequential. These weren’t their real names, of course. These were the nicknames Abby gave them to pass the time. Then there was her father’s security guard. He sat at attention, taking up a table by the door, pretending to read the City Paper. Abby allowed herself a moment to glare at him with disdain.
The fresh pot of coffee finished percolating. She took it off the burner and crossed the room to refill Stinky Joe’s cup. He smelled like vomit and mold. “Thanks,” he mumbled through his haze.
She smiled back and said, “You’re welcome, Joe.” She knew he couldn’t remember her name, even though in more lively moments, he’d introduced himself to her over and over. “How are you feeling today?” she asked. “Um. Oh. Um. Fine. Fine,” he mumbled back.
The bell at the door rang, signaling a new customer’s arrival. Abby turned to look and see who was coming in. A scrawny African-American kid in a blue t-shirt and black running pants stepped into the shop and looked around. He wore a grey, ratty backpack. Abby laughed to herself at how her security detail looked the kid up and down, intensely assessing whether or not he was a threat.
“Seat yourself,” Abby called, heading back to the counter. She returned the coffee pot to its burner and grabbed a menu. “No way this kid’s paying,” she thought to herself as she crossed the room to the table he’d chosen. When she arrived at the table, she was surprised to see the kid reading a book. “Can I get you anything?” she asked as she lay the menu in front of him.
The boy looked up. Abby noticed a moment of hesitation in his eyes, but it vanished quickly. He put the book he was reading down and picked up the menu. “Um,” he said focusing on the menu, “I heard people can eat for free in here?”
“Coffee’s free,” Abby said, distracted by the book. “The food costs.” She couldn’t stop looking at it. It was “The Talented Mister Ripley.” She’d read it. Knew it well. What kept her attention was something familiar about that copy. She couldn’t help staring.
The boy saw her staring. He placed his hand on the book without breaking his gaze. “Just a coffee then,” he said looking her in the eyes firmly.
Abby looked back at him puzzled. She knew there were pieces to be put together, but she couldn’t get them to fit. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
She grabbed a mug from behind the counter and filled it. Then she returned to the unsettling kid. She put the mug on the table and sat down across from him. He was reading the book again. He didn’t acknowledge her.
“Are you reading that for school?” she asked.
“Nope,” he said plainly without looking up.
There was something about it. She just couldn’t get her mind to wrap around it. She didn’t understand why it was bothering her. It was just a beat-up paperback. “Did you get that from the library?” she asked.
“Nope,” the kid said again without looking up.
She huffed. She didn’t like being ignored. She wasn’t use to it. She was beautiful. She knew it. Usually boys like this one went out of their way to stare at her, to talk to her, to make her notice them. Here she was giving this one generous attention and he didn’t seem to care. It was off setting. “Can I see it?” she asked.
The boy slowly closed the book, and placed it between them on the table, and looked her in the eyes. His dark brown eyes pierced her. They reminded her of her father. There was far more growing inside this egg than the outer shell revealed. He drummed his fingers on the top of the book in a strange beat absent of rhythm. After a few seconds he slid the book to her with both hands. He continued lightly drumming on the table top.
Abby picked it up and flipped through the pages rapidly. There wasn’t anything special about it. Then something inside the front cover caught her eye. She opened it wide. There in the bottom corner was her small stamp: “Property of Abigail Deces”.
She drew a breath and placed the book on the table, leaned back in her chair, and folded her arms across her chest. “Now where exactly did you get that?” she said nodding at the book.
Cold, without fear or menace, the boy replied, “I took it from your room last night while you were sleeping.” His face showed no malice.
Abby’s eyebrows shot up. She tilted her head sideways. “You did?” Abby said surprised by his forthrightness.
She laughed to herself. She was safe in this public place, and she didn’t know why, but she liked him. Same as always, it’s the dangerous ones that seem to draw people in. Maybe it was his confidence. Or maybe it was his fearless honesty.
“What exactly were you doing in my room last night?” she said coyly. She turned her head slightly to make sure that Daddy’s body guard was watching the conversation from the corner.
“Just looking around,” the boy said with a grin.”
Abby leaned forward across the table. “You see that man over there by the door,” she whispered fiercely. “All it would take is one word from me and he’d come over here and tear your head from your neck.”
The boy leaned forward too, unshaken by her threat. Their noses were only inches apart. She could feel the warmth of his breath on her lips. “And then you would get blood on your book,” he said with a smile, calling her bluff.
She laughed, leaned back, and folded her arms again. “How exactly did you get out of my house last night?”
He mirrored her body language. “So, now you believe that I was in your house?”
“You have my book.”
“I took your book and walked out the back door.”
“No, no,” she said. “How’d you get away from Wellesley over there?” She motioned toward the security man with her head.
“I’ve never seen him before,” the boy said without looking at the man by the door.
She couldn’t tell if he was playing a game or telling the truth. She raised an eyebrow and asked, “You didn’t see him kill your three friends in my kitchen.”
“I saw three men and a dog die last night,” the boy said coldly. “But Mr. Fancy-Suit-No-Tie over there wasn’t around.”
“Can you prove that?” Abby asked with doubt.
The boy grinned with pride before moving. After a brief moment, he picked up his backpack off the floor, sat it in his lap, and unzipped the top compartment holding it open, but not letting her see.
“Why do I need to prove it to you? Won’t you be a little freaked out to find out the proof, and really understand that I stood in your room last night, sat on your couch, read your book?” He finished by nodding to the book still on the table.
“I’m not worried. Not even a little. I can guarantee that whatever happened last night will never happen again.”
Hunter’s mouth curled disbelief. He wondered how she could be so sure. She didn’t seem to be bluffing, or trying to intimidate him. She was just making a statement. He set the bag on the table and removed his hands.
She had to stand to look inside. Then she looked at him with a puzzled look.
“What would drug dealing gangers never be without?”
Smiled from ear to ear. It was her first honest smile of the morning. She extended her hand to him, “My name is Abigail. You can call me Abby.”
The boy shook her hand gently. “Hunter,” he said.
“I get off in four hours,” Abby said sweetly, holding his hand in both of hers. “I’d love for you to meet me at my house. I think my father would love to have a chat with you.”
The day droned on for Abby. She couldn’t wait to see how her father would handle the revelation of Hunter. The minute the clock clicked one in the afternoon, she tossed her apron behind the counter and walked out of the shop. She moved across the inner harbor at such a brisk pace, the security guard struggled to keep up.
As she approached her house, she didn’t see Hunter waiting. “That little jerk went in without me,” she complained aloud to herself.
“What was that?” Mr. Wellesley called from behind her.
“Oh nothing,” she said with glee. Then she added with a giggle, “You’ll see.”
She threw open the front door. Without breaking stride, she headed up the stairs. She found her father lying on the weight bench, doing a slow rep bench press, two fifty pound weights on each end. Hunter stood behind him in the spotter’s position. She looked at Hunter with disappointment. “I thought I told you to wait for me outside,” she said curtly.
Hunter smiled innocently back as if he didn’t understand what she was talking about, then added a wink.
She glared at him. She didn’t like being disobeyed.
Abby’s father did one final rep, placed the bar back in its holder, and sat up to face his daughter. “Now Sweets,” he said catching his breath, “Don’t be mad at the young lad. He was standing outside and I had him brought in. Couldn’t have him just sitting on the curb in front of the house. Besides, we’ve had a very nice chat. You did the right thing sending him to me.”
Her father looked past her to the security guard who was moving slowly up the stairs. “Ah, Mr. Wellesley,” he said pointing at the man with two fingers. “The hero of the house. Come in. Come in.”
Taking great pride at being called a hero by his boss, Mr. Wellesley marched into the room. He stood with his feet shoulder-width apart and his hands behind his back in a Parade Rest position. “Yes, sir,” he said respectfully.
“Did you know, Sweets,” Abby’s father continued, “That Mr. Wellesley used to work for the C-I-A?” He paused on each letter, to accent them.
“Why no, Daddy,” Abby responded innocently, “I did not know that.”
“And before that, Sweets,” her father continued, “he was a marine.”
Abby crossed the room to stand next to her father. She looked the security guard up and down. “Now I can see that, Daddy. He looks like a marine.”
“He was. He was indeed,” her father said in his thick southern drawl. “A very good marine too. Lots of medals and such.”
“Hmm,” Abby said taking great joy in this game. She had guessed the outcome from the moment she looked in Hunter’s bag. There was no mystery for her as to what was to happen next; but she loved how her father built anticipation for no other reason than his own amusement. He was like a cat with a mouse. It was unfortunate for Mr. Wellesley that he did not appear to have yet realized that he was the ill fated rodent.
“Did I tell you, Sweets, all about what Mr. Wellesley did for us last night?” her father said, not taking his eyes off the security guard.
“You did,” Abby said. “You most certainly did.”
“This I didn’t tell you, I’m sure. Do you know what he did that was so astute? Really above and beyond,” her father said.
“Why no, Daddy? What did he do that was so smart?”
“He emptied the three robber’s pockets for me. He brought me their wallets, and some rolls of cash, and even some small packets of drugs. Said he wanted to run a check on their identities, to make sure we were safe from further retaliation.”
“How can we thank him enough. Bad enough to have thieves, but drugs? Daddy, drugs? In our house?” she said with childlike surprise, savoring the growing tension. Drops of sweat were forming on Mr. Wellesley’s brow.
“They were indeed,” her father said. “In our house. He was a hero last night. He took care of everything. But, there is one thing that has puzzled me, Sweets. Just one thing. It’s a small thing really.”
“What’s that, Daddy?”
“Well, Sweets, they didn’t have any cell phones. Mr. Wellesley searched and searched, but none were to be found. Have you ever known a drug dealer to go without a cell phone? I mean, that’s the one link to his livelihood”
Mr. Wellesley looked over his shoulder toward the stairs. Two more men from his team of security guards, both in suits exactly like his, had silently taken up a strategic position in the small hallway behind him. They were blocking any hope of escape. Wellesley nodded to himself and looked forward again. His lips moved into a tight, small line of resolve. He understood now.
“It was this fine young man here that solved the mystery for me,” Abby’s father continued. “He brought me this lovely bag of phones and explained everything.” Reaching under the weight bench he retrieved the three cell phones. He tossed two at Mr. Wellesley’s feet, but held onto one, lifting it up in the air as if he were examining an alien artifact. “I was shocked,” he said. “Just plain shocked by this young man’s story.”
“It is shocking,” Abby said with a wide eyed smile, staring at Mr. Wellesley.
“And this made me think,” her father said. “If it was he,” gesturing with the phone to point at Hunter, “who was here to collect the phones, where exactly was Mr. Wellesley last night?”
“That is an excellent question, Daddy,” Abby said.
“So I began looking through the phones. I thought, maybe I’ll find an answer in these magical phones. And you know what? I found something.”
“Oh Daddy. That’s wonderful,” Abby said, smiling at the security guard. “Tell me what you found, Daddy. Please tell me.”
“I’ll show you,” Abby’s father said. “Watch this.” Then with is thumb, he gently touched the screen of the phone in his hand. A buzz went off in the security guard’s pocket. The two men in the hall inched forward; but before they could pounce, Abby’s father reached down with the speed of a pouncing cheetah. He dug his hand into a small white towel balled at his feet. Just as quickly, he popped back up to a sitting position. He extended a hand to the guard standing directly behind him. Without a word, the guard handed him a slender black barrel.
Mr. Deces slowly rose with a black revolver in his hand and screwed on the silencer.
He walked forward, arm extended out in front of him, until the barrel of the silenced pistol bumped against Wellesley’s forehead. Both men’s gaze never broke contact, and without a blink or pause, he fired a single shot. A muffled puffing sound and an orange flash threw Mr. Wellesley’s body back into the corner of the room.
Abby looked into the mirror on the wall across from them at Hunter. The boy hadn’t flinched at the gun shot. She smiled at him with respect, one predator to another.
“Good help is so hard to find these days,” her father said standing. “Gentlemen,” he called to the two men in the hallway. “Please call the cleaners back. It appears this morning when they were working on the kitchen, they missed a body.” He extended his hand and the closest guard took the pistol.
He then turned to Hunter and extended his hand for a shake. “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced,” he said. “My name is Ignatius. Ignatius Deces. My friends call me Iggy. But you can call me Sir. I will assume that you are “The Hunter”, referred to by the message eloquently scribbled in blood.”
Hunter took Mr. Deces’ hand and shook it firmly. “Hunter Stockton, Sir,” the boy replied.
“Well, Hunter,” Mr. Deces continued as he turned and walked toward his study. “How would you like a job?” He took a seat behind his desk and swiveled in his large, leather chair to face the doorway as Hunter entered the room.
“That would be excellent sir, are you offering me a job?” Hunter said.
“Yes, my boy, yes I am,” Deces said with a smile.
Hunter and Abby followed Mr. Deces down the hall. “I’d like that very much. I’m your boy,” Hunter said.
Mr. Deces smacked his office desk with his hand. “Excellent!” he exclaimed. Then pointing two fingers at Hunter, he continued, “Welcome to the family. I’ve got some big plans, and you are the perfect person. We need to work on your signature though,” he leaned back in his chair and placed his hands on his head. “The whole writing in blood thing is a messy business. Have you thought about business cards?” He finished with a grin.
Abby moved to stand behind her father’s chair. “Oh I like that, Daddy,” she said. “Simple. Just with the name ‘Hunter’ on them. Maybe on white linen stock?”
“Beautiful idea, Sweets. I’ll have some made up right away.”
Hunter’s heart tingled in his chest. He drummed his fingers on his pants legs. He knew that finally, at long last, he had found his thing, and he was going to earn some respect.