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a mystery by Martin Green
Jenny had been more upset about my being laid off than I was. I’d been Assistant Art Director at a small advertising agency in Sacramento. She blamed my boss, the Art Director, saying he’d fired me because he was afraid I’d take his job. Maybe she was right, but I was glad to get out of the place. Things had become pretty tense. I’d never been one for confrontations.
“What are you doing today?” Jenny asked me.
“Not much. Maybe I’ll go down to the school and shoot some baskets. I could use some exercise.” It was too early, I thought, to start the arduous task of looking for another job.
“Sounds good,” said Jenny. “I’ve made you French toast. With bacon.”
Jenny was as understanding as a wife could be. “You doing anything today?” I asked.
“I have something to take care of.”
The school was our old high school, only a few blocks away. Looking for my old basketball after breakfast, I couldn’t help thinking of our old gang: Jenny, her brother Jerry, Bob Hoskins and Stu Baker. We’d all grown up in the same Sacramento suburb and had been together since grade school. We’d really come together, I thought, when something happened to Jenny. I was about ten so she was eight years old . Karl Dugan, a real mean older kid, maybe 12, had stopped her and demanded her bicycle. Jenny wasn’t about to give it up so he’d knocked her down. Luckily, a neighbor had come along then and Karl had run off.
Jenny was still bruised and muddy when we gathered at her house. “Don’t worry,” said her brother Jerry. “I’ll take care of that guy.”
The next day Jerry called out Karl Dugan after school. Karl was there, looking as mean as usual, with three of his henchman. He was two inches taller than Jerry and twenty pounds heavier. Jerry had always been thin and wiry. I was there, despite my fear of confrontation, with Bob and Stu and also Jenny, to back up Jerry.
“You’re almost as small as your little sister,” Karl sneered. He launched a roundhouse right at Jerry’s head. Jerry ducked and then he hit Karl, short hard jabs, so fast you could hardly see them. Karl stopped fighting and put his hand up to his bloody nose. “I’m bleeding,” he wailed. His henchmen stepped forward and so did we. “Ah, let’s get out of here,” said Karl. “They ain’t worth it. I gotta take care of my nose.”
The old high school looked pretty much the same except that it was smaller than I remembered it. The baskets looked about the same, too, bent rims and only one with a net and that was frayed. I took some shots and remembered that I’d never been a good shooter. The real basketball player in our gang was Bob Hoskins. He was tall enough but slender; he was also a dead shot. He was on the freshman basketball team and then as a sophomore he made the varsity and he thought he might even have a chance for a college scholarship, that is, until a new coach, Chip Thomas, came along.
Coach Thomas had come from somewhere in Southern California. He was one of those little bantam rooster guys who strutted around and got into his players’ faces. He wanted his team to be tough and, I guess because Bob played a finesse game, he got down on him. That incident with Karl Dugan had cemented the friendship among our little gang and when we got together Bob told us he thought Coach Thomas was going to bench him. “There goes any chance of a scholarship,” he said.
“We should do something about him,” Jerry said.
“What can we do?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something.”
The next week Coach Thomas’s rented house caught fire and burnt to the ground. This must have really got to him because he abruptly quit, saying he was going back to Southern California. The assistant coach took over the team and Bob remained as a starter. He got a partial scholarship to a small college. We never did talk about that fire, which went unexplained, but I had my ideas about it.
After half an hour or so I’d worked up a sweat. I sat down on one of the benches by the courts. My mind again went back to our high school days. By the time I was a senior, gangs had started to invade our school. These kids weren’t just bullies like Karl Dugan, they carried switchblades and I suspected a couple had guns. They began to extract money from the other kids. Our little gang escaped them for a while, maybe because we were usually together. But then Piggy Tarentino, the gang leader, and his thugs spotted Stu Baker by himself one day and threatened him, probably because he was small, wore glasses and was what’s nowadays called a nerd. He was to give them $50 the next day or get beaten up, maybe worse.
That evening our gang got together as usual and Stu told us about his predicament. “I don’t have $50,” said Stu. “I’m doomed. Those guys are tough, really tough..”
“Don’t worry,” said Jerry. “I’ll take care of it.”
“You can’t fight them,” said Stu. “They have guns and knives. You’ll be killed.”
“I don’t think so,” said Jerry. “Don’t forget I can be pretty tough, too We’ll see tomorrow.”
But there was no confrontation the next day. That night someone went into the gang’s territory and shot up Piggy Tarentino. I don’t know how long Piggy was in the hospital, but he never did come back to school and without him the gang sort of disintegrated. The police put down the shooting to a rival gang. No one was ever arrested. The Avenger had struck again, I thought to myself.
I was going to take a shower when I got home, but as soon as I got in the door the phone rang. It was Jerry. “Hi, buddy,” he said. “How ya doing?”
“I hear you got fired.”
“It was that lousy boss of yours, right?”
“Yeah, but look, I don’t want you to go after him with a gun.”
“Go after him with a gun? Why would I do that?”
“Well, you know, like what happened to that gang kid, Piggy.”
“I never went after Piggy with a gun.”
“Then who shot him?”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t me.”
“You mean you’re not the one who torched Coach Thomas’s house and shot Piggy?”
“No. Where did you get that wild idea?”
“Our gang. I thought you were the Avenger.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Wait a minute.” I’d just had a thought. If it wasn’t Jerry, then… “I gotta go now,” I said. I hung up, went up to the bedroom and looked into my desk. Sure enough, the gun was gone. Jenny had said she had something to take care of. I looked at my watch. It was probably too late by now.
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