Larry knew perfectly well that he wasn't supposed to be outside right now. It wasn't his official break time. It was against regulations to take a break when it wasn't your turn. The kind of trespass that could guarantee an aggressive and permanent early retirement. Still, he couldn't be bothered about any of this. He had an excuse ready, even if it wasn't a very good one. If Marty asked, he would just refer him to Carl. He had been there with him for the whole terrible episode. The awful events of the day before that were still intruding blindly on anything else that he tried to think of. To Larry, it was still more than a legitimate reason for pausing in his duties to have a cigarette. His fourteenth of the day. He tried to get all of his smoking done in the early morning, before he reported for duty. It was like trying to exorcize the fear before having to actually face it. And this usually worked. On a good day, it was an easy goal to come by.
He took a nervous drag from his cigarette. He could still see that kid in his mind. Right around the corner of every thought he had that tried to get him away from it. The code-six-blue-nine-three-red-square. The one who wouldn't stop scowling or screaming threats about knowing the right people. The leather jacket that was a good three or four sizes too big wrapped around his small frame even though it was spring. And, of course, those stolen CDs he was holding onto. Ten in all. That jacket of his had afforded all sorts of hiding places. It scared him to death then and terrified him now wondering what went through that kids mind. How he could've actually believed that he was going to get away with it. That someone could be so arrogant just didn't seem plausible. Even worse, he was forced to wonder if it was the opening bell to some kind of new trend of dumb-as-hell underage criminals guaranteed to succeed because they had the numbers on their side.
Would he have to deal with scum like this on an hourly basis?
He looked out to the sky. It was beautiful. Always looking good when the rest couldn't match up. Clouds and all. He took one more drag for the road and asked God to watch out for him. Protect him from the fury of possibility. On his end, he would do the best he could to make sure everything held together while it was under his watch.
The cigarette was crushed into one of the pre-established ashtrays. As he turned to walk back inside, his left hand clutched his holster. Not a day went by where he didn't have to think that someday soon, the pepper spray was going to save his life. Knowing this was just one more thing about the job.
He made it back to his post without being detected. He was kind of surprised. But it was still one of those small victories that were admirable in its own way. He allowed himself to breathe properly. Calmly. Roll with this little bout of good fortune as best he could. Maybe, this was a sign that things were going to pick up. Even if the day was half over. Maybe, that kid was just an isolated incident. He smiled and adjusted his hat. Things were rather quiet. He suspected the cause for this to be the fact that it was Wednesday. This was a typically slow shopping day. The kids didn't appear in too great of a number. It was never anything overwhelming. Anyone did stop in was clearly there for a quick purpose. Their legs and faces carrying the necessity to pick up one or two items and move along as quickly as possible. Only hardcore losers hung out at the mall on a Wednesday afternoon. Very few people were tired enough to not care one way or another if they were that kind of outcast. Larry felt like he could live with a routine like this. It also struck him as being more important on this particular day. He wasn't sure why.
He felt the nearly full cigarette pack in his left breast pocket. If everything ran well enough, then he wouldn't have to even think about having another smoke. Typically, though not all the time, the job had an unspoken requirement that he take a cigarette break every half-hour. That wasn't including the countless others he went through before and after he went to work.
Maybe today could start things off towards saving a little money.
And besides, he had done the job yesterday. That much was certain. He'd taken that kid down. As horrible a task as it was. The future, the rising generation, all of it terrified him completely, but if he could do it today, right now, there was no reason to believe that it couldn't be handled again and again. On a day when that kind of action wasn't even guaranteed to begin with, he tried to hold onto the question of exactly what it was he should be worried about right now.
He glanced at his watch. It was two forty-five. In fifteen minutes, the curfew program would go into effect. A grin moved slowly across his face. This had to be another sign, even if it happened every day at the exact same time. It had to be the best ideas the boys from upstairs had ever come up with. Supposedly, they were the only location in the area to put the curfew in so early. Three o'clock. That was the starting point. When anyone under the age of eighteen had to be accompanied by a legal guardian. When they would start carding the living hell out of anyone who so much as looked like they were even an hour younger than the legal limit to be left alone. The other places he was aware of didn't start theirs until six. His place was different. He took pride in this. As he knew he should.
"Who's on main entrance duty today?"
The voice came from behind him. It startled him for a second, but he recovered just as quickly and didn't make it look obvious. He turned around, grinned, and shrugged. "Dammed if I know, Carl." He paused, thinking about it for a second. "I know it ain't me." It really wasn't. His turn had been yesterday. If they asked him to take on an extra day though, he knew that he would go for it and be glad to have the chance. Without question, it was the most important responsibility of the job. Not something you just handed to any jackass with a badge.
Carl nodded and took a place standing right next to him. "Well, Marty ain't said nothin yet. I tried to get him on the radio, but he ain't answerin." He nodded and looked down at his watch. "And if it's me, I wanna know, so I can get there a couple minutes early."
"What for?" Larry asked, keeping an eye on two kids who went into one of the shoe stores. Come three o'clock, if they were still in the store, he would have to go in there and tell them to move along. They didn't look too threatening.
"Cause I wanna look confident, ya know?" He put one hand on his belt and adjusted his hat with the other. "I wanna have a minute to, you know, get my shit together. Let them kids know I'm dead serious."
Larry nodded. Carl had always had the best philosophy for the job. Five years. More than enough time to qualify him for the status of grizzled veteran. "Where you supposed to be at right now?"
"Near the One Buck store," he replied. "I was on my way there now, then I saw you, and I figured I'd ask you about the main entrance thing."
"I have no idea," Larry said. "But if he calls me I'll let you know for sure."
Carl reached out and patted him on the back. "Thanks, man. I'll see you at lunch." He turned and started to walk away.
Watching him leave, he couldn't help but smile again. Maybe, someday, he would get to where Carl was. That place you could get to without necessarily being the man in charge. He reached into his breast pocket and clutched the cigarettes. Another hour of feeling like this, and he wanted to believe that he would actually consider throwing them in the garbage. He let the cigarettes go and straightened up.
That shoplifter had been a blessing in disguise.
Those two kids left the shoe store just a minute before three. Larry watched them as they made their way to the nearby south entrance. He shook his head and a sigh escaped him. He had actually gotten himself to hope that he would have had to bring them in. He suddenly wanted that opportunity. The chance to prove to himself that he really was going to shake this thing up a little bit. It was all well and good to try and convince yourself that things were going to move forward. Especially in the face of an episode like the one he had faced yesterday. Another thing entirely when it came to putting it into action. He saw that part as his own responsibility. It was his deal and no one else's.
The two kids would have been a good place to start. But clearly, they weren't troublemakers, and Larry was mostly grateful for that by the same token.
He wondered if it would be possible to gain the same feeling of personal satisfaction from going through a day that simply fell under the category of uneventful.
He had his doubts about that.
The mall was starting to fill up a little. It happened. And usually, it happened out of nowhere. One minute, it was a ghost town where even the ghosts had better things to do than hang around. The next minute, it was February pretending it was Christmas Eve. Most of the new faces seemed to be senior citizens. Any kids he could spot appeared to have a legal guardian of some kind by their side. Not a massive number, but still somewhat impressive for the middle of the week. This wasn't completely odd. But it wasn't the usual either.
He put a hand over his bottle of pepper spray. This was it. The opportunity he had gone over in his mind all day. What redemption would be like if there was something truly serious going on. Because he knew that eventually, this decent-sized, unexpected crowd would spark an important, reaction-worthy scenario. It was the nature of the job. The whole damn thing could change at any second. You could either be ready for it on a second-to-second basis, or you could just find something else to do for a living.
"How bout this crowd, Corgan? Over."
Larry took out his walkie-talkie and hit the button. "Sir? Over."
"Yeah," Marty said, his voice rising against the crowd yammering in the background. "You got a lot on your end? Over."
Though he did, Larry didn't want to alarm him. Marty sounded a little nervous anyway. He always did when the uncertain came into the picture. Keep it simple. Don't scare the poor guy. "I got a few over here, but it's nothing huge. Over."
"Keep your focus on your door, Corgan," he said. "I got a feeling somethin's gonna go down. Over."
Not a problem. He loved these conversations. Not once could he ever remember one of them failing to give him just the right shot of confidence when everything else was trying to kick hiss ass. "Will do, sir." He was about to add the over and out, but a thought occurred to him. "Does Carl need any help at the main entrance? Over."
"Naw. I got Michaels and Hart with him. He should be fine. Over."
Michaels and Hart? Larry almost burst out laughing. They were rookies! Lazy, half-retarded kids you wouldn't trust with the recycling. At best. It bothered him a little that no one had called on him instead. He kept this complaint to himself and nodded into the walkie-talkie. "Just checking. I'll stick to the door. Over."
"Good," he replied. "But make sure you're checking everyone else, too. Over."
"Yes, sir. Over."
"Good," he said again. "Call me if anything comes up." He coughed. "Over and out."
The walkie-talkie went back into its holster. His eyes moved over the crowd and to the door. It wasn't really that far off. He moved closer towards it anyway. He didn't expect much on his end. Historically, for whatever reason, the south entrance was only popular as a way of getting out. If you wanted to avoid the crowds. No one ever really bothered with it as a means of getting in because of the poor parking on that side.
It was still worth watching. Though he still believed the real action was already inside the building.
He noticed a couple of young, probably college kids, walking out of Victoria's Secret. They were arguing relentlessly. Throwing in bits of profanity he could hear even from where he stood. The first temptation was to go over and ask them to get rid of the foul language. There were children around. Obscenity rules were there for a reason. But he resisted the urge. They were already moving out of his sight, and he didn't want to leave his post for something as simple as code five-red-two-eight-blue-triangle.
Of course, if they were foolish enough to come back his way, if the swearing was still a problem, then it would be go time without a doubt.
Things moved slowly after that. Even with the minimum surplus of shoppers, the general, unspoken consensus of getting what they really needed and leaving as quickly as possible still hung over the crowd like a lazy air conditioner. On virtually any other day this would be more than fine. Even two hours ago. This would have worked for him. Larry had never considered himself to be one of those officers who went out their way to create an incident to take credit for. He was willing to consider it now. The small comfort about that was in knowing this interest wasn't choking on some kind of bullshit desperation for public glory.
He wanted to do something. Create the appropriate scenario. But he couldn't. Something held him back every time he tried to look for the slightest crime. Any mostly imagined offense to the sanctity of the building. It started to drive him crazy. Was he that honest? He never really thought about it. The basics of the job had always been easy because it was always kept to the basics. Going with whatever his instincts had in mind. He had never trained himself to think like this.
He never got around to answering himself. A real mean looking little bastard of a kid suddenly came into view. The only reason Larry noticed him at all was the hat. On it was the logo of his old high school. It was always kind of cool to see that. He didn't come into contact that sort of thing everyday anymore. Back in his time, no one at his school went to this mall. Everyone would go to the Century building about twenty miles away. Century had closed a little while ago. It was still was rare to see kids from his old haunting grounds around these parts. They seem to have much more interesting things to do.
The kid stopped near a bench. Larry wondered who was in charge of this potential disaster. There was always the chance that he had come with someone Larry had gone to school with. Six years had gone by since graduation. He didn't keep in touch with very many people. Only two kept in touch on a regular basis. One of them was his wife. Most of his graduating class had gone on to one or two children too many. He was still in the ever-shrinking group of holdouts. The ones who were too busy pursuing careers in either the exotic dancing or foodservice industries. What the hell. It might be interesting to see who this kid belonged to. Making a guess just from what was in front of him was proving tough. He didn't look like anything special. Pretty much the same as any other ugly kid getting uglier. Still, he wanted to figure it out anyway. An old girlfriend? Larry laughed. Right. Good chance of that.
The kid didn't move from his spot near the bench, and he was starting to look around casually. At first, Larry had thought that he was just waiting. Though it did enter his mind that this kid had no idea as to where he was supposed to be. The theory was then confirmed as quickly as it had appeared. He finally left his spot near the bench. Effortlessly weaving in and out of the crowds around him. Quickly leaving Larry's sight.
And this was it, wasn't it?
As close as it was probably going to get today.
Code two-orange-seven-three-blue-square. The great opportunity, even if it didn't promise a great deal of action. He glanced behind his shoulder at the south entrance. He didn't want to leave it wide open. Never mind how rare its use was. But he couldn't see an alternative. He couldn't follow the kid and make sure the door remained secure at the same time. Calling someone to cover his spot was out of the question. Not only was everyone busy, but Marty would probably demand he turn the code over to him. This in of itself was impossible. It was quickly forcing Larry to make a choice. Just before the kid disappeared around a corner, he went into pursuit. His hand was on the pepper spray. Even though he was fairly certain that he wouldn't actually need it.
He switched off the radio. A tremendous breach of standard operating procedure. A heavy, heavy violation, to be sure, but he was willing to take the chance. Ten minutes wasn't going to break the bank or damage anyone in the long run. It couldn't. Not today. And anyway, Marty was known to go his entire lunch break with his radio dial on the off side. That wasn't exactly within the rules either.
At the moment, it was important to somehow walk both slowly yet still quickly enough to see his target. He didn't want to catch the kid outright. It was too simple that way, and he wanted some degree of a challenge to be attached to it. He also didn't want to risk running into the parents or legal guardians running into trailing the hell out their kid. Idiots and other losers who clearly didn't know any better never really understood what it was he and the rest of the crew did for a living and for their own good. Nor did they ever want to.
The lack of respect for the badge was staggering at times.
Every minute or so, the kid would stop to look around. This gave Larry a better chance to get a more decent look at him. He couldn't have been older than nine or ten. He was rather short, thin. He looked and moved like just about any other white kid who fancied themselves a brutal, hardened thug from South Central L.A. He also looked like he had the IQ of a carrot. Hell, the little bastard probably couldn't even read.
If it did in fact turn out to be the son of someone he had gone to school with, it wouldn't have surprised him in the least. Nothing ever changed in that goddamned pit.
The possibility of being spotted by Marty or one the boys was on his mind. Ignoring it was impossible. He still tried to keep it in the absolute back of his mind. No other choice. It was ruthlessly interfering with the moment at hand. What he had to do. It had to be ignored. As did any other crime that might be going on around him.
They were near the movie theater now. The crowd was unusually large today.
In the end, all of it had to move off to the side and stay there until further notice. Marty or someone else was inevitable. For now though, this was his deal, his show. He had to run it his own way.
He paused for a second.
Goddamn it. No.
His gaze went into an automatic frenzy of searching and scanning the onslaught moving in and out of the theater's main entrance. He couldn't see him anymore. He couldn't find him anywhere. The kid was gone. He was gone, and Larry couldn't even begin to kid himself otherwise when it came to whose fault that was. This never fucking happened. Never. Even on the worst day. Even—
There he was, coming out clean on the other side of a congregation of senior citizens standing in a very poorly maintained line to buy tickets. Larry immediately pulled his desperation back, but he held on to enough of it to know that he couldn't let this happen again. Not even for a second. There was no choice at this juncture but to move in for the kill. Take the kid down and get some answers. Fucking up again was out of the question. He wasn't going to lose him to any kind of obscene circumstance or shot of bad luck. He picked up the speed of his walking and extended an arm. The plan was to grasp the kid by his shoulder and bring him to a gentle stop.
The kid still hadn't noticed him. Larry planned to use this to his advantage. The way a good cop did.
"Excuse me," he managed, realizing how out of breath he had suddenly become. His fingertips brushed the kid's shoulder and it took an extra gasp of effort to reach out far enough to actually clutch the right shoulder of the black hoodie. "Excuse me," he said again. "Excuse me, son."
Third time around finally did the trick. The kid stopped abruptly. As though Larry had actually used real force. He whirled around with eyes far angrier than anyone could guess on his age alone. "My name ain't son, man. It's Thom."
The gesture startled him. His eyes had more to do with that than anything else. Larry let go of his shoulder. The speech was forming in his mind. By the book, he reminded himself. Nice, easy, and straight from the book. "Okay."
"With an h, man," he went on, looking around wildly. He was either looking for someone who could help him or a way he could get out of this on his own. "With an h."
He nodded again. This was the easy part. Once you had the perpetrator under control, the rest generally fell into place. "Whatever you say, Thom." He checked out his surroundings as well. He was still hoping for a parent to magically appear. The job was half-done. It could even be theoretically completed without having to call Marty or someone else. A full minute waiting for someone to notice them went by. No one showed up, and Larry decided to proceed on his own. He could still create a pocket of time, possibility, by going into the speech necessary for this sort of incident. "Where's your mom and dad, Thom?"
Thom shrugged. "I'm supposed to meet them somewhere."
His legs were killing him. Too much fast walking in such a short space of time. But there really wasn't anywhere to sit down. "Do you know where you're supposed to meet them?"
Thom shook his head. "I dunno, man. They said a store or something, but I don't remember." He shook his head again. "I don't come here, man." He shrugged. "This ain't my place, man."
"Call me sir," he snapped without realizing it. "I'd appreciate that."
Thom stopped looking around for a second and stared at him. A slight scowl flashed across his red-faced features. "Whatever you want." He paused. "Sir," he added slowly.
Mockingly? It was possible. The stupid little shit. Larry didn't have time to be sure. His hands and knees were already starting to sell him out. Weakness ran over and through them relentlessly. More than anything else, he needed one of those terrible benches placed strategically throughout the mall. The food court with its equally wretched steel chairs would work, too. He took a quick, deep breath. He didn't want this kid, Thom, with an h, to be aware of the fear running through him. The way he got whenever he was in the thick of what his job was all about. He couldn't believe now that he had actually convinced himself just a few seconds ago that it wasn't going to happen this time. "Do you think they might be here?" he asked. "Do you think this is where they asked you to meet them?"
The cigarettes were weighing down his shirt. Larry saw one more possibility they could try. After that, he would have to very seriously consider taking the kid around until they found someone. "Do you have a cell phone? Do your parents have one?"
"What the fuck, man," he said, his voice climbing almost instantly to a shout. "Do I look like I can afford a motherfucking cell phone?"
Actually, he did, but Larry decided not to say anything.
At least twenty people paused in their activities to stare. Larry more or less did the same thing, even though there was nothing confusing about this. It was a code nine-blue-two-four-blue-circle. Different from a code five-red-two-eight-blue-triangle because it involved a child instead of a couple. But this was so unexpected, so absolutely random, that he was unable to react to the code. His cigarettes were getting heavier, and the pain in his knees almost sounded like background music. The fear was almost completely in control now. All he had left were the simple, basic reaction skills they had taught him at the academy. He was still aware of the eyes on him, as he reached out to take Thom by the shoulder. He was going to direct him to move him away from the scene. Find a bench or table at all costs. If memory served, and at the moment, it wasn't being all that loyal in this respect, there was one about forty-seven and half feet ahead. They just had to work their way through some of the audience, against Thom's struggling and the threat of Marty or someone else spotting them.
"What the fuck?" Thom said, when Larry gently put a hand on his shoulder. He pushed the hand away and stood back. "Don't you touch me, motherfucker," he yelled, screaming by this point with a pitch that pretty much finished off whatever thug credibility this kid could ever hope to have. "I ain't like that."
Everyone was staring now. Larry was pretty sure of this. He went to say something, assure this obscenity-laced child that nothing like that was going on. He'd also tell him that they could discuss this further, but that they needed to leave right away. When he spoke though, the only thing that came out was a mutter. His hand brushed against the holster holding his radio. He switched the damn thing on. He didn't think about it.
"Goddamn it, Corgan, I—"
Amazingly, Larry was able to not only pick up the radio but to speak into it as well. He glanced at the kid and started formulating an informal report. Thom looked back at him with full circle contempt. Way too much hate in that kid's eyes. Almost worse than what Marty was waiting to get off his chest. "I'm here, sir. Over."
"No, you're not here," he replied, slowly, pronouncing the words carefully. He liked to save the gesture for the moments when he was so angry people around him would swear it was cutting into the air conditioning. "You're somewhere else. You're not at your post. You're not where you're supposed to be." He was quiet for a second. "Where are you, Corgan? Over."
His gaze moved to the ground. He couldn't stand to look at Thom any longer. Ten years from now, fifteen, and he was going to read about him in the newspaper. "I'm near the movie theater with a Code two-orange-seven-three-blue-square. No parents anywhere, though the perp claims they're on the premises. I was about to call for back up. Over."
"Never mind that," Marty snapped over the pops and static. "We've got a goddamn nightmare on our hands, near your post at the south entrance. Over."
He almost dropped the radio. "W-what do you mean? Over."
"Code One-black-two-three-black-x. Over"
This time, he did drop the radio but managed to scoop it up before it touched the ground. Not that. It couldn't be. Not today. His hand shook so much that he could barely keep his index finger on the button. "Jesus Christ, sir. I—"
"You're in big goddamned trouble, Corgan," he yelled. "Big goddamned trouble. Over."
"Sir?" He held onto the radio as though it was the only thing keeping him from falling off the top of the tallest skyscraper in the world. The only way to keep it from falling out of his hand. It was going to do that again, without question, if he didn't. When Marty didn't reply, he hit the button again. "Over."
"We've got at least twenty goddamned kids near the entrance, Corgan," he said, shouting. "Twenty-goddamned kids, Corgan!" he repeated. "And do you know how they got in here Corgan? Do you? Over."
Thom was still staring at him with the look of a man, not a kid, but a man who was cursing the bad luck of not having a firearm nearby. "Can I fucking go now, man?" he asked. "Are you done with me yet?"
Larry ignored him. For a second, he wanted to kill the kid. Mace him, at least. He did neither one of these things. "Sir, I don't—"
"Can I go now?" Thom asked once again.
"They came through the door Corgan," he cried. "Through the goddamned door!" Larry wasn't sure, but Marty was possibly sobbing as he said this. His mind wasn't ready to register something like that. He didn't push it either. "I mean, my god, this has to be one of the most horrible goddamned things I've ever seen. They're walking around, standing in little clumps in the middle of the area, making out, laughing, talking." He paused and there was the sound of jackal laughter in the pop song background. "Considering purchases, Corgan! They might actually buy somethin. I mean, Jesus Christ-almighty, they're making a mockery of our system! Laying it to waste right in front of me! And I only got two guys with me! We can't defend the whole thing by ourselves, we just can't! Over."
"Man," Thom said. "You even listening to me?"
Larry turned away from Thom. He didn't care if the little shit made a run for it. "Do you want me to get over there, sir? Over."
Marty came back with what had to be the most openly sarcastic laugh Larry could ever remember hearing in his entire life. "Sure, Corgan, why not?" He didn't sound like he was crying anymore, but Larry couldn't put a precise tab on the emotion at hand. "It'll be a good way for you to cap off your last day with us. Helping out at your old post. Over."
Turning around, Larry saw that Thom had left. Finally, he supposed. He hit the button to reply to what Marty had just said. Marty always been the kind of person to follow through a promise or declaration, wasn't he? Larry nodded, as though someone was there with him. Yeah. He surely was. He let go of the button. He wanted to sit down. Better yet, go outside. The cigarettes were at a point where they could possibly pull his chest apart if he kneeled down. Four or five would have to be knocked off before he could even think about trusting his nerves to some task like driving a car or breathing in his sleep.
It had been a long time since the choice of what to do on a workday had been left up to him. The last time had been shortly after high school was mostly dead and partially buried. Back when he was just another stupid kid with nothing to do and no desire to change that any particular speed. He had put those reckless days behind him a long time ago. Though once in awhile, nightmares as simple as just being another mid-twenties misfit with no job and half a decent pulse kept him busy on those slow nights when there was nothing to do but talk at length with his fears. It was only going to get worse from here. At least, for awhile. Knowing this was bad enough already. Larry could barely imagine how sadistic it would be tomorrow.
He thought about all of this. The prospect of going outside, where he could enjoy a final few minutes of being able to ignore the problems that were going to mount over the coming weeks. He pushed the idea and its infinite appeal aside. Just for another hour. Slowly, he put the radio back into its holster and set his shaking hands to his sides.
There was still a job to do.
Keeping the can of mace on his mind, he started for the south entrance.
Gabriel Ricard is a writer, actor, stand-up comedian, and journalist in Savannah, GA. He works for Unlikely Stories and writes for The Modest Proposal.
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this Piece
Poor Mojo's Tip Jar: