They Walk Among Us, Chapter One: The Feeble Geezer

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“Don’t even think about it,” B.J. remarked quietly.

I turned to look at him, taking my attention from the ancient white geezer caning it down the street. I had time. The old hobbling fool wasn’t moving fast enough for time lapse photography to measure his progress.

Giving my mentor my best look of wide-eyed innocence, I asked, “Think about what?”

“You know what, boy.”

Well…okay. I did know what. I knew, for example, that nobody in the world but B.J. Hennessey could get away with calling me boy. I stand six feet two in my bare feet, two hundred pounds of rock hard muscle developed in the HAIF workshops. At twenty-three, single, college educated, no accidental babies–that I knew of, anyway–I was all man.

Thing is, B.J. stands for Big Jude. He’s my uncle by blood, in some ways my real father, and he makes me look like a midget. Don’t think anybody’s ever put a tape on him, but if he’s anything under six-eight and three hundred, I’ll eat my welding mask. As the founder and sole owner of Hennessey Artistic Iron Fabrication, HAIF, he’d faced down and beat more obstacles–including City Hall–than you could shake a stick at.

I also knew uncle B.J. didn’t tolerate fools, and yeah, I’d been thinking about mugging the old white man. That guy didn’t belong here, deep in the parts of Hartford where the cops told visiting whiteys,

“Go another route, back uptown, anywhere. We don’t want to be hauling your dead carcass out of this area, okay?”

Heck, I wasn’t figuring to kill the old coot, just roll him. Unless of course he had a heart attack during the process.

But B.J., he could read me like a book. Mom had raised me out west, cooking for a Mormon rancher near the Mormon town of Rexburg, Idaho. Them Mormons had been pretty good people, overall, and I’d anchored the line for our high school football team, the only black dude on the squad and by far the most effective blocker. Not the fastest runner–another myth, we ain’t all got wheels–but protect the quarterback? You betcha.

I’d been what they called “gifted” in school, too…until boredom and a need to test my limits had encouraged me to turn myself into something of a minor criminal celebrity. Long story short, we’d bounced around some after I started stealing stuff–not drugging it up, not even much into alcohol, mostly just testing myself, seeing what I could get away with and who I could whip along the way.

You know. Fun stuff.

Until I ended up getting bounced out of McCrossan Boys’ Ranch in South Dakota at the age of seventeen. Mom finally threw up her hands, called her big brother…and I’d been here in Connecticut ever since.

Big Jude put the screws to me, I got my G.E.D., followed up with a four year degree in (of all things) Philosophy…and went to work welding security doors and steel tanks and crap like that together.

But certain easy targets like a hundred-year-old white man shudder-shaking his way down a cracked sidewalk in the middle of the projects? Tempting. Still way too tempting. I ain’t no racist, understand. Truth be told, I’m more of a dark-skinned Idaho cowboy who got himself misplaced a few thousand miles to the east and lost in the city, but still…. Thumping chumps who should know better?

It’s like riding a bicycle.

“All right, B.J.,” I relented–which I pretty much had to do whenever he caught me out–“I’ll be good. But I am more than a bit curious. You just don’t want me harrassing the helpless like you been preaching at me for years, or what?”

He cocked an eyebrow my way. Which had more of an impact than you might imagine; my oversized uncle is one serious eyebrow cocker.

Then his attention turned back to the old man, who’d made it to about mid-block. We were across the street and down a few yards, sitting in B.J.’s restored ’46 Hudson, just watching…and things looked about to heat up without my participation.

The street tableau had widened its cast of characters. Booking it up the sidewalk toward the geezer was one good-looking sister, not quite running but almost…and behind her no more than a dozen yards, a pack of HR’s were in hot but leisurely pursuit. Six of ’em, the leader close to my height but thin as a rail, ranging on down to Capper.

Capper was maybe twelve years old, mean as a snake, and not likely to make thirteen. More about that particular POS another time.

Overall, this was not a good picture. The HR’s, Hood Rats, were latecomers on the gang scene. Maybe because of that, having to walk softly and wide around the bigger, older groups, they seemed to possess an extra dollop of Pure Nasty. What they had in mind for that girl wasn’t hard to figure, and she knew it. A local, she did belong here, but to one of the better families.

We’d done business with her Dad, sold him an entire set of wrought iron security grates for the windows and doors on his home. What was her name? Tanya? Yeah…except they spelled it different. Tania. Five three or so, built with a rear end that looked in her jeans (as my former ranch kid classmates would have said) like two bobcats fighting in a gunny sack when she moved. Stocky, probably 140 pounds, all woman. D cups for sure.

Not that I’d noticed.

HR wasn’t going to mess up Tania on my watch, though, even if I hadn’t noticed. She was maybe twenty, a good girl from a good family and a HAIF customer. I started to get out of the car.

B.J.’s ham fist closed on my arm. I wasn’t going anywhere.

But I was almighty puzzled. Looked at him. He was looking at the setup across the street. So…confused but knowing better than to challenge the big man, I settled back down…and we both settled in to see what happened next.

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Tania strode past the old white man with the cane, moving right along, had to be making four miles an hour.

The ancient kind of accidentally stumbled to the center of the sidewalk, facing the oncoming gang members head on. Then, realizing his mistake, he sort of…fumbled. Hesitated. Stopped dead. Held the black wooden cane in both hands. Without the support of his walking stick, he looked about ready to fall over, trembling. shaking with fear. His knees were bent, like maybe he couldn’t straighten them anyway, and the rest of him was kind of bent over, too.

“Outa the way, cracker!” Slim Jim snapped it as a command, with intent. He and his posse were not more than a couple of steps from the dude.

And then the unbelievable happened.

“She’s with me,” the geezer stated, and his voice was not the voice of an old man regardless of color. It came out strong, clear, unequivocal. Carried clear as a bell over to us sitting in the Hudson, observing.

If it weren’t for my eidetic memory, no way would I have credited my own lying eyes. But my memory, unlike most as I understand it, don’t lie.

Slim Jim and little Capper and the rest hauled up short in utter shock for a second or two. It took them that long to process from astonishment to fury at this ancient white bugger who thought he could mess with their intended fun. The result was a foregone conclusion: They could catch and rape Tania another day–she was local, after all–but this out of route honky needed to be taught a lesson now.

They spread out, started quarter-circling in on him…and the old man lunged straight at Slim Jim. The black cane whipped out in a two-handed sword-swinging move that blurred as the hardwood slammed into the gangsta’s throat.

Except…the way that thing hit…hardwood, my ass. Steel. What was that “cane” of his, a chunk of 3/4″ rebar, bent and painted to look like–?

Slim Jim went down hard, windpipe crushed. Without help, he would die shortly. Not that he’d be missed. Of course, if Reverend Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and the rest got wind of this, there’d be lynch mobs and race wars shortly. The New Black Panthers would be orgasmic.

Unfortunately for the HR’s, they’d been so scornful of this over-the-hill paleface that nobody had bothered to pull a weapon, except of course for Bludge’s standard brass knuckles. He did get to use them, once, but the blow smashed little Capper’s nose all over his face. Whitey had somehow gotten hold of the kid and used him as a human shield for just that one necessary second.

Which was good for the geezer; Capper carried that name for a reason. The kid packed more guns about his person than the whole rest of the bunch put together.

Sometimes the old guy used the cane, sometimes he dropped it for a second, like when he grabbed up Capper–there was no predicting his next move. I could recount it almost blow by blow for you, but it would take too long, trying to describe everything that happened in a battle that actually lasted for no more than ten seconds or so.

When it was over, the hundred year old man was the only one standing. Except of course he couldn’t possibly be nearly that old in reality. The HR’s were all down, a couple moaning in pain, the rest of ’em unconscious and/or maybe even dead.

The geezer rummaged through a couple of the kids’ pockets, found a gun he liked, checked the action with professional expertise, and tucked it under his shirt out of sight. I was guessing he wasn’t taking any more chances; if he had to shoot somebody on his way out of the ‘hood, he’d prefer a weapon without his name on the paperwork.

We watched him retreat, mostly backing up, obviously highly alert and about as helpless as a Navy S.E.A.L. on active duty, until he reached the corner around which he’d come and around which Tania had gone.

“Following her?” I wondered, not realizing I’d spoken aloud.

“Doubt it,” B.J. replied, turning the key in the Hudson’s ignition to start the car. “More likely, his mission is over. Did what he came to do, and now he’s heading back to wherever he left his wheels.” He eased the clutch out, pulling the big machine away from the curb. There might be cops showing up–probably not on this block, but you never knew–and we didn’t need to be on their radar.

“I don’t get it,” I admitted. “What do you mean, his mission? What he came to do? Is he a racist, an old skinhead or something? Out to take down as many brothers as he can?”

B.J. snorted. “You got a lot to learn, kid.”

I should mention, my uncle is also the only man on Earth who gets away with calling me kid.

“Reckon I do. Which is why I’m asking.”

“Well, that old man ain’t no racist. Matter of fact, I seen him once before, and that time he put his life on the line to save a black man from a bunch of skinheads.”

“He did? You know him?”

“Can’t say as I know him, nephew. But I know of him, in part ’cause that black man’s butt he saved was mine. But you asked about a mission. You know how vampires got their own mission, which is mainly sucking enough blood to stay alive for extended periods of time?”

“You saying this guy’s a vampire?”

“Nah.” He waved one meaty hand dismissively, expertly wheeling the Hudson around a corner with the other. We were away from the scene of the fight, if it could be called that. More like a massacre. “He’s…kind of the opposite of a vampire. Long-lived, all right–or at least I’ve come to suspect he is. It was twenty years back he helped me out. He looked old then, but he don’t look any older now.”

“However, kid, that old man is…not Buffy the Vampire Slayer; that ain’t his gig. But more like….”

I thought I had it. Wasn’t sure I could believe it, but…”You saying he’s some kind of immortal white knight? Color-based pun intended?”

B.J. thought about that for a moment. “Not…immortal in the eternal sense. Probably has to fight to stay alive every day, just like you and I do. But very long of life, definitely. We know the vampires exist; why not the protectors? Either or, they walk among us.”

“Huh.” Unable to resist, I looked back, though of course we were blocks from the action by now. “Wonder how you sign up for that deal?”

“What?” He laughed, the booming sound that dared anybody within half a mile not to laugh right along with him. “You thinking of trying out for the squad?”

I didn’t answer. Which was enough to tip him off.

“Oh, crap,” he muttered, suddenly sounding like he was wishing he hadn’t opened his big mouth. “You’re serious, ain’t you? I strongly suspect it ain’t one little bit like being no cartoon superhero, you know. No Batman or Superman or Avengers or–”

“Nah,” I lied sincerely in that tone that has fooled an awful lot of people but which never once worked on my uncle. “Just curious.”

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