Chapter I The Briefcase Orlando Shelton was sitting at the bar of the Hooters in Union Station Mall in downtown
St. Louis, enjoying hot wings and a cold beer. He should not have been eating the hot wings because he had been having a little trouble with acid reflux lately, and he should not have been having the beer because he was sponsoring a school field trip. The students from Shelby Middle School outside of Memphis had been turned loose to shop with the threat of forfeiting their lives if they were caught committing even the mildest sort of mischief or leaving the mall. Two other school chaperones were currently patrolling the mall, so Orlando had taken the opportunity to duck in to Hooters, where kids had been expressly forbidden to go, and sneak a cold one, the only one he had imbibed the entire trip. The erstwhile and ever-vigilant Mrs. Galloway was patrolling the hall close to the bar in the mezzanine making sure that the students did not try to order margaritas or daiquiris there, and while he hadn’t seen the taciturn Mrs. Green he was certain she was positioned in such a way as to catch the worst offending ne’er-do-well. The piercing shriek of a whistle drifted up from the mall below and Orlando knew then that Mrs. Galloway had seen a trespasser. It was her first response at finding someone remotely suspicious of malfeasance: blowing the whistle and pointing with her free hand, a bloated umpire in a game of school, her other hand firmly and continuously around the largest water container he had ever seen. He was certain that her right hand would develop premature arthritis from carrying around a half gallon of water in it all day, for it never seemed to be empty. He bit into a wing and swallowed a cold swig of beer. No trespassers up here on the third level, he sighed to himself. Except him. Drinking on a field trip. Mrs. Galloway would pop an eyeball blowing her whistle so hard at seeing him perched so. If he got caught, he would probably lose his job. But that would not be so bad, maybe, he was thinking. He recalled his conference with his principal the day before leaving on the trip. Dr. Shepherd had intimated that she was less than happy with his performance and attendance lately. She would be watching him more closely now, but Orlando knew that for her management style that meant that his fellow teachers would be asked to rat on him for any inappropriate behaviors. Screw her anyway for making him come on this math trip. Other duties as assigned, my ass. Bobbi, the cute waitress that was so happy to serve him today, breezed by and put a demure hand on his shoulder, leaning her cleavage around for him to gaze into and asked if he needed anything. Orlando looked down into her blouse to make sure everything was where it should be, and then politely met her hazel eyes. Her brown hair was bobbed and curled efficiently under her jaw, framing red, succulent lips. He lied and said he didn’t need anything right now. He lacked the nerve to tell her what he
really needed from a cute waitress, so he settled for giving her a wink and a smile. “Wings hot enough for you?” “Hot enough for now. Having fun yet?” “Oh, always,” she giggled, patting his shoulder in what he was absolutely certain was sincere and genuine affection. “Especially with Mr. Happy Hands over there in the booth.” She rolled her eyes to the booth by the window. A roaring, obnoxious laugh was coming from a pair of broad shoulders. “Somebody ignoring the ‘Look but don’t touch’ rule?” Orlando turned to see who the fiend was, ignoring the irony of her being offended at someone wanting to touch her. The octopus was turned to look out the window so Orlando couldn’t see his face. “Yea, kinda. Occupational hazard, I guess. Comes with the territory and the uniform. You ready for another beer?” “Better hold off on the brewski. You can bring me a Diet Coke, though, first chance you get.” “You got it.” She patted the back of his hand, and he felt his blood pressure go up into areas where it was dangerous for a man in his age group to be for an extended period of time, or so he had recently been told by his voluptuous doctor. Damn, what a tip she was earning. “Bring me a Diet Coke, too,” came an icy, familiar African American female voice. Orlando felt someone sitting down behind him, and instantly recognized the voice and perfume of Mrs. Emerelda Green. He also felt a little acid release into his stomach, promising future heartburn. “And put it on his tab,” she said. “I’ve never seen this woman before in my life,” Orlando said without turning around. “But bring her what she wants and maybe she will go away.” He winked at Bobbi and she winked back, grinning knowingly. Orlando followed her little orange shorts bob-bob-bobbi-ing down the aisle to the drink station. “You the flirtinest man I know. Every time I see you, you flirtin’ with somebody.” “Well, what’s your point, Green? I work with mostly women. It’s sorta self-defense. Not jealous, are you?” Emerelda Green snorted. “Hmph. I was going to ask what you were doing up here, but I see now.” “Oh c’mon, Green, I’m just watching to make sure she gets your order right.” “She looks like she has plenty of experience at getting what she needs, Mr. Shelton. You may want to turn around here before you fall off that bar stool.” Orlando swung his gaze around to his co-worker. She was seated with perfect posture, which accented an ample yet covert bosom. She smoothed her stylish plaid jacket over her flat stomach and crossed her legs in a stiffly elegant fashion, earrings dangling and bracelets softly rattling. Mrs. Green
always dressed to perfection, and while she was a brilliant and award-winning math teacher, she often playfully adopted the grammar patterns of her students. Orlando suspected she did it to get a rise out of him, and he enjoyed sparring wits with her. “Don’t you have wrong-doers to corral, Green?” “I got me a wrong-doer right here. You know you wrong for being up here. I’m going to pretend like I don’t even see that alcohol.” “What, this? I don’t know whose beer that is. If it bothers you, I’ll get rid of it. Here, let me help you out.” He raised the mug and killed it, hoping it would quench the growing fire at the bottom of his esophagus. Mrs. Green was fighting back a smile. “You better give me them hot wings, too, so I don’t get the urge to tell anybody about it.” “Wow, I’m being held hostage. You should at least use some handcuffs on me, Green, to make it interesting.” Orlando shoved the plate over. Mrs. Green tucked a napkin into her lap, and began trying to eat the hot wings without getting any of the spicy juices on her meticulously applied lipstick or artfully manicured fingers. A shriek and a crash from across the restaurant made them both look over by the window. Bobbi the waitress was sprawled awkwardly over the table of Happy Hands in a stance that told everyone looking that she was not off-balance by choice. She was trying to straighten and back up at the same time without stepping on broken glass, but heavy paws were around her waist and arms, getting more than giving. “Oh shit, that asshole,” muttered Orlando. “Hold on, now, Long Ranger. She can take care of herself.” “No, Green, you know who that is?” Orlando watched as Bobbi untangled herself from the tentacles of a burly middle-aged man in a navy blazer and khakis, who was gleefully laughing the whole time, and had turned around enough for Orlando to see his face. “That’s that jerk from the hotel.” “Whatchoo mean? What jerk?” she asked while licking sauce from her fingers in the most ladylike way possible. “You know, that guy, that guy that walked up in front of us at the counter and took that room? He’s the same guy that knocked over the suitcases in the parking lot. Shit-for-brains. What a jerk.” Orlando thought about the bus arriving late at the hotel and a line full of sleepy students the night before, and this fat guy walking right up to the counter in front of one of his softball players who had come on the trip, knocking over her luggage and ignoring her completely. The hotel staff started falling all over themselves to get him a room, which just happened to be one of the last rooms together on the same floor.
Now Galloway, Green and he had to patrol two floors of the hotel instead of just one. “Here, potner, have a hot wing and cool off.” Orlando settled down when he heard her use the same word she had used in a faculty meeting shortly after they had first met, after which they had become good friends. He bit into a fiery wing and watched as Bobbi came back by the bar with a terse look on her face. She met his eye and gave a trooper of a smile, but it was a thin veneer. “You’re going to get the manager, I hope.” Bobbi smiled wanly. “Not here. Went to take his kid to the dentist.” “Want me to kick his ass for ya?” “Mr. Shelton you are not going to get into altercations here. No, sir. Just drink your diet soda and quit pretending to be Superman. You just a teacher man, that’s all.” Turning away from Bobbi, Orlando scowled at Mrs. Green. Bobbi leaned an arm on his and smiled. “I have a knight in shining armor, but thanks. You’re sweet.” She laid a Diet Coke on the bar, pressing her right breast into the back of his hand. Orlando froze under the steely glare of his co-worker. “I’ll keep my cape handy, just in case.” Bobbi walked to the back of the restaurant and disappeared through the employee door. “Geez, Green, you might want to use a sharper blade when you cut a man’s balls off like that. It doesn’t hurt as much.” Orlando slid off the bar stool. “Where you going?” “To take a leak with what’s left of my genitals. Keep an eye out for Galloway, will ya?” He sauntered off to the men’s room. The bathrooms were up near the front of the restaurant by the entrance which led out into the mall. As Orlando walked by, he happened to finger his coach’s whistle in his pocket. He stood by the door for a second and turned to make sure that Mrs. Green could not see him at the bar, and then gave a loud blast on the whistle before ducking into the men’s room. Orlando stood at the urinal and let out a long sigh. He chuckled to himself thinking about Mrs. Green trying to make a hasty exit to avoid being seen by her other co-worker. But then again, maybe she didn’t even fall for it. Green was cagey. She had been teaching longer than Orlando and was not easily fooled. Still if he went back out there and she was gone he would know that it had worked. He stared into the front page of the St. Louis paper, gratuitously displayed above the urinal to take customers’ minds off the business in hand. He scanned the headlines announcing upcoming corporate mergers, a coup for the city of St. Louis, representing revenue and employment; a state tax scandal involving a local elected official; a national story about fires out in the Sierra Nevadas…. Suddenly Orlando was aware that he was not alone. As he finished, a door in the stall behind him
opened slowly. He tried not to turn around, but something was not right about the sound he had heard. It was as if someone was just standing there, and that’s what made him finally turn around. A white-haired man in a trench coat was standing in the doorway of the bathroom stall, holding a briefcase. He had an ashen, sickly look on his face and Orlando’s first thought was that the man was seriously sick. His face was pale, almost a light blue. His forehead shone under a thin film of perspiration. Orlando turned back around and tried to focus on the paper. There was still no movement behind him but he could hear the man’s labored breathing. He walked over to the sink to wash his hands and found the guy reflected in the mirror. He was looking down with his eyes closed, breathing heavy, not moving, swaying just a little. “You okay?” Orlando asked. The man then clutched a briefcase to his chest and staggered forward. He turned towards the sink and seemed to lose his balance, falling into Orlando. Orlando yelled “Whoa!” and put his hands up. The briefcase pushed him into the paper towel holder and the man’s weight pressed him there. Orlando yelled, “Jesus! Whoa!” and tried to stabilize the guy and keep his own balance, but the man’s eyes were closed and wincing. He opened them slowly and focused on Orlando, who was going over every CPR step he had halfway paid attention to, and praying to God Almighty that the man wasn’t about to vomit. The man stared at Orlando through narrow, bloodshot slits, then pushed away and crashed to the floor. Orlando stood still with the man’s briefcase in his hands, terrified. Thoughts of airborne diseases and fluid-borne illnesses about to invade his immune system flooded his panicked brain. Acid in Orlando’s stomach began to churn. It was then that Orlando saw the open cell phone in the man’s hand. The man was unconscious, and before Orlando could make another move he heard a radio squawk outside the men’s room door and a commanding voice saying, “The signal must be coming from the men’s room.” Then a whole emergency team was crammed into the men’s room at once. Paramedics were attaching things to the man’s chest after ripping open his shirt. Orlando was pressed against the sink trying to breathe. He finally turned his back to the crowded emergency workers and watched them in the reflection of the mirror. He tried to interrupt the emergency techs several times but he was out-shouted in the confusion coming from all of them. They finally got the man on a gurney and began to take him out of the bathroom. In the process they pressed Orlando up against the paper towel dispenser and seemed to hold him there for an eternity. They negotiated the cumbersome gurney around the corner to get the white-haired man out. A paramedic’s elbow was pressed into Orlando’s side the whole time making it hard for Orlando to breathe.
When the crowd finally rolled out of the bathroom Orlando took a deep breath and collapsed onto the floor. Gasping and seated in the middle of the floor he realized that he still had the briefcase. He had never let go of it the whole time. He staggered to his feet and immediately felt lightheaded. He braced himself against the wall and tried to slide along the tile to the door. He made it out into the restaurant and there was no one to be seen but Bobbi the cute waitress. “Are you all right?” Bobbi ran to him and helped him ease into a nearby booth. “I’ll get you some water. You just sit here,” and the waitress was gone. Presently she came back with a glass of ice water. “I’m fine, I’m a little…dizzy, that’s all. I guess I got hot in there or something. I’ve got to get this…that man left his briefcase, he….” “Take it easy, catch your breath.” Orlando took a long drink of the water and felt his heart rate and breathing slow down. “Here we go. You okay?” She leaned over to look into Orlando’s eyes, but Orlando was staring down her shirt. He looked up at her and grinned, embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said. “Just drink the water. You need me to call somebody for you or get you anything else?” Orlando took a long drink and felt much better. His head cleared up and he regained his composure. “I’m fine. I guess I just need to sit here for second. I…hey, I’ve got to get this briefcase to that guy. Did they tell you where they were taking him?” “Um, I bet they took him to Barnes Jewish. It’s like right next door.” She pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and shifted her weight, still bending over to look into his eyes, trying to judge whether he was going to pass out. “I guess I’m okay. Um, I need to go and find that guy. I’ve still got his briefcase.” “Sure. Let me get your check, okay?” She reached into her ticket pouch and handed him a bill. “Oh right, right. Um, hang on.” Orlando fished out his wallet. She straightened and looked around at a table that was summoning her, nodding that she would be right there. The total seemed a little high. Orlando scanned the ticket. “Um, I only had one order of wings…” “Oh your friend said to put an order to go on here and she would pay you back later. I hope that was okay?” Orlando grinned to himself. “Oh, sure. I’ll definitely catch up to her later.” He paid with a generous tip and left the restaurant.
Orlando left the mall and began walking down the street, following the blue hospital signs. He was a little more than a block away and easily found the emergency room entrance. He went inside to a window and saw a nurse behind it who was very interested in what was on her computer screen. She had curly hair and a phone headset in her ear, the microphone curling around her brown lipstick. Orlando stood at the window, unsure if he should knock on the glass. He raised his hand and the nurse still did not respond. Orlando then tapped on the glass. A slight shift in posture was the only way she registered that she had heard him knock. She began slowly to move her hand toward the glass, sliding the window to the right. “May I help you?” she asked without taking her eyes off the computer screen. “Hi, yes. I’m looking for a man who was just brought here? Older guy, kind of tall, he was just brought over from Union Station?” “Haven’t admitted anyone in the last hour, sir.” Eyes never left the screen. Orlando tapped on the glass again, a little harder. “Miss? Hi. Over here?” The nurse furled her brow, slowly folded her arms and locked a death glare onto Orlando. “I’m sorry to bother you there. I’m sure what you are doing is more important, but I have to find someone who was just taken away in an ambulance. It was right next door, at Union Station. Ever been there? There’s shopping and restaurants, even a fountain. It’s a nice place. You get out much?” The nurse was nonplussed. “So this guy, he had like a heart attack or something, and I was told he would be brought here. I’m not from around here, so I don’t know anything, but could you just check for me?” The nurse unfolded her arms, looked at a stack of papers in front of her. “I don’t have a record of anyone coming into our ER in the last hour, but I’ll go check if you just… stay right…there.” She reached up and slid the glass back shut, flipping a little latch so that it could not be opened again, and turned back to her computer screen. Orlando backed away slowly and looked around for someone from the same planet as he, and noticed that the waiting room was indeed quite empty. A TV mounted high on the wall played the CNN channel as a ticker ran across the bottom of the screen. A lone custodian parked his mop bucket by the vending machine and slowly inserted coins. Orlando made eye contact. “Slow day today, huh?” he said nonchalantly. “Yessuh, slow day today. That’s a good thang though in the hospital business, ain’t it now?” He pulled a lever and a package of cheese and peanut butter crackers slipped free and landed in the
dispensing area. The man reached down to grab his snack and Orlando turned back towards the entry. “Good for you, I guess. It depends on how much help people need, huh?” The man started pushing his mop bucket and said something unintelligible. Orlando paused for a second and slapped the glass at the nurse’s station sharply. “Thank you!” he yelled to the curly-haired nurse, whose eyes flicked at the glass for the barest second. “For nothing,” he said to himself as he made his way back out, the large doors sliding quietly open. Parked nearby was an ambulance. Orlando walked over and leaned on the front of it. It was cold. It had not been driven recently, so Orlando figured maybe the man was taken to another hospital. He thought about trying to ask where else a patient would be transported if not here, but he had no desire to talk to Nurse Charming Pants again, so he walked back over to the rear entry of Union Station. Passing the man-made lake he saw a couple of his students on the paddle-boats. They were too busy trying to coordinate their paddling to look up and see him. So he casually took the stairs back up to Hooters and stood by the first booth by the door. A thin redhead with a tight modest T-shirt came over and motioned him to sit down in the booth. “Hello sir. How are you doing today?” She laid a menu down and rested her hand on his shoulder. “Can I get you something to drink to start with?” “Uh, Diet Coke, to go please, I guess.” He glanced around. “Say, is Bobbi here?” “Oh she just left, about two minutes ago.” Orlando paused. “Uh, okay, just get me a Diet Coke then that’s fine.” “Sure thing,” she said, giving his shoulder an obligatory squeeze that came right out of the How to Increase Your Tips manual. Orlando took a look around and hefted the briefcase onto the table. It had a single handle and two leather straps that hooked over the top. They were faux straps that had snaps on the ends. It looked worn and old, and now that he had it up close, he noticed it had scars and scratches on it. He wondered vaguely if it were an antique. He opened the briefcase and immediately slammed it shut. At that moment Mrs. Galloway came around the end of the bar with her lips so tight her face looked like it might snap off and fly across the room. “What are you doing here, Shelton?” “Oh, same as you Galloway, just sweeping the room for offenders. Nobody here, though.” “Nope, I didn’t see anybody either. You headed back to the bus?” “Uh, yeah, headed that way right now.” “Good,” Mrs. Galloway said. “I’ll sweep the other side of the mall and start herding the little monsters down to the front entrance. Most of them are in the game room down there.”
“Great, great. See you down there.” Orlando slid out of the booth and followed Mrs. Galloway, hoping and praying that she hadn’t seen the silver handle of the gun in the dying man’s briefcase.
Chapter II Homework The students from Shelby Middle School were drizzling out to the front of the downtown mall in little pairs and small groups. Ernestine Galloway was stationed at the bus door herding them on and checking them off clipboard roster, terse lips gripping her whistle, ready at any instant to use the annoying shriek as a warning to the kids. She gave it a cursory blow now and again on principle, as if the sheep could not find their way except by following each other to the sound of it. “Come on, Les, don't make a career out of boarding the bus...You got enough packages there, Dandridge?...Come on, come on. Keep it moving.” Orlando was stationed by the front entrance to the mall, waving kids out nervously, anxious to get to his room at the hotel and open the briefcase again. He had to get to a phone, too, and try to locate the
white-haired man that it belonged to. Search some other hospitals, call some ambulance services, I wonder which one they used, how many are there in St. Louis, what the hell really happened in that bathroom, oh my god I am actually carrying a gun on a school field trip, this could be the end of my career, why can’t I just lay it down somewhere and forget about it— “Hey Coach!” “Shit!” Orlando suddenly focused on the first baseman from his softball team, Katie Milsap. She came out of the door of the mall with two of her friends. She had on her Lady Panthers visor but otherwise there was no way to tell she was a ball player. Her eyes grew wide when Orlando exclaimed his epithet, and she scowled a little in embarrassment. Coach Shelton allowed no profanity on his team. “Gee, Coach, take it easy. God.” “Sorry, Katie, you scared me a little there. Don’t sneak up on old people, will ya?” “Jeez, you’re in a bad mood. You must have spent the afternoon with Old lady Galloway.” The two friends snickered. Orlando apologetically held out his closed hand for a fist bump, which Katie took as a more sincere apology than any words he could have come up with. “Hey—it’s Mrs. Old Lady Galloway, young lady. Just get on the bus, guys. Let’s go.” Orlando immediately felt bad. All the athletes in the school went by the unspoken rule that they would always get special treatment from their coaches, and it saddened him a little not to get to treat Katie better than the other students on the trip. If this had been a road trip for a softball tournament he would have let her stand around by him, maybe even made the unwise decision to sneak her into Hooters, but since this was the Math department’s gig he could not show favoritism. He watched the three of them walk towards the bus and tried to imagine Katie apologizing for him. “Hey, Coach Shelton.” It was a lanky 8th-grader that Orlando recognized but whose name he did not know. All the kids called Orlando ‘Coach,’ even if he didn’t coach them in a sport or teach them in a class. “Hey. What’s your name?” “Russell,” the lanky kid said, slowing down as if there was a possibility that they were about to have a conversation. He straightened his shoulders and took his hands out of his pockets This would obviously have meant a lot to him. “Russell. Get on the bus and quit annoying people, will ya?” Russell reddened, lowered his eyes, and slunk away. He was trying to lighten up by being funny, but instead he was just coming across as grumpy, which was usually funny to him but just hurtful to others. He watched Russell's shoulders slump again. He nodded at the rest of the students he saw, as if he were accounting for them mentally as they walked by.
Actually, he was picturing the gun again, the silver handle he’d only glimpsed momentarily, and was becoming aware of a sensation he was trying to ignore, the feeling that a part of him wanted to hold the gun and feel its cold silver skin, and how at the same time he wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible and have nothing to do with it whatsoever. He only knew guns through the vicarious experience of movies and TV, the very thing he chided all his students about. Just as he began to indulge the fantasy of turning the silver barrel towards Dr. Shepherd, Galloway blew a signal on her whistle and Orlando jumped. She held up her clipboard, the sign that everyone was on board. She even circled her finger above her head a couple of times, as if she were the foreman on a loading dock. He thought to himself that she rather did favor a dock foreman: beefy arms and huge butt, her clipped smile and tight perm, and that goddam water bottle. Water jug. It was probably heavier than the briefcase he was carrying now. Orlando slid nervously into the seat behind the driver. The bus pulled out of the parking lot and started lumbering towards the hotel. The kids were noisy as usual, comparing shopping items and bargains. It amazed him that no matter how many kids were on a field trip the volume of their conversation was always at a certain level of loud. Orlando glanced back occasionally to seek out wrongdoers, like the behavior patrolman he was hired to be. Each time he found Katie looking at him while talking to her friends. They would dig her in the sides when they saw him looking at her. Mrs. Green was seated about halfway down the aisle with one of her math students. She had personally recruited all the students on this trip for a mathematics competition at a university. Orlando imagined them talking about algebraic formulas, or discussing solutions to quadratic equations, not so much as practice for the competition, but as a matter of what people who were interested in math talked about. Thank God he wasn’t sitting next to Galloway, or he would be knee deep in some union policy that she was unhappy about. Galloway was union to the core, teacher’s rights and damn the rest of them, mainly the kids. She belonged to the camp of teachers that believed all the problems of education could be solved by getting rid of the kids. She was happiest and most tolerable on in-service days when teachers were required to be at school but the kids stayed home. Every conversation with her eventually came around to what was and what wasn’t her job, or what recent policy or mandate was unfair. At the end of the day she did what she had to do for her students, but she was just never in a good mood about it. Orlando looked out the bus window and located the St. Louis Arch. He watched as it slid between buildings and sunk to the horizon. He focused on it as he sorted out his thoughts. The lurching of the bus and the noise of the students sloshed around with the increased stomach acid and hot wings, making him a little nauseated. He grimaced and tried to ignore it but he was getting sick. Maybe this was the out he
was looking for. He could beg off the scheduled outing for the evening, a practice run and meet-and-greet at the university. He could picture all the nerds in their little ties and dresses mingling and talking about math. It almost made him even sicker. Katie suddenly appeared and slid into the aisle seat next to him. “Hey Coach.” “Hey, Milsap. How’s the hands?” “Hotter ‘n hell, coach. You okay? You don’t look so good.” “Thanks. Watch yer mouth. You look great.” “I’m for real, you look pale or something,” she said. “I’m a little weak in the tummy right now.” “Whoa. See, what’d you eat at the mall?” Orlando had to catch himself before confessing to beer and hot wings. “Some sandwich or something from that place.” “Oh yeah, that sandwich shop. We almost ate there but we went for Chinese. Glad I didn’t have no sandwich, man, if it made you sick.” “Yea, I just need to get to the hotel and lie down for a bit. It’ll pass.” “Janie may want to try out this year,” Katie said, throwing a casual thumb over her shoulder at one of the girls Orlando had seen her at the mall with, but her eyes darted back out to the road in front of the bus when she saw her friends looking at her. “She was talking about it. You know, she plays Park League and she’s pretty good.” “What position?” “She plays mostly second base, but like whatever. She wants to try out, but like she’s playing basketball right now.” “I thought you were going to try out for basketball.” “Nah, not my sport. I gotta pitch you to a championship this year.” She forced a smile. “You’ll be on first where I need you,” he said. “Yea right. Wait ‘til you see my fastball. I been working on it.” “Work on fielding your grounders. I got a fastball pitcher coming up from seventh grade. She pitched at Whitedale last year.” “That little redhead? The one that struck out Turpin? She’s in Galloway’s science class, I think,” she said. “The one that struck out the Mighty Turpin, yes ma’am.” Orlando’s stomach began to resolve itself somewhat as he settled into the easy stride of softball talk. He pictured the blond pigtails of Emily
Turpin, his star player last year, striking out on off-speed pitches from a thin little red-haired pitcher. He saw the slumped bat dragging in the dirt back to the dugout and Emily’s signature black kneepad covered in dirt where she had reached for a hanging curve floating away to the outside of the plate in slow motion and had not been able to catch up with it, tumbling into the dust and being called out. He had never had a player so deflated as Emily was that day. “Sweet! I didn’t know you had talked to her.” “Haven’t yet, but I’m gonna put her on the team if she tries out.” “I heard she was going to play competitive ball, you know, the Comets. They get all the good talent,” she said. “Didn’t get you.” “I can’t afford them. Neither can my stepdad.” Her face darkened a little more and she kept staring out the front window. “Maybe she can’t either. Anyway, this is just October. We’ll see when we see.” There was a pause and more staring out the window at the road. Orlando felt the air condense around the two of them. “Coach, I can tell you anything, right?” Katie was looking out the front window of the bus. “I was gonna go to Mrs. Green, but….” Orlando shifted towards her in the seat, glad for the privacy of the noise. “Kid, you can always tell me anything.” The bus was humming down the road. “Somebody touched me, Coach.” She said it so low that it sounded like part of the hum of wheels, part of the blurring road, a place words struggled to get free from. “Who did? What do you mean?” Katie’s head lowered and she spoke to her lap. “At the hotel. The elevator. This guy got on with us, and we were all like laughing and stuff…and his hand was right…down there … in the back but he was touching my … touching me in the front … and I couldn’t even look at him. I just froze….” Orlando did not know what to do with his hands. He wanted to pat her on the shoulder, take her hand, pat her head, but suddenly everywhere he thought of placing his hand made them become the other man’s hands. “You need to get us doing some conditioning, Coach, so we can be strong next year.” She clinched up her fist and let it fall forcefully on her thigh. “And ooh, I so want to go back to that tournament in Middleton. We were so weak last year. That’s why we gassed out in that game against Central. Man, I wish I had that one back.”
“Don’t wish your life away, kid. We’ll see what we see when we see it.” He held out his open hand. She took it in a sportsman’s handshake, wrapping her fingers around the palm below the thumb, and Orlando held on for a minute. Katie looked him in the eyes. “You okay? You want me to do anything?” She shook her head and a little tear flew into the aisle, but she did not let go of the handshake. “You did right by telling me. He’s the asshole, not you, okay?” She held his hand and looked out the window again nodding. “Now go back there and sit down so I can pass a little gas, will ya?” “Eww, Coach! God!” “Don’t call me God—and don’t worry, I’m gonna blame it on Galloway. Make sure you’re the first one off the bus.” Katie giggled back to her seat and fell into conversation with her friends. Orlando began worrying and thinking about responsibility. Mrs. Galloway turned from gazing out her window. “How’s that, Shelton?” “I said that’s the hotel, isn’t it?” “Yep,” she said, her lips going into a straight line and her neck muscles getting hard. The bus pulled up to the hotel entrance, and before Orlando could get up Galloway swung up from her seat by grabbing the pole by the driver. “We’ll see you in an hour, right?” she barked at the driver. “Yes’m,” grunted the driver, opening the door of the bus. Galloway stumped down the steps inserting her whistle in her mouth as she went, giving it a pert blast when she reached the pavement. She was followed by Katie and her two friends. Orlando let out a silent fart worthy of the gas chamber, made eye contact with the driver and rolled his eyes in the direction of Galloway while he fanned in front of his face. The bus driver leaned as far away as he could and opened his little private window, muttering “Jesus God. I hope that woman don’t get back on this bus.” Orlando smiled and thought of all the kids that would pass through his merciless invisible cloud, and how Katie would blame it on Galloway, and every kid on the bus would be laughing. Orlando glided by Galloway and said he was going to go lie down. “You okay Shelton? You don’t look so good.” Orlando tightened his grip on the briefcase and waited for all the kids to file off the bus, each getting an earful of Galloway shouting “One hour!” “Don’t feel so hot. Think I got a little motion sickness. Something I ate, too. Think I might lie down for a bit.” “Okay, see you in an hour.” “Right.” Orlando made his way to the lobby and pushed the elevator button to his floor. He got on the
elevator with three tourists who had been to Six Flags. They were talking about some relative that hadn’t come and how much fun they would have had. There were two teenage girls and a mom and a dad, and Orlando thought of the creep that would grab little girls in elevators. He walked off the elevator at his floor and went to his room. A couple of his students ran by. He resisted the urge to tell them not to run as he would have done at school, thinking they needed to run off a little steam. He hated being the barking dog all the time. He closed the door to his room, turned the lock and slid the door stop over. He set the briefcase on the newly made bed, took off his coat and closed the curtains, turning on a single lamp. He opened the briefcase and slowly took out the gun. He laid the silver gun on the bed making sure it was pointed away from him. It felt heavy and sinister, and there seemed to be a silence in the room because of it. He looked at it for a moment, trying to assess the meaning of its features. The grip was a dull silver and the barrel was authoritative and long. He sighed and sat down next to it. He reached into the briefcase. As he pulled out a manila folder, something caught his eye, something in the bottom of the case, something that made him quickly turn away, as if turning away would make him not have seen it, would make it somehow be truly there and not be what he wanted to see there. An electric thrill went down his spine. He slowly opened the case further and made sure that it was what he had seen. At the bottom of the briefcase was a deep pile of neatly wrapped money, hundred dollar bills banded together in stacks. Orlando took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He got up and went stupidly to the window, turned and looked back into the briefcase, then went to the window again. He realized he was still holding the manila envelope. He opened it and took out a bound document and a hotel room key. When he opened the papers he could tell immediately what they were. They looked like some kind of contract, and then he saw four pictures of a middle-aged, heavy-set man, pictures that looked like they had been taken without the man knowing it. There were shots of him in the street, getting in and out of a car, talking to various people, and all the while Orlando was looking at him, he had the feeling that he knew the man already, that he had seen him before. The last photo was of the man seated by a restaurant window while talking on a cell phone. It dawned on Orlando that he had seen the same guy in almost exactly the same spot only from the opposite point of view. It was the jerk from Hooters. Mr. Happy Hands. Mr. Luggage Destroyer, Mr. Rude Breaking in Line Man. Mr. Waitress Groper. A red rage built up in him remembering his encounter with him at the
lobby desk. His smile, his complete disregard for any human being around him. Orlando sat back down on the bed. Orlando noticed that a name was listed in several places. He guessed this to be Mr. Happy Hands’ real name. He slurred his vision over it, instinctively not wanting to know the man’s real name, and skimming the rest of the contract. It succinctly stated that the aforementioned (Mr. Happy Hands) was to be terminated for the sum of $20,000.00, half of which was to be paid up front, the other half to be delivered upon completion of the assignment. Orlando peaked into the briefcase at the money. It was still there. It was the down payment, the front money. Someone was paying to have the man killed. They had provided a gun and money and they expected the man to be killed. Orlando thought about how many times in the past few hours he had actually wished that he could kill the man, and now here was the chance to do it. Here was the expectation that he, or someone, do it. That he complete his assignment. That he do his homework. This was crazy. Orlando shoved the gun back into the briefcase, crammed the document into the envelope, shoved that into the briefcase as well and stood up. He still had the room key in his hand and he made up his mind that he was going to go to the jerk and tell him that someone was after him. They could call the police together. They could find that white-haired man and have him arrested. Orlando looked at the room key and remembered that the man’s room was right down the hall on this floor, the room he had rudely taken the night before. He looked up and down to make sure none of his kids saw him and he slipped out the door quietly. He saw a brass plate on the wall that told him what numbers were where, and he followed the hallway to the man’s room. He slipped the key in nervously and watched the light go from red to green as he slipped it out. Then he froze. What was he doing? He couldn’t just barge into some strange man’s room. He waited until the light went back to red, and then he knocked meekly on the door. The briefcase suddenly felt very heavy. Orlando nervously scanned the hall again. Then he knocked a little harder. There was no answer. Orlando then slipped the key into the door again, and when the light changed to green he pushed the handle down and went inside.The man’s room was dark. Orlando slipped in and let the door click quietly shut behind him. He felt his way to the opposite side of the room to the desk. He set the briefcase down and turned on the light. The room had been made up for the day and the bed had been turned down. This was a smoker’s room, and Orlando remembered the cigarettes the man had been smoking at Hooters and in the clandestine pictures. Great. Great. What the hell am I doing? I just want to set this down and get out of here. He flipped open the briefcase and dumped the contents out on the bed. The door must have opened when Orlando was emptying the suitcase. He never heard it open. He just turned around and saw the man standing there. A cigarette was burning low and the man had an odd
look on his face, a look that said for just one second that he was surprised and that he didn’t know what to do. Orlando saw the door closing behind the man and started to say something. His voice froze. In the few seconds that followed Orlando saw time and space go into slow-motion. He played a scene of the man’s reaction to him being in the room, and his mind raced at micro-speed through all the reasons he could give the man for being in his room. He could see instantly that nothing would be believed. So he had to let the man know that he was here to do the right thing and not rob or harm him. The only place he knew to start was with the gun. Since his voice was frozen and his mouth was open he thought that starting with the gun would be the logical place, since that was the most serious thing in the briefcase. He meant to only point to it, but racing ahead his brain was screaming to pick it up and show it to him. It was then that Orlando blinked. A little nap in the eternity of the moment. He distinctly remembered later blinking at that precise moment and since time was racing so fast it seemed like an eternity before he had his eyes open again. When he did, the man was dead. Shot clean through the forehead. There had been no exploding sound: no loud noise, no smoke, just the muffled grunt of the man’s weight falling to the floor. Orlando stared in disbelief. He began to replay the instant of blinking his eyes as if it were a memory from a lifetime ago. He thought he could recall the man saying something while he had his eyes closed in that microsecond, but he couldn’t recall it. Sweat began to pour down Orlando’s forehead and underarms. A wave of nausea crushed him and he thought he would be sick right there, but he doubled over and took some deep breaths. He started to leave, but then he saw the man’s arm out to his side. There was a gun in it. Jesus, he was going to kill me! Orlando turned to look at the pile of money on the bed, the envelope, and then down to the gun in his own hand. The guy was going to kill me, he thought. It was self-defense. Some psychological switch clicked loudly in his mind’s ear, and Orlando stepped back to the bed, scooped all the cash and the envelope back into the briefcase, and then tried to step around the body of the large man. He saw the blood at that point and did not want to track it back to his own room, so he took a longer step than usual, and began to lose his balance. He tottered for a moment before swinging his weight around so that he avoided the blood and the body, but not the fall. Again he closed his eyes. He was in such a time machine with his adrenaline that he had the time to think, I wonder what I’ll find when I open my eyes this time…
The man’s gun. Orlando stared at it for a moment, without knowing the real reason why, he switched the gun in his own hand for the one in the dead man’s. He stood up and felt a sharp pain in his head. Must have hit my damn head on the way down. He hooked his thumb into the top hem of his shirt and daubed at the stinging site of a small scratch, and stumbled down the hallway back to his room. He tossed the briefcase onto the bed and went into the bathroom. Drenched in sweat he peeled off his clothes down to his underwear and braced himself against the sink. He stood staring at himself in the mirror. He stood there for a while with the water running. There was a knock at the door. He wanted to ignore it but he felt he should acknowledge whoever it was. He walked slowly to the door and looked out the peephole. It was Katie and Mrs. Green. “What?” he said hoarsely. “Bus is leaving in a minute. You comin’, or are you burping up hotwings in there?” He could sense a minute edge of concern in Mrs. Green’s voice. “Yea, Coach, you barfin’?” He could see the proper face of Emerelda Green scowl at how coarse his star player was, but he turned aside and concentrated on the feel of the cool door on his flushed cheek. “Sick. I’m pretty sick.” “I figured you must be since you didn’t answer your phone. Do you want us to leave you here?” “Can’t make it. Sorry.” “Well okay then, we’ll be all right. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. Do you need anything?” “Careful there, Green, sounds like you actually give a sh—a care.” He heard Katie snicker. “You go on to the bus, young lady. Mr. Shelton will be all right.” Orlando looked back through the peephole just in time to see Katie stick her tongue out at the door before heading down the hallway. After watching Katie recede down the hall and out of earshot, Mrs. Green leaned into the door and whispered hoarsely, “You have my cell number if you need a hospital, you knucklehead. Sleep it off and we’ll be fine. Just us defenseless ladies taking care of defenseless children. At night. In the dark of downtown St. Louis.” Orlando watched her turn away and just barely saw the faintest of smiles at the corner of her lips.He stumbled back into the bathroom and splashed the still running water on his face. After a few moments the cold water cleared his head some and brought a little color into his face. Burying his face in a towel he heard a knock on the door again. He cinched the towel around his waist, ran a hand through
his hair and leaned his eye casually into the peephole, saying “Jesus Green you must really”— He was interrupted by the turning of the handle on his door and before he could fully wonder how Green got his door open it was shoved against him with such force that he fell backwards. The two thoughts that collided simultaneously in his overtaxed brain were that Green would somehow see all the money and the gun, even though it was still all in the briefcase, and that the towel had revealed his ignoble underwear to his co-worker. I’ll never hear the end of this he was thinking as he looked up into – the eyes of the white-haired man from the restaurant, who was shutting the door behind him. “Well, Mr. Shelton, you get an ‘A’ for your first assignment.”