She was the kind of girl that could drain a juicebox at thirty yards, if you catch my drift. Her legs propped her up to a good three feet and kept her there; the blonde ringlets gave her an innocent look that might have fooled a better man, but I’d seen too much in my seven years to fall for it. This girl was going to be trouble. I could smell it on her.
She sashayed over to the monkeybars like a kid who had nothing left to lose, but I saw her take a quick look around before she started talking to me. Girls like her wouldn’t usually risk trekking over to my little corner of the playground, let alone being seen talking to me. I recognised her immediately, but I knew she wouldn’t have been able to pick me out of a crowd. Someone must have pointed her in my direction.
‘I need a favour,’ she said. No small talk. Straight to the point. She was growing on me, but ‘favour’ was a dirty word to a man in my line of work; it was no ‘poophead’, but few things were. I waited for her to continue. ‘There’s this sixth-grader…’
‘No dice, doll,’ I said, cutting her off. ‘I don’t get involved with the big kids. They’ve got their territory, and we’ve got ours. You know the rules. Are you looking to get me wedgied?’
‘I thought rules were meant to be broken.’
‘Sure. For a price. I’m not sure you can afford me.’
‘We’ll see about that.’ She reached into her pocket and out came a clenched fist. She held it out towards me. ‘Take it, then,’ she said. ‘Before anyone sees.’
She slipped the green into my hand, and I risked taking a look. Doublemint. A ten pack. Big money in a place like this. Whatever she wanted, it wasn’t going to come cheap. She could have had her pick of errand boys with that kind of green behind her; hell, she’d brought enough for everyone.
And yet she’d given it to me.
‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘This is from a multipack. Did your mother go to Costco or something?’
‘Something like that.’
‘You can’t go waving that kind of cash around here.’ I kept my voice low; you could never tell when there might be a teacher listening. Sure, I hadn’t done anything wrong — yet — but too much attention could make my line of work difficult. It was better to keep your head down and out of trouble for as long as possible. I was no angel — I’d done a stint or two in detention — but I had no plans to go back there any time soon. It changes a kid.
She shrugged. ‘Well, there it is. And there’s plenty more where that came from. Half now, half later.’
‘Whatever it takes. Snickers. Hershey’s. Reese’s, if you know how to keep your mouth shut. No one likes a snitch.’
It was big money, and it was at least two hours until lunch. The rumbling in my stomach told me that I’d regret it if I didn’t take the deal, but I had a nagging feeling of doubt: a strange sensation that something was about to go horribly wrong, the way I had last summer in the moments before I sent a baseball arcing through the air towards the Madison house. Then, like now, I knew better than to hang around waiting for the crash.
‘I can’t help you,’ I said firmly.
The look in her eyes told me she wasn’t a girl who was accustomed to hearing the word no. ‘And where am I supposed to go instead?’
‘I don’t know, and I don’t care,’ I tried to say, but the words stuck fast to my tongue and I couldn’t get them out. What harm could it do to give her a tip off?
I pointed to the sandbox. ‘Over there. Ask for Stinky Jimmy.’
I nodded. ‘It’s justified. He’s a paste-eater, but he’s a good kid. And he’ll work for cheap. You could get him for half a pack. Maybe six strips if he’s feeling flush. But you didn’t hear it from me.’
She seemed satisfied. With one delicate fingernail, she picked open the gum packet and handed me a strip. ‘For your trouble,’ she said, then swanned off in search of a more gullible rube to do her dirty work for her.
I turned it over and over in my fingers, brought it up close and gave a deep sniff. It smelt legit, and the package was sealed, but looks could be deceiving; I couldn’t take the risk. Before I could talk myself out of it, I walked up to the trash can and tossed it inside. The guys at the dump could fight over it.
I wasn’t risking a case of cooties for nobody.
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