Willie the Kid
I don't like hurting kids. And I don't like people who like hurting kids.
Sure, once in a while I had to lock one in a closet or the trunk of a car, but it was for his own good. And I always made sure he got out safe and unharmed when the job was done, none the worse for wear—at least not physically. I can't answer for what therapy he might've needed years down the line but at least I know I left him in one piece.
So when the stringbean in the turned-back baseball cap came to my desk with his purple-black eye, swollen lip and nose pushed to one side I sat up and took notice. He looked to be around eleven, twelve years old, skinny, long blondish hair; a nice looking kid under all the bruises and contusions.
"You the librarian?" he asked, not moving his mouth much, like it hurt him to talk.
"I'm one of them," I said.
"Can you help me find a book?"
I pointed to the sign above the desk that said, REFERENCE, told him kindly that's what I was there for and asked what kind of book.
"One about poisons."
Working at the Seward Park Branch of the New York Public Library for fourteen years, I'd heard just about everything. People came to me with all sorts of requests, even after Google and Bing. Being a librarian is a lot like being a bartender: you're exposed to many different facets of the human condition. Maybe it's the quiet, non-threatening ambiance, maybe it's the intimacy of the stacks, maybe it's my warm, sympathetic demeanor, who knows? All I know is, people shared some pretty heavy stuff with me. I've helped folks find books and articles on abortion, guns, murder, spousal abuse, witchcraft, flagellation (self and otherwise), AIDS, loneliness, drugs, torture, money laundering and euthanasia (again, self and otherwise)...to barely scratch the surface.
I was always discreet; I considered all requests to be protected by librarian-borrower privilege. I would've kept my mouth shut anyway, but as a happy by-product my discretion had tangible rewards. Because every so often I'd pick up a paying client.
For instance, a job I had back in April: a woman—call her Ms. Jones—witnesses a convenience store robbery, wants to be a good citizen and gives her name to the cops. They I.D. the suspect off the store's surveillance camera, apprehend him and Ms. Jones picks him out of a righteous lineup. The D.A. figures he's got sufficient evidence and they go to arraignment. So far, so good. Now, the accused has no priors and has family in the community, so the bleeding-heart judge considers him not a flight risk and releases him on five thousand dollars bail. The scumbag with all that family in the community breaks into Ms. Jones's home, zaps her with a taser, and forces her to take off her clothes and lie on the floor. He doesn't touch her but warns if she testifies or goes to the cops he'll be back and next time he will touch her—in ways she doesn't want to think about. So Ms. Jones, shook up, scared to go to the authorities, not knowing what else to do, comes to my library to look up information about witness protection. We get to talking, I offer my unique service, satisfaction guaranteed. After some consideration, she hires me. I visit the creep, borrow his taser (which he's very reluctant to lend) and by the time I'm done he welcomes a nice, long peaceful stretch in prison. That is, once he's out of ICU.
Working the library was my day job. Nights and weekends I sold peace of mind. Sometimes I had to hurt someone. But like I said, I never hurt children.
So when this kid who looked like he lost an argument with a bus asked for books on poisons—a request, by the way, not that uncommon—I got very interested and walked him personally to 615.9, the toxicology section.
"What kind of information you have in mind?" I said, figuring I already knew the answer.
He looked away.
"For instance," I prompted, "you looking to get rid of rats or roaches? Test for harmful pesticides in your food? Or maybe you're doing research for a science project at school."
He glommed onto the last one. "Yeah, it's for science. We're learning about...you know...stuff that kills people."
"Okay, let's narrow it down," I said. "You talking classics like arsenic, cyanide, strychnine...?"
"Or maybe something fancier like curare, mushrooms, venom, puffer fish..."
He looked unsure. I realized I was bombarding him. So I tapped the brakes. "What's your name, little dude?"
"Willie. What happened to your face, Willie?"
"Got in a fight."
"The other guy look as bad as you?"
I let it go for the moment. Turning to the shelves, I found some books for him to look at. As he was thumbing through the pages I came back to it. "So, was he a big guy?"
Most other kids would've looked blank or clammed up. This kid didn't try to evade, which raised him up a notch in my estimation. "Kinda," he said.
"Willie," I said gently, "look at me."
He lifted his face and I saw tears trying to climb out of his eyes. But his expression told me they weren't tears of sorrow or fear—he was crying out of anger and frustration.
I took the books from him and reshelved them. "I don't think poison's the answer."
He looked at me for a second, then pushed past me, heading for the exit. I called out but he kept going.
I caught up with him outside on East Broadway.
"Willie, wait up a second." I was breathing heavy.
"I think you got a problem."
"So what if I do?"
"Maybe I can help you with it."
"Can you kill somebody for me?" he said finally, his voice ragged.
I knew he meant it as a rhetorical question. But I answered him straight up.
I took the kid across the street and bought him some chicken fingers, fries and a root beer while I had coffee and blueberry pie. He picked at his food as I dug into mine.
The silence settled over us like a wooly blanket. I figured, a kid like this, the best thing is wait him out. My patience paid off. I was licking the last crumbs of pie crust off my fork when he said, "My mom's a whore."
"That's pretty harsh," I said. "Not to mention disrespectful."
"No, she really is a whore. For money."
He told me his mom worked nights as a cocktail waitress at Julio's, an after-hours club over in Alphabet City. Sometimes she didn't come home until noon; sometimes she didn't come home at all. Sometimes she came home and brought a man with her. When that happened Willie had to leave, which wasn't a terrible hardship most days because he had school anyway. Winter and Spring breaks and summers were a real drag, though.
When he stopped talking I stared out the window at the rush-hour traffic, not saying anything, giving the kid room. He mistook my silence.
"She's a good mom," he said defiantly. "She's trying to save up so I can go to college."
"I wasn't judging," I said. "You gonna eat those fries?"
He gave me the go ahead so I dipped a few golden sticks into ketchup and popped them into my mouth. The food was good here, they used a very high grade of trans-fat.
Willie relaxed a little.
I dabbed at my mouth with a napkin. "So what's the problem?"
It began when he came home from school one afternoon and walked in on his mom sitting at the kitchen table across from a guy he'd never seen before. The guy wore gold chains and a black porkpie hat with a red feather in the hatband. He wasn't acting like a typical trick.
"This your boy?" Porkpie asked Willie's mom, when Willie entered the kitchen.
"Yeah," she said.
"Tell him, wait outside."
"Willie," his mom said.
But Willie didn't leave. He slipped off his backpack and parked himself just outside the kitchen door, listening. He heard Porkpie lay out his proposition, all polite and businesslike. It was a standard, boilerplate pimp-hooker verbal contract, meaning she did all the work and took all the risks and he collected fifty percent in exchange for management and security. Willie's mom, also polite and businesslike, declined. She didn't need management or security. She'd been flying solo all these years; she never paid tax to Uncle Sam and would be damned if she'd pay any to some creepo with gold chains and a black hat.
Porkpie seemed not to take offense. He simply urged her to reconsider—this could be a dangerous neighborhood, something could happen to her. Or her boy.
Hearing that, Willie moved into the kitchen quick and stealthy as an alley cat, inched up behind Porkpie and pressed a switchblade against his throat.
The pimp was so surprised he couldn't even react. Unless you call sitting stone still and not moving anything but your eyeballs and sphincter muscle reacting.
Willie told him, get out and never come near him or his mom again. Porkpie left without saying another word. He didn't have to, his eyes said it all.
I could've predicted what happened next.
Porkpie and two goons greeted Willie on his way to school the next morning. They worked him over good. Porkpie was a sensible businessman, he saw no profit in disfiguring a potential moneymaker, so beating the son was a practical alternative. As Porkpie wiped his bloody knuckles on Willie's jacket he promised the beatings would continue until his mom grew some sense. And if Willie ever threatened him with a knife again he'd take it and shove it up his ass. Willie believed him, which is what brought him to the library seeking a solution.
What impressed me, the kid didn't whine. His hole cards were deuce-seven but he intended to play them as best he could. He knew what he had to do. Most kids his age, all they know is what they learn watching SpongeBob SquarePants. But this kid was real.
So I offered my services.
"I can't pay you nothing," he said.
At times I worked pro bono. This was one of those times.
In the years I'd been hiring out as a protectionist I found that about a quarter of the time violence wasn't necessary. In those cases, I approached the subject in a calm and reasonable manner, presented myself as a serious person, and they would step off, letting go of whatever beef they had. And my client would get his or her life back. And peace of mind.
Then there were the other times when I knew I'd be wasting my breath talking and more persuasive measures were called for. That's why my first step, once my contract was made, was to get a read on the subject. Was he reasonable or emotional? Did he have something to prove? Was he a tough guy, wiseguy, bully, player or psychopath? Or some combination thereof? After I had a read I would decide what approach to take.
My plan was to watch Porkpie for a while, see how he rolled. Willie wanted to come with me. I nixed that idea right off. First of all, I worked alone. Second, he had school. Third...he was just a kid.
He insisted. "Look at my face," he said. "A guy does this to you, would you walk away? I want to be there when the sonofabitch goes down. Otherwise, forget it, I'll handle it myself."
He was a blood-thirsty, persistent little bastard, I had to give him that. I was tempted to walk away. I should've walked away. Instead I agreed—he could come with me, provided he stayed in the background and kept his mouth shut. And only if he didn't miss any school.
You want to locate a rat, look in rat holes. So Willie and I cruised 28th Street, talking to the ladies on the corners. You pay them money, you hire their time; in this case, for conversation only. None of them seemed surprised or put off to see Willie in the van with me, which made me wonder, how many johns brought their kids along?
No joy. Nobody seemed to know a pimp matching Porkpie's description. At least they wouldn't admit it to me. Porkpie was making me work, which I really resented.
This was Friday. Willie suggested we wait until Monday morning, when he headed for school. Porkpie would be waiting for him, I could get him then. That made sense but I didn't like using the kid as bait. Besides, I wanted to get a fix on Porkpie first.
So I went to another source.
"Look around," I said to Willie, back at the library. "What do you see?"
He was getting annoyed. "Nothing. Tables, chairs, people, I don't know."
"That's right," I said. "People."
There's more information in a neighborhood library, I told him, than just what's in the stacks and racks. Consider these people -– old folks, students and regular citizens...but also hopheads, winos, loonies, beggars, grifters and homeless. You ask the right person, you can find out just about anything happening on the streets. That's why I stayed on good terms with the street people, even letting drunks and derelicts sleep it off at the carrels once in a while; that is, until their snoring disturbed the tax-payers, then I'd give them the boot.
I introduced Willie to one of my regulars, Tamaray, a six-foot-two tranny who used to make a nice living working the meatpacking district until the area was gentrified. He still works the district, but now as a female tour guide. Tourists loved to have their photos taken with him/her so they could show the folks back home how they took a walk on the wild side.
Tamaray always came in on Fridays to return the two books he had borrowed the previous week. Always Friday, always two books. Willie complimented him on his flaming orange hair and matching Fall colors ensemble. Tamaray beamed. I thought, this kid's definitely got the touch.
Tamaray didn't have a line on Porkpie but when we told him the pimp was the one who rearranged Willie's face, he went outside to make a couple of phone calls.
"You know the courts on Cherry Street?" Tamaray said, a few minutes later.
"I know them," Willie volunteered.
I knew them too, but I let Willie feel he was contributing.
"The guy you're looking for, black hat, red feather, he sometimes shoots hoops there."
We thanked Tamaray. He kissed Willie on the cheek and wished us luck.
It wasn't hard to spot Porkpie at the outdoor basketball courts. He was the obnoxious, aggressive, dirty player. And considering the neighborhood ballers that hung out there, that was saying something.
Once we had him it was easy to set up a surveillance. Willie and I spent most of the weekend watching him. I showed Willie how to observe the target without getting burned. I taught him the difference between foot shadowing and mobile surveillance; I described the front tail, pass-by, leap-frog, sandwich and parallel tail.
Willie was a quick and willing student. And smart. I have to admit I liked having the kid around, someone to talk with, impart wisdom to.
It didn't take me long to find out what I needed to know about Porkpie. Man, was he a hard piece of work.
It wasn't enough for him to take his girls' hard-earned money, he had to abuse and debase them as well. Saturday afternoon we saw him drag one of his girls into an alley next to a brown dumpster. After he sampled his own wares, he picked her up and threw her in with the trash, then walked out of the alley, laughing. He did the same thing Saturday night—same alley, same brown dumpster, different girl.
He didn't strike me as the kind of person you could reason with. It was going to be a pleasure taking this guy down.
Late Sunday afternoon, with the egg yolk sun sinking behind the rooftops, I met up with Willie near Pitt Street Park. He was shaking, and it wasn't from the Autumn chill. He told me Porkpie had caught his mom an hour ago as she was coming home from Safeway with a bag full of frozen dinners. She liked to stock up for the coming week, make sure Willie had enough to eat. Porkpie took the bag from her, stomped it and told her she'd better stock up on baby food because her boy wasn't going to have any teeth to chew with.
"I never seen my mom scared like that," Willie said.
"Where is she now?" I asked.
"Work. Before she left she made me promise not to leave the house."
He wanted to go after Porkpie there and then. I told him not yet. He got agitated: if I wasn't willing he'd do it alone.
"First of all," I said, "never go after a subject angry. You're not objective, you make mistakes, you overlook details and you disregard consequences. You always got to consider consequences."
"Fuck consequences. My mom –"
"Don't worry about your mom. If he was going to hurt her he'd've done it. You're the one he'll come after."
"No, he won't," Willie declared. "Because I'm going after him first."
"No, you're not," I said. "You're not ready."
"We know where he lives, where he goes...how ready do we need to be?"
"I'll tell you when it's time."
Willie stared at me for a second. "You're chicken shit," he said, and walked away.
I knew there was no sense trying to talk him out of it. The late, great Harry Chapin wrote, "Sometimes words can serve you well, and sometimes words can go to hell." This was go to hell time. I grabbed Willie's jacket and pulled him toward my van. He struggled and cursed at me but I held fast. As I opened the passenger door, he slipped out of his jacket and took off running west on Stanton Street. I couldn't help noting with approval that he ran opposite traffic on this one-way street, no use getting in my van. I chased him on foot until he turned north onto Ridge Street and I lost him.
Ten minutes later I cruised past Willie's building. But he knew my van and my methods and I didn't think I'd have much chance of snaring him there. So I drove to Porkpie's street. It was a long shot that I'd catch Willie there but I had to try.
I was beginning to sweat. Where would Willie go to wait for the target? Then it hit me: I was the one who taught him, he'd go where I would go.
I double parked near the entrance to the alley with the brown dumpster and approached on foot. If Willie was there like I figured, I intended to back his play, not blow it. But when I heard the screams, I started running.
I rounded the corner. What I saw made my blood turn cold. And then hot.
Willie was draped over the edge of the dumpster, like a dishtowel on a rack. A kitchen knife protruded from his neck. The hooker was on her knees, hands over her ears to block out the sound of her own screams. Porkpie was slapping her to get her to shut up. But she kept screaming. Then Porkpie saw me.
"Get outa here, muhfugga," he said.
I ignored him and went to Willie. The blond hair at the top of his head was dark with blood that was beginning to clot. Flies were gathering. There was no pulse.
"It wasn't my fault," Porkpie said. "The fool kid jumped up out of the trash bin like a damn jack-in-the box, with that damn knife in his hand. He was looking to kill me. She'll tell you. Only he came up so fast the lid bounced back and hit him on the head. Fool kid."
"The lid stick the knife in his neck, too?" I said, as I looked around the alley. I spotted what I needed and went to pick it up.
"Man's got a right to defend himself," Porkpie said.
"He was just a kid," I said, reasonably, as I approached Porkpie with the two-foot length of corroded galvanized pipe in my hand.
"A kid with a blade," he said, backing away. "Whatchoo doin, man?"
I could've talked some more but, as Harry said, sometimes words can go to hell.
Which is where I sent Porkpie.
Nobody at my arraignment seemed overly grief-stricken at Porkpie's demise (I discovered his name was Anthony Soler...but he'll always be Porkpie to me).
The vigilante defense didn't sit well with the judge.
"If I let citizens go around beating all the slimeballs to death in alleys with metal pipes," he said, "I'd be out of a job."
Still, the overriding sentiment was, the world was a better place without Mister Soler. Which may be why the judge let me cop to second degree manslaughter, five years, out in three with good behavior.
The three years, two months and thirteen days I spent at the Fishkill Correctional Facility were okay. After what I let happen to Willie, I needed penance. So I stayed respectful and did my own time. The last two years I even managed to get assigned to the prison library.
Willie's mom came to visit me a couple of times out of gratitude for killing the sonofabitch who killed her boy. I didn't tell her about the relationship Willie and I had. Why burden her with details? Better to let her think I was a good Samaritan who tried to perform a random act of senseless kindness. She invited me to visit her when I got out. I liked her but that won't happen.
They wouldn't give me my old job back at the Seward Park Branch; apparently there's some rule about convicted felons working at the public library. But that's okay, they can't ban me from hanging out there, and it's still a good place to pick up clients.
I resumed my job as protectionist full time. I still hurt people for money, but only when necessary. But not kids. I never hurt kids.