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Z-Day Minus 6

“Tonight is the night that will change the world!” Andrew typed into the status box of his Facebook page. “Tonight the Shadow Warrior will slip out of his lair, as silent as a . . .”

He paused, his two index fingers poised over the keyboard of the laptop, struggling to come up with an image that would convey stealth, power and sudden viciousness. He scrunched up his face and closed his eyes, like a powerlifter steeling himself to hoist a weight that no man had lifted before. A minute passed before his expression relaxed. He allowed himself a tiny smile, popped a red Skittle into his mouth from the open bag next to the laptop, and started tapping again on the keyboard.

“. . . as silent as a panther to pounce on criminals and bullies.”

Perfect. He banged the Enter key, broadcasting his declaration to a world hungry for a new hero.

The Shadow Warrior was none other than Andrew himself, a pudgy twenty-year-old who was not like most twenty-year-olds. He rode a bike that sported a banana seat and two handlebar mirrors. He’d never been able to get the hang of skateboarding and no one had even thought to ask him if he wanted to learn to drive a car. Too shy to talk to girls, he’d never gone on a date, unless you count the time, as Andrew did, that one of the Special Ed teachers in high school had taken Andrew and four other students to see Avatar and Andrew sat next to Jessica Pollard and shared his Skittles with her, their forearms touching. Andrew had clear blue eyes and always seemed to be smiling for no reason. He wore T-shirts that were a shade too tight; his belly would stick out of the gap between the shirt and his waistband, which he didn’t seem to notice. When he wore what he called a button shirt, he liked to button the top button. His approach to conversation usually meant blurting out odd facts from a mental storehouse that he stocked through hours of reading, usually submerged up to his chin in the long hot baths he took at least twice a day. He had a part-time job as a costumed character at an amusement park, and made $67.42 per week after taxes, which seemed like a lot. His lair—the Shadow Warrior’s lair—was the cramped apartment he shared with his sister Jana and their cat Spunky. Jana, who was really good with computers and the Internet, had set up the Shadow Warrior’s Facebook page that he was now updating. It featured a photo of Andrew in a black ski mask that wasn’t exactly standard ninja issue, but close enough. In the photo, a selfie, only the bridge of his nose and his eyes were visible. You could almost tell that he was squinting, like a predator sighting his prey.

Carefully hunting the keyboard for the right keys, he continued typing. “Warning to evil-doers: You won’t know he’s there until it’s too late and . . .”

And what? He bit the inside of his cheek and rubbed his head. He could get really frustrated really quickly, but he took a deep breath the way Jana had taught him, waiting for an inspiration, which finally came to him.

“. . . and his fists of fury rain down on you.”

Satisfied, he hit Enter. Less than a minute later, Ricky Wakefield chimed in, his comment appearing beneath Andrew’s post.

“That’s totally week! Hahaha!!! Fists of fury? You think your Bruce Lee????”

“That’s not how you spell weak,” Andrew typed in reply. He was an incessant reader—though these days he rarely strayed beyond the same four dog-eared books about ninjas—and a good speller, which he was proud of.

Ricky Wakefield was one of his two Facebook friends. Like Andrew, he worked at the Bay-View Boardwalk where they were both mascots. Ricky was Toby the Sea Turtle. Andrew was the Smiles Ambassador. Ricky was always showing off and he could be kind of a jerk. He thought he was funny—writing hahaha after almost every comment he posted. Jana said that Andrew could unfriend him, but then Andrew would only one other Facebook friend, Jana, and she was his sister, so he wasn’t sure she could really be his friend. But she said she could, and they left it at that.

Another comment from Ricky appeared on the Shadow Warrior’s Facebook page. “Bruce Lee would eat you for lunch!!!”

He knew that if he responded the back and forth would never end, and he had more important things to do, namely saving the world from bullies and other evil-doers. But he couldn’t push himself away from his laptop before typing one last post: My actions will tell my story. The world won’t know me, but they will know about me.” That was pretty good; it didn’t sound like he was bragging, just stating the facts. “And with each foe that I vanquish,” he added, “my legend will grow.”

Ricky Wakefield had to have the last word. “Hahaha!!! Good one!”

As difficult as it was, he shut down the laptop and pushed himself away so he could focus on readying himself to make the world a safer place. Where mothers could walk their children to school without worrying about child molesters following them. Where women didn’t have to worry about being grabbed by gropers. And where guys like Andrew who were minding their own business wouldn’t be made fun of all the time.

There wasn’t much more he had to do to get ready. He was already wearing most of his Shadow Warrior outfit—a pair of black cargo pants, a black turtleneck and black high-top basketball shoes. He strapped on a black web utility belt that held his phone, a flashlight that he could use to shine the light of justice in the dark corners of the savage streets, and his only weapon—a short wooden ninja training sword called a bokken that he’d purchased on the Internet after a long negotiation with Jana, who thought it could poke someone’s eye out.

He’d pulled on the black balaclava ski mask that he’d bought at Walmart a few weeks back, and then added a final touch to his costume—another Walmart purchase—plastic safety goggles that fitted tightly to his face, held in place by a thick elastic band.

Satisfied that he’d gotten every detail of his uniform just right, he stood in front of the mirror that hung above Jana’s dresser. His feet planted widely, he placed his hands on his hips, thrust his shoulders back, and sucked in his belly, marveling at the transformation. He could feel the Shadow Warrior’s power all the way to the tips of his fingers. He whirled to the left and then to the right. He crouched in fighting stances, his hands held in front of him like a karate fighter, ready to block a deadly blow or deliver one. He ran to the couch in front of the television, jumped up on the armrest and shadow-kicked an imaginary foe, which caused him to lose his balance and almost fall backwards. Catching himself, he pulled the bokken out of its loop on his belt and waved it menacingly. He slashed at an imaginary attacker so enthusiastically that he knocked off a framed photograph of his grandmother, which luckily landed in the clothes hamper next to the dresser, the frame dinged a little, but nothing broken.

Now he was ready. It was time for the Shadow Warrior to venture forth on his first patrol.

Before he left the apartment, he ate a few more Skittles to give himself extra energy, carefully picking out the green Skittles, which he put into a large fishbowl. He hated the green ones; they made him think of Kryptonite. He checked the big digital watch on his wrist. He was fascinated by clocks and watches and timetables. Sometimes he stared at his watch’s display for long stretches, trying to anticipate the instant when the digits would change, his favorite being the complete rollover over at the turn of an hour, when every digit would change at once, like a fresh squad of numbers materializing out of nowhere to report for duty. But he couldn’t get stuck on his watch and the unstoppable advance of time, not tonight. It was 9:27. Jana didn’t get home from her night class until after 10:30. So he had time, but not much time, if he wanted to get in some crime fighting and be home in bed by the time she checked in on him.

When he opened the door to step outside Spunky raced between his legs like a black streak and escaped. She wasn’t supposed to go outside after dark, and Jana wasn’t going to be happy if the cat was gone when she got home, but he couldn’t worry about that now. The crime-ridden streets were waiting for a hero.

Their apartment occupied the back of an old house that had been carved up into four rental units, each with one bedroom, a tiny bathroom, kitchen and living room space. The entry to their unit faced a dark, vacant lot, so once he got past the weak illumination cast by the naked bulb over their apartment door, he was able to slip into the gloomy night undetected by his enemies. Hugging the side of the house, he turned into an alley that connected to a shadowy grid of backstreets that served as a secondary circulation system in the old neighborhood. The alleyways were the best way to get around without being seen. Out on the street you were exposed, but in the alleys you could stay hidden, watchful, ready to spring from hiding to confront the forces of evil.

As he walked, staying on the balls of his feet, ready for action, he scanned his surroundings carefully. Something caught his eye—a movement, a shadow darting along the wall to his left.

“Spunky, go home,” he hissed. “You can’t follow me.” It didn’t do any good. She never listened. Sometimes he wondered what the big deal was with cats. Other times, when she curled on his lap and purred as he watched television or read, he got it. But tonight she would just be getting in the way.

The neighborhood they lived in was called River Flats—fifteen blocks of shabby low-rent houses, creaky wooden apartment buildings, corner markets, Laundromats and hole-in-the-wall eateries jammed in between the Milagros River levee and the Bay-View Boardwalk, a slightly rundown vintage amusement park strung along a half mile of beach on the Monterey Bay, where he worked from noon to four. Looming above the Flats was the snaky silhouette of the Giant Anaconda, a rickety wooden roller coaster whose claim to fame was its title as “The West Coast’s Oldest Roller Coaster”, a boast by the Bay-View management that many people read as a warning label. Up until 9 PM, when the park closed, the screams of riders pierced the night; but it was quiet now, the roller coaster illuminated by a string of lights, a snaky, humpy outline against the dark sky. At the ride’s highest point, where the cars paused after their first labored ascent before hurtling downward, a tired American flag flanked by four colorful pennants fluttered in a spotlight.

When they first moved into their apartment two months earlier, Jana had laid down a few hard rules. Always lock the doors; don’t leave the apartment after 7 PM, and don’t even think about going to the Bay-View after dark. That was a lot to ask. Andrew had decided that as long as Jana didn’t find out, he would explore wherever he wanted. He wasn’t a kid anymore, after all. But it was true—after darkness fell the Flats got a little scary. He’d seen the dope sellers hanging out on the street corners, the women in their short tight skirts who approached the cars that had slowed down, leaning in to talk to the drivers, sometimes getting into the passenger side. He’d watched as they disappeared into shadowy doorways when police cars cruised by, the way the cockroaches in their kitchen ran for the cracks in the baseboards when he turned on the lights at night. Once he saw a three young Mexican guys chase another guy, catch him and beat him, everyone yelling in a scary way. After the attackers fled, spooked by one of the neighbors shouting out a window, Andrew tentatively approached the victim of the assault, who was slowly picking himself up off the sidewalk. Andrew was ashamed that he didn’t have the courage to do anything to stop the beating, and confused when the guy who’d gotten beaten up took off running before he had a chance to even ask if he could help.

The experience troubled him. After thinking it over the next few days and consulting the ninja books that served as his reference library, he came up with the inspiration for the Shadow Warrior. The Shadow Warrior would be brave and powerful, a fighter skilled in the ninja arts of combat and stealth. The Shadow Warrior wouldn’t have actual super powers, but he would have Truth and Justice on his side, and Truth and Justice were more powerful than any weapon a criminal could wield.

His code, which he had labored over for hours before carefully printing it on a sheet of cardboard that he tacked on the wall, read:

EVIL PEOPLE ARE YOUR ENEMIES, AND THEY MUST BE VANQUISHED, ESPECIALLY BULLIES

COMPLETE YOUR MISSION BY ANY MEANS, FAIR OR FOUL, BUT MOSTLY FAIR

DON’T BE MEAN TO PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT BEING MEAN TO YOU

DON’T BRAG ABOUT YOUR VICTORIES

Over the next week or so he assembled the Shadow Warrior’s costume. When he first pulled on the ski mask and strapped on the safety goggles, he felt an almost holy power descend upon him. Looking into the mirror, he didn’t see Andrew—he saw a champion for honesty, decency and kindness. And tonight, as he marched forward toward destiny, he walked with strength and confidence. He wasn’t exactly sure how he was going to combat evil when he saw it, but he was determined to start his crusade.

He fished a couple of Skittles from his pocket, avoiding the green ones, and popped them into his mouth.

He lingered at the end of the alleyway, where it teed into Barson Street, peering out into the streetscape. Fog had crept in from the bay, dimming the brightness of the few streetlights that hadn’t been broken. Cars drove slowly through the grainy yellowish twilight, their drivers indistinct shadows within.

Looking to his left, he saw a young woman standing on the curb about ten yards away. He thought she might be a prostitute. Andrew knew that prostitutes got paid for S-E-X, though he hadn’t quite figured out why that was so wrong. It didn’t matter, because it was against the Law, and the Shadow Warrior had sworn to defend the Law to his last breath.

She didn’t see him at first as he approached. When she did turn to turn to take him in a look of utter confusion came across her face. She was black and skinny. A tight turquoise miniskirt rode high on her hips. She wore bright red lipstick and her bangs were upswept from her forehead in a stiff crest. She clutched a small purse.

“Are you a prostitute?” Andrew asked.

“I’m a meter maid, sugar. What you doin’ out here dressed like that, like it’s Halloween.”

“If you’re a prostitute you have to leave. You’re breaking the law.”

“And just who the hell are you?”

Andrew hesitated. This was his chance to announce the arrival of a new champion and he didn’t want to blow it. “The Shadow Warrior”.

“The what?”

He’d put in hours practicing in front of Jana’s mirror, not only his fighting moves, but also the stern warnings he’d make to crooks and villains when he confronted them. He was surprised that his declaration hadn’t made more of an impact. His words needed more confidence, he decided, maybe even a little touch of arrogance.

He squared his shoulders, lowered his voice and concentrated on getting every syllable right. “The Shadow Warrior.”

She looked around, then back at Andrew, like maybe someone was playing a joke. “You prankin’ me? Someone hiding around here somewhere taking a video, gonna put it up on YouTube?”

“I’m cleaning the streets of human scum,” Andrew explained, hoping that would clear things up.

“And who would that be?” She paused, but Andrew didn’t really think she was waiting for him to answer. “Me? I’m the scum?” She looked angry, and maybe a little hurt. Now he felt bad. Maybe he’d made a mistake. He was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

“Are you really a meter maid?” He squinted to look at her more closely. His goggles were fogging up.

“I got no time for this bullshit. Look Bug-Eyes, you got thirty bucks, I’ll take you down that alley and show you a good a time. Otherwise, get the hell away from me.”

Andrew wasn’t sure what his next move should be. The prostitute had turned away from him, like she had decided to ignore him. A car slowed as it passed, the driver eyeing them, laughing and shaking his head for some reason. Andrew walked up to the girl again. She had taken her phone out of her purse and was texting rapidly with the clicking tips of her long shiny silver fingernails.

“I don’t think you’re really a meter maid,” Andrew told her. Still trying to be helpful, he said, “You should become a geisha. Geishas are highly trained courtesans,” he recited from memory, “who entertain men with arts like singing.”

Now she was really upset. “I told you to mind your own damn business!” she flared. “Take your crazy-ass self and bug-eyed goggles and get on down the road.” She tapped out another text and stared at her phone.

“Is that an iPhone?” Andrew asked. “My sister has an iPhone.”

What she did next, she did so quickly that Andrew didn’t have time to react. Shooting out a long, skinny arm, she grabbed his goggles, pulled them roughly off his face, and side-armed them twenty yards down the street. The goggles bounced when they landed, then skidded another five yards before coming to a stop. Andrew’s ski mask had gotten pulled down over his eyes. He pulled it up so he could see and located the goggles, then looked back at the prostitute. He felt like he was going to cry, which was the last thing he wanted to do.

“Why did you do that?” he asked, his voice cracking.

“Why you goin’ around harrassin’ people?” she fired back. “Why you dressed up all crazy like that? Why you want to keep gettin’ in my face?”

“Because I’m the Shadow Warrior. It’s what I do.”

“Yeah, you told me that. Now look here—you better go run after your stupid-ass goggles before a car runs them over and messes them up.”

He’d paid $7.95 for the goggles, and didn’t want to see his investment get smashed under the wheels of a car, so he ran to pick them up, sprinting with his poorly coordinated, slap-footed gait, which wasn’t efficient, but fast enough to allow him to grab the goggles seconds before a jacked-up Chevy Trailblazer could squash them flat.

A close call, he thought, breathing hard as he watched the Trailblazer’s red tail lights glide down the street. Scary, but exciting.

Now his goggles were really fogged up. Before he put them back on, he used his shirt to wipe the lenses. He looked back down the street and saw that the prostitute was gone. She must have gotten the message: criminals and lawbreakers were no longer welcome on the streets of River Flats, not while the Shadow Warrior was on patrol.

He felt more confident now. Maybe cleaning up the streets wouldn’t be as hard as he thought it would be. But it did make him thirsty.

A block and a half down Barson Street was a corner market, La Tiendita; its junk food selection exerted a powerful magnetic force that pulled Andrew through the store’s battered front door. He had gotten into the habit of coming in almost nightly, and always followed the same routine, which required him to stand for several minutes in front of the displays of candies and salty snacks with a thoughtful frown on his face, as though he was pondering the many choices before him. In the end, he always chose the same things—a bag of original Skittles from the candy display, Flaming Hot Cheetos from the rack of salty snacks, and a bottle of Tutifruti Jarritos from the soda case.

The clerk’s name was Lupe. He was short, about fifty, with hooded eyes and a gaze that said he didn’t have to travel around the world; he’d seen it all from his vantage point behind the cash register at La Tiendita. He’d been busy when Andrew walked in, selling a pack of Virginia Slims and a lottery ticket to a big blond woman whose low-cut blouse held his full attention. He only took Andrew’s measure when he stepped up to the counter, looking him up and down, moving only his eyes. Andrew placed his provisions on the counter. He was hoping that Lupe wouldn’t recognize him. It seemed important to keep his real identity secret, and yet he was desperate to see if he was making an impression, even creating the tiniest flicker of interest. But Lupe’s deadpan expression didn’t change as he rang him up.

“$3.85,” he said.

Andrew searched three of the six pockets of his cargo pants before he found the crumpled $5 bill he’d squirreled away before setting out on his mission. He straightened it out a little before laying the bill on the counter. He watched Lupe make his change.

“Lupe, it’s me,” he blurted, unable to contain himself. “It’s Andrew.” He lifted his goggles and then his ski mask to show more of his face.

Lupe slid a dollar bill, a dime and a nickel across the counter. “You’re shittin’ me,” he said. His weary sarcasm was lost on Andrew. “What you up to? You going to a party or something?”

“I’m cleaning up the streets.”

“You need a broom? I think we got brooms over in that corner near the cleaning supplies.”

“Ha ha, very funny. It’s more like cleaning crime off the streets.”

“Oh, OK,” Lupe said, playing along a little. “Then you’re like a super-hero.”

Andrew nodded happily. “Kind of. But not exactly like a super-hero. I’m the Shadow Warrior.”

“Shadow Warrior,” Lupe repeated, like he was trying out the idea, measuring its possibilities. “What’s your super power?”

“Well, I don’t really have super powers. It’s more like I’m a deadly ninja fighter who can sneak up on you, like if you were committing a crime, and stop you.”

“Stop me how?”

“Like with ninjitsu.” Andrew had memorized a definition from one of his books, which he thought might be helpful to share with Lupe. “It’s a complete fighting system incorporating physical, mental and spiritual aspects developed in ancient Japan. 

Lupe was having a little fun with it now. “So you’re saying you chase down bad guys and kick the crap out of them when you catch them?”

“Only if they won’t cooperate.”

“Don’t cooperate how? Like if they won’t let you walk them down to the cop shop?”

Andrew shrugged. Since he hadn’t dealt with any real criminals yet, he wasn’t sure how he was going to handle that part. “Or if they don’t promise to stop committing crimes.”

“So that’s how it goes? You ask the bad guys to just go straight, that’ll turn them around? They’ll cut out all the bullshit?”

Andrew hesitated. He didn’t like answering a lot of questions. Jana did that a lot and it made him upset. He grabbed his Tutifruti soda, Skittles and Flaming Hot Cheetos.

“Don’t forget your change,” Lupe said.

Juggling his purchases, Andrew picked up his change and shoved it into a pocket. He fumbled the nickel, which dropped to the floor and rolled under the counter. As much as he wanted to retrieve it, he decided that it wouldn’t look right for the Shadow Warrior to be on his hands and knees, grubbing around for five cents.

“I’ve got to go,” he said.

“That’s right. You got some crime to fight,” Lupe agreed, nodding. “You be careful out there,” he added as Andrew left the store. “Serious. There’s some bad dudes out there who don’t like super-heroes or ninjas or whatever telling them what to do.”

It wasn’t Andrew’s way to just scarf down junk food. He had to follow a sequence. If he didn’t follow the sequence, it wasn’t as good. He didn’t know why that was, and he didn’t ask himself why. The first thing he had to do was find a comfortable spot where he could sit, with enough light to see what he was doing. Not far from La Tiendita, he found a doorway with an overhead light and sat on the doorstep. He set his Skittles and the bottle of Tutifruti soda down next to him, and carefully tore open the bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos. Cheetos first, that’s how he did it. The light overhead was essential because he had to examine each Cheeto after he’d pulled it out of the bag, turning it carefully close to his eyes, before popping it into his mouth. He let the Cheeto rest lightly on his tongue, getting the first taste of salt and heat and cheese dust before moving it back to his grinding molars, where all of the flavors were released in a crunchy explosion. Following this sequence, he consumed the bag of Cheetos slowly, one at a time, every couple of minutes sucking the sticky orange dust off his fingers. It was only after he’d gone through the entire bag and the little Cheeto nuggets at the bottom that he twisted off the cap of the Tutifruti soda and took a long glugging swallow. The sparkly carbonated sweetness of the soda after the salt and heat of the Cheetos was intense, and so wonderful that he had to force himself not to gulp it down at once.

He relaxed, took a deep breath, and then carefully tore open the bag of Skittles. One of the things that he especially liked about Skittles was how you got so many of them, and how when you first got into a bag, it seemed like you could keep eating them one at a time and never run out, especially if you took your time. He liked the red Skittles best, so he ate them first. Then the orange, purple and yellow Skittles, in that order. The green Skittles he saved to add to the fishbowl at home, folding the bag over until it was a smaller package, which he stuffed into a pocket.

He was tempted to call it a night. His first outing had been pretty successful, he thought, and he wanted to get home before Jana returned. He pictured himself in bed, playing Return of the Ninja on his Gameboy when she got back. Maybe he could coax Spunky back inside and get her to curl up on his stomach and purr.

Without really deciding to, he started on a different route back home, circling around the block rather than doubling back, walking down Barson toward Linden, which would take him to the front of his apartment house. When he turned down Linden, he saw three guys walking toward him, two wearing dark hoodies, the third in an over-sized plaid flannel shirt with the shirttails hanging out. They walked shoulder to shoulder, taking up the sidewalk. A knot of fear bunched in Andrew’s stomach as they drew closer. Were these the guys who had beaten up the kid the other night? The way they were coming at him—cocky, swaggering—made him want to melt away into the shadows, but it was too late to escape their notice. And he didn’t want to run, because running would only make him more of a target. Besides, he told himself, the Shadow Warrior wouldn’t run. The Shadow Warrior would stand his ground—which is what he did, mainly because when it came down to it, he didn’t know what else to do.

He saw them trading glances as they approached, smiling, talking to each other in Spanish, checking him out.

“Who you suppose to be?” one of them asked, the guy in the flannel shirt, who was bigger than the other two, with broad shoulders. He was about eighteen. They were right up on him now. Andrew clenched and unclenched his hands nervously.

He took his time, wanting to say it clearly. “The Shadow Warrior.”

“I never heard of you, Chadow Warrior. You new around here?”

One of the hoodies, who was short and fat, said, “You shouldn’t be out on the street like that, with that mask and shit. You gonna scare people.”

“The only people who should be scared of me are criminals.” It was a line Andrew had practiced in front of the mirror and he thought he’d actually made it sound pretty good.

Surprisingly, they all thought that was funny. “Criminales? What you gonna to do to criminales?”

“I’m going to bring them to justice.”

“Chustice? Where’s that at?”

“It’s not a place,” Andrew said, thinking maybe the reason they didn’t understand him was because they didn’t speak English very well. “It’s a—” A what? “Justice is like when you do something bad you get punished for it.”

“Something bad? Like taking some idiota’s money?” Flannel Shirt asked. They were crowding him now.

“Yes. That would be stealing.”

“Why you wearing these gafas?” the fat guy asked, tapping the lens of his goggles. He was close enough that Andrew could see that one of his front teeth was rimmed in gold.

“For protection,” Andrew said.

“For when you’re fighting? Fighting criminales?”

The fat guy pulled the goggles from his face and let them snap back.

“Hey! That hurt!” Andrew cried.

They were having fun, egging each other on now. A surge of anger welled up in Andrew’s chest that he fought to choke back. His hands stiffened, two deadly fighting blades that it might be time to unleash. “I am an expert in martial arts,” he warned them.

The other kid wearing a hoodie, who had a narrow, mocking face, was checking out Andrew’s utility belt. With a quick movement that Andrew wasn’t prepared for, he grabbed the wooden sword, pulled it away from the belt and started waving it over his head.

“This is my machic sword,” Skinny Hoodie crowed. “Look like wood but cut like steel!”

“That’s a bokken. Ninjas practice with it.”

Frustration was boiling up inside of Andrew now. He knew when guys were making fun of him. Bullies. Bullies were as bad as criminals. They’d be sorry they picked on the Shadow Warrior.

Andrew reached for the bokken, but the guy who’d grabbed it easily avoided him. Dancing backwards, he parried Andrew’s outstretched arm.

“Why you don’t have a real sword, Señor Nincha?” he taunted.

“Because if I had a real blade,” he replied, repeating Jana’s response when he had asked her the same question, “I could kill someone. Now give it back.”

“You gonna have to take it back, Señor Nincha!”

Andrew went into a fighting crouch. The time for talk was over.

“Watch out, he’s gonna go all Kung Fu on us,” the big guy in the flannel shirt laughed, mimicking Andrew’s karate pose. Andrew flailed at him with his arms. With an amused smile, Flannel Shirt grabbed one of Andrew’s wrists and held him. His eyes darted to Andrew’s utility belt. Andrew tried to pull his wrist free, but the big guy was strong.

“What else you got in that belt?” he asked, snatching Andrew’s phone from its holster with his free hand.

“Hey, that’s mine!”

The big guy held it up close to his eyes, letting it catch the light from a streetlight so he could examine it. The phone was a basic device, with no Internet connectivity and extra-large raised keys, which Andrew needed if he was to have a chance at successfully dialing a number. Flannel Shirt shook his head. “This piece of shit’s not a phone.” He tossed it to the fat guy.

“It is too a phone,” Andrew told him, almost sobbing now, which made him even angrier. He tried to kick his assailant, but missed widely.

The fat guy said, “It’s a pinche toy, pendejo.” He threw it on the ground and stomped it to pieces.

“What else you got? You got money?”

Andrew pulled his flashlight out, but before he could switch it on, the guy who’d taken his sword knocked it out of his hand.

Then he was being pushed to the ground as he lashed out with his free arm and kicked wildly. He heard them laughing, and felt their kicks hit heavily against his back, the side of his head. He tried to shout for help, but his voice sounded strange, almost like a cat screaming, and he wasn’t able to form words. Reflexively, he covered his face with his arms and curled up into a fetal position, closing his tearing eyes as tightly as he could, waiting for the attack to be over. They roughly went through his pockets, cursing and laughing, finding only the change left over from his junk food purchase and the green Skittles.

“That’s it?” one of them asked, maybe the big guy in the flannel shirt. “Hey nincha, you don’t got no wallet”

Another voice said, “Ninchas don’t carry no wallets.”

“He’s a nincha from the barrio, cabrón. Barrio ninchas got no money.”

“Ain’t got shit. And can’t fight. You better go back to nincha school, estúpido. Else you’re gonna get hurt.” With that parting advice, and one last kick for emphasis, they left him. Andrew could hear them running away down the street, whooping and laughing.

He lay motionless for a few minutes, his eyes still tightly shut, trying to wish away everything that had just happened. He was sore from the kicks he’d received, but what hurt most was the dishonor of being bested so easily by a trio of punks. A real ninja would have dispatched his three attackers in less than a minute, with blurred punches and whirring roundhouse kicks, the way Andrew had imagined himself prevailing over every one of his foes. For some reason, he thought of Ricky Wakefield laughing at him, which deepened his shame.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Kevin Kearney is the author of two previous novels, RIVER RISING and HERKY JERKY. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
For crime fiction, my inspirations are Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, and Donald Westlake.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
The best thrillers are page turners with compelling characters who find themselves in dangerous situations. I'm especially drawn to thrillers that, even against a backdrop of menace, somehow manage to keep me amused.

Next in:
Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
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