Billy Tremble stopped walking and considered the question that had just popped into his head. It was an important one and he didn’t want to shrug it off or give some bullshit off-the-cuff response. His dad used to hammer on him about that. Think before you speak, kid. This world’s got assholes enough in it. I’ll not have anyone thinking another one fell out of my tree. Billy wondered if his father thought about his own words all those times he called his only son worthless, or idiot, or worse. His mother would try to soothe the sting of his dad’s harangues. It’s just the drink in him, Billy. You know he wouldn’t talk like that if he was sober.
Billy would have laid down good money that his mother’s pain wasn’t softened one bit by his father’s drunken state that afternoon all those years ago. It was two days before Billy’s ninth birthday. The old man had beaten her up good and proper. Left her crying in a blood-smeared heap in the kitchen. Screaming at her through spit and bile that she wasn’t woman enough to keep him chained. Then he turned to his only son and raised an accusatory finger toward Billy.
“And you, you son of a whore. You’ll never amount to anything.”
Now Billy gave a weary shake of his head and realized that bastard’s words still haunted him. Even though he was twenty-seven years old and, for the first time in his life, a man with money to burn. Still, he took the time to consider an answer to the query that had entered, unbidden, into his consciousness.
Yes, he decided. Yes, I am happy. He took a deep breath. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. He smiled and continued walking down State Street. The warm July night seemed gentle and special, as if the world itself was providing the perfect atmosphere to help him celebrate his good fortune.
He saw two men slumped on the covered bench of a bus stop. Their overstuffed duffel bags and filthy jackets signaled they weren’t waiting for the Number 32 to take them home to kith and kin. These men had nowhere to be. Nothing to do. They’d chosen to rest a bit before they continued the soul-draining work of living homeless. Billy reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of bills.
Yes, sir. I’m happy, happy, happy. Funny what a bucket of cash can do for a man’s attitude.
He approached the two men. “Here you go, buddy.” He handed the first man, the one with a beard more gray than brown, a bill. Then he nodded to the second man. This guy had smooth cheeks. Billy figured the good-deeds lady from Grace Episcopal must have been passing out shaving gear that morning. “I got one for you, too, man.”
Each man nodded and shoved the bill into a pocket. Billy knew the protocol. Put the money away fast. Don’t speak to the person who just gave the handout. Don’t look ’em in the eye. Don’t give ’em any reason to acknowledge you’re an actual human being. Just let ’em do their feel-good for the day and be on their way.
Billy was four steps down the street when he heard one of the guys call out. “Hey! Hey! Thanks, Mister. God bless you.”
Billy surmised he’d taken the time to examine his gift. Probably been years since the old man held a hundred-dollar bill in his hand.
Billy kept walking. Kept feeling good. A strain of music started to play in his head, providing a tempo that demanded a strutted step. He stopped by a woman sitting cross-legged next to an ATM, her own bag of possessions beside her. A matted dog, looking to weigh twenty pounds where he ought to weigh thirty, let out a warning growl.
“Don’t let Buster scare ya,” the woman said. “Ain’t got energy to bite anything, but he can still give it a good tease.”
“Looks like Buster could use a meal. You, too, if you don’t mind my saying.”
The woman looked up with rheumy eyes. Billy had a feeling she was at least a decade younger than she looked. “You got a burger in your pocket, do ya?”
Billy grinned. “Let’s see.” He reached into his pocket and let his fingers pull off five bills from the wad he’d tucked in earlier that evening. He handed them to the woman. “How’s that?”
The woman stared at the fortune in her fingers. Billy hoped she was dreaming about the couple of weeks’ safety it would buy her in the kind of hotel that didn’t demand a credit card at check-in. The bathtub would be stained, but it would have enough hot water to scrub the street off her. She’d have a bed. Buster could curl up beside her and wouldn’t have to growl at anyone.
And the two of them could eat.
“There’s five hundred dollars here,” the woman whispered. She looked up one side of State Street, then down the other. “I ain’t sellin’ what you’re lookin’ to buy.” She lifted her hand to return the money. “Now get on down the way before I sic my dog on you. You might be surprised what he’s capable of if I yell loud enough.”
Billy shook his head. “I’m not buying anything. Had a run of luck, is all. Truth told, a couple of weeks ago I might have staked out this stoop myself.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. Billy put a hand over his heart.
“True as can be. Took my showers at the Y every other day. Stood in line at Bethel for them hot lunches. My situation has changed. Makes me feel good to share a bit of it. Nothing more than that.” He cupped his hands around the woman’s and gently pushed back. “That money’s yours.” He scratched the top of Buster’s head. “You two take care, now.”
Damn! This feels good! Maybe them preachers been right all along. Maybe it is better to give than get.
He was nearing the Capitol Square when he felt a tug on his arm. Here it is, he thought. He knew how rapidly word spread on the street. If there was a mark to be had or a soft touch to be milked, everybody with no place to be would know within minutes. He shoved his hand back in his pocket. What the hell. I’ll give it all away tonight. Plenty more where this came from. He put on his best smile to greet whoever was hoping to get a bit of the sugar Billy had been passing around.
His smile disappeared when he turned and saw who stood there.
“Hello, Billy. Beautiful night, isn’t it?”
Billy looked to his left and right. For what, he wasn’t sure.
“Get in the car.”
Billy glanced to the street. A dark sedan sat idling. Its back door was open.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Billy said.
A hand tightened around his arm. In an instant Billy found himself facedown on the car’s leather backseat. His legs were shoved in behind him. The door slammed shut and he heard the locks engage. He struggled to pull himself into a seated position as his kidnapper swung into the front passenger seat.
“It wasn’t an invitation, Billy.”
Billy didn’t feel happy anymore. His gut burned with fear.
“Your fingers have gotten quite sticky, Billy. Now, what do you suppose I’m going to do about that?”
The car pulled away from the curb fast enough to throw Billy back against the seat. He closed his eyes. A vision of his father’s face appeared.
And you, you son of a whore. You’ll never amount to anything.