Chapter 2: Sandwiches
It was the peak of the lunch rush all across the city. Shops and street vendors alike were seeing their edible products fly off the counters. Cash register bells rang like wind chimes in a hurricane as the pitter-patter of coins changing hands played the rhythm of a lively jazz song. Small gatherings of friends and co-workers formed naturally at sidewalk benches and outdoor tables and on the steps of large buildings, all of which numbered many. Thousands upon thousands of voices chorused over New York's off-beat harmony.
"Have you read that Gatsby book? It's so underrated, I swear-"
"Can you believe he said that? What an asskissing-"
"Quarter a dozen! Buy some croissants! Quarter a-"
"-looking like a real bull market, I think-"
"You should wear the other dress sometime, darling-"
"-blind pig callin' itself 'The Only Bar' across from-"
And so on and so forth.
In south Brooklyn, the deli cashier, a large boy with a bulbous nose and a rough voice for his age, scratched at his hair net as he totaled up the order of a regular customer.
He stated, "That'll be $2.20, sir."
David handed over three single bills and took from the wooden counter an unmarked paper bag from which the sweet and savory smell of freshly toasted sandwiches drifted. As the cashier whose name tag read 'G. Nurf' slowly counted out the change, David engaged in light conversation.
"You know," the man said with a sunny smile, "I'm always disappointed not to see more customers here. You guys make such great food!"
In this case, 'more customers' would have meant any other customers at all, for in this cozy, family-owned eating establishment that was higher-ceilinged than it was wide, there seemed to be no people present but for the employee manning the cash register and David himself. The handful of tables squeezed into the eating area were completely bare of patronage, and the well-polished floor reflected only two pairs of shoes among pacific blue walls and brass lantern lights.
"Ah, come on, David," replied the boy in a gruffly amused manner, "It's no big deal. You know we do most of our business through catering. But Ma will be happy to hear about the food."
Coins were slid across the counter on top of a business card, and both were scooped up.
"Well then," as he tucked the small items into the front pocket of his light overcoat, David optimistically declared, "I'll just have to keep passing on the word about this place!"
"You do that," Nurf rolled his eyes as a fond smile pulled up at the corners of his mouth.
Brief goodbyes were exchanged, and David exited the shop. The door squeaked as it swung shut behind him and cut short the farewell dinging of the bell above the frame.
It was a mostly residential neighborhood that he stepped out into. The street was narrow, and the sidewalk even more so, which was why it was convenient that there was never much in the way of traffic there at this time of day. It was a quick journey to the Brooklyn transit subway entrance that happened to be just two and a half blocks away around the corner.
Two bicycles were a tarnished bronze color and of identical make, distinguishable from each other only by the colors of their baskets, green and grey. The last was a shiny silver with a blue bauble hanging off the right handle. All three were propped in front of the entrance to a narrow alleyway as if to fence it off from outsiders. Within this shady spot between two concrete buildings sat Max, Nikki, and Neil, dirt clinging to their clothes like dust to bookshelves.
The former two children were snickering as the latter looked on in exasperation.
"I can't believe," said Neil, "That you guys walked right out of there with all that in your pockets."
Max's newsboy cap was laying upside down on the ground between them. It overflowed with what he and Nikki had placed inside: at least a dozen different kinds of cheap candies and baked goods which were, apparently, liberated without pay.
"Shows what you know, poindexter," sneered Max.
"Yeah. Suck it up and believe!" shouted Nikki triumphantly.
She threw a cube of caramel at him. It bounced off his shoulder and hit the ground. Three pairs of eyes followed the candy as it rolled between the wheels of their bicycles and out onto the sidewalk. The sugary treat came to a stop directly in front of a large pair of boots from which the children looked up to find an adult in a light overcoat staring down at them.
Fully aware that from the stranger's perspective in the noontime sun she looked like a grungy street rat in the alley shadows, Nikki bared her teeth and adopted the most sinister expression she could muster. She declared demandingly, "Hey, mister, the doctor said I have rabies. Got any change?"
The simple response of a curious blink disappointed her considerably.
"Lay off," said Max with an eyeroll directed at the man rather than the girl, "It's only David," he lazily waved, "Hey."
Nikki blinked in surprise even as Neil proceeded to greet the newcomer as well, "Hi, David."
"Hi, Max. Neil," acknowledged David, "And who might you be?"
Aggression no longer rising but still not quelled, she tugged her cap slightly lower over her forehead and spat a glob of phlegm into the dirt between her feet before she answered, "Nikki. I've heard about you from Max."
"All good things, I hope. Nicky, eh? That's an excellent name," responded the man as a wry grin began tugging at his mouth. His next words, dry and observational and touched by a hint of reprimand, were for all of them, "I see you three have been busy today."
Unsure of exactly how to reply, Nikki looked at her friends. Neil glanced guiltily at his shoes, lips clamped tight; Max seemed ready to protest but never had the chance. David preempted any possible argument by lifting up a bottom-heavy paper sack so that it could be seen over the bicycles.
He asked invitingly, "Anyone care to join me for lunch?"
The four of them found a sidewalk bench not far from the alley. The children towed their bicycles with them, the clicking sound of turning spokes accompanying the group as they traveled the short distance. It was after they arrived at the bench that David removed one sandwich from the deli bag for himself and then offered the rest to them. Neil was the last to take a seat on the far side of the bench, opposite Nikki, whose mouth was already stuffed full of turkey on rye and whose pockets bulged with stolen sweets. The bench creaked slightly as he added his weight on top of it.
"What's with the tin foil ones?" questioned Neil when the bag was passed to him.
"Oh, Nurf's deli uses it when they run out of waxed paper. They're all the same sandwich," said David, "No food allergies, right?"
With a shake of his head, Neil took from the sandwich sack one of two items wrapped in crinkly foil rather than colorful paper. He, for one, also remembered to express customary gratitude as he handed the bag back to the person to which it belonged.
Neil stated, "Thanks for the food, David."
"It's no problem," was the modest reply from the red-haired man, "Two leftover sandwiches should be plenty for work, anyway."
Through a half-chewed bite of meat and cheese, Max commented, "Who're you bribing this time?"
David lightly rebuked, "Swallow your food, Max," before answering, "And it's not a bribe; it's an incentive. Most people are willing to give me a chance, even if they don't like my boss. A good meal just helps things along."
"Whatever helps you sleep at night."
The man only grinned and laughed in response, which resulted in Max adopting a severe scowl.
The remainder of their shared lunchtime passed jovially. Max attempted to explain the wonders of dark chocolate to a skeptical Nikki. David inquired after how it was that Max and Neil had met Nikki and was told that they had shared classes together the past school year. Neil briefly rambled on about the upgrade he wanted to make to his father's shop's printing press. Once each person finished their sandwich, the stolen candy was divided among the three children - David was offered a share, which he politely declined and made no further remark on.
Not long after that, it came time to part ways.
"You kids stay out of trouble, okay?" was David's kind request.
Max retorted, "No promises," as he and his friends mounted their bikes and rode westward toward the center of Brooklyn.
David traveled northward for two blocks more before rounding the corner of an old, brick building in whose shade there sat a young person around perhaps twelve years of age. The boy was dressed in a wrinkled shirt and a pair of dark pants that looked an inch or two too short for him. His shoes were oversized, and his suspenders were held together by safety pins. He had messy, caramel-colored hair and a smattering of freckles over the bridge of his slightly sunburned nose. The strap of a ratty, burlap satchel was slung across his chest, the bag itself hanging down his right side and half-full of blue flyers.
When the boy caught sight of David, he leapt to his feet and put on a wide, gap-toothed grin, his arms stretching lazily behind his head.
"Hey, David!" he greeted.
"Hi, Larry," replied the redhead genially, "How're you and your mother doing?"
Larry thumped a fist to his chest and proudly proclaimed, "I found work at the bike rental place!"
"Congratulations!" enthused David, "I knew you could do it."
"Uh-huh!" the boy rapidly continued, "And Mom's doing a lot better now - like, a million times better! She says she's gonna find a job too before the end of the month, and we'll work hard and earn money, and I can get new clothes, and we'll even move outta the tenement 'fore school starts again!"
"That's great!" was the response from David, "I'm glad things are turning around for you, Larry."
Larry nodded in elated agreement, his dark chocolate eyes gaining a challenging gleam as he exclaimed, "Yup! And guess what-"
- One moment, Larry was several paces away, his stance speaking volumes about the amount of excitement and energy he had. The next, that taut energy had exploded into motion, and he was suddenly right in front of David and waving two dollars in his face. -
"I can start paying you back, like, right now!" blurted out the boy.
Astonished and taken aback, David found himself able to answer only with a simple, "What?"
Larry animatedly elaborated, "I kept the receipts from everything you helped me buy, and I did the math, and I owe you seven dollars and a dime! I can round it up to eight, 'cause that's how a loan works, right? O-or ten," his voice suddenly became more reserved, "Since you set me up with a Campbell program job, even though I'm not one of those orphans, and that's worth… like, a lot."
He seemed so eager to prove himself that David felt almost at a loss as to how he should respond. It took him several moments to find suitable words.
"Oh, Larry," he said softly, "When I helped you pay for those groceries and the medicine, that wasn't a loan."
The boy glanced down as he tugged one of his suspenders back to his shoulder from the elbow it had slipped onto. His hand traveled down the well-worn strap to where a metal clasp should have been instead of a safety pin. When he glanced back up at David, a large portion of the confidence in his expression had faded to be replaced by harrowing doubt. In his face was the familiar look of one accustomed to feeling downtrodden and helpless.
"At least," David corrected himself, "Not a loan in the typical sense."
Now confused, Larry queried, "What d'ya mean?"
David set the deli bag down on the pavement and knelt so that he was closer to eye-level with Larry. With him on his knees and the boy still standing, David had to look up slightly to meet the brunet's gaze.
"The way I see it," explained David, "I did you a service by helping you out. So, what you can do to pay me back is do a couple of small favors in return."
He grinned dopily as he reached into the deli bag and answered, "Like taking one or two of these sandwiches off my hands. I have a few too many, and I don't want them to go to waste. It's hard to get rid of them when my co-workers have already eaten lunch."
Larry paused in consideration, biting his lower lip in apparently deep thought.
Then, the boy nodded a chipper agreement, exclaiming, "I can do that! But," he asserted conditionally, "Only if you let me buy it off you."
Picking out the less crumpled of the one-dollar bills in his hand, Larry held it out toward David while tucking the other one away in a pocket.
David took the currency from Larry and handed him a sandwich encased in a foil wrapper.
"We have a deal," he said to the boy, being sure to tack on, "So long as a dollar is worth at least two sandwiches."
He grabbed the paper bag and angled it toward himself, blocking Larry's view as he shoved his other hand in after whatever remained inside. His fingers found the edge of the covering of the last sandwich. With careful haste, he tucked the dollar bill inside the brightly colored paper and folded the wrapper back up as neatly as he could manage with one hand.
David offered the bundle to Larry.
With a snort of amusement, the boy remarked, "That one's the same color as your hair."
"Yeah? Well, this blindingly red one has onions on it," he countered to Larry, who made a disgusted face and an exaggerated gagging sound as he took the wrapped sandwich. David emphasized, "Make sure your mother gets it. And remember to tell her how you bought it from me, alright?"
Larry's keen reply went, "Sure."
"Thank you, Larry," acknowledged David gladly. Then, a moment of inspiration struck him, and he solicited in a more resolute tone, "Do you think you could do another favor for me, Larry? This one's a bit bigger."
"Absolutely! But what is it?" came the curious inquiry.
With a shallow dive into his coat pocket, David found the business card from Nurfington's Delicatessen. He pressed it into Larry's left hand, sliding the card between the red-wrapped sandwich and the base of the boy's thumb. Its geometric, art deco typeface and simple, black boss spelled out as plainly as possible the name and address of the small establishment from which he'd purchased a half dozen sandwiches not so long ago.
"While you're working at the bike rental this summer, tell the people who say they'll be going to Brighton Beach that they should visit this restaurant while they're there. Let them know that it's a little bit out of the way, but the food's well worth the trip. You should recommend the chicken soup or the Philly cheese steak if anyone asks. Can you do this for me, Larry?"
A new sense of purpose seemed to light upon the boy's shoulders as he tucked the card and the sandwich away in his satchel with the leaflets.
Wearing a bright grin that put center-stage the gap in his front teeth, Larry gave him an optimistic thumbs up and proclaimed, "Of course! I gotcha covered, David."
He set a hand gently on the boy's shoulder and replied in all earnestness, "Thanks a million."
"It's no problem, David. I need to finish delivering these flyers to the ferry soon, but here, you should have one."
As Larry took a few moments to peel one blue handout out of a bundle of several dozen, David proceeded to stand up - partly because the conversation seemed to be nearing a close, but mostly because his legs were beginning to hurt. Concrete was not exactly a soft surface for anyone to rest their knees on.
He took the flyer, and the two of them said their farewells to each other. David took care to remind Larry that the boy was still welcome to come find him if he needed help with anything. Then, their paths diverged: Larry took off down an eastward side street while David continued north. The man happened to briefly stop by a public waste bin located just a block from where he had come across Larry. There, since he had no real use for an advertisement, he considered throwing away the flyer. However, as he ran his thumb over the pale, winged logo of Hermes bike rental service, he decided instead to fold up the blue leaflet and tuck it into his pocket.
With a bounce in his gait and an empty paper bag in his hands, David went on his way, a fish among an ocean of his fellow New Yorkers.
The trio stopped in front of the steps to the orphanage, a large, brick townhouse that had been renovated and repurposed by Cameron Campbell years and years ago. Max had to make it back in time for the afternoon roll call, after all.
Standing one leg on the ground to balance herself and her stilled bike, Nikki asked Max, "Hey, you said that David's a cop, right?"
"Does he get to catch bank robbers? Or interrogate people? Does he have a gun?"
With a snort of derisive laughter, Max answered, "David? Hell, no. He's just a pencil pusher for some beat detective nobody likes."
"Aw, well, that's boring," complained the disappointed girl.
"I know, right?"
Neil was looking at his wristwatch as he warned, "Nikki, we're both going to be late if we stick around much longer."
"Late? Crap!" exclaimed Nikki.
With the exchange of a few parting words to Max, Neil and Nikki continued onward toward their homes further west. A breeze was beginning to pick up, blowing hard enough to ruffle the branches of what few trees dotted the walkways and to sting the children's faces with specks of dust. Neil and Nikki split ways just a block after the Campbell orphanage, their only goodbyes to each other a brief, three-fingered salute.
After parting from Nikki, Neil biked as hastily as he could without abandoning caution; Nikki simply biked as fast as she could. They both had obligations to fulfill in their own lives, however dreadful each might consider the separate tasks ahead of them.
It was only when David reached the steps leading into the police station that he realized he probably should have taken the opportunity to toss the empty paper bag from the deli into the waste bin earlier. With a sidelong glance, he rolled up the bag and tucked it under his arm. Then he made his journey up the steps.
Inside the station, he headed immediately for the stairway tucked near the restrooms to the right. Two flights later, he was walking out onto the floor that housed Brooklyn's largest organized crime investigation unit.
A decent number of people seemed busy at work at their desks or at a wide corkboard full of documents, newspaper clippings, and photographs. David recognized the faces of a handful of officers who had been at the crime scene earlier that day, but he knew none of them by name. Neither Lester nor Sergeant Aldrin was anywhere in sight.
David was startled by a gruff shout of, "You, from homicide."
When he turned around, he was surprised to see standing in the staircase doorway the photographer woman who'd spoken to him at the crime scene. Her coat was gone, revealing her to be dressed in a simple, collared blouse and black tie with a burgundy vest.
"Ah, yes?" he responded.
"Sergeant says you're mine," she jerked a thumb toward the ceiling, indicating that they had another flight to travel up. She paused to ask, "What's with the bag?"
David answered with a recalcitrant smile, "Well, I meant to bring sandwiches, but it seems like they've disappeared on the way here. I'm just looking for a place to throw this away."
"Whatever," she rolled her eyes, "Just come with me."
"Alright," David followed her back into the stairwell. As they climbed, he inquired, "I'm sorry, miss, but I don't think I ever got your name."
Her flat response came without any shift of her gaze away from the direction she was going, "Gwen."