TIME TO THINK

 

By Bruce Harris

 

 

“Please, Barbara, give me time to think." Billy Taylor was up off his front row seat before the words, “TO BE CONTINUED…” flashed on the screen and the credits rolled. Saturday was his favorite day of the week. His was a set routine. From the Rialto, he’d head to Bernie’s Coronet Candy Store a block away, stare at the unattainable ten-cent chocolate ice cream sodas and discuss with Bernie the serial he’d just seen. Billy’s hand unconsciously tapped his empty worn jeans pocket. It burned him not to be able to buy the things he wanted. “Mr. Big wouldn’t have trouble getting anything in this or any other store he wanted,” thought Billy, “heck, he’s got enough to buy the whole store.”

“I can’t wait until next Saturday!” blurted Billy. His head swiveled until it focused on Bernie, bent over a stack of comic books. “You’re not going to believe this, Bernie.” No response. “Ready?” Bernie nodded but continued loading crisp new issues into a comic book stand.

“Okay, the episode ended with…”

Bernie mouthed the words, “Please, Barbara, give me time to think,” while continuing to load the latest in comics. “Billy, it always ends that way.”

Billy laughed. Inwardly, he seethed. “Yeah, but this time Dan and Barbara are in a real fix. I don’t know how they’ll get out of this one!” Despite the dual ceiling fans, it was at least 50 degrees warmer in Bernie’s cramped store than in the air-cooled Rialto. Billy didn’t seem to mind it a bit and he liked the stale aroma of cigar smoke. It reminded him of one of his two uncle Ralphs, the one with the thin moustache and gold pinky ring.

“You say that every week,” chuckled Bernie as he straightened up and stretched his upper body, the palm of his hardened hands pressed against the small of his back.

“I know, but this time I really mean it. They…”

“Wait!” interrupted Bernie, “week before last Dan and Barbara were in the middle of the lake in a boat that was sinking, right?”

Billy stomped his foot. He balled fists but quickly regained his composure. He was anxious to tell Bernie how serious Dan and Barbara’s situation was now, not last week or the week prior. “Right.”

“There was no way out of that, I remember you telling me so confidently. The water was deep and there were crocodiles and alligators waiting to pounce on them as soon as the boat sunk.”

“Sure, but that was nothing compared to…”

“As usual, Dan told Barbara he needed time to think. That’s when he remembered hearing there were divers in the lake that day searching for some fake coins that some counterfeiter had dumped into the lake.”

“I know all of that.”

“Sure you do, now. Dan made enough commotion with his paddles until one of the divers spotted him and Barbara and saved them. That is, at least for a while.”

“Bernie, I’ve got to tell you what happened this morning. Dan and Barbara…”

Bernie walked behind the counter and grabbed a stack of new magazines. “Wait a second. How did Dan and Barbara get out of the 6th floor office building last week? You know, Mr. Big had them tied up pretty good, it was nighttime and there was no one inside the building. The cleaning crew had come and gone. There was the dynamite, and the fuse had only about an hour or two remaining. You told me last week you thought they were finished, that Mr. Big had finally gotten rid of them. No way out of that building, you said. Remember? Barbara nagged Dan while he tried to think of a way out. So, I guess they didn’t blow up with the rest of the building?” Bernie raised an eyebrow.

Billy slapped his hip with the back of his black and orange NY Giants baseball cap. Given Dan and Barbara’s new situation, Billy had already forgotten about last week’s predicament and their unlikely escape. He was too focused on their current situation. “Oh, that. Yeah, well the dynamite fuse was getting smaller and smaller. Dan and Barbara only had minutes left. Dan had his eyes on the clock. The sun was coming up. He’d walked past the building hundreds of times in the early morning and he knew the window washers began cleaning the outer windows from the top floor down. Lucky for him and Barbara, one of the window washers spotted the two of them tied up, opened the window and swung himself inside. He was able to toss the dynamite out the window and into the river. It exploded a few seconds after that underwater. But now…”

Bernie put the periodicals aside momentarily, rang up a customer, and then grabbed the magazine stack by a wire that secured them. He didn’t notice Billy subtly crane his neck to get a peek inside the register. “Okay Billy, what now?”

Billy’s shoulders relaxed. “Right. Okay, so Dan asks Barbara to give him time to think. I love when he does that. But this time, they are really doomed. I mean it. Both of them went to the zoo to see the animals. Barbara was scared. She didn’t want to go, but Dan talked her into it. Two of Mr. Big’s men grabbed them and held them until after the zoo closed. The two men opened up the tiger’s cage and tossed Dan and Barbara inside with the tiger walking around in there. He was fed about an hour before that, so Dan and Barbara have about another hour at the most before the tiger gets hungry again.”

“They’re not tied up?” questioned Bernie.

“Nope.”

“So why don’t they just climb out of the cage.”

“Can’t. It’s too high. And besides, all cages have that barbed wire on top because the zoo people don’t want anyone climbing inside the cages.”

“How’d they get in there in first place?”

“One of Mr. Big’s men knocked out a zoo worker and stole his key and opened the cage.”

Bernie stared at the cover of one of the new magazines before he placed it carefully for display. The cover showed a frightened young couple in the middle of a jungle surrounded by lunging leopards, angry gorillas, and spear-wielding pygmies. The numbers of unsold magazines of the previous issue concerned Bernie. They increased each month. Bernie did a quick mental calculation. He was losing money on this and a few other adventure, romance, western, and detective magazines. He refused to show concern. “Let me guess,” he began, “Mr. Big was miles away from the zoo with a perfect alibi should anything happen to Dan and Barbara.”

“Right,” Billy responded.

“And all because Dan and Barbara had accidentally seen Mr. Big stab someone and were the only two people on earth who could identify him.”

“Right.”

“So, every week Mr. Big devises some unique way to get rid of the two witnesses. For a clever criminal, he isn’t too smart, is he? Okay, how are they going to get out of the tiger’s cage?”

Billy took a few steps closer to Bernie. Stopped. “Don’t know. There’s no way out. This time, I really, really think they are finished. I can’t wait until next Saturday.” With that, Billy exited the store, placed the baseball cap on his head, righted his bicycle and headed home.

Gus Stevens, a regular counter customer turned toward Bernie. “Something’s wrong with that kid.”  Stevens swiveled the torn, circular red leather stool back around and dug into his sundae.

“Why do you say that?” asked Bernie.

Gus didn’t look up from the ice cream. He scraped the bottom of the silver dish with his spoon, filling it with melted cherry vanilla. “He ain’t right, is all. He scares me. Gut feeling.”

“Ah, go on. I’ve known Billy for years. He’s a nice boy. Good kid,” but Stevens had aroused suppressed feelings within Bernie. Billy was nice enough, sure, but Bernie had never seen him come into the store with a friend. The few times he’d seen Billy in the neighborhood, the youngster was alone, sometimes appearing to be having conversations with some imaginary friend. Bernie shrugged his shoulders and went back to work.

 

* * *

 

The 3-story walk-up brick apartment building on Sullivan Street was a heat magnet. Thursday night. Billy had earned four cents for selling the afternoon edition of The City Ledger after school Monday through Thursday. One more afternoon remained for him to earn a coveted nickel, the special Saturday morning Rialto price. It was his pass to relax front row in the cooled air of the theater, lost in Dan and Barbara’s problematic world, where Mr. Big called the shots.

The heat was thicker than the apartment’s thin walls. Billy sat on the fire escape, his shirt soaked with sweat. His father’s voice carried from the tiny kitchen.

“Where am I going to get the five cents to ride the bus uptown? It’s too far to walk. I have to look good for this interview. I’ll walk home if I have to. I really need this job. What are we going to do?”

Mrs. Taylor patted her husband’s shoulder. “Give me time to think.”

 

* * *

 

The first stabbing occurred less than twenty minutes after Billy’s father had boarded the 125th Street-bound bus. Billy’s mother lay near the foot of the kitchen table, multiple stab wounds to her torso, slash marks lined her cheeks and forehead, and a kitchen knife protruded from her throat. Earlier, she had convinced Billy’s father to take the five cents Billy had earned for the week. Mr. Taylor was against the idea. He said he’d rather walk then take the money from his son. But, Mrs. Taylor insisted. Without Billy’s permission and while he slept, she reached into Billy’s jeans pocket and removed the nickel. Billy had it out with his mother the following morning. He thought about Mr. Big when with homicidal ferocity he repeatedly thrust the big knife into his mother. Her flesh was soft. With each slash, the knife went through her easily. In and out, the blade dripped red. Once, he must have hit bone or something. The blade stopped, almost as if hitting cement. He chuckled to himself. Too bad mom couldn’t be saved like Dan and Barbara every week. To heck with them, he thought. They were always running. Everyone was afraid of guys like Mr. Big. Billy washed up, left his dead mother for the flies, and skipped the few blocks to Bernie’s. He wasn’t in the mood to ride his bicycle.

Billy forced a smile as he pushed open the screen door to the world of sweets and smoke. He was a little earlier than usual. On the radio, the Giants were losing to the Cubs.

“Well, look who’s here,” shouted Bernie. “So, tell me, Dan and Barbara somehow, someway got out of the locked tiger cage and somehow managed to get themselves into more trouble. What is their current predicament?”

Billy looked around. Bernie and he were the only two customers in the store. A couple of dirty milkshake cups and thick plastic straws waited to be cleared off the counter. This day, the tobacco smoke made Billy’s stomach turn. “Right. Well, you see, they were in the cage, but somehow, um, one of the elephants had gotten loose from his cage and…”

“Whoa, slow down,” interrupted Bernie. “Aren’t you going to tell me about the fix they are in now? How did it end this morning? Let me guess, Dan said, “Please, Barbara, give me time to think." Bernie laughed.

“Um, no. He didn’t say it. I mean they aren’t in any more trouble. The episode is over. Next week starts something brand new.” Billy’s dilated pupils shifted from Bernie to the cash register and back.

“What about Mr. Big?”

“Him? He got killed.”

“How?”

Billy steadied himself. “Well, like I was saying, um one of the elephants had gotten loose and he walked over to the tiger cage and then he lifted his trunk over the cage and inside so it was low enough for Dan and Barbara to climb on and get lifted clear out and they were safe. It was a close call.”

Bernie looked at Billy, stared into the boy’s face. “Hmm, interesting. I’ll bet Mr. Big went to the zoo to check on them and got himself too close to the tiger’s cage and the tiger grabbed him and ate him? That right?”

“Right.” said Billy, “that’s how it all ended.”

Bernie snipped wires that held together bundles of magazines. The lead story of Murder Time screamed, “Take a Stab!” As Bernie began placing the periodicals in the rack, Billy grabbed the pointed cutters and thrust the tool through Bernie’s neck. Blood squirted across the colorful covers of Murder Time. “I’m smarter than Mr. Big,” thought Billy, “no one saw me.” He walked behind the counter.

In strode Gus Stevens, readying himself for a newspaper and an ice cream. His eyes went first to Bernie’s crumpled body on the red-stained tiled floor and then toward Billy. The youngster’s pockets bulged with unwrapped packs of baseball cards. His hands were in the cash register. Their eyes met for a second, then each focused on the blood-soaked wire cutters lying mid-way between Bernie’s body and Billy. Neither spoke. There was no time to think.


Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type. His short story “Heads or Tails?” appeared in omdb! in July, 2014. "Written Out" appeared in omdb! in June, 2012.


Copyright 2014 Bruce Harris. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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