“In my jungle, you’d be just another asshole.”
-The Dogs of War (1980)
Hughes was walking past that enormous fig tree they’ve got in back of the Natural History Museum when he got biffed in the back of the head by a Nerf boomerang.
Hughes bent down for the thing, less thrown off by its thumping him than by the fact they still made these things. He and Susan used to fight over theirs all the time when they were kids. This one might have even been theirs for all he knew: the bright green was flaking off all three arms of it, the foam all kind of cracked, like it’d been left in a puddle over night.
“Uh, sorry,” the kid said, “Sorry about that.”
Hughes looked down at him and smiled, careful not to bare his teeth. The kid looked kinda squirrelly already, and Hughes knew, what with his beard and his wide shoulders, what he probably looked like to the little guy.
“Don’t sweat it, man,” Hughes said, “If that’s the worst thing to nail me today, I’m doing fine.”
The kid smiled politely at him, took his boomerang, and ran back across the grass.
Inside the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, Hughes removed his sunglasses and let the air conditioning cool the sweat under his eyes. The place was pretty empty for summer, even for a weekday. One little old man sat in the snack bar area, chewing on a sandwich. A blonde kid was behind the register, head in hand, staring out the windows.
Hughes walked up to him. “Hey, man,” he said, “Lemme get a bottle of water.”
The kid rang him up without looking at Hughes. Hughes handed him the money, opened the water bottle and drank the whole thing. When Hughes was about halfway through, the kid finally noticed he was there. Hughes looked him in the eyes as he finished the bottle off.
“Ahhhh,” he said and handed the kid the empty bottle. The kid took it from him, a little smirk on his face. He tossed it in a can beneath the counter. When he looked back up, Hughes snapped his fingers.
“Oh, hey!” he said, “You’re Hunter!” Hughes stuck out his big paw to shake.
Reflexively, the kid stuck his hand out as well. Hughes’ hand swallowed his. “Yeah,” the kid said, frowning, “Who’re you?”
“Oh, I’m Daniel,” Hughes said, giving the kid a firm shake. When the kid began to pull his hand away, Hughes gripped it tighter. He leaned forward just a bit, smile still on his face. “I’m Mardi’s uncle,” he said.
The kid tried harder to pull his hand back. He failed.
“What the fuck were you thinking?” Susan said.
“I just had a chat with the kid, that’s all,” Hughes said, puzzling over the document she’d handed him as soon as he walked in. “I didn’t do nothin’.”
“Oh, nothin’, huh? Then how did Mardi get kicked out of school?”
Hughes looked up. “She got kicked out of school?”
“This Hunter kid’s parents are on the board of supervisors, Daniel! Do you know how hard it was to even get her into that place? Do you have any idea?”
Hughes had every idea, but he kept his smart mouth shut. He held up the paper. “Is that what this says?”
“Oh, no, baby brother,” she said with a smile he did not like at all, “That little piece of paper was served to me today. At work. In front of my co-workers. In front of fuckin’ God and everybody!”
“Well, what is it?”
“We’re being sued, you goddamn idiot! This fuckin’ brat’s parents have sicced their lawyer on us because you assaulted him!”
“Assaulted. I had a chat with him, that’s all.”
“Yeah, a little man-to-man, that’s it.”
“Mardi says his hand’s in a sling, for fuck’s sake!”
“Look,” Hughes said, “All I did was, I had the day off the other day, I took a walk around the park. I knew that kid worked there, so I went in, I told him to leave Mardi alone. That’s it. Maybe I shook his hand a little, y’know, tightly, I gave him a squeeze. That’s all.”
“No, Daniel, that is not all,” Susan said, and ran a hand through her hair, “Now we’re being sued, Mardi’s gonna have to change schools again, and you’re more than likely gonna go back to jail. That is all.”
“If he was gonna have me arrested, he woulda. He didn’t, ‘cause he knows this is all bullshit,” Hughes held up the paper, “No judge in the world would give this lawsuit a second glance.”
“That may be so, Daniel, but we’re still gonna have to get an attorney to even contest it. This kid’s family is filthy rich! They can do this all they want! Look around you, for chrissakes! Does it look like we can afford any of this lawsuit bullshit?” Susan sank to a chair and held her face in her hands. Hughes waited while she gathered herself.
“Look,” she said finally, “I know you were just trying to help. I appreciate that, I love you for it. I don’t like some slimeball punk trying to cop a feel on my daughter either. But there are rules here, Daniel. Rules we have to play by. I don’t like it any more than you do, but there it is”
“All right,” Hughes said. He stood up.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna go say hi to the kid, and then I’m gonna go see about getting you a lawyer.”
“Daniel, I don’t want the help of any of your friends—”
“Hey, c’mon, I’m trying to do the right thing here. I’m sorry I got Mardi kicked out of school, I’m sorry about all of this. Let me try to help like you wanna. By the rules.”
Susan fetched a heavy sigh. “Fine. Just…do whatever”
Hughes didn’t even have to knock. He shoulda known Mardi would be listening at her door. “What’s up, Big Time?” he said.
“Hey, Uncle Daniel.”
“Why the long face? You and me both know you hated that fuckin’ school. Hell, I shoulda thought of this sooner.”
Mardi tried to smile.
“C’mon,” Hughes said, “What is it?”
“It’s just…” Mardi began, “I dunno.”
“Yeah,” Hughes said, “I know what you mean.”
Hughes called up Denna. They exchanged pleasantries, blah blah blah.
Hughes said, “How’s that job working out?”
“Yeah, pretty good,” Denna said, “They promoted me to night manager.”
“Oh, huh. Yeah, that is pretty good.”
“Yeah, I’m really making my way in the world.” Her tone practically dripped from the receiver.
Hughes chuckled a little. “You’re not much into this job, are ya?”
“Not much, no.”
“Would five hundred bucks make you a little more into it?”
“Indeed it would.”
Hughes told her what he had in mind.
“Oh, I hate that fuckin’ snot-rag,” she said, “Only works there ‘cause it looks good on his transcript. Whole family’s got money coming out their ass.”
“So you’ll do it?”
“Fuck yeah, I’ll do it! Shit, I woulda done it for a six-pack.”
The next night, Hughes went to his downstairs neighbor’s place and banged on the door. A Crass record blared out of the windows.
The door opened and a skinny dude with a lip piercing stepped out. “’Sup, Danny?”
“Hey, Raj,” Hughes said, “Can I borrow your van tonight?”
“Your van!” Hughes yelled over the music, “Can I borrow your van!”
“Wait, hang on.” Raj went inside and lowered the music some. “Yeah, man, sure thing. You’re not gonna do nothing illegal, are you?”
“Not as far as you know,” Hughes said as he took the keys from him.
Raj laughed. “Sounds good to me, man. Come by after you’re done, I’ll pack a bowl.”
Hughes pulled Raj’s van into the parking lot just up from the Starlight Bowl and quickly found Denna’s little Civic. He backed the van into the spot next to hers, so the van’s sliding door was alongside her passenger door. Then he settled in for a little nap in the van’s back seat.
Around ten o’clock, Hughes sat up and looked around. There were still a number of cars in the lot, but nobody was around. After a while, he saw Denna coming towards the car, little Hunter in tow. Hughes took hold of the sliding door’s handle.
As they approached her car, Hughes could hear the kid say, “Why’d you have to park way over here?” The kid’s hand looked fine to Hughes.
“Look,” she said, “I really appreciate it. I just don’t like walking to my car alone.” She unlocked her side. “Hop in,” she said, “I’ll drive you around to your car.”
Hughes slid the door open with a yank. The ratcheting sound made Denna and Hunter both jump.
“What the fuck—?” Hunter said before Hughes grabbed him by the collar and yanked him inside. Hughes sat on him while he slid the door closed again and took his Bowie knife from the back pocket of the driver’s seat.
The smell of Hunter’s urine quickly filled the van. Hughes held the point of the knife an inch from his eyeball. “Make a sound,” Hughes said, “and I finish you right here.”
Hunter made not a sound.
Hughes heard Denna squeal her tires as she pulled out, just like he’d asked her to. Hunter wouldn’t notice now, but tomorrow Denna could claim she’d hurried off to get help. Hughes didn’t think anybody was gonna be questioning her too hard.
Not after the chat he had planned here.
“Hey, man,” Hughes said, pulling the knife back a bit, so the kid would focus on him and not the blade, “You wanna do me a favor? Keep this shit up. ‘Cause, see I’ll level with you: I got a lotta time on my hands. A lotta time. All’s I got is my job, my sister and her kid. And that’s great and all, but y’know, I got a lotta hours to fill. So, please, for me, keep this shit up. Get my niece kicked outta that bullshit private school’a yours. Press this lawsuit against my family. I’m begging you.”
Hughes leaned in even closer, the piss stink filling his nostrils. Hunter whimpered a little, and Hughes couldn’t help but grin. “See, ‘cause then I got something to do. I’ll be on your fucking ass every free minute I got. I’ll be in your back pocket during homeroom all the way until last bell. I’ll punch in with you every day up at the café there, and I’ll be waiting for you right when you punch out. You hear what I’m saying?”
Hunter nodded vigorously.
“So keep it up, man. Hell, have me arrested. I’ll be out in ten minutes. C’mon, do I look like a guy who can’t handle jail?”
Hunter shook his head vigorously.
“Now, listen close,” Hughes said, “If you remember nothing else I say to you, remember this: you’re in my world now, sonny. And as big as your world is, with all your parents’ money and everything, my world’s even bigger. And you don’t get out of it until I say so.” Hughes slowly pulled the knife away and put it back behind the driver’s seat. “You got all that, fuckface?”
Hunter nodded again.
“I can’t hear you,” Hughes said.
Hunter’s mouth worked for a bit and then he whispered, “Yes, yes, I got it. I got it.”
“Y’know what, Hunter? I think you do,” Hughes said. He slid the van’s door open. “The fuck outta my sight,” he said with a jerk of his thumb.
He watched the back of the little blonde head run up the parking lot, all the way up to the organ pavilion and beyond. He didn’t once look back.
Hughes wasn’t surprised.