Silent Manipulations

“Allez.” Meet at center, parry the head cut, riposte counter-parried, his riposte’s short. Back up, try to get him to overcommit. He’s on to me, staying back. Feint to the arm, doesn’t bite. Step forward, watch — comes under, nips the hand. Dammit. 4-2, need to change my game with this guy.

The Bird wasn’t sure if she should walk beside or behind Double-J on the way to his car. She had trouble reading his emotions, detected neither the anger or frustration she had expected after the confrontation with the two men, no relief either nor embarrassment. In the cold dark of this March evening, he seemed as distant as he’d been when they’d walked out of the Pizza Place.

She walked up to the passenger door, waited. He reached over to the driver’s door handle — “It’s unlocked” — then swung his door open. The Bird had been in Double-J’s car before, usually when being driven home along with another fencing team member (typically Rex, sometimes Butch), but now as she opened the passenger door and folded her body into the seat it came to her that she’d never been alone with him in this car, and this would also be the first time she’d ride in the front seat.

Fastened her seatbelt, noting  Double-J made no attempt to even acknowledge his own. When he turned the ignition (immediately reaching over and turning down the volume of his audio deck), she noted how the entire dashboard erupted in a sea of green and red lights, like the Christmas trees in family homes she would visit with her mother over the holidays. The music was loud but melodious, the performance unfamiliar but unmistakably blues, the sound enticingly exotic. Frpm this new front-seat perspective, the interior of Double-J’s car seemed like the control panel of a spaceship, ready to take her to unexplored worlds.

“I’ll get you home.” Double-J twisted, black bristles of his mustache flying past his right shoulder as he looked back.

She had to know, so she asked him why he’d told the men to wait until Friday. Double-J continued reversing the coupe — “like I said, that’s when I get paid.”

She hoped she’d judged his character correctly as she explained that she had seen how he’d paid in cash for his meal that evening, observed him taking out his roll of bills with a flourish, noticed how he’d made no attempt to conceal from her how much he’d been carrying. He had more than enough cash on hand, she explained, to pay the men the money they thought was theirs. He could have ended their dispute this evening, but had chosen to delay the resolution, for a reason which didn’t make sense to her.

He contorted his face gently as she spoke, seeming almost pleased at her observations, like a teacher relishing in a thoughtful student’s challenge. So she then asked, again, what was it about this Friday that made it different than this evening.

Double-J hmmpfed, mouth closed. “That’s what I like about you, Kassie.” She found it odd that while he had been the first person to call her The Bird, he never used that name when addressing her. “You come up with your own answers, rather than asking questions. Tell people what you see, ‘stead of asking what you should be looking at. Only time you ask a question . . . ” his voice trailed off as he glanced over at her with expectant eyes.

Is when someone knows something I don’t, she said. Or, she added, if someone’s holding back information.

Responding to the force of the driver’s hands and feet, Double-J’s coupe began travelling forward, away from the parking lot and onto Ridge Street. “Henry’s at the Embassy, every Friday.” She remembered the name, the guy who had made the beer run. “Has dinner with his uncle, two doors down from me. If those two clowns show up, I’ll just go over, tell Henry to give them the beer money he collected Saturday.”

The Bird asked what would happen if Henry hadn’t collected money at the party; Double-J’s frown seemed more like a smile hiding under his mustache. “Then that’ll be his problem. And his uncle’s the kinda guy whose got some money and don’t want no problems, first sign of any trouble he’ll likely throw money at them, just to make ’em go away.”

His passenger was beginning to understand. And you didn’t tell those two that Henry would pay them on Friday, she explained — because you wanted to manipulate them, without their realizing.

She saw him lean back in the driver’s seat, arms fully extended as hands cluthed the steering wheel at eight and four, satisfaction beaming from his  mustachioed face. “It’s like being on strip. Setting up your opponent, getting them to do what you want them to do. Same in the real world too — people are easy to control, once you figure out how to push their buttons.” He sighed. “It’s — awesome.”

Twenty-five months ago

Who’s next?” Myles Glossurio’s commanding voice bounced off the concrete walls of the Bark Bay High School cafeteria, as eleven pairs of teenaged legs shuffled around him. “Barksdale? Slovich?” No matter the sport, no matter their year or position on the team, no matter their outside relationship to him — during practice, Myles referred to every teammate by their last name.

“Double-J — ” the sophomore looked up with his clean-shaven face as Juan Kwon addressed him — “think it’s about time you showed our captain what it’s like to fence saber.”

Gahd!” Myles’ athletic body walked confidently over to the team’s equipment sacks. “Last time I picked up saber was at the Academy, last month.” He looked over at Coach Dan, arms folded as he leaned against the short wall that served as the front of the cafeteria’s stage. “Who was that guy I beat?”

Coach Dan blinked. “Jamie.”

“Yoder?” Coach Dan nodded in response. “Ha! Dad played in the minors, topped out at Double A.” The golden arm of the school’s All-State quarterback pointed at Double-J. “Gear up, Johnson.”

“Call me Double-J.” He could not control wincing as his adolescent voice cracked. Myles stopped himself, glared back with amused eyes — “Feisty!”

Double-J snarled as he hustled over to the wall where he had left his gear. Picking up mask, glove and weapon, a moment later he positioned himself at the far end of the makeshift strip at the center of the large floor.

 [“Gray Metal Faces,” March 14 and 15A]

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