On a late night when Paul was twenty-two, he walked past two men just inside a dark alley. The larger of the two had the other pushed up against a wall with a knife under his chin. The smaller man looked at Paul with pleading eyes filled with terror. The larger man turned to follow the smaller man’s gaze. But by then, Paul had hurried on up the street. There was no one else around, no one to turn to for help. Paul didn’t have a cell phone, and he had no idea where the nearest police station was. He continued on his way, his hands clammy and cold, his head down, trembling all over.
Ten years later, Paul was perched on a stool in a crowded bar nursing a draft beer. He was alone with nothing to do but regard the other patrons. One was a woman his age who sat on the other side of the bar’s “L” from him. He watched her finish her drink, take a twenty-dollar bill out of her wallet, set it under her glass, and leave.
A few moments passed before Paul watched an older man take the woman’s spot at the bar, glance from side to side, then slide the twenty-dollar bill into his jacket pocket. The man’s face remained expressionless. The bartender came over to him, frowning as he took the empty glass away, and asked something. The man shrugged. The bartender craned his neck, his jaw clenched, searching the room. Paul felt his eyebrows knit together. He saw the man’s mouth form the word: double. The bartender turned away and began mixing the man’s drink. Paul swallowed off the remains of his beer and left himself.
Two mornings before his fortieth birthday, Paul sat on a bench waiting for the city bus. He watched customers entering and exiting a café across the street. A woman left the café carrying a paper cup fitted with a lid. He watched her get in her car at the curb in front of the place, start the engine, and begin inching forward and back to gain the space needed to pull out of her parallel parking spot. When she was almost free, she accelerated too much backing up and bumped the passenger side fender of the car behind her. Paul watched her lurch the car forward and glance in the rearview mirror. From where he sat, Paul could clearly see the small dent and scratch she’d made in the other car’s fender, so he was certain she could, too. His heart quickened as he watched her pull away quickly out of her spot.
She’d just made it to the red light at an intersection a dozen yards away when a second woman came out of the café juggling a cardboard tray of cups and a set of keys. She approached the front of the car that had been bumped and stopped abruptly. Paul watched her grimace, set the tray on the hood of the car, then bend down and study the scratch and dent. While she ran her finger across them, the stoplight changed to green, and the other woman drove through it. Watching her disappear in the distance, Paul found himself shaking his head slowly back and forth.
Not long afterwards, Paul stood in line waiting to order Chinese food in a busy shopping mall food court. An employee walked alongside the line with a tray offering samples of Kung Pao chicken in Dixie cups with tiny spoons. Paul took one and so did the heavyset man behind him. They each ate theirs and dropped their trash in the plastic bag the employee carried.
“Yum,” the man said. Paul turned around. The man looked at him and said, “That was tasty.”
“Yes,” Paul agreed. “It was.”
When they got to the front of the line, they each ordered the Kung Pao chicken, then stood next to each other until their meals were given to them in Styrofoam containers at the same time. The man settled down at a table in the crowded seating area just as Paul found one a few feet away. They nodded once to each other, then the man opened his container releasing a cloud of scented steam. Before Paul opened his, he noticed a purse on the chair next to his. He lifted it onto the table and unclasped it hoping to find some identification inside. At that same moment, an old woman shuffled around the corner of an adjacent kiosk followed by a burly security guard.
“There!” she exclaimed. She pointed to the purse. “There it is! There’s the thief!”
“I didn’t…” Paul mumbled.
“You,” the security guard said. He gripped Paul’s arm. “Don’t move.”
The old woman had grabbed the open purse and was searching its contents. She fixed Paul with a hard glare, her eyes squinting into slits. “And my wallet and cell phone are gone. Taken. Stolen.”
Paul shook his head. “I just sat down and found the purse on that chair.”
“Sure you did,” the old woman snarled.
Paul had begun sweating. His eyes met those of the heavyset man at the nearby table. “You saw me,” he said to the man. “You ordered with me, we sat down here at the same time. I didn’t have any purse. Please, tell them.”
The heavyset man looked up at the security guard. He pursed his lips, arched his eyebrows, and showed his palms, but said nothing. Then Paul watched him close the lid on his container of food, stand up, and carry it away.
The security guard gripped Paul’s arm more tightly and took a walkie-talkie from its clip on his belt. He pushed a button and spoke into it. “I need police in the food court,” he said. “Immediately.”
A kind of numbness had filled Paul along with fear, anger, betrayal… shame. He watched the back of the heavyset man slip through the maze of people like an abandoned balloon let loose on the wind.
William Cass has had 175 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. His children’s book, Sam, is scheduled for release by Upper Hand Press in April 2020. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.