It was supposed to be a simple lunch. All-you-can-eat pizza and salad, and a bottomless soft drink to wash it all down. It wasn’t rocket science; it was mid-day nourishment. It should have been no big deal.
The pizza joint was sparsely populated with patrons. There was an East Indian family of four with the elder woman in her sarong, or whatever you call that wrap-around gown-thing they wear… and don’t even ask me what’s with the dot on the forehead.
There were the two cheap-ass cell phone salesmen from the store next door who wouldn’t pony up for the cost of the soft drinks and asked for water glasses, and then snuck lemon-lime soda at the fountain anyway. There were the two nondescript business guys who talked way too much and far too loud through half-chewed mouthfuls of food.
And then there was the kid.
He wasn’t much to write home about, just your typical 4-year-old poster child for Ritalin running about like a speedboat without a rudder. He wasn’t being as bad as he was annoying as he ran up and down the aisle, making those ear-piercing little screeches that make your teeth hurt enough to look forward to a root canal. Fingernails on a chalkboard would have been less painful to bear. Check that; they would have been music compared to this miniature banshee’s squeals.
I didn’t see the mom anywhere nearby, but that still didn’t mean that I could just stick my foot out and trip the little hellion without being noticed by someone, despite the fact that I’d likely be doing the other patrons a huge favor. Then again, the kid would likely have a little boo-boo that would reduce him to crying at the volume of an air raid siren instead. There was likely no winning this battle. Just suck it up and live with it for the next 30 minutes or so.
My salad done, I got up to get a couple slices of pizza. I guess my experience with short people had either faded or maybe my timing was off, but my emerging from my booth at that particular moment put me right in the path of the little monster. And, of course, his diminutive height put his head right at my crotch level when he ran smack into me.
Child 1, Balls 0.
My first inclination was to just double over in pain, but I do have a certain amount of pride, damaged as it might have been, so I remained standing despite the genuine agony.
“You hit my head!” whined the midget terrorist.
“If it’s any consolation, kid,” I grumbled in an octave akin to my pre-adolescent days, “you hit mine, too.”
That got me no sympathy. The boy’s immediate response was to rear back with a fist to take another shot at my damaged goods. I quickly lowered my pizza plate as a shield to protect my boys and, sure enough, he smacked the plate hard with what would have been a knockout punch to my testicles.
Whack! Scream! The kid, not me. And, of course, everyone turned to look at the mean older guy and his helpless victim, the diminutive Assassin of the Family Jewels.
“My, you certainly have a way with children, I must say.”
I turned around to the source of the voice. Despite the circumstances, I’m glad I did. Now standing and staring hard at me, with a hand on a cocked hip, was a woman of about 5’7”, a lithe 140 lbs., with dark brown hair just a shade darker than natural – I could barely make out the light graying at the roots, so I knew we had some bottle color here – and deep brown, piercing eyes. I would put her in the range of her late forties to early fifties, and not because of any wrinkling of the face.
Age could be easily assumed by her sinewy hands, oversized wedding ring, and a certain stance borne of maturity, you might say. And the woman was dressed a little more maturely. Not matronly, by any means, but with a conservative bent in her tight-fitting khaki-colored capris and just as tight, but tasteful, oatmeal-colored satiny blouse. Oh, and he fact that the young psycho child called her ‘Grandma’ in a whiny, attention-grabbing voice only served to reinforce my observations.
“Yeah,” I sighed in reply. “I’m kind of used to it in my line of work.”
“Child abuser is a profession?”
“Private investigator,” I said. “Dodging danger at every turn, and all. Name’s Case... Justin Case.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Cool names like ‘James Bond’ were already taken, so…”
“I’m trying to wrap my mind around what kind of person, with the last name ‘Case’, would intentionally name their boy ‘Justin’?”
“My kindly, loving mom,” I said. “My dad wanted to name me ‘Suit’.”
My interrogator almost laughed at that one. Almost.
“Actually, Mr. Case,” she said, “I already know who you are and what you do. I was told that I could usually find you here this time of the day.”
That didn’t require much detective work on her part, or on anyone’s part, for that matter. When not on a case, I’m a creature of habit.
“My office is just around the corner. Saves gas and time to just walk over here and get my fill of pizza and ball-busting.”
“You get a lot of little boys busting your balls?”
“Not always,” I replied. “Although his grandmother seems to be doing a good job of it at the moment.”
“That’s by design,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “I may actually be interested in your services and I want a good idea of the caliber of the man I might be hiring.”
“You instigated this with your grandson?” I asked, then only half-joking: “What, you laced his Kool-Aid with Red Bull, or something?”
“Toby,” she said to the Lucifer spawn, “go tell your grandfather it’s time to take you to the park.”
“Yay! The park!” he squealed, running off.
“You apparently have him under control,” I observed.
“And his grandfather, too,” she said with a callous smirk. Then she extended her hand to me. “I’m Sandra Titus. You were suggested to me by an apparently quite satisfied customer; Mrs. Gayle Davies. Can we talk... in your office?”
We walked out of the pizza joint for the short trip to my office. She didn’t seem eager to talk once we were outdoors, at least not until she noticed something that seemed to just yank her chain. As we strode across the parking lot, Mrs. Titus turned up her nose as she pointed to a wreck of a car parked under the sparse shade of a tree.
“Who on earth would drive something that hideous?” she said haughtily.
The car in question was a 2002 Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, void of hubcaps and resplendent in a shade of horribly faded blue. Actually, about five different shades of horribly faded blue. And I knew the owner quite well.
“Well... me, for one.”
Yeah, it was my car that was turning the woman’s stomach.
“Business must be tough,” she said, her face twisted slightly in an expression of, well, undisguised disgust at my vehicle.
“I’m doing fine, thanks,” I replied. “Like your ball busting, my mode of transportation is by design.”
“An old, and I do mean old, cop car is by design?”
“There are almost as many retired Crown Vic Police Interceptors on the road as there are Hollywood celebrities who’ve had plastic surgery. It doesn’t stand out. It blends into the scenery.”
“Yes, if perhaps that scenery was a junkyard,” she said with a sneer.
“They’re called ‘salvage’ yards now,” I replied. “Some even refer to their business as ‘automobile recyclers’, to kind of remove the stigma.”
“Well, be proud that you’re doing your part to maintain that stigma, Mr. Case.”
I laughed, despite all of Mrs. Titus’ cutting remarks. “I do have other transportation.”
“I’d rather not,” I replied. “If my Crown Vic can turn your stomach, I’m sure my old Harley would just result in projectile vomiting.”