A Mann's World
by Rick Beck
It took ten minutes for Robert to be parking in front of the green apartment building. "Hey, squirt, get up," Robert said, shaking Toby's arm.
"What? I was scared last night. I couldn't go to sleep. I kept thinking someone was coming in here."
"You left the door unlocked idiot."
"I did. Oh!"
"Get dressed. We're clearing outa here."
"I was just getting used to it. You ditching me? This is where they always ditch me." Toby pulled on his pants while watching Robert, hoping this wasn't like all the other times.
Toby's words worked and what Robert had in mind for Toby changed.
He'd known rejection and he wouldn't reject this boy. "Key words in the sentence were, we are. That's a plural as opposed to you, who would be a singular." And now Robert had to come up with a plan for both him and Toby, a plan that would leave the boy in safe hands and him free to roam, while not putting anyone else at risk.
"Cool! I can dig it." Toby was all smiles and when he stood he threw his arms around Robert's body and hugged him. "I missed you. It got cold without you last night."
"Yeah, well, I'm not a heater. Come grab the clothes bag. I got to get a couple of things from the closet. Get all your stuff together."
"I got all my stuff on 'cept my buckskin. There's food. We shouldn't be wasting good food. All those starving people in China and all."
"Don't worry about it. We'll get more food. Those starving people in China are going to have to take care of themselves for a little while longer."
Once they were in the car, Robert rolled down his window, feeling his hip for the bulge and the comfort he took from his gun. It made him smile and it made him feel more like a cop. He wondered if he would have pulled the gun when the two guys came at him if he'd had it on his hip that night?
He drove to the end of the block and turned right, not checking his mirror, giving no indication that he thought he might be followed. He'd explain it to Toby after he ditched the car.
He wasn't sure of the plan yet but he'd call Albert and ask him for a favor. Toby would be safe there and it was a place he could return to without risk to anyone else. He'd be more alert to the possibilities to make sure he wasn't followed.
The green sedan stayed a block and some back. He was an artist when it came to tailing another car. It was his stock and trade and only after circumnavigating Thomas Circle did their direction change and his expertise come into question, although he didn't know it.
"That guy's following us," Toby stated after making a third check over his shoulder.
"Green four door sedan. Two cars back in the right lane. He just came off the circle. He turned in behind us after you made the first right."
"You sure?" Robert asked, watching the mirror.
"Yeah! I'm sure. He stopped the day you stole that trick from me. Wanted to know who you was."
"What did you tell him?"
"I didn't know nothin'. Bobby's all I knew but I wasn't going to tell him."
"Was he a cop? Don't make anything up. Do you think he might have been a cop?"
"I didn't ask that either. I'd say he was."
"It's the same guy though?"
"I wouldn't a told you if it wasn't. I saw his face when he turned into the circle behind us. He's staying a block back. It's the same guy though. I'm ain't lyin'. It's the guy. He was in the market the day I went to buy food. He watched me."
"What? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I was afraid you'd think I was a nut case. I didn't want to talk myself out of a place to stay."
Robert Mann checked the mirror for the green sedan. It was in the next lane over and staying behind a black car, but he'd seen that sedan before. He could stop and try to force the guy out of his car but it wasn't illegal to drive down a street with a lot of other cars. Robert needed to use his head. If he played it right he might be able to get the tag number, but the guy would be too smart to get that close unless he could be surprised.
He doubled back to make sure, formulating a plan as he went. First he needed to get Toby out of the car. Robert slowed down and pulled over to the curb. The green sedan never came past, but the black car he'd been tailgating did. The green car had just disappeared.
"What're you doin'?" Toby asked.
"We can't like move, while we think? He's still back there somewheres. I mean, the first two times might could have been by accident, but not with him followin' us."
Robert smacked Toby's head playfully and then mussed up his too long hair for good measure.
"Ah, man, you know how hard this is to comb?"
"We'll get you a flattop and you won't have to worry about it."
"Not even funny. You ain't messin' with my hair, dude. Am I really going with you? Don't lie to me, okay. I can take the truth."
"Really! You've earned your keep spotting that guy. I wouldn't have known he was back there otherwise."
"Groovy. I can dig it. We gonna to sit here all day?"
Robert looked in the mirror before blending back into traffic. He turned at the first corner and then turned back in the direction he had just come from. He knew what he would see when he looked in the mirror, but he resisted the urge to verify his suspicion. Before he made the third turn the green sedan was once again behind him, one block back and behind another car, keeping his distance, always leaving himself an out in case Robert stopped again. They turned onto 11th Street and jockeyed over to 12th as Robert thought.
"You're very good," Robert murmured, glancing back through the rear window at the car that always kept it's distance. "Toby, I'm going to let you out in front of a red DGS Store. Walk straight through to the back entrance and go over to the Chastleton Apartments on 10th. Wait there in the lobby for me. I'm going to ditch the car and this asshole behind us."
"Cool. 10th Street. Chastleton. What's it look like?"
"It's the biggest building on the block. Big apartment house. If anyone hassles you tell them you're waiting for Phil Sharper… Phil Sharper. Remember that. If anything happens to me ring his apartment and tell him I told you to wait for me there."
"Phil Sharper. Got it. Chastleton."
"Take this box with you and don't set it down."
Toby looked at the box and looked at Robert's face carefully.
"The rod ain't in here is it? I don't like guns."
"You went through my stuff?"
"I ain't no fool. I want to know about a guy I'm stayin' with. There's some nut killin' guys out here. I didn't take nothin'. I just looked."
"I've got the gun and my ID. You do what I told you." Once again Robert realized how foolish he'd been and how dangerous being foolish could be. Toby knowing what he knew, wasn't a big problem, but how much did the Strangler know? That was the sixty-four thousand-dollar question to which he wasn't likely to get any answers. The other questions that came to mind, who is the guy following us and why is he following?
He took one more quick glance to make sure the green sedan was still there before pulling up to the storefront.
Toby opened the door as soon as the car stopped, sliding out casually with the box tucked under his arm. He didn't look around but went straight into the DGS store, through it and out the back door.
Robert glanced up into his mirror and observed the green sedan pulling over to the curb on the previous block. Some hefty oak trees furnished enough shade to almost hide it. Robert didn't bother with the mirror when he moved up two more blocks to the front of the dry cleaners. He turned off the engine, grabbed the clothes bag, and without looking to see if the green sedan was watching, disappeared into the business.
The green sedan pulled over a block away in time to see Robert walking toward the storefront. Jim Bland left his engine running, removing a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lighting it as he waited. It only took a few minutes for him to suspect something was amiss.
"Let's get a closer look. We can always go around the block if it becomes necessary," Bland thought, tossing the cigarette out of the window. He eased the green sedan forward until he could see the sign on the dry cleaners. He parked behind another car and waited, becoming more sure as the minutes passed, that something was wrong with this picture. Lighting another cigarette, he tapped the steering wheel with his fingers, watching the street behind him just in case Mann was smarter than he thought.
Toby had gone up the alley and made the first right turn to walk the distance over to 10th street. He did look around now, conscious of the fact he was alone. He tried to remember all of Robert's words as he waited for the light to change on 11th
Robert whistled while he waited for service. He casually dropped the clothing bag on the counter as the old Chinese man appeared from the back. "I want to store these once they've been cleaned. Keep them in the clothes bag if you don't mind. Here's twenty for a deposit. We square?"
"We square," the happy Chinese man said, giving Robert a receipt that matched the one he put on the bag.
"I need to go over to 10th Street. Do you have a back door I can use?"
"You come. Follow me." The small man looked back at Robert to make sure he was following. They went through a series of aisles filled with clothes and then through a storage area before he opened the back door with a key he had on a chain. Robert stepped out into the bright light of the alley behind the cleaners.
As the door closed behind him, he touched his gun and looked up the alley toward where he knew the green sedan was waiting. It was his chance to get a look at the face and maybe the tag. Toby wasn't sure it was a cop and that left only one other possibility . It was too tempting for him to pass up on and he started to jog back up the alley in the direction he came from.
There was a sudden jagged pain at the corner of his eye. It blinded him and stopped him dead. His knees buckled and he had trouble getting his breath. He grabbed onto a fence that separated a house from the alley. He swung there like an old gate, thinking he might go down, but determined not to fall. The fierce pain gradually subsided as he hung on to the fence. Each time he thought the headaches were passing, he had one like this and wasn't so sure.
Robert regained his composure and stood, rubbing his temple. He walked to the cross street where he'd seen the green sedan pull over, but it wasn't there now. He had no idea how long he'd been in the alley. He turned toward 10th Street hoping Toby wouldn't be alarmed.
He stopped twice when he thought his head might start throbbing again. He checked to make sure he wasn't being followed but had no feeling that he was. He was comforted when he caught site of the Chastleton.
As he approached the front door, Toby came rushing out, throwing his arms around Robert. "I thought you ditched me. Where have you been?"
"It hasn't been that long," Robert said, not sure.
"It was an hour. I didn't want to go to no one's apartment. I want to stay with you."
Robert ran out to hail a passing Capitol Cab. They drove away from Phil's and any idea Robert might of had of leaving Toby there. The cab dropped them on 11th Street just beyond the bus stops. Robert looked around before taking Toby into the restaurant.
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