Bossman by Vi Keeland

Chapter 31

Chase – Seven Years Ago

Twenty-seven stitches in his head. Peyton held Eddie’s hand the entire time, even though I wasn’t allowed within two feet. Somehow she’d managed to gain access to the no-people zone Eddie surrounded himself with like an invisible shield.

Looking over at her, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. She was beautiful and soft, sweet and inviting. What man in his right mind would reject her touch?

The ER doc who’d sewed up Eddie’s head asked to speak to me outside the exam room.

“He’s got a collection of fresh scars on his face and head,” he told me as we stepped into the hall. “This one was definitely made with a blade. The jagged skin slice is from a serrated edge. Probably a kitchen knife, if I had to guess. If the slash had been a quarter-inch to the right, he wouldn’t have an eye right now.”

I looked back into the room. Eddie’s stitches ran from his forehead down to his chin. His right eye was swollen shut from the beating he’d taken again last night.

“Eddie doesn’t talk much,” I explained. “But we think it’s a group of teenagers. Apparently it’s a game they play. They earn points for damage they cause to homeless people.”

“I heard about that on the news. Makes me scared for the future of our society.” The doctor shook his head. “Has he gone to the police?”

“Peyton’s tried to get him to. And she’s gone herself a few times—tried to file reports on his behalf. They don’t seem to care.”

“Can you get him into a shelter?”

“He goes for meals. That’s how Peyton met him. She volunteers at the place he usually eats. But he won’t stay the night. When the tables for dinner are all full, he takes his food and eats sitting in the corner, away from the people. Beds in the shelter are too close together for him to handle. Doesn’t like people too close.”

“He’s going to get killed out there if this keeps up. He needs to protect himself at least. He doesn’t have any defensive wounds on his hands and arms.”

“He’s not protecting himself?”

“Doesn’t look that way. He’s either the aggressor, or he’s cowering in the corner while someone kicks him in the head repeatedly.”

“He’s definitely not the aggressor.”

“Then you might want to try to talk to him about defending himself. Or he’ll wind up with a cracked skull.”

I felt bad for Eddie—I did. But if I was being honest, that wasn’t the reason I went down to the shelter the next afternoon. I went for Peyton. Okay, and also for myself. I needed this situation to get better.

There was a construction crew opening up walls to expand my new office space, a photo shoot going on in a makeshift studio in the research lab, and I’d just hired two new employees this morning. Interest in my new products kept the receptionist busy all day long. I was drowning in work, yet here I was—going to talk to a homeless guy about self-defense.

I knew Peyton had an audition and wouldn’t be at the shelter. Figuring Eddie would pay better attention to what I had to say without any distractions, I arrived shortly before dinner service started and waited outside. He limped down the block, right on schedule.

“Hey, Eddie. Think we can talk a minute?”

He looked at me but said nothing. This was going to be a real quick conversation with only one of us speaking.

“Come on. Let’s grab something to eat before it gets busy inside, and we can talk over dinner.”

I let Eddie lead the way to where he wanted to sit. Following dutifully, with my tray in hand, I walked to the far corner of the cafeteria-style dining room. I didn’t sit directly across from him, unsure of the proximity he would be comfortable with. Instead, I sat diagonally across, even though there was no one else anywhere in the vicinity.

“Peyton really cares about you,” I told him.

Turned out that was a good way to lead in. Eddie made eye contact, something he rarely seemed to do. Since I had his attention, I got down to it.

“She gets really upset when you get hurt. How come you don’t protect yourself, Eddie? You can’t let these kids keep kicking you and hurting you.”

He dug into his food. Apparently, only the mention of Peyton was worthy of his full attention. So I used it.

“Peyton wants you to protect yourself.”

Again, that helped him focus on me.

“She wants you to cover your head when they hit you. Or get out of there when they come. Can you do that for her, Eddie?”

He stared at me.

“Do you have anything to protect yourself? You’re a big guy. Maybe a piece of metal? A pipe? Something you can keep in your bag to try to scare them away?”

I was caught off guard when he spoke. “Knife.”

“Yeah.” Eyeing his fresh stitches, I nodded. “They got you good, didn’t they?”

“Knife,” he repeated.

“That’s why you need to protect yourself. The doc said you’re not even putting your hands up. Not shielding yourself from a knife.”

He repeated himself again. “Knife.”

It dawned on me then that he wasn’t telling me what happened—he was asking me for help. “You want a knife? Is that what you’re telling me?”

Shocked the shit out of me when he laid his arm across the table, palm up. “Knife.”

“I don’t have a knife for you.” I looked down at his hands. They were dirty and scarred. Even they had taken abuse. “Wait. Actually, I do.”

Reaching into my front pocket, I took out the small pocketknife I’d been carrying for as long as I could remember. It was an old, walnut-handled Swiss Army knife. I’d bought it at a garage sale when I was about twelve. Etched into the wood were the initials S.E., and there was a small stress crack next to the E that made a perfect X the same size as the initials. The thing was old, and the blade had a chip. Basically, I’d bought it because it said SEX on it…and I was twelve.

Over the years, I’d mostly used it for the bottle opener. I looked at Eddie and then at my knife, hesitating. Something about offering it to him didn’t sit right. But it was the least I could do.

He let me place it in the palm of his hand and close it into his fist.

“Be careful. Don’t use it for anything but protection. Okay, Eddie?”

He never agreed.

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