Bobby was pretty sure he should to punch the old man, but he couldn’t seem to get worked up enough about it.
It was around 5 pm when he got home. Sun was setting, things were looking up for a nice evening with Lucy and their four year old. He had promised Chick (Robert Junior who loved to eat chicken) that they’d burn up the Playstation tonight.
He came home to an empty house. Lucy had taken everything. The cash, the jewelry, the laptops and even the car he didn’t care about. She had taken Chick with her. Bobby had been wracking his brain for the past hour, walking down random streets lost in his grief.
Bobby was sure he apologized the last time he hit her. She hadn’t cried much this time. Lucy had to stop pressing his buttons. She knew he hated being asked questions about where he went. He put food on the table and he was a good dad to Chick. That was a lot more than most of these other women got. Bobby still didn’t know how she found out about Renee, but he explained that. It wasn’t no thing. He still went home to her, she still lived in his house. She couldn’t disrespect him in front of his son.
He never noticed the sky darken. It could have been nightfall too, he’d lost track of time. When the rain started to pour, he was in an unfamiliar part of town. No hookers here, no kids manning the corners with the blow of the week. Weird.
Bobby ducked into the only shop that looked open. The door rang chimes as he pushed it in, his shoes tracking water. The place was dimly lit; a single yellow bulb glowed balefully from somewhere up above.
Crash. Bobby had knocked over a wooden shelf that had what looked like a bunch of old dolls on it. They were all over the floor now, staring up at him accusingly. Bobby looked up around the inside of the shop. It was lousy with all kinds of things. Shelves upon shelves lined the walls. More shelves stood all over the floor of the shop, which wasn’t large to begin with. There were all kinds of things piled on them. Dolls, bowls, clocks, statues of every color and subject, many of them strange and unusual.
And that smell…
“Welcome.” It was an unusual voice, deep and melodic. The man that stepped into view was black, with a shock of white hair. He word a shopkeeper’s smock, ratty and streaked with dust. Old guy, Bobby thought, easy if he wanted to take him for what he had in the register. Assuming of course that he could find the register.
“It’s raining pretty hard,” said the shopkeep. “Good thing you ducked in here.”
“Yeah old man,” replied Bobby, “I be here til the rain stops.”
“Of course, sir.” Old Guy disappeared behind the counter, stacked with boxes made of wood and metal and other things that Bobby could only guess at. The shopkeep reappeared seconds later, a small tray with a pot and two small cups in his hands. He laid it on the counter. “A good night for some hot tea,” he said. “Please join me.”
“I don’t drink no tea old man. Besides, you a black brotha. Why you drinking that weak ass shit?”
Old Guy smiled. “You haven’t tasted this tea. It’s from very far away. Are you sure you won’t have some?”
“Shut up about the fucking tea,” said Bobby. He wanted to take the old man’s money and get out of there, but the sky looked like it wanted to piss everything it had into Bobby’s life. “What you sell here anyway old man? Any of this stuff worth a pretty?”
The shopkeep sipped his tea. “Oh we don’t sell sir. We buy.”
“Buy? You got all this shit fillin up your joint, and you don’t sell any of it? I can hardly move in here without some mumbo jumbo falling on me.”
“All of these have been sold.” Old guy gestured to the shelves across the little shop. “We are simply waiting for the buyers to pick them up. This is why I need to keep buying.”
“Well gramps, I dunno what dumbass would buy all of the crap in here, but that means you got cash to pay. Why don’t you gimme your cash, and I won’t trash this place or hurt you?” Bobby tried to look menacing, but found it ridiculous. He could snap this joker in two without any effort. Besides, he was packing heat.
“There’s no need to threaten me Mr Peel. I am perfectly happy to buy what you are selling.” The shopkeep had poured a fresh cup of tea. The steam rose from the cup in the dim light of the shop.
“I ain’t got nothing to sell bitch.”
“But you do, Mr. Peel, and I am willing to pay top dollar.”
“What game you playing old man?”
“No games, Mr. Peel, just business.” He took a sip out of his cup. “I can help you with your wife and son.”
Surprise. “I don’t know what you’re talking about old man, but if you don’t shut up I’ll tear you a new one. You do not talk about my wife and kid!”
Unperturbed, the shopkeep pulled out a phone. It was the latest smartphone, looking fresh from the box. He tapped it and set it down facing Bobby. A video was playing on the screen. Lucy Peel was walking down the aisle of a 7-11 somewhere, Chick in tow. They were wearing the clothes they had on when he left early that afternoon. “I can tell you where they are.”
“Tell me now bitch!” Bobby lunged towards the shopkeep. The old man didn’t move. He put his teacup down and looked at Bobby. “It does not work that way Mr. Peel. If you kill me, you will never find them. I can tell you where they are, or I can make them disappear beyond your reach. Your choice.”
“Who the hell are you, and how do you know about my wife?” Bobby shouted. The old man continued to sip his tea and look at Bobby dispassionately. “What do you want?”
“A simple trade Mr. Peel. You sell me your fear. I tell you where your family is. The rain will stop and you go to them.” The shopkeep was pouring more tea.
“My fear? What the hell you mean my fear?”
“Exactly that. You will never be afraid again.”
“You know I’m a fighter right?” Bobby made a fist. “I don’t fear nobody.”
“Then an even better trade for you,” the old man said with a smile. “You’re selling something you don’t have much of. It’s a great value for you.”
“You crazy old man. This is all crazy.” Bobby looked at the screen. Lucy was looking out the window, waiting for the rain to stop just like he was. “Ok. Done. I never be afraid again. Now where is she?”
The shopkeeper clapped his hands once, seemingly with delight. “Well done sir. Sold!” He picked up the phone and handed it to Bobby. “The 7-11 on Lexington, just outside the city. Turn left at the old Lashley homestead. You can’t miss it.” He winked at Bobby. “You really should have stopped making her your punching bag Mr. Peel.”
Bobby balled up his fist. He was pretty sure he beats people up just for implying that, but this old fool just said it to his face. The problem is he suddenly stopped caring.
“Will you have that cup of tea now Mr. Peel? Still hot.”
Bobby thought a second, then nodded. “Thanks old man.” He picked up the teacup and took a sip. The beverage was warm and soothing. It had a bitterness, but not enough to make it unpleasant. It smelled earthy.
“I’d like to make another purchase from you sir,” said the shopkeep. “I offer you three days for your surprise.”
“Surprise. You’ll never be surprised again.”
“That’s good right?”
“Unless you’re very attached to presents and parties, some might say it’s a good thing to never be surprised. You’ll be hard to fool in a boxing match, for example.” The shopkeep seemed amused.
“But what’s this three days you’re paying me? Is it like a vacation?”
“No sir,” replied the shopkeep. “Three days back. Before you last hit you wife. Before you slept with Renee. Before she left you. You’ll have it over again.”
“She won’t remember anything?”
“No, and neither will you.”
The concept somehow didn’t scare Bobby. He wasn’t the least bit angry about the old guy bringing up Lucy either. “Fine, hit me.”
“Thank you, and goodbye, Mr. Peel.”