At midnight, General Nathaniel Jackson wasn’t expecting uninvited guests. He stifled a belch and listened to their moonlit conversation as the summer heat attacked his sweat glands. “Robbing the Park Avenue bitch was stupid,” a male voice said.
The General poked his nose out of his quarters to catch a glimpse of the interlopers who’d invaded the area surrounding his cardboard box. He observed a young woman lift a burlap bag into an adjacent dumpster. “You were the one who messed up, Arturo. Who told you to take Mrs. Weatherly’s jewelry? Couldn’t you be satisfied with the money in her safe? If she dies from that blow you leveled on her head, we’ll go to jail.”
The woman stepped away from the grime-coated dumpster and closer to the light. Decades had passed since the General’s last woman. God, what he wouldn’t give to fondle the firm, ample breasts protruding out of her blouse. He’d be so much better for her than this skinny pipsqueak.
Arturo squeezed the last bit of nicotine out of a cigarette pressed between flaking lips and threw it in the dumpster. “I should’ve cut out the old lady’s kidneys. They go for big bucks in the organ harvesting market.”
“Stop talking stupid and watch what you’re doing, “Carlotta said, slapping his face. “ A fire will bring trouble.”
Arturo hoisted himself over the dumpster, found the butt, and smashed it against the corroded container. “Satisfied? Don’t worry about the old lady. When I left her townhouse, she was screaming for the cops. Somebody else tried to kill her.”
Carlotta saw shadowy figures in the distance. “Men in uniform walking. I’m out of here.”
Arturo scratched his mustache. “I’m not leaving the stuff behind.”
She grabbed his scrawny shoulders. “If you hadn’t messed up, I’d still work in Mrs. Weatherly’s house as a maid.”
Arturo spat on the pavement. “We’re in this together, stupid bitch.”
The curtain of fog lifted as night and day changed hands.
“NYPD,” Carlotta whispered, pulling on Arturo’s jacket. “We have to stash the jewelry.”
He pushed her away. “Watch the hands. This coat is real leather.”
Carlotta kicked him in the shin. “Do something, big mouth, before we land in a jail cell.” Arturo pointed to plants rotting in clumps of dirt. “Let’s leave it under there.”
After they’d left, the General crawled out of the box and dusted off the Army jacket he’d preserved since the Vietnam War. He dug up the loot and hid it among his meager belongings.
His stomach began to growl. First, he’d freshen up at the hydrant down the block. Bathing was a luxury few in his position could afford, but the General always found a way to wash his face and hands. Securing his hygiene kit, he rounded the corner to Manny’s Bodega on the other side of the schoolyard. Preoccupied with tallying a customer’s bill, the owner stood with his back to the veteran. General Jackson stepped up to the counter and bowed. “Top of the morning to you.”
Manny saluted, went to the back, and brought out two muffins. “On the house.”
The General bowed again and took off.
The next night, Arturo and Carlotta returned. After making himself presentable, the General approached the couple. “I have your stuff.”
Arturo pulled out a switchblade. Carlotta saw anger in the General’s eyes. “Put that away.”
Arturo persisted, aiming the sharp point at the General’s nose. “How do we know you didn’t take our stuff?”
“See for yourself,” the general said, leading them to where the jewelry was hidden.
Carlotta checked the burlap bag. “It’s all here.”
She slapped Arturo’s bottom. “This guy is honest.”
The General swallowed the lump in his throat. “Thanks, miss,” he said once his tongue started to work.
Carlotta reached into her pocket and pressed something into the General’s hand. “Here,” she said. “This is for protecting our stuff.”
When the veteran opened his fingers, he stared at three, fifty-dollar bills. He steadied himself against the wall to keep from falling. “Young woman, you’ve purchased lifetime property insurance. On my honor as a former soldier with the United States Army, I’ll guard your belongings from here to eternity.”
Arturo spat on the ground. “Crazy old man.”
Carlotta smacked his hand. “I trust him to keep his word. Stash the stuff and let’s go.”
The General crawled into his box to secure his fortune.
While sleeping off a hangover the next evening, the General heard Arturo and Carlotta arguing. When he crawled out to greet them, he noticed blood seeping out of a wound in the young man’s chest. “Go back to sleep,” Carlotta said. “I’ll handle things.”
The General went wild at the sight of blood. “I knew they’d return. We couldn’t hold them off forever.” He rummaged in his box. “I must radio for a medic. I can’t let my comrade die.”
Carlotta tried to ease Arturo’s pain. He pushed her away. “Get out of here before they kill you.”
She dug up the burlap bag and stuffed her pockets with jewelry, pressing a diamond and ruby pin into his hand. “Why’d you fight with Carlito? You know he’s better with a knife.”
Arturo coughed up blood. “Beat it before the cops arrest you.”
Carlotta kissed him on the lips. “I’ll find a way to get help to you.”
She ran across the schoolyard.
“Come back,” the General cried out as darkness enveloped Carlotta.
Visions of wounded and dying soldiers from the Vietnam War flashed before the General’s eyes. “Hold on sonny; I’m going for reinforcements.”
He stepped over Arturo and rummaged on the surface of the dumpster for some beer or booze to calm his nerves. Nothing. He ran into the bodega and approached Manny. “A soldier is bleeding to death near my home. I need backup.”
Customers strained to look at the filthy vagrant as they waited on line to pay for their groceries. Manny lifted the bum by his flea-bitten collar and carried him to the back of the store. “Listen to me, old man. Until now, I’ve treated you like an uncle, but if you scare away my regular customers, no more food. Cool it. I’ll call 911.”
The General rubbed his neck. “Hurry, the enemy is gaining on us.”
As Manny called the police, he watched his wife, Rosita, approach the bum. “You’re disgusting.”
The General shook a grease-smeared finger. “Do you know what it’s like to die in combat?”
A short while later, the stockier of two police officers approached Manny. “Who made the call?”
The veteran arched his shoulders and saluted. “General Nathaniel Jackson reporting for duty, sir.”
He leaned into the officer who backed off when the General opened his mouth. “They tried to interrogate me, but I wouldn’t talk. My lips are sealed.”
Manny took the officer aside. “The war messed up his head.”
Jackson watched as the officer fingered the handle of his gun. “You won’t take me without a fight, “the General said. When the officer tried to calm the disgruntled veteran, the General lifted the gun out of the cop’s holster.
“Everybody down. He has my weapon,” the officer yelled.
Manny threw himself on top of Rosita. The second officer aimed his gun at the General. “Put down the weapon.”
When the General ignored the order, the officer fired, striking the veteran in the heart. As he lay dying, the General called out to the officer. “Give the kid in the yard a decent funeral.”
Manny took a look at the fallen soldier. “Waste of life.”
The officer removed a two-way radio clipped to his shoulder. “Ten ten, one dead and another injured.”
A few minutes later, a team of paramedics burst in the door. While his partner gathered names, addresses, and phone numbers, the officer turned to Manny. “Sir, we need to check out what the old man said.”
Manny bit his lip and turned to one of his customers. “Will you take care of Rosita for me?”
“Sure, honey,” the woman, said, holding the pregnant woman’s arm.
Manny led the officer into the courtyard. He froze at the sight of Arturo’s lifeless body. “That does it,” the bodega owner said. “After Rosita gives birth, we’re returning to Columbia.” When they walked back to his bodega, two detectives were questioning his wife. He handed them a wad of napkins. “It stinks real bad out there.”
The detectives signaled to the officers. “Stay here. We’ll be back.”
A month after Arturo and the General were laid to rest, the police found Carlotta working in a soup kitchen on the Lower East Side. She’d gone there to keep a low profile. When Carlito, the drug dealer who’d wasted Arturo, came after her, Carlotta ran into a downtown precinct, returned what remained of Mrs. Weatherly’s jewelry and money, and told her story, figuring a jail sentence to be better than an early grave.
# # #
Joan Ramirez is a published member of Mystery Writers of America with a short story online—Death Scents in Future Mystery Anthologies as well as the author of a children’s short story in Hodgepodge Magazine, a published journalist, and an award-winning photojournalist.