A cold wind wrapped around Lucas as he pushed through the back door of the coffee shop, trash bag in hand. Raised voices sounded from the alley beside the shop. Footsteps pounded along the pavement toward the dumpster as he dropped in the bag.
He straightened as a kid who couldn’t have yet graduated from high school rounded the corner, clipping the dumpster with his shoulder before plowing into Lucas hard enough to knock his phone from his pocket onto the asphalt.
“Whoa,” Lucas said and grabbed the boy by his arm to steady him.
The kid was tall, almost Lucas’s height, with wiry muscle showing through the thin white T-shirt under his unzipped black hoody. Blood ran down the side of his face and his left eye was beginning to swell, apparently from a recent blow. Three more boys rounded the corner. They slammed to a stop in front of Lucas and the kid, fists clenched, knuckles raw, one with a swollen lip, another sporting a torn sleeve, the third, tall, broad shouldered and full of attitude.
Lucas inhaled. These kids were trouble. They all wore their hair shorn close to their heads. One of them, the stocky one with the fat lip, wore a black bandana wrapped around his head with initials stitched across the front, another wore an oversized shirt of the same color and they all bore the same stripe shaved at the outer edge of their left eyebrows. The one with the attitude wore the same initials on his oversized jacket. He glared at Lucas.
“You should stay out of this,” he said. “It isn’t your business.”
Lucas folded his arms. He glanced at the first kid. Fear flashed in the boy’s eyes before his gaze fell to the ground.
“I’d like to agree with you,” Lucas said. “And frankly it’s up to you if you want to do something stupid that can get you into trouble, but unfortunately, it is my business if you plan to continue this scrimmage on my property.”
The kid beside him took a step toward the others. “It’s cool man. We’re out of here.”
Mr. Broad Shoulders squared his stance in front of Lucas. He gestured toward the back door of the shop. “Why don’t you head inside? We got this,” he said. “You don’t want to interfere.”
What Lucas wanted was to knock all their heads together. The last thing he needed was trouble at his shop, but something about the kid that had plowed into him gave him reason to pause. Maybe it was because he didn’t have the meanness of the others, or maybe it was because with his frayed jacket and patched pants he didn’t quite fit the gangbanger profile. Whatever it was, he couldn’t leave the kid to the mercy of the others.
Lucas locked gazes with the big guy. “No problem,” he said. “I’ll head inside.” He grabbed the first kid by the arm. “But he’s coming with me to discuss how he’s paying for a new cover.” He nodded toward his phone, still on the asphalt, the cover cracked on one side.
Mr. Attitude’s eyes narrowed. Lucas held his gaze, silently willing the teen to walk away. The last thing he wanted was to hurt a bunch of kids, even if they were gangbangers. At last the boy lifted his chin.
“Whatever. He’s nobody. He’s dead to us.” His gaze fixed on the first kid. “Dead.”
Lucas let go of the kid, but kept up his guard. He gestured toward his phone. “Why don’t you grab that and follow me?”
The kid narrowed his eyes on Lucas before scooping up the phone. Lucas gave the other teens one last glance, making eye contact again with their leader. Satisfied they weren’t going to try anything, at least for now, he headed inside the shop, turning to the kid once they were inside.
“Hey, man, I’m sorry about your cover,” the boy said and handed Lucas his phone, then stood stiffly by the back door. “I’ll pay for a new one.”
“You have a job?” Lucas asked. “Because I’m going to guess you don’t and that’s why you were hanging around those geniuses.”
“You don’t get it–”
“You sure about that?” Lucas leaned against the shelf along one side of the coffee shop’s backroom. “You sure I wouldn’t know about growing up with a single mom of mixed ethnicity, struggling to keep food on the table? You don’t think I tried getting a job when I was a scrawny kid no one would hire? You don’t think I ever tried anything stupid to make money by whatever means, regardless of what it meant to other people?
“Oh, I know, you have the best intentions.” He said. “You want to contribute, see your mom struggle a little less to keep the lights on. Oh, and you want to belong.” Lucas again folded his arms across his chest. “What would I know about any of that?”
Red flushed the boy’s cheeks where the blood hadn’t covered his face. He kept his head down, tracing a line in the tile with his toe. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Lucas stared at him a long moment and then said, “No, I don’t guess you do.”
“I’ll get you a new cover for your phone.”
“I expect you to,” Lucas said. He gestured toward the bathroom. “You can clean up in there.” He then nodded toward swinging doors off to one side of the room. “The kitchen’s through there. Once you’re cleaned up, talk to Joseph. He’ll be the guy with the spatula. Tell him I said to put you to work. It’s small; we don’t have a full menu as far as food, just a couple of staple items. Ken can show you around the espresso machine. See if you can make yourself useful.”
The kid finally looked up at him, his eyes wide. “You’re giving me a job?”
“I’m giving you a trial run. Let’s see how you do over the next couple of days, then we’ll talk about it,” he said as he stood. “I don’t want to see any attitude from you and you’ve got to do something about your clothes. Lose the baggy and sagging.”
The kid stared at him, still wide-eyed. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I’ll work hard.”
“I hope I didn’t make things worse for you,” Lucas said and nodded toward the back door. “They’re not done with you, but if you’re going to work here. You’re done with them. Got that?
“Unfortunately, it’ll be worse before it gets better, but if you tough it out you can be free of them.” Lucas shook his head. He hated to think what the kid was up against cutting ties with a gang, but if he could give him any light at the end of that tunnel, he was happy to do so.
“Yes, sir,” the young man said. “I’ll take a beat out. I’m tougher than I look.” He held out his hand. “I’m Ramsey, Ramsey Carter. Thank you…for everything. I promise I won’t let you down.”
Lucas took the kid’s hand, feeling a little déjà vu over his deal with Grey. He was getting way too soft. He gave the kid’s hand a hearty shake. “Lucas Williams,” he said. “Don’t make me regret this.”