by Dan Swanson
Todd Drake’s roommate during his freshman year was Tomas Thomas, who had lived all over the world while growing up thanks to his father being a United States ambassador. He was one of the older students in the freshman class, having put in a four-year stint in the Marine Corps directly out of high school before going to college. He was studying to be a nuclear engineer in order to design nuclear power plants, and was majoring in physics and engineering. Tomas had a flair for languages and spoke English and Spanish extremely well. He also had a good ear for accents, and he could usually tell a lot about a person’s history just by hearing that person talk. Todd and Tomas attended the same physics classes and shared an interest in nuclear power. They often did their homework together, and soon became best friends.
Tomas was a big man at six feet tall and two-hundred-and-ten pounds. His face was somewhat exotic, with a high forehead and high cheekbones, and his skin was somewhat swarthy, perhaps the color Todd would have been had he spent a couple of hours each day in the sun. Many folks guessed he had some Native American blood, while others assumed he was at least partly Hispanic. A thin mustache and a goatee completed his look. Todd liked hanging around with him, because a lot of women found Tomas’ exotic looks attractive.
Both Todd and Tomas wanted to try intercollegiate athletics. Todd was a good athlete, but he had never been selected early when he and his friends had picked teams, and thus never developed much interest in team sports. Jim Barr had taught him to box, and he’d become quite good at it, boxing in several Golden Gloves tournaments after he retired as Bulletboy. At age sixteen, he had actually been the state champion for his weight class and age group. The University of Chicago’s boxing team was mediocre, so he figured he had a good chance of making the varsity.
On the other hand, Tomas had always been a star athlete. But, having grown up almost entirely outside the U.S., he had mostly played soccer and had only played baseball, football, and basketball after joining the Marine Corps, and never really enjoyed them. But he had been an outstanding hand-to-hand combatant in the Marines, so he thought he would give boxing a try as well.
That year the varsity didn’t have anyone at the one-hundred-and-seventy-five-pound weight class, and Todd stepped right into a starting position. Tomas had more difficulty, as the team captain was in his weight class, and even though Tomas consistently beat him in practice bouts, he was a senior and the team captain. So the coach kept him on the varsity in the two-hundred-and-ten-pound class, and Tomas had to fight in the heavyweight class, which was up to two-hundred and twenty-five pounds. He was usually outweighed by up to fifteen pounds, but he won more than he lost. Todd, Tomas, and the senior captain all had good years, and the University of Chicago boxing team turned in their best season in school history.
Todd was always puzzled by Tomas’ refusal to talk much about his past, but then, Todd had a secret he wouldn’t talk about, either. They developed a kind of friendly rivalry over their grades, and as a result, both worked harder at their schoolwork than they might have otherwise. For the two, life as freshmen at the University of Chicago was pretty good.
They roomed together again the next year, even though only freshmen had to share rooms. A couple of weeks before the boxing season began, they heard about a great jazz club on the other side of town. Although they didn’t go to clubs often, they were looking for a change.
They either got their directions wrong, or someone had been playing a dangerous joke on them, because they ended up in a seedy dive full of scary characters. Todd wanted to leave immediately, but there was actually a pianist and a girl singing some torch songs, like Melancholy Baby, What I Wouldn’t Do for That Man, and He’s My Secret Passion. She was quite good, and quite pretty as well, so they stayed for a while. Neither was much of a drinker, so they didn’t spend a lot, but they sent a few drinks to the musicians, who came over and sat with them between sets. After the two had played their last set, Todd and Tomas decided it was time to leave, and Tomas headed to the men’s room.
As he passed the bar, someone jostled and shoved him, and he tripped over the outstretched foot of a second man, then stumbled into a third.
“Hey, buddy! Watch where you’re going!” said the one he’d bounced into. “What’s the matter? You drunk, or what?”
Tomas immediately recognized what was happening; these guys were looking for a fight. He’d seen it before, in seedy little bars all around the world, and the routine almost never changed. If he protested that he’d been shoved and tripped, the other two would call him a liar, and they would keep harassing him until a fight broke out. He suspected all three of them had knives — jerks like these almost always did — and they would have them out in seconds, too. But Tomas didn’t want to play this game.
“I’m sorry, pal,” he said to the man he had bumped into. “It was totally my fault. Can I buy you a drink as an apology?”
“You’re damn right it was your fault! You jerks got some nerve, coming in here and stumbling around like idiots. Somebody ought to teach you a lesson!”
Tomas still wasn’t biting. “Yes, sir, my fault entirely. I’ve already learned my lesson. Thanks! Tell you what, why don’t we have a drink and forget about it?” He shouted to the bartender, “Two boilermakers, with the best whiskey you got!” And he threw a five-dollar bill on the bar. The man looked kind of bemused; he hadn’t expected to get a free drink. He was willing to give up his beef, but his friends were having none of it.
The one who had shoved Tomas spoke up. “Hey, jerk, are you a coward, or what? You gonna let that guy insult you and then buy him a drink? What a momma’s boy!”
Tomas turned to him slowly and smiled. “I’m sorry, sir, but this is a private conversation between me and my new friend,” he said, indicating the man. His smile sort of vanished, and his voice turned cold and hard. “It’s really none of your business.” And he turned back to the man.
“I’m makin’ it my business. We don’t like cowards in here!”
This guy was really pushing things. Tomas was starting to get tired of this routine. “Well, friend, then you must really hate yourself, or do you think the three of you beating the crap out of one guy is the epitome of courageous heroism? Oops, sorry, that’s probably too many big words for you.” He called the bartender back over. “Bartender, two more boilermakers. Take it out of the five, and keep the change!” He turned to face the three of them, raised his own drink in salute, and walked back to his table with Todd and sat down.
“What the heck was that?” Todd asked.
“Todd, you had better leave. Those guys are going to sit there, finish off the drinks I bought them, and talk about how I just made them look like fools. And they are going to taunt and goad each other until one of them, probably the one in the middle, is going to come over here and find some reason to pull his knife.”
“What about you?” Todd asked. “Let’s both get out of here!”
“Nope. I can’t. If I head for the door, they’ll cut me off, and if I head to the restroom, they’ll follow me in. But you should be able to get away easily.”
“What about the bartender? Why doesn’t he do something?” Todd was starting to get a little worried. He didn’t want to get in a fight with someone he didn’t know for no good reason, particularly if they had knives.
“Oh, he will. Probably call the police five minutes after the fight starts, so they have time to beat us up, clean us out, and be gone. He probably gets a good cut of whatever they take from the guys they beat up, just for looking the other way and giving them time to get away from the police.”
“I’m not going, Tomas. I’m staying right here with you!” Todd declared stoutly.
“Todd, have you ever been in a knife fight?” Tomas looked more worried about Todd than he was about the three goons.
“Actually, I have — more than one, in fact.” Tomas looked at him oddly. Something about Tomas’ calm seemed false to Todd, and it suddenly struck him what it was. “Tomas, have you ever been in a knife fight?”
Tomas looked a little embarrassed. “Well, we were trained with knives in the Marine Corps, so I know what to watch out for. But, really, every time I ever thought I might end up in a knife fight, I made sure to be carrying my pistol.”
“You’re packing a pistol?” Todd asked, his eyebrows rising in surprise.
Tomas sighed. “Nope, not tonight. Actually, I stopped wearing it when I started school, and I never thought I’d need it tonight. Hey, head’s up! Here he comes! Too late for you to leave now!”
It was the man who’d shoved him, as Tomas had predicted. His two companions followed him over, although the man he’d bumped into looked kind of reluctant.
“Hey, pretty boy, I decided I don’t want a drink from you!” He poured the drink in Tomas’ lap.
Todd stood up and started to protest. The one who’d tripped Tomas pulled a switchblade, using his body and the bodies of his friends to shield it from the rest of the room. “Sonny-boy, you can walk out of here right now, or we’re gonna cut you up like your friend.”
“You won’t hurt me?” Todd said, a quiver in his voice.
All three laughed. “Git your ass outta here, little boy!”
Todd turned toward the door, and the three relaxed just a little. Then he whirled around and used the momentum of his turn to drive a backhand blow into the man’s cheek. His head was jerked around, and his body followed, and when he slumped to the floor, it was apparent that Todd had knocked him out with a single blow.
The one who’d shoved him lunged at Tomas, using his knife like a sword, trying to stab Tomas before he could get out of his chair. Tomas swung his right hand up from the table and used it to knock the knife aside. He was still holding his glass beer mug, and he swung it so fast, the beer and whiskey sprayed out into the man’s face. Unfortunately for him, so did the shot glass, which struck him flush in the mouth, breaking a tooth.
His right hand, which had been holding the knife, was numb from the collision with the heavy beer mug moving at high speed. In fact, he was lucky the mug didn’t break, or the broken glass might have seriously wounded him. He brought his left hand up to his face to try to clear his eyes. By this time Tomas was standing up, so he brought his knee up hard between the man’s legs, and then hit him with a two-handed blow to the back of the head when he bent forward in agony. The man’s shoulders and head struck the table, and he lay there not moving, and not even moaning.
The third man was already backing away, holding his hands up, sweating and talking fast. “Look, guys, I don’t want no trouble. I didn’t do nothin’ to you guys, did I? Please, I don’t want no trouble!” When he saw that neither Todd nor Tomas seemed inclined to pursue him, he turned and ran out the door.
Tomas turned to Todd. “Damn. We shouldn’t have let him go. We need to get out of here pretty fast, or he’ll be back with more friends.”
Todd shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think he won’t stop running for miles!” he said, grinning.
Tomas turned and headed out the door. “I know his type. He’s a rat, and rats always come back in a pack.” Thus, Todd followed him. The bartender yelled at them, “Hey, you ain’t paid me for the last round of drinks yet!”
Tomas turned and laughed. He pointed at the two unconscious men. “They’re paying. Or maybe we ought to wait for the cops to show up, and listen to your buddies spill the whole story.” He turned to face the rest of the bar. Todd was amazed at how quiet it was. “I don’t know how many of you guys have watched this guy–” He pointed at the bartender. “–and his ‘friends’–” He pointed at the two unconscious men. “–pull this little soft-shoe routine on other ‘poor slobs’ before. But if you’re not part of the set-up, think about this — is this the kind of place you want to be drinking? Is this the kind of guy you want to give your money to? Think about it!”
The two turned and walked out onto the street. Todd thought that if they were in a hurry, they ought to hail a cab, but Tomas insisted that they wait until they were several blocks away. They got home safe and sound, and agreed that they wouldn’t head down to that part of town again soon.
They were both too keyed up to sleep, so they sat up and talked for a while.
“Hey, man, where’d you learn that backhand? It sure wasn’t boxing!” Tomas asked, true admiration in his voice.
“Well, I know a little martial arts, too.” Todd was smug about it. If he ever saw Minute Man again, he would have to thank him for that move. “But most of the moves I can’t use in boxing. I’m getting a little stale. Luckily for me, my adrenaline was pumping, and I hit him right the first time.”
“Geez, I wish you had told me before. They taught us that hand-to-hand stuff in the Marines, too, but it’s been tough getting a workout in since then. Say, there are a bunch of other students who are ex-military types, too. I’ll bet if we started a martial arts club, we could find a few other guys to work out with!”
“And maybe some girls, too!” Todd was enthusiastic, remembering Susan Kent, alias Bulletgirl, and her enthusiasm for the martial arts. He had certainly enjoyed watching her work up a sweat, even when he was twelve years old. “What a great idea!”
Tomas was really interested in finding out more about Todd’s history of knife fights, but he sensed that Todd didn’t want to talk about that part of his past. Well, that was fine; there were things Tomas didn’t talk about, either.