From the author: This is a near future story, but since I wrote it back in the 1990s, it turns out to be set in the present day. I was going to change the dates for this reprint version, but when I re-read it I realized I had assumed a stock market crash in 2008. Given what actually happened in 2008, I'm a little scared to pick a new date for economic collapse. I'd rather not be right again.
“Yeah, it’s a great gun, all right. Fifth generation Uzi. Light, compact. And never jams.” I took the gun off the shelf, handed it to the kid.
As he reached for it, his dirty sweatshirt rode up, exposing a knife handle in the waistband of his jeans. He grabbed the gun quickly and tugged his shirt down, glancing over at me to see whether I’d noticed the knife.
I tried to look as if I hadn’t.
The kid—he might have been sixteen—aimed the gun at the tiny window at the top of the basement wall. “Money in the bank,” he said.
When I was his age I’d have said “far out.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Back in oh-one when I bought it I figured it made me a real man, that nobody’d ever mess with me again. Goes to show the difference a few years can make.”
He handed it back, reluctantly, and slumped down into the orange easy chair I’d found abandoned on the street a couple of months ago. His right hand rested at his waist and played with the edge of his shirt. He hadn’t told me his name.
I laid the gun casually on the table, and opened the bottle of whisky I’d brought home with me. The label said it contained Scotch, but I didn’t much think so when I poured it into a cracked mug and a yellow plastic glass. It looked wrong, smelled even wronger. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have touched anything but Macallan single malt. Like I said, things change.
I handed the boy the glass. He took it with his left hand. His face wore a puzzled frown. He’d been looking at me funny since I’d invited him in.
I’d found him hiding behind the sickly rhododendron that sits beside my front door. He must not have heard me walk up, because he’d jumped when I said, “Kind of damp and cold back there, isn’t it son? Why don’t you come in and warm up a little.”
He’d stared at me at first, kind of like a deer caught in headlights, but then he’d shrugged and said, “Sure, why not.”
The heat in my basement room filtered out the November chill. The kid took a big slug of the so-called Scotch, coughed, and then took another one.
I said, “Yeah, I was on top of the world back in the nineties. Made so much in the stock market I didn’t even have to work. Guess you wouldn’t think it to look around this place.”
The boy looked around the room. A sneer replaced the frown for a brief moment.
I knew what he saw. Sink in one corner, microwave sitting on top of a two-foot-high refrigerator—that was my kitchen. Stained futon rolled up against the wall—bedroom. I dined at the table that currently held the whisky and the gun, and we were sitting in the two chairs that constituted the living room. A trail of extension cords crisscrossed the room to the jerry-rigged jumble of outlets stealing power from Pepco. They fueled the kitchen appliances and a couple of lamps.
“Nice place,” he said. He tried to maintain the sneer, but his voice held the faintest note of envy.
“I’ve lived in worse. After Black Thursday—you know, when the Worldwide Stock Market crashed back in twenty oh eight—I ended up on the street. How old were you back when all that happened? Nine, ten?”
“Seven,” he said.
“Old enough to know things went bad. But you probably didn’t understand why. They teach you kids about that stuff in school these days?”
“I haven’t been to school in awhile,” he said.
“Figures. You ought to learn something about it, son.”
He gave me his signature shrug.
“The market ran on-line twenty-four/seven, so you could buy or sell from anywhere, anytime. The tech existed, so they set it up. Just like the atomic bomb or asbestos—we used it before we understood what we had. And all it took to bring it down was a couple of million people panicking.”
“My dad jumped out a window. On K Street.” The boy said it matter-of-factly, as if it didn’t really mean anything.
“Jesus.” No wonder he’d ended up on the street. “Lost everything, I’d guess.” How could a man do that to his kid? I almost felt sorry for the boy. “Losing everything makes people crazy. I went off the deep end myself.” But I didn’t jump.
I drank some of the whisky. It was a few steps up from grain alcohol. “Yeah, I got pretty nuts living on the street, trying to keep myself alive. Carried that Uzi everywhere, waved it in people’s faces.”
The kid grinned. I figured he knew something about waving guns in people’s faces. Or at least knives.
“Enya Sensei—my Aikido teacher—she laughed at me when I bought this gun.”
“You learned to fight from a girl?” The sneer had definitely reappeared.
“What, you don’t think a woman can show a man how to fight? Those tough broads out on the streets these days—they probably got a few things to teach you.”
“Well, some of them, I guess. But you’re talking about a long time ago.”
Kids always think anything that happened before they were born occurred in the dark ages. “Yeah, I took martial arts from a woman. Learned a lot, too. That’s why I always called her ‘Sensei.’ That’s the Japanese word for teacher. It’s a respect thing.”
“I know that,” the boy said, impatiently. I’m sure he did. Action movies haven’t gone out of style. They don’t bother much with fancy special effects these days—they cost too much—they just have more killings, more gore.
“Of course, Aikido was just a hobby for me. I got to play at being a samurai. It relaxed me from the real world of stocks and bonds.”
The boy didn’t really want to hear me reminisce, but when you drink another man’s whisky, you’re obligated to do some listening. He chugged the rest of his glass of so-called Scotch, and stared expectantly at the bottle.
I poured him another drink.
“The 'real world.’ Now we define the 'real world' as doing whatever you have to. But things will change again. The economy will come back, and then survival will depend on knowing something about legit business.”
The boy giggled. “You want to take me on as a student, teach me something about business, old man?”
“Maybe.” My answer surprised me. Something about this kid appealed to me, who knows why. I did want to teach him something.
“About stocks and bonds and all that crap?”
“More about survival,” I said.
“Oh, right. You took a little martial arts once, you think you know better than me how to get by. I live on the street, mister. I grew up there. I know all about surviving.”
“And when things change? When survival’s about more than pointing a gun at somebody and taking what he’s got?”
“I’m a street warrior, pop. There’s always going to be a place for warriors.”
“You’re no warrior. You don’t know the first thing about being a warrior. You’re just another punk who thinks he’s tough. All your ideas come from gang leaders, bad movies, and video games like Street Fighter VIII.”
He jumped to his feet. “Nobody talks to me like that.”
“Shut up and sit down.”
He surprised both of us by obeying.
“Real warriors don’t kill anyone unless they have to,” I said. “Not like you punks that kill people just for fun.” I could tell by the look he gave me that it sounded hokey to him, but I plowed on anyway. “Take Enya Sensei now. She knew a fair amount about guns, did some target shooting, could use both handguns and rifles. But she didn’t think going around with a gun strapped to your waist made you a warrior.
“She told me one time, ;You depend on guns too much. There’s going to be a time when you’re relying on one, and it won’t be the right weapon.'
“I said, ‘Guns are the weapon of our time. I love Aikido, but for self defense, guns are the answer.’
“She gave me kind of a sad look then. 'Guns are just another tool, and ultimately no tool is ever the answer.' “
I hesitated a moment. “You know, Enya Sensei didn’t actually give advice very often. I should have paid more attention when she did.”
“What do you mean? That kind of firepower gives you real respect out there. Everybody wants a gun like that Uzi.”
“The more fools they. Enya Sensei had it right. Firepower won’t keep you alive out there.”
He clearly didn’t believe any of this, but I’d made him curious. “What does, then?”
“What you do. How you act. The way you carry yourself. Being willing to die, but not giving up. And timing. Timing is critical.”
“That the kind of bullshit your Sensei taught?”
I ignored the insult. “Yeah, that and one other thing: change when the situation changes.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Take me. Ten years ago I lived in a penthouse over on Seventh Street—right in the heart of the happening art district. I dated beautiful women, ate in the best restaurants, had my suits tailor made.
“Then the crash came, and everything changed. But I didn’t want to change with it. I’d invested most of my money in the market, but I had a little in bank accounts. Instead of cutting my losses, abandoning the rich man lifestyle, I threw good money after bad, trying to get back on top. And ended up in a cardboard box on a steam grate three blocks from the White House.”
He reached over for the whisky, poured another healthy shot. I didn’t know how he could chug the stuff; I still nursed my original glass.
“I didn’t adapt, didn’t change with the times, don’t you see?” I said. “Being on the streets after years in the penthouse really threw my timing. Money had defined my whole life, both making it and spending it. Once I didn’t have any, I didn’t know how to act.
“That Uzi was the only thing I had. I clung to it like a toddler to his blankie. I treated it like an amulet of good luck, like garlic and a silver cross for warding off vampires. And I did a few other things with it.
“I’m not going to tell you everything. A man’s entitled to keep some of his ugly truth to himself. I will tell you this: if you get desperate enough, you’ll end up doing things you hate yourself for.”
“Yeah.” He scrunched his face up, like he had a picture in his mind he preferred not to see.
I wondered what he had done to survive. I didn’t ask. “So I found myself on the street, and I still didn’t change. Kept trying to act the big shot, which didn’t work very well. I ran scared most of the time, terrified somebody might kill me, terrified I’d have to keep living like a bum.
“One night I found myself in this alley, surrounded by these young punks—dudes about your age. One guy—he had a machete—sniggered when I pointed the Uzi at him. It scared me. Even if I didn’t impress him, the gun should have. ‘Bet you ain’t got no bullets in that thing,’ he said.
“I didn’t, of course. After the crash, ammo disappeared even faster than food. I’d been out for a month. I was shaking so bad he could probably see the gun jiggle. I stared at the rusty machete and thought about begging. I’d have given them anything they wanted, if I’d had anything they wanted.”
The kid nodded. He knew that kind of fear.
“But I didn’t. I didn’t have a damn thing. I knew I was dead. And somehow, that freed me from the fear. A little voice whispered in my head, said ‘man, if you’re going to die anyway, what have you got to lose?’
“Machete guy gave this evil grin, and pulled the machete up like a sword. He cut straight down at my head. And at the right moment, I moved a little to the side and toward him and slammed him in the solar plexus with the butt of the Uzi. He stumbled. I made a little turn, grabbed the hilt of the machete, and threw him into a brick wall. He slumped to the ground, lay there. Now I had the machete. I shoved the gun into my waistband, looked at the others.
“The second guy—the one with a knife—just stood there, looking scared, but the third one came running at me swinging a two-by-four at my head. And I just stepped off the line again. Only since I had the machete, I sliced him across the abdomen when I did it. He screamed, dropped the board, and grabbed his stomach, tried to hold himself together.
“Man, the punk with the knife scaled a fence in nothing flat. I backed out of the alley, left the two of them there. I don’t know if they lived or not.”
The kid had straightened up in the chair while I told the story. He set his glass on the table, and didn’t pour another drink. He tried to look tough, but I could almost smell his fear.
“You’ve got a lot more style than those punks. More sense, too. You know how to adapt. You spent the evening staking me out, but when I invited you in, you came in, shared a bottle with an old man. Figured to soften me up before you pulled that knife out from under your shirt.”
His hand went to it immediately—a reflex. He stared at me wide-eyed.
“What, you didn’t think I noticed it? I saw it when we first met. I’d be willing to bet you know a few tricks with it, too.”
He hesitated. His hand held the knife hilt, but he didn’t pull it out. His eyes cut toward the door, back at me.
“Go ahead, son, make your move. You got to have a lot of quick on me. I’m probably old enough to be your granddaddy. It ought to be worth the risk. I get good heat in this basement, and winter’s not far off. And you could end up with the gun. It’s a nice gun.”
He looked like a cat caught in a corner by a dog. Half of him wanted to run; the other half wondered what would happen if he swiped his claws across my nose, and jumped up on my back.
“Just don’t forget you’re taking a risk. I might have found some ammo for the Uzi. And even if I haven’t, I’m willing to bet my life I can take that knife away from you.”
He vaulted out of the chair sideways, toward the door, away from me. Got there in about two seconds, then wasted fifteen or twenty trying to get all the locks undone. If I’d wanted to shoot him, I’d have had all the time in the world.
But I didn’t want to shoot him. I said, “Sure you have to be going? All right, then. Come back another time.”
Maybe he would. Maybe after a couple of days he’d tell himself he was nuts to be scared of an old guy like me, and he’d come back to kill me.
Or maybe he’d come back to listen.
This story originally appeared in Aikido Today Magazine.