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I can't believe I'm doing this - AGAIN!
I mean, she's a cute kid and smart as a whip and all. And she plays one of the meanest games of checkers around. But, ya know, I'm a sweeper, for Christ's sake, not a damned babysitter!
OK, yeah. I work for Miss Parker. And when Miss P tells me that she needs me to pick up Debbie Broots from school RIGHT NOW and take her over to Her Place and keep an eye on her for a while, that's exactly what I'll do, no questions asked. Especially when, only a minute or so later, both Miss P and Mr. Broots are in the clutches of Willy and Gar and on their way to yet another T-board, courtesy of our resident ghoul, Mr. Raines.
Christ, but I'd be gutted and filleted if any of the other sweepers ever heard me call him that...
Still, you'd think Mr. Broots would have made contingency plans, ya know? A neighbor to pitch in when he gets held up at work or something, right? But noooooooooooo....
So here I am, one slightly frightened little girl, complete with backpack and lunchbox, firmly in hand, heading for the car and Miss P's place. At least she knew me when I went to pick her up. Between her knowing me and my having a pre-written note from Mr. Broots authorizing my removing her from class, things went smoothly enough. And did I say that the kid's bright? She knows something is up and gets right into the car as quick as anything. Doesn't ask any questions I can't answer, just moves her little butt when I tell her to.
Good thing, too. About the time I climb into the driver's seat, here comes another Centre sedan with Dave driving. He pulls up behind me, parks, and runs into the building. Hey, at least he didn't notice me sitting right in front of him. I bet Raines reams him a new one when he figures out what's happened...
I peel out of that parking lot (quietly - I'm not an idiot after all, contrary to popular opinion...) and head off for Miss P's via the "scenic route". If there's one good thing about being headquartered in one of the smallest burgs in Delaware, it's knowing that it's hard to tail somebody on these little country lanes without getting noticed. It doesn't take me long to make sure nobody's eyeing us, so I cut across and hightail it up to Miss Parker's.
I catch Debbie checking out our flank in the rear view on her side of the car. She's learning. I don't know that this is a good thing, though...
I pull off onto a private road and then park it behind some bushes on a connecting cowpath, just in case Raines gets the bright idea to have Dave drive by just to see if anybody's home. Miss P told me about this place a while back, and now I know why. "You stick close behind me now, OK?" I tell the kid, and she just looks up at me with those huge, scared eyes of her and nods. When we start moving toward the back of Miss P's house, I see she's doing exactly what I told her to - and doing her share of keeping track of what's going on around us too. Like I say, she's learning; and I'm even less sure this is a good thing now than I was five minutes ago.
I motion for her to stay put behind a bush while I go up on the back porch and get the door unlocked. Then, when I'm pretty sure nobody is watching, I wave to her to get her butt over here. The kid can run, too. She scoots right up the steps and into the house, with me right behind her, and then stops just inside the kitchen.
"Is my Daddy in trouble again?" she asks, with those big eyes of hers.
God, I'm a sucker for cute kids with big eyes.
"I honestly don't know, squirt," I answer. "He was heading off for an important meeting the last time I saw him."
Well, it's the truth...
Its obvious she remembers what to do from the last time she ended up here with me. I didn't remember where Miss P kept the checkerboard, but she did. She has it set on the dining table by the time I get my wits about me and ask, "Don't you have some school work you need to do first?"
Ooo. That gets her. She gives me this deep, little girl sigh before reaching for her backpack. I sigh too - I can keep my dignity for a little while longer while she does her fractions or whatever the hell homework she's got.
Or I can dream, anyway...
"Can you show me how to do these equations?" she asks me then. "My teacher was going to explain them today..."
God must hate me at least as much as I hate math; and if she asks me to help her diagram sentences, I'm gonna have to kill someone.
"Forget I mentioned homework, squirt," I tell her with a wink. "Where's that checkerboard?"
Two losses later, I begin to wonder just how long that damned T-board is going to take, and I decide that Miss P and Mr. Broots are going to owe me HUGE!
"Ha-HAH!" the kid crows, and I watch in horror as she jumps four of my men and wipes me out yet again. I'm just sinking my head in my hands when I hear the sound of a key in the lock and the front door swings open. Why is it that Miss P and Mr. Broots always manage to get here just at the moment of my humiliation? Why can't they get here just as a game is getting started instead?
"Daddy!" the kid cries, then jumps up and runs to him. It would be a Kodak moment; but I'm feeling pretty abused by now, Mr. Broots looks pretty tired and Miss P has this funny smirk on her face that tells me that I'm not going to be living this down very much sooner than I did the last time.
But then, just when things seemed like they were hitting bottom, I see the squirt wiggle out of her daddy's arms and jump up to throw her arms around our prickly Miss P's neck. "Thanks for sending Sam, Miss Parker. You're the greatest!" the kid gushes, and then she plants a big wet one on Miss P's cheek.
I swear, I never thought I'd see the day that something actually would get our Miss Parker's goat. But her cheeks get this extra bit of color as she tentatively gives Debbie a return hug and sets her down as fast as possible so the kid could go back to her daddy. Then Miss P harrumphs a couple of times with this incredibly embarrassed look on her face. I'd have never thought it, but it seems our Miss P is just a big marshmallow inside - and you gotta know it makes me smile big. Smirk even.
"Get your stuff, Debbie," Miss P manages finally to sound normal - pushy and all business. "Its time to go." Then she sees me with this big, shit-eating grin on my face, and goes all pale and still. I think she already knows that SHE'S gonna have something to live down too this time around. But hey - what goes around, comes around, ya know?
By God if for the first time today, the kid doesn't jump to and do as she's told right away. She goes and walks over to me and tugs on my sleeve until I look down at her, and then she crooks a finger to ask me to bend down. Then - Christ! - she plants a big wet one on MY cheek too. "Thanks for the games, Sam," she says, and THEN she goes to get her stuff and takes off with her dad.
"Sam, wait a minute," Miss P yells at me just as I head off toward the back door. I turn around and wait for her. "Look," she says about as soft and sweet as I've ever heard, "I'll make a deal with you."
Uh-oh. Making deals with the Parkers is usually like making deals with the devil - the person making the deal ends up on the short end of the stick. And I don't think my knowing her to be a secret marshmallow inside is gonna save me. "Uh, what deal is that, Miss Parker?" I ask suspiciously.
She steps up real close to me. Marshmallow or not, having Miss Parker come up close to a person makes an impression, lemme tell ya! "The deal is that I forget that you still can't win a checkers game against a twelve year old, and you forget what YOU just saw."
Ya know, when the Ice Queen decides to make deals, she knows how to make 'em right. And she knows how to sell 'em right too - boy, does she! Especially when she knows the playing field's level this time and that she has as much to lose as I do for a change. Maybe even more.
"You've got it, Miss Parker." I'm still smiling, but the smirk's gone. I know its not often that a guy like me gets to break even with a lady who not only out-shoots him but writes his paycheck - and its not wise, much less good for his health, for him to rub it in very much.
She pokes me in the chest as if to make a point, then thinks better of it. "Meet you back at the Centre," she says instead and spins on them stiletto heels of hers and makes tracks out the front door, leaving me to head out the back way and retrieve the other car from the cowpath.
Ya know, if anybody tells me that everything that's happened today was all in a day's work for a sweeper, I'm gonna tell 'em to shove it. I've got a reputation to maintain, after all...