The man on the mall bench unwrapped his sandwich almost primly, which is what you do when your wife has folded it so carefully and neatly in white butcher's paper. He was absolutely delighted with the gesture - she had only started packing his lunches since she was home with the baby - and delighted with his wife. She was a professional spouse and mother now, and that made him, Mr. Martin Stanley, a professional husband. But as he sat with a smile, preparing his lunch beside him on the bench, he looked more like a little boy whose mother had packed his favorites.
And Martin ate with the relish of a young boy until he heard the harsh words bark out from just down the way: "You really want to start something here? Sit down and shut up for a minute."
Two men were standing near a lit glass storefront maybe fifteen feet away, staring each other down in front of a row of sleek, barely-dressed mannequins. They both wore jeans, work boots, and similar brown windbreakers, and they looked pissed enough to be family.
The one who had spoken glanced around and noticed Martin. "Don't worry, sir. My brother's just excited to see me." And he grinned at his counterpart.
Martin gave a little nod and tried to look somewhere else.
The man who hadn't spoken seemed shorter, but he had a deeper six-o'clock shadow and a lot more anger in his stance. There was something about the way he held his hands that made them look very strong and very open. He took a little too long to sit down, but once he did, he hunched at the edge of the bench and practically growled out his words.
Martin grew steadily more uncomfortable as the tense minutes passed. He chewed his sandwich deliberately and cast his gaze at patrons down the hall. No one else was lingering in this section, so the two men would probably think that he was going to call mall security if he moved, and who knew what they would do then?
The seated man started talking about how things were stolen from him, and he got a little louder as he went down what seemed like a very long list.
"Hey, I didn't take anything, Danny," the standing man said, leaning down a bit. "They gave it all to me, even your fucking name."
Now that didn't make a whole lot of sense, and suddenly Martin noticed that the standing guy had kept his hands in his pockets the whole time. Martin wondered if he should go find mall security before things got out of hand, and he was surprised at how menaced he felt in a mall in the middle of the day. I mean, this wasn't Englewood. It was Water Tower Place.
"You stole my fucking life!" Danny yelled.
And the standing guy belted back, "You want your life back? Fine, you can have it! Just give me something to start out with and I’ll be on my way, no sweat."
Danny's upper lip twitched and he leaned back a bit; neither he nor Martin could believe what they'd heard.
"What, you think I’m kidding? I hate your fucking family, with your stupid wife and your whining kids. They call me dad and I just want to puke, because I'm not their dad. I would never have let her trap me with her pussy like that, but I didn't have a choice, did I? Came in a bit too late in the game. And I used to think I was you!"
The apparently nameless man paced a few steps, back and forth. One hand moved up and ran over his short brown hair. Danny, for his part, didn't seem to know what to say next.
"I used to think it was my fault that I lived in a shitty neighborhood with a shitty job," the taller brother ranted on. "But deep down I knew there was something wrong with that. I couldn't remember taking the family pictures. I couldn't care about my parents or my wife. I killed my mother-in-law. I couldn't get along with the damned dog..."
Wait...a...minute. Did that man just say he killed his mother-in-law? Danny's brows furrowed and Martin felt coldness slide down his spine. Now he had heard too much. He shrank into his bench and prepared to bolt at the first opportunity.
"I couldn't do anything right because I wasn't you. And I knew it when I could bet the kids' college money without batting an eye - and don't look at me like that, you know it was only a couple thousand bucks. A couple thousand bucks I broke my back to earn, not them, and not you, and not her."
"You have no idea where I've been or what I've had to do," Danny countered.
"And I really don't care," his brother replied. "I had nothing to do with any of that and I don't feel like dying for it, either. But I will tell you this: I coulda done a lot worse to your family and everything else you care about. As it is, your house is waiting for you like old slippers. It's a little worse for wear, but it's in one piece. All I want is a little going away present and a promise that you won't ever try to get revenge. Or send anyone else to do it."
This was greeted with a deep and turbulent silence, in which Martin barely dared to breathe. Danny seemed to struggle with this "deal" a little too much. It sounded like the nameless man held Danny's family for ransom; he'd killed the mother-in-law, so he could kill anyone. Why did Danny seem to be calculating an attack after everything he'd heard? Didn't he know the cops would find him? Didn't he fear the cops anymore?
"Sound like a good deal to you, Mister?" the nameless guy suddenly asked Martin.
Martin nodded a little.
"Listen to the suit, asshole," the man told Danny. "He knows a good deal when he hears one."
Danny glanced over at Martin but didn't seem to really see him, and then his eyes roved to the floor.
"When you killed Maria," Danny said, and it was quiet enough in the broad hallway for Martin to hear him, "did you make her suffer?"
The nameless brother raised an eyebrow and said, "Are you kidding? She's the one who told Gina to get pregnant, and then she wanted to sell her place so she could move in with us. I didn't stop until the bitch begged all the saints and God."
The shadows beneath Danny's eyes deepened as he grinned, and it was then that Martin was sure that Danny was also a murderer.
"What do you want to swear on?" Danny asked.
"What do you think? The one who made us. That way, I know you'll never take it back."
Danny grew visibly pale but nodded stiffly. "Okay."
The nameless man took both hands out of his pockets at last and they were empty. Danny stood and shook his hand, and then the brothers turned to Martin.
"You don't have to worry, sir," Danny said, clearing his throat a bit. "If you don't make a fuss and move on, you won't see or hear from us. Hell, we'd even give you a gift for your trouble."
"I don't want a gift," Martin said. "I just want to go home."
"Aww, but if you don't take a gift, then how can we trust you to stay quiet?" the nameless brother asked, hanging his thumbs on the rims of his pockets.
"I'll take the gift then," Martin said quickly. "But - what is it?"
The brothers looked at him and shrugged.
"We'll think of something," Danny said. "Probably money."
"You'll know it when you see it," the nameless one assured.
"And I get to walk away?" Martin asked cautiously.
"You get to walk away," Danny replied.
"No harm, no foul," the nameless man said.
"How do I know you won't follow me?" Martin asked, and he was sorry he had.
"Trust me," Danny said, and the two men advanced. "We keep our promises."