Every Hero’s Sidekick

It takes two to tangle. Robin Hood had Will. Tom hung with Huck. Butch rode with Sundance. Don Quixote and Sancho, Ibn Fahdlan and Herger, Alatriste and Íñigo, Paul Atreides and Duncan Idaho – these friendships are epic. Carlos de Leon has Diego. Following are a couple vignettes of their growing friendship from Chapter 8, Among Family.

In the Park
Diego led them into the milling crowd. They made a circuit about the whole area before he chose his spot. Under the shade of a modest fountain, he knelt on the cobblestones. He extracted a rolled newspaper from his back pocket and laid it out before him. He then repositioned himself onto the newspaper. How it was accomplished, Carlos did not know. But kneeling on the cobblestones, Diego appeared to have been amputated just above the knees. His scene set, Diego began to beg. Carlos stayed close but tried to appear unconnected.

Diego remained in his spot for two hours. By that time, he had collected a hefty sum of pity plus change. Carlos observed that he was careful to gather all his money, scoot back off the newspaper, roll it up and then stand. He supposed, and rightly so, that it would not have appeared correct if an obviously healthy boy were to be seen gathering offerings off the paper.

“What do you think?” Diego asked him, shaking the strain out of his bound legs.

“How did you do it?”

“Practice,” Diego answered with a smile. “There are other ways to beg, though. Look pitiful enough and you won’t have to appear handicapped.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” Carlos said.

“You know, put on a sad face. Put on the mask of the destitute and extend your hand.”

“You mean, like this?” Carlos said, putting on what he considered his most pitiful face and extending his hand. Before he could retract his demonstration, someone dropped a coin into his hand.

“Yes, like that,” Diego said. Carlos was startled. He could never remember Jane giving money to beggars on any of their excursions. He could remember her telling him not to encourage their way of life by giving them what they asked for. “If they want money, they can work for it,” she had said. He had wondered then whether or not truly destitute people existed. And if they did, didn’t they deserve, if only because of human kindness, any handout they received? To beg when one could work was immoral, he reasoned. He dropped the change on the ground and informed Diego of his opinion.

“You wish to work for your money?” the other boy said as he picked the change off the ground. “You haven’t known work until you’ve begged all day.”

“I’m serious, Diego. You took the pity and hard-earned money of people by deceit. That money could have gone to someone who really needs it.”

“Believe me, I need it and my family needs it,” said Diego in a serious tone. “You simply do not understand our life. But if you insist on working for your money, follow me. I have a job for us.” With a straight back and the first purposeful stride Carlos had seen him exhibit, Diego led them out of the plaza and headed west…

…“Are you an orphan?”

“Yes,” Carlos answered softly.

“An orphan who cannot go to the authorities for help must survive by his own wits. Are you still convinced that our way is immoral?”

“I thought you brought me here to work for my money.”

“I did. I need you to distract someone while I pick his pockets.”

“This is your idea of work?”

“Believe me, it is no easy task.” Carlos considered Diego’s suggestion. He finally reasoned that he couldn’t get into any more trouble than he was already in. What was begging or picking pockets once you’ve killed someone?

“Do we have to go into the station?”

“No, we can do it from the park. We can wait behind the bushes you were standing near earlier. When a good mark comes along, I will point him out. When he gets into the park, put yourself in his path and beg. If he pays you no heed, then you become very obnoxious and demanding. While he is dealing with you, I’ll take what I can find. Sound good?”

“What if he pays me heed?”

“So much the better. We’ll get his money freely. Then we will pick another mark. What do you think?”

“Let’s get on with it,” said Carlos, feeling resigned to his fate of an outlaw.

“Travelers usually carry a fair amount of cash with them,” Diego explained as they sat on the ground, hidden from view of the station by the boxwoods. “Look at that one,” he exclaimed in a whisper.

“The lady with the big hat?” Carlos asked.

“No, behind her and to the left coming this way. The man in the brown suit,” Diego said, pointing. Carlos looked in the direction his friend had indicated. A short, stout man was crossing the street. His suit was a dark brown and appeared to be silk. The sun glinted off his highly polished, pointed brown boots. He was impeccably dressed and his hair seemed groomed by a salon. Not one black lock moved out of place as a breeze gently swayed the leaves in the trees above. It stayed combed back and flat on his round head. “See that briefcase? Snakeskin,” Diego breathed. “And look at the rings he is wearing. Looks like our mark.”

“Where do I go?” Carlos asked, getting excited in spite of himself.

“Wait until we see where he enters the park. We’ll follow him in for a little while. Then you can break off and get ahead.”

They waited, holding their breaths. The man came in on the sidewalk to their right. His stride was fast and full of purpose. Diego waited a few seconds and rose. The boys headed out after their quarry.

A quarter of the way into the park, Diego gave Carlos a little nudge. The boy headed off into the trees on the left and silently ran ahead. He came out onto the cobblestone walkway about a hundred yards ahead of the businessman. He put his back to a tree, stuck out his hand, and waited. The man walked within a foot of him and didn’t even spare him a glance. Carlos felt suddenly indignant. Once more, he ran ahead of the man, this time in the open. He planted himself in the businessman’s way.

“Please, sir, I am an orphan. Just a little money, please,” Carlos said, genuinely feeling his plight. The man sidestepped him. Carlos matched his pace, increased it, and got in front of the man once more. He almost walked over him when Carlos stopped. “Help a needy child,” Carlos pleaded.

“Get out of my way and get a job,” the man said contemptuously. Behind the man, Carlos could see Diego only two steps away and running. His mind screamed “No!” Diego came in low and made a snatch at the briefcase being held in the man’s left hand. Carlos was too startled by Diego’s bold action to act immediately. The move didn’t faze the businessman for a second. His right hand came out of his suit pocket and made a slash at Carlos’s left shoulder. Five inches of menacing steel passed under his eyes.

Even as his mind became a detached observer, his extensive training took control of his body. As the man made his back slash with the knife, Carlos caught the wrist with his right hand and twisted the arm. He stepped back, extending the man’s arm, and slammed his forearm into his opponent’s elbow and felt it give. He heard the switchblade clatter onto the cobblestone. He kept twisting on the arm while he pushed forward, grinding the joint.

Diego had failed in his attempted grasp. The man had pulled his arm back as Diego had grabbed it. Ignoring the pain in his right arm, he swung the heavy case in an arc over his back. He felt it collide with flesh. The blow caught Carlos in the head, making him let go of the man. He stood dazed for a second. His vision was blurred. He shook his head. The man was standing in front of him. His left foot, encased in a sharply pointed boot, was coming off the ground and heading for Carlos’s groin. Carlos blocked the kick with a downward swing of his right arm. Spinning on his right foot, Carlos swept the man’s remaining support with his left leg. As the man fell, Carlos delivered a backhand with his left fist to the bridge of his nose.

The man hit the cobblestone full force. His head bounced off the ground, then lay still. Diego grabbed the briefcase and ran. Carlos stared at the violence he had caused, transfixed. The man’s right arm was bent in an unnatural angle. His nose was flattened and oozed blood onto his pale face. He had accomplished this. It was his handiwork. He crouched over the man and felt a pulse in his neck. At least he is alive, Carlos thought thankfully. A whistling sound broke into his thoughts. He looked up and realized that he had a sizeable audience. Sensing his danger, he ran, plowing through two people who tried to stop him.

Within moments, he caught sight of Diego just as the boy darted into the trees. He increased his pace as best as he could on the small trail in an attempt to catch his friend. Diego broke out onto the street on the southern edge of the park. Carlos was close on his heels. Within a block, the boys were running side by side. Their young legs pumped for blocks. Carlos was beginning to feel light-headed. Sweat dripped from his brow into his eyes. He wiped his face with his left shoulder, but it did no good. His shirt was slick and wet. He shook his head to help clear his eyes. His legs were nonexistent. His lungs were on fire.

Diego dodged into an alley. Carlos followed suit. Halfway down, Diego stopped in front of a large, roll-up door. Diego bent down and managed to pull up the door high enough to allow then to crawl in. Squeezing in under the door, Carlos began to feel the pain in his left shoulder. He gritted his teeth in order not to cry out. Diego pushed the door down behind him and thus shut out all the light. The boys sat in the darkness and caught their breaths. “Come on,” Diego said a minute later.

A flash of light momentarily blinded Carlos. Its sudden appearance startled him. He closed his eyes loosely for a second and opened them again. The match flame was moving ahead of him. He rose and followed it tentatively. He noticed the downgrade of the pavement beneath him. He felt the presence of the concrete giants that were the supporting columns of the high-rise. Deeper under the earth they went. He caught up with Diego just as the other boy was making his way through a hole in the wall. Carlos followed him into the foundations of the next building.

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