By Judith Lamb

Jack Kaprowski shivered inside his knee-length black leather "gangsta" coat. His swollen, bruised right hand throbbed, yesterday's nasty warning from Louie The Squeeze of what bodily damage Jack could expect if he didn't pay back the five hundred dollars he'd borrowed from Louie. Sweat streaked down Jack's face, not from the pain and not from the suffocating heat of the muggy summer night. Pain and discomfort were nothing compared to what would happen if Sister Mary caught him stealing St. Margaret's festival money.

"So, Jack, what's the deal?" Frankie The Truck asked. "We gonna do something or just sit in your Plymouth dripping salt or what, man?"

Jack glared at his friend. "Keep a lid on it, Truck, I gotta think."

"Jeez, we'll be here all night." Truck laughed his barking dog laugh. "You shoulda brought Bobby if you was gonna do thinking."

Yeah, sure, Jack thought, like brother Bobby's gonna step down from his big lawyer's office at Dudley, Dudley, and Price and help. Like it wasn't Bobby who'd disdainfully said, "Get a job, kid," when Jack begged him for the money last week.

Jack narrowed his eyes to slits and brought his face within inches of Truck's. "Don't be a wise ass," he threatened.

"Aw, jeez, stop with the look, you're making my eyes water," Truck said.

Jack felt the heat rising in his face and he pulled back and looked out his window before Truck said anything. No one was impressed with his bad guy squint. No one except Molly Corrigan. Thinking about Molly now made Jack's hand throb more. If it hadn't been for her he wouldn't be in this mess. Ah, Molly. When she'd batted those big blue eyes at him and asked him to take her to St. Margaret's highbrow charity dance at the downtown Hilton, well, what was a guy to do.

He'd certainly impressed Molly all right. A C-note for dance tickets, two C-notes for the limo, and another one to rent the tux. After the dance he'd dropped a hundred for the grand six course meal at Le Petit Chateau where everything was petite except the prices. He could still see Molly's beautiful eyes practically bugging outta her head when he'd flipped a twenty for the waiter.

"So, come on, what gives, huh?" Truck asked, bringing him back to the present.

"We're gonna rip off St. Margaret's festival," Jack said.

"We're gonna what?" Truck spluttered, spit hitting the windshield. "Are you crazy? You know who's guarding the dough?"

"Yeah, I know but,,,"

"Sister Mary the Terrible, that's who," Truck yelled, "and I ain't ready to die."

"Will you shut up and listen? I got the whole thing worked out."

"Yeah, sure, like you worked out stealing Fat Freddie's bike and we spent years grounded, in case you've forgotten. Jeez, I even got an A in math 'cause I couldn't do nothing but study."

"We were ten years old."

"Yeah, well we're only sixteen now and we ain't gonna live much longer, stealing from Sister Terrible." Truck sniffed and swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down in his long skinny neck. "And it don't matter she's your aunt, she's gonna kill us."

"Ain't nobody gonna die unless I don't get Louie his money," Jack said.

"So, how you gonna do that?"

"I told Louie to come here tonight and I'd have his five bills for him."

"Five bills for a date. When I think of it I gotta grit my teeth to keep from laughing. Jeez, what a dope."

"Would you just shut up about it?" Jack growled. "I convinced Sister Mary somebody ought to be in the office while she closes up tonight."

"Oh, I get it. While she's out scaring the customers away you're gonna lift five bills. Like she won't know who took it with us sitting there."

"Truck, you ain't listening. We're gonna count the take after she closes up. She ain't gonna know any money's missing before it's counted."

"Yeah, what if she catches Louie in the trailer?"

"We got twenty, twenty-five minutes. The Squeeze comes in at ten-fifteen, I give him his money, he's gone before Aunt...er...Sister Mary gets back."

"Yeah, sounds okay, I guess, but, jeez, Sister Mary..." Silence hung in the air like doom. Truck whispered, "She thinks you've got a vocation you know. She finds out about this..." He dragged a finger across his throat.

"Knock it off, Truck. My aunt thinks everybody's got a vocation." He looked at his watch. "Come on, let's go. It's almost ten."

They climbed out of the battered Plymouth and hustled through the schoolyard gates, Jack hip-hopping heel-toe, heel-toe, and Truck loping easily beside him on his long legs. They dodged past the lingering, laughing people crowding around the brightly lit booths. Good old St. Margaret's festival, Jack thought, a big magnet hauling in the cash. They'd never miss a lousy five hundred.

He was delighted to find the festival's office trailer parked in the dark shadows at the back of the schoolyard with only a dim light above the tin door. He knocked timidly. Sister Mary's booming, "Come in," made him jump. Oh, jeez. He wiped his sweaty hands on his pants before opening the door and stepping inside the stuffy trailer, Truck cringing behind him.

"Oh, good, Jack," Sister Mary said, "right on time."

"Hey, Aunt Mary."

Sister Mary heaved her bulk out of the stiff-backed wooden chair and engulfed Jack in a bear hug. His face was swallowed up in her massive bosom and the sour smell of her blue jumper assailed him for an instant before his breath was cut off. Her big hands pounded happily on his back. When she released Jack he stumbled back, gasping. She looked at Truck, who hurriedly scrambled backward.

"And how are you, Francis? Have you been listening for the Lord's call? It's time you thought about your vocation, don't you agree, Francis?"

Truck's mouth popped dryly as he croaked, "Yes, 'ster."

"Good, Francis. Serving God is the noblest of professions. Don't turn your back on God. And don't keep Him waiting."

"Yes, 'ster."

"All right, boys, I'm going to close up and when I get back you can help me count the money and get it ready for deposit in the morning." Sister Mary patted a large metal cash box sitting on the desk, her broad face beaming. "It's been a good weekend, thanks be to God."

"That's great, Aunt Mary. You go and take your time. Truc...er...Francis and I'll keep watch here."

"You're a good boy, Jack," Sister Mary said and went out the door.

"So, what do we..."

"Shut up," Jack hissed. He listened carefully as Sister Mary's heavy footsteps grew fainter. "Okay, keep your ear glued to that door in case she comes back for something."

"Hurry up, okay?" Truck urged, biting his lip to keep his teeth from chattering.

Jack opened the cash box. "Wow," he exclaimed, "look at all that money." "Come on, just take your dough."

Jack quickly took five hundred from the box and shut the lid. "Got it," he laughed.

Truck spun around and stared at the door. "Oh, God, someone's out there," he groaned.

Jack glanced at his watch. "That'll be Louie."

There was a loud bang on the door, then it flew open and Louie The Squeeze pushed his bulky body inside.

"Well, well, lookit the little bookkeeper," he snickered. He wasn't smiling. "Where's my dough?" His bull neck bulged over his black shirt. Jack's hand trembled as he put the money on the desk. "Here. Take it and get out," he managed to say.

The Squeeze palmed it, then slowly and carefully began counting. Jack's forehead itched with sweat as he watched Louie's lips moving.

"It's all there, Louie, come on, we ain't got all night."

Louie looked at Jack, his mean eyes flashing. "What're you pulling here, huh?" His face turned red, the acne scars pale, ghastly craters.

"What? It's all there. Five hundred, what I borrowed."

Louie reached across the desk, grabbed Jack's shirt in both beefy hands and lifted him clear of the chair. The smell of stale onions swept over him as Louie pulled him close.

"You borrowed five hundred, yeah, but you owe six-fifty. I ain't running a charity, stupid. There's interest, you little punk." He let go of the shirt and Jack fell back on the chair.

Jack swallowed back bile as he opened the cash box. Louie's eyes bulged when he saw the money and he quickly reached across the desk, slammed the lid shut, and picked up the box.

"Hey..." Jack yelled.

"For my troubles I'll just take it all," Louie said.

"You can't," Jack whimpered.

"Sez who, punk?"

Jack's rubbery legs barely held him up as he came around the desk. He grabbed Louie's arm.

"Give me the box..."

Louie's punch hit him before he even saw his arm moving. The side of Jack's face exploded in pain as he fell backward against the desk. The second punch caught him in the stomach. He dropped to his knees, struggling to breathe. Louie turned and glared at Truck cowering in a far corner. "Smart boy," he growled and headed for the door.

Jack lunged and managed to grab Louie's ankle.

"Man, you're nuts," Louie hissed. He reached down and grabbed Jack's hand and with one, quick jerk he broke Jack's grip. He closed his hand over Jack's fingers and squeezed.

Jack screamed. Louie laughed, a deep, sinister Sidney Greenstreet kind of laugh. Jack heard a dreadful snap. Louie was breaking his hand. Jack leaned forward and sunk his teeth into Louie's muscular thigh. He felt the rough texture of Louie's pants and tasted the warm, copper taste of blood. His stomach heaved.

He heard Louie scream as the pressure eased on his hand. The next instant his head began throbbing as Louie pounded on him. When Louie swung the cash box against Jack's head, Jack's vision blurred and a loud rushing pressure filled his head, but he hung on. Then, as if from a long distance, he heard the box hit the floor.

Now Jack tried to open his mouth but he couldn't. His jaw was locked. Louie fell heavily to the floor and kicked at Jack with his free leg. For a crazy moment Jack saw himself lying in his coffin, a thigh bone in his mouth, and then everything went dark.

Jack squinted into the bright light, his eyes watering. He couldn't see clearly but he was positive a lovely angel was standing beside him, a gleaming red halo surrounding her head. Dear, sweet Jesus. He'd made it to heaven.

"Jack, open your eyes now," commanded the familiar voice of Sister Mary the Terrible.

Jack's eyes popped wide open, the pain from the light like hot needles searing his brain. He lifted his head slightly and looked in the direction of that voice. He could barely make out a towering shadow. Aunt Mary. Oh, jeez. Had that rotten Louie killed her too? And sent her into eternity with Jack? Eternity. Like, forever. He blinked away tears.

He lowered his head and pain rolled from his face, through his arms and fingers and down his legs. He groaned.

"Don't try to move," the angel said. "You've taken quite a beating."

Jack focused his eyes on her. She had red hair and was wearing a white dress. A stethoscope hung around her neck and a badge pinned to her collar read, "Mona Davidson, RN."

Nurse Davidson gently patted his arm. "I'll get you a pain pill," she said.

"You did a very brave thing, Jack," Sister Mary said. "When I came back to the trailer and saw you and that thug on the floor I thought he'd killed you." She smiled a wicked smile. "I convinced him to stay put."

"Wha...?" Jack struggled to understand.

"The police have him now."

OH, jeez, he was dead meat for sure. The Squeeze had a long memory. As if she could read his mind, Sister Mary said, "Francis explained about your debt. When you're feeling better you and I are going to have a long talk about economics."

Jack shuddered.

"Now don't you worry about that thug. I gave him his five hundred and he seemed quite agreeable to drop the matter of interest." She came closer.

"They say you'll be able to leave the hospital tomorrow. You have a slight concussion is all."

"How...the money...where did..."

Sister Mary's broad face broke into a wide smile. "Why, from the thousand dollars reward you received from the parish."

Jack grimaced in pain when he smiled but he didn't care. He had himself five hundred bucks. He wondered what Molly was doing next weekend.

"I wish you could have seen Father Matthew's face when I gave him the other five hundred dollars. He couldn't believe a young fellow would turn down that much money. But I let him know who you are."

Jack felt tears stinging his eyes.

Sister Mary kissed him gently on his forehead. "You're a good boy, Jack," she said.