Chapter 7 -- Study Hall
“Momma, I don’t wanna go.” He’d clutched her arm, staring at the strange building.
“It’ll be okay, Tommy. You’ll meet lots of new friends.”
He shrugged off the old memory. But he stood up straight like he was taught. No matter if his heart was racing, he had to stick it out.
“I’m sorry. I was told by Slab Abbot to meet him here.”
The guardian glared and pointed down the road. “Jus get on your....”
Another voice came out of the darkened doorway.
“Hold on!” Another man, in an old army jacket walked out. He strode up beside the giant.
“Slab is expecting you?” He frowned. “You’re white.”
Tommy ducked his head. “Yeah. Sorry about that.”
He shook his head and sighed. “Okay, follow me.”
Tommy nodded, then said, “Uh, I need to lock my bike.”
He shook his head. “Don’t bother. Cax, watch the kid’s bike. He’s a friend of Slab’s.”
The giant tilted his head a little, and nodded.
Tommy could do nothing but follow. Don’t look back. Cax was trustworthy or he wasn’t, but it’d be an insult to show any doubt.
The smaller man led him across the street, away from the blacked out windows, and up the stairs into an old dusty apartment house. It smelled. Either the plumbing needed fixing, or someone hadn’t bothered with the plumbing. This couldn’t be where Slab lived. What was he walking into?
His guide opened a peeling wooden door to a vacant apartment, and sitting at a bare table, Slab waited. The folding table and chairs were the only furnishings. A bulging backpack was resting against the table leg.
“Tommy-Boy! You made it.”
Tommy grinned, relieved. Slab didn’t look angry. That was good. He scratched his head. “I had a hard time finding this place. It doesn’t look like a pool hall.”
The guide made a noise that might have been a half-hearted laugh. “Slab knows better than goin’ in there. His Mamma’d have my head if I let him in. Bad enough he’s come this close. But how did you find it? Did Slab give you the address?”
“No George! Honest I didn’t.”
Tommy blinked. It was the first time he’d ever seen Slab show any hint of fear. He didn’t think the guy feared anything, other than a bad grade.
“No. Slab just tole...told me to meet him at Lamb’s Pool Hall. I had to ask around. It wasn’t in the phone book.”
George persisted. “Someone gave you directions?”
Tommy shrugged. “Some guy I met a couple of miles north of here. I didn’t get his name, and he probably wouldn’t have told me if I’d asked. He seemed nervous.”
George looked irritated. “Slab, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were an idiot.”
He shook his head and snarled, “Get to studying.” He stalked out.
Slab pulled out his notebooks and they got to work. A few minutes later, Tommy found what puzzled him.
“But why? Numbers’re numbers. Why mangl’em into suthin’ else.”
“And words are words, but most of the time, you speak Ebonics, what they call Black English, and I speak, like, textbook English, more or less. With your friends and family, Black English is ordinary and acceptable, but in Mr. Turpin’s class, you’d better talk textbook!
“It’s the same with logarithms. It’s easier to understand ordinary numbers, but it’s easier to calculate using logarithms. Multiplying ordinary numbers can be a lot harder than just adding their logarithms. And once you get into raising numbers to powers and such, it’s really tons easier.”
Slab twisted his mouth. “Yeah, I know. You showed me. But I still don’ unnerstan! What are they? Where’d they come from? Some guy just made ‘em up?”
Tommy paused, trying to remember what Nick had taught him. They’d had the same conversation a few years back.
He took a pen and drew a graph, and then pointed to the worn checkerboard painted on the top of the folding table.
“You got this checkerboard, and you go one unit in each direction -- how many squares you got?”
Slab shrugged, “One.”
Tommy marked it on the chart.
“Okay, two units.” He covered the area with his hand.
He went all eight rows and marked down the answer on his chart.
“See, this curve. What if I told you that if I used logarithms, the line would be straight?”
A few minutes later, after a couple of other examples, Slab was convinced.
“Logarithms aren’t just made up, they show reality. Almost everything in nature is a straight line on a log chart.
“Everything’s easier if you just pay attention to how the world works.”
Slab looked up from his worksheet a little later. “You skipped out on me, at lunch.”
Tommy nodded. “Yeah, I know. I didn’t have much choice.”
“Kitty-Kati ragging on ya? She’s steamed, too.”
He sighed. “No. That’s something else.”
“Ya want Ready-Freddie to get a little discouragement?”
Tommy was surprised at how good the offer of intimidation sounded, but he shook his head. “I’m playing my own game. No help from the sidelines.”
“Jus’ let me know.” Slab hesitated. “You’ll be there to help me with Old Man Turpin? He’s got it in for me.”
Can I help again?
The delay, while he tried to decide what to say, put a frown on Slab’s face.
“You’ll be there to help me, won’t you, Tommy-Boy?”
“Slab, I’ve got a problem.”
From the hallway, George walked in, “What kind of problem?” How long had he been out there, listening?
George waited, as he tried to decide what to say.
“Well, there’s people looking for my father. I’m sorta in hiding, too. So they can’t get to him through me.” He shrugged, it sounded so crazy when he tried to put it into words.
“I came here, ‘cause I knew it was important to explain why I hadn’t made my noon meeting, but really, it’s a one-shot thing. I made it here this time, but I don’t really believe I could do it again. Not until this...thing clears up.”
“Cops?” George asked, with a strange flat tone.
“I don’t think so. They’re using tools a cop wouldn’t use, and haven’t taken advantage of things cops could get with a search warrant. Besides, I can’t imagine why police would be after my father.”
“Doesn’t mean anything,” George muttered. Then he looked up. “Phone. You could take care of my man Slab over the phone. You gotta phone, don’cha?”
“Well, yeah, but that’s the thing. I can’t use it. They can track cell phone calls. I keep it turned off.”
George held out his hand. “Let me see it.”
Reluctantly, Tommy pulled out the phone, and the battery. “Don’t turn it on.”
George looked it over, then pulled out his own phone. He pressed a key and muttered, “Bring your box.”
Tommy had to explain, again, his fears about his cell phone being tapped or traced, once the new guy with thick glasses arrived, carrying a briefcase-sized cardboard box under his arm.
Glasses just nodded and set his load down on the table. He held out his hand, “Phone.”
Inside were dozens of cell phones. He rummaged through the lot and came up with a phone with the same manufacturer as Tommy’s. Without a word, he opened both up and swapped the SIM cards.
Tommy winced when Glasses turned the power on the new phone that had his electronic identity, but with rapid keystrokes, he programmed a number and turned it back off. He set it aside as he plucked out another phone and programmed it as well.
George nodded when he was done. Cax had arrived and ducked to enter the room.
He handed back Tommy’s reprogrammed phone, and handed the phone with the contaminated ID to the giant. “Nobody’ll mess with Cax, and he’ll forward anything that shows up for you.”
In the giant’s hands the phone looked like a little toy. He dropped it into his pocket and nodded.
Glasses pulled out two more phones, cheap ones, from his cardboard box and handed one to Slab and one to Tommy.
George explained. “These are just for your study sessions, nothing else. They only got a few hours left, so don’t use em for anything else, understand.”
Tommy nodded. “Okay, but I’ve really got to go. This has taken longer than I’d planned.”
Slab stood up, and Tommy noticed for the first time just how much alike the big men were. From their faces, they had to be blood relatives. Was Cax Slab’s father, or an uncle maybe?
George nodded. “Okay, stay here a minute.” He ducked out, and Cax followed. Glasses folded up his box and left.
“Thanks, Tommy-Boy. I knew you’d come thru.”
He just nodded, and waited. He looked at the second phone. It certainly wasn’t new. Suddenly he began to worry. Was it stolen? Was he going to be carrying a stolen phone?
“Are these guys a gang?” It sounded stupid as he asked.
Slab just shrugged, “Just guys.”
“Are you in the gang?”
George walked in. “Ha! Miz Abbot would bust the lot of us if we let Slab in the Pool Hall.”
Slab looked a little sheepish. George grinned. “No, Slab’s gonna make it to the NBA, and there ain’t gonna be any scandals about it. You remember that next time! Now get home before your Momma starts looking for you.”
He pointed at Tommy, “And you’d better forget this place.”
“That’s not hard! It was all twists and turns getting here. I have no idea where we are. Just show me the front door, and I’m outta here.”
He shook his head. “Back door. We don’t leave wheels out on the street. Follow me.”
Tommy waved to Slab, and headed out.
It was dark out, and the first thing that caught his eye was the fresh orange gang sign painted on the side of his motorcycle. He stopped, speechless.
The two caretakers hovering over his bike grinned. “Hey, ain’t nobody gonna mess wit’ yer wheels now! We fixed it good.”
Tommy closed his mouth and forced a nod. He walked up to the bike. It appeared intact, but in the darkness, he couldn’t tell for sure.
“Tom Dorie!” Two men in blue denim jackets, appeared at the end of the alley. Cleaners! They began running his way. Tommy hopped on the bike.
From out of nowhere, a half-dozen men appeared, Slab’s friends, blocking the intruders’ path.
“Tom! We need to talk to your father. He’s taken something that doesn’t belong to him.”
Tommy pressed the switch starting the Harley noise and roared out the other way as fast as he could accelerate.
At the main street, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a second cluster of Pool Hall guys rapidly removing the wheels from a parked BMW, probably belonging to the cleaners.