Jackie heard the child’s voice before he saw her a thin high call that cut through his coffee and newspaper, straight past his earbuds and Morning Edition. Pulling the left bud free, he waited a moment.
Damn kid didn’t appear. “Crap.”
He stuffed his paper and his iPod into his satchel and rose, joints popping. Every time, every time he came to park, he got interrupted.
“Maxie!” The cry came again and this time, he saw the girl. Thin and dark-haired, she had tear tracks dried to her face. She was as big as a minute and twice as cute, but unhappy as hell. How the hell was Jackie supposed to help? And who the hell was Maxie?
He squatted down so he didn’t loom over her. “Lose something, sweetie?”
She glared at him, all suspicion and mistrust packed into a four-year-old frame. Five, tops. “My cat got out.”
He sighed. One of those mornings. Figured. He’d just gotten to the Op-Ed page, too. “What’s she look like?”
Jackie blinked. “Pardon?”
“Maxie’s a boy!”
Her aqua jumper had smudges of dirt and a grass stain on it, but she seemed clean enough. All fresh dirt, anyway. “How about I help you?”
“I’m not to talk to strangers!”
Modern kids. “Do you have a quarter?”
“Well, if you pay me a quarter, I’ll help you. Then we won’t be strangers. You’ll be my boss.”
She narrowed her eyes, considering. He waited, not rising, though his knee ached like a sore tooth from the position. Finally, she nodded. “All right.”
They wound their way deeper into the park and found the cat cowering under a bush. He spit when he saw Jackie, but Jackie sighed and dropped his glamour for a moment. The cat blinked and then walked out from the bush, calm as you please.
After he saw them both back to his bench, he sat down again.
Ah, mornings. Coffee never tasted so good. He put his earbuds back in, fired up NPR, and paged through to the Op Eds. Now if he could just find a naughty child, he’d finally get some breakfast.