“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”
It took nothing short of a miracle to fluster a self-described “severe Catholic” like Maggie enough to take the Lord’s name in vain, but Champ had managed to do it.
Maggie quickly made the sign of the cross and mumbled a prayer to ask for forgiveness.
“You’ve got to give me some space,” Maggie pleaded. “I’ve already got one natural shadow. The last thing I need is another, especially in such a confined space.”
They stood behind the bar. Maggie had turned to walk to the cash register, and had not expected Champ to be right there.
“Champ doesn’t mean to be a burden,” he explained humbly as he took a few steps back to allow his boss some personal space. “Champ just wants to be around if he’s needed.”
Maggie had to smile. How could she not? She adored Champ, who was not only a dream employee, but also a good friend.
With his long, wild hair and kind blue eyes, he also reminded Maggie of her late Uncle Finnegan, who had passed when she was just a wee lass. He was buried back in Ireland, but Maggie sometimes swore that Champ was Finnegan’s ghost come back to watch over her.
Although lately, it seems more like his intention was to haunt her.
“Look, dear, I understand that you feel responsible for watching over me ever since that stranger gave you a start with his thinly veiled threat against me, but I absolve you from that burden,” she told him while patting him gently on the arm. “You had no idea who that man was and what might have been his intent.”
“Champ should have sensed he was trouble,” he continued to beat up on himself.
Maggie shook her head. “Last time I checked, you weren’t psychic. Nor were you ever briefed on every criminal and known associate who might have a beef with Chip. I’m going to be fine.”
“But if he comes back…” Champ started to argue.
Maggie shut that down by shaking her head emphatically.
“Chip has arranged for an undercover officer to be in the bar at all times in the event he’s stupid enough to make a return appearance,” she whispered.
They both turned their attention towards the customers to try to figure out which patron was really a police officer. The bar wasn’t crowded at this hour, so it wasn’t difficult to discern who had been placed there by Detective Bruno to keep an eye on his significant other.
Even this didn’t seem like enough to satisfy Champ, but Maggie was not the kind of person who accepted no for an answer.
“You and Tex haven’t worked many shifts together lately. Why don’t you take the afternoon off and catch up with him?”
She turned her head upward to glance at the ceiling.
“I can hear him walking around up there, so we know he’s home. It’s time for the Undisputed Champions of Texas to have a much needed reunion.”
She smiled in a way that was both sweet, but also indicated that there would be no argument.
Champ understood this and nodded.
“Champ wouldn’t mind spending some time with Tex,” he admitted. “He hasn’t been around much since he met Aspen.”
“Have fun,” Maggie encouraged. “Don’t get into too much trouble, but if you do, call Wally, not Chip to bail you out.”
Champ’s cackle caused Maggie to laugh. She let out a relieved sigh when Champ finally walked off towards the staircase that led to Tex’s living space.
“I’m actually about to do something stupid, and I could use a wing man in stupidity,” Tex told him with a smile as he led Champ over to what passed as the living room area.
“Champ does stupid well. Champ’s in!”
Champ’s cackle echoed through the open space.
“Remember my plan to make money by finding lost items and returning them for the reward?” Tex asked as they sat down on opposite ends of the well-worn couch that dominated the area.
Champ shook his head. “Champ still thinks it’s a great idea. Weren’t you going to get those skateboard kids to help you?”
“That didn’t work out,” Tex confessed as his shoulders slumped. “Turns out they didn’t remember me as fondly as I’d hoped. Rather than seeing me as the guy who paid them some quick cash to steal a few Christmas decorations, they chose to think of me as the ass hat who almost got them arrested.”
“So what’s the plan?” Champ asked anxiously because he was now definitely in the mood for a little male bonding.
“I’ll show you,” Tex promised and then bolted off the couch and vanished somewhere deeper into the living space.
When he returned, he wheeled a ten speed bicycle beside him. The bike wasn’t in the best of shape, but it still worked. Tex had taken the time to polish it up and dust if off so that it looked newer than it truly was.
“There’s no way we’re both going to fit on that,” was Champ’s first thought. “Champ’s going to need a bike of his own.”
Tex chuckled. “We’re not going to ride it. We’re going to use it as bait…”
It took Champ a moment, but his brain finally got there.
“You’re going to put the bike someplace and hope that someone steals it? But Champ isn’t sure that January is bike weather.”
“It’s not as cold today and it has been, and there’s no snow on the ground, so at least it’s plausible that someone would be riding a bike,” Tex insisted because he was one hundred percent invested in this plan. “Besides, there’s no such thing as burglary weather. This is a crime of opportunity, and we’re going to make it tempting.”
Champ shrugged. Who was he to judge? Plus, he was happy to spend time with Tex.
“Champ wonders if we’d look suspicious just standing around watching the bike.”
“That’s why it’s perfect you showed up,” Tex replied. “Two guys chatting in the park wouldn’t be so weird.”
“If we’re going to be in the park, Champ thinks we should play chess,” Champ suggested excitedly. “Champ always carries a travel set.”
Tex held out his hand for a high five and Champ slapped it enthusiastically.
“The Undisputed Champions of Texas are back!” Tex declared.
“Where’d you get the bike?” Champ asked as they headed for the door.
“Remember the house I was staying in? My friend said I could take anything I wanted when I moved out, and the bike was in the garage.”
“Was there a car in the garage? Champ would have taken that instead!”
Champ’s cackle could be heard out in the hallway even after Tex had closed the apartment door behind them.
McKinley Park was across the street from St. Sebastian’s Church and Elementary School. With its basketball courts, swing sets, and grassy fields, it offered something for residents of all ages.
Tex was interested in the park’s bike racks, which were located near the basketball courts and in the direct line of sight of a bench that was partially hidden from view by a large tree.
The bait bike was the only one in the rack. Like Champ had suggested, it wasn’t exactly bike weather. As far as Tex was concerned, this worked in their favor because the bike would catch the attention of any thieves who happened past.
Tex and Champ kept an eye on the bike from the bench near the tree. The tiny travel chess board, with its miniature pieces, sat between them.
“Champ doesn’t understand how someone is going to steal the bike if you chained it to the rack.”
“It’s a cheap chain, and any thief worth his salt is going to have the means to snap it,” Tex explained. “While they work on the chain, we can swoop in and surprise them.”
Champ nodded. “Champ’s unclear on what happens once we swoop and surprise.”
Tex sighed because everything seemed so obvious to him.
“We tell him we’re going to turn him in to the cops unless he gives up his fence or the location of all the other bikes and things he’s stolen,” he explained as patiently at possible.
“So the way you see it, one person is responsible for all the missing items in the city? And this person has all those stolen goods stockpiled in one central location where he will lead us based solely on an empty threat from a couple of well-intentioned citizens?”
“Something like that,” Tex mumbled. “You’re always after me to play, so how about we analyze my plan less and play more chess?”
Champ could sense his friend’s frustration so he smiled and made his move.
Tex quickly countered with a move of his own.
“Champ sees that your chess play hasn’t improved much,” he taunted as he captured his knight.
“Sorry. I haven’t had much time to practice,” Tex replied as he made another quick move.
“Champ notices you’ve been spending a lot of time with Aspen. She really is quite an intriguing young woman.”
That brought a smile to Tex’s face.
“Intriguing is definitely a word to describe her,” he agreed. “There’s something about her that’s almost magnetic. When I’m not around her, I feel pulled towards her. Does that make sense?”
Champ nodded and made a move.
“Champ thinks you sound like a man in love. Have you told her how you feel?”
Tex shrugged and pretended to be studying the chessboard. Champ, however, knew his friend well enough to realize that he rarely put any thought into his next move, and was merely buying time before answering.
“Honestly, I’m intimidated by her,” Tex finally admitted. “She made the first move in our relationship and I’m constantly second guessing myself about what to do next. What if I do the wrong thing and scare away the coolest woman I’ve ever met?”
Tex made a move.
Champ rolled his eyes and followed with his own move. “Check.”
Tex looked at the board and tried to figure out how he’d been put into check so quickly.
“Champ thinks you should approach Aspen the same way you approach chess.”
Tex raised an eyebrow to the comment. “That’s horrible advice. I always lose at chess.”
Champ shook his head. Once again, the student was questioning the mentor rather than listening and learning.
“You lose because you never stop to think about your next move,” Champ scolded him. “How many times has Champ told you that you need to think two or three moves ahead?”
Tex shrugged because the number was too high to quantify.
“Champ thinks, though, that your impulsive game play might actually work when it comes to Aspen. You’re thinking too much and moving far too slowly. Love is often about first reactions, impulses, and risky moves that leave your heart exposed.”
Tex took off his cowboy hat and stared at it like the answers to all of life’s questions were printed on the brim.
“So you’re saying I should approach chess like I approach love, and vice versa?” he asked as he returned his trademark hat to the top of his head.
“Look at this this way, Champ doesn’t think you could get any worse at chess. And does Aspen seem like the kind of person who’ll just wait around forever for the result she wants?”
Tex moved his king out of check.
Champ shook his head and moved his queen. “Checkmate.”
“Fine,” Tex relented. “I’ll try it your way.”
Champ blew on his hands to keep them warm as he pondered his next move.
Tex looked forlornly over that the bait bike.
“We’ve been here for hours, and no one has even stopped to look at the bike,” Tex commented with defeat in his voice. “Maybe we should call it at day. This was a huge waste of time.”
Champ made his move. “Champ thinks we should give it until the end of this game. And the day hasn’t been a total loss. Your new, slower style of play shows improvement.”
“All it’s really done is prolong the inevitable,” Tex remarked. “You still win every game.”
“But at least the games are longer.”
Champ’s cackle forced a smile onto Tex’s face.
That’s when they noticed the middle aged man. He stood very close to the bait bike, stared at it almost like he wanted to memorize every feature, and then reached out to test the chain.
“It looks like we finally hooked someone!” Tex blurted excitedly.
They ran over to the bike rack. When then arrived, the man was squatting to examine the tires.
“Why are you trying to steal my bike?” Tex challenge.
The man yelped in surprise and jumped to his feet.
“Whoa, cowboy, I’m not trying to steal your bike!” he protested.
“I saw you pulling on the chain,” Tex countered.
Champ walked around so that he stood directly behind the man. The man then turned to try to figure out what he was doing back there.
“What’s happening here? Why is your grandfather sneaking around behind me?”
“He’s not my grandfather, and why are you changing the subject?” Tex demanded.
The man glanced back and forth between the two of them. Tex and Champ stood their ground and tried to look as intimidating as possible.
“I’m just interested in the bike,” the guy tried to explain. “I had one like this when I was a kid, and when I saw it, I thought it would be cool to get one for my stepson…”
“And by ‘get one’ you mean steal my friend’s?” Champ asked.
The man shook his head emphatically.
“That’s not what I meant at all. I was just checking it out. I was going to leave a note asking if the owner would be interested in selling it.”
He reached into his pocket to pull out a pen and a notepad as proof.
“You always carry a pen and paper?” Tex asked.
“Yes, I do,” the man answered proudly. “I’m an idea man. I always need to have something handy to jot down my thoughts when they hit me.”
“Is one of those ideas ‘Steal a bike in the park’?” Champ asked aggressively.
“Again, no,” the man said firmly. “And I want to clarify something because it’s clear the two of you have trust issues. The bike wouldn’t be for my stepson. I mean, I wish, I hope that one day he’ll be that. Right now, though, he’s the son of the woman I’m dating. Well, we’ve only been on four dates, but after five years of single life after divorce, she’s the first woman to go on more than a first date with me…”
Tex’s face betrayed that he was both frustrated and confused by this conversation.
“What are you saying?” he asked the man.
“The kid hates me,” the guy explained. “He’s ten years old. He misses his dad, who ran off with his secretary. He blames his mom for dad being gone. And the things he says to me, especially when his mom leaves the room. I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to win his trust or buy his love. I don’t care. His mother is the first woman who’s touched me, and I mean that both literally and figuratively, since my divorce. I’m not losing her because of that little creep.”
Champ rubbed his temples because this stranger gave him a headache.
“Champ thinks four dates is a little soon to be meeting the son.”
The man shrugged. “Finding a babysitter is rough since the kid is such a brat, so he’s actually been on all our dates.”
Champ’s jaw dropped, but he said nothing. He couldn’t go any further down that rabbit hole.
“The bike’s not for sale,” Tex told him. “And even if it was, do you really want to be in a relationship where you’ve got to bribe the kid to tolerate you?”
The man nodded. “Yes, I do. Notice how there was no hesitation. Clearly, you haven’t been alone for five years, cowboy. A man has needs. When those needs back up for over eighteen hundred days, you begin to look at life very differently.”
He pulled out his wallet. “I’ll give you forty bucks for it. It’s all I have, but I’d rather walk around with an empty wallet than continue on with this overflowing need…”
Champ groaned. Tex held up his hand to stop him for speaking any further.
“The bike isn’t for sale. You need to go before you embarrass yourself,” Tex advised.
The guy laughed maniacally.
“Screw you, your grandfather, and your damn bike!”
He flipped them both the bird, kicked the bike, and stormed off down the path.
Tex and Champ stood in silence and watched until he disappeared from sight.
“Champ hopes that encounter convinced you that you have to act now with Aspen. You don’t want to wait until you have an overflowing need…”
Champ cackled loud enough to be heard on the altar at St. Sebastian’s. Tex laughed and punched his friend playfully in the shoulder.
“Champ would punch you back, but he’s already kicked your ass several times today at chess. It’s time to show a little mercy.”
“I appreciate that,” Tex answered as he fished a key out of his pocket and unlocked the chain on the bike. “Maybe the lack of a lock will tempt someone to try to steal the bike. Let’s give it until we finish this game and then call it a night.”
“Champ agrees,” his friend replied. “Champ has also decided that dinner is on you tonight.”
“That’s fine with me,” Tex agreed.
As they walked back to the bench, a teenager in a hoodie walked off the basketball courts. He headed directly to the bike, pulled it free from the rack, and pedaled off down the path.
Tex and Champ didn’t notice that the bike had been stolen until they’d settled back down on the bench and Tex had made his next move.
“Damn it!” Tex screamed when he saw the empty bike rack.
Champ cackled so loudly and for so long that he fell off the bench and onto the grass.
TO BE CONTINUED…