Inner City


Inner City

       She parked two blocks from the school. “C’mon Dan, we’re late.”

       “Drop me off in front, Sharon. It’s not safe to walk back by yourself in this neighborhood.”

       “You’re so thoughtful,” Sharon said, rolling her eyes. “I’m going to make sure you’re enrolled. Let’s go. No more stalling.” 

       A sign proclaimed “Parhurst High School.” The building resembled a prison more than a school–two stories high, consisting of grimy, yellow brick, with the first-floor windows barred. Two security guards, armed with telescopic steel batons and carrying metal detecting wands, stood in front.

       Dan and Sharon started up the steps. A guard blocked them. “State your business at PHS.”

       “I’m Mrs. Klinenhoff,” Sharon replied. “My foster son, Daniel Miller, is enrolling today. Mr. Rodeheaver expects us.”

       The other guard passed a wand over both of them while the first searched Dan’s backpack and Sharon’s purse. The first pointed and said, “Go through these doors, turn right, and take the first left. The main office is the third door on the left. Rodeheaver’s office is behind the reception area.”

       They entered the main office. A heavyset woman glanced up from her computer and went back to whatever she’d been doing. The placard on her desk read “Frances Cullen.” After a few minutes, Dan began to fidget.

       Sharon was equally irritated, but knew it would be better to let the receptionist, ensconced in a low-paying, dead-end job in an inner-city school, have her victory. She grasped his arm before he could say anything, murmuring, “Relax, Dan.” He cleared his throat, but said nothing.

       Another minute passed. Sharon said in a level tone, “Excuse me, Ms. Cullen.”

       Cullen slammed her hand on her desk. “It’s Mrs. Cullen! Whadda you want?”

       “I’m Mrs. Klinenhoff,” Sharon replied, an edge to her voice. “This is Daniel Miller. He’s enrolling today. We have an appointment with Mr. Rodeheaver. We’re late. Don’t make us later.”

       Cullen inspected Dan–average height with a wiry build. She picked up her phone and, before punching any buttons, said, “The kid won’t last long in this hellhole.”

       Dan started to say something, but Sharon again squeezed his arm. Sotto voce she said, “Let it be. See if you can go one day without getting into trouble.”

       A tall, slender, thirtyish, black man came out of a door. “I’m Mr. Rodeheaver. Come in.”

       Rodeheaver led them into his office and pointed to two chairs in front of a desk. He circled around, sat in the desk chair, and glanced at an open folder. “Daniel, I see your grades were good at your previous schools, but you kept getting into fights and getting suspended. It’s too bad you couldn’t have stayed out of trouble. Frankly, you’re not in a good situation here.”

       Sharon frowned. “The foster-care people said he’d get a clean slate at Parhurst.”

       Rodeheaver grimaced. “He will, but the atmosphere here is not exactly conducive to academics. Especially for him.”

       “What singles him out?”

       “To begin with, he’s white. He’s not particularly big. About fifty percent of the school is black, thirty percent Hispanic, and the rest are white. The blacks and the Hispanics each have a gang. They’re the least of his problems. As long as he stays out of what they regard as their territory, they’ll leave him alone. Most of the time. His biggest difficulty will be the skinheads. They won’t. The black and Hispanic gangs protect their own. For a price. The skinheads prey on everyone they regard as vulnerable.”

       Dan shrugged. “I can take care of myself.”

       Rodeheaver raised his eyebrows. “I admire your self-confidence. I hope it’s not misplaced.”     He handed Dan a class schedule and a diagram of the school. Rodeheaver explained that because of declining enrollment most of the classrooms on the second floor were unused and had been taken over by the various gangs.

       “I’ve indicated the primary gang areas,” Rodeheaver said, tapping his finger on the diagram. “Stay out of them, especially the skinhead area. First period is just about over. I’ll escort you to your second period class when the bell sounds. Questions?”

       Dan had none. Sharon hugged him, told him to be careful, and left.


       The rest of the morning was uneventful. At lunch Dan got food and looked for a place to sit. There were a couple of tables of white kids, but they had no empty seats. He started toward a table of black students. By the way they glared at him, he knew he wouldn’t be welcome.

       Seeing a group of skinheads, he walked in the opposite direction. In the far corner he saw a table with a mixed-race group of students, some of whom had been in his fourth period English class. There were two empty seats.

       “Mind if I join you?” he asked.
       “No problem,” a white kid replied.
       To his surprise Dan found the conversation was a continuation of the discussion that’d been taking place in the English class. He was even asked for his opinion.

       Dan forced himself not to react when a skinhead approached the table. He was big, several inches taller than Dan, with a nose that’d been broken and not set properly. He had muscular arms, heavily tattooed with Nazi insignia, and a large, protruding belly. He reached over the shoulder of the girl across from Dan, squeezed her breast, and took her dessert. The girl had tears in her eyes, but otherwise did nothing.

       The boy to her right started to get up. The skinhead regarded him with a feral grin. “You got something to say, douche bag?” The boy sat back down, red in the face. The skinhead sauntered away.

       The boy, clearly embarrassed, said, “I’d give anything to see Bremer dead!”

       “Don’t worry about it, Jeff,” the girl said. She pulled his head to hers and gave him a peck on the lips. “If you tried something he’d have his gang cut your balls off. I don’t want anything to happen to you. Especially that.”

       Dan couldn’t help asking, “Literally cut his testicles off?”

       A black student shrugged. “Maybe. They’ve bragged about doing it, but who knows for sure? They’re crazy! You’re new. You don’t seem afraid. You should be. Stay clear of them. I’m Isaiah Starkey. Call me Stark.”

       “Dan Miller,” Dan said. He shook hands with Starkey.

       Everyone else introduced themselves. The girl across from him was Andrea Provaski. Dan noted their table was the only one that was mixed race. He asked about it.

       “I be an intellectual,” Starkey said with an exaggerated accent. He grinned. Speaking normally, he said, “Seriously, you sat with the few kids who are genuinely trying to learn. If you fall into that category, join us. The larger the group, the safer we feel. It is possible to graduate from this dump and go to college. That’s our goal.”


       Dan was running late after his fifth period class. Against advice, he cut through skinhead territory. As he passed an unused classroom, he saw two skinheads gazing into it. One of them moved to intercept him, but Dan brushed by. The skinhead didn’t pursue the matter.

       He ignored me, Dan thought. What’s going on in there?

       Dan gritted his teeth, took one more step, and stopped. Knowing he might be asking for trouble, he couldn’t resist investigating.

       Andrea Provaski was crying and thrashing about. One skinhead was holding her by the arms while Bremer attempted to get her clothes off.

       Off to the side another skinhead had a Hispanic girl on her knees, gripping her hair with one hand, and holding a knife to her throat with his other hand. He was forcing her to give him oral sex. Two more skinheads were restraining a struggling Hispanic boy. One of them was saying, “When she’s done with Horst, she’ll do us. Then she can watch us cut your nuts off, Avrondo. Afterward we’ll bang the white bitch. We’d do your little piece too, but we don’t want to catch something from Spic pussy.”

       It’s none of your business, Dan thought. Don’t get caught up in it. Get the hell out of here.

       Before he could leave he was shoved from behind, propelling him into the room. He spun around. The two at the door had been joined by a third. The new arrival held a large knife and roared, “Look what I found! We can have fun with this asswipe.”

       I’m involved now whether I like it or not, Dan thought. I might as well make the most of it.

       Moving with lightning speed, he punched the one holding Provaski hard enough to break his nose and send him sprawling, blood spurting. Dan grabbed Bremer, twisted his arm up behind his back, and dislocated his shoulder. He shoved Bremer down, seized Horst, and threw him against a wall.

       The two holding Avrondo were distracted. The Hispanic boy freed himself and kicked one of them in the groin, provoking a scream as the skinhead fell to the floor. Avrondo faced the other, who pulled out a switchblade.

       “Andrea, get out of here!” Dan yelled. “Take these others with you!”

       Provaski had already straightened her clothes. She grasped the Hispanic girl by the arm and pulled her toward the door. The girl screamed, “Avrondo! Come on!”

       Avrondo clearly wanted to do battle with the skinhead facing him, but he looked around at the odds and followed the girls out of the room.

       The two skinheads who’d been at the door advanced into the room, taking out their own knives. Four knife-wielding thugs advanced on Dan.

       He jumped onto the window ledge and opened the window. Since it was on the second floor, the window wasn’t barred, but it was twenty feet above the ground. He jumped out, landing cat-like on his feet. Two of the skinheads were at the window pointing at him and yelling. In seconds two others appeared at a ground-floor door and started after him.

       Rather than trying to escape, Dan stayed at a pace where they could keep up. He headed for a wooded park area a few blocks away. As he ran he debated how to confront them. The tradeoff was the danger of injury versus the possibility of revealing his secret. He decided to risk the latter. He ran into the park far enough that he couldn’t be seen from the street, detoured off the path, and entered a copse of trees. He took off his clothes, focused on his immediate goal, and changed.

       The leopard moved silently toward the area of the park where Dan had entered. He crouched in some bushes, motionless except for the tip of his tail swishing back and forth.

       The skinheads, almost out of breath, entered the park and stopped. One of them wheezed, “Where did he go?”

       “There’s some tracks over there,” the other replied, pointing. “He’s gotta be hurt from jumping outta the window. He won’t get far.”

       The two were intent on the tracks and didn’t notice the leopard. With a snarl it jumped on the one trailing and ripped out his throat. The other heard the noise and whirled. Eyes wide, he screamed. He tried to run but wasn’t fast enough. Seconds later he was also dead.

       The leopard dragged the bodies deeper into the woods. He hid them behind an outcropping of rock, returned to the copse where Dan’s clothes were, and changed. Dan was on his hands and knees, panting heavily. After about a minute, his breathing returned to normal.

       Dan knew exactly what he’d done in leopard form. He risked someone seeing him by taking time to smudge visible cat tracks and kick dirt over the blood. Hopefully small scavengers would chew enough of the bodies to make it difficult to tell how they’d died. Perhaps the cause of the deaths would be inconclusive or attributed to feral dogs. Large cat paw prints in the middle of a city would be much harder to explain. His safety depended upon people not believing were-leopards existed.


Stephen J. Tillman


Stephen Tillman is an emeritus professor of mathematics at Wilkes University. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from Brown University. An avid reader of mysteries and science fiction, he has published several stories in both genres. He has had two fantasy/crime novels, Leopard’s Daughter and Leopard’s Revenge, published by Azure Spider Publications.

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