The Olympic Diner was busier than usual this morning. There were no booths available, so Alessandra sat at the counter drinking her club soda and tapping her nails on the countertop. It was unlike Brady to be late, but the city’s wide variety of travel methods weren’t always cooperative. She wondered if he was taking a private car or if he had actually chosen to travel via the subway. That would have been surprising, as Brady rarely took any mode of transportation which required him to be exposed to the general public for any significant amount of time.
The meeting with his father had been at a restaurant in Brooklyn, so he’d stayed overnight at his family’s barely used, yet lavishly furnished and decorated, “convenience” apartment in Park Slope. Sometimes when Alessandra would sit inside her cramped five hundred square foot apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, she would mutter about the waste of space Brady’s family kept in Brooklyn. They were never there. They only used it when they wanted to visit with people in Brooklyn, or attend some sort of social event in the area. Nearly every day of the year the apartment stood empty and unused near the northern end of Prospect Park. She never dared to ask if she could stay there. They already thought she was only with Brady to try and get to his family’s money. She imagined such a request would only serve to validate their presumption.
“Hey Allie,” said a voice in her left ear, jolting her out of her thoughts. “I’m here. I said hello and you didn’t even hear me. Where are you?” Brady sat down at the counter chair beside her.
“Sorry. I was just thinking.” Without bothering to hide the annoyance in her tone, she asked, “How did everything go with your father?”
Brady had learned quickly what that particular tone meant. “I’m really sorry about that, but you know how he is. Could we do dinner tonight instead?”
Alessandra sipped her coffee. “No, I have to study. The next several nights aren’t going to be possible for me between school and other things. It really sucks that you bailed on me like that. He took you away from me the one night I could actually have some time with you. It’s bad enough your father doesn’t like me, but he didn’t even have a shred of consideration for our plans. As usual.”
“Wait, whoa. Relax. What do you mean he ‘doesn’t like you’? And what ‘other things’ are you talking about?”
Alessandra glared at Brady, then she sighed. “First, don’t ever tell a woman to relax. How can you not know that by now? Second, are you going to sit there with a straight face and tell me you think your father has a high opinion of me? And third, I do have a life outside of you, you know. I haven’t had a chance to talk to you about it yet, but I recently started volunteering for the Lupus Foundation of America. I’m helping them with fundraising for this year’s Walk to End Lupus.”
Brady opportunistically ignored the first two points. He addressed the third, “That’s great, Allie. I know how important that cause is to you.”
Brady knew he wasn’t getting out of it that easily. He made a quick caress of Alessandra’s cheek. She continued to glare at him, so he took his hand away and shrugged his shoulders.
“Look, I’m sorry about last night,” he said. “There are plenty of other nights. You know you don’t have to cook for me. We can always go out to eat. If it’s a hardship for you, I can pay for both of us. It’s not a problem. We can go wherever you like.”
Alessandra put her coffee cup down hard, making the older woman on the other side of the counter look up from her breakfast. Alessandra gave her a slightly embarrassed smile, and turned back to Brady.
“You don’t understand. It wasn’t about the money, Brady. It was about me being able to do something for you that you couldn’t just buy. I wanted to share my evening with you, and I went to a lot of trouble putting it together.”
Brady didn’t respond. He knew nothing he could say would make her be any less upset with him. Alessandra scowled. She picked up her fork and stirred the eggs around her plate. She knew she was being hard on Brady, perhaps too hard. Brady’s father could be overbearing, and she understood how difficult it was for Brady to stand up to him. She also knew her grumpy state wasn’t just about Brady.
She muttered, “God! The people in this city can be so nasty sometimes.”
“What do you mean?” Brady sank his teeth into an “everything” bagel with cream cheese and washed it down with some orange juice. Alessandra winced at the combination. Alessandra sat silently for a moment, deciding whether or not to get into the whole story about the grocery store.
“I’m not just mad about the missed dinner. I had a really bad time at the grocery store yesterday. There was this woman in the checkout line who was so ugly to me, and all just because I forgot one stupid thing. I had to run back to get it. It was only an aisle or two over, and it only took a few seconds, but she called me an idiot. It wasn’t like I didn’t know people were waiting. I ran as quickly as I could. I didn’t deserve that. She was just so ugly about it. Her whole aura was grotesque.”
Alessandra shuddered at the thought of her. With a mouthful of orange juice and bagel, Brady asked, “What did you say back at her?”
“Nothing,” Alessandra said with mounting frustration, “so I felt exactly like the idiot she said I was. Why do people have to act that way? More to the point, why do they never seem to get what they deserve? She was so awful, and she just got to go on with her day. No justice, no consequence. It’s not fair.”
Brady scratched at his eyebrow. “You’re right, it isn’t fair. But people have the right to say and do whatever they want in this country. Unless something is actually illegal, they can pretty much be as horrible as they like. Hell, even when it is illegal sometimes they don’t get caught, or their punishment is so inconsequential they aren’t convinced that doing the bad thing is enough of a bad idea. People don’t change if they don’t suffer enough for their bad choices. You should have walked over to that woman and hit her in the face with a tomato.”
Alessandra shook her head, then looked around at the people in the diner. They sat in their orange booths under the yellow lights, and she thought about what evil things any of them might have done to other people this week. No justice for the oppressed or the downtrodden.
Brady put his hand on top of hers. “I’m sorry you had to deal with that woman. That’s one of the several downsides of living in this city. Sure, New York can be exciting, and most of the people are nice enough. But when this many people are in such close proximity you’re going to occasionally run into some of the bad ones. It’s unavoidable.”
Alessandra sighed, “I just can’t stand it when people do horrible things to others. We get told in church that God will see that justice is done, but we never get to see it happen. My sister suffered horribly and died, and she was never mean to anyone. Bad people walk around doing ugly things to good people, and nothing bad ever seems to happen to them.”
The older woman at the other side of the counter was listening to this conversation with increasing interest.
Brady stuffed in another mouthful of bagel, and through the corner of his mouth said, “Look, Alessandra, bad things happen to everybody. Well, except me, of course. I lead a charmed life.”
He gave her a smug smile with cheeks full of bagel. Alessandra hated it when he said things like that. She was already annoyed at him for standing her up, and now he was being smug and annoying on top of it. She thought he looked like an arrogant chipmunk.
Brady’s face suddenly contorted and he plunged his fingers into his mouth full of mangled bagel and cream cheese. He pulled out a chunk of half-chewed bagel, along with a long black hair.
“Oh, come on, man!” He flicked the offensive hair off his fingers. It landed on the floor behind the counter. “Hey! Waitress!” he shouted.
A grizzled looking older man walked over to Brady. In a gravelly voice, he said, “I’m the one who took your order, brought you your food, and refilled your orange juice. You look smart enough to figure out I’m not a waitress.”
“Whatever,” Brady muttered. “There was a huge hair in my bagel. It’s disgusting.”
“Look, bad things happen to everybody,” the waiter shrugged. He looked at Alessandra and gave her a small wink, then walked away. She furrowed her brow in confusion.
Brady threw his hands into the air in useless protest, then sat at the counter grumbling to himself. He opened up his bagel and diligently searched through it to make sure there were no more unpleasant surprises waiting for him.
Deep down inside, in a place she didn’t want to admit was there, Alessandra chuckled to herself. It had been inconsiderate of him to stand her up, regardless of the reason. He could have told his father that he already had plans with Alessandra, but he chickened out and bailed on her instead. Brady hated bodily functions in general, so having some complete stranger’s hair in his mouth probably ruined his day the same way that awful woman at the store had ruined Alessandra’s.
The older woman on the other side of the counter smiled. She picked up her plate and her coffee cup, walked over behind Alessandra, and sat in the open seat on her right. “Hi. I’m Gabrielle. It’s nice to meet you.”
Living in New York even for just a few months, Alessandra had learned that this encounter might be friendly and innocent enough. She also knew that she might have a loony on her hands. It was usually a coin flip from one day to the next. You could meet a really nice person, but, usually it was safer not to engage with the potential crazy. It was probably a contributing factor to why most people avoided making eye contact there.
Barely looking at her, Alessandra said, “Nice to meet you. What can I do for you?”
“I couldn’t help overhearing about your encounter at the grocery store,” Gabrielle said, “That’s truly unfortunate. The woman sounded like a real peach.”
Alessandra was a little thrown off by the older woman’s eavesdropping, but said, “Okay. Well. It’s not really that big of a deal. It just hurt my feelings. I didn’t like that she was able to make me feel so awful and that I didn’t do or say anything about it. It ate at me all day long. It’s still bothering me.”
Gabrielle nodded. “It can be difficult to find closure or satisfaction when we are accosted like that. It’s also hard not knowing whether or not the offender suffers the consequences for their actions. The truly difficult part is having faith in God that justice will be done.”
“Yeah, but God,” Alessandra said with defeat in her eyes, “has not been very kind to me lately. Bad things are happening to good people all around me and the bad people are getting away with any old evil deed they can think of. They never get punished for it, either. There’s never any justice for the rest of us.”
Gabrielle turned fully in her chair to face Alessandra. “I overheard you mention justice before, too. You said it again just now, but I haven’t once heard you mention revenge. There is a difference, you know. Revenge is emotional. Real justice is dispassionate.”
Alessandra thought, Well, if she’s a loony, she seems to be an intelligent one. Alessandra thought about what Gabrielle said. “Sure, I suppose. Part of me wanted to take revenge on that awful woman. But, I knew it wouldn’t be right. I don’t want her to be injured or anything. I just don’t like that her actions go unpunished.”
Brady looked up absently from his now fully dissected breakfast. “Um, who are you? Alessandra, is she bothering you?”
Alessandra shook her head. “No, she’s just talking to me. Go back to your inspection.”
He gave a disgruntled snort and returned his full attention to the offending bagel.
Gabrielle smiled sweetly at Alessandra. “You feel like the scales of justice are never tipped in the favor of good people. Something like that?”
“Exactly like that.”
“Okay. What if I were to tell you that God actually does keep those scales of justice balanced?”
Alessandra replied sourly, “That’s a sweet thought, but I heard that all my life in church. That’s not helpful.”
Gabrielle pressed on, “You don’t spend every moment with the person who did you wrong. You only assume nothing bad happens to them because you aren’t there to see it. That’s why people never feel satisfied that justice is being done.”
Alessandra pondered the notion. “Yeah, I know I can’t see everything that happens to people, but how can we ever be sure that bad people get what’s coming to them?”
Gabrielle’s eyes glowed with an almost maternal warmth, and she gave a little smile. “Do both good and bad things happen to you?”
“Of course.” Alessandra admitted.
“Then can you not assume that both good and bad things happen to everyone else?”
Alessandra shifted in her seat, turning more toward Gabrielle. “Yes, but not getting to see justice done really stinks. Sure, that woman might have crossed the street and stepped in some homeless guy’s urine, or maybe later that day she ran into someone who treated her even more rudely than she treated me.”
“Or maybe someone put a hair in her food.” Brady’s head shot up and he narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Gabrielle. She smiled at him and shook her head.
She continued speaking to Alessandra, “Revenge is cyclical. One person gets revenge against another, and that victim then takes revenge in return, and so on. It never ends. It also fills the person taking vengeance with poison. Justice works differently. True justice is balance. It is the righteous outcome of both good and bad behaviors. Good choices get rewarded, while bad choices have consequences.”
“Okay,” Alessandra said, now fully engrossed, “then tell me this: I’m good to others, I volunteer, I treat others with respect and kindness. Why is it that so many people do bad things to me, and I can do nothing to see justice done?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Again, you talk of justice instead of revenge. That’s encouraging. May I ask, what is it you do for a living?”
“I’m studying Criminal Justice at John Jay.”
Gabrielle nodded her approval, “Are you planning on joining the police force when you graduate? Perhaps a federal law enforcement agency?”
Lately Alessandra’s thoughts on the subject had been scattered. The dream of her youth was to be a cop, but the more she experienced the aggressive and irritable underbelly of the city, the more she wanted to move to some remote cabin somewhere and tell everyone else to get bent.
“I’m not sure,” Alessandra answered. “I get so disheartened by how terrible people can be, that I just want to run away. It’s not the actual criminals of the world that are driving me batty. It’s the inconsiderate jerks who treat others like garbage. They keep getting away with it, and I can’t seem to get away from it. Actual criminals can be prosecuted, and if necessary, imprisoned. Unfortunately, being a general asshat isn’t a crime.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I completely understand. I felt the same way when I was younger. I didn’t like how cruel others could be, so I took action. During the civil rights marches of my teenage years I protested against the oppression of minorities. I protested for women’s rights, and I protested against the draft during the Vietnam War. No matter how much I marched, how much I protested, how much I raged against the injustices of the world, nothing I did seemed to make any difference. At least, it didn’t at that time and in the moment. But, the effects of my efforts and the efforts of others were cumulative. There’s still so much work to be done.”
Gabrielle took the last sip of her coffee and wiped her mouth with her napkin. She folded the napkin up into the empty cup and said, “I ended up taking a somewhat different path to see justice done.”
“What path is that?” Alessandra asked.
Gabrielle paused. She raised her hand and asked the waiter for her check. “What if I were to tell you there is a way to see justice done in the moment? Not on criminals per se, but on regular people who are choosing to act badly or without regard to how their actions might affect others. And, what if I also said that such justice could be facilitated in a subtle enough way so as not to bring retaliation or revenge against you?”
“Ha!” Brady bellowed. The ladies glared at him in unison.
He said, “You think you can get people to stop being miserable jerks? You want to fight against the injustices of the world, but only as a sniper instead of as a foot soldier? You may not want to get your hands dirty with real crime, but let me tell you something: The law may not always be just, but in the big picture, it gets the job done.”
He looked directly at Alessandra. “If you really want to make a difference, be a cop. Be a special agent. Get out there in the field and put the actual criminals behind bars.”
Gabrielle nodded at Brady patiently. “You are completely right. Police and other law enforcement agencies are all very much needed and respected in the fight against the criminals of the world.”
She turned to Alessandra, “My young friend, if you feel called to join one of those law enforcement agencies, you should certainly do so. They need more people like you. You would be making the world a better, safer place.”
Gabrielle took cash out of her purse and placed it into the brown leather check presenter.
“That said,” Gabrielle continued, “if you happen to be interested, there are other less… traditional… ways to serve the greater good. The maintaining of balance between good and evil has many layers. There are soldiers, law enforcement, and others who work out in the open and at the forefront of the fight against the worst evildoers. They are critically important, so I don’t want to dissuade you from seeking out that path.
“That said, you seem to have a rather passionate distaste for the regular people of the world who perform their petty and oppressive acts against others. There are those of us who take a slightly subtler approach to balancing the scales of justice. It can be both fulfilling and enjoyable.”
“How on earth does something like that exist?” Alessandra asked. “Isn’t it God’s job to see that justice gets done?”
“Yes, but have you ever wondered how God actually facilitates that justice?”
Alessandra’s brain suddenly felt like it had just opened a door that she never knew had been closed, or which had even existed before.
Gabrielle saw the concept was sinking in. “Think about us as God’s minor infraction law enforcement division. We get instructions on where to be, and what people we are to pay back for their cruel or thoughtless acts. Sometimes we are given guidance on what circumstances to create in order for the punishment to be enacted. Sometimes we even get to come up with the punishment itself.
“Even better, we also get to be the ones who reward the good deeds of others. We help the divine give reward to the good and kind acts people do.”
Brady laughed out loud. “Wow. You’re a total nut case.”
Alessandra wheeled around on her bar stool. “That’s not nice, Brady. She isn’t causing you any harm, and you just insulted her.” Brady threw his hands up again, this time in resignation.
Alessandra’s interest was definitely aroused. She looked back around the diner at the people there. The idea that she could actually be the one to see justice done seemed too good to be true. The court system in the United States was certainly not always effective. Criminals regularly got off on technicalities. Sometimes innocent men and women were incarcerated based on insufficient evidence or false testimony. In Alessandra’s opinion, there was little that was actually “just” about the justice system. As she reached over for her coffee, she noticed something on the counter next to her cup. It was a business card. It had but a single word printed across it:
She stared at it blankly. She turned it over. Written in the center of the card in a simple, small font were just two words: Blockhouse One. She had no idea what that meant. Was that supposed to be an address of some kind?
Brady’s voice jolted Alessandra out of her trance. “Where did she go? Who in the heck was that wacko?”
Alessandra looked up. Gabrielle was gone. Only her card remained. Alessandra dropped the card into her purse.
“I don’t know, Brady. I guess she’s yet another in a long line of distinguished New York City lunatics.”