When a "snitch" accuses a homeless man of the murder of a Bronx police officer, lives are disrupted, and justice is fleeting for all persons involved.
Someone yanked the watch cap off Hector’s head, and it took him a moment until his eyes adjusted to the light. His lids felt droopy, and his brain fogged in. With his head slumped down, he looked to his left, tried to orient himself and saw the jean-clad legs of one of Tino’s cousins. He glanced right and saw Julio sitting next to him. His partner’s eyes were closed, his chin tipped down toward his chest, drool dripping from his mouth. Cousin Number Two stood to the right of Julio’s chair. Cousin Number One leaned over and slapped Hector across the cheek.
His first thought was that the cap must have messed up his hair. He remembered that this morning his girl had spent a good hour braiding his hair, tight against his head, the way he liked it, after she walked their daughter to school. Was that this morning? His second thought was that he couldn’t move his hands. His wrists were duct-taped to the back of the chair in which he now sat. His ankles were taped to the front legs of the chair. He could see that Julio’s wrists were also affixed to the spokes of his chairback with duct tape, and his ankles, too. Hector’s body involuntarily shivered, and he felt goosebumps on his arms. Damn, the room felt like the inside of a meat locker. His stomach gurgled, the noise a sound a baby made grasping at a mobile hanging over his crib, benign, joyful even, but tinged with a sense of frustration and some dread, too. Lunchtime must have long passed. The only windows in the room were blacked out with paint and he had no idea if it was the afternoon or the middle of the night. He couldn’t hear any street sounds or birds. His head ached like a motherfucker.
Hector lifted his head and saw Tino in front of him. His boss sat behind a filigreed, wooden desk, the color of clover honey. In front of the desk, Burro was in his cage, standing on his hind legs and sniffing at the air. Tino wore a fur coat with no shirt underneath, the exposed skin of his chest pale and blubbery. Around his neck was a gold chain and at the end of the chain was a medallion, a golden head of Jesus, the size of a baseball, lodged between his breasts. White tears dappled Jesus’ eyes and sparkled when the overhead light hit them. The only object on the desk was a mirror. It held three thin, orderly lines of powder and a razor blade. Tino and Crying Jesus stared at Hector. He wriggled in his chair and tried to adjust his butt to make himself more comfortable, but he couldn’t move his wrists or his ankles. He relaxed his body and waited. He noticed that Crying Jesus had some white powder caked to his crown of thorns. Hector’s eyes wandered around the room. He had trouble focusing, but he couldn’t seem to escape the gaze of Crying Jesus. His eyes followed Hector’s, wherever he looked. Was Crying Jesus trying to tell him something?
Tino thinned out a line of the powder with the razor blade. He removed a hundred dollar bill from the pocket of his fur, rolled it up tightly and then snorted a line. His head snapped back and his eyes blinked. His head shimmied, as if it were balanced on the end of a coiled spring, and he giggled. He placed the bill back on the desk and Hector watched it unroll, almost in slow motion, like one of those time-lapse films they watched in high school science class. This was not good. If Tino’s father and uncle knew what was going on, more cousins would be on a plane from the DR before the end of the day and heads would roll, possibly even Tino’s. When it came to business, Tino’s father was not the sentimental type.
It was at this moment that Hector noticed the thin, wiry man standing in the corner of the room to Tino’s right. The man had a shaved head and a diamond stud in one ear and he wore a white track suit with red piping. The suit was immaculate, the color radiant; it seemed to light up the room. A white and red plastic beaded necklace, with a small, lightning bolt attached to it, hung over his jacket. The man’s face was gaunt; his cheekbones cut right angles just below his eye sockets, making him look drawn and wraith-like. The fingers of his left hand were curled up over his palm and he stared at his nails, as if he were searching for something on his cuticles. On his right hand, he wore a silver ring shaped into the face of a panther. Hector’s brain fog began to lift. Oh, shit. Was it? His heart started to pound and he shivered again. He avoided looking at Julio. He was worried that Julio’s eyes would confirm his fear. Maybe Julio was still out?
Tino wagged a finger at his two soldiers. “You two have been very bad boys.”
He chuckled to himself and vacuumed another line. “If I cut you, you promise you not gonna bug out?”
Hector was confused. Cut? He wanted to smack himself in the head. Was this some kind of crazy dream? He barely got the word out.
His throat was dry and scratchy, his tongue leaden. He needed some water. He watched El Gato out of the corner of his eye. The contract killer was still focused on his fingernails.
Tino jerked his head at one of the cousins. The slab of beef stood in front of Hector, produced a knife, and clicked the blade open. He began to saw at the duct tape, first on Hector’s wrists, then his ankles. He did the same for Julio, who was now awake but had a dazed look on his face. Hector stretched out his fingers and rubbed his wrists. He shook out his ankles, folded his hands in his lap and waited for his boss to speak.
“I got a missing gat, a missing package and two missing junkies. I got TNT all up in my business and I got those Jamaicans stealing what’s left of my customers. You two.” Tino flapped a finger at Hector and Julio. “You two. Soon, I might have two missing soldiers. I don’t know what you been up to but right now your employment is hanging by a very thin thread.”
Tino’s comments kicked Hector’s brain into gear and he was stunned. Shruggs had disappeared and Tino knew it. He was also aware that Antwan Barnes was missing. This meant that Tino had spies and he could only conclude that some of his co-workers were back-stabbing rats. But who?
Hector was confused about what Tino meant by “missing package.” Did Tino know that he and Julio were skimming product? Or was there some other heroin missing? Did someone fuck with the stash? If Tino knew that they were regularly siphoning junk from the stash, they were dead.
Tino snorted another line. He looked up and squinted at his men. He made his voice as deep as he could. “All I have in this world is my balls and my, my…my…” He looked around the room and then at the cousins. “What do I have besides my balls?”
Cousin Two answered. “You have your word, boss. Your balls and your word.”
“You sure that balls comes before word?”
“I’m sure, boss. It’s balls. Then word.”
Tino looked satisfied. He addressed Hector and Julio.
“All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I…I…I…”
He stopped. He waved at Cousin Two. The man walked to Tino’s side and leaned over. Tino cupped his hands over the guy’s ear and whispered into it. When Tino was finished, Cousin Two put his lips to Tino’s ear. Hector could see the man’s lips move but he couldn’t hear what he said. Cousin Two then went back to his position next to Julio’s chair.
Tino made his face as hard as he could. He leaned forward and put his elbows on the desk.
“All I have in this world is my balls and my word.”
He paused. He scratched his head.
“And I don’t break ‘em for no one.”
Tino leaned back in his chair, folded his arms across his chest and smiled. Over in the corner, El Gato smiled, too. Hector and Julio turned and looked at each other.
Tino continued. “I’m not breaking my balls for you. And I give you my word. You two have two weeks to wrap this up. You smoke the fiends. You make the gat disappear. In two weeks, my ride picks you up and you give me proof. You prove it to me. We talk about the missing package after that. You don’t bring me proof, or I can’t find you, my friend here comes looking for you.”
Tino pointed to El Gato. The paid assassin didn’t look at them but he made the shape of a gun with his fingers and mouthed the word “pow.” Then, he blew on the end of his index finger, as if it were a smoking gun barrel, and grinned. The flesh on his face stretched and tightened. He looked like a death’s-head, the Grim Reaper in a track suit and white Adidas sneakers.
Tino spoke to Julio. “Now J, I got a question for you. I want you to think about my question carefully before you answer.”
Tino ducked under the desk. He popped back up and placed a MAC-10 and a magazine on the desktop. He picked up the MAC-10 and attempted to insert the clip inside the submachine gun’s grip. It wouldn’t budge. He slammed it with his palm. He banged it on the desk. He put the magazine down and turned the gun over in his hands. He examined every part of it. He looked at his henchmen and held up his hands. Cousin One walked over to the desk. He picked up the gun and pointed to a button on the grip. He held the button down, picked up the magazine and inserted it into the grip until it clicked. Then Cousin One handed off the gun to Tino and stood back next to Hector.
Tino held the gun in his right hand. “J, is Hector going Judas on me? Don’t front.”
The room was still. Hector could hear himself breathing and he kept his head immobile. He fought off the urge to look at Julio. He stared straight ahead and focused on a spot on the wall behind Tino’s head. He tried not to lose control of his bowels and he let his mind go blank. Tino was just paranoid. Everyone knew this and Julio would reassure their boss that Hector was a loyal soldier.
Tino pointed the weapon at Julio’s chest. “To help clear your mind, I want you to focus on the business end of my little friend here.” Tino snickered. Hector could see his boss’s finger was wrapped tightly around the trigger. He prayed that the safety was on.
Before Julio could answer, there was a deafening, metallic sputtering sound, like the hiccups of a robot. The cousins hit the floor. In his cage, Burro shrieked and clawed at the bars. El Gato, unmoved, nibbled at his fingernails. Julio covered his ears and Hector froze in his chair, with his hands over his head. One round whizzed past his ear and the smell of cordite burned his nostrils. Chunks of plaster fell from the ceiling. A lightbulb exploded. Glass sprinkled onto the floor.
When the room quieted, Hector looked around. Tino’s chair was empty; a cloud of wispy smoke drifted over his desk. The MAC-10 lay at rest on the floor and shell casings littered the carpet. He checked his body and saw no blood; all his parts felt intact. He patted himself down and made sure everything worked properly. Julio did the same. The cousins stood up and dusted plaster and glass off their clothing. Cousin Number Two stepped on a piece of a broken light bulb. He walked over to the desk where the chair was tucked in tight. He pulled out the chair and stuck a hand down below the desktop and Tino emerged, as if he were rising up out of a space capsule which had just splashed down in the ocean. The boss clutched his bodyguard’s forearm; his legs were soft and rubbery when he tried to stand. Tino looked around, brushed himself off and sat in his chair. The cousins resumed their places and the ferret chattered in his cage. El Gato stood in the corner, shaking his head. Between Tino’s breasts, Crying Jesus surveyed the damage.
Hector wasn’t built for this. He acted hard to impress Julio, but he knew that he couldn’t pretend much longer. He did what he needed to do to survive but he was exhausted; his head wasn’t in the game anymore and his anxiety was causing his weight to balloon. His mental and emotional softness manifested itself in the increasing expanse of his waistline. Some people lived to eat. Hector ate because he was afraid to die or go to prison and the fear had grown more acute ever since the rental gun went missing. He had come to a fork in the road of his life and neither path before him promised anything but trouble; he was fucked either way. He had traveled too far and too long to change the inevitable outcome, predetermined by some ill-fated choices he had made in his young life, his birth and just some bad luck.
Hector just wanted a decent job and a full refrigerator. He wanted to buy clothes for his pregnant girlfriend and toys for his daughter. He wanted to take them on trips out of the city, buy them White Castle on the weekends and send some extra money back to his family in the DR. He wanted to hold his daughter’s hand when he walked her to school. He wanted to live like the white people he saw on television. He wanted to laugh, even when something wasn’t funny. He didn’t want to watch his back every waking minute. He didn’t want to worry about getting shot, because a long-forgotten beef simmered to a boil, or a rival crew wanted to usurp Tino’s spot. He wanted to smile, because the sky was blue, or because his daughter said something funny or because he smelled freshly cut grass on a spring day in Van Cortland Park, the fragrance an affirmation that life was safe and good and normal.
If Hector had to bust some heads from time to time, he could live with that. He understood that his size was often enough to pacify even the most rambunctious dope fiend. He tried to treat the junkies fairly and with patience, just as if they were customers at the bodega. He took Tino’s lectures about customer service seriously. When a fiend cut the line, he ordered him to the end. He didn’t banish him from the spot like some guys did. If a fiend was a little short, he sometimes allowed him to be served, especially if Julio was on a break and the fiend was polite. He tried to free up the front end of Mitchel on the days when checks arrived and traffic at the spot was heavy, so junkies wouldn’t harass or intimidate kids, old folks or church ladies. He sometimes cowed a fiend with a simple show of force. He picked up the bat. He straightened out his shoulders, poked out his chest and invaded the fiend’s personal space. Violence was a means to an end, not an end in itself. Unlike Julio, he used it only when necessary. He could count on one hand the times he gave someone a beat down and, even then, he stopped when the fiend could still walk away. Usually, the worst thing he did was shit talk. Sticks and stones and all that.
He never thought about the fact that he managed a drug spot. He reported to a job like a lot of other people. He had fixed hours. He wore a uniform. He received his pay every two weeks, in a greasy paper bag filled with rolled up greenbacks, wrapped with grimy rubber bands. In his experience, this wasn’t unusual. Many people in his world, even those not in the life, were paid in cash. He didn’t know anyone who used a bank, if they could even find one. People did use the check-cashing stores that proliferated in the Bronx and glommed half your check for the privilege of cashing it, but Hector thought it was easier to get paid in cash. He kept the money in a shoebox, behind a tile in the ceiling, in the one bedroom apartment he shared with his girlfriend and his daughter. He avoided flashing what he had. He didn’t rush out to buy a Benz or a Beemer. He didn’t waste paper on ice or gold or expensive clothing. He didn’t throw wild parties. He paid his rent on time. His whole life was his family, his work and pumping iron with Julio, well, at least until recently. The decision to rent the gun had triggered a series of calamities that disrupted the routines of his life and might end it, if he wasn’t careful. He should never have acceded to Julio’s plan. He should never have walked out of the bodega with Julio to meet the boss, who was now his boss, too.
In the commotion, Tino must have forgotten the question he posed to Julio. He now seemed more eager to get rid of his two soldiers.
“Hit the street and stay focused. Two weeks. And we don’t speak about this again.”
He waved a hand at bullet holes in the window. Through the holes and cracked paint, shafts of light streamed in and bathed his face in a deep, red glow.
Hector tried to look at his boss but he was transfixed by Crying Jesus. The Son of God’s face bore a malevolent grin; the setting sun transformed his diamond-hued tears to the color of blood.