A wisp of smoke snaked into Ray's eye, causing him to squint as he studied his homies hanging outside Popeyes on the corner of Clark and Jordan, just south of the Evanston/Chicago border. He took a deep drag from the Marlboro and flipped its butt into the gutter as he stepped off the curb. "Hey, Rico, what's happenin', man? Who's workin'?" The cloud of smoke floated with him as he crossed the street.
"My shorties takin' care of business. They already moved four eight balls this mornin'. They learnin', they learnin'." Rico Quiñones, the enforcer for the local Latin Kings, was leaning against the brick apartment building, smoking weed while a couple of wannabes buzzed around like flies over dropped chicken, doing tricks on their old BMX bikes. In spite of the warm June weather, seventeen-year-old Rico wore an oversized L.A. Kings starter jacket.
Rico looked Ray up and down. Then he pointed with his chin in a way that drew attention to the first few hairs of a hopeful goatee. "Hey, Slew, check out them GDs in that green Taurus."
Running his fingers through his straight black hair, combed back but falling to both sides, Ray studied the ride as it crept by. "They ain't no GDs. What would Gangster Disciples be doing cruisin' with two blancos?"
"Hey, white boy, who you, anyway? You just a wanksta, tryin' to pass for Latino and make everyone think you a true King. I'm tellin' you, man, they all GDs. Watch this!" With one hand Rico stabbed the air with Latin King signs, his fingers making the points of a crown. With the other hand he threw down the GD sign of the devil's fork. The two wannabes joined in the taunting.
The green sedan eased into the small Popeyes parking lot, and one of the white teenagers jumped out and ran in. The driver and the two black teens stayed in the car. One of them sneered at the Kings and then gestured with his middle finger.
"There, there! See what I told you?" harped Rico.
"See what? You crazy, man. That wasn't no gang sign. He just flipped you the bird, man. That's all."
"Nobody flips this Almighty Latin King the bird. That was for you, lady! You droppin' the flag." He turned away and mumbled under his breath. "Cobarde!"
Ray straight-armed the older gangbanger in the back, right between his shoulders. "What'd you say, man? What'd you call me?"
Rico lurched forward and almost went down, then turned around slowly. "I'll call you anything I want. You gonna do somethin' about it? Besides, anybody who can't recognize GD scum ain't no true King."
"Hey, I'm down for the Kings just as much as you, man, and I ain't no coward neither. I know that guy, the one who went inside. He's Greg Mason. Swam for ETHS. They ain't no gangstas."
"Ha, ETHS!" Rico rolled his eyes. "You should've stayed up there in Evanston! Wake up, man. This is 1997, and I tell ya, those guys are from the Juneway Jungle. Why else they be cruisin' 'round here? They're all GDs! You just won't admit it, 'cause you don't wanna do nuttin' about it. You asustado!" He spat the word out and turned away.
"Cobarde! Cobarde!" the wannabes chanted as they wheeled past.
Ray grabbed the sleeve of Rico's jacket, turning him back. "I ain't scared. Gimme the piece, man. I'll show you."
"Oh yeah? You'll show us? You can't show us squat!" Rico pulled the 9 mm semiautomatic from the depths of his huge jacket and slapped it into Ray's open hand. His lip pulled back in a sneer. "Your name may be a Slewinski, but so far, you ain't slew no one. So let's see if you can live up to your handle."
Ray stared hard at him, then turned around just as the door on the green sedan slammed and the car pulled out of the parking lot. Without realizing it, Ray let out a sigh of relief.
"Now ain't that convenient," mocked Rico. "They're gone, so you don't have to do nothin'. 'Course, if you had any brass, you'd go after 'em." Rico nodded at the shorties' bikes. "They won't be gettin' far in this traffic."
Ray wrapped a yellow and black handkerchief around the 9 mm and dropped it into the cargo pocket on his baggy pants. He glanced up the street, jerked a bike from one of the shorties, and jumped on.
"Five high, six die," sang the wannabes as he took off.
He rode north on the clattering contraption, weaving between the parked cars on his right and the slow moving traffic on his left. Maybe before he overtook the green sedan, he could duck into an alley, and no one would know what happened. But then he heard the squeak, squeak, squeak of Rico pedaling hard after him on the other bike.
"Hey, Slew, you gotta hurry, man, if you gonna catch 'em. Let's go!"
The red light at Howard Street stopped the Taurus long enough for Ray to pull up alongside it. Maybe he would just yell at them or show the gun and scare the green tea right out of 'em.
But Rico skidded to a stop on the other side of the street and started yelling. "Yo, Slew! Don't forget what our Supreme Inca says: 'Cowards die many times before their death, but Latin Kings never taste death but once.' " Then he flashed the crown. "¡Amor de rey!"
Ray's eye started twitching. If cowards died many times, then he was dying at that very moment. Greg Mason's pale face through the Taurus window was replaced by his own pained reflection. Was he Slew or Cobarde? Ray gritted his teeth, reached down, and jerked the pistol from his pants pocket. It was still wrapped in its gang rag, so Greg probably didn't even know what it was.
"Do it, man! Do it! Don't be no cobarde!"
The blast was deafening. Through the spider-webbed window, Ray saw blood pumping, spurting, gushing red and frothy from the hole in Greg's chest. Ray had never seen so much blood.
"Awriiiight! You did it! You did it!"
Rico's faint words broke through the ringing in Ray's ears.
"Come on, man. Let's get outta here. Five-Os be comin'!"
The ringing merged into sirens as Ray wheeled the bike away from the Taurus and sped back down Clark Street. He turned west on Jordan and pedaled as fast as he could.
* * *
The piece, where can I dump the piece? Ray could feel the Bryco 9 mm in his deep pocket, slapping against his leg as he pedaled at a furious pace. Rico might be mad at losing his piece, but Ray couldn't be caught with a hot gun! Sirens screamed a couple blocks away, but they weren't coming his way, at least not yet. He looked right and left for an unlocked car or one with a window down. No, that wasn't a good idea. He couldn't ditch it this close to his crib only two blocks ahead. He had to get it out of the neighborhood, away from him, far away.
And then he saw it, creeping down the alley: a big Waste Management garbage truck. Ray wheeled around and screeched to a stop as he watched the green dragon move fifty feet, then stop while the lone driver lumbered back like he had been working twenty-four hours straight to roll the next Dumpster up to its rear. Hooks on, the hydraulics whined, and then baby diapers, a week's rotting garbage, baggies of dog waste, cans and bottles and newspapers all tumbled together into the yawning back of the truck. The empty Dumpster crashed back onto the alley and the man rolled it against the building. Then he went forward to move the truck another fifty feet.
Ray shot down the alley after him and wheeled into an empty stairwell just as the truck made its next stop. Ray could hear more sirens—one sounded like it was coming his direction—as the driver got down from the cab, moving as slowly as an aging arthritic.
"Come on, man!" Ray whispered to himself. "Hurry it up, hurry it up!" But this time there were two Dumpsters, and the man stepped between them, then looked both ways up and down the alley before relieving himself against the building.
He took a deep breath—"Ahhh!"—and backed out. Then he dragged one of the bins to the truck, which slowly enveloped its contents, and then did the same with the second Dumpster. They filled the receiving tray—just what Ray had been waiting for—and the operator pulled the lever that would scoop its contents forward into the compactor. As the mechanism groaned, the man walked to the front of the truck to advance it another fifty feet, and Ray rode up and tossed his weapon deep into the trash pile.
Having a second thought, he hopped off the bike as the truck began to move and threw it in as well. It was small and old, not much more than a kid's toy. Once its wheels were crushed by the compactor, no one would look twice when the load was discharged into the landfill.
Ray emerged from the alley and turned toward home as a siren picked up again. It was an ambulance. Ray knew the difference and felt a profound dread. He hoped the kid would be okay, but how could he with all that blood pumping from his chest? Ray couldn't let himself think about those things. He was a long way from safe. Why had he done it? Why had he let Rico talk him into it? He didn't need this kind of grief right now.
* * *
When Ray got to his apartment, he went around to the back and climbed the stairs as quietly as a guy trying to sneak his lady out at night. He entered through the kitchen and smelled scorched coffee. His mother had failed to shut off the pot last night—again. But she wasn't up yet this morning. Good. Alice Cooper screamed "Go to Hell" from his thirteen-year-old sister, Lena's, room. Good. With her music turned up that loud, she wouldn't hear Ray coming in. He sneaked down the hall to the darkened living room, where he crashed on the couch, covering his head with the ratty blanket. The living room couch had been his regular bed ever since he had turned twelve and his mother said he could no longer share his sister's room.
He messed his hair and tried to fall asleep. He wanted his mother to have to wake him up so she could validate his claim that he'd come in late the night before and had been sleeping all morning: "I even had to wake him up," she'd say. But sleep wouldn't come. Every time he closed his eyes, all he could see was the red geyser erupting from that kid's chest. Was he dead yet? Was he still alive? What if the cops came right now? He needed more alibi.
"Lena!" he yelled louder than Alice Cooper, "turn that thing off. You woke me up. Lena? Lena! Mom! Make her turn that thing off, I need some more sleep!"
He heard his mother shuffling out of her bedroom. "Well, if you got in at a decent hour, you wouldn't need to sleep till noon! Lena! Lena!" Bam, bam, bam. She pounded on the door. "Lena, turn it down. I can't sleep either, and I had to work last night."
There, he'd done it. They both thought Ray had come in late and had been sleeping all morning. But would that hold? Who had seen him on the streets that morning? Rico—but he wouldn't dare say anything because it would implicate him—and the two wannabes. Would they talk? Not if they knew what was good for them. How much had they seen, anyway? Too much, really. Maybe he'd have to get someone to put the fear of God in them.
Of course, there were the guys in that green Taurus. A good lawyer ought to be able to discredit anything they recalled by pointing out that they were too traumatized to get it straight—or maybe just out to pin anything on a rival. He had heard of guys getting off for less.
Ray's mother was up now, fussing around in the kitchen. Maybe he should go in and make nice to her, reinforce the idea that he had been home all morning. There was no possibility of sleep. He was too wound up. But it would be nice, give his mind some relief from all this trauma ... unless he ended up having nightmares about the blast and all that blood. Now that he listened, his ears were still ringing.
And what about that gunshot residue, or whatever they called it, the powder that gets all over your hands when you fire a gun? He'd seen a guy get put away on NYPD Blue for no more than that.
Ray's mind was buzzing. He got up, went into the bathroom, and took a shower, scrubbing his right hand and arm, his face, his hair. He came out and dressed in clean clothes. Then he found an old Kmart bag and stuffed his dirty clothes in it. He wished he'd been able to chuck them into the garbage truck too, but that chance had passed. Where could he dump them so they wouldn't attract attention? He considered the Salvation Army donation box up on Howard. No, no, he didn't want to go back up there, and besides, people sorted through those donations. He didn't want anybody to look at his clothes.
Somebody else's storage locker. That might work. There were gaps at the tops of each locker in the building's basement, enough to stuff his bag through, and the cops would have to have a good reason—maybe even a search warrant—to go through someone else's private stuff.
"Hey, Mom, what's to eat?" He asked as she went through the kitchen. "How about some pancakes? I'll be right back."
When he came back up, his mom was talking to someone down the hall at the front door. Cops. As soon as they saw Ray, they pushed their way past his mom and came toward him. He forced himself not to run.
Forty to Life by Dave Jackson
Copyright © 2007; ISBN 9780764203237
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.