When the gangbanger shoved a big chrome 9mm pistol against David's cheek, he froze and tried a small smile, but the barrel gouged his flesh. Fear rattled within him, but it wasn't anything he hadn't faced before, and in worse places than a crack corner in a metro area at night. He kept the fear under control the way he'd learned, pushing the air out so he didn't hyperventilate. He didn't want to space out here, not now. He was on a mission.
"What you doing here, homes?" the gangbanger demanded. He was about David's height a few inches under six feet, but probably twenty pounds lighter and ten years younger. Long dark hair brushed the younger man's hunched shoulders. A thin mustache framed his upper lip and led to a scraggly goatee that looked more like mold growth on his bony chin than a fashion statement. Red vines tracked his eyes, signaling that he used the product the gang sold. The backward swastika on one side of his neck, MLD on the other side, and the two-tone blue clothing marked him as a member of the Maniac Latin Disciples. They were the second largest gang in Chicago.
David kept his voice calm. "I'd like to talk to Rudolpho, please." He kept his tone polite on purpose. He didn't want to appear threatening, didn't want the crack dealers paranoid enough to shoot him. Getting killed wasn't part of the plan. That would never be part of the plan. Thankfully, the fear that echoed in his words was real.
"'Rudolpho?'" The gangbanger kept the pistol where it was and stepped closer, trying to be more threatening in front of his peers. David was already as scared as he could be.
"Yeah," David said. "El jefe?" He pronounced it with a West Texas twang. "The guy who runs the crack house?" He nodded toward the dilapidated brownstone building behind the gangbangers. Plywood covered most of the windows, but the broken glass along the building's edge offered mute testimony that some of them were broken, targeted before the protective barriers went up.
The crack distribution operation worked smoothly. The Maniac Latin Disciples, David had researched the gang, kept the money and drugs on the fifth floor. Street traffic paid for crack in the alley, which gang members pulled up in a bucket from a fifth floor window, and the same means lowered the drugs. That way they had a layer of primitive protection. No outside gangs could easily get in. No police raid could get the money and the drugs because the guys on the fifth floor had escape routes mapped out.
"Rudolpho don't know you, man. I don't know you." He squinted and thrust his pock-marked face closer. "Are you a cop?"
"No." Dressed in Dockers and a dark blue Henley pullover, David looked like a soccer dad. Even though the night was cool enough for a jacket, he hadn't worn one so the gang members could see he wasn't carrying a weapon.
The man drew the pistol back long enough to slam the barrel against David's temple. Bright pain bit into his head, but he didn't flinch because that would have been bad.
Glancing around, the gangbanger waved to his men, spreading them out. Another car slid down the alley, made the bucket transaction and moved on.
"Then what are you doing here?" the guy asked.
"I came to see Rudolpho," David said. "You people are new in the neighborhood, so I thought you were due for a visit."
"A visit!" The man cursed in Spanish and laughed uproariously. "You're the welcome mat?"
"What?" The man drew the pistol back again. "You making fun of me?"
"No, it's just that people usually call it a welcome wagon." David watched the man and kept his hands at his side. "I'm just trying to be neighborly."
"You got a casserole, man?" one of the other gangbangers asked, and laughed with his companions. "People came over to see my abuela after my abuelo died, they brought casseroles, tacos, and empanadas."
David smiled. "No food tonight. Maybe next time."
"Ain't gonna be no next time, fool!" the gangbanger with the gun declared. "You come back, I'll bust a cap in your ass!"
"That wouldn't be a good idea, Néstor," David said evenly.
Néstor's eyes narrowed. "Who tole you my name?" He grabbed David by the arm and pulled him close, using him as a shield as he peered across the street.
Crack made users paranoid. David didn't fight, just went easy.
"The same person who told me Rudolpho's name." David's heart beat at his temples, but he made himself keep breathing normally. It was all about control.
Néstor patted David down quickly, almost as good as a military policeman would. "You got no wallet, homes?"
"No. I figured you guys would take it and trash it. I didn't want to have to replace all the documentation." That wasn't the only reason he'd gone to the crack house without identification. He didn't want them to know who he was, or how to find him.
Provided he got out of here alive.
"Hola, Néstor," a voice called from above.
A slim, dark man wearing MLD colors leaned out of a fifth story window above them.
"What?" Néstor bellowed.
"El jefe says bring the joker up."
The fact that Rudolpho knew he was there didn't surprise David. One of the other gangbangers on the corner was probably watching Néstor for Rudolpho, probably texted him what was going on. Trust wasn't a ready commodity in gangs.
"Now you're in for it, old man." Néstor wrapped a hand around David's left bicep and yanked him into motion, pulling him through the doorway between two guards carrying machine pistols under their jackets.
After traveling through the darkness that filled stairwells of the bottom four floors, David squinted against the bright light that filled the large room on the fifth floor.
Back in the day, the building had housed a printing business. Scars still tracked the wooden floors where large sewing machines once sat. Now the room was home to unmatched furniture—sofas and beds—and a trio of large-screen televisions where a dozen gangbangers lounged playing Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, cursing each other and the games, filling the room with noise. Rap music played in the background, threading a booming bass beat through it all. Evidently the MLDs had tapped into an electrical line somewhere.
Néstor continued yanking David to the far end of the room where a slim young man behind a large, polished desk that must have come from an executive office. A large silver Glock chambered in .45 caliber lay on the desk like a paperweight, within easy reach of the man.
Twenty-four years old, Rudolpho del Mezo murdered his way to the top of his crew in five years. His dark eyes beneath arched brows belonged on a stone-cold killer. David was too familiar with men like that. Rudolpho wore his hair long, but a blue bandanna pulled it back. Red hearts emblazoned with dark blue horns adorned both of his biceps. A knife scar tracked across the left side of his chin, dragging crookedly back to his ear where a silver cross earring dangled. A matching one hung from the other ear, and another cross hung from a silver necklace in the hollow of his throat on top of a patch of burn scarring that covered his chest.
According to the Chicago Tribune crime reporters, Rudolpho's biological father gave him the facial scar when he was eleven. One of his step-fathers had broken his left arm, which had left the slight crook at the wrist. His mother had set him on fire when he was fourteen.
Rudolpho leaned back in his chair, feet on the desk, and looked at David. He waited, letting time hang, and scratched his nose with a forefinger, moving with the slow, confident precision of a predator in his element.
"Man, you must have stones big as cantaloupes to come here," Rudolpho said in a theatrically quiet voice.
The young man was almost ridiculous in his performance, but David knew the gangbanger would kill him without blinking. Kids with guns were dangerous. But he knew all about that. He'd been one himself.
"No," David said as Néstor hung onto him. "I'm afraid."
Néstor grinned. "He's afraid. I feel him shaking like a little bitch."
Rudolpho nodded in satisfaction. "Good thing you're afraid. Means you ain't stupid. Saves me a lot of work. And maybe I don't got to feed you to my dogs. Got some massive pitbulls in the basement. They don't love nobody. Not even me. But they eat anything I throw down there."
David stood there and waited, knowing the gangbanger's curiosity would get the better of him.
Rudolpho picked up the Glock, but he didn't aim it at anything. The weapon was just a prop in his private production. "Why's a whitebread like you come see me? And don't gimme that weak story about being neighbors."
"Something about being neighbors in a big city like this?" David said. "You don't really get to know who your neighbors are. Have you ever noticed that?"
Smiling, revealing gold teeth, Rudolpho shook his head. "Man, why I care to get to know neighbors? I'm a biznessman moving product people like."
"It's just an observation."
"Only people I get to know is clients and five-oh. One pays me, I pay the other. Price of doing bizness, and bizness is damn fine."
David nodded. "I'd heard that about the cops."
"Other than being neighbors, why you come here?"
"To tell you a story."
Rudolph cursed and waved to a pile of DVDs scattered across the floor. "I look like I need stories? I got all kinds of stories if I want stories."
"You haven't heard this story." David's mouth was a little dry. There was no guarantee the gangbanger leader would let him finish.
For a moment, Rudolpho just stared at him. "You lucky it's a slow night. Go ahead and tell your little story. And if it ain't good, I'm gonna have Néstor chop you up and feed you to the 'bulls."
"I-it's a good story." In spite of himself, David's voice broke.
Rudolpho waved the pistol. "Dwayne, get this man a chair, and you guys shut down them TVs for a minute so I can hear this."
Grumbling punctuated the silence that filled the room after the games and televisions quieted. All of the gangbangers turned to listen as a big man brought David a folding metal chair.
"Thank you," David said as he accepted the chair and placed it on the other side of the gangbanger's desk. Although he was scared, he still felt ridiculous, like a child, seated there.
Rudolpho laughed at that. "Did you hear that, Dwayne? Man thanked you, all polite and everything."
Dwayne chuckled and walked to one of the couches, joining other MLD members who were casually attentive. Marijuana smoke hung heavy in the room.
"What do you do when you ain't telling stories?" Rudolpho asked.
"I'm a plumber."
"Man, you and me both in the crack bizness, whitebread, on account of how plumbers are known for their crack!" Rudolph laughed at his joke and slapped the desk with his free hand.
His buddies all laughed too, although a few of them had to have others explain it to them because they were too stoned or too stupid to get it on their own.
"I guess so."
"You make a living reaching into other people's toilets," Rudolpho accused.
"When it comes to that, yeah."
Néstor grimaced in disgust. "Man, I wouldn't have your job."
David nodded. "It's not for everybody."
"Now, you get on with that story you promised," Rudolpho commanded. "Time's ticking."
"Sure." David laced his hands in his lap. "It's a personal story. About me."
"And about neighbors?"
"Yeah, about neighbors. Neighbors are important." David took a breath, then wondered if the smoke was so thick he was going to get a contact high. "I grew up in Dallas, Texas."
"Knew that accent wasn't from around here. Why you in Chicago?"
"I fell in love. Her parents are here. Mine are gone. It's kind of different, but plumbing is plumbing. I'm good with bathroom remodels." David shrugged. "Anyway, that's not the story I want to tell you. You see, after high school, I signed up for the Army. I wanted to get out and see the world. After training, I got sent to Afghanistan, Africa. Hot spots where terrorists operated."
"You a SEAL, man?" one of the gang members asked.
"That's Navy," David said. "I was Army. We had Green Berets."
"Was you a Green Beret?"
"No. I was … something else."
"Did you kill people?" another gang member asked.
David nodded. "I did."
"Rudolpho, he kill seven men," the gangbanger said.
Rudolpho preened a little at that.
David swallowed. "I've k-killed more than that at one time." He hated the way his voice broke. It was hard talking about this.
"How many people did you kill, man?" the gangbanger asked.
"I didn't keep count. I killed everybody I was told to kill." Some of those kills drifted through David's mind, bringing the smell of blood and burned flesh, the cries of the wounded and the dying. His heart sped up, banging inside his chest now, and sticky sweat covered him.
Anger glinted in Rudolpho's dark eyes. "Am I supposed to think you're some bad-assed dude gonna Denzel Washington all of us? Because if you think that, you gonna be mistaken."
"No. I don't want to see any more people get killed." David tried to let the younger man see the truth in him. "I've seen enough of that. I've seen stuff I'm not ever going to forget. Stuff you can't unsee. I've tried. Liquor doesn't do it. Drugs, legal and illegal, don't do it."
Rudolpho grinned. "So you're not the big, bad soldier after all. Got no stomach for it."
"I was a good soldier," David said. There was still a part of him that took pride in that. "I just didn't want to be a killer."
"You kill babies, man?" a gangbanger asked.
"No." David shook his head. "Never. Not once. The people I killed and helped kill, it was like surgery. We killed bad men. My team and I went in, we took out targets. We were good."
Néstor snorted derisively. "Man's just blowing smoke, jefe."
David shook his head. "I'm telling you the truth."
"You think you're gonna scare me? Telling me you're some kind of big bad dude? And you standing there shaking in your own socks?" Rudolpho pulled his feet from the desk and his boots thumped to the floor. He pointed the .45 at David's face.
"Are you frightened?" David asked.
"Well … I'm terrified. I'm afraid that you're going to shoot me." But it wasn't the man in front of him with the gun that scared him. It was the past, always there, always waiting.
Rudolpho smiled. "How much you scared?"
"As petrified as I've ever been." That was the truth.
"Then why you here?"
"Because I'm worried about my family."
"What's your family got to do with this?"
"I was explaining."
Rudolpho waved the gun. "Explain faster. I'm getting bored."
David knew that was a lie. He had the man hooked. The quick throb at his neck marking his pulse told him that. "Something happened over in the sandbox."
"Sandbox? You talking about playgrounds now, whitebread?"
"Sorry. That's what we called Afghanistan. Anyway, something happened there and one day I couldn't do the killing anymore. Just too much of it, I suppose. So I came home."
"And became a plumber. Started digging in people's toilets."
"Not right away. I spent some time lost. Drinking. Wandering around. Finding a job. Losing a job. But I finally got in a halfway house with some other guys who'd been where I'd been, seen what I'd seen. They weren't family, but they were … neighbors."
"You got a thing about neighbors," Rudolpho said.
"Man's crazy," Néstor said. "Better you should put a bullet in his head and feed him to the dogs."
"No," David said, raising his voice and surprising all of them. "You want to hear this. Trust me. You do Especially you, Néstor. It's important."
Rudolpho exchanged looks with Néstor, then looked back at David. "Go ahead, but step it up."
"Anyway, I found these neighbors. Guys like me who didn't come back from the war like they'd gone in." David licked his lips, wishing he had a bottle of water. "They helped me pull it together. I helped them too. Together we got better. We were here, in Chicago, at a veteran's hospital. I got my plumbing license. They got jobs. We settled in and started families here—in the neighborhood. We figured we were lucky, you know. Finally got that quiet, simple life we wanted. Then you guys moved in a month ago."
A lazy smile inched across Rudolpho's lips. "Now we're neighbors."
"So you wanna help me? Like neighbors 'posed to do?"
David shook his head. "Sorry. Can't. Conflict of interest."
"That don't sound friendly." All humor left Rudolpho's features.
"It's not," David admitted. "See, we thought we'd just ignore you. I guess we were kind of selfish, wanting to keep our own lives intact. We knew about the cops giving you protection, and we figured the people who bought from you were responsible for their own welfare. If they didn't buy from you, they'd buy from somebody else, right? They bought from somebody else before you got here."
"Nobody sells on this corner now but me," Rudolpho said, "and I'll kill any fool that tries."
David nodded. "I suppose that's a good business plan."
"You trying to be smart with me?"
"No. Just saying I understand what you're saying, and that hearing you say it helps me with what we have to do."
Rudolpho pointed his pistol at David's chest. "What do you think you have to do, cabron?"
"We'll get to that in a minute." David centered himself, knowing it was going to happen fast. "Three days ago, one of your guys went down to the school where my eight-year-old daughter goes. A couple of my neighbors' kids go to school there too. Your guy tried to sell drugs to her."
"Did she buy?" Rudolpho grinned.
"Prolly didn't have any money," Néstor said. "You tell her there's other ways to pay."
David looked at the man calmly. "Don't say that again or I'll feed you that pistol." He regretted the words as soon as he said them.
Néstor slapped a hand into the back of his head. "Don't threaten me. I'll take you down to the dogs alive. Watch them eat you."
"Okay, sorry. Forget I said that." Shaking, holding back the response that was programmed in him, David looked at Rudolpho. "Anyway, after your guy tried to sell to my kid, who could have been any of our kids, we decided we couldn't be neighbors with you anymore."
"What you gonna do, old man?" Rudolpho asked. "Evict me?"
"Something like that. I thought telling that story would help."
"About you and your badass friends?"
"About my neighbors, yeah."
"Well, I listened to your story," Rudolpho said, "and I ain't impressed."
"Actually, the story wasn't for you," David told him. His senses spun and his chest felt too tight. He was on the verge of a panic attack and he hated that. Just breathe. You'll get through this.
"Then who is your story for?"
"Néstor," David answered.
Rudolpho frowned in confusion. "Why Néstor?"
"Because he's your lieutenant. The guy who takes over the gang when something happens to you."
"You think something's gonna happen to me?"
"What's gonna happen?"
"When I put my hands behind my head," David said, "Néstor will be jefe of the MLDs on this corner."
Shifting in his seat, not so sure of himself now, Rudolpho looked at Néstor. "He carrying anything?"
Néstor shook his head. "Nope."
"Who is this guy?"
"No idea. Not carrying any ID."
For a moment, the room was dead quiet.
Then Rudolpho started laughing as loud as he could, proving his bravery, his mouth open wide, his gold teeth gleaming. In the next instant, a section of the brick wall on the gang leader's right exploded out, spreading brick shrapnel.
Rudolpho's head evaporated, just disappeared the way David had seen it happen before back in the sandbox. Blood and bone spattered the floor and wall on Rudolpho's left. His headless corpse spun slightly in the ergonomic chair. Strangely, his arms remained on the desk, like nothing had happened.
The gangbangers sat frozen.
Standing with his hands at his shoulders, knowing he faced certain death, David looked at Néstor. "If anyone shoots me, you die. Do you believe that?"
Cursing, Néstor nodded. He waved a hand to the men—his men now, and ordered them to put their weapons down.
"Here's how this works," David said in that voice, that old voice that had no feelings, no horror, no nothing. Just cold and hard and one step over the grave. "I told you this story, so you have till tomorrow night to get your people out of this neighborhood. Nod if you understand."
Slowly, Néstor nodded. The pistol trembled in his hand.
"If you're still here tomorrow night, I'm going to come tell this story to Diego. He's your lieutenant now, right? That's what my neighbors and I figured out."
Without another word, David walked toward the door and didn't look back.
"Hey, man," Néstor called. "Me hitting you in the head. I didn't mean nothing by that."
David ignored him, already thinking about the small bar where he and his neighbors were going to meet up. After all, that's what neighbors did.
Copyright © 2016 Mel Odom.
Mel Odom lives in Oklahoma with his wife and children and is the author of over 200 books in various genres. He's written in licensed universes that include Forgotten Realms, Shadowrun, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and written novelizations of Blade and Tomb Raider as well as others. He's the recipient of the American Library Association's Alex Award among others.