For my little brother/Briefing
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung
I still had the one hundred pesos Dodger had given me the day I met him. The paper bills felt heavy in my hands, the weight of my illicit "rewards". It was the same kind of money that Julio tried to bring home, money that my mother rejected and torched. She called it "dirty"... but the bills felt so clean and new, as if they had been freshly printed on that day. They were slightly crumpled and wrinkled from being stuffed into my pockets. I stared and ran my finger over them, trying to focus on the faces, the colouring, the material they were made out of. The money reminded me of the one person I was doing this for, the one person that all of my earnings would go to, and the one person I was trying to set free.
Ev-... Ev...n... Ev-uh...
I stopped. I felt my hands beginning to clench, crumpling the bill slightly in my hand. I may as well come home empty-handed if I were to ruin all of the banknotes I had worked so hard to earn. I looked at the bills in my hand again, straightening them out the best I could. I saw my mother's face, a flash of flame, and then the banknote slowly beginning to char as the fire licked away at the paper, melting away the printed faces and designs. The bill crumbled into hot ash in my hand as the fire consumed it, inching from one end of the paper to the other. I stopped and blinked. The fire was gone, the bill in tattered but legible condition again.
One hundred... one hundred... how much more can I make? Two hundred? Three hundred? Four? ...maybe a thousand! Two thousand! Three! Whatever the number, it will be enough to keep the food on the table, long enough for Evan to finish fourth, maybe even fifth grade. And if I kept it up, kept coming back with more, he might be able to make it to Grade 12. If I play my cards right, there might even be some left over...
...but for who?
Myself... I almost laughed. Of course I could use some money! I sure could use some new clothes, maybe a basketball of my own so I didn't have to ask around for one. If I hit gold, we could get a new TV that didn't show more static than a fuzzy wool sweater.
Hit gold... Now how was I earning this money? My mother called my father a criminal the day he left and called the money my older brother produced "money from the Devil". Who knew where my father was or what he was doing? My brother made his profits through the illegal drug trade. The one hundred pesos in my hand right now were stolen, having been swiped from an unwary man's pockets along with his wallet, credit cards, and smartphone. Who knew where my future profits would come from? What if I was sent out to kill someone? What if they tasked me with managing their drug trade, like Julio? What if I had to do something that I had never heard of before that would fill my pockets and destroy my morality? What if I lost my bearings and my brother, dooming myself to disownment by my own mother?
No... that won't happen! I won't let that happen! I swear to God I'll...
My fists clenched again, and with a sharp flick of my arm, threw the bills away from me. I watched as they spread out, forming a cloud of coloured paper as they floated down towards the ground, landing softly onto the ground like falling leaves. I glared at the mess I had made with immense loathing. Get away from me! Get away from me!! Stop corrupting my mind!!! The bills had no response to my unspoken words; the printed faces only stared back at me with their beady eyes. It's just paper it's just paper it's just paper...
Paper can't save my brother!
My head fell back in exhaustion, and I slouched wearily against the wall. I was ready to give up at that moment, the love for my brother and my mother tearing me apart in the middle. I remembered everything my mother said and did about my older brother's money, the way she described it, the way she burned it, the way she sobbed afterwards. I remembered everything I said to my dearest younger brother, how I wanted him to go back to school, how I promised to find a way to accomplish that goal, how I promised to come home to him no matter what. I didn't want to anger my mother, but at the same time I couldn't let my brother down so easily.
I brought my hands up to my face, sparing my eyes from the sight of my first "paycheque" before me, catching the hot, frustrated tears as they fell. It burned and seared my hands as they slid down, cutting through my wrists and dragging a knife down my arms before landing on my lap and legs, where they smoldered like coals from a fire.
Would money really help my brother — heck — any of us?
The answer came to me almost immediately, and I felt like laughing out loud. Without my father and without Julio, we had barely enough money to keep enough food on the table for the three of us. If Evan went to school, we'd be going to bed hungry every night. Our meager income made it difficult to sustain ourselves for extended periods of time; it was not at all uncommon for my mother and I to go hungry so Evan could eat. Now that I was capable of bringing home one hundred pesos within a matter of seconds, I could pay for food that was even better than scrounged pagpag and actually keep it on the table, for once. If Evan no longer had to scavenge to bring in enough money just to eat, he could go to school. What do you mean 'Money can't help my brother'? Of course it can! It will!
I sent a hand out and grabbed one of the bills. It burned my hand, as if it were on fire, but I clung onto it and brought it towards me. It was money that could buy food, water, amenities... it could buy the things we needed to survive. Why, then, would it feel so... wrong... to get it?
I'm doing it for my brother... I'm doing it for my brother...! I'm doing it for my...
I sighed. There were too many possible answers for one measly question.
"Come a lil' closer to me, sweetie."
I stopped dead in my tracks. I was on my way to see Dodger, who had asked me to meet up with him in fifteen minutes. I had a pretty good idea what was going on in the direction I heard the voice — there was no way I could've ever forgotten that horrific scene as much as I'd like to — but for some reason, something drew me in to see what was going on.
"I said get closer to me! I feel a cold gap between the two of us!"
"Ugh! How close do you want me to go?"
"Don't argue with me!"
The sound was coming from a window, its shutters shut except for a small gap created where the shutters failed to close fully. Two forces were at conflict within me now: one was a kinetic force, driving my legs and feet to walk towards the scene. The other force was a voice in my head, telling me to yield and run away. Get outta there! Get outta there! Get the hell away from there! it screamed. But aside from words, it had no power over me. I was at the gap between the shutters before I knew it.
"Hell, is this your first time? What's holding you back tonight?"
"What?! You're pushing me back while simultaneously scolding me for not coming forward!"
"Well that's just too darn of a shame, sweetie. You're just going to have to try harder if you wanna be a breadwinner."
I crouched and brought an eye up to the small gap, being careful not to make any noise. I felt like squeezing my eyelids shut, for I was certain that I knew what was going on inside, but an invisible, indescribable force kept them open. It wouldn't permit me to even blink, and I wondered how long I could watch this gruesome picture before my eyes dried up like raisins. Someone help me! I begged. Someone drag me out of here and spare me from what I'm about to see!
"You're still not giving me what I asked for, bitch!"
"Good bloody fuck... you're impossible!"
"This'll turn into a bloody fuck soon if you keep hanging back!"
I bit down on my tongue and looked inside. The room was bare, save for a lamp, a small table and chair, and a bed. Two figures — a man and a woman — were huddled onto it, both of them gasping and groaning. The man kept spewing forth taunts and insults as he... as he...
"Ugh! Why do you have to be so loud? You'll disturb all the neighbours!"
"Me? Loud? Ha! You're being a fucking librarian right now." He turned his head and hollered. "Yeah, go ahead and shush me you slut!"
"Ugh! Fuck you! My son is nearby and he'll hear us!"
"Do you really think I give two shits about that bastard?"
"How dare you insult my son!"
"Woman, I could care less about your son. It wasn't me who gave birth to him!"
The voice came back and yelled at me. Get out! Get out!! But, try as I might, my legs did not obey. I wanted to shield my eyes, but no matter how hard I tried, my body did not respond. The only response I received were from my senses, which continued to relay the numbing scene in front of me. The two in the room still hadn't noticed me, but oh, how I wished they did! Perhaps I'll finally be able to run away once caught.
"He's only eight! You know how hard it is to take care of an eight-year-old? I go hungry thrice a week just so he has enough food to survive!"
"I'll make that four times this week if you don't give me what I ask for. What, you think that isn't fair? Of course it isn't fair! You'll always be clutching your empty stomach unless you either sing for your supper or euthanize the damn child."
"I can't do that!" the woman shrieked.
"How could you even consider such a horrid option?! He's a child! He's my son! My job as a mother is to care for him and raise him until he's old enough to live on his own. I am a mother, not a murderer! You have no heart if you believe that I could just remove him from this world and expect to suffer no consequences. You wouldn't know! You have no children! You're just a heartless thug that cares more about his lust than love!"
"Shut up!" he roared. And then, right before my very eyes, he struck her hard across the face.
I froze. What had the woman done to warrant such treatment? I thought about my mother, and how she worked so hard to keep the three — two — of us alive. She was up before dawn and never saw her bed again until well after dusk. Even in what seemed to be her perpetually-tired state, she wouldn't hesitate to run into the path of an oncoming truck barrelling toward her sons to whisk them out of there. This woman was selling her body to buy her son food... What was so wrong about that?
What was so wrong about what I'm doing?
I heard footsteps. Afraid of getting caught, I broke away from the window and began walking towards my original destination, trying to look normal. The footsteps never actually reached me, so I was safe, but I had had enough. The woman, the way the man struck her, the words she said — it never left my mind. It would never leave my mind, no matter how hard I tried. It would haunt me for life, like it had done before.
When I had finally arrived, Dodger seemed a bit annoyed. "What took you so long?" he demanded.
"Call of nature," I responded, covering up what I had really been up to.
He shrugged it off. "Reyes is about to send you off on your first mission, but I gotta warn you — it'll be tough, it'll be rough, and most of all, it'll be dangerous. If you pull this off, though, you'll be making everyone else here proud — and jealous — of you. You up for the task?"
"What is it that he wants me to do?"
He looked at me in the eye. "He wants you to venture neck-deep into enemy territory, but he didn't give me the specifics."
"Is it dangerous?" I asked, even though I was pretty sure I knew the answer.
He blinked. "You seriously asking that question?" He dug around in his pockets. "I'm going to answer that question with something I'm gonna give you." He produced a small brown object with a silvery side of metal and handed it to me. "You'll need this to survive out there."
I stared at it.
"You're not asking me to... kill someone, are you?"
He shook his head. "This is in case someone jumps you, and you've got nowhere to run."
I still didn't buy it. "What does Reyes want me to do that is so dangerous I'll need a weapon 'just in case'?"
"Take it, Garrett," he said firmly, ignoring my question. "I know you're tough, but you can't fend off an armed, brass knuckled snake charmer with your bare hands, can you?"
He had a point. I closed my hand around the switchblade and grasped it firmly. It felt heavy despite its light weight. The handle felt smooth and cool as I ran my fingers over it. I depressed the button and the blade snapped open with a click.
"Don't pick a fight with anyone unless you absolutely have to," Dodger advised. "This is not a suicide mission. We're not like that. The Wingz are not like that."
I turned the blade slowly around, letting it catch the light, reflecting it into my eyes with a glitter. My hands shook; the power to badly wound someone was in my hands, only a few inches long. What would my mother say, knowing that I had been entrusted with this power by someone she didn't trust? I looked up at Dodger again.
"Think of the other people that work with you," he said. "Then you'll see why I gave you this. It's not about you. It's about the people around you. I know you're capable of this, Garrett. I wouldn't have given you this if I didn't."
The people around me... the people around me...
The people I work with... the people I work with...
The people I love...
I felt my hand and arm beginning to stiffen. I closed the blade and nodded firmly. "I'm ready."
He took me to Reyes, who was in a hot, stuffy room talking to three shirtless men, each of whom carried a small backpack. "You three know the drill," he said to them. "Don't be brash and don't be dicks, and this won't turn out ugly. I'll be checking in with you in about five hours. You understand?"
The three nodded, and were dismissed.
"Hopefully there will be no sappy brouhahas like last time," he said to himself. He turned around and acknowledged our presence. "Well, well, look who's here..."
"Your favourite new gang member, I guess," Dodger said.
"We'll see how he holds up after this."
I glanced nervously at him, but tried hard not to show it.
He put his hands on my shoulders and looked directly at me. "How you doin' so far?"
"I'm good," was my response.
"Nothin' holdin' you back or anything?"
I shook my head.
"The reason I'm asking this is, after ten years living and working with street gangs, I've learned one thing: never admit a member that doesn't want to stick around." He patted me on the shoulder. "Good to see you're still going strong."
Dodger leaned against the wall, his arms crossed. I was impressed at how he was still able to do that despite the unbearable heat of the environment we were in.
"Now I know everyone thinks you're awesome and everything, but you have to listen to me very carefully, because what I'm about to say is very important." I looked at him. He wasn't bluffing. There was no humour in his voice whatsoever. He was dead, dead serious. "I'm going to need you to get something for me."
"What do you need me to get?" I asked.
"You know the Red Cults, right?"
I nodded. "They're the gang that's allied with the Cobras right now." The word "Cobras" felt funny on my tongue; the thought that my older brother was in it still haunted me. I couldn't understand why, though.
"I know you've barely hit double-digits," he continued, "but I firmly believe that you're mature enough to handle this."
He showed me a ring on his left middle finger; up to now I hadn't actually noticed that he wore a ring. "What do you see?"
"What about the ring?"
Huh? "It's... shiny."
"It... looks nice...?"
Where was he going with this? I could only stare at the ring, though; I had no idea what he wanted me to say.
"You can't just go around and buy one of these at a 7-Eleven, son."
I tried again. "It's expensive?"
He smiled. "You got it. Took you a while, but you got it." He produced his phone from his pockets and showed me a picture of a sizable, reddish gem, roughly the size of two thick textbooks stacked over each other. "It's not exact, but it's pretty close to what I want you to get for me."
I looked over at Dodger. He was staring at the phone screen as well. "You want him to get this?" he asked, a hint of disbelief in his voice. "What are you going to do with that?"
"Not so much the object itself as much as it is about the people it's coming from." Reyes was looking at me again. "I'm going to need you to get a ruby similar to this one for me. From the Red Cults."
"No way!" Dodger remarked. "The Red Cults aren't going to let anyone even look at this thing that easily! They gotta have six-foot tall punks armed to the teeth with shotguns and German shepherds all ready to rip anyone that crosses their field of vision apart!" He looked at my slim figure. "If a bouncer has no chance against them, what chance do you think young Garrett here has?"
Reyes still had faith in me, though. "I need you to break the status quo, Garrett, even more so than you've already done. Like I said, this is going to be quite dangerous, and it's not going to be easy, but I'm certain you can do it. You understand?"
He turned to Dodger and addressed his concerns: "You're right that they're not going to give something of that value up without a fight, but the truth is, they can't be arsed to monkey guard it with twenty shotgun-wielding idiots and five flesh-eating dogs."
"Still no ordinary Joe's storefront."
"I'm not asking him to rob the Malacañang. He can handle it; I'm sure he can."
While they argued, I stood there, still studying the picture of the ruby. Obviously if Reyes wants it, it has to be worth more than just peanuts. How much was it worth, exactly?
Will Reyes let me keep a portion of the money?
Enough to feed a hundred families the size of ours for a year, maybe.
That's a lot.
Reyes's hands were on my shoulders again. "You can do this, can you?" he asked.
"Be honest with me."
"At best the Red Cults will make it their priority to kill you for the next three months; at worst, you'll be lying dead on the streets," Dodger piped in.
"Enough about what may or may not happen! What I'm asking is: can you do it?"
I will. But can I?
"That's not what I want to hear. It's not enough for someone to just try to do it; anyone can try. Any fool can try. I'm asking whether or not you can do it."
"I don't know..." Dodger was saying. "Like, I know he's a 'miracle' and all, but at the end of the day he's still just a garbage scavenger..."
I looked at Dodger. I'm not just a scavenger! I wanted to say. I'm a brother! I'm someone with and of potential! You can't put me down with that! You won't put me down with that! But everything I wanted to say was summed up with the two words I probably dreaded saying the most: "I will."
Reyes turned to stare at me. "'You will' what?"
"I can. And I will."
Dodger shifted uncomfortably. "I... I got some stuff to do." And he exited the room.
"Hold it!" Reyes called out, and he reluctantly retreated. "I didn't say you could go. I'm not done with you yet."
He leaned weakly against the wall. As for me, I was praised: "I like what I see here. Attitude is the biggest step. There is nothing without spirit."
That made me feel a little bit better, not just for the mission at hand, but for my goal as a whole, the very reason why I was doing this. I have the attitude. I have the spirit. I can do this. For my—
"What's wrong with you, Dodger? Thought you were the one who tried to convince everybody that he was an angel that descended from heaven or something."
"Yeah but... this is too much, too soon."
"Didn't you bring him into the gang the very first day you found him? Wasn't that too much, too soon as well?"
"Doesn't matter if it's too soon," I interrupted. "I'm ready. That's what matters."
Reyes patted me on the back, as if I were his son. "See? He knows he's ready."
On the outside, I felt strong; on the inside, I still had my doubts. Dodger's points were not without merit. I really had little experience with stealing; much of my life had been spent digging and playing in mounds of garbage. This was something I had never done before, and Reyes was leaning on me to do it.
"You'll be doing this with both of your... what were their names again? Whatever, you'll be the leader of the squad, and your job is to make sure that they actually do shit instead of running off. This is a huge responsibility: think you can handle it?"
"Yes," I responded without thinking, and almost immediately kicked myself. Grr... I was jumping into the deep end and I didn't even know how to swim!
Now Dodger was getting suspicious of me. "You're kidding, right?"
Yes! I wanted to scream. Yes, this was all just a joke! But I couldn't disappoint the one who so lavishly spread praise on me, like butter on a piece of steak, and I could only respond with the answers that I hated.
"Relax: he's got the hang of it. The two are comfortable with him anyway. More than me, at least." He laughed. "If I told them to run from a burning house, they'd just stare at me like deer at oncoming headlights."
"Still... the Red Cults? Really? It's easier to steal from the Cobras's warehouses, where they have a guy who's high on coke armed with a bolo for defense and a limp in his leg. Why don't you send him there for starters?"
"We've intruded into that warehouse enough times, and obviously the Cobras aren't that stupid. Plus, I've been to that jewellery store before in disguise, and it's not as elaborate as you think." He turned away from him in mild disgust, as if he were displeased with himself for wasting his time arguing. To me, he continued: "I've seen those two boys recently; don't worry, they're not the panty-wetters they were when they first joined the gang anymore. You'll be in charge of them, and it's your job to make sure that they learn and train faster under your control. It's all for the gang, son. We're all one big family, happy or not, and everyone's got a role in keeping the whole organization afloat. Got it?"
"I understand, sir."
When Dodger opened his mouth to speak again, "This better not piss me off!" Reyes warned.
"I'm not... was just about to ask about why you'd want — need — a ruby."
"Two reasons: one, it's one of the Red Cults's most prized possessions, and probably the few that they legitimately own. Two, it's got a huge price tag on its head, and I know someone from Thailand who'll pay top dollar for it. It would turn the tables of this ruthless chess game; it'll be like adding a few queens to our ranks and capturing the enemy's rook."
Dodger wanted to say more — I could tell by his facial expressions — but the look on his boss' face shushed him. "You've changed sides like a pancake being turned over. What's wrong with you? Discouragement is the biggest silent enemy, and what irks me is that this gang is full of such demoralizing turds. I thought you were Garrett's mentor, not his irrational mother. Go stand outside the door and wait until I tell you to come back in."
"Do it!" Reyes snapped. A little more gently: "I won't be long."
Dodger, having tasted a sample of his boss's anger, nodded and promptly left.
Now it was just me and...
"Seems to me was have a lot of pessimists around here. No wonder we're falling behind," he lamented to himself. To me, he said, "Everyone around here's staring at you in disbelief. We've got young members like you, but none of them have the sort of magic that I see in you. Prove to me that I'm not blind or delirious, and you'll prove to the gang you're worthy of anything."
I nodded. "I won't let you down; I'd be letting myself down as well if I did."
Before he dismissed me, he gave me two things: a blueprint of the jewellery store, and a hand-drawn sketch that approximated the ruby. "We got the blueprint only a week ago, so it should be up to date. The address is printed on the bottom-left. Make sure you go to the right store, Garrett: this is important. We have specific targets in this gang; we don't just attack whomever, whenever. The jewellery store has a silver storefront, grey concrete exterior at the rear and the sides, a well-lit 'Juan's Jewels' neon sign at the front. You can't miss it, and there's no way you could possibly get it wrong. And if you somehow get it wrong and cut the throat of some innocent, you're going to wish for death like a birthday wish."
I studied his face. No sense of humour, no sign that he was joking. He was dead serious in what he said. If you somehow get it wrong... you're going to wish for death like a birthday wish.
"I won't fail," came my determined response to that.
"You got this, Garrett. Go and make the Wingz proud!" And he dismissed me. As I left, he added, "And tell Dodger to come in."
He was waiting outside, staring nervously at the ground, alerted when I exited the room. "Does he want me?"
Dodger thumped me on the back. "Reyes's leaning on you, bud. Don't fall over." And with that, he headed inside the room.
I put my hand inside my pocket and patted the knife comfortingly.
It was another warm evening. The gang had, as usual, gathered together as one "family" and were chatting, smoking, and eating together. My growling stomach had finally enabled me to grab something to eat — mostly street food and some homecooked meals that the other members brought in, almost like potluck, but definitely better than the cheap stuff we ate at home. What lay ahead of me tomorrow still troubled my mind, though, and I couldn't enjoy the scene as much as I'd like to.
"I remember when I was first sent out on mission," Dodger said. "Couldn't sleep the night before. I was busy practicing all the techniques I could use with my knife to break free if I got caught. You'll be fine, man! You killed it the past few days! I mean, if Reyes says you're ready, you probably are."
He was just trying to make me feel better, I knew it, but his consoling only amplified the butterflies in my stomach. My dinner lurched and sat like a shot put inside a bag made of animal skin. Out of all the things I had done and said, the most important was the promise that I made to my brother, that I would make it home alive no matter what. That promise was about to be tested; I was waist-deep in putty that was difficult for me to get out of.
Marcos and Lewis came up to us. "You always seem to be lost in thought," Marcos said to me. "What's up?"
"Nothing," I lied.
"Oh there's something," Dodger said. "Garrett, it's your responsibility to tell them."
Great. I looked at him, then at the two, then back again. "Reyes has assigned us on our first mission, starting tomorrow," I began.
"Already?" the two said simultaneously.
"I asked that too," Dodger chimed in, "but Reyes says otherwise."
"We're to rob a jewellery store, one owned by the Red Cults."
"He wants us to what?" Lewis asked, as if I just told him that we were to board an alien spaceship and fly to Mars.
"A jewellery store? The Red Cults?" Marcos was flabbergasted. "I don't like the sound of either, let alone both."
"You wanna file a complaint? Reyes has office hours right before happy hour every Thursday," Dodger said sarcastically. "God, isn't he thrilled to hear your pessimism!"
The two blinked, utterly confused.
"You weren't there," I tried to explain. "Reyes flipped out on Dodger for objecting. He doesn't like criticism. He thinks we're ready... He says he knows were ready."
"I don't know... still sounds risky to me." Marcos sat down next to me. "What is he looking for, exactly?"
I produced the sketch of the ruby and handed it to him. "He wants this. Most expensive possession of the Red Cults, apparently. He's going to sell it to someone in Thailand."
Lewis could only stare at the sketch. "How big is it?" Marcos asked.
"Not too large. Should be enough to carry with both hands."
"Why does he want all three of us to go? Three's a crowd, isn't it?"
The answer to that question was answered by Dodger: "Reyes believes in a family. He's going to send the three of you so you'll figure out how to work together to get the job done. Was for me anyway; there were five of us on my first assignment, myself included."
"Where's this place?" Lewis asked. He had settled down quite comfortably next to me; the shyness he exhibited on his first day was almost completely absent.
"Reyes gave me a blueprint as well; he's serious about this." I unfolded the sheet of paper from my pockets and straightened it out.
"What, you think Reyes'll just let you wander in without knowing a thing about the place?" Dodger snorted. "He believes in success, not suicide. Plus, he loves you too much to lose you so soon."
Marcos and Lewis were huddled around the blueprint, studying it intently like two students cramming before their final exam. "The place isn't big at all," Marcos commented. "I bet the last place I lived in was bigger than this store."
"I've cleaned out bigger places than this, to be honest. Size isn't what makes it difficult." He rolled himself a cigarette and lit it. "You'll probably have to face someone who's armed with a gun, not a kitchen knife." He inhaled, then let loose a long stream of smoke. "I don't think we've ever sent people this young on a mission like this one before."
Marcos and Lewis looked at me. I knew what they were thinking; if it weren't for me, Reyes would've probably had them scrub the gang's toilets, among other mundane chores nobody else wanted to do. Now they were faced with the prospect of a potential death; anyone with a mind would've preferred human excrements over a bullet in their chest.
Dodger took note of what was going on. "Hey, it pays well," he said, defending me. "The more you give to the Wingz, the more you get out of it."
Money! Oh, the quarrel I had with myself last night came to mind. Money can help my brother, it will! I'm doing this for my brother... I'm doing this for my brother...
I'm doing this for my little brother.
I tried to smile. "Cheer up, guys. I mean, we're on Reyes's good side here, and if we pull this off, who knows what we'll get?"
"You'll get the Red Cults's envy — and hatred."
"Still," Marcos maintained, "it's not worth risking my life for."
"Not your life. Ours. We're doing this together as a team, guys."
"You sound like a football coach, no offense."
"I wouldn't take that as an offense," Dodger commented. "After Reyes's mini-rant today, I think he'll hire a coach to drill us all into shape." He pointed at me and laughed. "Or maybe he'll just use you!"
"No seriously, Garrett; you have what it takes to do this. I know you're young and you're small, but clearly Reyes sees something in you. And you know what? I can see it too. That's why I brought you here, Garrett. There's something working within you that, while I can't exactly explain, I can definitely tell is a good thing. Something deep within you drives you and fuels you and shows that you're not gonna to take no for an answer, not gonna take a failure as the finish line, not gonna stop until you've gotten what you wanted." He placed a hand on my shoulder. "Don't be afraid. Nervous? Sure, but never be scared out of your balls."
The lively atmosphere was suddenly shattered when someone yelled, "Cults!!" Immediately, knives, guns, and machetes were drawn. A few even armed themselves with chairs and glass bottles. "Quick!" Dodger said, jabbing me with his elbow as he brandished his own weapon. "Your knife!"
I did not feel brave, tough, or even remotely ready to do anything right now. With shaking hands, I fumbled with the switchblade in my pocket before I managed to get it out. I depressed the button and the blade flicked out with a click. I felt like throwing up. I hope I don't have to do anything!
"Get closer!" Dodger said. "Don't hang back! The gang fights, wins — and loses — together."
Very gingerly I made my way forward. I could see the rival gang, their own weapons drawn and aimed at us. All of their members wore mean, fierce looks on their faces. Our gang had scrambled to form an inward crescent that extended to the alley's walls, effectively sealing the route off. Those in the front row were lean and somewhat slim, while the bigger, muscular gangsters — almost like bouncers — stood behind them. I was behind the palisade, supposedly safe in the backlines, though I could sense the disapproval of my cowardliness behind my back.
A Wingz pushed their way to the front. "What the hell are you guys doin' here?!"
"Why can't we be here?" came the snarky response. "This an invite-only picnic you're having here?"
The Wingz who took charge cocked his pistol. "Yeah, and what better reason do you have for being here? This is our turf!"
"You took six grand and an 8 ball from us. But that's nothin' compared to the Cult you nabbed as well."
"You seriously think you can just waltz in, ask for what you want, and leave like this is some sort of a shopping mall?" He stiffened, and the gang behind him got prepared as well. "Give us a good reason why we shouldn't just kill you right now!"
The Red Cult, unfortunately, wasn't scared. He snapped his fingers, and a stocky figure came to the front, brandishing a shotgun as he went. "You can keep the shit you stole. But we want our Cristian back. If you don't make a path, shit's gonna hit the fan for you."
"Hey!! What's going on here?!" It was Reyes! He pushed his way through the crowd towards the front lines. "Red Cults!"
"We appreciate the greeting," the rival thug said sarcastically.
"You have any sort of business to do around here? If not, then do us all a favour and get the fuck out!"
"Bring us Cristian or we'll cut your throats!"
"Why would you ever want that son of a bitch back?"
"You think we'll just let you keep one of our members in the back of a truck, gagged and blindfolded with duct tape?" He gestured towards their bouncer again. "He'll fuck you up. All of you up. We won't stop searching your turf until we get what we want." The shotgun's pump was cocked. "You have a decision to make, Reyes; you gonna risk the lives of everyone in your gang, or are you just gonna give Cristian back to us?"
Reyes pointed his finger at him like a pistol. "You better watch out! Soon, I'll have your ass so roasted that we'll be able to make bacon from it. You'll be eatin' all the rocks on the streets as we finish off this chapter and close the covers of this book. Everyone will forget you and your venom-sucking allies; nobody will remember that you even existed. You may as well go live in purgatory, cause hell can't be arsed to admit you." He snapped his fingers. "Bring them the faggot they want so badly."
"You have a way with words," the Red Cult remarked as two Wingz headed to fetch them their cargo. "I've never actually observed you do anything, Reyes, since taking position as a leader. You while away the days sitting in your private office, staring at the piles of cash that'll vanish into thin air. Thinking about buying rubber bands to hold the wads together? Don't, cause it'll all disappear soon enough."
"Maybe it'll disappear, but not before you." He flinched, which triggered a flurry of activity as some Red Cults pointed their guns at him. "So? Are you going to shoot me? Go ahead, you fucking turds! We'll give you that Cristian's dead body for you to carry home. Take him to his parents. They won't be able to stand the sight of it."
The two Wingz returned, dragging a young teenager with them. He was blindfolded and gagged with duct tape that covered much of his face, almost like a mummy, leaving a few holes for his nostrils. "You have one hell of an outspoken loudmouth in your ranks," one of them said. "He has the mouth of a sewer and the mind of a swine." The crescent parted ways slightly, like the Red Sea for Moses, as the captured Red Cult was escorted through the crowd towards his teammates. Finally, they dumped him several inches into the No Man's Land between the two gangs, a level playing field occupied by Reyes and the other two Red Cults.
"Take him," Reyes said. "Don't just stand there. Take him and then get out. Don't try anything stupid."
The Red Cult leader shrugged. He snapped his fingers and ordered three of his men to remove the duct tape from their friend. As soon as his mouth was freed, Cristian shouted, "You sick son of a whore, Reyes! Here's hoping that hell's flames will burn your skin off and leave you screaming for the Saviour that'll never save you! I've only two words for you, bastard: Fuck you!"
Reyes took out his own gun and bludgeoned the butt into the teenager's head. Immediately, three gunshots rang out: two from the Red Cults, and one from our side. I wanted to run; I had brought a knife to a gunfight! There was no way I'd survive.
"You'll be covered in your own blood soon, Reyes!" the leading Red Cult warned as he trained his firearm on the Wingz's leader. Reyes did the same. "One wrong move, and I'll cut you into two!"
"You gonna kill me for teaching that sick brat a lesson?" He laughed, a laugh that made me uneasy. Who could seriously laugh when their life was at the mercy of a finger? "Take him. Tar his back until it's warm enough to fry eggs on it. That'll teach him not to insult the ones that have his life on the line."
The two stared at each other, guns brandished at each other's heads, for what seemed like forever; their gangs stood right behind them, ready to act upon and against even the most subtle of movements. Finally, the Red Cult leader lowered his gun. "We got what we asked for."
"Now give us what we requested," Reyes responded.
The Red Cult leader began to back off. "Let's go!" he barked. "We'll leave these pathetic demons to enjoy the rest of their picnic tonight." Cristian was picked up and carried off as the rest of the gang slowly backed out of the alley, their weapons still in their hands.
"You watch out, assholes!" Reyes shouted. "We'll get back at ya! Just you wait! Just you wait and see!"
As soon as the Red Cults were out of sight, the tension eased, and everyone began to put away their weapons. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief and closed the switchblade, replacing it in my pocket.
"That was close," someone remarked.
"We've had worse," Dodger said. To me: "You have to be ready for whatever might happen, Garrett. The other gangs around here know this is our turf, and for the most part they don't tread on our land and we don't tread on theirs. In the event that someone does show up, though, you have to have something to fight with on hand. No 'leaving shit in the bathroom' or any of that. You gotta be ready. Understand?"
Marcos and Lewis were still staring at me. "You have a knife?" Marcos asked. "Where'd you get that from?"
"Dodger gave it to me," I answered.
"You think you're ever going to have to use it for real?"
"I hope not."
|For my little brother by Enoch Leung