I’m amused that I’ve created this page as “novels,” plural, considering I’m only halfway through my first and have kind of stalled out of late. But someday, right? Regardless, here is a teaser from what might eventually become my first…
Deliveries to Carter Hills were not Charlie’s favorite. You might say it was the wrong side of the tracks, but there wasn’t really a right side; Bowen was across the switchyards, and that place was crawling with Stone Gangstas. Charlie didn’t sweat tough neighborhoods, though. He’d lived in one all his life. Carter Hills cultivated plenty of other reasons to earn Charlie’s ire. For starters, the “Hills” in the name was not merely a nice marketing tag for a squalid subdivision. Its main street, Abner Terrace, was about a half mile of steep incline, and Freddie Benz lived at the top of it. Anyone who wanted to chase Charlie just had to get behind him in a car, and getaway would be nearly impossible.
That was reason number two Charlie hated visiting this shithole. He had been mugged twice on his rounds, and both times were in Carter Hills. He’d never had a problem in the Bowen Homes, Vine City, Bolton, any of those places that tended to make some folks roll up their windows and lock their doors. But for some reason, Carter Hills owned Charlie’s number. When he came here, he kept the lingering to a minimum. Once he’d been paid, he would put the cash in his pocket, and be on his way. Only when he was alone would he transfer his money to the traveler’s wallet where it was safer. Both times he got mugged, he’d been carrying more dope than dollars, but while he’d had to give up the cash in his pockets, neither time cost him more than a hundred bucks or so from the most recent delivery. No desperate mugger was going to frisk him on the off chance he had money stashed somewhere else. A hundred or so was a big enough score to a jonesing crackhead, anyway. One time, the assailants had taken his backpack, too, which held a few ounces of kush, but the next day, Freddie Benz showed up at Charlie’s house to return his backpack – only an ounce lighter – with a promise that those fools had jumped Charlie on the wrong turf and wouldn’t soon repeat their mistake. That was back when JaMarcus spent most of his days riding around in Freddie’s drop top. That was the only reason Charlie still came to this neighborhood, and true to Freddie’s word, no one fucked with him around here since then, though the evening was still young.
The worst thing, though, was the smell. Carter Hills infected Charlie’s sinuses with a funk that was a mixture of burning tires and sour milk. He didn’t know what it was – there were no dumps or factories close by. Nevertheless, in the sweltering summer months, Charlie had to wait until after sundown before venturing in, lest the stench, baking in the heat, overwhelm him. He supposed if you lived here, you’d get used to it, but Charlie was grateful he’d never have to acclimate himself.
Freddie Benz lived in a small powder blue split-level at the top of the hill. Power lines ran low through the front yard, and a tall oak tree with a brown, seeping gash that wasn’t uncommon to the trees in the neighborhood bowed dangerously close to the cables. Charlie chained his bike to the power pole where a streetlight kept it illuminated. When he stepped into Freddie’s front yard, a snarling pit bull darted out of the bushes straight for Charlie. He jumped back into the street, nearly tripping over the curb. The dog reached the limits of its chain and yelped as it was jerked back. Barely fazed, it got back on its feet and pulled at the leash, growling at Charlie.
Charlie shook his head and exhaled slowly to calm down. He hoped the collar was strong enough that this yard monster wouldn’t just burst through it. He retrieved his phone from his backpack and dialed Freddie’s pager number. Freddie didn’t have a phone at home, but he still carried a pager. Charlie hoped Freddie had it nearby, or he was going to be knocked off schedule on his first stop. At the pager prompt, he typed in 1412101. If you ignored the 1’s, the 420 was pretty obvious, but perhaps subtle enough to confound anyone else who might be reading the message.
Freddie must have been waiting for a page, because he emerged from the house a few seconds later. “Charlie, is that you, bruh? What you doing out in the street?” he called. Charlie nodded his head towards the dog. “What, Daisy? She ain’t gonna eat you. She a sweet animal, you just got to make friends.” He walked over to the dog and grabbed its chain, giving it a sharp jerk. “Bitch, sit down!”
The dog did as it was told, but didn’t take its eyes off Charlie. “Come here,” Freddie said. “Give her your hand.”
Charlie did as instructed, and the dog sniffed at Charlie’s hand, then turned away and trotted back to where it had dug holes in the corner of the yard.
“See, y’all be friends forever, now.”
“When did you get a dog?” Charlie asked.
“A friend of a friend had to go do a turn in Gwinnett County. I told him I’d watch Daisy for him. That dog’s a trip, man.”
“You ever let it off that chain?”
“Fuck, no! That dog would wreck shit inside. That there is an outdoor dog. A real crimefighter, too.”
“Come on, let’s get inside and do some bidness.”
Charlie nodded and followed Freddie inside. Freddie was a bit of a monster, himself, easily pushing 350 on the scale, and the type who needed to pay attention walking through doorways. As soon as he cleared the entryway and moved towards the sofa, Charlie could see around him and found Freddie had company tonight. There were two young kids, maybe 15, on either side of the couch, and they bounced up from the weight displacement when Freddie sat back down in the middle. They were wearing plastic shower caps on their heads, and their hands still showed a chalky white residue like the kind left behind from latex gloves. A basketball game flickered on the television. There were two boxes of Vanilla Games and a pile of tobacco in the middle of the coffee table, the wraps stacked in a pile on the side. On the table next to the empty recliner was a half-empty bottle of St. Ides and a 9mm handgun. Freddie caught his gaze as Charlie made a checklist of the potential threats in the room. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “That little guy there ain’t even loaded.”
The gun itself didn’t worry Charlie. Everyone in that room, save for him, was probably strapped. The question was who had been sitting in the recliner, sure to return at any moment to finish off that half-drunk forty. He didn’t have to wait long for the answer, as he heard a toilet flush down the hall, and the voice of Mohammed McGrady calling out, “Y’all bitches better be rolling some blunts in there.”
Instinctively, Charlie looked at his watch. He knew he was about to fall even farther behind schedule. The kids on the couch snapped into action, smoothing out the Games and sprinkling a small base of tobacco in the middle. With the shower caps and discolored hands, Charlie deduced that these kids must be cooking rocks for Mohammed. Probably brand new initiates. Suckers.
“Charlie Overton,” said Mohammed. “Come give your boy a hug.” He held out his arms and tapped his fists between Charlie’s shoulder blades when he got his greeting. “Chess Club Charlie, the stone playa. Freddie here tells me you was graduating college or some shit.”
Freddie nodded. “I ran into your momma at the Bi-Lo last week. I don’t think she likes me.”
Charlie shrugged. “Just junior college.”
“Didn’t know you needed a degree to push weight,” Mohammed said.
“Sometimes you gotta convert ounces to metric. That was my major.”
Mohammed and Freddie cracked up at that. The shower cap kids followed suit once they sensed it was cool. “You got wit, son,” Mohammed said. He sat down on the recliner and took a big swig of his forty, then offered the bottle to Charlie, who shook his head. Mohammed shrugged his shoulders and finished off the rest. “So you got my herb?”
“Quarter ounce,” Charlie said. He extracted two baggies from his backpack. “One-twenty.”
“A hundred twenty? For real?” Mohammed glanced pointedly at the gun on the endtable. “Charlie, I know you ain’t trying to play me. It’s out of respect for Terrell and JaMarcus that I don’t pistol whip your punk ass right now.”
Charlie was not a haggler, and he could feel his chest going tight. He bristled more visibly than he would have liked when Mohammed mentioned his brothers’ names, and he could feel tension in his arms, his muscles constricting, his breathing more pronounced. “It’s out of respect for your love of Terrell and JaMarcus that I drag my ass up this hill to sell you herb. If you don’t want it, that’s cool. I ain’t gonna be offended.”
Mohammed slammed the empty bottle on the endtable and stood back up. He lifted up the football jersey he was wearing, revealing a bevy of tattoos. He had three crosses on his chest, each bearing a different name, including one for Terrell. Nine bullets were lined up on his right pectoral. There was “404 4 Life” in a florid script on his left flank and of course, a Killa Hill Mafia logo over his heart. And under the word “Respect” in large block letters across his abdomen was another 9mm tucked into his waistband. This one would certainly have a full clip, and one in the chamber, too. “I would seriously suggest you rethink that tone of voice you’re taking with me, Charlie. I wanted to, I could take that weed on the table and what you got in the bag for free. And I’d love to see you step to me. You of all people know I just don’t give a fuck.” He put his shirt back down and stared down Charlie.
Charlie couldn’t help but think of his oldest brother JaMarcus, and what he said when Terrell asked him if he’d ever had a gun pulled on him. He told his story of how a cop had drawn his piece on him when he and Freddie had robbed Pendleton Liquors in ‘97. When JaMarcus told the story, he liked to say how he stared right into the barrel of that service revolver, then squealed like a pig and made a run for it. How that cop had squeezed off a few rounds, but he knew the shots weren’t even close because he didn’t even hear the air moving aside to let those bullets go by. Charlie remembered Terrell sitting rapt, hanging on to every word no matter how many times JaMarcus would regale them with that tale, but Charlie also remembered a night back in ‘97 where JaMarcus had come home late. Charlie and Terrell had been lying in bed, and he pretended to be asleep when his oldest brother walked in, but kept one eye opened and watched. He saw his brother slump against the wall and shiver and cry softly. Charlie remembered wanting to say something of comfort, but his brother had been shaking so much that he had no idea what he could do, short of offering him a blanket, except it wasn’t cold in their room. “Guns ain’t nothing to be scared of,” JaMarcus would say, like a moral to his story, or maybe a punchline. “Most people can’t shoot straight anyway. It’s them brothers with knives you gotta watch out for.”
In the time since JaMarcus had fled the state and Terrell had fled the mortal coil, Charlie had had a couple of guns pointed at him, and even a knife or two. And regardless of how cool his brother had played it, regardless of all those bad ass action stars on TV who were quick with a snarky retort when some evil mother had a six shooter in their faces, Charlie always felt like he was going to piss himself. It’s why he worked so hard to stay calm, he actually practiced it, like zen meditation or deep breathing exercises. If he betrayed that fear physically, with even the smallest symptom, McGrady might as well shoot him now.
Charlie took a measured breath and exhaled it. “Look, Mohammed, no disrespect. It’s sixty an eighth ‘cause that’s what it is. This ain’t me trying to play you. That’s just what it costs, brother. You can cap me ‘til I’m more swiss cheese than swank Charlie, but I got maybe another half a Z in this bag, and after that, where are you gonna get weed like this? You know me. We’re all friends here. No reason to get all huffy and shit.”
Mohammed glared at Charlie and reached for the hem of his jersey. Then he broke into a wide grin. “Ahh, I’m just playin’ with you, son.” He looked at the two kids sitting on the couch and laughed hysterically, like he’d just sprung a practical joke, a pie in the face or a collapsing chair. The two on the couch laughed nervously, the tension still thick in the air. Mohammed pointed at Charlie. “Look at my boy Charlie. That boy’s Xanax be workin! Ha! He got freon running in those veins. You suckas’d be crying like little girls right now. Freddie! Pay the man. You two bitches, roll up a fat one.”
Freddie lumbered back up off the sofa, pulled a roll out of his pocket and peeled off six twenties. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders at Charlie, embarrassed.
“Charlie, did JaMarcus ever tell you ‘bout the time the Police pulled a gun on me and him that time we was kids and we knocked over Pendletons?” Mohammed called.
“I heard that was him and Freddie,” Charlie said.
“Was it?” Freddie nodded to confirm. “Shit all runs together, man.”
One of the kids on the couch finished rolling up the cigar sheath and passed the blunt to Mohammed, who sparked it. He pulled on the blunt and let the smoke linger in his mouth before he inhaled it. “Worth every penny,” he choked out, before blowing a thick stream of smoke into the air. He passed it to one of the kids, who looked all too eager to get a buzz on by this point.
“Charlie, you a cool customer. You ever get tired of playin’ in the garden, you come see me. It’s a shame you ain’t a Killa Hill Mafia. You got a killa instinct.”
“And you’re an angry motherfucker,” Charlie said. “That shit’s gotta be exhausting. You should smoke more. Might calm you down.” Charlie slung the backpack over his shoulder and made tracks for the door. He remembered the pit bull, who’d surely be waiting to tear him limb from limb as soon as he set foot on the lawn, but Charlie decided he’d rather take his chances with the animal outside.