His squat these days is an abandoned warehouse at the edge of the Mexicans’ turf, not far from where it runs into the Crips’. Once upon a time, he didn’t occupy it alone. Everywhere he’s gone in the last three years, he’s attracted the helpless, the small, the ones weaker than he. They’re drawn to him, the big bloke with the tired, pretty face and the violence lurking behind his eyes. Or he’s drawn to them. One way or the other; since Gypsy he’s always had someone to look after. It’s part of what earned him his street name: Safety.
The other part…the other part is his air of controlled menace. He keeps his safety on, lest it escape. A dealer in another part of town noticed it a long time ago, and the name stuck. It’s as good a name as any, here.
At any rate, they’re all gone now. Some moved on. Some died. The last of them not long ago. Young Matty OD’d a couple months back, and then it was just him and Fancy. But the Afghani sent him out of town on business he couldn’t afford to turn down, and when he came back Fancy had gone, too. He sees her now and again, walking her street. Without him to protect her, Green Jack got his claws into her after all. So now it’s just him.
His hands shake as he cooks the dose and it takes him three tries to draw it into the needle. Lately he’s been using the veins in the tops of his feet, but he can’t manage to untie his boots to get to them. The vein in the bend of his left elbow has come back a bit, though. He fishes a bit of twine from his pocket to tie off his arm, remembering with fleeting nostalgia the days when he could make the vein pop simply by closing his fist.
The prick of the needle and a brief sensation of cold. No rush. He hasn’t felt the rush in months. It doesn’t matter, as long as the shakes stop. In a bit they do. He sighs with relief as his chin drops to his chest. For a time, everything recedes.
Some little while later, he comes awake all at once at the distant scrape of a boot on cement. His hand goes straight for the pistol he laid next to his hip before fixing himself up. Not the same .38 he used to shoot Dandy Sam; he tossed that into San Francisco Bay before heading back north. This one is a semi-automatic .45, and he never takes a step without it at the small of his back, thrust beneath his belt, under his shirt. Holding himself perfectly still, he levels the gun in the direction of the sound. He doesn’t think anyone will have come after him in particular, but someone might have a thought toward the warehouse. If it’s a kid looking for shelter, they’re welcome. If it’s not, though…he’s had to defend his right to the squat before. More often than not, the sight of his eyes over the gun barrel does the trick.
“Hey, Safety! You here?” The words echo slightly through the empty space.
Standing, he lowers the gun. Not all the way. The voice belongs to Suede, another of the blokes who work for the Afghani from time to time. Likely he’s come to collect him for a job. But there’s always the chance he hasn’t.
The warehouse is dim, but not dark; the light coming in at the intact windows up near the ceiling hints at evening. His eyes are already used to it. Suede’s aren’t. There’s a crash as the fellow trips over a crate left on purpose in the direct path from the back door, followed by swearing as he stumbles into a stack of pallets. Soon after, he emerges into the wide open area at the building’s core, brushing off the suede jacket from which he got his name.
“Yo, Safety! Give a guy a break!” Suede’s head snakes left and right as he tries to locate his quarry.
Sighing, he steps away from the shadow of the wall. They’ve done this dance before, every time Suede has come to pick him up at the squat. A smarter fellow would have learned, by now, how to approach without triggering the makeshift alarms. Suede isn’t smart, though. Like many big blokes, he’s never had to be.
“Aye, I’m here.”
The quiet words, spoken from behind him, cause Suede to jump and whirl, drawing his own piece and aiming it a foot to the left of where a bullet would do any good. His quarry gives him a minute to calm down, then moves nearer, taking care to bring his boots into contact with the ground more noisily than he otherwise would. As he leaves the deep shade at the room’s far edge, Suede makes an impatient noise and causes his weapon to disappear. “Shit, kid, you about gave me a heart attack! I’m gonna shoot you one of these days, for sure.”
“Dinna believe so.” He tucks his pistol back behind his belt and smoothes the tail of his flannel over it. “What’s to do, then?”
They meet at the center of the vast, empty space. Suede is in his late twenties but looks older, with a hard edge to his olive features. Broader than the one he’s come to see, but not as tall by a hand’s breadth. As always when they meet, there’s the sense of mutual assessment, each wondering about his chances against the other, should the need arise.
About even, he thinks, as he usually does. I’m smarter and likely tougher. But Suede’s no a junky.
“Afghani’s got some business for us.”
He expected as much from what Carlo said earlier. Though now that the junk hunger’s off him and he can turn his mind to it, he’s surprised Carlo had heard. The Afghani isn’t in the habit of advertising his business. Still, there are always rumors. The Afghani likes rumors. He says they keep people afraid.
Suede squints at his face, drops his gaze to the hands held loose at his sides to see if they shake.
“You up for it?”
The question makes him twitch, as does any reminder that he has a bad habit and everyone knows it. With an effort, he stills himself. Suede’s in charge. He has an obligation to ask and a right to know.
“Aye. What business?”
Suede starts for the door, the other falling in beside him.
“Sending a message, kid. Sending a message.” He cocks his head and his teeth flash white in the gloom. “So you can take your safety off.”
His wame curdles with a mixture of anticipation and revulsion, the taste of the burrito he tried to eat earlier rising in the back of his throat. Someone has asked the Afghani to terrorize someone else, a person who’s refused a “request” or stepped over a line. It’s half of what they do. Property damage, for the most part. Minor injuries, sometimes. Leaving little reminders: We know your loved ones. We know where they live. It could be worse.
He hates it, and hates himself for doing it, but these days it’s all he’s good for. He hasn’t busked in over a year, and though few can beat him at pool now, he rarely plays for money any more. There are too many sore losers, and in this area a sore loser can be deadly.
At the same time, it’s a relief to indulge in violence from time to time. To release his safety catch, in Suede’s words. Perhaps he hates himself for that most of all.
Suede’s ride, a cherry late 70s Buick, is parked at the curb across from the squat. There’s a bloke in a scuffed leather leaning on the rear door, arms crossed, trying to look tough. It’s a surprise; the Afghani usually sends a pair for this kind of job. The bloke’s a stranger to him, a youngster with ragged blonde hair framing a ratty face.
He stops short in the street. “Who’s this?”
“The Runt?” Suede shrugs. “New guy. Afghani wants to try him out.”
The Runt. It suits the fellow; he hasn’t either the build or the height to intimidate just by existing. He opens his mouth to give the bloke a bit of chaff to the effect, but snaps it shut when he gets a glimpse of the eyes under the fringe of hair. They’re almost without color, and the blank cruelty in them reminds him of something rotten pulled from the bottom of a well.
He takes his usual place in the shotgun seat. After a moment’s pause and a resentful glance, the Runt climbs into the back. Suede pulls the sedan away from the curb and into the orange glow of city lights that seep like blood through the growing dark, obscuring the stars.
A fifteen-minute drive takes them to a quiet neighborhood of tract houses built in the 50s at what, back then, was probably the edge of town. Starter homes, he’s heard them called: smallish places for young families. It must have been a nice community once, before gangs and drugs became common, before the encroaching urban decay. Many of the homes retain touches of the past: a neat flowerbed here, a lace curtain there, like old women displaying keepsakes from when they were girls. The Buick stops at a frame and stucco bungalow with a covered porch and lights in the front windows. The three of them get out, stroll up the walk, and crowd onto the postage-stamp-sized space before the front door. Suede rings the bell.
The first time he did this, the method of approach shocked him. Walking right up and knocking or ringing the bell seemed too bold, too normal. He’s since learned the wisdom of appearing normal—at least until they get inside.
As they wait for someone to answer, he wonders about the people they’re about to victimize. He never asks; it’s not his business. He couldn’t do what he’s hired to do if he minded the reality: he’s here to cause grief to someone’s parents, girlfriend, cousin. Someone whom love has made a target. Do they know? Have any of them the least suspicion what will happen when they open the door? Some of them must, surely. And yet, no one has ever balked at answering the bell. Not on any of the jobs he’s worked, at least.
And this kind of thing has been going on forever. His own heritage is full of it: The English occupation of the Highlands, with the looting of farmsteads, the burning of crofts. For a disorienting moment, he envisions his own family within, stiffening at the unexpected summons. The fearful glance that passes from face to face. The knowledge of danger, and the certainty no help will come, for they are the prey of those meant to keep the peace.
Gods. How did he come to this? Once he stood up to bullies. Now he’s become one.
It’s taken a long time for anyone to answer. Suede, patient as a rock, rings the bell again. This time, a frail hand pulls aside the shade over the window set into the door’s upper half, and an old woman glances out. She shows no surprise or anxiety at seeing three strange men on her stoop. In another second, the door opens.
Suede shoulders past her, into the house. He follows, the Runt on his heels. Through a short, narrow hall and into the living room, gold and blue in the light of a table lamp and a flickering TV. He takes in the scene at a glance: old-fashioned flocked wallpaper hung with several stitched samplers and religious icons. A worn sofa and armchair, a rocker with an afghan folded over its back. Knitting in a basket nearby. A corner shelf of china curios. Not much property to damage; this won’t be too bad. They’ll smash a few things, Suede will tell the old woman to have her brother or son or grandson toe the line, and they’ll be gone.
But the old woman isn’t the only one who lives here. There’s a playpen in the near corner, and in the playpen a toddler. A beautiful child with golden skin, dark curls, and wide eyes the color of fertile soil after a rain. A boy, he thinks, though the child is at that age where it’s difficult to be sure. There’s a young woman, too, likely the child’s mother. She’s a pretty, dark thing, black hair curling down her back like smoke. And she’s holding a shotgun leveled at the three men who have come to disturb her peace.
“Get out.” Her voice is rippled silk, and it wavers just a bit.
Suede raises his hands and tries on a reassuring smile. He does it badly.
“Why don’t you put that down? We don’t want any trouble.”
The girl laughs, the sound jagged as broken glass.
“You came to cause trouble. Mi hermano, he said it would be okay. But I knew this would come when he told me he refused to sell.” She adds something else in Spanish, a curse, he thinks. “I’ve been waiting for it.”
Suede glances back over his shoulder with a frown. They’ve never had to deal with anything like this, and would never have looked for it from a feisty wee girl. His eyes flick back and forth, calculating odds. The Afghani won’t like it if they give in, allow the girl to drive them off. On the other hand, they don’t get paid enough to get shot at. Not for this kind of job.
He sees Suede decide to back off, regroup, and return later with a better plan. But before the man can tell the girl they’ll go, the Runt acts. He crosses the worn carpet in two steps, drags the child out of the playpen by the collar of its pajamas, and holds a gun to its head.
“Drop it or I’ll blow the kid’s head off.” His voice is as flat and cold as his eyes.
The girl’s face goes grey. The shotgun falls to the floor with a soft “plop.” The Runt drops the kid, who begins to cry in belated fright. Then he turns to the girl, grinning.
“You need a lesson, bitch. And your hermano,” he sneers the word, “needs more of a message than he’d get if we just smashed up your Jesus shit.”
The Runt advances, fingers of his free hand fumbling at his belt. The girl backs up against the wall, whimpering. And he can see the next events as clearly as though they’ve already happened. The Runt will rape the girl. Suede will perhaps take a turn. He’s never known the man to do anything for which he’s not been paid, but they’ve never faced a situation like this before, and he will perhaps think a bit of rape payment enough. And then they’ll kill everyone in the house from the old woman who answered the door to the child in the playpen.
The .45 is in his hand; he has no idea how it came there. Without a second thought, he raises it and shoots the Runt in the back of the head. It’s close range. The bullet erupts out the front of his skull, scattering blood and brains and bits of bone, splattering the cowering girl with gore. She gasps in horror, and the child in the playpen starts to shriek in a continuous, high wail like that of an approaching siren. Before the Runt’s body hits the floor, his killer makes a quick quarter turn to train his gun on Suede, who’s going for his weapon.
“None o’ that or I’ll serve ye the same.”
The man lowers his hands slowly and tugs the hem of his jacket straight. His eyes move from the girl to the corpse, and lift to his remaining companion.
“Afghani won’t like this. I’m gonna have to tell him, you know.”
“You do what ye must.” He waves the .45 in the direction of the front door. Without another word, Suede leaves. In another minute, the Buick’s engine revs and tires hiss away down the street.