Packed into the back of a cramped van with five other large, sweaty men had never been my ideal way to spend an afternoon. The gear didn’t help either, sealing us so tightly that it was more than shoulder to shoulder. The middle guys had to lean forward so those on the flanks had somewhere to put their arms. Of course I was one of the middle guys, being the smallest among the group. That’s not to say I was small, though. I can put up some numbers in the weight room, but I wasn’t on roids like the rest of the boys.
Being in the biz meant you always had to be intimidating. I could generally manage it, but I wasn’t shit compared to the rest of the enforcers. They can have the size advantage, I’ll be laughing at forty when their dicks shrivel up and they get boobs bigger than their chickenhead girlfriends. Seriously though, Kismal was nothing like New Orleans. Back stateside it was enough just to be big and scary when the government would stop the largest of the criminal groups before they could take real control. In Sierra Leone there was nothing like that, no way to stop Los Zetas or the Russian mafia from killing everyone who got in their way. So you just didn’t, and hoped they wouldn’t kill you anyway.
Helga knocked on the compartment wall from the driver’s seat. Without a word the five of us grabbed our rifles, chambered a round, and checked our safeties. Brock had to pull his bandoleer off the hook on the wall and sling it around his shoulders, a task made much more difficult by the fact that he was literally touching the guy next to him. He called it his “utility belt” but most of what it contained was useless junk. Part of me believed he was just superstitious.
“Hey, can you fucking- hey, fucking stop.” Handel said as Brock jostled him over and over again trying to slip the stupid fucking belt around his body.
“There, calm down.” Brock said in his deep, gravelly voice as he finally finished the job.
The gang liked choosing pet names for people that really grated with their personality. Brock was the douchiest name we could think of for a guy who spoke and moved at a snail’s pace. Handel earned his name by writing terrible rap music that he insisted on performing for us every other day. Helga was easy, he didn’t put up with much shit. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t matter how much of a badass you were. Once we learned the name irritated you, it stuck.
They called me Pinky. Not “Pinky and the Brain” Pinky but pink the color, implying I’m gay. Surprisingly, we don’t get paid for our wit. The van jerked to a stop due to the fact that Helga was a shitty driver and we all piled out as fast we could to avoid getting driven over a cliff or something. Helga was unpredictable like that.
Five other guys and me, all suited up in the most mediocre kevlar and body armor money could buy, started carving a path through the crowds down the street. It was one of those sections of the city where money had beat out good planning. Several streets in the area were cut into chunks by businesses that insisted they would be the end of the lane. You had to enter East Market by foot, and once you were in the illusion of civilized society gave way to enough plywood stalls to remind you that you were living in the third world. Draped with fabric, the place looked like a market you’d see in a T.V. show covering the Middle East from back home. But hey, stereotypes exist for a reason.
No one flinched at the sight of five heavily armed men walking down the street, but they did part the way. Their safety depended on pleasing as many of the gangs in the area as possible, which was easy with how we’d divvied up the available space into territories. It wasn’t like being in the states where gang lines depended on who was awake at that time of day.
Every stall was full to bursting with handmade wares and fish from the harbor. The whole place smelled like rot and refuse, a byproduct of decaying meat and drugged out citizens too far gone to understand the concept of bathing. Lights from windows and the lanterns people had hung on their stalls illuminated the shifting figures moving about. The civilians formed a tapestry of gaudy cloaks and ponchos that made us, in our drab black outfits, seem out of place.
It only took about 3 minutes for us to reach the door to Redwen’s den with everyone making space for us. As we hefted our guns outside the commoners figured out what was going to happen and backed away from the area with inconspicuous haste.
“OK, I want to do the talking this time.” Handel said.
“Nope, that’s Mud’s job.” Brock said.
We called him Mud because he wasn’t black enough for the black syndicates or white enough for the white groups. His name served as a constant reminder that he was out of place wherever he went, but as far as leaders went he was a good one.
“Hey, Redwen is small time. If Handel wants to talk he can take point. Go for it, pal.” He said. He gave Handel a clap on the back that transitioned to a less than gentle shove towards the door. He joined in on the snickering the rest of us had started.
For a moment Handel looked like he was scared, but then he remembered that Redwen had a tiny entourage on a good day and they weren’t expecting us. That was the whole point. He smiled as if to pretend he was in on the joke, then put his hand on the door knob. On the signal we all put our rifles to our shoulders and waited for him to move. Handel twisted the knob and ripped the door open, pushing up the stairs as soon as he stepped inside. We stomped in after him, first Brock then Mud, me, Lucy, and Dick.
The bulbs in the stairway were off even though the room above was lit. Light filtered in from the door at the top of the stairs before Handel thumbed the light switch to overpower it. Stairs sucked when you were carrying 50 pounds of gear and guns, and I’d spent enough time running up and down floors at our six-story HQ. I followed the rest of the gang up and did my best not to grunt and show weakness.
“Hey Redwen! We’re here for a little chat!” Handel said, and I could hear through the sound of his voice that he was wearing a sneer. If I didn’t like the guy, I would have laughed. Handel wasn’t anything over six feet, which put him barely above average for a Mexican. Sure, he had some muscle, but he often had this dopey look on his face that made it impossible to take him seriously.
We reached the top of the stairs in a huff and trundled into the main room of Redwen’s business. The building was the result of a dozen different projects started one after another, resulting in the bizarre shape of the trap house. The “office” where the drugs were sold sat on top of a shop, with a stair coming off the back that ran into Redwen’s barracks.
Redwen was a clever guy, the type you’d imagine being a big time drug lord except he’d only gotten in the game a few years back. He played things close to the chest and generally got away with more than most small timers because he knew how to play the big faces against each other. That kind of tactic worked stateside, but in Kismal the mid-level groups like ours had divided up the territories neatly enough that Redwen didn’t have a chance to inspire conflict.
Normally it would have been an easy run with Redwen more than willing to pay us off to make us go away. This time, though, was different.
“Where the fuck is everyone?” Handel asked, turning to Mud for guidance.
“Not sure. No one leaves their turf unguarded. Brock, Pinky, Lucy, go check the other rooms. I’m gonna phone home.” Mud said as he pulled out his cell.
It was weird, really weird, that no one was there. Normally there’d be at least a door guard since the crackheads needed some place to use Redwen’s goods and stay out of trouble. I took point and led everyone down the staircase into the barracks. Honestly, calling it a staircase was a bit of a stretch. There was a roof, but I could see the pavement of the back alley below us through the holes in the slats, and a couple of the boards seemed seriously tempted to give up on bearing our weight.
“Where do you think they are?” Lucy asked as we reached the bottom.
“Here, hopefully.” I said as I pushed open the door.
Once again there was no light in the room. I fumbled in the dark until I found a switch and waited while the lights warmed up. The barracks was a gutted warehouse, repurposed for far less noble ends. There was a row of bunks on the back wall running to the far corner, a couple filing cabinets, two desks, a fridge, a bathroom, some old weights, and stacks of cocaine and weed in plastic wrapped cubes. Redwen only had four other guys working under him, so he didn’t need a whole lot of space.
“I guess not. That’s interesting.” I said as a breeze raised bumps on my forearms.
“What do we do now? Check under the damn beds?” Lucy asked.
“Now…” I said carefully. “We take his drugs for our trouble and wait for Mud to get word from home base. Something’s fishy here. Keep an open ear in case Redwen pulls something.”
The boys nodded and started picking up bricks of cocaine, having enough common sense to realize that the weed was worth way less. I packed a couple under one arm, but I left an arm free in case something happened. The back of my brain was screaming that something was wrong, and we were gonna get the shit kicked out of us any second. Even after the boys had left I spent a few seconds waiting before getting bored.
I shook my head and trundled up the stairs to find Mud still on the phone.
“…There’s no food on the stove or anything. No loose goods. Nothing makes me think they left in a hurry, and that worries me more than the alternative.” Mud said in clear, measured tones.
The rest of us tried to listen in on the conversation, but the phone sounded more like a cartoon character than an actual person.
“OK, who first? Staf is close, but there’s only six of us. Maybe Seiichi’s place?”
Handel idly kicked the table a few inches at a time as we waited.
“Sounds good, we’ll be on the road in ten.” Mud said before he flipped the phone closed. “Alright boys, we’re moving out.”
“Seiichi’s?” I asked.
He nodded. “We’re gonna ask em what the hell is going on. Unless any of you have a bright idea.”
“Maybe they’re going to a rave.” Handel said. Everyone ignored him.
“If they’re having a meeting, we’ve gotta make em pay for it.” Brock said. It took him a second and a half longer than it should have to get all the words out. Shit like that makes my skin crawl.
“Redwen and Seiichi? Not likely. Redwen keeps putting people on Church street and it’s been pissing Seiichi off.” Lucy said. I took his word for it, because I honestly didn’t give a shit about the small game politics.
“Maybe the Yakuza are throwing a fancy ball.”
“Shut the fuck up, Handel.” Dick said.
After a few more grunts and groans we left the building with the lights on. Given enough time the addicts would show up and ransack the place for what we’d left of the drugs. A harsh lesson, sure, but it wasn’t like Redwen kept his liquid capital by his stash. He’d recover.
Once again I was stuffed into the back of the van, this time with even more sweat in the mix. Kismal was hotter than than a strip club with a cover charge even at night, and we were some fairly big dudes. The whole thing was enough of a hassle that it made me consider my choices for the thousandth time. Sure the payouts in Sierra Leone were good, but the chance of getting murdered was much higher than back in the states.
In Kismal the cops were more ornamental than they were an institution. We did our own policing because it kept the big governments away and filled the city with willing customers. There were acceptable margins for collateral damage, but once common people started getting scared you were fucked. Rival gangs would work together just to kick you out, and there wasn’t much off the table at that point.
It was pretty complex stuff that largely wasn’t mine to care about. My dad taught me about running a criminal outfit in broad strokes, enough that I got the jist of it without getting a headache over the stupid shit the Fourth Street bosses did. Still, their poor decisions tended to affect me in annoying ways, such as forcing me to travel in a smelly van in Saturday night traffic to visit some Yakuza wannabees for information about where their small-time rivals were camping out.
Maybe I was little bit upset.
Sometimes I felt a little bit jealous that my dad had stayed stateside. And maybe just a little bit resentful that he hadn’t fought harder to keep me there. I sighed heavily, but no one in the van paid me any mind.
Helga knocked on the wall before the van had fully rolled to a stop and those of us in the back groaned our displeasure as we piled out. Seiichi’s place was a dive bar, and a dive bar in Africa is way worse than anything you could imagine in the states. We brought all our gear down a flight of terrifyingly steep stairs and pushed our way through the cloud of smoke and into the door.
Heads turned and conversations stopped as we entered. Two people stopped cutting a line of coke, one guy stopped fingering his ugly girlfriend, and I swear to god one of the bastards pulled out his needle mid injection so he could figure out what was going on. Mud gave them all a dismissive snort and strolled to the counter. The rest of us fanned out around him to block the crowd’s view.
“We need to talk to Seiichi. Where is he?” He asked the bartender in his jumbled excuse for Krio.
The diminutive Asian just scowled at him. Of course he wouldn’t speak Krio, he’d have learned English to function in Kismal and likely hadn’t had time for much else. Mud didn’t get that though.
In a flash he reached over the counter and grabbed the man by his collar before he could pull away. Mud pulled the bartender’s face right up to his. “Where is Seiichi?”
The bartender panicked, looking around for help that wasn’t going to come. Our bodies hid the signs of impending violence from the rest of the bar.
“What- what you want?” He croaked in English.
“Oh.” Mud said as he let go. “Where’s Seiichi?”
“Why not call him?” The bartender asked.
“If he picked up his phone, I wouldn’t have to be here. Where is he?”
“Right, uh, I go get him.” He said as he disappeared into the building.
“You forgot to get us a drink!” Handel called after him. The bartender returned in a blink.
“We don’t want anything, go fetch him.” Mud said in a gruff tone as he smacked Handel in the back of the head. “Stop making this take longer, Handel.”
“OK, OK, sorry, shit.” Handel said as he rubbed the spot.
It was a little strange that the crowd hadn’t started talking again. Normally they’d have gotten bored with the spectacle in a minute and returned to what they were doing. I cast my gaze over the black and yellow faces to see not one of them wasn’t glancing at us out of the corner of their eyes. Even the three hookers in the back corner were chittering about us.
As much as my spider sense was telling me something was wrong, I couldn’t do much about it other than stand there. Mud called the shots and he was way better at being an enforcer than me. I’d been doing it for a couple years, Mud was nearly forty. Not that I intended to be a lackey for that long, but the man deserved some respect.
We waited in idle silence for several minutes before Mud finally got sick of it.
“Hey! What’s taking so long?” Mud yelled.
His voice rang out across the room and brought the bartender back in less than a second.
“Motherfucker.” Mud said.
“Why you yell-” The bartender began as Mud put his hands on the counter and vaulted it, gear and all.
The Asian turned to run but didn’t make it more than a step before Mud shoved him into the wall with enough force to knock glasses off their shelves.
“Where’s Seiichi?” He screamed.
“Yo, Mud, what the hell?” Lucy asked.
“He’s been in the back room the whole time. He’s stalling us.” He said. Just for emphasis he smashed the tiny man into the wall again.
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” The bartender said as he started to cry.
“Damnit! Pinky, call home.” He said.
“On it.” I said and pulled out my burner phone.
“The rest of you stay in your chairs.” Brock said. No one raised a weapon, we didn’t need to.
The seconds grew tense with the only sounds in the room being the weeping of the barkeep, the scuffing of glasses on tables, and the uncomfortable shuffling of feet.
“I got the answering machine.” I said, my voice shaking.
“Fuck!” Brock roared. People in the room started to stand up and move towards the door and we moved to stop them.
“Get out of the way.” One of the patrons said as he grabbed a beer bottle by the neck.
The room went quiet as Mud exhaled a heavy, slow breath. Then he pulled his pistol out of its holster and put a bullet through the bartender’s skull.
“If I’m gonna burn then the world’s gonna burn with me. let’s go.” He said.
“What’s going on, boss?” Handel asked.
“We’re being raided. Seiichi and Redwen, maybe others.” Mud said. It was kind of scary how calm he sounded.
“Dios Mio.” Handel said.
We charged out into the street, rifles to our shoulders for fear of an ambush. The bar itself would have been a great spot to blow us all to bits, but it happened to be the front door for Seiichi’s operation and he wasn’t wealthy enough to spare the cost. With no threats in sight we had a moment to relax.
Except I couldn’t. Goosebumps rose on my arms despite the warm weather and I did my best to hide my tremors. Normally if I fucked up a job I’d still have Fourth Street to fall back on at the end of the day. If they went down there was nothing to keep me safe from other gangs who wanted to get back at me for shit I’ve pulled.
By the time Mud had finished giving Helga the situation report there were sirens echoing off the cavernous streets. Any doubt I had fled in the face of reality. Generally the local authorities didn’t get involved in anything subtle, preferring to let us govern ourselves. An active police response meant something big was happening.
The van’s tires squealed even before we’d all gotten inside. Brock got one closed, but the other swung out of reach and no one was stupid enough to reach for it as we peeled out into heavy traffic. A crazy motherfucker, yes, but Helga had a knack for driving under pressure. He had something of a sixth sense for knowing which cars would give if he bullied them out of the way, and consequentially we were making good time.
“So if HQ is gone does that mean Fourth Street is done for?” Handel asked over the sounds of traffic.
“We don’t know they’re gone, only that they aren’t picking up the phone.” I said.
Handel rolled his eyes at me. “Come on, face the facts. You hear the cops. You saw the smoke.”
“Smoke?” I asked, startled.
“Oh man, you didn’t see it? There’s a cloud a mile high coming from where HQ is. Was. We’re pretty much fucked, so why are we going back? We should be finding a place to hide out so we can beg the big boys to let us live.” He said.
“Can it.” Brock said. “You’re scared. That’s fine. Don’t be an asshole.”
Handel slammed his back into the wall of the van and slumped against it.
“Still, why?” He asked.
“Family.” Mud said as the car ran over a pothole, nearly unseating me.
“I’ve got a wife here. If Fourth Street goes, she’s not safe.” Mud said.
“Wife? Why wasn’t I invited to the wedding?.” Handel asked.
“I didn’t have one. She’s still mine.” Mud said with a fierce glare.
That shut him up, which was abnormal behavior for Handel. I cast him a worried glance that he returned with a blank face. He didn’t have any blood ties to Kismal and that made him dangerous in this situation. Still, as far as I knew we didn’t have reinforcements to call. We couldn’t afford to kick him out just because I questioned his loyalties.
Me? I couldn’t consider leaving an acceptable option. My dad had been in the biz since before I was born and it had rubbed off on me the entire time. I tried college for a couple years but it was completely empty to me. Fourth Street had been a part of my life as much as my parents had. You can’t just throw that away for the sake of long odds.
I was still lost in my thoughts when Helga pounded on the compartment wall again. The van spun in a ferocious turn only seconds later and I barely got ahold of the handrail in time. The tires screamed and then hissed as the friction finally killed the ancient rubber. As we lurched to a stop I swallowed my fear and forced open the door, and the light from the pyre that was the Fourth Street HQ flooded into the van.
30 feet ahead of me stood Redwen and two of his flunkies. Judging by their faces, they were just as surprised to see me as I was to see them.