Part of me felt guilty to have scammed a good man like Robin, but I cared more about having Damian kill Dwayne than hurting Robin’s feelings. I didn’t care what I had to go through to get to where I wanted, I was going to do it no matter what the cost. Even if the police shot me after blowing out Dwayne’s brains, it didn’t matter. As long as I knew that he was long gone, I would be able to die satisfied with my life. The only thing that kept me going in the search for half a million dollars was believing that Damian Welker really was going to get the job done for me at the end of the line. I would not be swept aside. I was going to see the day Dwayne Jackson was going to be served with what he deserved. It was nothing more than a matter of time.
“You guys seemed to have brought back some interesting stuff,” Damian commented as he met up with us in the street below when we arrived just before four in the morning, “did anyone follow you here?”
“I wouldn’t have come back if we were being followed,” Connor commented in return.
“We’d be in cuffs if someone had been following us,” I muttered at my turn.
Damian grinned at me. He liked that mentality. And I hoped that he was going to like what we brought him. We popped the trunk so we could unload our stole property and bring it into the apartment for closer examination.
“Damn!” Damian was impressed at the safe, “You guys definitely scored big!”
“That was all Ana,” Connor grinned at me, “she was quite impressive tonight.”
Once we had unloaded everything and hid it inside the apartment, I jumped in the shower and cleaned up. I then walked into the first bedroom on the right and flopped down on the bed with nothing but the beach towel to keep me covered. I dozed off right then and there. I was exhausted. I had been up for nearly twenty-four hours and I had only slept some four or five hours the previous night. If I could get drunk and fall asleep by the dams in Old Sylva, I could easily fall asleep on a bare mattress lying on the floor with nothing but a cheap pillow and a ripped up grey sheet. I fell asleep as soon as my head his the mattress and I slept the entire rest of the night, not that there was much left because it was four in the morning, but I only woke up again during the noon hour. At least the clock on the wall indicated 11:58 and there was sunlight shining everywhere from a little window at the top of the south wall.
The window, like all the others in the apartment, was partially taped up but there was one little rectangle on top that was bare and could let in the sunlight. The room was tiny and dirty. It all reminded me so much of Eddie’s shack. I was okay with Eddie’s shack because I didn’t have to pay for it, but I would never have paid for an apartment like Damian’s in a million years. Next to me on the mattress Damian was laying face-down and snoring lightly. It seemed like I had camped in Damian’s bed after all. He was covered in a forest green blanket that looked like it was a piece of a sleeping bag and a patchwork quilt on top. Since the man was sleeping soundly, I decided to gently pull the patchwork quilt off of him and cover myself with it. It was warm and comfortable so I ditched the towel by throwing it on the floor. I cuddled up inside the blanket and rested some more until Damian finally woke up some twenty minutes later.
“You sure have a way of making yourself at home,” he commented, still half asleep, “just laying naked in my bed like that.”
“Sorry,” I tried unsuccessfully to refrain from laughing, “back at Cap’n Crunch’s loft there wasn’t enough beds for everyone, so you had to go to extremes to secure yours, and most of the time you had to share it.”
Damian was giggling uncontrollably next to me.
“Yeah, the old man’s last name is Crunch.”
I laughed too as I was thinking about it. I had nothing but good memories of the old man, and I missed him too.
“Well, a man’s not gonna complain when there’s a naked pretty girl in his bed.”
“I’ll leave, I’m just gonna find some clothes.”
“Take a moment to just relax and I’ll rub that shoulder of yours. I see that you’ve injured it somehow.”
“Yeah, it was when Connor pulled me up onto the railroad tracks, he kind of just dropped me and the whole being shot thing didn’t help with that bruise either.”
“I bet you ducked pretty quickly into that car. Did you piss your pants?”
I giggled and turned onto my back so Damian could rub my sore and injured shoulder. He pulled the patchwork quilt off the upper half of my body and let his rough hands create magic with my shoulder. The warm rays of sunlight shined on the two of us and for a moment I wasn’t so hot-wired, I was calm and relaxed and Damian wasn’t belligerent like he usually was. He was more like dad Damian than ex-con and criminal Damian for a moment. His hands were rough but his touch was soft. In just a few minutes my sore shoulder wasn’t so rusty anymore. The sun shining in my face like that reminded me that I had to do a job outside the walls of the moldy room and I felt incredibly deflated despite the perfect moment. At the same time it reminded me of those kinds of tender moments shared with my brother and I did something I lonesomely did; I started to cry.
“Oh baby don’t cry,” Damian spoke softly.
For a brief moment he got up and grabbed me a black long sleeve shirt and handed it over to me and I put it on. To me it was more like a dress, which was the whole point. Damian then put his arms around me and held me tightly against him, kind of like I had done when he broke down about his daughter’s death. He held me until I stopped crying and then brought me a clean change of clothes. They weren’t my clothes so I figured that the outfit once belonged to his daughter.
“We’ve got a big day ahead of us today,” Damian continued to speak softly to me, “you and Connor did great last night, keep up the work. Along with the money I’ve gathered we’ve got nearly sixty thousand dollars now!”
I got dressed and found Connor in the massage chair in the living room again. He looked pretty well rested and he grinned at me when I walked into the room.
“I reckon that you have some experience in pawn shops too,” Connor giggled as I noticed Robin’s laptop on his lap, “we’ve got more money to make!”
All I could do was grin. Yup, I had experience in that too.
“You look pretty good in that suit,” he went on, “now you’ll just need a haircut and we’ll blend in like anybody else.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” I replied, “those judgmental jerks tend to get suspicious when someone who looks poor comes in with plenty of gold jewelry and electronics.”
Connor and I both laughed at the memories of what we had done the previous night. It had worked out perfectly, almost like the script of a movie. But if there was one thing I had learned from the boys and what I had experienced living the life out on the streets, it was that you should never get too confident. It’s when you thought too highly of yourself that you made mistakes and things weren’t like they are in the movies anymore.
“Here,” Connor handed me a few dollars as he walked me out of the building, “take this, and hand over your weapons. There are more than a vast selection of hairstylists downtown. Pick one and let them work their magic.”
I grinned at him, handed over the gun and went on my way. Before Robin Crowley and I crossed path, I’d needed to look poor so people would have sympathy on me and give me a few dollars when the saw me on the streets. It wasn’t as effective as just stealing money, but it did keep me out of trouble for over five years so it was something I kept on doing. However, sitting in the stairway of the subway station and just loafing around sidewalks had lost its appeal in the past couple of years. I became too prideful to wait around for people to give me a few coins out of their pockets every once in a while and I decided to get it myself. Not everybody gave me cash, but I could easily rank in a few hundred dollars every week. The boys would have let me keep it for myself but I had little use for money so I gave it to them to use for the betterment of the few real places where we could sleep in at night. That is, not the factory and not Eddie’s shack.
“How much does a quick haircut cost?” I asked as I went in the first shop I saw.
“For kids it’s twenty dollars,” the woman replied in a distracted voice as she proceeded to shave some guy’s head.
“Good,” I replied in satisfaction, “because that’s all I’ve got.”
It wasn’t. But I kept the other twenty for myself, you know, just in case.
“Have a seat,” the woman finally took a quick look at me, “I’ll be with you shortly.”
I didn’t sit around doing nothing for very long. Soon it was my turn. I sat in the fancy chair and simply told the woman to make me look presentable. I told her that it was for a school picture and that she should just keep it simple because I knew that my twenty bucks wasn’t going to get me very far in a salon like that. A few chops of hair later, my look had been completely transformed. I wasn’t given any particular hairstyle, but my hair now came down to just passed my cheekbones. It was clean, simple, just what I was looking for. The top half was my natural hair color and the bottom half was what was left of the black dye and it looked kind of phony but it worked for me. I was very satisfied with the haircut and with the lifestyle. I no longer needed to look like the panhandler I previously was, because I made a living as a criminal.
I thanked the hairstylist, gave her her twenty bucks and went on my way. I knew that the afternoon wasn’t going to last forever so I quickly got back to Damian’s apartment. Connor had already loaded the car with some of our stolen items so when I got back we left immediately. Instead of going back into New York, we rode around the cities of New Jersey to sell our stuff. I put some jewelry in a bag and visited pawn shops and consignment stores on foot while Connor took the bigger items to other shops on the other side of town with the car. I had experience in the business, so things went smoothly on my end. Around the supper hour local boutiques started to close for the day so I walked back to our designated meeting area and waited for Connor to come back, just hoping that the police hadn’t picked him up or something. But after about twenty minutes, there he was.
“Excuse me sir,” I flirtatiously joked with him as I stuck my head into the car through the open window, “I don’t know where you’re going, but by any chance, would you have room for one more troubled soul?”
He blushed and cracked up laughing. He unlocked the door and I got in.
“Oh,” I continued as I showed him my bag of money, “and I have a couple of thousand in here.”
“No shit!” he exclaimed, “That electronic junk I got wasn’t worth very much.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty disappointed, but if we can score big tonight we’ll have over a hundred thousand.”
“Unfortunately we can’t scam Robin Crowley every day.”
“Shame mate, the majority of our money came from him! But stores are usually a pretty good opportunity. There are a bunch of little old laundromats in Whitehaven.”
“And you think that the coin machines in there contain hundreds of thousands of dollars?”
“No, but it would be easy.”
“Sorry to burst your bubble my friend, but I’m not in the easy business over here. I’m in the money business. So we’re going to have to come up with a plan to make a heck of a lot of money in the next three days.”
“Two and a half.”
“Whatever man. I want something to eat now.”
On our way back to Whitehaven we stopped by a local Mexican restaurant and I had some of the spiciest food I ever put in my mouth. I swore the people in there were laughing at us because of the faces we made upon swallowing our food and feeling the burn. But it was great. I enjoyed myself.
“I’ve got a random question,” I told Connor as I sipped on some cold water.
“Try me,” he replied, seemingly uninterested.
“How do you know I’m not a police informant?”
“How do you know I’m not a police informant?”
“I don’t. But I reckon that police informants generally don’t go on crime sprees like we did.”
“I reckon that you reckoned correctly. When I picked you up you didn’t strike me as the type of person who’d be working with the pigs.”
“You just had that edge to you. The kind that passionate thugs have. I’ve been at this my entire life, I know one of my own when I see them.”
The question was trivial. Police informants are informants, not criminals. They do nothing but pose. Infiltrate. They are hypocrites. Both Connor and Damian had proven their seriousness in the business. Why would the police be after someone like me anyway? With all the murderers and rapists roaming around, someone busting into a shitty corner was about the last thing on their radar. Whitehaven was a super quiet and laid-back town and the heat didn’t seem to be on Connor or Damian. They looked like a bunch of poor people trying to make it in life, not a group of high-ranking weapons dealers.
“Connor?” I began.
“Yeah?” he didn’t seem to be eager to listen to my ideas for the night.
“Do you think it would be possible to sell a few guns to pawn shops? I mean, a few here and a few there will bring us some extra dough.”
“It would be possible, but that’s not how my uncle Damian works.”
“I understand. I wouldn’t want to step on his territory.”
“You really wouldn’t want to do that.”
“Has he ever gotten physical with you? I mean, just violent in general.”
“Nah, not with me. He’s always been rather soft with me. Why?”
“My guys got physical a few times with me, but it was mostly to restrain me.”
Connor burst out laughing, almost choking on his food. I laughed too. The atmosphere was so lighthearted, like we weren’t going to go on another crime run after the sun went down. Part of me didn’t really want to go either. I simply wanted to have a normal night in good company. I missed movie night at Cap’n Crunch’s. He had nothing but a bunch of old VHS tapes that we watched over and over but I missed watching Valley Girl and Pretty In Pink over and over every couple of weeks.
“We should head back,” I spoke after an extended moment of silence.
“Yeah,” Connor’s voice was soft, “my uncle Damian tends to get uptight if we are gone for too long.”
Back at the apartment Damian had made a sale so he sent Connor and I to deliver it. I gave him the pouch of money without speaking but there was no doubt in my mind that he knew that I didn’t want to go out on another crime spree at night. Crime is always fun at first, but I got kinda bored of it after a couple of houses.
“Drifter,” Damian spoke only as I was walking out the door, “your haircut is phony.”
“Your beard is weird!” I retorted as I shut the door behind me.
The weapons delivery was successful. We delivered a bundle of guns wrapped inside a blanket in a guitar case and got another guitar case stuffed with over fifteen thousand dollars in cash. The three of us really were in the black market empire business! It was getting dark and the days were getting shorter. Summers were nice and long on the East Coast but that didn’t prevent me from noticing the change in the daylight hours. None of that made a difference to me, but I thought about my guys and the girls still out on the streets. I had smashed Eddie’s window so he couldn’t live in there anymore and I was worried about where he had ended up. I didn’t even know if he was alive or dead! But my mission was more important than any of those trivial things. I’d see Eddie again. I’d see Byron again. I’d see Ritchie again. Just not in the near future.
“How much money do we have now?” I asked Damian as Connor and I lugged in the case full of money.
“That would make a hundred thousand now,” he spoke apprehensively again, “you guys did good but we’ve only got two more days to gather four hundred thousand dollars. That’s just not feasible.”
“Can’t you like, give a portion of the money to the dude you owe it to and give him the rest later?”
“I’ve considered that, but maybe it’s just better we go off the radar. I’ll figure something out. For now you two just have a drink and enjoy yourself. Oh, and Drifter, if you’re going to sleep in my bed please put some clothes on!”
I bit my bottom lip and grinned at my total audacity for having done what I did. Connor handed me a bottle of organic beer and I challenged him to race me to the bottom. We were going to put on a show for Damian but he made it abundantly clear that we could not at all costs get drunk because he’d need us in the morning. By the end of the night I had only won one round against Connor when it came to drinking beer but we watched reruns of Jeopardy on TV and I got him almost every time even though I had a bunch of drinks. Damian was quite impressed that a street kid could be so smart despite having literally no education. At least not the kind that you get from going to school. When it came time to sleep again I totally crashed Damian’s bed. Not to make him upset and uptight I slept on top of the sheets with all of my clothes on. He couldn’t complain.
The following morning it’s Damian who woke up by rubbing my shoulder again. I rolled over closer to him so it would be easier for him to massage my shoulder even though it had considerably improved. With his other hand he ran his fingers through my hair and told me in a gentle voice that my new haircut looked good on me. In response to that I stroked his chin and told him that his beard wasn’t weird and we both cracked up laughing. The light was just starting to come into the room so it was still quite early in the morning. I had slept well and I was ready to seize the day. I didn’t know what would be required of me, but I was ready and willing to do it. I kept my eyes on the prize through whatever I had to do so it didn’t matter what it was.
“Have you decided?” I whispered to Damian.
“I’ll do my best to negotiate with him baby,” he whispered softly in return, “and by any chance, have you ever had any dealings with a man named Greg who was formerly associated with the city councillor?”
“No, I’ve never heard of him, do you think we can use him to get to Dwayne?”
“That’s what I was hoping you’d tell me.”
“Well we can blackmail him into doing what we want. Tell him that you know what Dwayne did at the factory.”
“First I want to know where things stand between them because I’ve still got a budding criminal empire to keep under the radar of the authorities over here.”
“I understand. But whatever you need, I’ll help you.”
“I know baby, you’ve shown a lot of promise in the short amount of time that you’ve been here. For now you and Connor just need to make a delivery before breakfast.”
We both got up and I cleaned myself up a little bit. Damian was becoming belligerent again as he handed Connor the weapons in a duffel bag. Just a few minutes earlier we had shared a series of such intimate and tender moments.
“Your uncle has some severe mood swings,” I commented as Connor and I got in the car.
“Did he kick you out of his bed or something?” Connor did nothing but laugh.
“No, actually he was very affectionate towards me before we got up. And then the belligerent switch turned on for no apparent reason.”
“I don’t think he understands himself what exactly goes on inside his brain.”
“Was he like that before his daughter died?”
“I don’t know. I was too young back then but I do know that he was always very sweet to her and he’s always been nice to me too.”
“Well I like the guy, when he’s on his best behavior.”
And it had been. The day I left I was angry and cracking up. I had absolutely no consideration for anything or anyone other than myself. All I wanted was to get even and along the way I forgot the real reasons why. It was all anger and no grief. When Connor and Damian came around they alleviated some of that anger by giving me understanding. It’s not that my guys never did, but they were unwilling when I was hellbent. It didn’t want to stay gold, I wanted to take back what was rightfully mine.
“We’re here,” Connor spoke after a long moment of silence as he parked the car on the side of the street, “stay in the car while I handle this. Afterwards we can go out and have a fancy breakfast somewhere.”
“Your uncle said that he’d try to make a deal with the guy he owes money to,” I spoke softly, “so he can give him the rest of the money later. And in the meantime, we can get the real money from that other jerk who owes him.”
“The other guys has always been going for paying back. I don’t know why this time is different. But he won’t screw around with my uncle Damian again.”
“Let’s fix the problem once and for all.”
Connor delivered the guns without incident and two of us had a fancy breakfast at a nearby McDonald’s. We basically ordered the entire restaurant to ourselves and pigged out simply because we could. When Connor’s cellphone rang while we were eating out by the picnic table I reached for it and answered it myself.
“Hello Mr. Welker!” I greeted Damian, “I have a proposition for you!”
I told him about my plan and he agreed to it. All he wanted was another fifty thousand dollars so he could make the first payment to the man who wanted his money while Connor and I went looking for the other man who owed him money.
“Don’t blow his brains out if you don’t absolutely have to,” Damian was belligerent, “he’s always been a good customer. A loyal one and an earner, but he owes me.”
Connor looked over at me as I was listening to his uncle berate the entire world in another one of his moments of madness, seemingly unsure of the man who raised him most of his life for the first time.
“Let’s go reclaim what’s rightfully ours!” I smiled at him as I hung up on Damian mid-sentence.
“You know he’s going to flip his lid about that,” Connor spoke cautiously, referring to me hanging up on the boss.
We had the home address of the man whom we needed to collect money from, all we needed to do was find it in a city and a neighborhood neither one of us had ever been in. Usually that guy arranged for exchanges in public places, I figured because he was afraid of Damian turning on him. Well that was his own fault because he didn’t give him the money that he owed him.
“Didn’t we drive down this street twice already?” Connor was irritated since we had no GPS whatsoever and we couldn’t seem to get anywhere.
“Connor, slow down,” I urged him, “that house right there. We saw the owners leave not too long ago. We should go in and swipe something!”
“No way in hell! It’s broad daylight!”
“Too late, because I’ve already made up my mind.”
Before he could say anything else I grabbed the crowbar from under the seat and got out of the moving vehicle. I hid the weapon inside of my jacket so nobody could see it and creeped into the backyard through the neighbor’s yard. I opened an unlocked window and went in. The place was just your average middle-class house. It was nice, newly renovated, beautiful furniture, and probably something valuable somewhere. We only needed another fifty thousand dollars by the late afternoon and I figured that I might as well do what I’m good at while I can because maybe we’d be faced with an aggressive opposition when we’d find the man who owed Damian money. I wanted to be prepared, just in case. Even if the man was spoken of as a good associate, if there was one thing I learned from life on the streets it was that nothing was ever really what it seemed.
The first thing I did inside the house was open the fridge and eat some cheese. That cheese was the first I had eaten in months, or maybe even years. At least it felt that way. I devoured a couple more pieces and then headed upstairs to look for some jewelry or electronics. Those were perennial bestsellers as far as trafficking stolen goods went. In the first bedroom I grabbed a pillowcase and I shoved whatever I thought was of value inside it. I emptied an entire jewelry box in it without looking at its contents, swiped a couple of statues that were either expensive or the knockoff from the dollar store and found a beige cat drinking from the toilet bowl in the bathroom. When it saw me it came over and sniffed my shoes, and then went right back to doing whatever it was doing long before I arrived.
In the second bedroom on the second floor I found a cellphone and a debit card on a night table so I put the items in the pillowcase and went looking around. I periodically peered out the windows just to make sure that Connor was still parked down the street and the police weren’t on our trail. In an upstairs storage room I found a gun cabinet but I wasn’t able to bust it open. However, I did manage to remove the lock from the ammunition container stored in a nearby closet and take the bullets for myself. As I was rummaging through some boxes in the storage room I heard the cat race downstairs and begin meowing. Shortly after I heard the front door open and people coming inside the house. Crap! I had completely neglected to watch out for the tenants of the house. And you’d figure that it would be the first thing on your mind.
As I heard footsteps coming up to the second floor I quickly ran into the second bedroom I had gone in and hid underneath the bed and prayed that the person coming upstairs had merely forgotten something and would leave soon. But just like a scene right out of a movie, a woman and the cat came into the exact room I was in. The cat came sniffing around under the bed and licked my nose a couple of times while the woman looked for something in her closet. I could also hear people talking downstairs so I figured that there were maybe three or four people in the house without counting me. Soon after I heard someone else come up the stairs but that person headed in another room because it was still just me and the woman and the cat in the bedroom.
“Wow!” a man’s voice exclaimed in a nearby room, “It looks like Anastasia went on a rampage while we were gone!”
“That cat requires more attention than a human baby,” the woman in the room with me muttered before she sat on her bed and spoke to the cat.
The two of us grinned at each other as we went on our way. I kept thinking back to the unknown man named Greg. I had no clue who he was supposed to be. I didn’t even know what Dwayne Jackson wanted either. Even after three years, I had no idea why he brutally murdered my brother one day. As much as that puzzled me, I really didn’t care what the answer was. All I cared about was getting even, regardless of whether or not I’d ever find out the why behind everything.
“Are you okay?” Connor asked me in a concerned tone of voice, “You seem to be awfully distracted. Did something happen back there with my uncle Damian?”
“A man named Greg,” I commented, “your uncle Damian told me that he had some sort of connection to Dwayne Jackson but I don’t know him.”
“I know you really want this, and my uncle wants it for you too, but don’t get hung up on this. We’ll get him regardless of when or how it happens.”
“Thanks for the encouragement buddy. The anniversary is tomorrow.”
“I’ve been hellbent on revenge for months and rarely ever gave a single thought to my brother. It’s just a few weeks ago that I visited his grave for the first time.”
“My uncle Damian and I care about you and we won’t let you not be okay.”
I smiled softly to myself. I loved Connor and Damian too.
“Back home,” my voice was beginning to crack, “I was always so angry and belligerent and holy smokes my behavior was just like your uncle’s.”
“You’re quite audacious,” Connor smiled at me, “but your apparent mood swings are nothing like what my uncle goes through in a day!”
“I forgot to appreciate my people back home. I was too busy with residual emotions and now I miss them.”
“Nobody says you can’t go back to see them.”
“I know. But I’ve really gotten my act together, if I ever had one in the first place, since I’ve been out here. It’s been something positive to just get away and think.”
Paranoia was setting in and I wasn’t feeling too confident anymore. My airways were tightening and I was having a hard time to breathe under the bed with my bag of stolen items. It was another of those get out of here right now situations but I was helpless to do anything until the people left the residence or at least the woman left the room. I desperately wanted to get out of there but it was impossible for me to rack my brain and come up with an escape plan. All I could do was wait it out. Finally, some twenty minutes later the woman went back downstairs but the man was still in the storage room because I could hear him muttering profanity to himself as he cleaned up the mess Anastasia made. After a while it became apparent to me that the tenants of the house wouldn’t be leaving again anytime soon so I just got out from under the bed and closed the bedroom door, leaving only a little crack so I could peer into the hallway.
I opened the window and looked down into the street below. It was way to high to jump. That would have been committing suicide even if I didn’t break my neck on impact. Connor had turned the car around and parked it on the other side of the street. I saw him lift an eyebrow at me from the driver’s seat and in response I flipped him the finger. As the minutes passed I finally became desperate enough to walk into the hallway and start slowly tiptoeing downstairs. Thankfully the main entrance was right in front of the staircase so I could just bolt outside and make a run for it. Once I reached the bottom of the staircase I looked around and noticed that there were three people making conversation in the living room right next to the staircase but they were all too distracted to notice me. I was trying to be as quiet as I could but in my state of paranoia I swore they could hear my heartbeat resonating through the atmosphere.
I slowly unlocked the front door with one hand while I held the heavy pillowcase full of stolen goods with the other. All of my fingers were trembling and my breathing was erratic but I did my best to keep it together. I opened the front door just wide enough for me to squeeze my little body through the opening. Once outside I made a run for it towards Connor’s car. He made the engine roar to life and he came speeding towards me. The passenger door was open so I threw my pillowcase of stolen goods inside the moving vehicle and jumped in behind it. Most of the contents of my makeshift bag spilled onto the floor of the car but I cheered and I laughed as the two of us made it out of there.
“That was pretty brazen,” Connor’s voice was both filled with frustration and joy, “but it looks like you got away!”