First off, apologies for mucking with the format here so much. I was experimenting with breaking up stories into episodes and decided that wasn’t working. From now on, I’ll post the full story as well as provide a complete version for the podcast episode.
Secondly, I’ve got publishing news! The absolute best way to hear that is by signing up for my mailing list. (Link here or available on my website at http://www.russlinton.com.) Another blog post will follow with more details. Thanks again for reading!
And now, Codename: Danger…
Fear soaked Reggie’s shirt. Well, humidity was mostly to blame, but the fear was there. He’d traveled the world on the government’s dime. Of the places he’d been, the humid ones were his least favorite. Remote ones, his second least. This place was both. But the fear was a regular hazard of the job.
Sweat. Jitters. A tug at his stomach which could be anything from a threaded knot to a clenching fist. Right now it was a steady pressure.
“What are we at? Two brownstar? Five?” Winston asked Reggie.
Winston, which wasn’t his real name, knelt in front of a pile of canvas bags to the side of the runway. A pair of bugeyed mirror sunglasses rested on his forehead and he squinted at Reggie scrunching a nose caked with sunscreen. An open guayabera and a tshirt underneath, he looked exactly like a white dude in Central America who was trying too hard.
“I don’t know. Two. Maybe three.” Reggie had worked with his CIA handler long enough to develop something of a code to describe his danger sense. When they were in deep shit, brownstar ten. An annoyance, something that might slow them down but was not likely to get them killed, a three or less.
“Only the one bag?” Winston stooped and dug for the bottom. “Only this one set you off ?”
Standing before the pile, he wasn’t sure. Every last canvas lump tugged at his gut. A steady pull—nothing mortal, but palpable. Winston dragged a bag from the bottom and unzipped it slowly.
Inside were stacks and stacks of white bricks. Reggie knew exactly what it was. He’d seen it before, outside the neatly taped and stamped rectangles. Powder. Stuff you could cook into little white stones like shattered sugar cubes and melt in a spoon. Wedge in a glass pipe.
Winston dug through the bag, lifting each brick like he were delivering a newborn and placing it on the ground. He tested the weight of each in his hands and examined the lining of the bag. “You sure? There’s nothing here.”
“What the fuck do you mean, ‘nothing here’?”
His handler squinted into the blazing sun behind Reggie. “Nothing that isn’t supposed to be.”
“It’s a pile of coke, motherfucker!” Reggie looked at the dirt road leading to the airstrip. The clearing was edged by rolling hills braided with crops. Further out, he could see the deeper green of a jungle canopy rising along smooth peaks. The dust had settled and the Soviet truck loaded with rebels was already out of sight. “We just gave a bunch of kids some machine guns for a pile of coke. You don’t see a problem?”
Winston sighed and started returning the bricks to the bag. “What are you, MacGruff the Crime Dog? We lost the last shipment and nobody can say what happened. I brought you to make sure the delivery wasn’t dangerous. Like a bomb or tracking device.”
“Looks plenty dangerous.”
Winston stood. “Getting soft on me, Danger?”
“Soft? You ain’t seen what this shit does to people. Where’s this going?”
“On the plane.” Winston lugged a bag off the ground with two hands and shuffled toward the DC3 on the runway. Earlier, when Reggie’s danger sense got a “hit”, Winston had convinced the rebels to drop the bags away from the plane. They didn’t seem to care—less work for them and more for the stupid Americans. “C’mon, give me a hand.”
“Fuck this,” Reggie muttered as he hoisted a bag over his shoulder.
The fear tingled under his skin and he pushed it into the background like a radio station between decent tracks. All things considered, this had been an easy mission. Not even the truck full of thugs with rifles and rocket launchers had set him off. They didn’t care. This was business as usual for them.
He dumped the bag inside the plane and headed for another. What choice did he have? Refuse to load the damn covert plane with drugs? Then what? They’d sit here and argue and spend more time swimming in this weather. Winston had never pulled his piece on him, probably knew he’d sense before it happened, so he didn’t think it would ever go that far. But the best thing now was to get home.
Several trips later, Reggie was halfway to the plane with another bag when the sensation he’d so easily stuffed into the background leapt in his chest and hammered his diaphragm. He sucked in a breath and straightened against the weight of the overloaded rucksack.
“Danger?” Winston was stepping out of the plane, the cargo door low to the ground on the taildragger. He reached behind him to the .45 holstered against the small of his back. “Everything okay?”
“Six … maybe seven.” Eyes wide, Reggie scanned the horizon. A plume of dust crested the hills opposite the road.
Winston jogged out from the shadow of the wing to stand next to Reggie. He followed his gaze. “Keep loading. I’ll get the plane fired up.”
Reggie didn’t pull his eyes from the horizon until Winston disappeared into the plane. He checked the pile—they’d whittled it down from a waisthigh mound to a single layer of half a dozen bags. Reggie dropped the one in his hands and ran for the open cargo door.
The wing mounted engine on the far side sputtered and smoked before buzzing into a steady spin. Reggie leapt into the hold. An aging beast used for military cargo, the inside of the plane was a spartan, unpartitioned tube. The canvas bags lined the walls, leaving a single walkway open straight into the cockpit. Winston sat at the controls running through his preflight. Reggie settled into the copilot seat as the second engine spun up.
“You get all the bags?” Winston shouted.
Reggie figured it was best not to answer. He leaned forward to look out the window. In the distance, the trail of dust stretched closer. A beatup pickup bounced over the open terrain. He couldn’t say for sure, but there were men riding in the bed, rifle barrels sticking up beside them.
Winston backhanded Reggie’s arm. “The bags, how many left?”
Reggie gave him a slow one count with his middle finger. “I’m not dying in the jungle for a bunch of blow. I can do that shit back home!”
Broad mirror glasses reflecting the finger, Winston jumped up and slung his headphones over the back of the seat. Outside the cockpit window, the truck was nearing the edge of the runway. In the hold, Winston had disappeared through the blinding gap of the cargo door. Reggie cursed and raced after him.
“Are you crazy?” he yelled, making the short hop to the ground.
Ahead of him, Winston was grabbing two of the large canvas bags, one in each hand and waddling toward the plane like a duck in traffic. Following Winston’s lead he hefted two of the bags off
The tightness in his gut moved to his chest.
A round sparked off the fuselage. Through the dicing propeller blades he could see the truck racing up the runway. A gunner stood in the bed trying to steady his rifle on the roof. It all seemed like a dumb exercise they’d have done in Basic and later, at the farm. Live fire, carrying weight no human being should carry; execute the mission, screw personal safety.
Reggie had never been all about that. It only got worse after the Augmentation. Now, when his body told him to run, he fucking ran. Fighting the ache in his shoulders, he reached the door as Winston got ready to swing down for more. With a grunt, he tossed a bag in front of Winston, nearly knocking him off his feet.
“Stow that one!” he shouted. His senses flared and dust kicked only a few feet away, the roar of the engines drowning the shot and the impact. He tossed the other bag in and rolled into the cargo area. Winston tried to step around him to the open door.
“Hell, no! You really need me to say?” Reggie held up all ten fingers.
Goddamnit. He could read Winston’s lips above the engines. He turned to secure the cargo door as Winston raced to the cockpit.
Full throttle, and Reggie stumbled drunkenly into the copilot’s seat. They raced toward the pickup. Winston sat back, tightlipped, lost in the trance of instruments and the feel of the plane through the yoke. Another sudden pull in his gut, closer this time. Reggie ducked in his seat, his hands in front of him. Muzzles flashed from the oncoming truck and the cockpit window spiderwebbed.
“Short flight to the Caribbean, we’ll touch down at fifteen hundred,” Winston spoke with all the concern of a commercial pilot over an intercom. Reggie closed his eyes and sank back into the cold dampness of his shirt—the humidity no longer to blame.
Reggie stepped into his house and let his bugout bag hit the tile with a satisfying crack. He closed the door on the white middleclass fakery behind him. Picket fences and station wagons dressed up to make people appear more civilized.
Only reason he didn’t mind living here was because the nice white folk usually perpetrated their crazy shit behind closed doors. Once you closed your door, you became part of that illusion.
That wasn’t so where he grew up. You lived there. The people, the streets, they demanded it and there was no avoiding it. After the Augmentation, he couldn’t go back.
Fear ruled him. Controlled his every thought. Those streets would drive him crazy.
Reggie had known plenty of fear before. Growing up in North Lawndale, that was a daily medicine. You never showed it to nobody because fear was weakness and the gangs there weeded that shit out like a pack of dogs. Guns, drugs. He had left all that behind.
Or so he’d thought.
He slid the top bolt on the door into the harness. Routine cargo flight, my ass. He fumbled the chain into the slot and levered the deadbolt. Finally, he flicked the latch closed and thumbed the lock on the doorknob.
That was the last damn time he was answering that fucking pager.
He sighed and shuffled to the refrigerator. Door open, he stared at the white takeout boxes piled on the shelves. When his eyes fell on the Kung Pao, third from the left, he felt that feeling. He groped toward the back and slid the box out, tossing it in the trash.
“No Chinese tonight.” He pried open a box of pizza and dragged out a slice.
A week in the fridge had left it dense and spongy, but he ate it anyway. He slipped a coke out of the door and let it close.
Years ago, Reggie’s father had talked him into volunteering for the service. There had been tests to develop the next generation of Augment long before Force Zero. Those tests had paid his grandfather well, and his dad, trying to find steady work before he gave up, remembered. “Get some honest work,” his dad had said. “Keep off the streets.”
“Too bad you couldn’t take your own damn advice” Reggie mumbled.
He stood in the darkness, washing down the pizza with his coke. He relished every syrupy, rich mouthful. A week on MREs, waiting for orders in a burned out warehouse, would do that to you. He got another slice.
He wondered what would happen if he didn’t go. Forget wondering. Next time they called, he’d refuse to answer. Or he’d answer and tell them to find another fool to save their sorry asses.
He ate while watching the front door in the wedge of light offered by the fridge. When he was done, he slammed the rest of his coke and crossed the room. They’d call again. And he didn’t care.
Reggie woke up staring into the pitch black of his bedroom. That feeling was building in his stomach and prodding at his chest. He held his breath and waited for the sensation to solidify. Outside the house? Front door? Hall? Maybe someone had seen him out on his run and called the cops. A lump of coal in their snowflakes.
As the sensation danced in his gut, he found himself focused on a familiar point on his nightstand.
He’d learned to sleep through most things. He’d grown up downtown with a siren lullaby and the shouts of neighbors with nowhere to be in the mornings. Even here in the deathly quiet of suburbia, the neighbor’s dog often felt the urge to yap incessantly at all hours. He wondered what the mutt felt was so damn important. “I’m shittin’! I’m shittin’ in the yard!”
Still, he could tune out all that noise and get his sleep, no problem.
But nothing could tune out the danger sense.
His pager danced across the nightstand. As always, impending doom had woken him long before the call. He kept the pager on vibrate because the terror burst like a bubble if the ringer sounded.
Naw, he was done with that mess. For good. He rolled over on his side. The pager rumbled a few more angry bursts then fell silent.
His bed was warm. Outside, winter was clinging to the spring nights, and regardless how safe and boring his neighborhood was, there wasn’t any good that would come from him wandering around out there after dark.
The pager rattled again. He spun and swiped it from the nightstand. A new number, always a new number. He picked up the phone and dialed.
“We have to talk.”
This time though, he had a reply other than his scripted answer. “So let’s talk, then. I’m not coming in. I quit.”
“We’ll have brunch.” Winston’s voice sounded mildly irritated as he continued with the usual script.
“Brunch” was his whiterthanwhite code for “You must leave your house and visit the dead drop site under the bridge in the park.”
“Have your brunch with your damn self.” Reggie said. “I’m not going.”
Silence and the scripted conversation was gone. “Reggie, don’t do this. You’ve got to go.”
“Hell to the motherfucking no. You deaf ? I’m done. I want out.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“Then tell me how it works. You snap your fingers and I come? I ain’t your dog.”
“You don’t understand. They need you to come in or—”
“I’ll have to file a report.”
He slammed the phone onto the cradle and tossed the pager across the room to shatter in the darkness. He jerked the covers back over himself. Bullshit. No way he was getting out of bed this time. They’d just need to mix up a new danger detector.
He lay there staring into the dark searching for a feeling of satisfaction that never came. Scenes of those bags full of coke haunted him. Kids unloading a damn arsenal from the plane. Not kids, they were all at least teenagers—”old enough to ride” his friends back in the day would say. Or maybe dumb enough to. His dad had made him promise to keep away from drugs, but he owed it to his mom to follow through.
It swelled in his chest again.
He thought of the pager. It had to be in pieces on the floor. No more requests for him to throw himself into war zones, or in front of assassin’s bullets, or check a damn drug plane for bombs before takeoff.
He’d gotten used to the freelancing life, as much of a lie as that was. He could shut out the crazy world, order decent food over the phone, and collect his pay in nonsequential hundred dollar bills. Only worry about going active a few times a month. Clench his cheeks and ride it out. He couldn’t do that anymore after the last mission.
The tension in his chest continued to rise.
At first it was a steady tug, not more than a two—shopping under the scrutinizing eyes of the pasty dude at the record store. The tug became a pull. A visit to the old neighborhood, where he didn’t know the signs or the right colors to wear. Danger on the cusp of violence. Next, his heart skipped like scratched vinyl and began pounding a ferocious beat. His breaths came quick and shallow.
He needed air.
Ten. Eleven. Worse than any mission he’d ever been asked to go on. Reggie felt like the world was closing in around him. He couldn’t trace the fear to any particular point in space. It was big. Everywhere.
He needed air.
Halfdressed, he stumbled down the hall to the entryway. He pressed damp palms on the door and checked the bottled view of his porch through the peephole. Dark and empty, he tried to see the sky. A plane on a collision course? A damn meteor come to wipe out him and all the quiet, crazy white folks in the neighborhood? He couldn’t see.
He tore open the locks and latches and burst into the night. Cold air seared his lungs and he drank it in with deep mouthfuls. The sky was empty and while the danger sense still squeezed at his core, he was no longer suffocating under the weight.
He rushed inside, leaving the door wide open. Tearing through his nightstand, he threw on a pair of sweats and a hooded pullover. He jammed his bare feet into his sneakers and raced outside, slamming the door behind him.
By the time he reached the dead drop, the place where he’d find the coded instructions for his next mission, the crushing fear had all but faded. When the container with the message touched his hand, the fear was gone.
Sunlight splashed the sky, making a thin line beneath the stars. Other people were out now, getting in their morning run, and he cinched his hood tight around his face so only the white fog of his breath stuck out. He fell in with the foot traffic and began to jog.
He took a different route back home, like they’d taught him. He was supposed to be looking for surveillance, making sure he hadn’t been followed by reporters, spies, or enemy Augments. Normally he didn’t bother, because he’d know if he’d been followed, but he needed the time to clear his head.
The street he turned onto was starting to wake with the rest of the city. More commuters began to fill the sidewalks and roadways, all trying to get a jump on a day spent behind desks or crowding around conference tables. He couldn’t do that shit. Dad was right, the Army had been his only way off the streets.
Once the Army figured out who his grandfather was, they were after him to sign up for the program.
It wasn’t like Gramps ever got powers from all the time he spent with the Army, not that Reggie knew of anyway. The cancer took him early, and he’d always thought it was because of the process. Is that what the overwhelming fear was about? Would the program kill him just as fast as the streets he’d left behind?
Reggie headed back home to decode the message. A flight out in the early morning. He had time. He left for the bus station to catch the line uptown.
The charged sensation under his skin started the minute he stepped off the L. A steady two, maybe a three. He’d transferred from the bus to the train and watched the old neighborhood crawl by his window. Not much had changed. Empty lots littered with trash. Warehouses, factories, businesses from a forgotten other age sat derelict and hollow against the sky, their walls painted with scrawled letters and signs to mark territory or declare a freedom offered in name alone.
He recognized a few of the signs. Most were new. He tried mapping the boundaries as the train pulled into the station and panic set in. The borders made no sense. Everything must be worse than when he left, so when his senses took hold, told him to get back on the train, he nearly did.
Knowing the only thing he had to go back to was a job that wasn’t really far from these streets was what got him to leave the platform.. Besides, he only needed to go a few blocks.
He kept his hood up and his eyes on his feet when he left the platform. Being a stranger or being recognized could be bad. Residents were suspicious of strangers and, in the other case, he was his father’s son.
Curious stares fell on him from passing cars and people out on their stoops. The neighborhood around his suburban house became a ghost town from nine to five. Here, there was nowhere to work, but these guys weren’t unemployed. With every passing look, his danger sense grew.
A block in and it spiked. The driver of a passing car stared hard. Reggie kept walking with his head up now to find alleys or doorways where he could duck and hide. He couldn’t run yet. You’d trigger instincts much older than the cracked graystone buildings that lined the streets.
Brakes squeaked and he heard the car whine into reverse. His senses stayed steady, maybe a four, so he kept his cool. No bullets from this car. Not yet.
Reggie thought he recognized the voice. Richer and heavier than when he’d last heard it, he wanted to turn his head but resisted.
“Don’t know what you talking about.” Reggie let the drawl of the street creep into his words. It came back like a reflex.
“You Reggie, Playboy’s kid.”
He didn’t let his feet shuffle like they might when a person was caught offguard but kept smooth steps, eyes straight ahead. Still no imminent danger, just the building feeling. This guy wouldn’t do the damage but he might report it to someone who would. He kept trying to match that grownup voice to a name, and the past finally answered.
“The one and only.”
Easy was slung out the open window with one hand on the wheel. Tongue dragging, he craned his neck to the rear as he wove his way down the street. Reggie stopped and Easy overshot him. He disappeared through the window to slip the car in drive and pull up to the curb.
“I hear you was in the Army or some shit.”
“Been outta that for a while.”
“Long time for you to be coming back. Why you here? Family reunion?”
Reggie knew he was digging for information, stuff he’d report back to whoever ran his gang, and didn’t see a reason not to tell him the truth. Only family he had here was his mom. They all knew where she lived. “Just visiting.”
“Yeah, I bet.”
Reggie shrugged. Easy was looking everywhere but him. Dark skin and glassy eyes, the kid he remembered looked worn and ragged. Easy’d been an athletic teenager with a smile the ladies loved. None of that was left.
He was afraid, Reggie could see that much. Nice day, windows down on the beatup Olds, and he was sweating through his Tshirt. His hands gripped the wheel, tight. He’d guess a four or a five, even, but if Easy was really in mortal danger, Reggie was close enough that he’d be in the line of fire. He would’ve sensed it too.
He’d forgotten what that was like. To be ruled by a fear you couldn’t sense.
“How long you gonna be around?” asked Easy.
“We always looking for soldiers.”
“Who’s we?” Reggie’s question finally got Easy to fix on him.
“Vice Lords.” His eyes returned to roving the streets. “Don’t listen to any of that other shit. Place be crawling with wannabe thugs and gang bangers. You only bang with us, you hear? Tell your family you with us.”
Reggie nodded and tried to hide the confusion. Tell his mom? Everyone knew she had no love for the gangs.
A threefingered sign and Easy sped away. Reggie’s skin maintained that constant hum. If he was swimming in fear, Easy was drowning.
Dark water stains streaked the graystone house and cracks fissured the porch. It could’ve been one of the derelict structures he’d seen from the train, not the house where he grew up. Instead of boards, iron bars covered the windows.
Reggie raised a hand to rap on the screen door but stopped. He wasn’t sure the best way to go about this. How he could keep from telling her, well, anything. He wasn’t supposed to mention the program, but she’d drag it out of him like she always did. You didn’t say no to Momma, you said yes, ma’am.
Curtains shifted in the house across the street. Everyone always in everyone else’s business. He couldn’t stand out here any longer. The screen door rattled as he knocked. “Momma, it’s me.”
A few moments passed, long and silent, and the floor creaked inside. The peephole shadowed and he heard the lock slide. When the door opened, it caught on the chain.
“Reggie?” his Momma called through the crack.
The door slammed again and he heard the chain fumble and click before swinging open.
She stared for a moment. Reggie smiled, a slow crawl he didn’t mean to appear pained. At first, she didn’t return the smile. Her dark eyes held a suspicion, an odd expression he couldn’t read. Her hair, always curled nice and tight to her scalp, had grayed at the temples and grew in an uneven frizz. She looked tired. Her thoughts far away. He’d been wrong to come here after so long.
In the next instant, a grin split her face and her eyes lit. “Reggie!” she said again, this time in a voice he recognized. He sighed as she flung herself toward him and he stumbled under her embrace.
“Whoa, hold on Momma, you gonna knock me off this porch.”
She stepped away, her hands on his arms. “You come in here,” she said. She stepped inside, guiding him as though he might not cross the threshold. “How long you been in town?” She let the screen door slam before punching him in the arm. “Where you been?” she asked, her eyes smiling but her mouth set in a frown.
Reggie put his hands up. “Hold up, give me a second to answer, Momma.”
She squinted at him. “It better be good. You better be going to give me a reason not to knock you upside your head.” She walked toward the living room, dragging him behind her. “You come sit down and you tell me why I haven’t seen you in years.”
Reggie didn’t fight as she led him to the recliner. “I’m gonna bring you something to eat, and you think about what you gonna tell me.” She wagged a finger and disappeared toward the kitchen. “It better be good.”
“It be good,” he called.
No, it wasn’t. He sunk into the chair and for a minute, he could smell his dad. A mix of aftershave and handrolled cigarettes, sweet and acrid. His eyes went to the urn on the mantle and lingered before he took in the room.
Nothing had changed inside. The battered recliner, the thinfooted provincial French sofa, at least that’s what the salesman had called it, sealed in plastic; even the old cabinet television, a black and white tube encased in oak and crowned with picture frames. His gramps in his Army uniform. His Dad, before he lost his job and the factory closed down.
Danger sense released him and he slunk further into the recliner.
“You gonna want some eggs? I got eggs and grits. I’ll whip them up right quick so you better get your story straight.”
“Yeah, Momma,” he muttered. Fear unraveling, his head dipped and he fought to right it. Eyelids fluttered. He breathed in the lingering smoke infused in the chair and slipped into sleep.
Bleary, the room came into focus under a damp haze. Momma sat on the couch across from him with a mug in her hand. “Those eggs be cold as stones by now.”
He followed her gaze to the tray setup next to the recliner. Eggs and grits, he didn’t realize how hungry he was. “I’d eat them on ice, Momma, if you made them.”
His mom shivered and halfsmiled. “I can warm them.”
“No,” Reggie said and reached for the plate. “Don’t bother yourself.” Even room temperature it was better than weekold takeout. Much better. He didn’t dare tell her about what he ate at home.
“So where you been?” She asked while she stared into her mug.
“Around.” He shoveled in another mouthful.
“Don’t you give me that,” she took a sip. “You go in the Army, I get a few letters, then nothing.”
He shoveled faster to let the food keep his mouth busy. She continued to stare. Keeping his mouthful was a good way to avoid the conversation, even though he knew she’d still cuff him for manners, but the plate was nearly empty. He set it aside and scooted to the edge of the chair. “I went and done something stupid.”
Her eyes closed and her head wagged back and forth. When she opened them again, they fell on the mantle. “You get involved with drugs?”
“No, nothing like …” he stopped. “Maybe.”
She clasped the mug in both hands and peered into it again. Her head rocked and her lips pursed into a tight knot. If he were younger, this is the point he’d try to run.
She didn’t move. Her voice was a hoarse whisper, “Reggie.”
He stood and walked across the room so he wouldn’t have to see her. He propped his forearm on the mantle and pressed his forehead against it right below the urn. “Nothing like that.
“I ain’t putting you on that mantle, Reggie.”
Neither of them spoke and the sounds of the outside world drifted through the screen door, through the drafty windows, echoed in the hollow space beneath the house. Cars prowling on the street, the whoop of sirens, angry shouts, all layered above a stereo out there thumping and thumping. Away from the quiet neighborhood where he’d bought a fake house under a fake name, he wasn’t sure what exactly he’d been doing for the past five years.
“Did Gramps really die of cancer?”
There was a quiet, as quiet as this place could be and Reggie heard the mug gently settle on the coffee table. “You gone and joined that program.”
Reggie didn’t answer. He didn’t need to.
“Lord, why’d you go and do a thing like that?”
“Did he? Gramps, do you know?” He faced the couch and made eye contact. He wasn’t sure why he thought she’d have any more information, but he needed to understand what happened. Was it a natural death? Had the tests done him in? Were they going to come for him? What had that fear been about when he refused to answer the call?
“I never knew him, Reggie. You were born. Your daddy kept bouncing between home and the streets. Your daddy didn’t say much but he did keep running his mouth about the checks Grandpa used to get from the government. I never wanted him to encourage you for that, but it was better than where he ended up.”
Reggie squeaked onto the couch. The cloying smell of plastic was not, as his Momma always argued, better than the cheap cigarettes and aftershave.
“He musta said something about Gramps.”
“Cancer, they said,” she folded her hands and rubbed her fingers together. “But your daddy did tell me a story once. At the funeral he said he remembered the coffin. A simple pine box with a flag folded on top. A few black soldiers showed up to play ‘Taps’ on a trumpet. After that he remembered racing to the coffin to throw it open. He had a little Army man, one of them green ones, that he and his daddy used to play with. He wanted him to have it. Those soldiers were busy trying to calm his momma down, nobody was paying any attention. When he threw that lid back,” she paused and shook her head, “the coffin was empty.”
“That’s what he said. Empty. One of the soldiers shut it up real quick. He went running to his momma saying, ‘He ain’t in there!
He ain’t!’ and she only cried harder. Tell him ‘that’s right, he with Jesus.’ Nobody listened.”
Reggie stopped fighting the slippery pull of the plastic and fell limp against the sofa. “He’s alive?”
“No, no, I didn’t say that. We all die.” She pursed her lips again and she spoke with fire and conviction. “It ain’t right if you don’t. If you put an empty coffin in the ground.” Her eyes went bloodshot and tears pooled in the corners. She shuddered. “Why you let them do that to you?”
He covered her fidgeting hands with his own. “I thought it’d be better. Why didn’t you tell me?”
She fell against his shoulder, her body heaving in great sobs. “Tell you what? To stay here? Tell you not to go? What are you gonna do here? Sit on the porch and watch the other boys get rich beating and killing each other? Your daddy made his money selling dope and smoked every damn penny. There weren’t nothing for college. Nicest thing he ever bought me, with clean money, from his factory job, was this couch. A lousy piece of furniture. That’s all I got, not even a funeral for him neither. Donated his body for the white folk at the hospital to cut and learn on so they’d burn it up cheap.” She fell into him with all her weight, her fist pounding his chest. “And now they got you. They got you!”
Her words turned to incoherent screams and Reggie held her tight. Grief poured out. Grief and fear. She was afraid for him, her blows trembled with it and her strangled cry rattled with the same clenching pull in his own chest.
They sat together for a long time. He felt her tears soak through his shirt, damp on his skin. He pulled her tighter, trying to take that helplessness from her and onto himself, where he could manage it like he always did, but she never let go until she’d worn herself out and the sobs turned to exhausted whimpers.
“I’m okay, Momma. I’m not dying. They try to hurt me, I’ll know.”
She sat up and sought truth through tearstained eyes. “You need to leave, Reggie. Leave here and don’t come back.” Her voice trembled again.
Reggie hadn’t thought that far ahead. When he came here, he wasn’t even sure what he’d find. The flight out for his next mission left in less than twelve hours. He hadn’t thought again of running, mostly because he didn’t want to face that overwhelming hit to his senses. He’d destroyed the pager but he knew they’d check the drop site to confirm he’d picked up the message. Winston wouldn’t have filed whatever report; if he had, Reggie felt sure his sense would have told him.
“I don’t need to be in a hurry, why you want me to leave?”
“Can’t you see? It’s dangerous here. Things have only gotten worse since your daddy died and his crew fell apart. These gangs are all fighting, all split up. Their leaders keep dyin’, but that don’t help. It only make things worse. They can’t stop him …” She looked away as if aware that her fevered warnings had released words which she’d never intended to say.
“Stop who?” Reggie gripped her arms. “Who, Momma?”
“Reggie, I can’t.”
“Yes. Yes you can.” He knew the slip wasn’t innocent, he could tell by the tone of her voice. More fear.
She looked away. “Your daddy, Reggie. They say he come back. Come back to kill the ones that killed him.”
It wasn’t hard to track Easy down. As much as the neighborhood had changed, old habits died hard. Only a few blocks away there was a park with a decent hoop. Close to a school, the court was neutral ground and always had been. Reggie guessed Easy went there more and more, trying to find those younger days. He’d only halfexpected that was the case, but he found him there all the same.
What he didn’t expect was how the whole court cleared out when he arrived.
Easy dribbled the ball a few times and almost lost it. He tucked it under his arm and with effort, raised his chin to look Reggie square in the eye. “Shit, Soldier Boy. You look like your old man.”
That’s when Reggie understood. This wasn’t just the fear of the street. They were afraid of him.
Less than five minutes and Easy’d told him what he wanted to know. Where he needed to go to find him.
“You with us, right? You gonna tell him that?”
Reggie didn’t answer.
He left and headed for the east side of town, toward the burntout factories he’d watched from the train.
The sun was low in the sky. Light blazed off the patchwork of square window panes, each reflecting a different shade of gold. Bricks ran alongside the columns of windows in thin pillars that arched at the roof. On the ground floor, the windows stopped, replaced with rolling doors and smooth concrete walls, all of which were a solid mural of color and flowing shapes—a canvas made from the empty shell.
At one time, the chainlink fence might’ve kept people out. Now bent and buckled, there were places where you didn’t so much climb as walk into the property. Weeds tore through the concrete lot and bordered the factory walls in low clumps. Reggie walked toward the building, looking for a way inside, his senses calm and steady.
He circled the outside and spotted several ways in, gaps under the bent loading dock doors and holes in shattered windows. He kept these in mind as he continued his walk of the perimeter. Even if his senses were steady, he saw no reason to abandon caution.
On the far side, a matching building flanked the first. Here, the concrete had completely given way to layer upon layer of weeds and grasses. Thin saplings grew toward the center. A carpet of wild vine ran along one corner all the way to the roof several stories above. Light from the sun cut through the upper windows and fell like a volley of spears on the green ground.
Reggie walked into the courtyard and watched in silence. Small birds hopped between window sills, ignorant of the desolation. The shafts of light roved the ground as the sun fell in the sky.
“My Lord, you look like your daddy.”
Reggie jumped. Nothing had alerted him to the fact he was being watched. It took several heart beats for him to convince himself this was a good thing.
Behind him, in the shadow of the building, stood a man. There had been a familiarity in the voice, an inflection or tone, but he couldn’t be certain. “Come out of there so I can see you.”
His grandfather stepped into the light.
He’d never met the man. All he’d ever seen was the military picture sitting on the television. Reggie had always asked his dad if he’d been in the Army, the resemblance was so strong. His dad, before he’d turned to the streets anyway, would laugh and say, “That could just as well be you.”
The man facing him had hardly aged from that picture taken forty years ago. No uniform, just a pair of jeans, a soiled shirt, and a denim coat with a flared collar. But he looked the same. How did that make any sense? The Augmentation slowed aging, but not this much.
“Daddy?” Reggie breathed.
His grandfather bowed his head and took another step closer. “Your daddy’s gone on to heaven. You know that.”
Hope shriveled in his chest. He shook off the disappointment. “Gramps. Why are you here? How?”
Gramps smiled and Reggie fought back a shiver. The resemblance was so strong, but Dad had stopped smiling when Reggie was still a kid.
“The Lord Jesus gave me his gift.”
“What gift is that?”
Reggie narrowed his eyes. “You mean the program?”
Gramps chuckled and moved closer. Reggie flinched as he placed a hand on his shoulder. “All they did was try their best to kill me. I was their guinea pig. But little did they know, I couldn’t die.”
“Where have you been all these years?”
“Hiding mostly.” His grandfather pulled away and wandered toward the middle of the courtyard where the rays of sunlight laced the buildings together above him. “They juiced me up real good once. My spirit left and they thought I was gone. Kept cutting on me to find out why. When they were done, they left my body on a cold slab.” He turned and his smile broadened. “My friend came to scoop the pieces into a pine box to send home. The war was on by then, easy enough to say I died overseas. But when he got there …” The smile remained but pain flashed in his eyes. “Well, I was whole.”
Reggie shook his head in disbelief. “So you weren’t in the coffin.”
His grandfather nodded. “That was easy. They kept us separate from the whites. A few close friends in the service helped.”
“You’ve been here all that time?”
“Oh no. Lord, no. I’ve been all over the world. Spent a lot of time in Africa, where a black man is nothing more than another black man. I wanted to hide and forget all about what happened.” He walked to a concrete bench, choked by the weeds. He sat and gestured beside him, but Reggie stood firm. He shrugged. “Then I found Jesus and I understood.”
“What is there to understand? They killed you, or tried. Stole your life. Forced you to run and hide.”
His grandfather raised a palm. “Nobody took nothing from me. I was given a gift. I needed to use it.”
“They say you’re killing folks.”
“That what they say?” He chuckled. Actually laughed, and his straight, white teeth parted. “God’s will ain’t murder, Reggie.”
He knew his gramps had gone to church. A regular Sunday ritual with the rest of the neighborhood. His dad had even taken him for a while, to the same church, where the ministers spoke in fiery tones and the parishioners exclaimed their agreement for the whole room to hear. That was before the factory closed. But all this talk about God felt wrong.
“Why? You trying avenge your son? He chose that life, you should know.”
The smile faded. “I know. And every day I wish he hadn’t. I’m not here for revenge. God gave his only Son to save the wicked. That’s what I’m trying to do, save them.”
“You ain’t killing them?”
Discomfort wrinkled the elder’s brow. “They all repent, Reggie, one way or another. They repent of their sins.”
“None of that is helping. Can’t you see? I don’t agree with what Daddy did, but at least when he was in charge, he protected the neighborhood. He was a leader. Yeah, he was a criminal, but he held some kind of order. With these drugs fueling things and nobody to take charge, this place is a warzone.”
“It was that way long before I came back. Drugs. Booze. What’s the difference? And crime is crime. Sin is sin.”
“You don’t understand,” Reggie said as he closed the distance and took a seat next to his grandfather. “I went through the Augmentation too. I’m part of that program, and the things I’ve seen …”
A strong hand gripped his knee and that smile blinded him again. “I know. I heard a thing or two. It’s okay.”
Feeling that hand on his knee and the knowing gaze that scrutinized him, Reggie could almost see his father sitting there, counseling, speaking to him, like a child. He wanted to believe the illusion, but he shook his head and stood.
“It ain’t okay.” He looked around the overgrown brick space, saw the fading rays disappear against the sky. “Listen, the government is out there, trading drugs for guns in a damn jungle.” He waited to see the reaction in his grandfather’s face.
He considered Reggie’s words for what felt like a long time time before he finally answered. “Satan’s always out to tempt the children of the Lord, Reggie.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I don’t think the source matters. If people weren’t giving in to temptation, these drugs would show up and nobody would care.”
“But the government … they’re only making it worse.” Reggie couldn’t follow the broken train of thought. “If you’re gonna punish anyone, it should be them.”
“Reggie, I know firsthand the terrible things they’re capable of. And hear me, their day of judgment will come.” His grandfather looked up at him and the courtyard seemed to tilt. The light dipped behind the building, the last rays reflecting into a darkening sky then gone. Shadow drew across his face, and the age of his years settled into the creases of his forehead and cheeks. “On the black wings of locusts, they will be consumed and cast into the infernal pit, but not before each of us has been called to answer for what we have done. And when I’m called, I will proclaim to Him that I have spent my last days saving the souls of those who can be saved and dispatching the wicked. What can you say you’ve done?”
Reggie stared blankly. His danger sense had remained quiet. There was no danger here, to him, from this man or lurking in the deepening shadows of the building. Yet he felt his familiar companion: fear.
“Aren’t you afraid?” he whispered. “You said you used to be in hiding. Now you’ve come back for … this. Won’t the government find you?”
The smile returned. “I hid many a year because of that fear. But the Lord showed me the way. They already tried to kill me, Reggie. I got nothing to fear but God’s vengeance.”
“I don’t understand.”
His grandfather rose and stood in front of him, toe to toe. “Find Him and you will.”
Reggie stepped away.
“You best be getting on.” His grandfather cast a glance at the sky. “Nighttime, things can get dicey around here. The dark gives these thugs a place to hide. They come for me, every now and then.”
Reggie shook his head. “Not tonight. Not now at least.” His grandfather raised an eyebrow and Reggie pointed to his gut. “The Augmentation. I can tell.”
“Oh.” That was all he said, he understood immediately. “You need to stay for a while? I’ve got a room upstairs. Most the comforts of a home but ain’t got no plumbing.”
He considered the invitation. Eyes, the eyes of his father, waited patiently for an answer. Again, he felt that cloak of familiarity draping across a shoulder, the grip on his knee and a carefree smile not burdened by the streets. Part of him wanted nothing more than to find a way to return there.
“I can’t stay. I’ve got somewhere to be.”
“Okay. Okay.” His grandfather pulled him close and then held him at arm’s length. “You ever need anything, you know where to find me.”
“Yeah. Guess so.”
He turned to leave and Gramps stopped him. “And find Him, Reggie. Before it’s too late.”
Reggie nodded vacantly and walked further out into the lot. Fear God’s vengeance? He stared into the twilight sky and tried to find a source for his danger sense. His chest remained cold and empty like the night.
“Shit,” he muttered, walking away. His grandfather had gone off the deep end. Died and come back. True, the man didn’t fear a damn thing on this Earth, but what did he give up to get that way?
How was he any different than the thugs killing each other over street corners and blow?
Reggie knew then that he wanted to live with his fear. It let him know he was alive.
Let Winston file his report. Let them come. He’d use that fear and stay one step ahead, as long as he could.