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“After twenty years a man walks out of prison and into as vivid and powerful a story as I have read in a long, long time. From the first sentence, you know that this is the real thing. The writer understands crime and desperation and anger, and the secret places in the heart that hide behind the violence. What an extraordinary ride!”
--Whitley Strieber, New York Times bestselling author of Hybrids
Everything was the same, but different. Twenty years after Marcus Casey had first walked into Attica Correctional Facility, he walked out again, dressed in the same clothes he’d worn back in the day.
The tailored suit and custom shoes had once been the height of urban fashion. The waist of his pants still fit right, even a little loose now. The jacket and button-down shirt, with the collar open in the city heat, were a degree or two snug, given that his torso was more heavily muscled than when he’d last worn these clothes. He carried a small nylon sports bag that held the rest of his worldly possessions.
Eyes always scanning, he neared the end of the pedestrian tunnel that would let him out from Central Park onto 110th Street. At the tunnel mouth, a gaunt, stooped figure leaned against the wall, but roused himself as Casey approached. Casey casually switched the soft-sided equipment bag to his left hand. He liked to lead with his right.
“Say, man, gotta dollar I can hold?” He rattled coins in a small, foil-lined bowl he pushed toward Casey. The panhandler’s dirty clothes billowed on his skeletal frame. It seemed the only thing anchoring him to the ground was the brand-new black and orange backpack hanging off one shoulder. His face was whiskered and creased, his eyes bleary, but his teeth were surprisingly even and showy white.
Even crackheads can afford new dentures nowadays,Casey thought. “Can’t do anything for you today, homes. I’m a little light myself.” He frowned, a memory shaking loose as he stared at the scrawny bum.
“You sure?” It was more pleading than threat.
Casey stared back at him, the corner of his mouth crooking up in a thin smile. “Tol’ you that shit would bite you in the ass someday, Ten Spot.”
The other man reacted to hearing his street name as if he’d just been punched. “Huh? Who you?”
“Guess it has been that long, hasn’t it?”
Ten Spot peered closer at Casey, the stoned cloud momentarily lifting from his gaze. “Fuck.” He pointed a greasy, trembling finger. “That you, Crush? Thought you was dead.”
Several teenagers skateboarded past on the street, the wheels clicking on the sidewalk making Casey tense for a moment.Gotta watch that shit, jumping at every shadow, every noise out here. Just been gone a while, that’s all.He tuned back in to Ten Spot’s slurred mumbling.
“You bust out?”
“Paroled. They cut me loose this morning.”
Ten Spot frowned. “So, you gonna get back into it? You know?”
Casey said, “I got an idea or two.” He started to walk away.
“You gonna need soljahs, Crush.”
Casey stopped, but didn’t say anything, only stared at the other man out of the corner of his eye.
Ten Spot cackled. “Aw, man, I’m’a get right. Now that you’re out, I got a goal, dawg. You know, hope and shit.”
“’Kay,” he answered noncommittally as he walked off again.
“You’ll see,” Ten Spot called to Casey’s back. “You’ll see.”
Casey walked north along Malcolm X Boulevard in the early afternoon. One thing certainly hadn’t changed—it was still damn hot in July, whether in the can or on the streets. His nose filled with the many smells of the city in summer—the acrid bite of car exhaust, the reek of stagnant water, melting tar on the hot asphalt. But he smelled other things as well—the green trees in the breeze, the smell of dry grass browning under the merciless sun. The wafting scent of a woman’s perfume as she strolled by. That one made Casey pause a moment as he drank in a smell he hadn’t known since forever.
He had enough gate money, what he’d earned inside on his book when the prison authorities released him, to afford a bus or a subway MetroCard, but he walked instead. He needed to take it all in again—let the energy of the city and its denizens soak into him. He needed to feel how the streets had both changed and were still the same.
A friend on the outside had also offered to pick him up, but Casey had declined. He’d wanted to walk out of Attica. He wanted to stride away from that cage that had held him for the past two decades, feel the screws’ eyes on him for the last time, and know with absolute certainty that he wasn’t ever going back inside. Either he was gonna do what he had been planning for the last 7,300 days, or he’d be dead. There would be no arrest, no surrender this time.
There was another reason he wanted to leg it into the city proper—he wanted to see what had become of the place while he was away. The city that had been his at one time. Not so much in title or name, but when he’d been at the top, there’d been no doubt that Marcus “Crush” Casey had ruled the streets of New York City as the head of the Vicetown Kings.
Now he was back, and he wanted to immerse himself in the neighborhoods he hadn’t seen in what seemed like forever—he wanted to see and hear and smell everything he had missed over the past twenty years. His friends could wait a bit. His enemies—their turn would come soon enough.
Casey stopped at a hot dog cart. He set his bag at his feet, standing over it protectively. Some habits never died, whether on the street or in thecantone.
A young woman in a watch cap and dreads was leaving with her hot dog. She was chewing and looking at the small screen of an instrument. He’d read about these new phones. They could take your picture or shoot a video the world could see in seconds. “Gimme one with heavy mustard and relish, the other with onions,” Casey told the vendor. The smell of the hot, cooked meat intoxicated him.
“No problem,” the black man said, a multicolored knit skullcap on his head. Without looking at his hands, he completed the order while glaring at a brightly painted catering truck parked across the street offering Thai fusion tacos and burritos. Several patrons stood in a line to order at its window. Casey figured the interloper would find his tires slashed soon, and probably not for the first time. Refreshing to see that New York City street vendors were still very territorial. Casey smiled as he paid for his food, appreciating a wolfish mentality.
Holding both hot dogs in one large hand and his bag in the other, he found an alcove step of an empty storefront and sat down to enjoy his meal. He could feel the inside of his mouth water and tighten in anticipation of his first bite. He chewed slowly, appreciating the individual flavors, the tang of the mustard, the bite of the onions, all over the rich, juicy meat. The damn hot dogs were magnificent. His enjoyment was interrupted by the memory of eating hot dogs with his son. That was a lifetime ago. Those days were over. Casey pushed the memory out of his head and thought about having two more, but that would make him sleepy, and he had far too much to do today before securing a place to lay his head and enjoying a short dog of real whiskey.
Casey wiped his mouth and chin with a napkin and got up to toss it in the trash before continuing on his way. A blue-and-white came down the street, but paid him little attention as it passed, the two cops inside chatting away. Although he felt a prickle of unease between his shoulder blades as his gaze met one of the officers’, the patrol car turned the corner and sped off. Casey felt a mix of relief and sadness. Twenty years ago he could have bought those cops—or had them killed—with a few words in the right ears. Now they looked past him like he wasn’t even there.
A voice echoed in his head, like the man who would have said the words was standing right behind him.“O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.”
Casey grinned. As usual, Mack D was right. He was effectively invisible—to the police, and more importantly, to those he would soon be moving against.
He began walking again, passing people and places, graffitied walls—including some with a familiar capitalVand a crown over it—beauty shops, bodegas, outlets of fast-food hamburger and fried chicken spots next to boarded store fronts. Those who were out kept to themselves, eyes averted, in a hurry to get wherever they were going. Casey had read that crime in New York City had dropped by double digits over the past decade, but he couldn’t have told that by looking around. Everyone seemed worried or nervous about something.
* * *
Eventually he arrived at his destination, a rehabbed five-story walk-up on a relatively quiet street not far from the City University. He stood in front of the neatly maintained building, taking it in, then went up the steps to the metal gate. He searched the directory and pressed the button labeled MANAGER.
“Who this?” a deep voice growled from the speaker.
“Who you think, fool?”
“Look here, whoever’s out there messin’ around betta step off. I ain’t got time for no bullshit.”
“You never did, Kenny, now open up, playa.”
A pause, then the voice boomed forth again. “Marcus Aurelius. Ha ha! Get your ass in here, dawg.”
The door buzzed, and Casey entered. “Come on up,” Kenneth Saunders called from above as Casey ascended the staircase to the second-floor hallway.
Casey reached out and hugged the plus-sized handyman in his customary plaid shirt and work jeans. A ring of noisy keys dangled from a clip on his belt.
They broke, and Saunders took him in. “You look damn good. I knew you was big, but you sure put your yokes on in there, didn’cha?”
“Ad seg agreed with me,” Casey said with a shrug.
“Sheeit, guess that’s one way to put it,” the big man said. “This way.” He turned and led the way to his third-floor apartment. Along the way to the stairs, a door opened and a woman of at least eighty looked out, her eyes magnified behind old-fashioned, thick-framed glasses.
“I knew I heard your voice, Kenny. About my bookcase?”
“Miz T, I promise I’ll fix it today. Before dark.”
“Okay, now,” she said warily as she peered at Casey through thick lenses.
He smiled. “He won’t let anything happen to your first editions, Mrs. Tolivar.”
The retired librarian leaned out, blinking hard at Casey. “Lord preserve us,” she exclaimed, opening the door wider. “What a treat this is!” She spread her arms.
They hugged, Casey careful not to squeeze the old lady’s spindly body too hard. Past her head, he saw into the small apartment. Two of the walls of her front room were covered with shelves rising from carpet to ceiling, each one packed with books. On the floor were four even piles of books and the broken shelf sat on top of them. To the left was a short hallway lined with glass-enclosed bookcases. On another wall was a large oblong plate painted with the knowing visages of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama.
“I was so sorry to hear about Antonio,” the old lady whispered.
“Thank you,” Casey said, refusing to show any emotion at the unexpected mention of his son. “And thank you so much for those books. They helped keep me sane.”
“My pleasure, child. Let me fix you something to eat,” the old lady said as they separated and looked at each other. “Just washed some fresh greens this afternoon.”
“I’d dearly love some of your cooking, Mrs. Tolivar,” Casey said.
“But we got men’s bid’ness to conduct,” Saunders added.
“Hmmm,” she replied, giving the duo a dubious look. “Well, make it soon, okay?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Casey said. The two men walked down the hall as the old lady closed her apartment door.
On the next level, Casey and Saunders entered the manager’s apartment. In contrast to his workingman’s image, Saunders’s abode was decorated tastefully in modern furniture.
“What’s your poison?” Saunders asked.
Casey hesitated. “Got any Glen Moray?”
“Bet.” Saunders touched a button on the wall beside a recessed cabinet. The double doors swung open and simultaneously the main body of the wet bar rose from below into a serving position. He made the drinks, neat, and handed a squat, squared-off glass to Casey, who remained standing, looking around at the understated elegance of the place.
“Good to have you back on deck,” Saunders said.
“Here’s to it.” They clinked their glasses. Casey pursed his lips and blew a small stream of air as the whiskey warmed his insides. “Damn, that was long overdue.”
With a broad grin, Saunders motioned toward the living room area. Selecting a plush chair angled toward the window, Casey sat, sinking into it as the soft, overstuffed cushions shaped themselves around his muscles. Saunders set his drink on a coffee table carved from a large piece of driftwood. “Be right back.”
He walked into another room and, over the street traffic, Casey faintly heard electronic mechanisms whir. Saunders returned holding a thick file folder with a large rubber band around it under one arm, and two thinner ones under his other arm. He handed the big one to Casey. “This is what I got on that muthafuckah Rono since the funeral.” His voice was hollow.
Casey looked at his friend as he hefted the file, then closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. The plain manila folder felt cool under his fingers, a stark contrast to the white-hot fire banked deep down inside him, a fire that threatened to flare up again at hearing the name of his enemy. Casey held his breath for a moment, then exhaled slowly, taking the edge off his anger with the stream of air whooshing out of his lungs. The time would come to let it rip loose soon enough.
“Probably could’ve gotten more, but I didn’t want to risk greater exposure,” Saunders said, plopping down on the couch. “Old Gerty taught us never to peep our hole card, right?”
“She sure did,” Casey said quietly.
Saunders continued. “There’s no electronic file, no memory sticks, computer discs floating around, nada. You’re holding the one and only copy.” He sampled more of his scotch.
Casey leaned forward and gingerly placed the file on the coffee table as if it were a bomb primed to explode. “Thanks, brother, I uh…,” he began, but the words wouldn’t come.
The big man fixed him with a look and a shrug. “Come on, man, ain’t no need for that.”
Casey nodded, looking out onto the cityscape. “Inside, nothing ever changed—except the people there. Prison did its damnedest to change me too, and it did in some respects, but not like you might think. I’m back on the streets, and change is coming with me too, only it’s gonna be delivered my way.” He downed the rest of his drink in one gulp. The whiskey’s burn as it slid down his throat was like a candle compared to the inferno inside him. “What about the others?”
Kenny set the files on his lap and leaned back in his chair. “Word on the street is you brokered some kinda ‘understanding’ while you was on the inside? You really gonna try to make peace among all the gangs in the city?”
Casey nodded. “Didn’t want it to leak till I was out, but yeah, the major godfathers on the inside are all on board. It’s all copacetic—they know I got my shit straight, even promised to look the other way if something were to happen to Rono in the next few days. All I hadda do was promise that the benjamins would keep flowing, and everyone would get their fair cut of everything.”
“Tall muthafuckin’ order, sounds like.”
“Never said it was easy.” Casey smiled. “Guess they musta responded to my winnin’ personality.”That, and my promise that the drug pipelines would keep flowin’,he thought with a grimace. That was something he’d have to take care of later—he had plenty on his plate in the here and now. “Anyway, got most on my side—except for the two I told you to start eyeing a few months ago.”
Saunders handed the two smaller folders over. “Here’s what I been able to pull together so far. Both these crews are small, but vicious and ambitious. The Lotus even tangled with the VKs a few weeks ago, and are still around to tell the tale. I don’t need to tell you, but y’all better watch your step around both of ’em. Them Latino gangs don’t mess around, and the Asians are worse.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Casey tapped his fingers on the stack of folders in his lap, torn between diving in and just taking it easy for the rest of the night. Another thought occurred to him, and he let it flow. “Caught a vibe out there. The citizens seem pretty uptight as well—whassup with that? I thought the mayor and his crew were shapin’ things up out here.”
“Sheeeit, you read the papers, nigga, you know what’s been goin’ down. The fuckin’ fat cats on Wall Street done fleeced ever’body, from big charities to your grandmamma, if you had one. Then the gov’ment stepped in, bailed ’em out, and pretty much let ’em go back to doin’ the same thing they was doin’ before. Meanwhile, millions lost their jobs, their savings, their homes. Crime ain’t up—yet, but the ways things are goin’, it will be soon, and po-po ain’t helpin’ neither.”
Casey sipped his whiskey. “Yeah, I heard they trippin’ a lot more than usual?”
“Yeah, well, the goddamn commissioner claims it’s for ‘future case involvement,’ like they tryin’ to say it’s only a matter of time ’fore any of us who ain’t white gonna commit a crime. They’re compiling their own dossiers, I’m surprised you didn’t get the red-eye on your way over.”
Casey shot his cuffs and twitched out the lapels of his jacket. “You see these threads I’m wearin’, nigga? Ain’t no one gonna mess with a brother dressed as fly as me.”
Saunders’s dark expression broke at Casey’s self-mockery, and the two men laughed again.
Several moments passed until Saunders broke the silence. “What kinda broad you want tonight? Big titties, small waist, or an ass you can throw a saddle on and ride like a jockey? Or how ’bout one of each? Being my age, I got a shitload of Cialis ’round here some damn where.”
He chuckled deep in his chest, and so did Casey, who held up his glass. “This’ll do me for now, big stump.”
Saunders gave him the Spock raised-eyebrow look.
“Don’t trip, nigga. I ain’t gotten fond of new fish booty.” They both laughed again.When was the last time I had a real laugh?Casey poured and they drank again.
They had some more whiskey with a delivery of Chinese takeout with plenty of fried shrimp and hot mustard. They ate and talked of nothing special for a while, Casey enjoying every minute of it.
“Goddamn,” he said, finishing off a breaded prawn sopping with hot sauce and sighing with pleasure. “Swooping Yee’s still burns like a mother.”
“You ain’t never lied, I will be up all night.” Saunders settled into the couch. Old-school R&B played on the sound system. He waved at the doorway on the far side of the room. “The spare room’s all ready. You can bunk here long as you like.”
Casey nodded his thanks, then got serious. “I’ll stay tonight at least. But one, Rono don’t know you exist, and we wanna keep it that way. And two, I gotta report to my PO tomorrow and I don’t want him to get all bloodhound up in here either.”
“Can’t see why,” Saunders said as he picked up a TV remote control and punched in a sequence of numbers. There was an audible click as the handyman rose and went over to the marble-topped kitchen island seen through an archway. Casey watched as Saunders swiveled the top up and over on hydraulic hinges. He grasped a handle in the middle of the opening and up sprang a display board on oiled hinges, festooned on each side with various handguns, compact submachine guns, flash-bang and smoke grenades, serrated knives, and other assorted weaponry. “As you can see, I been doing more than just remodeling over the years.”
Now Casey’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “Apparently—you fixin’ to start some kind of war without me?”
Saunders shrugged his broad shoulders. “Man’s got to protect his castle, ya know?”
“Protect it, or hold off a few SWAT teams—looks like you could do either without breaking a sweat.” Casey leaned inside the archway, arms folded while Saunders pointed out several items.
“Got the SIG P229 in .357, good stopping power,” he said, like a country salesman offering his wares. “That Beretta Bobcat .22 caliber is small, easy to conceal, and very efficient.” He looked over at a bemused Casey.
“There’ll be time enough for that later,” the freshly minted ex-con said. “I need to get situated and do some recon first, dig?”
“As Sly Stone used to say, Solid, my brother.” They knocked fists.
* * *
Later, Marcus Casey lay on his back in a more comfortable bed than he’d known in the past two decades, hands behind his head, sleep a stranger for once. A copy of Sun Tzu’sArt of Warlay on the nightstand. He turned on the Tensor light next to it, got up, and found a pad of paper and a pen. He began making a list of names, crossing some off and adding others. Some were those he’d known before going down and others he’d met in prison. A few on the list he put question marks beside. He regarded the names, conjuring up images of some as he remembered them.
He tore the paper from the pad, folded it in half, then lay back down on the bed, the sounds of the city his lullaby. For a moment, he compared the noises outside—passing cars, the occasional bit of conversation from passersby, the rattle of window-unit air conditioners—to what he’d heard for the past twenty years as he’d tried to get to sleep. Crying, furtive whispers, the squeak of too-thin mattresses as cons gave it up to each other, grunts of pain and the thick, meaty sounds of fists on flesh.
Shaking his head, Casey turned over and tried to banish those memories. It was impossible to rid himself of so much this fast, so he settled for pushing them back into a corner of his mind and concentrating on the present. A room that didn’t smell of sweat, toilet hootch, and dead hopes; clean, crisp sheets; and a door he could leave through any time he wanted. Casey glanced at the door, then got up and turned the knob, opening it wide to the rooms outside. First time in a long time. He nodded, satisfied, and went back to bed. Finally, sleep overcame him.
Copyright © 2011 by Ice Touring, Inc.