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Deacon King Kong (14. Rat)

Bunch sat at the table of his dining room in his Bed-Stuy brownstone and chewed a chicken wing. A huge spread of wings and a platter of barbecue sauce were on the table. He motioned to the young man seated at the table across from him. “Help yourself, young brother.”

Lightbulb, Deems Clemens’s right-hand man, reached deep into the chicken wings, his fingers scooping out two, and then dipped them in the sauce. He sucked down the tender meat and reached for the plate again.

“Slow your roll, bro,” Bunch said. “The chicken ain’t going nowhere.”

Lightbulb still ate fast—too fast, Bunch thought. Either the kid was starving or he might be a dope user already. He guessed the latter. The kid was awful thin and wore long sleeves to cover what might be tracks in his arms.

Lightbulb glanced at the end of the table where Earl, fresh from his painful electrocution in Sausage’s basement boiler room, silently scratched at a crossword puzzle, his right arm in a sling and his head bandaged from where the bottle had smashed him at Soup’s coming-home party. Earl kept his head down.

“So tell me about Deems,” Bunch said.

“What you wanna know?” Lightbulb asked.

“How’d he win the flagpole?” he asked. “That’s the busiest section of the Cause. Who was doing business there before Deems took over?”

“I want the flagpole plaza, by the way,” Lightbulb said. “If this works out.”

“How about a flagpole up your ass. I asked you about how Deems won it. I didn’t ask you what you want.”

“I’m just saying I can do a better job than him. I’d need the flagpole to do it.”

“Who you think you talking to, kid, Santa Claus? I don’t care about your needs. You ain’t done nothing so far other than say what you need and lick your nasty fingers while eating my chicken.”

Lightbulb blinked and started in. “Back when we was all playing baseball, Deems had an older cousin named Rooster. Rooster started selling first. He was making so much bank we quit ball to work under him. We ran customers to him. Junkies on the street. White boys from New Jersey cruising through, like that. Rooster got killed by somebody who tried to rob him. So Deems took over.”

“Just like that? Y’all just let Deems be top dog?”

“Well . . . he done some things, Deems did.”

“Like?”

“Well . . . a boy named Mark Bumpus was the first guy. He dead now.”

“How’d he get that way? Was he a heavy sleeper? Did he fall down a flight of stairs?”

“Deems set him up.”

“How so?”

“Well, Rooster died while we was all in jail. When we come out, Bumps—Mark Bumpus—ran things.”

“And Deems didn’t mind? Even though Rooster was his cousin?”

“We got, like, forty dollars a day. That’s a lot of money.”

“And Deems didn’t say nothing?”

“I got to back up a minute to tell it right,” Lightbulb said. “See, we was all in Spofford together,” Lightbulb said, referring to the juvenile center. “Me, Beanie, Sugar, Deems, and Bumps. Deems and Bumps got into it in Spofford, in the rec room. It wasn’t over Rooster. He was already dead.”

“Over what then?”

“The TV. Deems wanted to watch baseball. Bumps didn’t. They got into it. Deems whipped up on Bumps pretty bad. Then Deems’s grandfather visited and gave Deems fifty dollars. The food was bad in Spofford, so Deems went to the commissary and bought some rice and beans. He shared it with his boys: me, Beanie, Sugar. Bumps wasn’t his boys. When Bumps asked Deems for some rice and beans, Deems said no, I just share with my boys. So that night Bumps and a couple of his friends caught Deems alone in the shower and cut him up bad. They took his rice and beans and the rest of that fifty dollars.

“Deems never forgot that,” Lightbulb said. “Bumps got out of Spofford before Deems did. When he come out Spofford a few months later, Bumps had taken over the plaza. Bumps was hot, man, selling dope, weed, acid, everything. By that time most of us was out of Spofford. We all needed money, so we went to work for Bumps. He paid forty dollars a day. He even hired Deems. He told Deems, ‘Forget all that stuff from Spofford. You’re with me now. We boys now.’

“Deems ran customers to Bumps better than any of us. Deems knew how to find dopeheads. Deems would go all the way downtown to get customers and run them over to Bumps. It got so that Bumps would let Deems carry dope to his far-off customers, because Bumps was rolling. He was selling to everybody. That’s when Deems got him.

“He sent Deems out with thirty grams of coke to this Jamaican guy out in Hollis, Queens. Deems switched out the dope for some white soap flakes and flour and gived the bag to the guy. The guy used it and damn near died. He called on the phone and Deems had Beanie answer the telephone and Beanie told the guy ‘Fuck off.’ So the guy got his revenge. Deems took a bunch of us to the top of Building Nine where we could wait to watch the ants come—”

“What ants?”

“It don’t matter. Just a bunch of ants that crawl up there every year. But you can see the plaza from there. You could see Bumps out there working. Deems said, ‘Remember my rice and beans when we was in juvy? I’mma square that with punk-ass Bumps. Just watch.’

“Sure enough, a couple of nights later this pretty Jamaican girl come around to the flagpole saying to Bumps she wanted some dope but didn’t have no money. She offered to, you know, service his rod if he let her shoot up afterward. Bumps said okay. He followed her to the alley behind the plaza and them Jamaicans was waiting for him. They damn near killed him. Cut his face, down his forehead, all down his eye, oh man, messed him up. They left him like that.

“Soon as they started whipping on him, Deems ran off the roof. He run off soon as they started cutting Bumps up. The minute them Jamaicans left Bumps laying in the alley, Deems came out the back door of Building Nine and ran over to Bumps holding a steaming pot of rice and beans. He must’ve had it cooking in his house. He said, ‘Here’s your rice and beans, Bumps.’ He poured that whole pot on him.

“Bumps got crippled from that. He was never the same. He got out the dope game altogether. He tried fooling around on the dock, smuggling, trying to make money that way. He didn’t last long. He was walking in the Elephant’s territory then. You ever heard of the Elephant?”

“I heard of him.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the last anybody seen of Bumps.”

Lightbulb paused, then reached for another piece of chicken and dipped it in the sauce. “That’s how Deems won the flagpole,” he said.

“Why didn’t somebody from Bumps’s crew take the flagpole plaza back?” Bunch asked.

“First of all, that ain’t the only thing Deems done, bro. Second, ain’t nobody smarter in the Cause than Deems.”

“So people are afraid of him?”

“Well, yes and no. The old folks in the Cause like Deems. He was a church boy. The church folks sit around the flagpole in the mornings and talk and bullshit. Deems stays out of their way. He don’t run his dope till the afternoons, when the church folks leave the plaza. He don’t allow it before then. He’s funny about them church people. He don’t wanna make the church people mad. Some of ’em’s old, but they can cause trouble. Some of ’em will shoot, y’know.”

“I do know.” Here Bunch glanced disgustedly at Earl, whose face was shoved so deep into his crossword puzzle he appeared to be cleaning the puzzle with his nose.

“Plus Deems was the star on the Cause Houses baseball team,” Lightbulb said. “That’s Sportcoat’s old team. Deems’s father wasn’t around. His mother drank a lot. Deems’s grandfather raised him. And his grandfather and Sportcoat was buddies. That’s why Sportcoat ain’t dead yet, I guess. Because Deems was on his baseball team and his grandfather was all for him doing that. He could play the shit outta some baseball. When his grandfather died, he left all that and went to selling the flour and rock. Good as he was in baseball, that’s how good he is at moving that dip. Deems thinks stuff out. All day long, he thinks how to move that powder. He’s to hisself too. He don’t chase girls too much. He don’t watch TV. And he don’t forget. If you cross Deems, he’ll let a year pass. Two years even. I seen him walk up to guys and choke them till they fall asleep for stuff they did to him two years before that they forgot all about. I seen him put a hot iron to a guy’s neck to get the name of somebody who stole from him so long ago ain’t nobody remembered it but Deems. He’s smart, bro, like I said. He ain’t been in jail since Spofford. He don’t carry a knife. Don’t carry a gun. He’s organized. He pays little-kid watchers to set on the buildings and watch out. He got watchers in the plaza. They got the weapons. Not him.”

“So what’s the matter with him now?”

“He’s too strict, Mr. Bunch. He wants to be a cop now. Before he became a punk and let Sportcoat shoot him, he would sell to everybody. Now he won’t sell to grandmothers. He won’t sell to little kids. He won’t sell to nobody from the church. He don’t want nobody smoking near the church, or robbing the church, or falling asleep in the door of the church, like that. And like if somebody beats up their girlfriend over something, he won’t sell to ’em. He wants to be telling folks what they should be doing. That’s why Sportcoat shot him, I think, because he got pussified, talking about going back to baseball and all this, ordering folks around, telling folks what to do instead of making that money. It ain’t gonna be long before the Watch Houses come take our territory. It’s only a matter of time.”

“What’s that I’m hearing about you saying Deems wants Joe Peck to supply him?”

Lightbulb glanced at Earl.

“Did I say that?” Lightbulb said.

“I’m asking if he said it. Did he say that or not?” Bunch asked.

Lightbulb paused. He had told that to Earl in confidence, a kind of extra carrot he’d dangled to Earl to get himself an audience with the boss. But he realized now, looking at Bunch’s operation for the first time, the brownstone, dilapidated on the outside and polished to a sheen on the inside, the busy factory a block away that Earl had shown him full of employees processing heroin, the large cars, and the fabulous modern furniture of Mr. Bunch’s dining room, that this man was a major roller. Bunch, Lightbulb realized, was a real-life gangster. He realized, too late, that he was in over his head.

A cone of silence enveloped the room as Bunch stared at him, unblinking. Realizing his response could be a death sentence for Deems, Lightbulb said, “I might’ve said it. But I don’t know if Deems really meant it.”

Bunch sat for a moment, looking thoughtful, then the tension seemed to ease out of him. He spoke softly. “I appreciate you coming by, young blood. I appreciate you letting me and my man here know you got our best interests at heart.”

“So I get the flagpole?”

“I’mma give you a break on that,” Bunch said, reaching in his pocket and pulling out a roll of crisp bills.

Lightbulb smiled, relieved, grateful, and felt a sudden burst of guilt. “I just wanna say: I like Deems, Mr. Bunch. We go back a long way. But like I said, he wanna be a cop now. That’s why I’m here.”

“I understand,” Bunch said calmly. He slowly, deliberately counted out four fifty-dollar bills and slid them across the table to Lightbulb.

“Take that and git gone.”

“Do I get the flagpole?”

“Can a donkey fly?”

Lightbulb seemed confused but didn’t speak at first, then asked, “Does that mean yes?”

Bunch ignored that. “You want a chicken wing on your way out?”

Lightbulb, flummoxed, found it suddenly hard to breathe. “So I don’t get the flagpole?”

“I’ll think on it.”

“I done told you everything like I said I would. What do I get now?”

Bunch shrugged. “You get two hundred dollars. You can get a lot with that. Some soup. A bottle of beer. Some poontang. Even get a job with it in some places. I don’t care what you get, so long as you stay out my business. And if I ever see your face here again, I’ll part it with a hammer.”

Lightbulb’s eyes widened. “What’d I do wrong?”

Bunch turned to Earl. “He rats his own boy out. Rats out the guy who gave him his own rice and beans in the joint. The guy who gave him food from his own mouth practically. And he comes to me saying he wants to work for me?”

“Dig thaaaat,” Earl said. He stood, menacingly.

Lightbulb, watching Earl out of the corner of his eye, slid his hand over to the money on the table. Bunch’s hand suddenly slammed down on his.

“Need I remind you, young brother, to forget us?”

“No.”

“Good. Because we will not forget you. Now git.”

Lightbulb snatched the two hundred dollars off the table and fled.

After the front door closed, Bunch shrugged and reached for the newspaper. “We’ll get back every penny of that dough. He’s skin popping now.”

“Dig thaaaat.”

Bunch shot an irritated look at Earl. “You mucked it up, man.”

“I can fix it,” Earl said.

“You had three shots at it already. You get your head banged in twice, then get shocked like a clown. You’re like the Three Stooges, bro, with a bag full of excuses. You made it worse.”

“You said don’t kill him. Killing and hurting’s different. You hurt a guy, you gotta make so he can’t see you, so he can’t rat. Taking him out is—”

“Something I ain’t asked you to do, bro.”

Bunch reached for a chicken wing, dipping it in the sauce and chewing slowly as he scoured the newspaper. “The game’s changed, Earl. I should’ve watched Deems closer.”

“Lemme even it out, Bunch. It’s my load. Let me carry it.”

Bunch wasn’t listening. He had placed the newspaper down and was staring out the window. There was so much to think about.

“Peck says this big shipment from Lebanon is coming soon. He says he’s got a dock for it. But that idiot’s so dumb he lights up a room by leaving it. And now this crap with this old motherfucker who shot Deems. If we can’t shake up an old drunk, how the fuck we gonna run Peck’s operation?” He shook his head, biting his bottom lip angrily. “All my luck is junior grade.”

Earl felt the same way. He sat in silence, studying his fingers atop the crossword puzzle. His nerves felt as if they were sitting on a razor blade. He’d already been collared twice by that white cop, Potts, who’d promised him he’d look the other way when the cops dropped the hammer on Bunch—if he flipped on Bunch, which Earl had agreed to do with trepidation. But now, sitting before Bunch, he realized he’d underestimated Bunch’s cleverness and forgotten the power of his rage, which seemed to ooze off him. If Bunch found him out, he was cooked. That suddenly seemed a possibility. Worse, the old woman from the Cause had recognized him as Reverend Harris’s son. His father, he felt, was torturing him from the grave.

“I can straighten out the old man,” Earl said.

“Don’t need to,” Bunch said matter-of-factly. “There’s a nine-thirty train coming in tonight from Richmond. Take my car down to Penn Station in the city and pick up Harold Dean. You can do that without mucking it up, can’t ya?”

“We don’t need Harold Dean!”

“You think I’m running a summer camp? If Deems convinces Peck to sell to him instead of us, we’ll be buying our groceries with Green Stamps, brother. We’re done. Nobody will sell to us. Not Roy and them Italians out in Brighton Beach. Nobody from the West Side. Nobody in Harlem. It’s the Elephant’s dock or nothing. Peck’s the only one who’s still got a line to the Elephant. If Deems convinces Peck to go with him, then he’s got the Elephant’s dock, too, and we’re outta business. Deems has got to go. And Peck. We got to flatten things out, get everything back to zero, before that Lebanon thing comes in. I’ll talk to the Elephant myself. But first let’s get rid of the old man. What’s his name?”

“Something . . . Sport Jacket, they call him.”

“Whatever the fuck he is, he got to be put to sleep. Now. Get off your spine and get Harold Dean. Make sure Harold Dean does the old man first. Nobody in the Cause has seen HD; that one will be quick and easy.”

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