Deacon King Kong (22. 281 Delphi)
The brownstone at 281 Delphi Street near the corner of Cunningham Avenue sat hunched and alone, with weeded lots on both sides. It was the perfect defensive spot. Inside, on the second floor, Bunch Moon sat near a window, staring at the street below. From his position, he could see anyone who turned the corner and approached. Children played in the hulks of the cars on the street. It was an unusually warm October day, and the kids had opened the fire hydrant again. He made a note to pull his dilapidated pickup truck up to the hydrant later to let the kids make a few quarters washing it. There were a couple he had noticed, and they were almost ready for employment.
He opened the window and peered out, looking to the right, then left, then right again. The right was not a problem. He could see several blocks, clear down to Bedford Avenue. To the left was trickier. Delphi Street came to a T at the corner. He had wanted a house on a dead-end street. But when he first came to look for a secret meeting place on that deserted block, there were so many boarded-up, empty brownstones, he’d had his choice of several along that street, and he’d decided the block would work fine. He’d chosen 281 because it had a better view of approaching traffic than any other house. To the right he could see anyone coming down from Bedford for blocks. To the left, the T formed at an empty weeded lot, with several dilapidated houses to the left of the intersection that he could not see. To the right of that, within view, was an abandoned warehouse that he could only see part of. Whoever came down that side street from the right, if they came in a car, would be in sight for about ten feet before they turned onto Delphi Street and could make a rush up his steps. It wasn’t ideal, but the spot worked. It was as close to a lookout spot as he could get without attracting attention from the cops. He rarely drove there; he usually took the subway. He always wore an MTA uniform, so the neighbors believed he was a transit worker as he moved in and out. Few of his crew or his employees who processed his raw heroin shipments knew about 281. It was safe. Still, he could never be too careful. Standing at the window, he took one long look in both directions.
When he was satisfied, he ducked his head back inside and closed the window. He sat down at his dining room table, glanced at the headlines of the New York Times, the Daily News, and the Amsterdam News that lay before him, then at the pretty young woman across the table. She was regarding her nails.
Haroldeen the Death Queen was in the same spot where Earl, that lowdown grizzle-faced stupid son-of-a-bitch snitch, had sat. She was working at her nails with a nail file. He stifled an impulse to curse at her and then said, “How’d you get here?”
“You ain’t got a car?”
“I don’t drive.”
“How do you get around in Virginia?”
“That’s my business.”
“You fucked up bad. You know that, right?”
“I did my best. What happened was unavoidable.”
“I ain’t paying for that.”
“I’ll fix it. I need the money. I’m going to college.”
Bunch snorted. “Why you wasting your talent?”
Haroldeen took that in silence as she continued to work on her nails. He neglected to mention that he’d taken advantage of her other “talents” when she was fourteen, living on a street just like this one with her mother, hauling everything they owned in shopping carts from place to place.
He continued. “The basement door leads to the backyard. At the end of the fence there, if you push on it, it’s a gate. Leave here that way.”
“All right,” Haroldeen said.
“Where you staying?”
“With my mother in Queens.”
“That ain’t smart. For a college girl.”
Haroldeen worked her nails in silence. He neglected to mention, she noted, that her mother was busy cooking heroin with baking soda, flour, and water in one of his processing houses out in Jamaica. He thought she didn’t know. He also thought she didn’t know that he’d taken advantage of her mother’s “talents,” too, back in the day, when her mother was young. But that, she thought bitterly, was how she’d survived. Pretending not to know. Pretending to be dumb. A dumb cutie. Fuck being dumb. She was done with it.
“I’m gonna study accounting,” she said.
Bunch laughed. “You’d be better off learning to milk a camel. There’s no money in that.”
Haroldeen said nothing. She pulled a bottle of nail polish from her purse and started to paint her nails. She hadn’t been comfortable with the hit on those two boys. They weren’t grown-up hardened men like Bunch, men who knew the game and who had done so much to her when she was young and pretty beyond her years, with her long hair and milky brown skin and thick legs, wandering around with her shy, gentle mother who pushed their things about in a shopping cart after her father died, the guys squeezing her mother’s tits for a quarter and letting dope dealers use Haroldeen as a whore and a lure to set up drug robberies. “Bunch saved us,” her mother liked to say. But that was her mother’s way of processing pain. It was the daughter who saved them, they both knew. The social worker who helped them said it best. Haroldeen had read the social worker’s report after she left New York. “The daughter raised the mother,” the lady wrote, “not the other way around.”
Her saving came with a price. Every bit of hair on Haroldeen’s pretty head, care of her handsome Dominican father and pretty African-American mother, had vanished. At twenty, she had been bald. Her hair just fell out one day. A result, she assumed, of the difficult life she had lived. She wore a wig now, and long sleeves to cover her back, shoulders, and upper arms, which were burned, care of a job that had gone horribly wrong two years ago. Nothing was certain now, except for her lovely apartment in Richmond and the medicine she occasionally ate at night to keep the howls of the men she killed out of her dreams. They were horrible sons of bitches—men who set upon one another with welding torches, scorched each other with hot irons, and poured Clorox into one another’s eyes for the sake of dope; men who made their girlfriends do horrible things, servicing four or five or eight men a night, who made their women do push-ups over piles of dogshit for a hit of heroin until, exhausted, the girls dropped into the shit so the men could get a laugh. These were the men her mother allowed in her life. Her stay with her mother was more out of a sense of duty than anything else. She bought her mom some food, gave her a little money. But the two hardly spoke anymore.
“I’ll make enough money in accounting. I’m a saver.”
“How’s your ma doing these days?” Bunch asked.
As if he didn’t know, Haroldeen thought. She shrugged. “What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?”
“You sound like a college kid already. Can you count your fingers and toes too?”
Haroldeen considered this thoughtfully for a moment, then said, “I have to leave in two days. I’ll finish by then. After that I’m heading home.”
“What’s the hurry?”
“I got another job in Richmond.”
“What kind of job?”
“I don’t ask your business,” she said.
“I’m the one paying.”
“I ain’t seen a dime yet,” she said. “Not even train fare.”
Bunch pushed back from the table. “You’re awful loose around the mouth for someone who fucked up bad.”
Haroldeen bit her lower lip. “Those two old guys came outta nowhere.”
“I’m paying you to work through them kind of problems.”
“I said I’ll take care of it. I mean it.”
Bunch sighed. How to keep this whole thing from toppling down—or worse, blowing up in his face? He’d tipped his hand to Peck now for sure.
“You sure there was nobody else down there at the pier?”
“Nobody I saw. Just the two young guys and the two old drunks.”
“How about the people in the plaza? At the flagpole. They saw you, right? You were there for a week getting a line on Deems.”
“I’m not going back there anyway. I’ll take care of Deems and the old guy somewhere else.”
“What are you, Agent 007? You gonna put on a fuckin’ disguise? Deems is in the hospital. The old drunk, he’s disappeared I heard.”
“I told you I’d take care of it somewhere else.”
“Where would that be? And how can I be sure?”
Haroldeen sat in silence, her face a mask. He had to admit, she was the most beautiful stone wall he’d ever seen. A cold fucking beauty. You never knew what you were looking at. She could play petulant beauty one moment and bright innocent teenager the next. She was his greatest discovery. He’d heard a rumor that when she had sex she barked like a dog. He remembered her faintly from his years of running wild, working his way up, but it was so long ago and she was so young. Maybe fourteen or fifteen? She didn’t bark like a dog then. He would’ve remembered it. She said nothing. She didn’t whimper, groan, or lose a breath. Even as a child, that pretty girl with the soft features was hard as a rock inside. Now, at twenty-nine, she could still pass for twenty, but if somebody looked close, the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and around her ears suggested that maybe she was twenty-three, or even twenty-five. Was it that long ago that he had at her? Fourteen years? He couldn’t remember.
She nodded at the newspapers on the table before him. “When I finish, you’ll read about it. But I need my money.”
“You ain’t finished.”
She glanced at him, and the lines of her face that had twisted into petulance when she talked about college were gone. Rather there was a grim coldness to the look, and he was glad, at that moment, that he’d insisted they meet at a place he suggested. She had certainly checked out his safe house and likely assumed that he, not she, was safe with backup, surrounded by his people, all of whom were close but none of whom she could see. The emptiness of the room was a warning to her that there was danger nearby, because death meant eyewitnesses, and the fewer witnesses the better. He was sure she understood that the emptiness of this room in this old brownstone deep in Bed-Stuy, his country, meant her life was in danger, not his, though the truth was, there was no backup. No men surrounding 281 Delphi, not working the street, not in cars, not pretending to be neighbors, not driving past. Two eighty-one Delphi was safe because it was a secret. He wasn’t sure she sensed that, but he decided it didn’t matter. She wanted to collect her gold dust and split town on the first thing smoking, which is what he’d have wanted if he were in her shoes. Anyway, he had a revolver on the seat of the chair next to him. He needed no more eyeballs putting him and Haroldeen the Death Queen in the same place, not after Earl had fucked up so bad.
Discovering that Earl was a squealer had been a stroke of luck, a chance encounter with a black cop from the Seven-Six who told him, “You better tighten down.” The knowledge had nearly dropped him. He trusted Earl more than anyone. What had made Earl, who once had balls, so squeamish? Was it the thought of killing off Joe Peck’s distribution network and maybe taking down Peck himself and making their own that did it? Because Joe Peck was white? Or was it that church shit that Earl was always so weird about? Why is the Negro, he thought bitterly, so scared of the white man? What’s in their souls that makes them that way? It had to be that church shit.
“Did you grow up in church, believing in Jesus?” he asked Haroldeen.
Haroldeen snorted. “Please.”
He eyed her a moment, the grim stare, the gleaming eyes, the face that could soften into tenderness at the snap of a finger, inviting trust, then harden to ice. “I could use ten of you,” he said.
“How about paying this one of me.”
“I’ll give you half now. Plus train fare. The other half when you’re finished.”
“How I’m gonna get the other half?”
“Pony express. Overnight mail. However you want it.”
“I look that stupid?”
“I’ll bring it myself. I’ll drive it down.”
“Why not? Virginia ain’t far. Unless you live in one of those places where the welcome mat’s printed in Old English and they don’t like niggers. If that’s the case, I’ll pretend I’m the milkman. Or the gardener. You oughta be familiar with gardeners.”
She frowned. “I thought you said you didn’t know much about what happened.”
“Fuckups carry far, sister.”
“All right. Gimme half now. I’ll tell you where to send the rest after I’m done.”
“I got a junkpile of shit now ’cause of you. I got Joe Peck on my ass. He’ll be gunning for all my people. He’ll try to switch out my people with his Uncle Tom niggers.”
“I’ll clean up my end,” she said. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Bunch rose. He moved to the window, speaking with his back to her. “This is the last time you and I do business,” he said. He glanced out the window and noticed a motorcycle puttering down the street, followed by a car, a GTO. But they were coming from the right, the safe side, in full view. Not down the side street, so they weren’t dangerous. Still, he wondered: had he seen them before? He decided to watch to see if they circled the block, then saw the motorcycle throw on a turn signal before reaching the corner, and the girl was talking again, so he turned away.
“Where’s my money?” she asked.
He nodded toward the dining room door. “Downstairs. At the back door, there’s a cabinet there.”
“Where’s the back door?”
“Do they call it a back door because it’s in the front?”
“Is it the basement back door, or the first-floor back door?”
That drew him from the front window. He marched to the dining room door and pointed down the stairs. They were on the second-floor landing. “Go all the way to the basement. Use the back basement door. Don’t go out the front basement door. Don’t go out the ground-floor front door. Go to the basement back door. Near that back door is a cabinet. Open the top drawer. There’s an envelope in there. It’s got half. And train fare.”
“We clear on who’s who?”
“Deems and the Deacon. And the other guy.”
“What other guy?”
“The old guy with the Deacon.”
“I didn’t say nothing about a third guy. I ain’t paying you for no third guy.”
“I don’t care,” she said. “He saw me.”
She slipped down the stairs quickly and deftly. Bunch found himself watching her back, feeling a little regretful. Those stairs were creaky and she slipped down like a ghost, silent and fast, barely making a sound. That girl, he thought, had skills. He decided to watch her out the back window to make sure no neighbors spotted her exiting the yard—he didn’t want her near him anymore. Then he remembered the car he’d seen through the front window and quickly stepped to it to check on the GTO. It was gone. It was safe.
At the basement back door, Haroldeen found the cabinet and removed the envelope. It was dark down there, so she held it to the sliver of light from a nearby small ground-level window to check its contents, then hastily stuck it in her jeans. From there, she removed her shoes, took the stairs two at a time up to the ground floor, unlocked the front door, then sprinted back to the basement, put on her shoes, exited through the back door, and stepped outside.
The yard was piled high with junk and trash and was full of weeds. She picked her way through it slowly, as if she weren’t certain where she was going, then looked up.
Sure enough, Bunch was watching her through the open second-floor window, glaring.
That was all she needed to see. She turned and ran toward the back gate, as fast as she could, leaping over the piles of junk that lay in the way, making toward the gate at top speed.
Up on the second floor, Bunch saw her sprinting for the gate and heard the thunder of footsteps on his stairwell at the same time, and a sudden dread seized his insides. He glanced in panic to the seat of the chair next to his, several long feet away, where his gun lay. He was still looking when the door burst open and Joe Peck charged in bearing a revolver, followed by two other men, one of them with a shotgun.
Just before she reached the gate and heard the boom of gunshots, Haroldeen heard yelling and thought she heard someone scream, “You fucking black bitch!”
But she wasn’t sure. She was out the back gate and gone.