"You have to figure it out, is what it comes down to."
Junius fingered one of the long tassels of the curtain ties. Across the room, his older brother lay in a coffin, not yet twenty and done with all the living he'd ever do.
"I try this, you put me on?"
"Shit," Willie Stash smiled his signature smile, the one that showed the big gaps in the middle of his bottom and top rows of teeth. "You find out this one, I'll put you in charge of Teale Square. How that sound?"
Junius smiled. He had no crew, just the cheap nine Willie gave him and his boy Little Elf, but that nine gave him so much more than he'd had yesterday, even with a living brother.
Outside, Elf came up next to Junius before he made the corner. He'd been waiting up the street for Junius to finish with Willie. They walked a block and a half before either of them spoke.
Then Junius stopped, turned toward his man. "This," Junius said, pulling up his shirt to show Elf the nine tucked into his pants.
Elf nodded. "Then we find who took the pack?" he asked, after a while.
Junius looked up the block. At the corner, two of Willie's boys stood talking to one another, trying to look as if they owned the real estate they stood on. For all purposes, they did.
One of their buyers drove up in a BMW, stopped in front of them, and a white face stuck out the window: one of the college boys looking to score weed. It was a Wednesday, and that meant he'd want weed; on a Friday, he might get into something heavier, maybe mushrooms, coke or e, but on a Wednesday it would just be weed. Willie's boy shook his head at the kid and sent him around the corner. In the liquor store lot next to the Foodmaster, someone else would hand him a bag and take his money.
"Not the pack." Junius shook his head. He turned back to head the other way from Willie's boys, feeling the thick barrel of the nine pressing into his abdomen, cold against his skin. He knew the safety was on, that no police would stop him on these streets, not unless he went up by Davis Square, but still it felt strange. "He wants us to find who killed Temple."
Elf looked away, toward the projects on the other side of the street. In the middle of the courtyard, five kids played twenty-one on the busted-up hoop with a soccer ball. "Fuck it then. Where we start?"
Junius and Elf headed up toward Alewife, in the direction of the Rindge Towers, walking on the opposite side of the street from the big cemetery for the first few blocks until the sidewalk on their side of the parkway ended and they had to cross the four-lanes to get out of the mud.
The walk to the towers took them into Arlington next, just a block into the safest town, the dry Switzerland of all the neighborhoods they knew. There they went up Massachusetts Ave and then down a back street that took you to the Alewife station and came out right across the street from the towers.
Coming through the pathway that took them across a marsh, through twin banks of reeds by their sides, Elf asked Junius to see it. "Yo," he said. "Show me the chrome."
Junius stopped. The truth was he'd been eager to look at it himself, get a feel for the handle and touch the metal to feel its cold. He pulled it out from his belt and showed Elf, holding it sideways in front of his chest pointed back toward where they'd come.
"Damn, yo. Let me hold that."
"No." The handle felt right in his grip, as if it were made for a hand about his size. Even at fourteen, Junius was the size of a man. At six feet, he was the equal of many grown men he saw, and not skinny like the rest of the crew he'd come up with. His child's bones held man muscles, whether he'd earned them or not. They weren't hard, but he had the shape and the walk of one whose are. His legs bowed slightly and his arms hung down bent from the shoulder, rarely fell straight.
When he looked around them, through the reeds, his head dipped below his shoulders and his back hunched. He was like a spring—ready to pop, coiled to strike out.
Elf backed a step away from him as Junius pulled the slide and chambered a round. Willie had shown him the gun's safety, set it for him initially, and now Junius clicked it off. He touched the trigger lightly, testing its shape but not its tension. He still held the gun sideways like the gangsters he saw on TV.
"Yeah." Then in one motion, he swung the gun over his head like the arm of a clock going from nine to land at three. He straightened his elbow, pointed the gun toward the station, through the reeds. As he did, he squared his shoulders and turned to face the same way. When his arm fell to level with the ground, the gun pointed straight, no longer on its side; he held it right: up and down, pointed and ready to aim.
"That's how you do," Elf said. "Let me hear you clap."
Ahead of him Junius saw nothing but reeds. He squinted and aimed, pulled back the trigger until he felt it tense, took it just to the point where he thought it might fire. In front of him, he could see his breath pump out into the cold.
He'd never shot a gun before, didn't know how it would kick, only that he'd heard from others it would. He squinted—partly from fear now and partly to aim. But then he lowered the weapon.
"Shit," he said. "We gonna kill some fucking commuter and then we be fucked bad as T." He removed his finger from the trigger and slipped the safety back on. He wanted to eject the live round, but didn't want to cock the weapon again, wasn't sure how to make it come out, only that it was on safety mode now and that that would keep him from shooting.
He slipped the gun back into his pants and walked down the path. Behind him, Elf sucked his teeth in disappointment.
As they walked under the big, gray parking structure of the station, Elf pointed out two of Rock's boys hanging by where the commuters came out, places where they'd get their rides, catch a bus, or just come out to score. Rock did steady money from the business set. So if Marlene controlled two of the three towers, Rock still did well running the station and 412.
The biggest mystery in the whole thing was where the Rindge Towers crews got their product. Junius had an idea where Willie got his—out of a Boston crew that held the BU area down off of Commonwealth. Temple had gone along with Willie for the re-up one time and that's where they went. Maybe the Boston boys even got up on the other side of the river, to the 808s, but Junius had no idea. What Junius knew was what Willie would let him have if he could find out who did Temple and take that man down: he'd have Teale Square, some of the best land in his hood. At his age, that was more than even Temple had amounted to. If he could do this, Junius would be on his way; he'd be living up to the nickname of "man-boy" that people had been calling him since he was eight.
The two crossed toward the station and headed for Rock's men. If it was time to find out what had been happening, this was the best place to start.
Junius recognized Derek and Ness as they got closer. Ness used to be Eliot when he was young, but then when he started to roll, people called him Ness because of his long neck.
Elf called out, giving them the nod.
Derek shook his head, and Ness said, "Fuck you niggahs want?"
Elf held his hands out. "We looking to find Rock. Just want to see what's been going down."
"Down?" Derek stepped back and looked at the ground. He checked Ness and then looked up at the others. "I don't see nothing here but rent, motherfuckers. Selling product. More than you got."
Junius stayed quiet. He watched Derek talk his shit, point his finger at Elf and tell them they should go back to their side of the border, tell them they'd come onto enemy soil.
"We just want talk," Junius said, finally. "It's about my brother."
Then Derek stopped talking. He wiped his mouth and shut it all down, stood without a swagger.
"Yeah," Junius said. "That's what we here on. That's why we going through to the towers."
Derek looked around. Junius could see a white guy in a suit waiting to talk to Ness, looking to buy, but Derek waved him off. "Come back later, bitch," he called at the man. The suit left.
"Who I talk to?" Junius said it slow, definite. The voice that spoke was almost one he didn't recognize, one he didn't hear as his own.
Derek nodded. "You go to the top, son. Tower two. You walk you ass up in there and go all the way up. Up there you ask the Oracle."
"Shit. Oracle to you motherfucker. Whatever she say to you be your fate."
Elf backed away from the others. The thought of going to the top of the towers would have him spooked. Even headed that way, neither of them had thought of the top.
Junius nodded slowly at Derek and Ness. They'd been fair: no threats, no need to show his nine. This was too easy. "That all?" he asked.
"Ha?" Derek's mouth almost popped open with the sound. "Is that all Motherfucker?" He shook his head and started laughing hard, looked away from them and shook his head some more. He looked at Ness and pointed at Junius. "That all?" he asked Ness. Ness laughed too. They slapped hands.
When they finally calmed down, Junius was still serious. "Yeah, niggah," Derek said. "That all."
Junius turned to face the towers, his hand at his belt, and listened for any fast movements behind him as he started to walk that way. Finally, about four steps later, Elf called to the others and started to follow.
The Rindge Towers stood forty stories each of apartments, hoods, crowns, trouble. A corner on every staircase. Whoever pushed and ran there controlled much more than Teale Square, more even than the bulk of the Davis-Teale-Tufts triangle that Willie called his land. Much more than weed to the white boys and whatever they needed for parties on the weekends, whoever held the Rindge Towers supplied to the serious Cambridge junkies and crack heads, the addicted, the ones who shot up.
"Shit," Elf said, when he caught up. "The top, huh? Fuck you think be up there?"
Behind them Junius heard Ness call to the suit it was OK to come over. He took a quick look back and, though Ness slapped a yellow into Mr. Suit Man's hand, Derek still watched them. He gave Junius the upward nod, pointing his chin toward the towers.
"Top," Junius said back to Elf. "That means we going all the way up."
"That's what the man said. How we swing this?"
They crossed in front of the pizza joint in the station and approached the highway. "You ever been up the towers?"
Junius pushed the traffic button on the light post.
"I been up there once, when I was little. Playing with a kid from school. He lived up in there with his moms." Elf showed the palms of his hands. "That's all I know."
Across the street, the three brick towers stood tall, each one covered with hundreds of windows all the way up: windows that betrayed nothing, just the occasional cheap air-conditioner.
The light changed and highway traffic stopped to let them cross. Elf hesitated a moment, and then hurried to catch up. Once on the other side, he stopped. "Yo, J," he said. Junius turned. "I think I'm a head back."
Elf was sixteen, two years older than Junius, but they'd been together almost all their lives, like brothers, even when Temple wasn't gone. Junius nodded. He turned away and walked forward on his own.
Towards the towers, he saw a man in front of 410 who looked like Lamar, the man who cheated on his age and still played in their little league games. Where Junius was the man-child on the diamond who could hit the ball far, Lamar was the feared slugger, the automatic home run that no one wanted to mess with. Lamar had to be at least eighteen, and everyone knew he carried a Glock.
As soon as he saw him, Lamar headed across the parking lot toward Junius. He called his name and asked what Junius was doing on the wrong side of the highway. The two drew closer.
"Why you here?" Lamar said, when they were face to face.
"I'm going to the top of two. Looking for who shot T."
"Yeah." Lamar laughed. "You going see Oracle."
"Serious." Junius started to pass Lamar, but the bigger man cut him off. He pulled up Junius' shirt and tried to take the nine. They both grabbed the weapon. Lamar had his hand on the handle, but Junius held his wrists and put his fingers over the trigger guard. Lamar pulled on the gun, pushed Junius and they both stepped closer to the highway, but Junius did not let go.
"Now. Motherfucker. You let this shit go, and I let you walk. You walk now, I don't cap your ass in the back while you leave. You fight, I drop you like the bullshit you is."
Junius pulled the gun, but it didn't move. Lamar was strong. He tried to twist it. Same result.
"No, niggah." Elf stood next to Junius again. They were shoulder to shoulder in front of Lamar. "My man and I going in," he said. "We here and we ain't leaving."
Lamar laughed. "You? Fucking munchkin land? The little Elf? Ain't I showed you not to come here before?" Lamar let go of the gun to stand before Elf, then took a fast swing. Elf flinched backward. But Junius didn't hesitate: as soon as Lamar's hands were off the gun, he drew it, put the barrel against the older man's temple and told him to back up.
"Oh!" Lamar yelled. "Oh! You done made the biggest mistake of your young life right here." He crossed his arm in front of him and knocked the gun away from his head. When he held Junius' arms, Junius dropped the gun to the ground and came back at Lamar with a sweeping right cross that caught him full on the cheek.
Junius stood toe to toe with the man and headbutted him in the face. He'd been boxing for two years now and he knew the right moves, but none of them came; he reverted straight back into the streetfighter he'd always been. Lamar stepped back with his hands over his nose. "Damn!" That was when Elf caught him up under his chin with a right uppercut and then followed with a stiff left that came in as soon as Lamar's hands dropped. The combination caught Lamar before he could react or recognize who the punches were coming from. Elf brought all he had. The straight right was enough to put Lamar down.
Junius swept the gun away from the man with his foot.
"You get going," Elf said. "Get up in that shit. See her."
Lamar was already gathering himself to stand, and Elf stood in front of him, his fists ready below his chin. "You go on," he said. "I have business with this man here."
Lamar rolled onto his hands and knees and then into a kneel. He touched his lips and then licked his hand when he saw the blood.
"Old business," Elf said.
Junius picked up the gun and looked at the two of them. Lamar had two years on Elf and at least fifteen pounds. "Go!" Elf locked his eyes on Junius'. "This is me, niggah. That—" He angled his chin up at the towers. "That you."
Junius tucked the gun back into his pants and started away toward the towers. He left the front walkway and stepped into the drive, still watching them as Lamar stood tall, at least four inches taller than Elf, and threw his first punch. It caught Elf square on the jaw, but he didn't hesitate for a moment; he came right back with a left to Lamar's gut that doubled the man and then stung his cheek with a fast right. Lamar stumbled back but collected himself and stood tall again.
In the moment that Lamar took to do this, Elf looked back Junius' way. Their eyes met and Elf yelled for him to go.
"Look—" Junius called, but it was too late; Lamar came back at Elf and hit him twice fast, hard, and then slashed his hand and his rings across Elf's face. Junius saw blood. Next Lamar doubled Elf with a punch to the stomach and pulled Elf's shoulders toward him as he delivered a knee to the man's chestnuts.
As Elf stumbled back, hands on his knees, Lamar started to raise up his shirt to go for his Glock.
Junius had no choice. He stepped back toward them and drew the nine. "Stop," he called. "Hold up!" He tried to sound as fierce and determined as Lamar would be, hard enough to make Lamar want to stop, but Lamar howled and turned, shaking his head.
"Oh, you fucked up two times now, little man."
As Junius stepped back onto the walk, he had the nine leveled at Lamar's chest.
"You pull a gun on a man once today already and now? Now you done fucked up, young one." Lamar showed his palms, each one at the side of a shoulder. His lips curled into a snarl of disbelief; he spit onto the walk. "You think you really use that?"
"Step away from my man."
"Yo fuck you!" Lamar started to lower his hand toward his belt. "I'm reaching for my gat now, slow. Shoot me or I'm a carve you up like my boy did to T."
"Who shot him?" Junius jumped forward. He knew Lamar would never tell him, and "his boy" could mean anyone in his crew: Skink, Roughneck, Pooh, anybody. Junius waved the gun. "Who?"
Lamar's hand continued toward his belt. Next to him Elf fell from standing with his hands on his knees to down onto his ass. He spit a stream of blood onto the ground in front of him, and a thin trail of it hung from his chin. He shook his head and then looked at Junius with blank, unbelieving eyes. "No, J."
Lamar said, "Listen to your man, J. He speaking the truth right now. Like this you walk out of here a clipped leg, maybe an arm, but I don't kill you." He smiled. "Maybe. But I don't know: you pull a gun on me twice in one day, you have to leave here with something to show for it. Heard?"
Junius felt his trigger finger curl around the cold metal and trace its arc. He flicked the safety off with his thumb, knowing there was already one in the chamber. "This for real," he called, tried to say it as loud and as clearly as he could. Behind him were the towers. Someone inside would have Lamar's back and someone else after that, but right now just the three of them made the scene outside. The February cold offered that small piece of justice.
Lamar used his left hand to lift his shirt and reveal the black butt of the Glock. He touched it with the tips of his fingers.
That was when Junius fired.
The crack of the report cut the day in half, and he jumped back—in comparison the recoil seemed nothing. Lamar turned fast to his side, his right hand shooting up to his left shoulder as he spun away from where he was shot.
Elf turned toward Junius, his eyes full of disbelief and maybe fear. They both knew all that shot had done.
"Yeah," Lamar said, going for his gun, still turned sideways. "You die now, J."
Junius fired again, three fast shots.
None hit Lamar; he drew his weapon and turned finally to face Junius as he brought it above his waist. Junius knew he'd fired wild, but let off two more as he saw Lamar's chest again. The second shot hit Lamar hard enough to knock him backward off his feet. For a moment Junius even saw the soles of his shoes. Derek and Ness would be coming now, and who knew who else.
"Get up," he yelled to Elf.
Junius walked up on Lamar, kicked the gun out of his hand. With labor, Lamar breathed, his throat wheezing, spit and blood on his lips. He swore at the air.
"Who killed T?" Junius asked, holding the gun in Lamar's face. His voice sounded distant, not his own.
"Fuck you niggah." Lamar shook his head.
Junius kicked Elf in his leg and told him to get up. He pressed the gun further toward Lamar's face and eased the trigger back. Now he knew it would kick, knew he would see death worse than he'd seen it already that day on his brother's face. This was going to be blood. Enough to blood bring a war.
Elf scrambled up onto his feet. "Get ready, niggah," Junius said. "You best be ready to run."