Chapter 1 – Booker
When Shorty pulled a blade on him, Booker T Brooks knew things were never going to be the same. The aroma of Mrs. C’s famous chili filled the kitchen just like it had so often when they were kids. Rain tapped gently against the windowpanes. And his cousin sliced the air with his knife like he wanted to shred their childhood to pieces.
“You fucking owe me, T.” Shorty’s five foot six inch frame loomed larger than a thug in a dark alley, fierce and lethal.
Booker stepped away from the table, looking across the room to where his backpack sat out of reach, his own knife buried inside. A rumble of thunder caused the muscles to tighten between his shoulder blades.
“Darnell James Davis.” Mrs. C’s voice, calm and stern, cut through the tension like this was just another childish battle. “That any way to convince someone to do you a favor? You hand that over, hear? Right now.”
Mrs. C might be getting up there, at least 70 if she was a day, gray haired, frail, and bent over with rheumatism, but the look on Shorty’s face couldn’t have been more startled if she was Supreme Chief of the Vice Lords giving him an order. When he folded the blade back into the handle and handed it to her, she nodded then pulled a plastic container out of the cupboard and started to pour leftover chili into it.
Just a typical family squabble on a Thursday night, right?
Except Booker still trembled with caution and anger. He’d seen Shorty’s paranoia in action before, but never to this level, and never directed at him.
“You gotta understand, T.” Shorty sounded almost normal again, his tone pleading with only a hint of desperation. “If I don’t make a payment by Monday, the VL’s gonna cut my throat for sure. Make blood sausage outta me or something.”
“Jesus, Shorty. If you think pulling a shiv is gonna convince me to break dance for their crew, you are crazy. You know I don’t want nothing to do with no gang shit. I’m on my way outta here now. Got my scholarship, doing well in school…”
Shorty gripped the back of the kitchen chair in front of him, lifted it a couple inches, then slammed it down on the floor again. “I told you this battle ain’t about no gang banging.” His knuckles were white against the yellow vinyl upholstery. “This is strictly legit, held on neutral ground. All I’m saying is, once I lay down my money on you, I get to cash in and get me out of a jam, is all.”
“And what if I lose, Shorty? You gonna slice me open with your blade, then?”
“Shoot, cuz, you ain’t gonna lose. You the best b-boy around. You know it.”
“You seriously trying to shine my shoes now? After you ready to skewer me like that? You crazy, boy.”
Shorty threw the chair aside and would have lunged forward if Mrs. C hadn’t snapped a dishtowel in the air between them. The hanging lamp swayed with the breeze she made.
“Now stop that right now,” she said. “Both of ya’ll. Shorty, you go on and finish cleaning up the basement like you told me you was gonna. And Booker T…” She turned to him with hands on her hips, the lenses in her glasses shiny from fingerprints. “You tell Shorty you gonna be there Saturday night like he’s asking.”
“Everything okay here, Mrs. C?” Elijah Shank stuck his head through the kitchen doorway. The old fart must have been hovering in the hallway listening the whole time. His bloodshot eyes showed he was tanked.
“You go on up to your own place, old man,” Mrs. C ordered. “Don’t be sticking your nose in around here.” When her tenant’s gray head disappeared, she turned back to Booker. “What good is there in this world if kin can’t help one another? And you know you love dancing. Ain’t no reason for you to say no.”
Booker started to protest, but she waved him silent. “Enough said. Now you go on and take that there garbage wit’ you when you leave. Garbage man gonna be by early in the morning and it’s smelling up this kitchen something awful. Just leave it by the other.”
Booker and Shorty glared at one another for a few moments before they both turned to do as instructed. Booker grabbed the industrial strength plastic bag with two hands like it was Shorty’s neck and lifted with a grunt. Damn thing was heavy enough to have a body inside. Two bodies even.
Stepping onto the back porch, he stood under the leaky roof to stare out at the night. The earlier downpour had slowed to a lazy dripping, the rain dark like ink falling from the sky. His shadow stretched across the soaked lawn from the window behind him, making the trash bag beside him look like a lumpy troll.
Hunching his shoulders, he stepped off the porch directly into a mud puddle. The inch-deep water flowed into a slit along the side of his sneakers like water pouring through a faucet.
“Shi-it!” He shook his foot off, pissed at himself for being stupid. Not stupid for stepping in the puddle, stupid for getting caught up in the hole Shorty’d dug for himself. He dragged the garbage bag behind him to the gate. The weight pressed a trail into the earth that filled up with water like a river.
The back garden was a muddy mess, full of weeds and wild flowers bent over in defeat. The soil sagged beneath the weight of the soggy spring, and the small shrine made out of an old tub looked like a dark door to nowhere.
Leave it to Shorty to get in so deep he couldn’t dig his own self out of it. It wasn’t like Booker minded b-boying in a battle or two. Street performing was how he made his money, after all. But not underground like this. Not against those dudes from the 63th Street Breakers. The great Alien Ness wrote a book he’d read once, The Art of Battle. One quote stood out to him: “I battle for meat. If I don’t win, I don’t eat.” Except this time it was “If I don’t win, Shorty gets broken shins.”
Booker slammed the gate behind him. With his luck lately, it’d be pouring down Saturday night, too. The goddamn rain had been coming down for a week now. Spring in Chicago, shi-it, weather like this would drown anyone dumb enough to watch them. Booker shivered and turned up the collar on his already soaked jacket. At least Jimbo had promised his couch was open for business for a few days. This would be a hell of a night to sleep on the street.
Mrs. C’s trashcan was jam packed, the lid balanced like a drunk man’s hat on the sacks shoved tight into the dented barrel. “Just leave it by the other,” Mrs. C had told him.
Except the city would charge her extra if he did that. Every time he visited, he worried about her more. She’d never had much. When she was foster mom to him and Shorty, they’d always had plenty to eat, but thrift shops and the Dollar General were about the only places she ever shopped. Things had gotten so bad she’d started taking in street scum for little or nothing, letting them sleep on the couch, the floor, or in the back yard even, sometimes getting paid nothing more than some trinket they’d probably stolen in the first place. One of these times one of them was going to realize how easy it would be to take advantage of an old lady like her and not give a shit about the good she did for everyone.
Booker glanced down the alley toward Chuck’s Chophouse. They never got enough customers to fill up the dumpster out back, and Booker knew it wouldn’t be the first time one of Mrs. C’s kids had taken advantage of the wasted space.
He dragged the bag behind him for a few steps before he clutched it in front of him and lifted, worried it would catch and rip on the uneven asphalt. Even the heavy-duty ones could only take so much abuse. The smell of moldy food, decaying meat, and the sweet stink of rotten tomatoes greeted him at the dumpster. Someone had left the lid half open, so all he had to do was get good leverage, lift, and—
“Oh, shi-it!” When he lifted the bag, his jacket zipper got caught, dragging the fabric up under his armpits and slicing a jagged slash in the plastic as it disappeared into the dark recesses of the bin. Something sticky leaked all over his exposed shirt. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He wiped at the stain and pulled his jacket down, giving up. He’d have to try washing it out in the sink and hope it dried clean enough.
He didn’t have time to worry. He sprinted toward Western Avenue, digging in his pocket for his CTA pass. If he missed the ‘L’ he’d have to take a bus and that would mean transferring three times before he made it to Jimbo’s place. When he was halfway down the block, he realized his wallet was missing. He stopped under the flickering light of a lamppost and double-checked all his pockets. Nothing.
That meant his student ID was gone, too. He’d only had a couple of bucks and one more ride left on the pass, but without his ID he’d have to spend hours in the admin office to get a new one. He couldn’t afford to be late to Old Man Jansen’s math class again. If he didn’t ace that, he could kiss his dream of transferring to the University of Chicago on its sweet hairy ass. Cardboard shuffling might work for filling in the holes not covered by his scholarship, but b-boying was no kind of career choice.
Odds were his wallet had fallen out of his pocket somewhere around the dumpster, but when he went back, he couldn’t find it anywhere. He swiped a hand down his rain-wet face and tried to think. He had been showing off his school mug shot to Mrs. C earlier. But he was pretty sure he stuck it in his jacket pocket after. Could it have fallen inside the garbage bag when he leaned over it to tie it up?
“Aw, hell. Already got my clothes trashed. Might as well fuck it up right.”
Shorty would say this was what you get for trying to do a good deed. He should have just left the bag by the overfilled trashcan like Mrs. C’d told him. Either that or took better care of his wallet. But no, he had to be a smart ass. Always think you know better’n all the rest, Shorty would say. Booker didn’t know about that, but at least he had sense enough to stay away from the path his cousin had taken. The Vice Lords looked good to a kid who didn’t know any better, but Booker knew his future’d be a dead end if he got caught up in that gang shit.
He almost fell in headfirst when he jumped up to balance on the dumpster lip. He stuck one hand out to catch himself, cussed, and pulled it back slimed over with something green and smelly. The bulb above the Chophouse kitchen door had been burnt out for weeks. The only light coming from the restaurant filtered through a filthy half window above the cooking vents. He looked up at the useless streetlight at the end of the alley. Maybe if he rolled the bin closer he’d be able to see better. Instead, he wiped his hand on his jeans and grabbed for the nearest plastic bag.
Digging through trash reminded Booker of Crazy George. He and Shorty used to make fun of the way George would guard the corner dumpster like it was filled with treasure. They would pretend they were eating something they found inside it and he’d start chasing them down the street screaming at the top of his lungs.
It was ironic—there was one of those words Shorty would give him shit about using—that trying to find his missing ID would remind him of Crazy George. Whenever Booker’d been tempted to give it all up, quit school, join the Vice Lords like Shorty, he’d remember Crazy George chasing them down the street. If he wanted to get out of this city, make a better life for himself, he had to get good grades. Who’d have figured Crazy George would ever be responsible for Booker getting a scholarship to Truman College?
“It’s got to be in one of these damn things.” He grabbed another pull tie and tried to tug the bag closer, but either it was wedged on something or too heavy to lift. Was he going to have to actually get in the dumpster to search?
The plastic ripped in his hands. From inside the bag, something caught the dim light. A watch. A damn fine watch from what he could see. Real gold maybe.
“Well, fuck me running,” he murmured, reaching for the bauble buried in wet, coppery-smelling newspaper sludge. The flexible band resisted at first, but he kept pulling till he finally had it. One gold watch, attached to a hairy forearm and a hand with curled fingers.
“Holy shit.” Booker let go of the severed limb and dropped to the alley asphalt. Something twinged in his ankle on impact but he was having such a hard time breathing he hardly noticed. The light rain had turned to water works again, stinging his face. Booker shivered.
“Holy shit,” he said again, quieter this time, his voice shaking. He wiped his hand on his jeans. Looking over his shoulder, the back of his neck prickled like someone was watching him, waiting to jump him maybe. The neighboring buildings were dark or shuttered and Mrs. C’s warm welcoming kitchen was half a block away.
Booker was torn. He needed that ID. What’s more, he wanted that watch. Even if it was busted, even though there was a fucking human arm attached to it. Royal’s Pawn Shop paid good money for gold to recycle, and Booker was sure what he’d seen had at least been gold-plated. Whatever that arm was doing in there, whoever had put it there, had nothing to do with him, right? Maybe it hadn’t even been real. Yeah, that was it. He’d grabbed some sort of mannequin arm used to play pranks on people.
Still, he stood frozen for a long time, listening to the hiss of cars passing along the rain-wet street. Rain dripped on the back of his neck, making him squirm. It wasn’t until he heard an angry shout somewhere far off and the slam of a distant door that he moved into action. He jumped completely into the dumpster this time, managing to stay upright among the mounds of trash. To hell with his clothes. They were ruined already anyway. At least the half of the lid that was still closed kept most of the rain off him.
The watch wasn’t hard to find again. The severed limb—real, no denying it this time, this was somebody’s real fucking arm—had been cut off just below the elbow. He shuddered as he pulled the watch off over the bloody stump and dropped the body part with a thud. Shoving the prize into his pocket, he swallowed hard, trying to keep down the bile that kept rising in his throat. Once his nausea was under control, he started searching for his wallet.
Refuse from the broken bag, the one the arm had been in, lay strewn across the top of the rest. It was impossible to tell which bag was the one he’d dropped in there so he grabbed the closest one and untied that first. Nothing. The next one was too light to be Mrs. C’s so he just shoved that aside.
When he found one with the right weight, he reached with both hands and yanked as hard as he could. The bag slid free, dislodging some of the loose rubbish that had been piled on top of it. Banana peels, empty cans, and coffee grounds spilled on his shoes, along with something round and heavy that landed on his toe with a crushing blow.
Booker looked down, straight into the bulging eyes of a severed head smiling at him with a familiar grin, one gold earring half torn from the lobe.