Jeff met Carlos through Slim about a month after he got kicked out of school. By that point, Jeff’s mom was mouthing off daily about him not pulling his own weight, how he didn’t have no excuse to not be bringing in something now that he wasn’t in school. Standing in the kitchen screaming with the corners of her mouth and eyes chalky, pupils wide and crazed, Jeff’s mom could create quite a racket. Jeff listened and nodded and said okay, then went over to Slim’s and told him he needed a job. A couple of weeks later Jeff was running with one of Carlos’s crews, corner of 174th and 98th.
The work couldn’t even be called work in those early days, to be real. Every once in a while some fiend would try to get one over on them, spying their stash or trying to pass counterfeit bills and whatnot. For the most part it was simple cash transactions, and a whole lot of sitting around listening to bass rattle out the back of whoever’s car they had that day.
Jeff worked the corner good though, and moved up quickly, from lookout to stash-holder to corner boy within a year. He was chilling at that corner with Briggs the day he first actually saw La Sombra. Briggs was one of Carlos’s other recruits, and Jeff remembers the heat of that day, how that and Briggs nonstop bitching killed his high before it ever even really got going. Standing on the corner, coming down off the blunt he’d smoked in Briggs’ blue Chevy Blazer parked at the curb, Jeff listened with his back against the passenger door. Briggs stood leaning against the side of the Quik Stop, just jawing.
“This nigga swear I ain’t got no sense, son,” Briggs said. “Shit like this wouldn’t never go down in the boroughs, on God. Niggas up there know me, son, know how I operate.”
“I think you might be making this bigger than it is,” Jeff said.
Briggs threw him a stink-eye, scratching at the peach fuzz growing on his chin. Briggs was a Queens transplant, moved to Miami in the ninth grade and spent the next two years telling everybody within ear shot how much better shit was where he came from—better parties, better women, better weed.
“Don’t matter no way,” he said. “I told him what it is, told him what I’ma do if he don’t come correct. He try me, I’m off the block starting now. Breaking out and doing my own thang, keep playing with me.”
“You told Carlos that?” Jeff said.
“Yeah,” Briggs said defiantly. “Straight up. Fuck I care?”
Jeff whistled, shaking his head. “You crazy, nigga,” he said.
“Talking to Carlos like that, bruh.”
“Fuck Carlos,” Briggs said.
“I don’t know, man,” Jeff said. “You seen what he did to buddy at the docks last month.”
“That nigga was pussy,” Briggs said, waving Jeff off. “And he stole from the nigga, different story.”
Jeff waggled his eyebrows, sucking his teeth. “Slim told me,” he said, snapping his fingers. “You remember Duke?”
Briggs nodded, reaching in his pocket and pulling out a pack of cigarettes.
“Duke stepped to Carlos,” Jeff said. “You seen what happened to that nigga.” Jeff held up two fingers. “Two nights, took out the nigga’s whole clique.”
“Duke wasn’t shit,” Briggs said, a slight wavering in his tone. “Nigga was on his way out anyways.”
“Still,” Jeff said. “Everybody thought Carlos was small time before that shit. Duke had a legit crew. Carlos’s just dat nigga, bruh.”
“The fuck good Duke’s crew did him?” Briggs said, sucking his teeth and shaking a cigarette out of the pack. “Probably one of his own niggas turned on him, why he fell. You can’t trust nobody, son. Niggas will smile in yo’ face and rob you in yo’ sleep.”
“So you tryna be out here by yo’ self?” Jeff asked.
“I don’t need no crew,” Briggs said, lighting the cigarette. “Just need common sense and connections, and I got both.” Briggs exhaled smoke and pointed up the street. “This nigga Carlos think ‘cause he did time in Cuba, got all these bullshit stories ’bout what he been through, what he seen, what he done, what he—fuck all that, I’m supposed to be scared ’cause the nigga did time?” Briggs slapped his palm against his chest, hard. “Crosshaven Juvenile Detention Center, son. Two years. In the boroughs, my nigga. Tell that motherfucker to run up on me. New York niggas know war, son. Savor that shit.”
Jeff stared at Briggs, shaking his head. “Nigga you crazy as hell,” he said. “You ain’t say all that shit to Carlos.”
Briggs hit the cigarette, a cloud of smoke enveloping his head. “Most of it.”
“What’d he say?”
“Who?” Briggs said.
Jeff leveled his eyes at Briggs, reached over and punched him in the arm. “Fucking Carlos, nigga. Who the hell we talking about?”
“Fuck you think he said?” Briggs said, scoffing. “You know how Carlos be, nigga just snapped. Talking ’bout—’bout how I ain’t never know how to stay in line, how he ain’t protecting me no more, all that bullshit. Cuban ass think I need his fucking—”
“Protection?” Jeff said, frowning. “Fuck you need protection from?”
Jeff waved a hand. “Said that nigga I jacked up a couple weeks ago was connected.”
Jeff cursed under his breath. “Told you that was a bad idea.”
“So what?” Briggs said, holding his arms out and turning in a circle. The chrome grip of his pistol poked out from the back of his waist. “I’m standing right here, niggas.”
Briggs faced Jeff again, grinning, just as the black car pulled up. The car seemed to appear out of nowhere, just popping up in the intersection on the opposite side of the block. Jeff saw it happening in real time but still couldn’t bring himself to move. Briggs stood with his back to the curb, obliviously grinning at Jeff in the broad daylight.
The black car stopped and idled for just a moment, long enough for Jeff to focus on a few details: the dull gold rims, the windows tinted so dark they looked like tar, the way the sun didn’t reflect off the trunk. As Jeff noticed these things, the passenger door slowly opened. The sky around them dimmed as it did, so much that Jeff could see nothing inside the front passenger seat but pure black, like a cloudy night sky over a desert far from civilization.
Jeff stood there staring at the mysterious idling car, trying to make out anything inside. Then, as suddenly as the car itself had appeared, a chrome-plated pistol materialized just outside the passenger door, floating in the air with nothing but that pure, unending darkness holding the grip. The pistol seemed enormous from Jeff’s vantage, the size of a cannon, like no other gun he’d seen before. Jeff’s nine millimeter—tucked at the back of his waist—seemed like a slingshot in comparison.
Jeff was suddenly reminded of his father again, of how La Sombra had just appeared in their doorway and sat at their kitchen table. At that moment he forgave his father for giving in so easily.
Staring at that phantom car, Jeff had never been so scared in his life.
The barrel of the gun flashed once, bright as a supernova, and Briggs right eyeball and much of his broad forehead exploded outwards, a stream of blood and grey matter splattering on the ground at Jeff’s feet. Some of it got on Jeff’s shoes, but he didn’t really notice that until later that afternoon, right before he tossed the shoes in a dumpster and walked home barefoot. In the moment, Jeff was too busy watching the black car’s passenger door close, the car slipping away quietly. Seconds later, it was as if it had never even been there to begin with. The corners of Briggs mouth twitched into a smile, his legs buckling. He fell first to his knees, then flat on his ruined face, his cigarette dropping from his fingers. A halo of blood slowly spread around his head, his left leg twitching incessantly.
The next morning, Jeff woke up early, before sunrise, startled. He lay on a ratty mattress in Slim’s living room, having abandoned his mother to a rehab clinic and his sister to his aunt’s. It took him a moment to see the three figures standing over him, shrouded in shadows. Panicking, he reached for the gun under his pillow.
“I would not do that, Jeff,” one of the figures said. His voice was familiar, raspy, his accent thick. At the same time, Carlos’s tanned face and broad nose came into view. Jeff felt a weird sense of relief, then annoyance. As Carlos’s face came into focus, so did the other two figures behind him: two giant men Jeff had never seen before, both wearing sunglasses in the pitch black living room.
“Goddammit, Carlos,” Jeff hissed, his heart racing. He let go of the pistol. “How the fuck did you get in here?”
As the question left his mouth, Jeff’s eyes adjusted and he saw Slim standing in the kitchen, leaning against the counter and staring back at him gravely.
Jeff looked at Carlos. “What do you want?”
“I want to make some things clear,” Carlos said. “About today.”
“I didn’t see nothin’,” Jeff said quickly.
“I know, cabrón,” Carlos said, reaching down and patting Jeff’s cheek. “I did not see either, but I hear.” He wiped the corners of his mouth, looking off in the distance. “I tell you about Briggs. Because Briggs, he like to…eh.” Carlos flapped his hand like a duck. “He like to talk. He like to talk and tell his plans to others. This—this—is the problem with Briggs. He does not understand the business. You talk and talk, you tell others your plans, you ruin these plans, for you and the people who are also a part of those plans.”
Jeff stayed quiet. Carlos sighed.
“That is not why I am here, Jeff,” he said. “I am here to tell you it was not me who did this to Briggs.” He eyed Jeff slyly. “But the one who did do this to Briggs, he will not know how to find Briggs if Briggs is not talking so much, eh?” Carlos grinned maniacally at Jeff and Jeff slowly nodded. Carlos patted Jeff’s cheek again then stood. “Learn a lesson from Briggs.”
Carlos left the apartment and the two giant men followed him out. Slim locked the door behind them, gave Jeff a look then walked back to his room and closed the door.
Jeff tried to go back to sleep, but like most things it was a futile effort.