Ironically, after Jeff shot and killed his own mother, life got a lot simpler. For a little while at least.
By this time, Jeff had reached his full height of six-four. Lifting weights on the bench in his living room had also gained him some of the muscle mass that would quickly distinguish him from other members of Carlos’s crew. It didn’t take long for Carlos to notice and switch him over to the enforcement arm of his outfit. That was how Jeff met Leon.
Leon was a long-time associate of Carlos, one of the first people Carlos had partnered with after reaching the states. Born in Atlanta, Leon was a bear of a man, with dark tattooed skin that shined in the sun. A plethora of long, twisting dreads sat piled on his head, his top row of teeth hidden behind a gold grill. He affectionately referred to Carlos as Chico, and was one of the coolest guys Jeff had ever met, when he wasn’t holding a gun. Put a piece in Leon’s hand though, and he became as efficient a killer as Jeff had ever seen.
Leon had moved to Miami in ’95 with just his Chevy and some clothes in a garbage bag in the backseat. Jeff always got the impression that Leon had come down this way to get away from something up that way, but Leon didn’t really like talking about those Atlanta days. His early Miami days though? Couldn’t get the man to shut up about it.
“You gotta understand, my nigga,” he said to Jeff, sitting behind the steering wheel outside a mark’s house. “Back in ninety-five? When I just got here? All that shit from the 80s? That shit was still moving ’round the city, know what I’m saying?” He rubbed his hands together, grinning. “Da moment cuz linked me up with Chico, this shit was guaranteed to run like clockwork, from day one. Cuz dat’s how we do in da A, ya feel me?”
Jeff sat in the passenger seat nodding, staring out the window at the apartment building outside. “I ain’t meet Carlos ’til after all that,” Jeff said. “Shit was already starting to run dry.”
“I feel ya, shit ain’t like it used to be,” Leon said, shaking his head. “Chico doing aight though. You doing aight too, my nigga. But shit really ain’t like it used to be.”
The front door of the apartment complex opened and a man walked outside. Leon’s smile disappeared and he quietly opened the car door, reaching inside his jacket and pulling his pistol from its holster. Jeff got out on the passenger’s side, drawing his gun from the waist—a six-shot revolver Carlos had given him to replace Sally. They got to within a couple feet of the man before he heard their feet. Close enough so that—when Jeff and Leon started shooting—every bullet hit its target.
Back in the car, Leon started the engine and pulled off easily, cruising down the street, unseen. Jeff sat in the passenger seat wiping his gun off with a towel. When he was done, Jeff took Leon’s gun and wiped it too, then wrapped both guns up. A moment later they pulled up next to the canal off US-1 and 158th. Jeff hopped out of the car and dumped the guns, then shoved the towel in his back pocket and hopped back in the car.
“Yeah, man,” Leon said, grabbing a blunt from the dashboard. “Shit really ain’t like it used to be.” He put the blunt in his mouth and pulled a lighter from his pocket, sparking up and breathing out a giant cloud of smoke. He reached over and lightly smacked his large palm down on Jeff’s chest. “You doing aight though, my nigga. You aight.”
Things sort of flowed like this for a while, and the weeks started blowing by the way days did when Jeff was younger. Leon taught Jeff things about the art of their work, how to get in and out quick, get the job done and leave no trace. Jeff made some money, stashed it away, bought a few things for his place and settled into a lifestyle that seemed sustainable (or as sustainable as anything in life is).
The day Jeff saw La Sombra again started with a call from Carlos about Leon. Jeff had been on a quasi-vacation for a week at that point, which he’d spent mostly lying in bed with a bottle of vodka sitting perpetually on his nightstand. He was there not-watching some game show when his cellphone rang.
“You seen Leon?” Carlos asked, by way of hello.
“Not since last week,” Jeff said. “Like Monday. Why?”
“I’ve been beeping him for two days but he won’t call back,” Carlos said. “I need you to pass by, see if he is home.”
“I keep telling him to get a cellphone,” Jeff muttered.
“Leon does not trust technology,” Carlos said.
“So we gotta go searching for him then,” Jeff said, shaking his head. “Got you. I’ll hit you back when I talk to him.”
Carlos hung up and five minutes later Jeff was dressed. Sticking his pistol in his shoulder holster, he shrugged on a leather biker jacket and hit the door.
Outside, Jeff immediately started to sweat, quickly climbing into a black Ford Explorer parked at the curb and blasting the AC. He lit a cigarette before pulling away, blowing smoke outside. He headed a couple miles north towards the apartments right in the middle of Richmond Heights. It gave him just enough time to finish his cigarette before pulling up outside Leon’s crib. Dropping the butt into a drain pipe, he walked into the apartment complex and moved up the stairs to the third floor, apartment 312. He knocked loudly. When no one answered he knocked again, then tried the door handle. The knob turned but the door barely budged. Jeff stared at it curiously then used his considerable heft to shoulder his way into the apartment.
The moment he had the door open, Jeff immediately took a step back into the hallway, grimacing at the smell. It was pungent, offensive, but not unfamiliar. Jeff had smelled it in his parent’s apartment a couple of days after La Sombra got his dad, after they’d removed the body and most of the residuals. Jeff’s strung-out mother and despondent aunt had walked him inside to pick up his things, moving him quickly past the kitchen. But not before he caught a whiff. The smell in the house that day had been much more faint than here at Leon’s, hadn’t yet had time to marinate. But it was still distinctly recognizable: the smell of death, the violent separation of the mind from the body, leaving nothing but a foul shell behind.
Jeff waited in the doorway until his eyes adjusted to the darkness, then he surveyed the rundown apartment. There was stuff everywhere: piles of old newspapers in one corner; old pizza boxes sitting stacked on the floor next to a beat up love seat missing one of its cushions; patches of carpet torn out and tossed in a heap in the middle of the room. Multiple holes tattooed the wall, each of them roughly the size and shape of a human fist.
Big, fat ass roaches, most scurrying away from the new daylight, some standing tall on the kitchen counter and on the non-beaten portions of the wall.
Jeff covered his nose and stepped inside, closing the door behind him. He checked behind the door for what had been blocking it and stared at a stack of unopened boxes with toaster ovens pictured on the side, shoved against the wall. Jeff studied the stack curiously then made his way further into the apartment. Dodging the larger obstacles, Jeff kept his eyes on a swivel, taking everything in while simultaneously trying not to touch anything.
At the end of the hall, Leon’s bedroom door stood to the right, his bathroom on the left. Jeff poked his head in the bathroom and grimaced. The scene inside was straight out of a neglected highway rest stop, the toilet stuffed with a mound of shit and toilet paper, the sink caked with dirt, the shower curtain-less and ringed with grime. Jeff turned to Leon’s closed bedroom door, opened it and stepped back, holding his breath and willing his gag reflex to shut down. The room door swung open wider to give him a better view of Leon sitting on his bed, leaning against the wall, dried puke running down his chin and bare chest. His skin was ashy and lifeless, eyes wide and gray, dreads curled around his head and down his chest like Medusa’s snakes. A needle poked out of his right forearm, Leon’s slack-jawed expression one of surprise, as if he’d realized only in the very last moment how much he’d royally fucked up.
“Fuck, Leon,” Jeff said, no amount of surprise in his tone. Now that he was here, Jeff realized a part of him had expected this. There had been signs that Leon was using. Jeff just hadn’t wanted to admit it, to himself or Carlos.
Jeff stepped into the bedroom and exhaled heavily, moving through the smell. Standing over Leon, he stared at the needle protruding from the man’s arm, then reached down and pulled it out. He hesitated for just a moment then closed Leon’s eyes. His skin felt rough, cold. It was then Jeff felt the presence.
Before he’d even fully registered the tingling in his spine, Jeff pulled his pistol and whipped around, pointing it at the shadows creeping behind the bedroom door. For a moment, Jeff still saw nothing, only felt it. Then the shadow started shifting, gaining form, becoming a vaguely humanoid figure. Jeff gripped the gun with both hands as the figure stepped towards him, standing between him and the bedroom wall so that all Jeff could see was a deep blackness, accompanied by a terror so pure it numbed his extremities, so he no longer felt the gun or his finger on the trigger.
Staring into that blackness, Jeff suddenly knew for certain that there was no afterlife. That this—this unending darkness—was what met us all when our brains shut down.
As suddenly as it had appeared, the figure retreated back into the shadows, blending into the darkened room. Jeff glanced to his left, at the one window covered with a large black blanket nailed to the wall. Keeping his gun raised, he walked over to the window and yanked the blanket away. Sunlight poured in and Jeff squinted, spinning around and pointing his gun again at the wall opposite Leon’s body. He was met with another fist-sized hole and some scurrying roaches. Nothing more.
Jeff kept his gun raised for a beat then shoved it roughly back in his shoulder holster. He paused to look back at the bed on the way out of the room. Leon looked now like he was sleeping off a hangover. Jeff glanced at the wall, where the shadows had disappeared. His skin prickled, hairs standing up on his neck.
Outside, Jeff walked around the corner to the one lingering payphone at the end of the block, placing a call to 911. Ten seconds later he climbed back in his Explorer and pulled out his cell phone, a Motorola flip. Carlos picked up on the third ring. There was a long pause when Jeff finished speaking.
“Meet me at the warehouse,” Carlos said. “We have some things to discuss.”
Jeff flipped the phone closed and pulled slowly away from the curb, staring at Leon’s bedroom window until it was just a dot in his rear view mirror .