Pandemic Files

The Commandments (IV)

IV.

Things went back to normal for a little while after Briggs got popped. Jeff thought about that a lot in the following years, how things always go back to normal, how it was nearly impossible to keep anything off-kilt forever. How not even death could disrupt the unending flow of time. Within days, that corner on 174th and 98th was operating as if Briggs had never even existed. If not for Jeff mentioning his name every once in a while—usually during a tip of his brown-bagged malt beverage, the yellow liquid  splashing uneventfully on the street and down the drain like a homeless dude’s piss—Briggs would be all but forgotten.

Whenever Jeff mentioned Briggs though, he also mentioned La Sombra. He did this as a warning to the young’ns on the block, hoping the stories about all the people in the hood who’d up and disappeared throughout the years would keep them in line. What happened instead unsettled Jeff. One young cat named Marv ran up on him one day, heated, cussing about a rival down the street.

“That nigga keep talking that shit,” Marv said. “I’m goin’ straight up La Sombra on his bitch ass.”

“Don’t talk shit you don’t know nothin’ ’bout,” Jeff snapped at the boy, wagging a finger in the kid’s face. “That ain’t smart, bruh. Throwing that name ‘round like that.”

The boy nodded and accepted the reprimand, but Jeff noticed the looks of the rest of his crew. Their eyes didn’t flash with fear at the mention of La Sombra. Instead, they gleamed with reverence, admiration even.

Needless to say, Jeff was happy the day Carlos moved him from corner to distribution.

By then Jeff had moved out of the crappy apartment he shared with Slim and into his own place off 107th near Eureka. Furniture was still an issue, but it felt so good to have his own space that Jeff didn’t even notice there was nowhere to sit.

One day, a year after Briggs passed, Jeff was getting ready to go meet up with Carlos at a warehouse in West Kendall to talk about a recent shipment. Around noon, Jeff stepped out of the shower and dried himself, pulling on a fresh black tee and some jeans. Hooking his fingers into the pants pocket, he tugged the waist down to his hips then buckled his belt tight. He stored his Smith and Wesson nine millimeter (affectionately nicknamed Sally) between his pants’ waist and underwear, then slipped the long shirt back over it. Turning back to the mirror, Jeff stared at himself for a moment then walked out.

Outside, Jeff squinted against the glare of the midday Miami sun, his forehead prickling with sweat the moment he hit the sidewalk. Jeff held his hand up to shade the glare just in time to see a figure running at him. The figure was just a shadow at first, simply a blur, and Jeff’s throat constricted as the gap closed to five feet, four. At the last second Jeff jumped to the side, simultaneously pushing the figure’s outstretched arms away. His chest hitched as he thought to himself

It’s La Sombra. La Sombra got me.

The figure stumbled and fell into a patch of dried brown grass, quickly scrambling back up. Jeff remembered his gun then and whipped it out as the person turned to face him.

“Don’t fucking do it, bruh,” Jeff yelled. “I will put one in yo’ ass.”

Instead of a verbal response, the figure growled, pushing off the ground and stalking towards him again.

“I ain’t fucking playing man,” Jeff yelled, cocking the hammer. “Take one more fucking step!”

The figure stopped in a sliver of sunlight coming through the trees, pausing long enough for Jeff to focus on the face. When it finally materialized into physical features, what stared back at Jeff was haggard—yet familiar. It took him a moment to realize he was looking at a woman and not a man, though the hanging skin and slack jaw made her look more like a gender-less zombie. It took Jeff another moment to recognize who she was.

The woman took another step in his direction, her face coming fully into focus.

“Ma?” Jeff said, his voice strained.

“I need something, Little,” she said, her voice shaky and raspy. “They said you got what I need.”

Jeff’s stance wavered, the gun growing heavy in his hands. “Ma,” he said. “What the fuck?”

“Don’t talk to yo’ Mama like that boy,” she snapped, then smiled, a horrid sight. Half her teeth were missing, and the ones that remained were stained brown. “I need some medicine, and they say you got it. So give it to me.”

“Who is they, Ma?” he said, glancing around. “Who told you that?”

“Slim,” she snapped. “Buddha. Jesus Christ, nigga, it don’t fucking matter who told me nothing, you came from my goddamn pussy and you got what I need so you goin’ give me my medicine when I ask for it!”

Jeff’s resolve strengthened with a sudden burst of anger.

“Slim sent you over here?” he asked, his voice low. He took a step forward and grabbed his mother’s scrawny right arm, holding his gun at his side. “He the one been keeping you doped up?”

“Ain’t nobody keeping me anything,” she said, struggling. “Let go of my arm!”

“I thought you was at the clinic, Mama,” Jeff yelled. “You supposed to be at the clinic.”

“I was,” she said, yanking out of his grip. “I got better so they let me go. And I’ll be more better once you give me my goddamn medicine.”

At that, Jeff’s mother pushed him away with a surprising amount of strength. Jeff stumbled backwards a bit, catching his balance against the side of the building. His mother bared her teeth again, something gleaming in her left hand. Jeff peered closer and saw that she held a switchblade, gripped so tight her knuckles were pale.

Jeff raised his gun a bit higher, aimed at her arm, giving his mother a pained look. “What you goin’ do with that Mama?”

“Send you back to God,” she spit. “You don’t give me my goddamn medicine!”

“Mama,” Jeff said quietly, shaking his head. “You ain’t goin’ cut me. I’m yo’ son, Mama.”

Before the words were even out of his mouth, Jeff’s mother lunged at him. She was faster than he anticipated, and he was holding a gun he didn’t want to use. Jeff tried to jump away, but not before a searing pain ran up his right arm to his shoulder. He pushed his mother, grabbing at his bicep. She fell to the floor and immediately scrambled back up. Jeff looked at his arm, at the blood running down to his wrist from the four inch gash she’d placed just above his elbow. Raising the gun again, Jeff trained it back on his mom.

“What the fuck’d you do that for, Mama?” he yelled.

Jeff’s mother tossed the switchblade from hand to hand with a scary amount of dexterity, grinning at him demonically. Something in her eyes caught his attention, a darkness in her pupils that seemed to spread throughout until the whites all but disappeared, replaced by an oily pit of nothingness. Her grin turned to a leer, her cheek bones protruding like stalagmites above her cracked lips.

“You need to mind me, Little,” she said, her voice suddenly deeper, filled with a bass that rumbled through the ground. “Mind yo’ Mama now.”

She lunged at him again, moving almost amorphously through the air. Instinctively, Jeff pointed the gun and pulled the trigger. There was an explosion, his arm jerked back and the gun flew from his grip into the grass behind him.

Jeff’s mother didn’t simply fall—she was thrown backward by the impact, as if a grenade had exploded in front of her. The bullet hit her square in the chest, exiting out her back and taking a giant piece of her with it. Bloody chunks splattered the concrete as she fell, the deep dark pits of her eyes growing wide then lightening back to their normal hazel tint. Jeff watched her fall with terror gripping his body, even as he reached down, picked up the gun, and shoved it in his pants. His mother’s head had barely hit the concrete before Jeff was in the wind.

Walking rapidly away from the scene, a conversation he’d had with Carlos when he first got into the game floated to the surface of his sea of memories. It was the day Carlos had given Jeff his first gun. He’d handed it to Jeff by the barrel, patting him on the shoulder.

“Remember, do not take it out unless you are going to use it.”

Jeff had nodded, looking at the gun expectantly. Carlos tapped him on the shoulder, frowning.

“I’m serious, muchacho. You must be ready to use it, no matter who it is. Even if it is a friend, a family. You must protect you.”

Jeff had nodded absently, wondering internally who his first hit would be. He never once guessed this.

Three blocks down, Jeff turned a corner and pulled the clip from his gun—from Sally—and shoved it in his pocket. He dropped Sally in a back-alley dumpster, then walked another couple blocks and dropped the clip in a trash can outside the post office. By time the sirens came, he was already on the Metro, sitting in the back, face tucked away in his shoulder to hide the stream of angry tears.

Part III

Part V

Standard
Pandemic Files

The Commandments (V)

V.

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.

And roaches.

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 .

Part IV

Part VI

Standard
Pandemic Files

The Commandments (VI)

VI.

As the weeks turned to months, the neighborhood grew quieter. Jeff didn’t really think anything of it until he noticed how thin the ranks of Carlos’s crew were becoming. Each time he showed up to the warehouse there were fewer and fewer men. The ones that remained looked haggard, their faces hidden behind the shadow of their baseball caps and everlasting frowns. Got to the point that one day, Carlos just said fuck it and put Jeff on a job solo.

“I tell Monk, man,” Carlos said, handing Jeff the keys to a throwaway Honda Civic. “I tell the motherfucker.”

“You did tell him,” Jeff said absently, taking the keys and staring at the beat-up car. “You sure he’s home?”

“And now behind my back?” Carlos said, shaking his head. “He is home. Get rid of it when you are done.”

“How do I know what Monk got on him?” Jeff asked. “I ain’t scoped the place out or nothing, just running up in there blind.”

Carlos scrunched his face up. “This is Monk we are talking about? The same Monk shoot himself in the foot last year?” He chuckled as he spoke, though his eyes studied Jeff intensely. “Why worry?”

“‘Cause he still got the gun he used to shoot himself with,” Jeff said. “And I’m betting the shit still works. And he ain’t goin’ make the same mistake twice.”

Carlos suddenly raised his right arm, fingers gripped around the stock of an Uzi. “We have better,” he said, handing the uzi to Jeff. Jeff took the gun, the skeptical look remaining on his face. Carlos frowned. “You think Monk will have more.”

“I think we don’t know what he’s got,” Jeff said. “Easy way to get ambushed. It’s the man’s crib, he knows the spot better than I do.”

Carlos stayed quiet, contemplating.

“You are right,” he said finally. “When you arrive, wait and see. Make sure he is home, alone. Make sure he does not see you. Then.” Carlos shrugged.

A couple of hours later, Jeff parked his car up the street from Monk’s, staring at the apartment building in the rear view mirror. The area was lit by a single streetlight shining on the few scraggly trees outside, casting long finger-like shadows across the side of the building. Jeff sat quietly just breathing, watching Monk’s fourth floor bedroom window. A bulky AC unit hung out the opening, the window itself painted over black. As Jeff stared, there was a flicker of movement. He picked up the Uzi from the passenger seat floor, checking the clip. When he looked back up, his eyes went wide.

In the moment that he’d looked away, the moon had suddenly dipped behind a cloud, throwing the area into an even deeper darkness. At the same time, the one working streetlight started flickering, the finger-like shadows against the side of the building turning into dark strobes. Jeff’s stomach tightened, the uzi shaking in his fist.

The first thing to catch his attention was movement from down near the building’s entrance, yet when Jeff focused on the three short steps leading up to the front door, he saw nothing but shadows crowding the walkway. A ripple of fear brought goose bumps to the back of his neck. He continued staring at the shadows, waiting with a growing sense of dread in his gut.

It started out as an almost imperceptible shudder, something that could be written off as a by-product of not enough sleep and the overall occupation. After ten seconds there was a very real shift in the general shape of the shadows , the darkness drawing together into an amorphous blob that started rolling over itself up the steps to the entrance. At the same time, the street—which had seemed so calm moments ago, eerily calm—was suddenly alive with activity, wind blowing through the trees, kicking up dead leaves and errant pieces of trash. Jeff ducked down behind the steering wheel instinctively, peeking over the top of the dashboard and watching as the shadowy blob outside the apartment complex crowded the front door, pressed against the entrance, the blob growing smaller and smaller as it seeped inside the building, until there was nothing but the doorway again. A moment later the moon came back into view, the street light stopped flickering and the atmosphere settled back to normal.

Jeff looked up at Monk’s apartment, rolled down the window and listened intently, waiting. Thirty seconds later there was a faint bang, as if something had slammed into a wall. Another moment of silence, then a bloodcurdling scream of terror rang through the night air, the sound coming unmistakably from Monk’s fourth floor window. Jeff grabbed the Uzi and moved to open the car door just as Monk’s window lit up with flashes. Gunshot reports echoed and Jeff took his hand off the door handle, pressing back against his seat. He held the Uzi in his lap and stared at Monk’s window, watching as the window and Monk’s AC unit suddenly exploded into the night sky. The glass and giant metal AC unit seemed to hang in the air for a moment—a dark silhouette against the bright moon in the background—before tumbling down to the ground with a resounding crash, the AC unit power cord trailing.

Jeff dropped the Uzi back in the passenger seat and started the car. The AC unit had barely settled into its wreckage when one dark-skinned, unclothed leg slipped through the busted out window, then another. Monk’s face appeared, the street light shining on his features so Jeff could see the sweat pouring off his forehead, and the blood pouring from his mouth. Monk looked desperately around, up and down the street, then up at the sky. Monk close his eyes and said something inaudible, then pushed off the window ledge and went soaring. Just like the AC unit before him, Monk seemed to fly for a moment, his chest puffed and arms held out so Jeff could imagine him flapping once and gaining some air.

Monk tumbled as he fell, flipping twice before landing directly on his head. The sound of Monk hitting the concrete—a sickening splat—echoed straight to Jeff’s core.

Jeff eased the car away from the curb, cruising past Monk’s apartment building. He kept his eyes on the fourth floor window, staring at the unending darkness inside. A moment later he turned a corner and cruised towards US-1, silent.

Five miles away Jeff stopped the car in an abandoned lot and stepped out. He opened the back door, pulled out the long ratty rag he’d thrown in there earlier and slammed the door closed. He opened the gas tank and shoved the towel in, then pulled a lighter from his pocket and lit the end. The fire grew slowly, the towel curling as it burned. Jeff stepped off the abandoned lot and strolled down the street, pulling out his cell phone as he did. He dialed a number and put the phone to his ear.

Carlos picked up on the second ring. “It is done?”

Jeff didn’t respond at first, just kept walking. A moment later there was a loud whoomp followed by a brief explosion, just loud enough to register on the phone.

“What was that?” Carlos asked.

“It’s done,” Jeff said, flicking the phone closed.

Part V

Part VII

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