The rottweiler yanked, almost pulling me down into the grass. One more good yank would have.
Fuck, this dog really wanted to tear me to shreds.
My hands were getting covered in dirt, in slobber, as the dog started gnawing at my elbow and the upper part of my forearm. Half my arm was inside the dog’s mouth. He’d gotten enough of a hold of me that he wanted to try and enjoy his catch.
Any pull or tug I tried was answered by a pull or tug of his own. And it wasn’t a wild, feral snap of the neck, it was strategic, purposeful. He knew how to pin a human and keep them down, and he wanted me to stay down. Maybe I was crazy, my head rushing with too much adrenaline, but I could feel hatred coming from the dog. Animosity. If such a thing was even possible.
He was good, I had to give him that. Couldn’t call him a good boy, exactly.
If I was any other person, I’d end up stripped down to the bone. Chewed up and spat out.
I was hesitant about using my strength on this dog, but that initial delay stemmed from me not wanting to hurt an animal, even if it was tearing at my skin and muscle.
But, there was a line between preservation and cruelty, and I didn’t intend to cross it.
I shifted, regaining more of my balance. I pulled my hands out of the dirt, planting my feet down, firm.
With my good hand, the one that wasn’t caught in the jaws of an enraged rottweiler, I searched for a collar on its neck. I found it, grabbing a hold.
I caught a glimpse of a tag. Max.
The dog fought me all the way, jerking my arm, snarling while he did it. A mean look in his eye. He wasn’t one to be messed with.
But neither was I.
I yanked, pulling the dog up, lifting him off his four feet. I twisted, spinning is both around.
He was still along for the ride, hanging on by my skin, his teeth.
I dug my heels into the ground, trying to swing him off. Still nothing. He was persistent. I almost wanted to commend him for it.
Had to go with another approach. I brought a foot back, and leaned, making myself lose my center of gravity. I started to fall backwards, bringing the dog with me.
Before I hit dirt again, I spun around one more time, but I was closer to the fence, now, too close to make a full rotation.
The dog slammed right into the wooden fence.
“Sorry Max!” I yelled at the same time.
I heard a whimper, and the dog let go. He fell into the dirt, and I was already running before he could get up again. I hopped over the fence on the other side, into another backyard.
No dog here. No Arturo, either. No such luck.
How’d he get the jump on us? I tried to think of where he was in the house, and where he was going now.
We were too focused on that shirtless guy, we didn’t notice him. Where’d he come from?
From behind, maybe? He was close to the door that led to the backyard. The hall. The hall I was supposed to check. There was another door, another room, that I didn’t get to comb through.
It didn’t matter, though, it wasn’t exactly relevant. What mattered was finding him, getting him back.
He wasn’t in this backyard, he wasn’t around. I had to keep moving.
I ran, crossing the length of the yard, in the direction of the house.
Being on ground level wasn’t going to help, I’d need a better view.
I got closer to the house, and took to the air. My feet hit the roof at an angle. It wasn’t nice and flat like the buildings I was used to. There was an incline, and the roof was rickety at best. I had to put effort into not slipping and falling over and off the house.
It led to heavy footsteps as I ran across the roof. If someone was home, there was no doubt that they heard me.
I climbed up higher up the roof as I moved, getting as much height as possible. The buildings here weren’t very tall. I had to make do.
I found the street below, and I looked around, trying to find Arturo. It wasn’t the best vantage point, but I had a clear look from one end of the road to the other. He might have gotten a head start, but he was only human, with human capabilities and limitations. He couldn’t have gotten far.
I turned- There.
A boy, running across the street, going from one sidewalk to the next. Black shirt, denim shorts. He looked a lot like the dot that I saw vaulting over the fence, earlier.
And he was in a hurry, his legs blurred from under him. Fast, even by normal standards.
If I didn’t have powers, he’d be home free, with me getting chewed up by the dog. Right now, he probably thought he was in the clear.
He’s about to be proven very, very wrong.
I patted my hand on my coat, then I reached behind my back. My arm was already healed, I was able to move it fine.
I pulled out my gun.
He was too far, and I wasn’t confident in my aim. I’d miss, and the shot would ring out, alerting everyone that something was going down. I shouldn’t blow this out of proportion.
I hopped down, landing into the front lawn of the house, and continued on with my chase.
He was reaching the corner, about to turn, but I was quickly gaining on him. It wouldn’t be long until I was right on him.
A screech, carried through the air. Tires.
A convertible tore through the road, the one Arturo would end up on if he made that corner. Another screech, and it halted right at the stop sign where to two roads met.
The top was down, and I saw the heads of others in the car, looking on at both of us.
They each yelled, gesturing, calling out to Arturo to run faster, to hurry.
I was fast, I was catching up, but he was closer to the car than I was to him. He’d hop into the car, and this chase would continue. I couldn’t let this drag on any more. It had already gotten bad enough.
Still running, I pointed with my gun, aiming it.
No, I had to tell myself.
I shifted my hold on the gun, so my fingers were around the muzzle, instead.
The safety was still on, I hadn’t touched it.
I pulled my arm back, the gun above my head.
I ran some more, until I was a tad closer.
I threw the gun.
It hit Arturo right in the back, between the shoulder blades. He collapsed five feet before the corner, by the curb.
I finally caught up to him, standing over him as he groaned, moving to get on his back.
I reached down to collect my gun. I aimed it at his head.
“Arturo?” I asked.
He mumbled, sounding hurt. But it wasn’t an answer.
“Are you Arturo?” I asked again. I put a foot on his chest.
He coughed, and stammered. “Yes, yes!”
“I’ve got-” I started, but I was interrupted by a gang of voices. I looked up.
People were hopping out of the convertible, approaching me and Arturo. Some weren’t holding anything, instead flashing signs at me as they got closer. Others had more direct, recognizable means to intimidate.
They closed in, circling around, closing off potential means of escape. Shouting while they did it.
“Back the fuck up bitch!”
“Fuck you think you doing?”
“Better step back or I’m poppin’ your ass!”
They were barking at me to move, but they weren’t giving me much room. I stood my ground. I stood over Arturo.
A gang, in multiple meanings of the word. A group of people, all aligned within the same organization. And they were all ganging up on me.
“May I help you?” I asked, not looking at anyone of them in particular. I tried gauging the numbers. About four people directly in front, with maybe two more behind me. I couldn’t turn to be sure, or else I’d be showing my back to them, giving more people an opening.
That convertible held a lot of people.
One of them redirected my question back at me. “May we help you?”
“Just having a friendly discussion with Arturo, here.” I looked back at the people I did have an eye on. “And I was hoping to keep it that discussion private, as well.”
“Fuck that,” one of them said. Tall, Latino, wearing a similiar black shirt as Arturo. He had a gun. “You wanna talk to him, you gotta do it with us around. You got a fuckin’ problem with that?”
I shook my head. “I don’t, but you might.”
“Fuck you say?”
“Nothing, forget it.” I looked down at Arturo. “Let’s talk, your boyfriend gave me the okay.”
The guy I was just talking to shouted, curse word included, but I didn’t catch what he said.
“Get-” Arturo coughed, “Get your foot off me.”
I got my foot off him.
Grunting, groaning, he moved to a better position, but he stayed low. He crawled over to the curb, and sat there. He faced me, squinting, the sun in his eyes.
“You don’t look like a Ghost,” he said.
“Then why does it look like you’ve just seen one?” I asked. “You’re sweating, breathing hard, all the color has been drained from your face. You’re whiter than me, and I’m not even white.”
“That’s…” Arturo breathed in.
“A lie,” he said, breathing out.
I spread my arms, as if to prove my point.
“What, what the fuck do you want from me?” Arturo asked.
“You already know,” I said. “I want what’s due to my gang.”
“You can’t have it.”
Someone else answered, coming from behind.
I turned my shoulders partially to address them.
“I wasn’t asking you,” I said. “This is between me and him.”
“You fuck with him, you fuck with all of us.”
“Nice line, but it’s really not your business.”
I heard steps, and I turned back. They were trying to get closer.
I moved my arm, gun pointing towards Arturo. They stopped, but they had guns as well, and they weren’t afraid to show them off.
The guy in the black shirt mouthed off again. “You think that’s gonna stop us?”
He waved his gun. A pistol, bigger than mine, the barrel longer.
I answered. “If you have a brain, yes.”
Before they got worked up again, I added, “Look, this doesn’t concern anyone of you. Just me, just Arturo. Once we get this sorted out, I’m gone, and you all can go compare gun sizes with each other.”
They did not take that well.
“Bitch, fuck you!”
Half of them rushed me.
My first instinct was to kick Arturo. The bottom of my foot met his chin, and he went right to the ground. As he fell, he crashed into two of his friends, tripping them over.
I got out of the way, letting them fall to the cement, but that left me with little room to move. I bumped into someone from behind.
I swung my hand, turning with the motion. I struck someone across the face with my elbow. He was too close for me to whip him with my pistol.
He went down, though, and my arm continued its arc. I clipped someone else, and he was far enough that I did hit him with my gun this time. The first guy I got absorbed some of the impact, but I still had enough momentum to land a solid strike.
He dropped, right after the first guy. Their heads knocked together as they hit the curb.
Arms grabbed me, going around my sides, hard. A bear hug.
It wasn’t enough to restrain me. I dropped to my knees, bringing my attempted captor down with me. Without warning, I sprung up, sending us at least seven or eight feet above the ground.
The cries of shock and confusion were faint as we left the earth, getting louder as we returned.
I rolled while in the air, making whoever held me cushion our return to terra firma, and he released me as his arms went limp, falling to his side. I quickly rolled off of him, getting back on my feet.
Small, subtle, but there. A weight, shifting on my face.
All this running, jumping, fighting, it was making me sweat. My bangs were stuck to my forehead, my shirt stuck to my back, and my glasses were sliding off the bridge of my nose.
It felt off, having something… there. Present. At the edge of my attention, incessant until resolved.
I have to fix my glasses.
It wasn’t actually that big of a deal, but the edges of the frames were blocking my vision. A blurry, indistinct line. Pestering, annoying.
My move to make vertical distance between me and the gang seemed to have worked. They were taken aback, and they needed a second to refocus and get back on the offensive.
I took that as my opportunity fix my glasses. And to make a run for it.
I ran towards the corner of the sidewalk, pivoting as I went over the curb. I was facing them, moving back, still making distance.
The ones I hadn’t dealt with started giving chase, the others right behind them, bouncing back up again.
Dogs. They were dogs. I could put them down. It would be so easy.
But… no. What good would that do?
None, I thought.
I raised my hands, dropping my gun. It clattered at my feet. It gave them a brief pause, some running into each other.
I spoke before they broke into a run again.
“I don’t want trouble, I just want Arturo. And his money.”
My hands fell to my back, searching. My fingers brushed up on cold metal. I grabbed hold of it, tight.
It was hard to gauge my own strength, sometimes, but I was confident I could pull this off.
I pulled the metal rod out of the dirt.
I brought the rod forward, putting it between me and them. It shut them up.
The stop sign. I held it at the end that had been embedded in the ground, like a sword, letting the red octagonal shape face my attackers.
I let the sign speak for itself.
A pause, and it lasted. They had no idea how to process what they were seeing.
“This doesn’t have to get any worse,” I said. “But if you take one more step, it will. It’s up to you.”
They stared, their expressions mixed. Shock, awe, confusion, maybe even fear. I had made a play, a power move they had never seen before, and it stunned them. It gave me an opening to work with.
I addressed them all with a warning.
“You decide how you want this to play out. You can either get back in that car and leave, or I break each and every one of you, until you can’t even move a finger. Your choice.”
They didn’t move, and I hoped they didn’t dare to. The message was clear, stamped on the sign I waved lightly in front of them.
I watched as they put their weapons down.
Defeated, they backed away, looking at Arturo.
“Nope,” I said, calling out. “He stays, all of you leave.”
They turned as a collective, staring back at me.
“If you leave now,” I said, “He gets to walk back to you. Go on, save his life.
They were glaring, now, but they listened. They walked, passing me, going to their car. I turned, watching them as they climbed into their ride, glancing at me and Arturo. I heard the engine of the car, and they left.
I lost sight of them, and put my attention back to Arturo. He was sitting on the curb, massaging his elbow, rubbing his shoulder.
I walked over to him, still holding the stop sign.
“Finally, some time to ourselves,” I said, looking down at him. “You’ve got a lot to answer for.”
Arturo craned his neck to see me, sun still in his eyes.
“I don’t know you, but I sure as hell know you ain’t a Ghost.”
He didn’t directly respond to what I had said, and I wasn’t going to directly respond to that.
I stabbed into the street with the stop sign. The metal rod pierced the cement, digging and leaving small cracks. I pushed it until the sign itself was near my head, height-wise.
I readjusted my glasses.
Arturo looked like he had jumped out of his skin.
“Get up,” I told him. “I’m going to get my gun, and I’m escorting you back to the house. Move.”
We both moved, Arturo standing up, and me turning back to grab my gun. I returned to Arturo, and I was pleased to see that he hadn’t run away.
I put a hand on his shoulder, firm, with the gun pressed against his lower back. I gave him a light push, and we walked.
The gun’s safety was on the entire time.
The walk was long, uneventful, but that wasn’t a bad thing. It took time, going the long way around, but it beat running into any more dogs or Arturo’s friends. We got back to the house without any hassle.
And it looks like it’s all clear.
No hassle there, too.
I saw that the van was still parked, Sarah standing close the vehicle. She noticed me, tapped on the driver side window, and ran over.
“Voss, you’re okay!”
“Of course,” I said. I lifted my arm, showing her where my sleeve had gotten torn and ripped by Max. Blood and dirt had soaked into the cloth.
I saw Sarah’s mouth about to drop, about to say something. I stopped her.
“Like you said, I’m okay. Ran into a bit of a snag, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle.”
Arturo muttered something under his breath.
I glanced to Sarah. “Take him?”
Sarah nodded, and I let Arturo go, handing him off to Sarah. She pushed him, following me as I went to the van. I put my gun back as we approached.
The driver side window was rolled down, and I saw Reggie. Tone was across from him.
“I’m back,” I said. “And I come bearing gifts.”
“That makes things easier.” His face said it all. He looked relieved to see me. “We were about to dip and see if we could find him by riding low around the streets. Sarah begged me to wait five more minutes-”
“And then another five minutes,” Tone interjected.
“-in case you came back. Good thing you did.”
“Good thing,” I repeated. “You didn’t dip just to avoid any cops? A gun was fired in there, people might come poking their heads around.”
“Pigs drag their feet when they come around these parts. No one calls because they don’t want to get locked up with the perps.”
Tone summed it up for me. “Basically, don’t be a snitch.”
“Right,” Reggie said.
I understood, giving him a nod. “Let’s head back inside, I’ve got Arturo, and he’s been gracious enough to help us find his, our, money.”
“I like the sound of that, Voss.”
Reggie and Tone got out of the van, falling in step with me as I turned to go through the gate, and back into the house.
It was still thick with sweat and perfume, and I tried holding my breath as much as possible. I made it about as far as the living room, and stale air filled my lungs.
I found the shirtless guy, the one that tried to distract us from Arturo. He was tied up, arms and legs, sitting by a coffee table. Bound by coils and coils of extension cables.
He was sitting on the floor, but he looked wound up, uncomfortable. His eyes were half-open and downcast. He wasn’t looking at any of us.
“He wouldn’t talk, to the point that I’m almost thinking he can’t talk,” Tone said. “The most we could do was restrain him and get him out of the way.”
I winced. “Was I too hard on him?”
“Nah. He’ll live.”
That wasn’t exactly what I asked, but I left it there. If he actually had anything meaningful to say, we’d have gotten it out of him already.
Sarah nudged Arturo, putting him in front of me.
I looked at Arturo. Young, but he wasn’t a kid. He wasn’t that much older than me, but his expression added a few more years. He was trying to act tough.
“We have you, now,” I said. “There’s nowhere to go. Best give the money to us, and we’ll be on our way.”
A tough act, but it didn’t hold. Arturo dropped his head, his shoulders.
He turned to go, and we went with him. He took us down the hall, the hall I had checked before Sarah and the others found that shirtless guy.
Arturo passed the door I had went through, going instead to the door at the end of the hall.
He opened the door, and we all filed in.
The room was small, smaller than the room I had searched. More of a guest room than a master bedroom. There was a bed taking up half the space, and a TV on the floor. Wires for a controller and an old game system extended out from the literal box that was the television. Anachronistic.
“We checked here, but we didn’t find nothing,” Reggie said.
“You didn’t check hard enough,” Arturo responded. He tugged at his arm, getting Sarah to let go.
“May I?” he asked me.
He moved to one corner of the room, and bent down to pull at the carpeted floor. There was some resistance, but he managed to peel the carpet away. He stood, holding it, and walked backwards. The carpet gave way to reveal a trap door underneath.
“Shit,” was all Reggie had to say.
“Doesn’t matter,” Arturo said. “Even if you found it, you’d still need the key.”
He pointed to the padlock, securing the latch. It was small, and the carpet was thick enough that it wouldn’t be felt if stepped over.
“Where’s the key?” I asked.
Arturo moved his finger, pointing to the TV.
“You put it… in that fucking thing?”
“It worked,” Arturo said.
“Whatever. You have any tools?”
“In the garage, right by the door.”
I signaled with one hand. “Reggie, Tone, go into the garage, grab what you can use to pry open the thing, and then get that door open. Sarah, move Arturo here and keep him still. I’ll keep watch.”
They answered in unison. “Yes Voss!”
Everyone split up, going to complete their different tasks. I watched over them as they moved in and out of the room, back and forth and around to get things done. I would have offered to help, but I wanted to indulge in my authority over my crew, even if it was just a little bit. It helped solidify my status in the gang, to maintain my aura of authority. I spoke, and they listened.
I could get used to this.
Reggie and Tone came back with the right tools, and worked together to unplug the different wires from the game system and wall, picking up the TV after they finished. They placed the TV on the bed, and, using a screwdriver, opened up a plate from the bottom.
Tone reached inside.
He pulled out a small key, with a small plush figure attached by a chain. Some cartoon character I didn’t recognize. Big eyes, colorful hair.
“Open it up,” I said.
Tone took the key and walked over to the corner where Arturo had pulled the carpet. Reggie helped peel it back, letting Tone use both hands to get the door open.
The key went inside the padlock, and turned. A perfect fit.
Tone threw the lock aside, and pushed the door open, Reggie stepping to the side. The door fell back, leaning on the bed and keeping the carpet folded down as well.
“See anything?” I asked.
“I see a lot of things,” Tone said. “Come look.”
I took my back off the wall, wanting to take a look for myself. Everyone except Sarah and Arturo took a peek in the hole.
“Nice,” I said.
Stacks of cash, a lot of them. Granted, most of them were single bills, but there was enough here to make someone very happy if all of this suddenly fell in their lap. One thousand, at least.
It wasn’t just cash, either.
“Looks like they hadn’t gone through all the dope, yet,” Reggie said. “There’s a good amount to take back and sell again if we need to.”
“I don’t disagree,” I said. “Let’s take all of it. Find some bags in the other rooms, empty that out, and we’re gone. Sarah?”
“You help, I’ve got Arturo.”
She nodded, taking her hands off him, pushing him to me. I grabbed the back of his shirt, twisting the cloth in my hand, and pressed him to move.
We got out of the room, then the hall, leaving them to do their work. I brought Arturo into the living room. His shirtless friend was as still as the couch or the table he leaned on. Part of the interior.
I kicked Arturo in the back of the leg, and he fell, dropping to his knees. I walked around him, until I was facing him.
“Money and drugs, that’s useful, valuable, but do you know what’s even better?”
Arturo didn’t offer up a guess.
“It’s information,” I said, filling in the blank. “I want to know what gang you represent, who your boss is, and anything else you can come up with. Nothing’s irrelevant.”
“I don’t know shit. I’m a nobody.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. You’re not a nobody, Arturo, you’re a pawn, and pawns play very important roles. They scout things out, assess the situation on the field, and report back to those in charge. If anything, they know more than the ones up top.”
“They’re also the most easily disposable, they can replaced.”
“Sure, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useless. So come on, give me what you’ve got.”
I could see him go through the motions. Resistance, then resignation. He sulked.
“We don’t have a name, we just hold up turf in this part of the hood, getting into scraps whenever others try to muscle in, or get too cocky. Our boss, Hanley, he just calls the shots, tells us how to take certain deals.”
“So he’s the one that told you to short us on the deal?”
Arturo tensed, then dropped his head.
“Yes,” he said.
“Where can I find him?” I asked.
Again, he tensed, but he brought his head back up.
He began to plead.
“Please don’t! They, they’re all I got now, I don’t have no one else! They’ll kill me if they find out about this, he’ll kill me!”
I reached back for my gun, and held it out, making it clear that it was there, and that he could see it.
“That isn’t necessary,” Arturo said.
“It isn’t, but it really sets the tone, doesn’t it? You take one out, and it very suddenly escalates the situation. Suddenly, it’s serious. You know not to mess around, or someone, maybe you, can get hurt. Don’t even need to fire it, by itself, it speaks loudly enough. That’s interesting, don’t you think, that kind of power.”
“But,” I said, “I don’t have much experience with guns, I’ve never really used them. I’d much prefer a knife. It’s closer, more direct. With guns, you can put a sort of distance between you and the other guy, and put all the blame on a single bullet. With a knife? It moves under your own power, you dictate where that blade goes. Whatever happens, you’re there to see it, and you have to own that. Shame I don’t have mine with me.”
Arturo’s eyes widened by a fraction.
Again, I asked him my question, “Where can I find him?”
“There’s… a bar, three blocks south of here, right by the neighborhood. Nelly’s. There’s a diner there, too, right next to it. We’re friends with the owners, so we hang there a lot.”
That reminded me of the deal we had with Mrs. Martinez and her restaurant.
I aimed my gun, placing it under his chin.
I looked at him. He froze.
I reassured him.
“No, I’m not going to kill you. That’d do me no good. I want you to live, so you can go back to your friends, to Hanley, and tell them all about what happened, so they can go and tell others. The Ghosts? That’s just the beginning. There’s a new gang on the streets, and we’re out for blood.”
I brought the gun to his lips, pressing it into his teeth. His reflexes forced him to part his lips open, slightly, and I used that to push the gun farther down his throat.
He started choking.
“Tell them, tell everyone. Please?”
Struggling, twitching, but he nodded.
I pulled the gun out, and he coughed and gagged. I kicked him to the side so he wouldn’t spit on my boots.
Sarah came out of the hallway just as I was finishing up.
“We’re good to go, Voss.”
“Thank you. Pack it all in the van. Do you know where Lawrence is?”
“Let’s go and show him what we got, I think he’d like to see this.”
“I think so, too,” Sarah said, agreeing.
I left the living room, leaving Sarah with Arturo. We got what we came here for, and wheels were turning in my head. I got out of the house, past the gate, and waited with my back against the van, ready for the wheels to turn there, too.