The following morning, barely morning, Sarah tried feeding us three a nutritious breakfast of whole grain pancakes with sautéed apples and organic maple syrup. It looked good; it smelled incredible, but I was only able to get a few bites down before the nerves in my stomach convinced me eating too much now might mean throwing up in an ally later.
We took turns showering, after which Catrina advised us to wear a lot of drab colors – nothing fancy, nothing expensive. I complied, but Sarah must have been on cloud eight during the lecture, because she almost escaped the front door wearing a bright red shirt.
“Why don’t you just paint a target on your back?” Cat asked her. “Go and change into something black like I told you.
After a twenty minute setback, we stood staring into the glass doors of the coffee shop looking like brain-dead, skater wannabes. Our reflection presented a shadow of three girls in hooded sweatshirts and tattered pants. Cat even had the good sense to rip holes in the knees of my designer jeans. And if the window could show us in color, our eyes would be blazing red with fatigue, and stress, and the proof of a sleepless night.
Someone came barreling out of the store with a cardboard tray of coffees; he practically knocked Sarah onto her butt into a puddle of water, but Catrina caught her in time. The man scowled through his insincere apology before rushing off in search of a cab.
Nobody needed convincing when I bought us all lattés. Catrina ordered her usual ‘healthy’ dark-chocolate mocha, Sarah asked for my advice on which one had the most caffeine, and I settled for something cinnamon and caramel. (Either my tastes were maturing or I feared this being my final order and wanted to savor the largest possible amount of flavors.) Then we headed to the subway station and shuffled from the platform into a crowded car, this one an above ground rail that would allow us a view of the city.
“Okay, don’t make eye contact,” Cat kept warning us like she was a primary teacher trying to keep her students from eating dirt. “Just look like you’re on a mission.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard.” Though keeping my gaze trained away from the faces around me was a definite challenge. People-watching was second to none, in my opinion, as far as past-times went. Especially when compared to the activity of trying to stabilize the blur of buildings outside my window. And I wasn’t used to being the ‘watchee’.
Several people stared at our trio in wonder. A woman with a small child seemed to think we were dangerous and placed her kid on her other side, away from us. A man with a missing tooth, who rode the rail clear into the dregs of The Bronx, continued to smile. Sometimes it was to himself, but other times it was at me and without any amount of tact. I wanted to ask what his problem was, but that would have included eye contact which was directly against Cat’s orders. Plus, I didn’t want him following us into a dark ally, later.
Needless to say, except for the wonder of my new favorite coffee, I grumbled internally and didn’t enjoy the ride much. Overall, if I weren’t so nervous, I might’ve been bored.
Only boring people get bored. Interesting people make things happen. My father’s words came rushing back, full force, pulling me into a slew of memorable bits of advice. I wondered briefly if he would be proud of my incentive or afraid for my stupidity. When the intercom announced Castle Hill in a robotic, feminine monotone, it was then I noticed that the low income residential buildings had been replaced with floundering commercial ones outside my window. The subway came to a noisy stop in the middle of a city that, far from the insinuation of its name, screamed poverty.
I followed the mass of early risers onto another platform, this one consisting mainly of cracked cement, then down a staircase leading onto a street.
Cat was trying to untangle herself from Sarah’s frantic grip. “Knock it off! You’re drawing attention to us!”
“Sorry…” Sarah used her favorite word and folded her arms protectively across her chest.
Cat pushed them down at her sides. “You look like a victim; you’re gonna get us shot,” she hissed.
“It’s cold!” Sarah wined her retort, giving a furtive glance toward a formidable sky. “And it looks like it might start raining…”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “So, let’s get going.” I let my hands drift into the pockets of my thrifty sweatshirt, a loner from Catrina. I’d had the good sense to put the jewelry in a small pouch which I tucked into my sock then into my boot. It was a tight fit, and every step reminded me of its presence as the little rocks dug into my ankle. “Where to first?”
Cat gave an uncertain look and led us across the street to a row of very ragged looking storefronts. “I’m not sure, yet. But we can’t just stand around. You get into trouble doing that, and not because loitering is against the law.”
“I wasn’t aware this part of town followed any sort of law,” I mentioned, walking quickly with the herd and reading the colorful bubbled words as they wrapped around a derelict building. The graffiti, though crass, was somewhat beautiful.
From somewhere, even at this early hour, hip-hop blared from a window, or a street corner, or a basement, its rapper very concerned with black top. The bass grew stronger as we took a left and headed toward the heart of the city where, oddly, the streets were only sparsely crowded.
“We just keep going, even if we’re lost,” Cat advised over her shoulder.
Glancing at the passers-by, I noted that I was a minority. “I’m definitely lost,” I answered.
After a nice jaunt around the block, Cat got her bearings. Recollection flooded her memory, and she began pointing out notable land-markers. “That’s The Stamp where I got my first tattoo. I was twelve though. It was a long time ago. And that’s an old Toy’s ’R Us. It was looted one Christmas, and they had to shut it down.”
“Probably a poor location choice,” I quipped in sarcastically, taking in the barred and boarded windows.
Cat glared. “Well, lucky for you, after it went out of business, Rocky decided to use the location for his own enterprises.”
“Rocky?” I asked. “You actually know someone named Rocky?”
Rolling her eyes, Cat grabbed my arm for the purpose of giving me a warning squeeze as she led us all around to the back of the red-bricked structure. “He was a friend from high-school. And when we graduated, he started his own pawn shop. After it burned down – some kind of territory disagreement – he had to find a new location. And fortunately for him, this place was completely vacant!”
Battles over territory were a commonality amongst the poorer districts – well, with most districts, actually. But while the largely educated masses opted for court schedules, here in the south of NYC you were shot for crossing the wrong line at the wrong time. Unknown people were considered expendable threats. These things I knew from years spent with hoodlum-Catrina. So, I stayed close as she rang a doorbell that was connected to a wire that went up over the door frame and through a crack in the window.
All I could do was to cross my fingers inside my conjoined pocket as we waited. Only I couldn’t be certain if my finger-crossing was in the hope that he was here – or not here.
“He’ll be here,” Cat answered my silent thought. “I got ahold of his brother last night. I guess they work together now.”
“Is this legal?” Sarah had the gall to ask.
I turned to her, shocked. Well, not entirely shocked. “Are you serious?” I asked.
“It’s about as legal as selling crack,” Cat whispered.
“Coke,” was all Sarah could say before we heard the unlatching of six bolts and three chains. Overkill on a building with most of the windows broken out, if you ask me.
The door opened to a guy the size and shape of a telephone pole. “Kitten,” he nodded. “Brought the whole litter?”
“Don’t call me that,” Cat answered with a forgiving smile before hugging her old friend. “How are you?”
It was a regular family reunion after that. Rocky invited us all inside as soon as he made sure we weren’t part of the force. I started to make a joke about hiding my badge in a non-specified orifice (he could guess which one), but Cat silenced me with a look.
I shut up.
Inside the old store, empty shelves contained only the ghosts of cheerful, colorful toys. There was a fine layer of dust and a million webs, not mentioning the splotches of what I didn’t want to imagine was dried blood. At least, if it was blood, I hoped it was dry. It turned out, Rocky didn’t hold shop upstairs. As we were ushered down a set of once-plush steps to a grid of offices in the basement, I was reminded of the underground.
There wasn’t anybody else in the place which might have been a good thing, or it might have been the precursor to a violent crime. Was Rocky someone we could trust? I blamed the empty ambiance of a struggling city for my unease and took a chair.
Rocky, after finding the back of a desk, sat and smiled. “I heard you went to med school,” he said to Cat. “You’re a doctor now?”
She shook her head. “Not yet. And not a people doctor anyway – a veterinarian.”
He laughed. “That makes sense, Cat.” He was notably older looking than us, having acquired a few wrinkles around his mouth and a tuft of grey at each temple. Rocky, for the most part, looked entirely beat up by life. “You were always the smart one. Must be why you got out when you could. Not that I blame you.”
Suddenly embarrassed, or ashamed, Cat bit her lip. “I heard about the pawn shop - sorry about that, by the way. I know it was your dream.”
He snorted through his nose. “Dream? Naw. My dream is to survive this place. So, what’s up? Why you here after all these years, ’cause I know it’s not to catch up on old times.” At that, his eyes sparkled with ancient memories.
“We need to sell something,” Cat mentioned quickly, trying to cover for the blush creeping over her cheeks.
“What’s that?” he asked with dismissal in his voice. Either he wasn’t interested, or he already knew he couldn’t help us out.
“Something,” Cat answered slowly, “expensive. Something we don’t want traced.”
His hands went into the air. “You’re gonna have to be more specific.”
The silence drew thick as a fur blanket around me until I started to itch with anticipation. “Diamonds,” I blurted out.
Rocky gave me an appraisal similar to the one I was giving the room. With its barrage of overfilled milk crates and a cloud of stale smoke leftover from his morning cigarette break, it was hard to see what kind of business was in operation. What I did know was that, with so many little boxes of ammunition laying around, we’d be wise not to get on his bad side.
Before he could start asking questions, I continued. “I know they have an ID etched into them somewhere – it’ll need to be scrubbed.” I could only hope I was using the proper terminology.
“Scrubbed?” His eyes left my face to scowl at Sarah who, per her usual fidgety self, was riffling through his things behind me. I turned to see her holding up what looked like a cartridge to a very large gun. “Could you maybe not touch my shit?” he asked her.
“Oh, sorry!” She dropped the piece of metal into a box and tried holding her hands together behind her back to keep them from finding anything else to play with. “Bad habit.”
“Going through other people’s things?” he inquired dryly. To Cat, he asked, “Who are these chicks, anyway?”
Cat waved at Sarah. “You don’t remember Sarah?”
“I was a lot chubbier in high school,” she offered helpfully. “About thirty pounds, or so. And my hair was a cute little pixy. But then I grew it out. And now I have layers…”
As Sarah trailed off, realizing he didn’t give a crap about her hair, Cat looked over at me from her adjacent chair. “And this is my friend, Laura.”
“Are you the one with the money problems?” he asked of me with a smirk.
“No, that’s me,” Sarah quipped in, her hand raising to remind him where she was at in the small room. “Cat said you might be able to help us out. With the diamonds and all.”
“I see.” He gave us each a measuring look as he leaned back in his chair. It groaned and leaned to the right. “What did you tell ’em about me?” he asked Catrina at last.
“Nothing! Nothing,” she answered a little too quickly, a little too loud. Then, “Come on, Rocky? For old time’s sake?”
“What is this, life or death?” he laughed.
“Basically,” I cut in brazenly. “Are you gonna help us, or not?”
With a deep, reluctant sigh, Rocky placed both large hands palm down on the desk. He gazed at me through his dark lashes. “I’m not in that game anymore. We’re legit around here now.”
I snorted through my nose involuntarily, casing my surroundings a second time. “I don’t know if it escaped your notice? But this is an abandoned building. And I’m pretty sure you’re not paying rent.”
He only stared.
I had his interest. “We need to sell a particularly valuable item at a fraction of its value. Someone is gonna make a lot of money today. Either you or someone else. I don’t care. But we only have a few hours. Don’t waste our time.”
Rocky looked to be making up his mind about me. A frown deepened, eyes slanted.
Warily, Cat glanced my way. Sarah shifted through a new box, coming away with a tiny handgun, confirming my earlier suspicions.
I’d never been good at keeping my mouth shut – today was no exception. “Legit my ass,” I muttered.
Rocky burst into laughter and leaned over the aged and splintering oak desk. “Where’d you find this one, Cat?” he asked.
She only sighed relief that he didn’t use one of his guns on me. “Can you help us?”
“I can’t,” he apologized. “But I know someone who can. You remember Samuel Jenkins? No matter,” he shook his head when she looked confused. “He’s working for the big time now. Down on Slants Ave. They have a shop and sell all kinds of non-legit shit, if you know what I mean.” His eyes slid to my face. “And I get the feeling you do.”
“Where’s that at?” I asked, standing and motioning for Sarah that it was time to leave.
Relaxed and smiling, Rocky leaned back in his chair. “I just told you – Slants Ave.”
It was a street I’d never heard of, but Cat nodded along.
“I know about Slants – but who’re we looking for?” she asked, also standing.
Rocky got up from his chair. “You’ll remember Sammy when you see him. If you want, I can make a call and let him know to expect you?” Thick black eyebrows drew toward the ceiling.
“No, that’s alright,” Cat responded dryly.
“He’s always been a good guy. Maybe a little dumb, but he’ll treat you good,” Rocky assured her with a less-than-platonic pat to the back. His contact made me wonder about their past. “When you get down there, make sure an’ tell ’em I sent you. It’s the best I can do,” he finished with a shrug before escorting us back upstairs.
We exited into the now pouring rain and pulled hoods up over our heads. None of us spoke as Cat led the way though the alley behind Toy’s ’R Us which ended at a street filled with thoroughfare. No cars – just people on foot. Most appearing slightly dazed.
“Okay, what the hell was that?” I muttered to Cat as we walked along at a pace that was near to running. “I thought that guy was an old friend."
“But he was acting like more. And he was acting a little pissed that things didn’t work out between the two of you.”
Cat checked both ways before crossing the street. “I know…”
I waited through two more blocks before irritation got the better of me. “Are you planning to explain?”
Sarah dropped her hands to her side and spoke up. “They were best friends in high school, but Rocky always wanted more. He even dropped off the basketball team to prove she was more important than sports, remember?” she asked a very terse Catrina who nodded along.
“Gave up a scholarship.” Sarah swiped at the stream of water making its way into her mouth. “He always just assumed they’d end up together, but at the end of senior year, when she went out with Randy Fletcher – well, he got pissed and kinda went down the wrong road.”
“Then I moved and never saw him after that,” Cat added sadly.
“Fuck me!” I stomped through a puddle and stuffed my hands into my jean’s pockets. “Are you serious? We just asked a scorned lover for help?”
“Not lover,” Cat corrected as she avoided the gaze of an oncoming gang of boys. All of them were eyeing us and cat-calling. No pun intended. “Friend – that’s all.”
When the group gushed passed us, I went on. “Fine. A friend who wanted more. Doesn’t matter, Catrina. To him, he’s scorned. He wanted you, and you rejected him. We can’t trust his advice!”
“Rocky’s not like that.”
“How do you know?” I asked her. “Seriously! He could be sending us to our death beds.”
“He could,” Sarah agreed in a distracted tone as she checked the nearby shop which had cooking wares displayed in a dirty window. “But if he wanted Cat dead, he could have taken care of that in his basement.”
“No, he would never do that,” I told them, heavily sarcastic. “He’s LEGIT.”
Right there, in the middle of a crowded sidewalk soaked with rain, Cat paused. For the first time since meeting her freshman year, she appeared uncertain. “What then? You have a better idea?” she asked me. “Because if you do, I’d love to hear it!”
I forced a breath of air through my nose and glanced across the street to where two bums were fighting over a bright blue bottle. The irony was hilarious. Mouthwash. But it reminded me that times could be worse, and to fight for what I wanted.
Something else caught my eye. A man standing away from the crowds and watching me as I watched him. A man wearing a camouflage jacket. A shiver traveled the length of my spine as I tried to figure out if it was the same guy from the coffee shop - which couldn’t possibly be the case...
“No,” I told Cat finally, meeting her gaze. “I’m just paranoid.”
“I forgive you,” she muttered, leading on.
After about ten thousand blocks, when we appeared to have left camo-guy behind, we came to a stop at Cat’s demand. Not because she was as winded as I was, but because we’d apparently arrived at our destination.
“Here?” I asked, uncertainty forming a prominent line between my eyes. I looked around at the apartment buildings strewn with armature art and lines of drying clothes. A few kids were playing throw-trash-at-a-stray-dog while a woman hung from her window to yell at them. Part of the nearest street sign was broken off. The piece remaining read AVE in startling white on green. “I doubt we’re gonna find someone to pay a dollar for these jewels, let alone-”
“Not here,” Cat answered, pointing down the stairs of a subway entrance. “There.”
Sarah looked at me with another I’m sorry expression. “Where the avenue is slanted…”
I grimaced but followed them both down the stairs, trying to avoid the hotdog wrappers and other debris. Cat looked only partly paranoid as she grabbed both mine and Sarah’s hands, giving way with pretenses about being brave.
The entire strip was riddled with unmentionable people. But where the noisy and crowded subway ended, enterprise did no such thing. We came to a place where the track met a wall and the door to a supply closet. Anyone who wasn’t searching would be hard-pressed to find the underground businesses flourishing on the other side of that secret door.
The handle turned easily under Cat’s hand, and nobody seemed to care when we disappeared into the closet which was empty except for a chair and a yellow lightbulb dangling from the ceiling.
We paused inside, not sure what to expect, but there was nobody waiting with a shotgun or a scythe.
“What now?” I asked Cat.
“I don’t know,” she answered, quietly. “There’s usually somebody here.”
I scowled at her. “How do you know that?”
“Don’t ask.” With Sarah close on her heals, Cat searched the opposite wall until she found another door. “Should we knock?”
“I don’t know!” I yell-whispered. “You’re the one who brought us here! I thought you had it all figured out!”
Cat tucked her hair behind her ears and took a deep breath. Then she tried the handle of the new door, but it was locked. “It’s locked.”
I ground my teeth together to keep from saying anything I might regret later.
“Okay, I’m knocking,” she declared and rapped quickly on the door before she could change her mind.
We waited, anticipation electrifying the air around us. Fear began to eat away at my stomach as I worried. If nobody answered, what would we do? Worse, if someone answered, who would it be? And would they invite us in with open arms to enjoy an afternoon of crumpets and tea? Or were we walking into a death-trap?
After what felt like eons but was probably merely seconds, we heard the release of a dead-bolt. All three of us jumped at the noise, then we stayed as still as deer in a set of headlights as someone opened the door.
Someone scarily familiar.