Mr. Burly - the very thug from whom we were trying to save our hides - was standing right in front of us. And staring at us as though without memory of having broken into our apartment and grabbing me by the neck only two days prior.
How the heck did something like this even happen?
“This isn’t a place for little girls!” He yelled at us. “How did you get into the closet, anyway!?”
“We sawed through the dead-bolt,” I quipped in, without thinking.
He didn’t seem to hear me, though, as he patted each of us down in search of weaponry. We were all too shocked to deny the intrusion on our privacy, and he was too clumsy to notice the bulge in my boot. The only thing he deemed worthy to confiscate was a lone bullet from Sarah’s pocket - a memento from our visit with Rocky. He held the tiny piece of metal up to the yellow light as though seeing such a thing for the first time in his life, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from explaining what it was.
Sarah shrugged guiltily for her kleptomania. “It was an accident. I didn’t mean to-”
But he didn’t care about her explanation. “What is this? Planning to shoot someone?” he asked, cutting her off.
Sarah could only whimper in reply, eliciting a half-hug from Cat. The two of them seemed to be shaking a little. I hastily searched around for an escape while Burly continued to interrogate poor Sarah about what she planned to do with a bullet. A bullet without a gun, which I kept my mouth shut about.
“You even know where you are? You can’t carry weapons down here unless you’re big time!” He spat both words and moisture into Sarah’s face – causing her to jump a little – before pocketing his loot and taking a step backward to better see the three of us. An intense scowl graced his wide forehead, the same oppressive demeanor I remembered from the other night. And there was something else – confusion. For whatever reason, he seemed uncertain about how to respond to our presence. “Are you big time?” he mocked.
When nobody flexed or flashed a gold tooth to prove how ‘big time’ we were, I nudged Catrina. “This is all you, Cat.” You and Rocky. Decidedly, both would be to blame if I ended up as dog meat tonight.
“Cat, hu?” Burly looked suddenly intrigued. “How come you look so familiar?”
“Seriously? You have GOT to be kidding me.” The words were out before I could stop their escape. I was too stunned by his ignorance to quell my verbal rage. Was he toying with us? Cat’s hand rested on my shoulder, probably to keep me from saying anything that might get us murdered. But I brushed it away. “Alzheimer’s much?”
“You’re a sassy one,” he informed me like it was news.
“And you’re a moron,” I countered icily. “You broke – into – our - apartment! I cannot believe you don’t remember!”
“That ain’t what I was talking about. I full remember breaking your locks and wrapping my hand around your skinny little neck. Do you?” he asked, reaching for me a second time in as many days.
I started to wonder if this would be the time he crushed my windpipe. Then I wondered if a person could actually die of a crushed windpipe. Then I wondered if he was strong enough to break my neck, because that was surely fatal. Then I thought about all the blood and how Sarah had a weak stomach… The entire picture wasn’t very pleasant. Fortunately, before he could grab me, Sarah jumped between us and shouted in panic.
“Rocky sent us!” she blamed.
He paused mid-stride. “Rocky? Rocky sent you?”
“Yeah,” Sarah gasped out. “He said it would be fine. He told us to ask for Samuel...”
“Jenkins,” I finished from behind her.
“Rocky?” he asked again. “Rocky sent you?”
“Yes,” I answered, wondering if he was having an embolism.
“All three of you?” he asked.
“We’re a package deal,” I told him.
He glared at me, seeming to consider which of my body parts he would break first. Before he could decide, Cat actually reached out and touched his arm the way a mother would reach to calm an unreasonable child.
I braced myself for an explosion. I thought for sure he would interpret the motion as threatening and put poor Catrina in a choke-hold to protect himself. But the opposite happened. His whole body relaxed, his eyes softened. His arms went limp at his side.
Spellbound, he looked down at Cat and asked, “Why do you look so familiar?”
Obviously aware that I was on the verge of explosion myself, Catrina gave me a circumventing glare before she answered him. “You mean, other than our little party the other day?” She asked with care.
Suddenly, he snapped his fingers with recollection. “Catrina. From Memphis High!” he guessed excitedly. When she still looked confused, he reminded her about the the year he was chosen as starting Running Back and the team tipped his truck on it’s side in celebratory initiation.
“Sammy?” Cat asked him, her eyes brightening with sudden memory. “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you!”
“Well, I started lifting after high school,” he puffed up his chest.
“And taking steroids,” I muttered under my breath.
“And working for Rocky put a few wrinkles on my face,” he continued, oblivious to my comment.
“No, you still look great,” Cat encouraged.
“Thanks!” He smiled. “I’m trying this new vegan thing. I feel better, but you have to eat all the time!”
“That’s true,” she agreed. “But it’s all about the micro-nutrition. Getting enough vitamins and minerals to counter the free-radical damage-”
I smacked her arm. “Hello! Are you kidding me?”
“Sammy is Samuel!” Catrina explained. “I knew him from high school.”
My eyes widened. “Yeah, I caught that. Should we all sit down for fucking tea?”
Cat rolled her eyes. “Don’t be rude.”
“Don’t be rude?” I choked out. “You do remember what he did to our door.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Sammy cut in, apologetically. “Whatever the boss tells you to do...” He shrugged as though that was explanation enough for breaking into our apartment and threatening our lives.
Catrina was nodding along. “Management has all the control.”
“It’s really unfair,” he added, “since the employees are doing all the work.”
“Yeah, it must be really tough,” I cut in. “Did you sprain your hand trying to choke me the other day? Hopefully you have a good insurance package. Or maybe vacation pay in case-”
Cat bumped my shoulder, and not gently. “Laura, what are you doing?”
“I don’t know, acting normal for this very bizarre situation - unlike YOU!”
“I didn’t remember who he was until now, but this is a good thing!”
“Yeah, Laura.” Sammy was in agreement. “Lighten up a little!”
After taking a moment to glare at our new friend, I noted that his suspenders were actually a gun holster. That little detail caused me to hold my tongue long enough for Cat and Sam to catch up on old times. She seemed so happy about this sudden good fortune. Maybe her eyes were better than mine at seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I waited patiently - or as patiently as possible - as they took their little trip down memory lane, landing squarely inside our current crisis.
“So,” he asked. “Does your visit here have anything to do with tonight’s meeting with Marcus? I hope you got the money. He’s not someone to mess around with.”
“Well, we don’t have the money, yet,” Cat admitted, pulling her hair behind her ears. “We were kind of hoping to sell something.”
“Huh,” he snorted through his nose. “Hope it’s worth ninety-k.”
Cat gave him a pleading look on our behalf. “Isn’t there any way you could give us an extra week? Or even a day,” she bartered.
Sammy was shaking his head before she’d even finished her sentence. “No can do. It ain’t my debt, Kitty Cat. You know how it goes. And I only work for Marcus – if I said you could have another hour, he’d have my balls.”
While Catrina nodded in understanding, Sarah whimpered defeat.
“So, there’s nothing you can do?” I asked.
In answer, he stepped away from the door, gesturing that we were free to leave, even though it wasn’t really leaving so much as falling deeper into the rabbit hole. “For old time’s sake,” he told Catrina.
Behind him, the corridor was simply the rest of the subway minus any trains. Just empty track for a couple of blocks and what looked to be a swap-meet on either side.
Cat nodded and took a step through the doorway.
As we followed, Sammy’s voice came after us. “Be safe. And don’t forget about ten o’clock. Marcus is a one chance kinda guy…”
That was warning enough for me.
Cat nodded again, and we were hustled out a shutting door.
“We made it!” Sarah forced out a sigh.
After looking around with wary eyes, possibly gauging our next move, Catrina began leading us down the right side of the ‘market’. “Don’t get your hopes up just yet,” she warned. “The underground is a volatile bitch. One second it gives you whatever you want, the next it tries to have you killed.”
So this was the underground Smith had warned me about. And no wonder. As we passed them, each booth was scarier than the last. With stacks of leather briefcases and glaring merchants, outlandish weaponry and unrecognizable paraphernalia - everything likely stollen or outright illegal. The only welcoming spot was in the corner where a scraggly old man was selling pets.
“Wow, this place is eclectic,” I mentioned, one hand pointing out the monkeys and lizards in crates and cages.
“Those are exotic animals,” Cat explained. “They’re illegal and pricy. Don’t let that guy fool you. He’s probably driving a Ferrari home tonight.”
“Think he wants some diamonds?” I asked with a little sarcastic hope. Someone needed to be light-hearted to keep up moral down here in this dreary dungeon.
“Not likely,” responded Cat.
We traveled the horse-shoe of booths, trying to avoid making eye-contact with anyone too sketchy and searching for the one type of vender that would be interested in what we had to sell.
Cat explained in a hush that this place came about during an unfortunate earthquake. “It was supposed to be the rest of the subway – but after the quake, it became unusable space. Unless the city wanted to spend another hundred thousand to fix it, which they didn’t. Instead, they’d blocked it off and called it good. “For awhile, it was a makeshift homeless shelter, but then the thugs came in and drove them out. Now it’s used for this.”
Even as we walked forward, alongside the track, it was at a downward slant.
Hence the title, Slants Ave.
“How is this even legal?” Sarah whispered. For a person into stripping and cocaine, she sure was worried about doing the right thing.
“It’s not,” I scorned. “Obviously. That’s why they’re down here and not opening shops at the mall.”
“No.” Sarah shook her head, eyebrows scrunched together. “I don’t understand how the police just let this happen. I mean, lots of people must know it’s here, right? How come it hasn’t been shut down?”
“That’s why.” Cat jerked her head to the side where a man in a black and blue uniform was sauntering past. Clear as day, he was a crooked cop.
“Oh.” After that, Sarah stayed silent. And it wasn’t long before we found what we were looking for.
Squashed between racks of fox furs and what appeared to be a chemistry workshop was a tiny table covered in black velvet. Atop that, little boxes sparkled with high end goods. We should have been more cautious approaching what might have been a murderer or a terrorist, but we stepped forward with my confidence going before us.
“We need to sell something,” I told the tiny Hispanic man with a black mustache.
He smiled at me in a way that made me feel like entertainment. “Cookies?” he inquired.
Cat joined my side before I could come up with a cutting retort. “We have something that will make you a very wealthy man.”
“I am already a very wealthy man,” he answered dismissively.
Without thinking, I pulled the jewels from my boot, laying them out across the velvet cloth. Against the black backdrop, they were perfect. Dad had impeccable taste.
Even the vender, as he reached to touch them, sucked in a breath. “Beautiful,” he muttered to himself, lifting the string of diamonds into the light. “Impossibly flawless. Not a single blemish or inclusion… Where did you get these?”
“They were my mother’s,” I managed to choke out. Tears were threatening to make their appearance, but that wouldn’t look good during a deal like this. Cat rubbed my back as I gathered another sentence together. “We need to sell them – today.”
“Well, that’s rich. Usually I’m the thief,” he laughed, and I couldn’t be sure if it was at my expense or his own.
Either way, I became irritated with his attitude. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
My tone must have grabbed his attention, because in a second flat his expression sobered. “Look, Sweetheart. I don’t know what you think is going on down here, but I’m here to make money, not give it away.”
“Right.” I stepped closer, placing both hands on the table in spite of Cat’s warning glare. “You buy low and sell high. I’m offering you the deal of a lifetime.”
The man was no longer smiling. He was laughing. “You think I bought all of this?” He waved my attention toward the little expensive boxes with their even more expensive contents.
As it dawned on me what he’d meant when he’d said he was a thief, I realized he was still holding onto my necklace. What now? I shrugged to cover for the fact that I was starting to shake. “Alright, we’ll just take the necklace and go then.”
“No, no, no…” His head shook from side to side, chastising. “You said you wanted to sell, so let’s make a deal. I’m thinking… Twenty.”
“Twenty thousand!” I shouted in anger. “Those were worth half a million just two decades ago. And I know for a fact that jewels like that don’t go down in value.”
As he practically doubled over in laughter, I turned to Catrina for a little help. She was just as freaked out as I was, but I couldn’t even focus on her wide eyes, because in the distance behind her was the man in camouflage. And he was walking toward us.
I hadn’t mentioned him to my roommates, uncertain if he was really a threat. But now, after three sightings, I was sure it meant something. My heart started to punch at my ribs as I turned back to the vender. “Ninety,” I told him firmly, my voice only shaking a little.
“Fine.” He grinned and pulled out a metal lock box, trading the jewels for a small wad of cash and locking it up again. I couldn’t believe my luck. We were about to make the perfect amount of money and escape from the creepy stalker guy by the skin of our teeth, as my father would say. All would be fine and well. But then he tossed four twenties and a ten on the table in front of me. “There you are. Nice doing business with you.”
“Wha…” Stunned, I turned to see that the man in camouflage was growing steadily closer.
“What are you looking at?” Cat asked me, following my gaze.
“Some guy that’s been following me since yesterday.” Or maybe longer... My whisper was husky with emotion. Fear. “I don’t know what he wants, and I don’t want to find out.”
“You think he’s with Marcus?” Cat had grabbed at my arm; her fingers were digging into my sensitive flesh just above the elbow. “You think he’s decided to change the meeting time? Is he coming to get us?” she screeched.
“Maybe,” Sarah answered as she took a step away from the booth, preparing to run for the exit.
There was a chance it was a fluke. Maybe the guy was just some creep who found me irresistibly attractive. So much that he followed me all the way from outside my apartment… Yuck. But the chance was greater that he was sent by Marcus to ‘remind’ us in some way or other that we had a debt to pay. Either way, I didn’t want anything to do with him. I didn’t want to have to turn down his offer for a date or find out if his reminder came with a limp or a missing finger.
As he struggled through a crowd of people, his eyes still trained on my face, I reached across the table in a dangerous move. I grabbed the sleazy vender by the front of his shirt and demanded he return my necklace. But then, out of nowhere, two very large men appeared, each of them holding a gun in my direction.
The vender smiled as I let go of his shirt and patted out the wrinkles. “Shit,” I muttered. “Sorry about that.” The diamonds weren’t worth my life and the lives of my friends. “Look, it was just a misunderstanding. When I agreed, I thought you meant ninety thousand. And I really need those diamonds. Them or the money – can’t we work something out?”
“We already did,” he told me with finality, resting his hand on the steal case. His buddies had stepped forward to let me know our time was up. We either walked away with our lives or risked losing both money and blood in the same day.
I glanced at the cash on the table and wanted to cry knowing what I had lost in exchange for practically nothing, but there wasn’t time for a melt-down. While the camouflage dude was approaching at a jog now, and reaching for something at his belt, the need for immediate exit was apparent. Soon we would have three people pointing guns at us.
We were already hustling to leave when, in a flash, several things happened at once. None of them stayed straight in my head. All I saw was Cat turning on her heels, one of the guards pocketing his weapon (or at least I think he was putting it away), Sarah grabbing for the ninety bucks on the table, and a gun going off. All we focused on was that booming sound as it reverberated off the walls, causing us to jump and scatter toward the exit with even more speed than intended. It was hard to know who had fired the shot or why, but none of us cared to stand around and ask questions.
Down the length of crowded cement, we sprinted with Cat in the lead. Our venture had me turned around and backward. I couldn’t tell which end was up and which was forward as we slipped between trench coats toward our escape.
With the door in sight, and slightly ajar (oh joy!), I heard a man calling my name. Reflexively, I turned to see who would have recognized me, and I tripped right over a damn crack in the cement. Even though I caught myself on a stranger, avoiding a scraped knee, I’d lost a ten second gain. Not only was the camouflage guy a mere twenty strides behind, but he was the one shouting, “Laura!” And for all I knew he was the trigger happy one, as well.
“He knows your name?” Cat huffed, grabbing me and urging me forward. “How does he know your name?”
“I don’t know!” I followed her and Sarah into the closet. We turned and slammed the door. “Just go! Go! Go! GO!"
Sammy was the only other person in the closet. With a confused expression, he stood from where he’d been reading a magazine under the dangling lightbulb. Cat shouted frantically that we needed to leave, and he reached over and quickly unlocked and opened the first door. Just as we tumbled into the subway, the camouflage guy had entered the closet.
There wasn’t even time to catch our breath before starting another sprint. We ran all the way to the stairs, then up the steps to the street. Just when I was feeling sure we’d lost him, I rounded another corner and landed right into a set of arms.
I tried to struggle free, but the voice above my head was etched with concern and familiarity. “Laura! What happened!?”
My head whipped up. “Mason? What the hell are you doing here!?”
“Nice to see you, too,” he answered grimly. “Mind responding to my question with an actual answer this time? I thought I told you-” He cut himself off.
“Told me what?”
“Never mind. Are you in trouble or something?” he asked, changing the topic. “You were running like a bat outa hell.” With one hand he removed his baseball cap, this one a deep blue, and returned it to his head. I caught a whiff of his scent and calmed immediately. Somehow, in his presence, I didn’t feel quite as afraid for my life.
Before I could answer that, like a mental patient, I’d thought it was a good idea to try and sell my mom’s jewelry all on my own - on the black market - for the first time ever – in The South Bronx – he turned to see Sarah staring down at her arm. The black shirt now had a tiny hole near her shoulder. Farther down, blood was dripping from the bottom of her sleeve.
“Oh fuck. Were you shot?” Mason asked her, taking her arm gently and ripping the hole into a larger one.
Sarah looked in shock. Her face was as white as a sheet. “They shot me,” she gasped. “They actually shot me. I think they thought I was reaching for the lock box - but I was just... reaching for this.” She opened her hand to reveal a wad of bloody cash.
Mason took the money and handed it to me, continuing to look her over, murmuring, “It barely clipped you. Didn’t even tear through muscle, let alone bone. You’ll be fine after a few stitches.”
Now Sarah looked ill. “Tear through... muscle?” she repeated numbly.
“You’ll be fine,” he told her. “But we should get you to a hospital. It’s bleeding pretty bad.” Like a gentleman, he pulled off his scarf and wrapped it tightly around her arm before waving a taxi over.
“No white horse?” Cat asked him, getting into the cab. She might have been looking at Mason, but she was speaking to me.
I rolled my eyes and got in the front seat. It might have been rude, but I was still upset after our last meeting. We rode to the nearest clinic (the driver didn’t think an emergency room was necessary – convenient for him, because the clinic was ten miles farther away than the hospital), and by the time Sarah was off getting her ‘cooking accident’ stitched up, Mason, Cat, and I were left in the waiting room.
Several minutes of uncomfortable silence ticked by before Cat took the hint and left to grab a cup of coffee. But not before giving me a cellophane wink to say that, with her blessing, Mason and I could now proceed with making out in the waiting room.
“How did you even know where to find me?” My question was an assumption that he’d been looking for me in the first place. Maybe even following me for fear that I’d end up as dog meat - not an entirely unlikely scenario.
Mason sighed. “I didn’t know. I guessed,” he answered in a low voice, leaning down and resting on his knees. When he tilted his head to look over at me, there was definitely concern in his blue eyes. “You’re very easy to read, despite trying to stay invisible.”
I bit my lip, unsure if I was happy that he’d taken the time to try and figure me out - or irritated that he’d been able to figure me out. “Easy to read?”
“I remembered something you’d said about Cat growing up in the hood,” his air quotes made me feel like maybe I should stop using that phrase to describe Catrina’s childhood. “So, I figured she would know about The Underground. And if you were going to have any success selling those diamonds, that was your best bet.”
“And you came there to try and stop me?”
He looked into the distance. “I didn’t want you getting hurt. That place is dangerous.”
“You don’t say.”
“Yeah, people could get shot,” he responded, meeting my eyes again.
I could only nod, attritional. It was my fault we’d been there in the first place. If I’d just tried to sell mom’s diamonds the old fashioned way, and risked my father finding out, Sarah wouldn’t be getting stitches right now.
“Well, did it work?” He asked.
“Not at all,” I had to admit. “I didn’t get the money, the dirt bag vender stole my necklace, and some weirdo shot Sarah. All in all, I’d say it was a loss.” My attempts to let sarcasm wash out the fear were ineffective.
Mason guessed right away that I was feeling the pressure as it tried to suffocate me. “My offer still stands.”
“How do you even have that much money just lying around?” I asked in deflection. Because I couldn’t just accept his gift and say thank you like a normal person.
Mason took a deep breath as he sat up again and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “My job is lucrative. People will pay whatever it takes to protect their business security.”
I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t know how to handle the gratitude I felt at having him try and take care of me. Was I allowed to act like it was nothing when it was everything? Was I expected to throw myself on the floor and grovel at his feet? Should I tell him that he was the greatest?
Because he was.
“What?” He took my silence the wrong way and became defensive. “You thought the money was because of some criminal thing? Because I did a little time, I can’t have a legitimate saving’s account?”
“No,” I said quickly. “No, no, that’s not at all what I was thinking.”
“Then what?” He asked softly, gently, forgiving me.
After pulling together a little courage, I finally gave him the truth. “I’ve never had anyone just take care of me. I mean, Dad, yeah, but that was his job, you know? Other people? They hurt you. They act like they wanna help you, but it’s just a ploy to get something in return.”
Mason reached over and took my hand into his own. His skin was warm, his touch was soft. “You know I’m not like that.”
“I know,” I whispered, breath stolen by the sudden intimacy of him holding my hand.
“I don’t expect anything in return. I just want to help you - and I can,” he told me. “Money isn’t everything. And it’s easy to just go out and get more of it. If something happened to you, I wouldn’t be able to just go find another Laura.”
“Yeah, there’s only one of me,” I responded in a tone that implied it was both good and bad - good that there was only one, bad that there was someone so callous and difficult in the world.
Mason rubbed his thumb over the back of my hand and leaned a little closer. “There is only one. And I’m glad I found her.”
At that moment, Cat fell into the chair beside me. She’d found the coffee and made herself a cup with cream. “What are we talking about?” She asked.
“Daisies,” I answered, a little irritated that she’d chosen that particular moment to interrupt.
Cat sipped her coffee and made a disgusted face. “Did you tell him what happened?”
Mason turned in his chair to face both of us, but he never let go of my hand. “I can’t believe you three went down there. It’s madness.”
“Well, one positive thing came out of it. Sarah’s finally paying her debt in blood,” I joked.
Cat wasn’t amused. “Not funny, Laura.”
“And we made ninety dollars,” I added, trying my hardest to lighten the mood.
Cat glared at me.
“So, what’s the plan for tonight?” Mason interrupted. “We get a cashier’s check and meet up with that guy at his strip club?”
“We?” I asked.
“Check?” Cat asked.
Begrudgingly, I explained. “Mason wants to pay Marcus himself – since our own plan was a dismal failure,” I added.
“It was a good try,” he allowed with a wink that made me blush.
“No, it wasn’t,” I argued.
Catrina seemed to decide her coffee wasn’t worth drinking. She set it on the side table next to a stack of magazines. “You’re going to give us the money?” She asked.
Mason nodded. “And you don’t have to pay me back, so don’t even worry about that.”
She gave me a ‘you’re seriously the luckiest woman alive’ look and thanked Mason by jumping up and giving him a hug.
He patted her back, looking at me me with uncertainty.
“Okay,” she gushed, going back to her chair. “So, the meeting is supposed to be at ten, right? We can all go together, give Marcus his money, and celebrate with ice cream.”
Raising my eyebrows, I glanced at Mason who answered in affirmation.
“Sounds good to me.”