Ray sat in a van on Jefferson Avenue in Bristol in the rain, watching people come and go from the white corner house with blue shutters and a cast- iron bird feeder in the yard. A kid in his late teens sat on the stoop eating candy from a bag and talking to the people moving in and out. Sometimes they handed the kid something; sometimes he just waved them up the steps to the door. Nobody stayed more than a few minutes. Ray’s partner, Manny, climbed from the passenger seat into the back and pulled binoculars out of a gym bag. He sat on the rear seat away from view and watched the kid and the front door, then moved the glasses along the street. Looking for open windows, young lookout kids watching the traffic, anyone that might signal the long- limbed teenaged boy on the stoop that there was trouble coming.
Ray took the glasses back for one last look. The people coming up the steps were black and white and brown, young and old. The only thing they had in common was that nearly all of them looked like shit. Hair uncombed. Lined faces the color of ashes. It reminded him of that movie where the dead are walking, coming to beat their way into this little farmhouse in the country. Only
instead of breaking down the doors, the zombies stood quiet on the porch until there was an exchange through the door, and then the zombies went away.
Ray combed his mustache with his fingers and shrugged. "What do you think?"
He handed the glasses back to Manny, who stashed them under the seat and brought out a blue windbreaker with DEA spelled out on the back in bright yellow letters. He pulled it on while Ray slid over to the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment, taking out a black semiautomatic pistol, a big, ugly Glock with an extra- capacity magazine. Manny heaved himself into the driver’s seat and Ray climbed around him and put his own windbreaker on, crouching in the cramped space by the side door of the van.
"Wait for a break in the traffic." They watched two young girls on the stoop, one of them doing that little nervous dance of waiting for dope, like bees Ray had seen in a documentary, vibrating with some kind of insect ecstasy of anticipation. When they were away down the street, Ray touched Manny’s arm.
Manny put the van into gear and drove down the block, stopping at the corner and making a right onto the side street next to the house with the blue shutters. Manny reached into an oversized gym bag and handed Ray a pair of fifteen- inch bolt cutters and then took out a short- barreled Remington shotgun. He pulled his badge out of his clothes and let it dangle at the end of a chain over his shirt.
It was August, and it had rained every day for a week. Ray thought the bad weather was making everyone edgy, tense. Stuck indoors when they wanted to be out. Maybe it was just him. He looked up and down the side street from the side window, fingering the badge on his chest, then jumped out and ducked behind the house and pressed himself against the wall next to the basement door. He put the bolt cutters on the chain holding the padlock on the door and looked at his watch and counted in his head.
Manny ran up the street to the front of the house and swung over the fence without a sound. He put his shotgun against the side of Candy Kid’s face and spoke quietly. "What’s your name?"
The kid stopped eating and clamped his mouth shut. "Jerome."
"What you eating, Jerome?"
"Jolly Ranchers." The bag began to shake slightly in the kid’s hands.
Manny looked at his watch without taking his hands off the gun. "Is there enough for everyone?" Jerome swallowed and tried to see the barrel of the gun out of the corner of his eye. "Let’s go inside and share our Jolly Ranchers, okay?" Jerome stood up and turned awkwardly around, the gun glued to the side of his face. He was tall standing up, taller than Manny, who was more than six feet, and he bent slightly at the waist. They walked slowly to the front door; Manny stayed off to the left and moved the gun down to Jerome’s side, keeping out of view of the peephole cut in the door. He looked at his watch and whispered to Jerome. "Okay, let’s not make any mistakes. Knock twice and wait. Tell them you gotta use the can."
Jerome lifted his arm and banged the door twice.
AT THE BACK door Ray lowered his watch and cut the chain. He hit the door hard with his body and it gave slightly, so he backed off and put his shoulder into it and the door popped open, banging against the wall. He was in a basement, the only light coming down the stairs from the first floor, where Manny was inside now doing his thing, yelling, "Down, down, down, federal agents!"
Ray hit the stairs in time for a teenaged girl with her shirt tied at her waist to appear at the top step, moving fast. Ray lifted the big, squared- off Glock with both hands and pointed it at her head. "Federal agents! Back up the stairs, now! Hands on your head!"
She shrieked and fell back into the kitchen, knocking over a bulked- up kid with a diamond earring who was right behind her with his arms full of small plastic bags. The kid was wearing an oversized black Sixers jersey with iverson on the back. Ray reached down with one hand and pulled them apart and pushed them out of the kitchen toward the front of the house. He heard Manny telling someone named Jerome to lie flat. They came out to the living room, where Manny had two tall kids stretched out on the floor, the sprawl of their long legs eating up all the space.
Ray pointed down. There was a small metal box on the floor near the front door next to an ancient double- barreled shotgun with the stock cut down. "You two, on the floor right now."
The boy and girl lay flat, between a bright green couch and a glass- topped coffee table supported on the backs of metallic gold elephants. The living room was neat, with photos of a smiling kid in a cap and gown from Ray guessed thirty years ago on the wall near the stairs. There were doilies under the knickknacks on the end tables.
Manny pointed to one of the kids near the front door. The kid was impossibly long stretched out on the floor, wearing faded jeans and a hoodie with a stenciled picture of a fist clutching a pistol. "This is Jerome."
Ray stood over him. "Jerome, who else is in the house?"
"Don’t lie to me, Jerome."
"I ain’t lying."
" ’Cause if I go looking and I find someone upstairs I’m going to be pissed off, you understand me?" Ray opened his jacket and pulled a half- dozen sets of plastic flex cuffs out and began restraining the kids on the floor.
Manny moved the pump gun in a slow arc, covering each one in turn. "I’m gonna go look now, okay? What am I gonna find?"
The girl murmured something under her breath.
"What was that? What did she say?"
"She said maybe Ronald upstairs."
"Ronald, now? How come she’s helping the police and you’re not helping the police, Jerome? I’m about done with you, son.
Who else is in this house?" "Maybe Ronald." "Maybe Ronald." Ray sighed theatrically. "Jerome, when you are standing tall before the judge I am going to be your only friend, do you understand that? What am I going to tell the judge, Jerome? That you lied to the police and made them go looking for
Maybe Ronald, or that you helped resolve this situation?"
"I don’t know." The kid’s voice was muffled by the carpet.
"I don’t know."
"You can be a hero, Jerome. You can be the one makes sure no
one gets hurt, that the police get the money and the drugs off the street. Believe me, Jerome, you want me to tell the judge you were a hero and not an uncooperative dirtbag. You know the difference?"
There was a long silence.
"I don’t know."
The kid with the Iverson shirt said, "Heroes get a beatdown."
Ray looked at him. "Shut up. Heroes get to finish high school, and dirtbags go to jail." He finished cuffing the kids on the floor and straightened up.
Manny took a hand off the gun and yanked Jerome awkwardly to his feet. "Talk to Ronald, tell him to come down here with nothing in his hands." He walked Jerome to the foot of the stairs.
Jerome leaned against the wall, unbalanced with his hands cuffed behind him. He called up the stairs. "Ronald!"
Ray waggled his eyebrows at Manny, who put a cupped hand to the side of his mouth.
"Ronald! Come on down here with your hands up." Manny kept Jerome between himself and the stairs, lowering his body to use the tall kid as a shield. "Ronald!"
"What?" The voice was high- pitched, quavering.
Manny slapped the wall. "Don’t ‘what’ me, you pain in the ass. You get down here on the ground right now. You want to get shot?"
"No, I don’t."
"Then come on down." There was another silence. Ray trained his pistol on the stairs and waited.
"How I know you won’t shoot me?"
Manny said, "We’re the police, Ronald. The police don’t just shoot people."
The kid with the Iverson shirt said, "Bullshit, they don’t."
After a long minute, brilliant white Jordans appeared at the top of the stairs; then Ronald slowly walked down, looking all of about twelve in an oversized red jeans jacket and gold chains. When he reached the bottom step, Manny stepped from behind Jerome and laid Ronald down next to his friends, and Ray took another pair of flex cuffs out of his jacket.
Iverson said, "Punk," under his breath.
Ray flicked the back of his head with the plastic cuffs. "Shut your mouth." He ratcheted the cuffs around the smaller kid’s skinny arms. "Maybe Ronald is my hero."
Manny stayed in the living room, his long, thin frame bent over the shotgun like a pool hall sharper draped over a cue. Ray went back into the kitchen. He opened a few cabinets until he found a roll of big plastic trash bags, jammed his pistol into his belt, and pulled a bag off the end of the roll. He dropped to his knees and began scooping the dropped Baggies off the floor into the green trash bag. He held up one and inspected it—tiny vials, each one with a few rocks of blue- white crystal—and then shoved it into the trash bag. He opened the freezer, the oven, the dishwasher. In a drawer near the back door he found a pistol, an Italian .32 with rust on the handle, and he pocketed it and went out to the front room.
Manny was going through their pockets, turning out rolls of bills and tossing them over by the stairs. Ray grabbed them up and shoved them in the bag. He went to the front door and retrieved the metal cash box, open and showing stacks of fives and tens. Ray upended it, spilling the money in with the vials. He picked up the old shotgun and broke it open, throwing the shells into a corner, and tucking the gun awkwardly under one arm.
His eyes kept going to the picture on the wall. A light- skinned black woman in a yellow cap and gown, cheeks wide with her smile. Even white teeth and almond- shaped eyes with a kind of fierce intelligence that made Ray feel uneasy. Guilty. For standing in her house, maybe, for waving a gun. Probably at one of her children or grandchildren.
Ray leaned over the kids. "Jerome, where’s the rest of the money and the stash?" The big kid was silent. The kid with the Iverson jersey shifted, glaring at Jerome. Ray snapped his fingers. "Don’t look at Iverson, look at me. Where’s the rest?"
"I don’t know."
"You do know. Don’t look at him. Is he going to do your time? Is he going to take care of your mom while you do ten years upstate? Is he going to talk to the judge for you and get you home to night in time to watch The Gilmore Girls?"
"No is right." Manny pulled Jerome to his feet by his cuffed hands and propelled him into the kitchen. Ray followed, keeping the pistol where the others could see it. Ray stood in the doorway and saw Manny put his head close to Jerome’s and whisper. Jerome looked over his shoulder toward the room where his friends were laid out, then whispered something back. Manny grinned, then stood back and banged his hand on the kitchen table hard. "Goddammit, tell me something." He smiled wider and Jerome shyly smiled back at Manny’s game.
Manny ducked into a bathroom off the kitchen while Ray made a show of marching Jerome over to his friends and laying him down on the floor. "Looks like Jerome don’t want to help the police. I guess he’s going away upstate for a while. See his uncles out at Camp Hill." Ray picked up the trash bag from the floor and threw it over his shoulder like a pistol- toting Santa. "Nobody move, now."
He backed into the kitchen. Manny was holding up two wet plastic bags, one filled with vials, the other with cash. Ray pulled the bag from his shoulder and handed it to Manny, who moved silently down the stairs. Ray stuck his head into the doorway to the front room and looked over the prone bodies. He heard the girl ask Jerome how Ray knew his uncle was at Camp Hill and Jerome telling her to please shut the fuck up.
"Keep your heads down and be still. Since Jerome isn’t telling us what we need to know, we’re searching the rest of the house. I’m leaving Maybe Ronald in charge." He ducked back into the kitchen and followed Manny down the stairs, through the basement and out to the street. Manny was starting the engine on the van, the side door open. Ray threw the double- barreled gun under the seat, jumped in, and slammed the door.
They drove in silence for a minute, Manny keeping it at the speed limit and making quick turns, Ray spinning in his seat to look behind them. After a couple of blocks, Ray opened a gym bag and dropped the pistol in; he reached over and took the badge from around Manny’s neck. He leaned forward awkwardly in the seat and took off his windbreaker and stuffed it into the bag with the guns and badges and a couple of leftover pairs of flex cuffs. They turned out onto Route 13, and he reached over and grabbed the wheel and held it straight while Manny took off his jacket.
Ray thought about the kids lying in the front room, whispering to each other. He wondered how long it would take them to begin to move around, get up, tiptoe into the kitchen, their heads cocked for the slightest sound. He imagined Jerome peering down the cellar steps, his hands still cuffed, and realizing they weren’t coming back. He rifled in the green trash bag for a minute, then held his hand out to Manny.
ray watched the cars around them as they drove west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. "That was a nice house. Whose house do you think that was?"
"Someone’s grandma, I’d bet." Manny clicked the radio on, low. "Maybe Ronald’s."
"Didn’t stink, it was all kept up. It was like Crack House Lite." Ray picked up the trash bag and set it on his lap, running his fingers through the loose cash and vials. He stuck a finger through the plastic bag of cash from the toilet tank and made a hole, thumbing the bills, looking at denominations.
Manny looked over. "How did we do?"
"We? Who did all the work?"
"Get the fuck out of here. Who got Jerome to spill?"
Ray waved his hand. "Oh, like I wouldn’t have lifted the lid on the toilet. Doper kids like that only know two places to hide shit, and I already looked in the fridge."
"I have to admit I got a kick out of that ‘help the police’ stuff. How many times the cops tried to play me and my friends like that."
Ray shrugged. "They call it the command voice. It’s a gift some people have. Your problem is you don’t watch enough TV. One or two episodes of Cops’ll tell you anything you want to know about managing the criminal element."
"Please, the criminal element. They were all like fifteen. An episode of Sesame Street could have told you anything you needed to know about managing that bunch." Manny rummaged in his pockets and brought out a cigarette. He pointed with his chin. "Seriously, what did we get?"
Ray didn’t answer. He kept thinking about the house, and the picture of the girl in the cap and gown. Someone’s mother, or grandmother. One of the doper kids her son or grandson. The kids now stumbling around the house, their wrists still cinched by the flex cuffs. It made him unaccountably tense, wondering how they’d get out. They had cell phones, he knew; he had seen them when Manny turned out their pockets. Ray thought about whoever was supplying them. Conjured a hulking gangbanger with big shoulders from the joint, a shaved head. Would there be trouble when they came up short? He saw a big man stalking around the house with a baseball bat, Jerome and Maybe Ronald talking fast, trying to make him see how they got took by two guys said they were cops. Had guns and badges, looked like cops, sounded like cops.
Ray noticed one of those little roadside shrines that families build where someone has been killed in a wreck. Saw the shattered plastic flowers and rotted wooden cross, a tiny, faded photograph flashing by too fast to register. He began to feel a tightness in his chest, a hitch in his breath that felt like panic.
The girl in the picture reminded him of someone. The girl in the cap and gown. The name came back to him, and the accident, and a terrible pulse in his head that made him sick. Marletta. A girl he’d loved, who’d loved him. The brilliant girl with the open smile.
He got her back for an instant sitting in the front seat of a car on the day she graduated high school. The day he would have graduated but for Juvie and the time lost. Marletta sitting beside him in her cap and gown, looking like the girl in the picture in the house on Jefferson Avenue.
He stretched, turned on the radio. KYW came on, the announcer talking about Allen Iverson and his bad attitude. Ray snapped off the radio, opened the window, let the rain spatter his eyes, his cheeks, his open mouth. Manny watched the road, the traffic, occasionally looked his way. When they reached the exit,
Ray cranked the window back up and ran his hands over his face. He caught sight of himself in the mirror on the visor, and it looked like he’d been crying.
But Ray was staring, now. His hands empty in his lap, his brain twisting in his head. "All good things," he said.
Excerpted from Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya.
Copyright © 2009 by Dennis Tafoya.
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.