“It weren’t me,” the screamer told him. “Damon here left his post.”

Stalin looked at Damon. The guard shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looked at me, looked at the closed door behind us, wishing he was out the door and down the street.


The room fell silent. Somewhere a TV played loudly—a game show host was telling a disappointed contestant that there were parting gifts waiting backstage.

From his chair the man with the ledger told Stalin calmly, “Ax him what he want.”

“So why the fuck you here, white meat?”

“I thought we’d get together and chat, seeing how we have so many friends in common.”

“What friends?”

“Bradley Young and Cleave Benjamn for two.”

“Let me smoke ’im!” shouted the man with the machine gun. “Let ’em put ’im down. You say the word, he gone.”

The shout jolted me and for a moment I thought I saw a train conductor coming my way with a paper punch in his hand. Only Stalin was on top of it.

“Chill!” he shouted, then added in a calmer voice, “Slack off but don’t back off.”

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Mr. Mustache allowed the muzzle of the light machine gun to dip slightly—instead of my head he was now aiming at my chest, not much of an improvement.

Stalin crossed his arms like he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Why you comin’ like this, McKenzie? You erase two a my family then you come to my house playin’ fuckin’ GI Joe. What up with that?”

“Like I said, I want to talk.”

“So talk.”

“Crowds make me nervous. Everyone out except you. And tell this moron to put the machine gun away.”

“Or what?”

I waved the grenade.

“You ain’t got the size,” Stalin told me.

“Tell it to Young and Benjamn.”

Stalin walked right up to me—didn’t seem to mind at all that the muzzle of the Beretta was now pressed against his chest. He stuck his face an inch from mine and gave me the mad dog. I could smell his breath. Peppermint.

“You make me mad, I’ll be makin’ you sad,” he hissed. Then, “Everyone out. Me and McKenzie gonna discuss his life ’spectancy.”

The room cleared slowly. Mr. Mustache leaned in close when he passed me. “You think you’re large, you think you’re bad,” he hissed. “Later for you, my man.”

He was followed by the man in the imitation leather chair moving at his leisure. “We ain’t got time for this, Raymond,” he said. “We got business can’t wait.”

“I know, I know.”

“Raymond?” I asked when we were alone.

“Name’s Stalin. It’s Russian. It means steel.”

“Did the name come with the machine gun?”

“That why you come to my house? Talk ’bout my name?”

“I want to know why you’re trying to kill me.”

“You keep comin’ at me, bitch. You want my ass cuz me and mine are gettin’ and niggers ain’t supposed to get.”

“You don’t mean shit to me,” I told him. “I didn’t want your ass until you started comin’ after mine. Tell me why?”

“I was told you’re bad for business.”

“Who told you?”

No reply.

“Was it Napoleon Cook?”

“Could be.” Stalin kept smiling. I’ve seen sociopaths like him before. They frighten me.

“Why did you kill Cook?”

“If’n I done Cook and I’m not sayin’ I did, it woulda been cuz he be bad for business, too.”

“What business are you in?”

Stalin glanced around the apartment. I followed his eyes and got part of an answer. The apartment was loaded with hard goods and appliances—copy machines, stereo receivers, TVs, VCRs, CD players, answering machines, fax machines, microwaves, an electric range, clothes hanging from racks like a department store, about a dozen PCs. The floor sagged from the weight of it all. Most of the merchandise was still in boxes, much of it was covered with dust.

You have to understand, a player doesn’t care about owning things, or using things, only about his ability to buy things. His life is centered on money, nothing else. The women, the cars, the clothes, the merchandise he piles up—that’s just for show. What matters is the money he holds in his hands, he measures his self-worth in cash. That’s why he never pays for anything with a check or credit card. He wants to see your face when he digs the bills out of his pocket, he needs to see the envy in your eyes when he presses them into your hand.

“Why did you kill Jamie Bruder and Katherine Katzmark?”

For the first time Stalin’s eyes displayed a genuine emotion: outrage.

“Don’t be blamin’ that shit on me. I ain’t had nothin’ to do with that, man. You gotta be crazy to do like that.”

“If not you, who?”

“Bruder, man.”

“How do you know?”

“What the paper says.”

“Where is Bruder?”

“How should I know?”

“You and him are tight, aren’t you?”

“That’s business, man. I don’t ’sociate with them exceptin’ for business.”

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