Leveling the Heights
The cop thumped on the Eldorado’s window with his nightstick and Darius jumped in his seat before turning his head and rolling down the window.
The cop looked about forty and had a thick, rust-colored mustache, but wispy sideburns, as though he’d had to pick one. “Youse are both gonna need to step out of the car,” he said, nodding to Cyrus in the passenger seat.
“Okay,” Darius said, opening the door slowly as Cyrus did the same. The cop pointed his nightstick at Cyrus.
“This ain’t a fuckin’ magic show, Junior, make sure I can see your hands.”
The two brothers circled around to the driver’s side of the car.
“Youse going anywhere in particular?” the cops asked.
“Meeting some friends in Hamilton Heights.”
“That so? Okie Watkins one of your friends?”
“Really? I heard through the grapevine he had two runners in the area tonight. Two scrawny brothers—in both senses–in a fine-ass Caddy. You hear anything about that, Leroy?”
Darius looked up and met the cop’s eyes for the first time, and his own were full of such raw hatred it seemed to surprise the cop for a second before he found himself.
“I know that look,” he smiled. “I’ve seen it a billion times. You just want SO badly to tell this stupid cracker motherfucker your name ain’t Leroy. I mean, you know not to, but it’s killing you, knowing that. You wanna tell me that, Leroy?”
“Huh. That’s funny. I’m usually a pretty good judge of character. So your name IS Leroy?”
Darius didn’t answer.
“Show me your license,” the cop said. “Slow.”
Darius eased his hand into his leather jacket and fished out his wallet. He tugged his license out and handed it to the cop. The cop switched on his flashlight. “Well, I’ll be damned. Darius Yale. Your name ain’t Leroy at all.” He tossed the license back to Darius. “So why’d you tell me it was?”
“I didn’t!” Darius said before he could stop himself. He made a face like he was trying to suck the words back in.
“So you’re calling me a liar,” the cop said. He grabbed Darius by the back of his jacket collar and slammed him against the hood of the car, pulling the cuffs off his belt. Cyrus moved for the first time, speedwalking toward the cop.
“Cy! Step the fuck off!” Darius yelled, straining to turn his head.
The cop pulled his gun and held it on Cyrus. “Listen to your brother unless you want me to blow your nigger head off.”
The two stood almost perfectly still, Cyrus’ fists balled so tight he felt his fingernails cutting into his palms. The cop’s car radio crackled and they both jumped. The cop rushed over to his car.
“…repeat, calling all cars, what appears to be a firebombing on Edgecomb Avenue, all units needed…”
The cop flung open the door and started the car. He pointed at Darius. “I know your fuckin’ names,” he said as he peeled off down the street.
Cyrus smiled. “Not mine,” he said.
Okie Watkins lived in a penthouse with a view of the Hudson with his girlfriend Charlene. He was a big, broad man in his fifties with porkchop sideburns and tinted glasses. Born Reginald, he derived his name from his hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Greenwood, the neighborhood where Okie was born in 1918, was at the time the wealthiest black community in the country until, three years later, a white mob burned it to the ground, killing hundreds, after a black man tripped in an elevator and grabbed a white woman’s arm to break his fall.
Okie’s family fled to Harlem, where he grew up and did what work he could get before he was drafted in ’42. When he came home, he brought with him formidable combat skills and a rucksack of 95 percent pure heroin he’d bought in Paris. Using a combination of the two, he made himself king of Harlem by the end of the decade.
Darius and Cyrus lugged the two wooden crates the cop hadn’t bothered to look in the trunk for into Okie’s home office. Okie got up and gave both men a hug before lifting the lid of one of the crates to find it full of army-issue AR-15s.
“Hot damn,” he said. “Y’all done good.” He peeled 12 twenties off a roll, handing them each six.
“Sorry about the delay,” Darius said. “Got shook down by some pig.”
Okie looked up from the crate. “Really,” he said, a statement, not a question, because questions are for men who don’t know everything. “Y’all look pretty good considering.”
“He got called away,” Darius said. “Firebombing or some shit.”
“Oh yeah, I know about that,” Okie said. “That was for me.”
“How you mean?”
“Set up a meeting with our Italian friends and decided I felt under the weather. So damn under the weather, in fact, that I forgot to call ‘em up and cancel.”
“Lord, no, not me. The Panthers.”
“What the Panthers want to fuck with you for?”
Okie got up, opened the cabinet and poured the three of them two fingers of whiskey. “What the Panthers want to fuck with the nigger who keeps the dope moving through the whole neighborhood for? Think about it, son. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” He sipped from his glass. “Except now this ain’t between them and me, it’s between them and a bunch of angry-ass wops out to get whoever flash-fried their paisans.” He sat back down in his armchair. “Which is where y’all come in.”
Cyrus leaned forward. “Us?”
“Y’all got a sister. Runs with the Panthers.”
“Tomyris?” Darius said. “Ain’t seen her in years.”
“Yes or no, do y’all have a sister who runs with the Panthers?”
“Last I heard.”
“Well, y’all talk to her, have her tell the boys if they want the heat off of them from the guineas, all they got to do is agree to a truce with me and I’ll find some other poor sap to give the guineas.”
The brothers looked at each other, neither saying anything. Okie spread his hands. “Well?”
“Mr. Watkins, all due respect,” Cyrus said, “Tomyris ain’t no telegram girl. And she definitely ain’t the sort to take anyone else’s message to back off.”
Okie smiled, closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. “Whose guns are in them crates?”
Nobody spoke for a minute.
“Whose guns. Are in. Them. Crates?”
“Y-yours, Mr. Watkins,” Darius said eventually.
“And who gave you that money in your pocket?”
“You, Mr. Watkins.”
“So I think that indicates, Darius, that our relationship is something like I’m the employer, and you the employee, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, Mr. Watkins.”
Okie pulled a razor from his waistcoat pocket and lunged across the coffee table at Darius, holding its edge directly against his throat. “Then where the FUCK do you get off saying no to me, boy?” he hissed.
A second ago the room had seemed full of ambient noise even though the only sound was three men talking in conversational tones. Now it had fallen so silent you could hear the wind on the river.
“Mr. Watkins,” Cyrus said eventually.
“Fuck you want?” Okie said, not taking his eyes off Darius.
“Mr. Watkins,” Cyrus said, “you’ve been real good to us and we owe you a lot, and so if we’re in a position to help you, we will. But if you don’t take the blade away from my brother’s throat, I’m going to kill you.”
Now Okie looked at Cyrus. “Oh, you gonna kill me?”
“I’m going to kill you. Might do it without even getting up. I ain’t decided yet.”
Okie nodded and lowered the razor, sitting back in his chair. “How soon can you talk to her?”
“I’m not sure,” Cyrus said. “I can give her a call in the morning.”
“Keep me updated.”
Roscoe’s was all but empty Sunday morning. One of the area’s most popular diners, it was likely to be a madhouse once the neighborhood got out of church, but today there was nobody there besides Cyrus, Darius and Tomyris except Roscoe and an elderly Orthodox Jew having coffee and reading the paper.
Tomyris cocked an eyebrow at her two brothers. She was wearing a black wool turtleneck under a three-quarter-length brown leather jacket. She kept her afro modest, not out of any desire to conform but because her hair got harder to manage the bigger it got.
“So,” she said. “My brothers, the hard boys.”
“Aw, come on, Tommie,” Darius said. “We ain’t here to talk about that.”
“Well, I don’t know when we’re gonna get a chance again.” She sipped her coffee. “Y’all smart. Smartest boys on our block growing up. And with that, you do what? Nothing. Smart, strong black men growing up to be gangsters. It’s like porno for the Man. And he won’t come until you get shot by the pigs before you’re thirty.”
“Oh, yeah, good point,” Darius said. “Praise Jesus, I’m reborn. Maybe I should join the revolution and get shot by the FBI instead like your boy in Chicago.”
Tomyris slammed her mug down. “You watch your fucking mouth.”
“Tommie,” Cyrus said. “We got something else to talk about.”
“You hear Dominic Dellaponte’s nephew Charlie got his ticket cancelled this week?”
“Yeah.” Tomyris took another sip. “I heard about that.”
“Mr. Watkins understands that brought some heat down on y’all.”
“I heard it brought some heat down on Charlie too.”
“Anyway, Mr. Watkins knows he and the Panthers may not see eye-to-eye but he can help make this go away.”
“Golly, that’s nice of Mr. Watkins. What’s he want?”
“A truce. No more going at him.”
Tomyris stared off into space like she was thinking about it for a second. “No.”
“You ain’t even talked to them yet,” Darius said.
“They’ll say no.”
“Tommie, sis, come on. It’s really worth all this to kill one pusher? First of all, you can’t win a war against him. He’s too big. Second, even if you did, it’s not like there wouldn’t be no more dope in the neighbor…”
Tomyris started laughing, so hard the Jewish guy looked up for a second before returning to the paper.
“Never mind what I said,” she said. “Y’all ain’t smart. You think we tried to kill Okie because he’s a pusher?”
“Well, why not, then?”
Tomyris smiled. “Y’all lean in close for a second.”
Cyrus and Darius met Okie in the backroom of one of his clubs early Tuesday morning, the neighborhood outside the gray of not-quite-dawn. He poured them drinks and sat down behind his desk where two lines of cocaine were laid out on a hand mirror.
“So how’d it go?” he said.
“Good,” Darius said. “Real good.”
Okie looked like he was waiting for them to say something more. “Well, that’s… that’s good to hear, boys,” he said. “What’d she say?”
“Lot of stuff,” Cyrus said. “Lot of real interesting stuff.”
Cyrus put his knees together and leaned forward. “Well, she said that cop who stopped us? He’d been waiting there all night.”
“Yeah, crazy shit, right? And that same cop, he arrested Deray Culver last year. You remember that?”
“So you remember how the cops said Deray went for his gun? Even though he didn’t carry a gun? Business been pretty good for you since then, huh?”
“Hold on, what’s…”
“The Panthers didn’t try kill you because you deal, Mr. Watkins,” Cyrus said, pulling the .38 from the small of his back. “They tried to kill you because you’re a snitch for the NYPD.”
He shot Okie twice in the forehead and the two got up and left out the backdoor. A blue Towncar was waiting for them.
Cyrus and Darius got into the back seat and shook hands with the middle-aged man in the double-breasted Armani suit. “Give the piece to the driver,” Mr. Dellaponte said. “He’ll take care of it.” He lit a cigar and offered one to Darius. “Harlem’s yours, kid.”
Darius did just that while Cyrus stared out the window as the car pulled out.
“Everything okay, kid?” Dellaponte asked.
“Just thinking, is all,” Cyrus said. “Harlem’s a lot to look after.”
Mr. Dellaponte smiled. “Got that right,” he said. “But I think you’re good for it.”