A Life for a Life: A Novel

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From the acclaimed author of Satisfied with Nothin' comes a searing and unsparing story of the unlikely bond between an African-American father and the teenager who killed his son, a tale of violent self-destruction reclaimed by the inexhaustible power of love and forgiveness.

In A Life for a Life, Ernest Hill explores the volatile emotional terrain of a black youth's coming of age in rural Louisiana. When a local drug dealer threatens to kill D'Ray Reid's kid brother unless he ...

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From the acclaimed author of Satisfied with Nothin' comes a searing and unsparing story of the unlikely bond between an African-American father and the teenager who killed his son, a tale of violent self-destruction reclaimed by the inexhaustible power of love and forgiveness.

In A Life for a Life, Ernest Hill explores the volatile emotional terrain of a black youth's coming of age in rural Louisiana. When a local drug dealer threatens to kill D'Ray Reid's kid brother unless he comes up with $100 within an hour, D'Ray decides to hold up a convenience store in a nearby town. The young clerk at the cash register attempts to foil the robbery and in the scuffle D'Ray shoots and kills him. What follows is an absorbing drama in which D'Ray becomes a fugitive with a lengthening resume of violent crime. Yet it is ultimately in the person of Henry Earl, the slain boy's father, that D'Ray sees his future. When he is forced to reckon with his destruction of the boy's family, D'Ray finds that Henry Earl is his only advocate and the person who will ask of him what no one, not even his family, had ever asked before.

A Life for a Life witnesses the resuscitation of two lives by love, forgiveness, and gratitude. The relationship that develops between D'Ray Reid and Henry Earl is nothing short of miraculous: Their discovery of humanity and harmony in the most unlikely place will reverberate in readers' memories.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Robert Olen Butler Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain A Life for a Life is a dazzling and profound tale of cosmic fate and social forces, of violence and forgiveness and redemption. With this novel Ernest Hill clearly establishes himself as one of our finest writers.

Robert L. Harris, Jr. Associate Professor of African-American History, Cornell University From a tale of tragedy, Ernest Hill poignantly extracts a compelling story of the love, faith, integrity, and perseverance that have sustained black families and that have been the central ingredients in transforming boys into men.

Dennis A. Williams author of Crossover and Somebody's Child In A Life for a Life, Ernest Hill presents a compelling fable of despair and redemption — and an enduring image of the power of fatherhood.

Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and Judge Baker Children's Center A Life for a Life is an engrossing book, an inspiration to black youth who often must cope with a crime- and drug-infested environment. D'Ray's transformation is a tribute to the strong kinship bonds that have sustained the black community.

From the Publisher

Robert Olen Butler Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain A Life for a Life is a dazzling and profound tale of cosmic fate and social forces, of violence and forgiveness and redemption. With this novel Ernest Hill clearly establishes himself as one of our finest writers.

Robert L. Harris, Jr. Associate Professor of African-American History, Cornell University From a tale of tragedy, Ernest Hill poignantly extracts a compelling story of the love, faith, integrity, and perseverance that have sustained black families and that have been the central ingredients in transforming boys into men.

Dennis A. Williams author of Crossover and Somebody's Child In A Life for a Life, Ernest Hill presents a compelling fable of despair and redemption -- and an enduring image of the power of fatherhood.

Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and Judge Baker Children's Center A Life for a Life is an engrossing book, an inspiration to black youth who often must cope with a crime- and drug-infested environment. D'Ray's transformation is a tribute to the strong kinship bonds that have sustained the black community.

Fran Handman
. . .[A] straightforward account of the conflicting forces that shape the lives of young men like D'Ray. . .
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
D'Ray Reid, the hero of this initially suspenseful but ultimately frustrating coming-of-age novel, undergoes a miraculous transformation and emerges in the end a new man after some crime-filled years. D'Ray is 15 when a local drug dealer threatens to kill his younger brother unless he comes up with $100 within an hour. Panicked and desperate, D'Ray decides to hold up a convenience store--but, in the process, he kills another African American teenager who tries to foil the holdup. He escapes and makes a living as a pimp before he's caught and sentenced to six years in jail. Needless to say, D'Ray comes from a dysfunctional family. Hill's depiction of an African American family trapped in poverty in rural Louisiana is stark and candid. He has a sure hand with pacing and he renders pitch-perfect dialogue that instantly establishes character and fuels the plot with tension. It's only when D'Ray goes to jail and finds God (with guidance, incredibly, from Mr. Henry, the father of the dead clerk) that he becomes an unbelievable character and the novel drifts into hokum ("`Come home with me,' Mr. Henry said. `Be a credit to your race.' `The next Thurgood Marshall,' D'Ray mumbled contemplatively"). The workings of grace may be mysterious and difficult to foreshadow; in this case, they are simply hard to swallow.
Library Journal
D'Ray Reid lives with his mother and younger brother in a small town in Louisiana. He's angry that his mother is having a serious affair with a cop and saddened that she dotes on his younger brother, Little Man, while telling him repeatedly that like his father he will get into trouble. The prophecy comes true when D'Ray saves his brother's life from a crack dealer by robbing a store, killing another young black male who tries to stop him, then running away, leaving a trail of deceit, pain, and death in his wake. Yet when he's finally locked away, the father of the young man he killed visits and becomes the father D'Ray never had. Hill describes D'Ray's dismal, violent life in straightforward prose and nearly too clean-cut dialog, narrating the tale from D'Ray's viewpoint but calling on other characters to lend their voices to discussions of racism, poverty, and affirmative action. The inspirational ending, however touching, just didn't work for this reviewer. Not essential but worth considering for YA collections.--Shirley Gibson Coleman, Ann Arbor District Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan
--Joe Accardi, Northeastern Illinois University Library, Chicago
School Library Journal
YA-D'Ray Reid's younger brother, Little Man, is held hostage by drug dealers for smoking their drugs without paying. The ransom is $100, which D'Ray must deliver within an hour. Robbing a convenience store nets him the money but also causes the death of the young clerk who tries to stop the crime. D'Ray then runs for his life. His fugitive status leads him to more and more criminal activity until his eventual arrest. Conviction of first-degree murder lands him in the Louisiana Youth Authority prison until his 21st birthday. Ignored by his own family, D'Ray's only and constant visitor is Henry Earl, the slain boy's father. Henry is the teen's sole hope for the future but D'Ray must forgive himself before he can accept forgiveness from others. Richly crafted characters, plus themes of violence and fugitive life, will keep YAs riveted to this coming-of-age novel.-Katherine Fitch, Rachel Carson Middle School, Herndon, VA
Fran Handman
. . .[A] straightforward account of the conflicting forces that shape the lives of young men like D'Ray. . . -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Kitchen-sink realism among bottom-dogs in Louisiana gives the first half of Hill's second novel (Satisfied with Nothin') an absorbing artistry. Hill gets off to a seemingly amateurish start of high melodrama that swiftly morphs into a hook that locks your eyes to the page. Ten-year-old Little Man was inadvertently seduced into taking crack by the sister of drug dealer Kojak, who now has Little Man bound to a chair and will kill him unless Little Man's brother, D'Ray Reid, 15, comes up with a hundred bucks to pay for Little Man's crack. D'Ray steals his mother's pistol, then a truck, and drives to a grocery store outside the black community, where he kills Stanley, the clerk. D'Ray feels the law closing in on him; he has a record, and his fingerprints are on the truck and in the grocery store. But before he goes into hiding, we're treated to two choruses, one conducted in a barbershop as the customers await their haircuts (race relations are discussed at great length) and the other among three women in the Reid living room (where we learn that D'Ray's father is in prison for life, having killed a white man). The lad-on-the-run theme speeds along nicely, neatly handled. When he's captured and put on trial for killing Stanley, D'Ray comes up with some fanciful alibis but is nonetheless convicted of Murder One and put away. During his six years as a prisoner, D'Ray is visited regularly by Stanley's father, Mr. Henry Earl, who wants D'Ray to reform and take his dead son's place in the family. The sentimental ending aside, Hills's swift simplicity in the telling and his rich black dialogue will carry you along.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743281607
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 1/25/2005
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 1,024,391
  • Product dimensions: 0.50 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 9.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Ernest Hill was born in Oak Grove, Louisiana. He holds degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, and UCLA. He is the author of five novels, including A Life for a Life, Cry Me a River, It's All About the Moon When the Sun Ain't Shining, and A Person of Interest.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

He sat in a small wooden chair with his hands tied behind his back. Yes, he was guilty as charged, but it had all been a mistake, a misunderstanding. The day had begun innocently enough. He had met Beggar Man, Crust, and Pepper on the corner under the big oak tree. It was hot, one of the hottest days that any of them could remember. It was too hot to be outside, and sitting in the pool hall under that old window fan wouldn't be much better. They needed air-conditioning, and the only place in the projects that was air-conditioned was Kojak's Place.

They all knew what went on at Kojak's Place, but they were hot and they agreed that they would stay just long enough to cool off, or just long enough for the sun to move from the center of the sky, or just long enough for a few clouds to rise. None of them knew how long that would be, but it couldn't be that long. So like a pack of wild animals drawn to a communal watering hole in spite of the dangers lurking nearby, they marched forward.

Even after they started walking, they searched for possible alternatives. A movie would do the trick, but they didn't have a dime between the four of them. They could mill about downtown in one of the department stores, but they knew they wouldn't be inside long enough to stop sweating before someone asked them what they were looking for. A dip in the town pool would be ideal, but even though it was 1987, in Brownsville, Louisiana, for all intents and purposes, that much-desired treat was still for whites only. So it was Kojak's Place or no place.

When they went inside, all he wanted was relief from the heat. He only wanted to sit in the back and wait for the sun to go down. It was the others who wanted to have a little fun once they were inside, not him. It was Crust and Pepper who followed the two skimpily clad prostitutes through the room and up the back stairs, not him. They were working girls, and he knew as well as Pepper and Crust that their empty pockets meant none of them had what it took to gain the women's attention or garner their affection. It was Beggar Man, not him, who took a seat at the bar and tried to talk Walter into giving him a free drink. He didn't bother. It was too hot outside and there were too many people inside for Walter to be giving away drinks.

When he sat beside her, it was purely coincidental. He saw the empty seat before he saw her. She was beautiful, and he couldn't help but notice her too short cutoff jeans, or her snug-fitting crop top that drew attention to her voluptuous breasts and exposed her flat, taut stomach. Even after he noticed her he said nothing. He sat silently, staring out the window, enjoying the cool air, wondering how long before the sun went down or a few clouds rose. She spoke first. "What brings you to Death Row?" He was sure that he had never seen her before, but as soon as she spoke, he knew she was from the area. She had said, "Death Row." Everybody knew that the Brownsville Projects were a bad place, but only the locals knew about Chatman Avenue. People died on Chatman Avenue. So many people, so often, that the locals began calling it Death Row.

After a brief silence, he answered her question. "Relief from the heat," he said dryly.

"Is that all?" she wanted to know.

"What else is there?" he asked.

"Whatever you want," she responded. "This is Kojak's Place."

"And what do you know about Kojak's Place?" he asked.

"More than most," she said boastfully.

"Is that right?" he responded sarcastically.

"That's right," she told him. "I'm his sister."

He had been running with the fellows for only a couple of weeks. They were all older than him. He had just turned ten, but he looked older. In fact, most of the people around town affectionately called him Little Man. As a group they called themselves the Posse, and his brother was their leader. On his birthday his brother had told him it was time. And then he was one of them. Each day they had taught him something new. But today they had carried him further than ever before. They had taken him to Kojak's Place. Now he was on his own, and she was his first big test.

After she told him who she was, she asked him to accompany her to one of the back rooms. When they arrived, she offered him Kojak's glass pipe. When he told her that he only smoked weed, she just laughed. When he told her he was broke, she told him that he didn't need any money. When he asked her if she was sure that it was OK, she assured him that it was. So, for an hour and a half, they smoked. Inside, under the cool, dry air, away from the heat and humidity, in a private room, they smoked. It was her party, and he was her invited guest. That's what he told Kojak when he demanded payment for his drugs. That's what he told Kojak just before Kojak hit him on the side of the head with that empty whiskey bottle. That's what he told Kojak before Kojak dragged him out behind the club and into the small storage shed. That's what he kept trying to tell Kojak as Kojak was tying him to that chair. That's what he screamed as Kojak placed the gun barrel next to his temple, mumbling, "You gone pay me or die."

He had closed his eyes never expecting to open them again. He had anticipated hearing the gunshot. He had anticipated feeling the excruciating pain of a bullet boring through his skull. He had imagined his lifeless body slumped over in the chair, a pool of blood collecting at his bound feet. He had heard the deafening wail of his brokenhearted mother, the angry moan of his dejected brother, the pitying words of his friends, and that question that white folks always ask, "Why do these people do this to each other?"

There was no point in pleading. This was Kojak, a ruthless dope dealer who killed with impunity. He and the cops had an understanding. He gave them a cut of his profits, and they gave him free reign to peddle his drugs and his women, as long as he confined his business to places like Death Row. Kojak was a businessman. Little Man had smoked that for which he could not pay. Therefore he had to die.

He didn't know how he knew to come. Someone must have called him. Maybe Crust, maybe Pepper, maybe Beggar Man; he didn't know who, but someone. When he heard him yell, "Kojak!" he flinched. When he felt the gun barrel fall from his head, he opened his eyes. When he saw him standing there, he sighed. It was D'Ray, his brother.

For a moment D'Ray and Kojak stood staring at each other. They were two different versions of the same thing. At thirty-five, Kojak was a seasoned criminal. At fifteen, D'Ray was just beginning. D'Ray spoke first.

"What's the deal, Kojak?" he asked loudly.

"Who wants to know?" Kojak responded, looking him over carefully.

"D'Ray," his brother answered.

Kojak frowned. He didn't recognize the name. Perhaps if D'Ray had said, "Outlaw," that would have made a difference. After all, that's what most people called him.

"D'Ray who?" Kojak asked.

"D'Ray Reid," he told him.

Kojak smiled wryly. The last name was familiar.

"You Papa World's boy?" he asked.

"That's right," D'Ray told him.

Kojak looked at D'Ray and then at Little Man.

"Him too?" he asked.

"Him too," D'Ray told him. "He's my little brother."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Kojak said coldly. "World always been good to me."

"He been good to a lot of people," D'Ray added.

For a brief moment Kojak's eyes softened.

"How World making out these days?" he asked.

Papa World was in South Louisiana serving a life sentence in Angola State Penitentiary for killing a white man.

"He's making the best of a bad situation," D'Ray told him.

"That's what we got here, young blood," Kojak said. "A bad situation."

"It don't have to be," D'Ray countered. "What's the problem?"

Kojak raised the gun and rubbed the barrel against his cheek.

"He's a thief," Kojak said.

D'Ray shook his head in disagreement. "He's a little hardheaded, but he ain't no thief."

"Well, what would you call a person who takes what he can't pay for?" Kojak asked.

"What he take?"


"Crack!" D'Ray shouted.

"Yeah, crack," Kojak said. "He must be a fool stealing from me. Little nigguh just don't know, I'll take 'im out."

Little Man started to speak. Kojak wheeled and pointed the gun at his head.

"Wait," D' Ray yelled. "I'll pay you."

Kojak lowered the gun.

"You got money?"

D'Ray patted his front pockets, then extended both hands in front of his body with both palms up.

"Not on me," he said. "Let me owe you. I'm good for it."

"You must be tripping."

"Come on, Kojak," D'Ray pleaded. "Cut us some slack. He's just a kid."

"Kid!" Kojak barked. "Ain't no kids in the projects. Papa World's boys ought to know that as good as anybody."

"I need a little time," D'Ray told him.

"Ain't no time," Kojak responded.

"Give me till tomorrow," D'Ray said. "I swear on my daddy's honor you'll get your money."

There was silence.

"What you say, Kojak?" D'Ray asked. "How about first thing in the morning?"

"Papa World always been good to me." Kojak spoke as though he was thinking out loud. "You got one hour."

"One hour!" D'Ray yelled.

"One hour," Kojak responded coldly. "Papa World or no Papa World, you ain't back with my money in a hour, you can tell your mama she got one less mouth to feed."

D'Ray turned to leave, then stopped.

"How much he owe you?"

"One hundred dollars," Kojak told him.

"One hundred dollars!" D'Ray shouted.

"Homeboy, the clock's ticking."

Copyright © 1998 by Ernest Hill

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First Chapter

D'Ray hurried outside. He didn't have much time. He wanted to run, but he didn't know where to go. Where would he get $100? He couldn't think. He began to panic. "Calm down. Calm down," he whispered to himself. "Think."

He heard a familiar noise coming from inside the club. He crossed the yard, climbed the four concrete steps, and pushed the door open. Inside, people were crammed together, laughing and dancing and making the sounds that men make when they are drinking. As he stood gazing at the crowd, he thought of something. It was Friday. Payday. Maybe he could borrow the money. He entered the room, pushed his way to the bar, and began scanning the crowd, looking for familiar faces. He didn't see anyone. Who was he kidding? This was the projects. It would take all night to find someone who could spare $100. He looked at the old clock hanging on the wall. Five minutes had passed since Kojak's warning. Behind him, the cash register rang. He turned and watched Walter remove several crumpled bills and hand them to a customer.

That's it, he thought. The cash register. There wasn't enough time to borrow the money, but there was more than enough time to take it. He pushed away from the counter, then paused. "Not here," he mumbled to himself. "There are too many people." He rushed to the door, pushed it open, and leapt to the ground. He stumbled, regained his balance, and began to run. Slowly at first, then faster. He needed a weapon. He would go home and take his mother's pistol. She kept it in her bedroom under the mattress. As he ran, he began to formulate a plan. He would rob a convenience store. But not in Brownsville. It was still too light out. Someone who knew him might see him, and he would be captured before he had a chance to pay Kojak. He would go to Lake Providence. He could make it there and back in twenty-five minutes, easy. He began to breathe in short, quick gasps. His legs began to throb, and his lungs began to burn. His mother's house was on the adjacent street. He jumped a drainage ditch, crossed through someone's yard, passed behind the house, and turned north on the next street.

The houses along the street were bustling with activity. But he neither looked at anyone nor spoke to anyone. Not the old folks sitting on the porch, not the young men playing cards on the hood of an old broken-down car, not the small children shooting marbles in the grassless yard. Even when his neighbor yelled, "Is anything the matter?" he didn't speak, partly because he hadn't heard her and partly because he didn't have the time.

When he reached his mother's house, he raced up the steps, pulled open the screen door, and twisted the doorknob. The door was locked. Frustrated, he drew back his fist and began beating the door with the flat part of his hand.

"Who that, banging on that door?" his mother yelled from inside.

"Hurry up and open this door," he shouted in response, drawing back his fist and striking the door again.

"If you hit that door again, I swear 'fo Gawd I'm gone knock the fool out of you."

His mother opened the door and he pushed past her.

"Why you huffing and puffing?" she asked.

He didn't answer her.

"Who you running from? What you done got into now?"

D'Ray turned to walk away. She grabbed his arm and spun him around.

"Boy, don't you hear me talking to you?"

He pulled away from her.

"Mama, I ain't got time for this," he snapped.

"You better make time," she warned him.

"Everything fine," he told her. "Just leave me alone."

"Where Little Man?" she asked.

"How am I supposed to know?" he asked.

She went out onto the porch to look. He raced into her room, reached under the mattress, and removed the gun. He heard her coming. He raised his shirt, stuck the gun in the waist of his pants, and rushed from the room.

"What you doing in my room?" his mother asked as he raced past her.

"Nothing," he lied. "I got to go."

"Where you going?" she yelled.

He didn't answer. He leapt from the porch and raced down the street.

"You tell Little Man he better not let night catch him away from this house," she yelled from the porch.

His mind began to race. What time is it? How was he going to get to Lake Providence? What if he was late getting back?

He needed a car. He ran to the main highway and thumbed a ride. He rode to the white section of town near the park and got out. Across from the park was the parish baseball field. Behind the field was a parking lot. Next to the parking lot was a cluster of oak trees. Cautiously he crossed the street, eased into the woods, and hid behind a tree. From where he stood, he had a clear view. A game was in progress and the parking lot was filled with several long rows of neatly aligned automobiles. He took a deep breath, grabbed the tree with both hands, and slid down into a crouch. Then, holding on to the tree with his right hand, he took a small step to the left and paused. He looked to his left, then to his right, and back to his left. Satisfied that all was clear, he lowered himself to his hands and knees and crawled to the closest vehicle. He raised his head, looked through the window on the driver's side, then moved to the next vehicle. It was a small pickup truck. The keys were in the ignition. He opened the door, slid under the wheel, and started the engine. A nervous charge swept through his body. Had the sound of the engine drawn attention to him? He surveyed the parking lot again. All was quiet. He pulled the truck in gear and backed out, mumbling, "Please, don't let nobody see me."

When he made it to the highway leading out of the parking lot, he stopped. To go left would mean driving past the ballpark. But to go right he would have to pass a small group of whites walking toward him on the right shoulder of the highway. He couldn't chance driving past the ballpark. The owner would surely see him. He slumped in the seat until he could barely see over the dashboard. He pulled the truck into gear and slowly depressed the accelerator. The truck crept forward. He turned right and drove toward the pedestrians. As he passed, he glanced at them out of the corner of his eye. He guessed they were a family -- two parents, three children. The woman grabbed the two smaller ones and the man grabbed the largest one. All of them moved off the road and into the ditch. None of them looked at him. When he had passed them, D'Ray checked the rearview mirror. They had moved back onto the shoulder and resumed their journey.

D'Ray decided to take a secondary road to the main highway leading out of town. At the next intersection he turned right, drove a quarter of a mile, and came to a second intersection. Now he was in the sparsely populated area that was owned by several of the town's wealthiest white farmers. He turned right at the stop sign and drove past what had been the old rodeo grounds. Three miles later he reached the point at which the road intersected with the main highway just outside the city limits. He turned left and sighed. He had made it out of town. He had driven only a few minutes when he saw the sign. Lake Providence 8 miles.

He wondered about the time. He began searching the console for a clock. He didn't see it. He reached down and turned on the radio. Several bright yellow numbers appeared on the panel. He pushed the select knob. It clicked and the time appeared. "Six-twenty-five." He read the time out loud. He had thirty-five minutes to rob the store and get back. He could feel his heart pounding. A single bead of sweat rolled from his armpit and wound its way down to his wrist. He felt his foot depress the accelerator. He watched the speedometer climb to sixty. Easy, he told himself. Don't get stopped by the cops. You got time. You got time.

A country-and-western song was playing on the radio. He turned the dial to an R&B station. "That's better," he mumbled. The music calmed him. He gripped the steering wheel with both hands and stared ahead. He was on a straight two-lane highway. Both sides of the road were lined with a dense stand of moss-covered trees. Some of them were standing on dry land, but many were sitting in shallow swamp water. His mind raced forward to Lake Providence. Time dictated the plan. He would hit Clem's Grocery Store. It was a small family-owned store south of town near the black community. It was off the main highway, and Mr. Clem usually ran the store alone. The hit should be quick and easy, and nobody should get hurt.

He saw the traffic light ahead. Lake Providence was just around the bend. He stepped off the accelerator and gently depressed the brake. As the truck slowed to a stop, he pressed the select knob to check the time. It was 6:33. He didn't have much time. He parked the truck on a side street one block from the store. When he walked into the store, he glanced at the clock on the wall. It was 6:38. He quickly surveyed the store. There was one customer at the counter and two middle-aged women milling about in one of the center aisles. He glanced back at the counter. Mr. Clem wasn't there. A young-looking black boy was operating the cash register. Was Mr. Clem in the store? He didn't see him. He walked to the back of the store, carefully avoiding the two women. He looked at them a second time. They never looked up. They were engrossed in their shopping. He went to the glass-fronted refrigerator, opened the door, and took out a soft drink. The customer at the counter was leaving, and the two women had moved to an aisle closer to the back. One of them was looking at a list, while the other was examining the shelf. He couldn't wait any longer. He hurried to the front, set the drink on the counter, and looked toward the front door. No one was coming. He looked up at the boy. He was about sixteen, slender and well dressed. He even wore a tie with his store apron.

"Will that be all for you?" the boy asked.

"Yeah," D'Ray heard himself say.

Suddenly he felt a surge of nervous energy. He had to remain calm. He glanced over his shoulder. Now the women were at the back of the store. The boy picked up the soft drink and began fingering the cash register keys.

"Where Mr. Clem?" D'Ray asked.

"We ran out of ice," the boy said without looking up. "He went to get some more. He'll be back in a minute."

D'Ray wondered how much money was in the cash register.

"Business must be good," he remarked.

"Been heavy off and on all day. Had a big rush 'round five. Done slack off now, though." He paused and looked up. "That'll be thirty-five cents."

D'Ray reached his hand into his pocket, then stopped.

"Look here, little brother," he said softly. "I got myself a major problem. Somebody I love is gone get killed in a few minutes if I don't make it back with a hundred dollars. I got a gun. I don't want to use it, but I will. Just give me the money out the cash register and won't nobody get hurt."

Terrified, the boy extended his unsteady hand, pushed a button, and the drawer to the register flew open. He hesitated.

"Come on," D'Ray whispered through clenched teeth. "Hurry up."

D'Ray looked around. The women were still preoccupied with their shopping. He looked toward the door. No one was coming. The boy stood paralyzed.

"Hurry up," D'Ray commanded a second time.

The boy didn't move. Impatient, D'Ray reached his hand across the counter and into the register. Suddenly, the boy slammed the register closed. It caught D'Ray's hand and he jerked it back. He was bleeding. The boy reached underneath the counter. D'Ray saw him. He pulled the gun from his waist and fired twice. The boy fell back against the wall. Behind him, D'Ray heard the sound of glass breaking. He turned and looked. One of the women had dropped a jar. Both of them were staring in his direction, screaming and yelling frantically.

D'Ray leaned across the counter and opened the register. He reached in, grabbed all of the bills, and ran out of the store. He darted behind the building, sprinted to the truck, and climbed inside. His mind was racing. Was the boy dead? Was somebody chasing him? Had they called the police yet? He fumbled in his pocket, looking for the keys. He had stuffed the money in the same pocket. As he pulled his hand from his pocket, money spilled onto the seat. He had a burning desire to count it, but there was no time. He was sure they were chasing him. He drove north toward town, turned left, and doubled back south. If someone had seen him leave, he wanted them to think he had headed north. At the signal light he turned left. He stared at the sign. Brownsville 8 miles. He reached over and pushed the select knob. It was 6:43. In the distance he heard the sharp, piercing sound of a siren. He checked his rearview mirror. He saw the vague image of an ambulance streak past the intersection. He watched the dull glow of the traffic light become smaller and smaller until it was no longer visible. He felt momentary relief. They were all rushing to the crime scene. He thought of the two women in the store. They were hysterical. It would be a while before they were able to tell what had happened. By that time he would be in Brownsville.

What was going on there at this very moment? Was the game over? Had the owner discovered that his truck was missing? Were the Brownsville police looking for him? It was still light out. He had to be careful.

Suddenly he became aware of the blood running down the back of his hand. In the excitement he had forgotten about the cut. He removed his injured hand from the steering wheel, turned it over, and wiped the back of his hand across the leg of his pants. Then he raised his hand to his mouth and began sucking the injury. He removed his hand and inspected it. He had a moderate cut on his middle finger above the knuckle. He placed the cut back in his mouth. He had to stop the bleeding.

He thought back to the store. Why hadn't the boy just given him the money? "Stupid nigguh," he mumbled angrily. He began to tremble. A chill raced the length of his body and exploded inside his head. He had broken into houses before. He had snatched purses. He had even stabbed someone with a knife, but he had never killed. He hadn't checked, but he knew the boy was dead. He knew by the way he had fallen against the wall. He knew by the way his head had hit the floor. He knew by the way he had lain, motionless...soundless. And why was he dead? Protecting money that didn't even belong to him.

D'Ray took his hand from his mouth and removed the rest of the money from his pocket. He hadn't counted it, but now he knew. On the seat, buried underneath the mound of various denominations of currency, he saw the corner of a $100 bill. He placed the injured finger back in his mouth and focused on the highway. "Hold on, Little Man," he mumbled. "I'm coming."

When he reached Brownsville he drove to the salvage yard and parked the truck. He was less than five minutes from Kojak's Place. He checked the clock one last time. It was 6:52. He grabbed the money, stuffed it into his pocket, and sprinted to Kojak's Place. When he entered the shed, Kojak was standing in the corner. He held a cigarette in one hand and the pistol in the other. Little Man was still sitting in the chair with his hands bound behind his back, only now he wore a blindfold and his mouth was gagged. Kojak had prepared him for execution.

A small single-bulb lamp sitting on a tiny table was the only source of light for the moderate-size room. D'Ray moved next to the lamp, reached into his pocket, and removed several bills. He separated one and put the others back in his pocket.

"Your money," he said, extending the $100 bill toward Kojak.

Kojak raised the cigarette to his mouth and inhaled. The end lit to a bright red glow, then dimmed. He removed the cigarette from his lips, tilted his head back, and blew a cloud of white smoke into the air. He lowered his eyes, looked at the money, and then at D'Ray.

"That all of it?" he asked.

"Yep," D'Ray told him. "One hundred dollars."

Kojak dropped the cigarette and slowly ground it into the floor with his foot.

"Bring it here," he ordered after a moment of silence.

D'Ray crossed the room and extended the money toward Kojak. Their eyes met. Neither man blinked or spoke. Kojak took the money, folded it in half, and put it in his front pocket. Then he reached down, raised his pants leg, and removed a large knife from a carrying case that was strapped to his ankle. He took the knife by the blade and extended the handle to D'Ray.

"You boys tell Walter that old Kojak said to give you a drink on the house."

D'Ray's finger had begun to bleed again. Kojak walked over to the small table that the lamp was sitting on. He pulled open the drawer, removed a small container of Band-Aids, and tossed them to D'Ray.

"Nothing personal," he mumbled. "Just business. Give my best to Papa World."

Copyright © 1998 by Ernest Hill

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2008

    Man's Son's Killer Is Now Son

    When main character D'Ray smokes Kojak's drugs and now he owes him money. Kojak decides to hold his little brother hostage for an hour to get the money. D'Ray kills Stanley a store clerk. In jail an unknown visitor comes and talks to D'Ray and when D'Ray is out of jail Mr. Henry takes him in, and takes care of him like his own child.Page after page of suspenseful drama and complete chaos will have you stuck reading not wanting to put the book down. If one takes a life from a father should the father give one a life of love and care since he didnt care for his son? Would you forgive one for taking your childs life? Mr. Henry forgives but does D'Ray forgive himself?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2007

    there is a sequel

    Mr. hill is coming out with a sequel that will explain alot. he just came to our school and explained some of the things that made no since. he said he is currently working a sequel to come out in about a year hopefully

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2004


    This book is phenomenal. I am truly impressed by Ernest Hill and have kept my promise of getting all of his books because of that. This man has dialogue down as well as Langston Hughes, can tell a story better than Slick Rick (one of the most entertaining storytellers I've ever listened to), and always has an intriguing plot. I could've sat in the barbership all day and listened to those men argue, I wanted to hang out with the main character Outlaw, and...I just love everything about this story of a teenage boy trying to save his brother, his own life, and grant himself a future all with the obstacles of poverty, secrecy, trust, and danger lurking around every corner.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2004


    I just finished reading this book. It was very touching. You would never believe something like this could happen. I read Satisfied with Nothin, but this one was definitely better. In Satisfied, there were a couple of slow moments, but not in this book. I finished reading this book in 2 days. A definite page-turner.

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