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The walls echoed her cries for Daddy to get his hands off her, brought her pleas up the stairs to my room. I jumped and my algebra book dropped from my chestnut desk onto the floor.
My father cursed.
By the time I made it to the railing and looked down into the living room, Momma was in front of my father, begging for forgiveness. Her petite frame was balled up on our Aztec-patterned sofa. She was holding her lip to keep the blood from flowing onto the fabric. I watched her rub away the pain on her cinnamon skin, then run her fingers through her wavy coal-black hair.
My old man looked up at me and grimaced. "Go back to your room, boy."
I was fifteen and a half. Less than half of my old man's age.
He stomped toward Momma.
She screamed and moved away from him like she was trying to run away from the madness that lived here every day.
My chest heaved as I stumbled past the grandfather clock and rushed down the stairs. My heart was pounding. I tightened my hands and hurried to my momma's side.
"Momma," I moaned as I kneeled next to her. "You okay?"
"I'm alright, baby. It's nothing. Nothing."
I looked back at my liquored-up old man. He bobbed his head and pointed back at the kitchen. "I work hard all day and come home to no dinner?"
He was slurring and sneering down on us.
I said, "Nobody knew you were coming home tonight."
Momma tried to get up. "I overslept. My pills made me—"
"Carmen," he shouted. "Get up off that sofa and cook. Now. Planet of the Apes comeson in an hour and I want my food on the table by the time Charlton Heston—"
"Don't ever touch Momma again."
"What you say?"
"He didn't say anything." Momma touched my arm. "I'm okay, baby. Go back and finish studying for your test."
Daddy's back straightened, his bushy mustache crooked as his lips curved down, his eyes widened.
"What you say to me, nigger?"
"I'm not a nigger. My name is Dante."
"So, the nigger speaking up for himself."
"You heard me the first time. And I ain't a nigger."
"You challenging me? What, you think because you got a little hair over your dick you're a grown man now? Ain't but one man in this house."
Momma spoke carefully to Daddy. "Don't get upset."
I frowned at the shiny badge on the chest of his tan uniform, then at the gun in his leather holster.
He sucked his teeth, nodded, and jerked the badge off. He threw the gun holster on the love seat. He stepped away from the glass coffee table, opened his arms, and snapped out, "You want to be a man? Come on. I'll give you the first shot. Nigger, I'll knock your black ass into the middle of next week."
Momma gripped my arm tight enough for her nails to break my skin. I glanced at the golden cross she had on her chest, the one she had got from her mother just a few weeks before Grandmamma died. I looked into my momma's light brown eyes, eyes that looked like mine. "Let me go, Momma."
"No." She put her nose against mine and whispered, "Momma's okay. It's just a little scratch."
My knees shook when I stood and faced my old man. When his eyes met mine, his anger held so much power that I forgot how to breathe. Heart went into overdrive. He balled up his right fist, slammed it into the palm of his left hand; it echoed like thunder. "What are you gonna do, nigger?"
I trembled, backed away, and said, "Nothing."
I kicked my bare feet into the rust carpet, then slumped my shoulders, wiped my sweaty hands on my jean shorts, and turned around to go back to my room.
Then that motherfucker chuckled.
A simple laugh that stoked up the rage inside of me.
I charged at him as fast and as hard as I could.
Daddy's eyes widened with surprise.
Pain. Anger. Fear.
Three screams from three people.
From the backseat of the police car, I stared through the wire cage at the colorful rotating lights that were brightening Scottsdale's earth-tone stucco houses. I was hostage under a calm sky. The spinning glow from twelve squad cars looked like rainbows chasing rainbows. Colors raced over all the sweet gum trees and windmill palms, moved like a strobe light over the vanhoutte spirea in the front of the three-car garage. The reek of cordite was on my flesh. Couldn't really smell it over the stench of my stress sweating. I concentrated on the colors to make the pain from the tight handcuffs go away. Watched the rainbows come and go.
The door opened. A dry May breeze mixed with the sweltering car air. A police officer stuck his sweaty head inside. His face was hard, his voice angry and anxious. "Your mother wants to say something to you before we lock your ass up. We shouldn't let her say a damn word to you after what you did. Do you mind?"
I stared straight ahead. "No."
He raised his voice. "No, what?"
"No," I repeated in a way that let him know I thought that all of them were assholes for making me out to be the bad guy. "I don't mind."
He gripped the back of my neck. "You're pretty belligerent."
I was a knob-kneed reed of a boy. Hadn't lifted anything heavier than an algebra book and could barely run a mile in P.E. without passing out. That was before I started pumping weights, before squats, before doing two hundred push-ups in the morning to start my day, doing sprints, before the hooks and jabs and side kicks and roundhouse kicks and spinning back kicks became my trademark.
I said, "Fuck you."
With his other hand he grabbed the front of my throat and squeezed, made me gag and look into his blue eyes. He growled, "Say, 'No, sir. I don't mind, sir.' You insolent bastard."
He let me go when another officer passed by. I gagged and caught my breath while perspiration tingled down my forehead into my eyes. I tilted my head and looked at him.
He smirked. "Now, what you have to say?"
I spat in his face.
His cheeks turned crimson. He stared at me while my saliva rolled down his scarred face into his ill-trimmed wheat-colored mustache.
"That's your ass, boy."
Veins popped up in his neck while he stood there, handkerchief in hand, clenching his teeth and wiping my juices from his eye. He kept watching me, wanted me to break down and show my fear. It was there, but I refused to let it be seen. Another officer passed by and scarface told him what I'd done. It looked like they were about to double team me, but the second officer said they had to report the assault and they both stormed away.
A second later the door opened again and my mother eased her bruised face inside.
She said, "Don't hate me."
"Love you, Momma." I smiled. "Get away from here."
She fondled her wedding ring. Tears formed in her eyes. She dropped the police blanket from her shoulders, took her cross off, and put it around my neck.
She used her soft fingers to wipe the sweat from my eyes.
"Somebody'll come get you out. Maybe Uncle Ray. You might be able to go back to Philly and stay with him for a while."
"Uncle Ray don't like us. We're Catholic; Jehovah's Witnesses don't like nobody but Jehovah's Witnesses."
"Stop saying that."
"I'll call him anyway. I'll tell him you made honor roll, so he'll know you're still doing good in school. Let him know you might get a scholarship. You could help him around his grocery store in the evenings."
I shook my head. "Don't worry about me. Get away before he hurts you. All he's gonna do is beat you up, then go out to Fort McDowell and spend the night with that Indian woman. He ain't been home in two days, then walks in complaining about some stupid dinner. Tomorrow he'll be mad about his shirts. The next day his shoes."
My old man was standing in a crowd of badges, guns, and whispers. The ambulance crew had bandaged his head and he was back on his feet. I'd beat him with everything I could get my hands on.
He made a single-finger gesture for Momma to come.
My beautiful momma looked tired of the life she was living, and that made me sad. She wiped her eyes and kissed the side of my face. "You understand, don't you? You're a big boy now. Almost a man. You can take care of yourself. You understand."
I kissed the side of her face as my answer.
"Don't be angry." She twisted her lips. "Don't be like him."
"I won't." I smiled for her. "Go back inside before you get in trouble. Stop taking so much of that medication."
She rubbed her eyes, then dragged her fingers down across her lips. "It calms my nerves."
"Why you wanna sleep so much?"
"Sometimes," she patted my legs with her thin fingers, "sometimes I have nice dreams."
She was distant, reciting and not living the words.
I said, "Dreams ain't real, Momma."
"Sometimes—" she started, then stopped and kissed my forehead. Her voice became as melodic as the poetry she always read. "Sometimes they're better than what's real."
I fought the dryness in my throat that always came before my tears. I was scared. Fifteen and a half and living in fear.
She wandered away, wringing her hands and looking back at me every other step. We blew each other dysfunctional kisses.
I'd be in juvenile hall, then a boys' home until I was old enough to register for the draft and vote.
Living with criminals would be like going to a different kinda school. Nigerians, Mexicans, Whites, no matter what nationality, they were all caught up in the same game. And didn't hesitate to lend to the schooling on everything from Three Card Monte to Rocks in a Box to Pigeon Drops, even broke down how to pass bad checks. A few were bold enough to run telephone scams from the inside.
That was different from the education I was after.
I had dreams of getting into Howard, to a frat life and a world filled with sorority girls. Always wanted to stomp in a Greek Show. Make enough money to get a small place, get Momma to move in with me. I was working on our escape.
But that night, guess I had had all I could stand and couldn't stand no more. I wanted to be like a superhero and rescue my momma. That was my mission in life. What motivated me.
Hard to save anybody when you're locked up, when you're too busy trying to fight to save yourself. When you've made yourself a prisoner.
I did want to save her. That gave my life a lot of purpose.
But there would be no Howard. No sorority girl at my side. And the closest thing to a frat I would see would be a bunch of young hardheads lining up for roll call, all wearing prison blues, most with tattoos. Our Greek Show was marching in sync to go get our meals.
Momma would find her own way to freedom.
My momma would take too many pills and become an angel.
My daddy would be found dead behind the wheel of his Thunderbird at Fort McDowell. Ambushed and shot outside of a married Indian woman's place.
On that night of changes, I sat in the back of that squad car staring at the colorful lights that were dancing in the night to make my pain go away. Watched the rainbows chasing the rainbows.
The phone rang.
Jarred me from my sleep and severed me from my past.
Time to time, I had nightmares, felt the pain from the fights and heard the screams from the midnight rapes in juvenile hall. But I learned to kick ass before I got my ass kicked.
The phone rang again.
I opened my eyes. Focused on the red digits across the room.
Not quite yesterday; not quite today.
Traffic in NoHo—that stands for North Hollywood—was breezing by outside my window on Chandler. Somewhere down by North Hollywood High a car alarm was singing a song of distress.
I snatched the phone up and answered, "Yeah?"
"Where've you been, Dante?"
I knew who it was. Hearing his voice jarred me all over again. I sat up in my queen-size bed. The room had a chill and I kept the covers wrapped around me.
He chuckled, then said, "I was beginning to think you were dead or something."
"A'ight, how you get my number, Scamz?"
"There isn't a number I can't get."
"Just got it changed last week."
He laughed his irksome, sneaky laugh. "Happy birthday. You made it to the big two-five."
"On a hot wing and a prayer."
"A black man's not supposed to live past twenty-five."
"Then that makes me a senior citizen. I should be eligible for Social Security and a ten-percent discount at Denny's."
"You crack me up." He laughed. "That's why I like talking to you."
I yawned, then checked my caller ID. No number was on the box. Last time he jingled, the ID box told me he was in New York, lounging at Fifth and Fifty-sixth at the Trump Tower. That was two weeks back. He didn't leave a message, he never did, but I knew that was my homey. Doubt if Donald Trump would be ringing me up to talk shop about the market. Nobody but Scamz. Time before that he told me he was down in South Beach. Time before that Montreal. Before then it was the W down in New Orleans during the Essence Festival. Before that Playa del Carmen.
I set another yawn free before I asked, "You back out in La La Land?"
"For a hot sec. Wrapping up some business before I go on vacation. You should've accepted my offer and left with me last time. Aspen had great skiing."
"Whatcha been into?"
He boasted that over the last few weeks he'd been running scam after scam after scam. All nonviolent. Most of his dealings were in credit and green cards. Since he had women who worked everywhere from the DMV to the IRS, I already knew there wasn't any information he couldn't get, so his criminally-gifted butt getting my number didn't cause me to raise a brow. Not right then.
"Up until a few days ago, nobody around the pool hall had seen you for months," Scamz said.
"My job was keeping me busy."
"Thought One Time might've shackled you down and had you on the gray goose heading out to Chino."
"I don't do prisons." One Time was a nickname for the police. I yawned. "Like I said, I was working."
"Got laid off. Everything came to a screeching halt when the commercial side of the company stopped producing and the aerospace side picked up. Been out looking for another j-o-b."
Sounded like he took a draw from his cigarette, then blew the smoke out before he spoke again. "Why do you keep wasting your talents on a nine-to-five?"
"Makes me content, that's all that matters. Don't need to be rich to be happy."
"What's the word, any luck?"
I told him I had called my old gig to check my status. Over twenty technicians with more time than I had were waiting to get called back. No one had gotten called back in six months and a few thousand more were getting kicked to the curb. The unemployment office told me to check back in a week or two, which was the same robotic line they ran on the twenty people in front of me.
I'd been hitting a lot of career fairs. Hit one down at the Bonaventure and put in apps with everybody from Aerospace Corporation to Sears. Never seen that many borderline-bankrupt people coming in from all over California and Nevada and Seattle looking for a job. After that I'd flown up to Oakland, hit the Alameda County Conference and Training Center, but five thousand out-of-work people beat me there. Most were in a line that circled the block by sunrise.
I told Scamz, "North or south, ain't nobody hiring."
"There's a synchronous world recession, especially in the high-tech world."
"No jobs out there. Jobs were already scarce, and those terrorists exacerbated the situation."
I said, "I got an interview next week."
"Another widget factory?"
"Labor gig. Slinging boxes on a truck from dusk to dawn."
"You're overqualified for that kind of work."
"A man with no job ain't overqualified for any kinda work."
"Spoken like a true member of the unemployed."
"You got jokes."
"Seems like a lot of people have been humbled."
I cleared my throat. "They're offering twelve an hour, but I know they have a stack of apps thicker than your little black book."
He laughed at that. "What're your ends looking like until that comes through?"
"They ain't looking. Almost as blind as Helen Keller."
"Your economic recession is in full effect."
"Yep. Seems like the world is fucked up."
We said a few words about the war that was going on, on how it had done a number on people both emotionally and financially.
Scamz said, "'Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.'"
"D. H. Lawrence. The opening lines of Lady Chatterley's Lover."
I yawned. "A regular Nostradamus."
"Come see me today. I got a few things lined up."
"Can't. I'm a legit man."
Scamz asked, "You heard from Jackson?"
I met Jackson a few years back through Scamz. They were the best of friends when I came along. But Jackson had been off the grift for almost two years. A good woman and a steady job had him on the straight and narrow.
I said, "Yeah. I've been hanging with him almost every day."
"What you two got going on?"
"We've been teaming up and looking for jobs together."
"So, he's getting back on the hustle?"
I debated telling Jackson's business, but Scamz wasn't the type to spread the word about someone else's misfortunes. And nine times out of ten, he already knew what was going on.
I said, "His ex is suing him for back child support."
"Sabrina slapped Jackson with a lawsuit?"
"Yep. She filed papers and claimed Jackson never gave her a dime."
"I don't believe that. He cared about his kids if nothing else."
"He showed me the papers from the district attorney."
We said a few more things about that.
In the end Scamz told me, "Be careful where you stick your dick."
I laughed at those sage words. He laughed too. They were laughs of disbelief.
We chitchatted about a few other people from our little clandestine world. A few were on lockdown, a few were about to get out. A couple had died along the way.
"Big Slim told me you were down at Eight Ball gambling with Nazario," Scamz said.
Eight Ball was a place people went when they were desperate for cash. Trouble and money was always
down there. You just had to outrun the trouble to get the money.
"Yeah," I said. "That psycho was so mad he lost his mind."
"Then he didn't lose much."
"He wanted to pay me on the spot."
"People say he made a scene."
"Big time. He made his wife give me her wedding ring to cover his debt."
Scamz said, "He hates to lose, especially in front of a crowd."
"I pawned the ring. Got five hundred."
"You know he's looking for you. He wants a rematch so he can get that ring back. Heard he's been down at the pool hall at least three times a day trying to find you."
"Kinda figured that. That's why I ain't been back down to the pool hall."
"If you sweating over chump change, you must need some economic relief."
My eyes went to my pine dresser. My bills were over there, piled up next to a stack of job rejection postcards. Frustration was bringing out the wolf in me.
I told Scamz, "Just need something to hold me over until one of these jobs come through."
He said, "Come see me. You're a good worker. I could use your help."
I paused. The jury in my mind went out to make a decision. "I'll pass. I have a few job interviews around the corner."
"Then come make some ends so you can take your woman out and have a good time."
"Me no got no woman. Got my eye on this waitress at Ed Debevic's."
"You ever stepped to her yet?"
"Not yet. She has an L.A. face and an Oakland booty that won't quit. Pretty much out of my league."
"How can a waitress be out of anybody's league?"
"Be a man at all times. Never let a woman scare you. Never."
Scamz was working my disposition in his direction word by word, phrase by phrase.
"Either way," he said, "it's hard to get a woman being broke."
Scamz wasn't lying. L.A. had its own mentality and it cost to be the boss out here. Whenever I hit Atlas Bar and Grill it was five bucks to park, twenty to get in, and close to ten bucks for one drink. If I met a honey, triple that drinking budget. Breakfast at Roscoe's would add another twenty. If I got lucky, a box of condoms would cost another five. Trojans were the cheapest thing on the list. Not using one was the most expensive thing on the list.
Scamz said, "Pussy and money, Dante. Got money, you can get pussy. Got pussy—"
"You can get money."
We chuckled at his phrase.
My eyes closed when I thought about that waitress, saw her dimples, heard her mature voice, even could see her hips when she did her sensual stroll, and wondered what she was doing right now.
A second later I exhaled. "Is this hot or cold?"
Hot meant difficult. Cold meant smooth, minimal problems.
I could hear Scamz smile when I asked that. His easy words had worked me toward his team.
He replied, "Easy rent money."
"Let's be up front. I'm not down for nothing long-term."
"What do I have to do to get you to reconsider?"
He didn't say anything for a few seconds. He did that when his mind was in overdrive. Sometimes I thought he had so many thoughts he had to shut down to keep from overloading.
Scamz said, "You know how to find me."
We left it at that. He wasn't going to give the specifics, not over the wire.
I hung up.
I dialed another number. Jackson answered on the first ring.
I said, "You're up?"
"Yeah. What's up, Cool Hand?"
"Scamz called. He's back and it sounds like he has a few things going on."
Jackson hesitated. "Yeah, Dante. We can check on those interviews after I leave court."
I understood why he was talking in code. I said, "Robin must be over."
"See you in a few hours."
We hung up. No matter what time of night I called, he was awake. I didn't think much about that because I wasn't sleeping on a regular schedule my-damn-self. Not having a job stole away the importance of an alarm clock. It also made it easy to lose track of my days. When a man didn't have a job, didn't have a Monday, a hump day, and a payday, all days started to blend and lose value. All were just today. All he wanted was a better tomorrow.
I was on edge, a little hungry. I walked over my two-shades-of-brown carpet, went to the kitchen sink, washed my face, dried it with a paper towel, then opened the fridge, let that light fall on the off-white walls. Don't know why I opened the fridge. Not like the food fairy had come while I was sleeping. Not much was in there except leftover salmon and rice and a frozen Healthy Choice meal.
Restless. Scamz had left me agitated.
I did two hundred sit-ups, crunches, worked on my obliques. Did half as many push-ups. Stretched my legs into a split on the left side, did the same on the right, then went down into a Chinese-style split. Shadowboxed against my old memories until a layer of sweat glistened on my skin.
I looked at that stack of job rejection postcards.
Anxiety was all over me, clinging to my skin like a thousand ticks.
More push-ups until my arms burned. More sit-ups until my abs were on fire.
Dealing with Scamz meant I needed to be in shape. Ready to rumble, ready to run.
I rested in my sweat. Put on my Levi Chen Liquid Gardens CD. Meditated a few minutes.
Then with that music calming me, I stood in my window and looked out at the palm trees.
I was lonely. Broke and lonely.
L.A. was an expensive bitch. A whore who sucked your dick and swallowed all of your money, then left you sleeping on the concrete.
A man stayed broke and hungry long enough, his value system was bound to change. And when it did, Scamz was waiting.
Excerpted from Thieves' Paradise by Eric Jerome Dickey. Copyright © 2002 by Eric Jerome Dickey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted February 22, 2012
I absolutely loved this book! I could not stop reading it... i love the plot and the characters. Eric jerome dickey is my favorite author and this book made me love his work more!
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 13, 2003
Posted February 27, 2014
Could not put this book down! I read this book years ago when I was in middle or high school, I literally stayed up all night to finish this book and slept in class. It felt like you had a front row seat into these people lives. It's like the characters came to life. This is a most definite read.
Posted February 24, 2013
You have become my favoret author, because of you i stated to read again. Some of your books really hit my heart as i have been in a few situations. As long as you keep writing..i will keep reading. Thank youWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 22, 2012
I enjoyed the story from beginning to end. The fictional characters came to life in a big way. The plot was great. The dialogue and action kept me on edge. Definitely a page turner.
Posted November 10, 2012
I thought this was great read. It's different from his other storylines and was filled with tons of action and steamy scenes. This is the 11th novel I've read by EJD and he just keeps getting better. I couldn't stop reading and I like how characters from other novels are in this book. Keep up the good work EJD and I can't wait to read the next one!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 31, 2011
Posted June 29, 2006
I picked this book up and rea the first few pages and was hooked. The storyline and characther development were great, a rare find in alot of the newer urban genre books that are being published today. I became an instant fan of EJD. I have since read most of his books and have to say he is one of the top black writers on the market.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 1, 2005
Posted October 20, 2004
Posted September 27, 2004
The Book was great! I mean it was a slow start but when it got to going I couldn't put it down! I would recommend this book for someone else to read!I love how he put characters from one of his other books into this....Theives' Paradise & Cheaters are his best books yet!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 11, 2004
This book had a slow start but once it gets going you can't wait to see what Dante is going to do next. I have read all of EJD's books and I think he is the bomb.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 8, 2003
The book was very fast paced and was probably the main reason I liked it so much! There are many surprises in the book and you can't help but be intrigued. I would reccomend this title to avid Dickey readers as well as beginning Dickey fans!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 31, 2003
Posted August 18, 2003
This wasn't one of E. Dickey's best books. I don't know what happened! The characters were bland and the plot seemed pointless. I only read the book about a month ago and I have forgotten most of the things that happened it in it. Everyone has their flop, I guess...Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 4, 2003
Posted August 4, 2003
Posted June 7, 2003
This book illustrates how well he knows woman!...And people in general..Working man blues...IT'S A BOOK THAT HIGHTLIGHTS WHAT DICKEY DOES BEST! deal with middle class, black folks drama!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 3, 2003
This book was one that couldn't be put down until I finished it. The ending was a real trip. It seemed so real, Dickey made you feel like those characters were people whom you've ran past in your life at one point in time. Can't wait for the new one....Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 22, 2003
I was not impressed with this book at all. There was no real plot, the characters lacked depth, and there was no focal point. I disliked this book so much that I never even finished it. Having been a fan of EJD for years, I ony hope that his latest piece of work displays his excellent writing skills that I have come to love.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.