Caught between a crew of arsonists who go after Brooklyn historical landmarks and flashbacks of his time with the love of his life, Kango stands face-to-face with the forces that led him into exile. But there is still an enemy in New York that Kango still doesn’t see, one who after fifteen years has become the unexpected foe at the center of it all . . .
Praise for Kenji Jasper
“From the first page Jasper guns the engine, whipping the reader from pole to pole.”
—Victor LaValle, author of The Changeling, on Dark
“Kenji Jasper is an extraordinary young talent.”
—George Pelecanos, award-winning writer and producer
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
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A TEASER BEFORE THE FIRST ACT
You are falling, maybe not for the last time. But you'll never fall like this again. You can't afford it. It won't be allowed, because you have seen where this kind of thing leads to.
Sometimes you wish that you'd never met Jenna Ann Campbell. You wonder if it would've been better for both of you if you hadn't asked your boy Mike to hook you up with the same girl that did his cornrows. He had the spiral joints like Allen Iverson, and you wanted some braids like that for the barbecue you were throwing Fourth of July weekend 2000. If you hadn't gone over to that basement apartment she was working out of on Lewis Ave., where you could hear the roomful of pit bulls barking into the floor overhead, then you wouldn't have seen that she was the same girl from the night of your first J'Ouvert during West Indian Parade weekend the year before, when you were just visiting NYC from DC. J'Ouvert was the preparty that went all night, rain or shine, hot or cold, the soundtrack to the lining up of the countless parade floats that would spend Labor Day crawling past crowds of island folk waving every flag the Caribbean had to offer in the name of their heritage.
The first time you met Jenna, you might as well not have met her at all. She had on her Virgo "Nigga I'm Not Impressed" face, the one most Black women learn around age two (and sometimes before). She had on a sling-back denim catsuit with block wedges and a gold herringbone choker thick enough to be a collar. You were about a foot away from her taking in that first night of music, liquor, and humid heat in the hours before the best day to be Caribbean in all of the New York year.
Jenna was still with the dude she'd been with since she was 18, a Rohan Marley wannabe who pushed a 4.6 Range and had four kids by three baby mamas by the time she met him. You would later suspect that it was a Biggie/Lil' Kim kind of thing they outgrew. But according to her, when they were together it was like lightning striking, with the whole rest of the world blinded by the flash. This was back when you couldn't understand Jamaican patois at all. To you it sounded like a Shabba Ranks duet. But you knew they were arguing, and that they were already drunk and yelling about some kind of thing involving some other woman, and she slapped him twice, harder than most dudes punch.
Then he backhanded her into a car. Then two Trini members of the Flatbush NYPD beat half of dude's face in before they put him in the squad car. Jenna just stood on the corner, Dunhill lit, and stared down that police cruiser until it disappeared. Then she kept staring at the void it left behind. The rest of the world had gone back to the party, except the two of you, her looking at him go and you being worried that she wasn't all right. Because back then you used to worry about people, even people you didn't really know.
There was this hardened quality to Jenna's features. She had these really sharp cheekbones with these narrow-slit eyes. And there was this fire behind them, a fire that you, as water child, wanted to tame somehow, because that was what you were into. You always had a thing for the wild ones.
You stepped up, knowing that it wasn't the smartest move to make considering the Negro theater between them that you had just witnessed. But you were freshly twenty-one and prone to not giving a fuck. You were even too young to know that most fucks were actually worth giving.
"How long you been with him?" you asked.
She turned to you, unsure of what to make of the question, until she answered.
"Too long," she said.
Then, like something out of the movies, a gypsy cab pulled up. She got in and left you without another word in a cloud of dark filter and tobacco. You didn't see her again until you came knocking on her door to get your hair done, having no idea that it was the same woman. You were just there to get fresh. But that changed as soon as y'all kissed outside of Larry's Liquid Love. Your nonchalance went out of the window under that cheap-ass comforter you bought from the furniture place on Flatbush the same day you got your first Brooklyn futon. After that, Jenna was all that mattered. She became the blueprint, the schematic for structures that never held their weight long enough to go the distance.
Still, you were ready to stab the one dude because he started talking out of the side of his neck about how she looked like a whore because "tight and revealing" was usually the first way she chose to go. But she held you back from poppin' dude in the mouth that time, because she said that "real rude boys kill before they see the consequences coming." She didn't think you were for real until she saw what you did for a living. That humbled her a little bit. But still, most times she was ready for a fight. And when it came to any war on her battlefield, you were the first and only soldier who was always ready to go.
You either had to roll with Jenna or not roll at all. Apache's "Gangsta Bitch" comes to mind. Looking back, the two of you probably smoked so much weed to keep tempers down and stayed inside for as many hours as you could to keep all your flaws from getting out into the world. Jenna was not a character from a movie. She didn't do dishes. She didn't cook, and sex with her was always on her terms, which meant that you had to wait to get it and deal with however long it took for her to be in that mood.
When it all went south between you, bursting into flames like a piñata soaked in gasoline, its ashes scorching everything in the path you'd laid together one stone at a time, you convinced yourself that it probably would have ended better if the two of you had never met at all.
These were the thoughts going through your head somewhere between Saturday morning and that fateful Thursday in 2005, when this story both begins and ends. It would take you close to 20 years to realize, as the cursed cement had fully settled in a newly gentrified Bed-Stuy, that the right people always end up where they're supposed to be. Coming back to Nostrand Avenue had very little to do with Jenna or Khujo, the Asanas, the Arsonists, or Gilda.
This was all about you.
You are not "back" in the John Wick or "new album out now" senses, as these might give the reader expectations of a story about gratuitous sex and violence, family feuds free of Richard Dawson (without the flask), and the most expensive misunderstanding you ever came across. You are back like Newman in the final frames of The Color of Money, energized like Scotty from Star Trek behind the boards, doing what he did best and giving it all he had for every season he earned a paycheck.
After 15 years, you finally know where you and your karma stand, with them, with her, and with the dude in the mirror who picked up some good sense along the way. Things have changed, but you can't do a thing about what's already done: a Pandora's box you teased open like a fleshy pair of thighs, and a mistake similar to the previous metaphor that you wish you could take back in exchange for a sober night and keeping to yourself at the bar. But life just doesn't work that way.
These paragraphs are the thought process you use to distract your mind from the debilitating fact that the first house you ever owned is burning out its insides while you fall toward the street from three stories up. And you are burning, but not in Milton's Paradise Lost sense. Your actual skin feels like it's on the verge of blackening like rotisserie chicken over an open flame with too much barbecue sauce on it. Shrapnel and shattered glass are hanging in the air above you.
There is nothing for you to do in this state other than pray. So you just breathe, one white-hot breath after the other, until it all goes dark. This is how you lost your house. Everything else you lost 15 years before, when you worked magic in the presence of Muggles wearing a Darth Maul tee and that pair of vintage Jam Master Jay Adidas you scuffed while fighting for your life on Winthrop Street. This is where the intro ends. Now you can get to the real beginning.CHAPTER 2
A Prelude to the Kiss of Death, July 8, 2005, 10:16 a. m.
If there's one thing you learned from all of this, it is that the rules are there for a reason. Hierarchy exists for a purpose, particularly when dealing with high-value content that must be handled with care. In youth, the right person, the maverick, the rogue personality, believes á la some Neo in The Matrix sense of being the exception, that they are the Chosen One, one who can bend reality without breaking it, which is complete and utter bullshit. You truly believed this about yourself and, in turn, shared the idea with others, and thus found yourself taken back to school like Rodney Dangerfield looking to avoid the death of a marriage.
This is a cautionary tale about what happens when you go swimming with sharks in the East River and convince yourself that you can dog-paddle your way to safety. Enter the yoga class.
The class isn't packed. There are only five people, spaced two arm's lengths from one another, standing on thin mats made of perfectly biodegradable and perspiration-absorbing material. The whole neighborhood knows this place as a dance club on the weekends, a second-floor calypso and soca hole for folks that speak English with accents you often struggle to understand. You are from the South, after all, a distant land known as Chocolate City. And before you try to argue about cultural geography, DC is most definitely below the Mason-Dixon Line.
There is more fluid motion between the movements than in the yoga classes you've taken down in the Village or on the West Side. You are all in cobra, your flat palms pressing your upper bodies, heads and faces toward the sky, midway through the sun salutation process.
Jelly trained under some yoga Jedi Master from India, and she has organized this little free gathering to share what she has learned with a few African American bohemian types whom she hopes will jump others into the gang. Only a little money changes hands, ten bucks at a time, enough for the owners to make it worth keeping the lights on for 90 minutes.
You are not here seeking enlightenment, merely to strengthen your aura. A person's aura can have different properties at different times. Step into one person's aura and your wounds heal more quickly. Someone else's might be solid enough to break bones or boards when something collides with it. Others, with full concentration, can permeate matter to walk through walls, or literally step into a shadow and come out on the other side somewhere else. But to maximize the potential of your aura, you must practice, and yoga, one of the many tools used to hone body, mind, and spirit, is perhaps the most readily available gym for this purpose.
But right now, you're not thinking that deeply about your aura or the process of tuning and toning it. Right now you're going through the motions because you don't want to think about Jenna Ann Campbell, your kryptonite, your weakness, the bane of your twentysomething existence, because right now, approaching the end of summer, she is a problem that you cannot fix. Plus there is work to do. And the job takes priority over all else.
Jelly is telling a story about her yoga experiences in DC. Unlike the other strangers here, you have known her a long time, since before the husband and child, before the three cities where you intersected repeatedly after growing up in the same town. After some research, you even learned that ancestors of yours and hers were buried right next to each other in some graveyard on Bolling Air Force Base back in the homelands, the town where the feds caught that mayor on tape smoking crack while he patiently waited to get some tail from a so-so sidepiece.
But now you and Jelly are both in Brooklyn, and she is telling a story about her and her yoga teacher, who has a name that you are never going to be able to pronounce.
"Sometimes we'd drink Guinness, get drunk and do shoulder stands ..."
You move through the remaining positions in the series, from the warriors to the tree pose to downward facing dog and the dolphin. It ain't like doing push-ups or lifting weights. The burn in your deltoids and quads is subtle, almost exercise without exercise. You don't fully feel it until it's all over.
There're a lot of ways to deal with what the Stuy doles out. Some drink. Some get high. The most despicable beat the shit out of the spouse or child, whoever is within closest reach. You prefer to vent your frustrations through the act of intercourse. This is not to say that you do not engage in the act of making love, but the woman you love has put you on an indefinite time-out, which is why you are here in striped Adidas sweats, finding solace in pain and endurance. You are not emotionally unavailable by a long shot, but you do have an ego problem. And there is no larger ego boost than bringing a fine-ass woman to legitimate orgasm with her legs folded forward as far as they will go, your iron rod pointing toward the uterus. You love it when her head almost indents the drywall from the force of a poorly timed thrust, when your sweat lines the valley that runs from between her shoulder blades to the crack of her ass. While these are not all acts of intimacy, you too often consider them "therapy."
An erection is the last thing you want as the only guy in a class full of women. And you're far from that frame of thought. There truly is freedom in the movements and the vibration of hatha, vinyasa, and/or kundalini. But yoga alone will not calm the nagging butterflies at the bottom of your gut. You smell money in your sinus cavities, a sign that cash might soon appear for you in the land of the living.
The class ends with the most casual Black people "Namaste" on record, and you find yourself standing on Nostrand Avenue, mat in case slung over your shoulder like a soldier's rifle as you make your way to the Kyoto bodega at the corner at Fulton and Nostrand. Designed with delicate paper windows encased by iron bars and Plexiglas, this corner store is an ode to modern-day Tokyo. There are video screens all over the place, some announcing winning lottery numbers and others filled with animated characters from Pokémon to the '80s classic flick Akira. There's a rack of katana swords on the wall, recently added after the success of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill.
Actual sushi might be a stretch for a bodega's capacity to stay up to health code. But there is a miso soup and rice breakfast option to go along with your standard New York coffee in the signature blue and white cup with those Roman columns on it. The brothers who once owned the place have since sold it to a group of Turkish gentlemen who are all, at one point or another, smoking Dervish brand cigarettes, a foreign offering they suck down exclusively but don't offer for sale. You glide in for a bottle of water and a two-pack of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, the only sugar you allow in your life that isn't distilled or fermented.
The water goes down cool as you head south down Nostrand toward Hancock Street and hang a left. You climb the stairs to the first-floor entrance of the brownstone you own and rent out to two tenants, and take a good look at the day's copy of the New York Daily News, which for some reason or the other has a Photoshopped President George W. Bush in drag. All you have to do is take a good look at that newspaper and you know where you have to head next. It looks like money is indeed on the way.
* * *
"How come white people get to have everything?" Shango Oluwande asks between bites of French toast at the Doctor's Cave, the little hole on Marcy Avenue where you take a meal every once in a while. Shango's there every day, though, mainly to eye Jean, the dreadlocked and beautiful better half of Tim, who prepares all the meals she loves so much when she's not working shifts as a nurse at Brooklyn Hospital. Everybody in this town has a side hustle.
Shango is not your direct handler, but he gets stuff handled. Imagine if you could put Al Sharpton and Stringer Bell from The Wire into the same body and make him around 55 with a whitish-gray temple taper cut and a matching beard cut close with a surgical shapeup.
"I put in the best bid on that pair of brownstones down on Greene. Had the shit locked for like three days, and then eight hours before the cutoff, some white boy coalition comes in and chops my head off."
"Hey, real estate's a cutthroat business," you say. The frown on his face softens into a smile. He knows something you do not.
"You're right. That's actually why I called you down here."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nostrand Avenue"
Copyright © 2018 Kenji Jasper.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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