Jason’s life has never been easy. As a member of the Urban Survivalists, a group of homeless kids just trying to survive the streets of New York City, Jason’s day is spent trying to steal and scavenge enough to buy food for himself and his friends. Then one day he chases the wrong girl into the trees in Central Park and out of the everyday world. See what brings Jason to that fateful day in Central Park in this prequel to Prisoners of the Keep.
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The Urban Survivalist
A Mist Gates Crossing Novella
By Susan Bianculli
Children's Brains are Yummy BooksCopyright © 2015 Susan Bianculli
All rights reserved.
A mischievous voice called out, "Hey, Jason — catch!"
Seventeen year-old Jason Vasquez dropped his library book to the attic floor of the abandoned New York City tenement building that he and his crew, the Urban Survivalists, presently called home. He caught just in time a rough wooden knife being thrown at him by a thirteen-year-old fellow member named Michael Jones.
"Oh, you think you so good, amigo?" Jason bared his white teeth in a grin at the blond, younger boy as Michael snatched up another one from the cache and waggled it in Jason's direction.
What might have erupted into a mostly friendly contest between them was cut short by José stepping between them, blocking some of the inadequate late morning sunlight that came in through the partially boarded up windows.
"Eh, chicos, cut it out. You are brothers, remember, not gang toughs; the rule is we only use our knives either for practice or for real," he said sharply.
Jason and Michael dropped out of their fighting stances and looked away, anywhere but at José. José Trejo was the oldest Urban Survivalist, and their leader. He was wide, muscled, and street-wise. None of the present crew members knew exactly how old he was because there was no one left who'd been with him from the beginning. That wasn't because they'd been killed or been sent to prison, though, but because they'd "graduated" from the streets to the "system," which was the crew's name for the public at large. That was one of the perks of being an Urban Survivalist: you were able to get out of the life eventually. When he decided they were ready to leave, José would get older crew members semi-legal identities so they could blend in with society. But while Jason and Michael and the others were with him, José was the one to whom they had to listen to and learn from or risk getting thrown out without graduating.
"Hell, we're only using the ones made of wood!" said Michael a little sulkily. "It's not like we're throwing our real knives at each other."
"Doesn't matter," José replied, shaking his head. "You break any of the rules once, and then you'll find it easier to break them the next time. And then the time after that. Soon you won't even remember there were rules to begin with. That's the way it goes with anything, so don't take that first step, hermano."
Jason flushed a little. There were a lot of little rules in the Urban Survivalists, like no drugs, no getting mixed up in prostitution in any way, no excessive violence, etc. But he'd guessed that they'd come about because of situations in the past. The major rules were fair, though, and were evenly applied: every crew member pulled his weight in cleaning up after himself, stole items for José so he could in turn keep the crew comfortable, and learned what it took to be a functioning member of modern American civilization.
José frowned at Jason and Michael until they put down their wooden knives. "If you wanna practice your throwing," the Urban Survivalist leader said, gesturing to his left, "the knife board is right over there."
Jason, scooping up his dropped history book, glanced at the thick target made of abandoned pallets that leaned against the far wall. It bore lots of knife scars from deep holes where knives had stuck in to glancing scrapes indicating a miss. Some of both types were his.
"Nah, I'm good," said Michael, waving a dismissive arm at it.
"Are you, now? Well then, you can get started on lunch for all of us," replied José.
Jason did a poor job of hiding a smirk as Michael dragged his feet over to the clean, makeshift camp kitchen where they stored their supplies and started on making a meal for the whole crew who would be in soon from their various morning missions.
"Jason," said José.
Jason straightened out his face before looking at his leader. "Yeah, José?"
"You're still on shopping duty, right?"
"Yeah ...?" Jason said warily.
"That's changing now. After lunch you're gonna head out to Central Park on appropriations duty, and you're not gonna come back until you've scored big and have visited Carlson with what you've 'acquired.'"
Imo Carlson, who was the local fence for the area of New York City the Urban Survivalists presently lived in, dealt in both cash and gift cards for things "turned in." Jason's crew had never purposefully taken more than they absolutely needed to live on any given day, but sometimes through "appropriations" they ended up with things that just didn't work for them. That was where Imo, and his sister Adama, came into play. Some of the local street gangs who also used Imo and Adama's services liked to flash thick rolls of money around to make themselves seem big and important. But the Urban Survivalists weren't in it for the prestige or the territory. Since the crew preferred to fly under the radar, José had decreed long ago that they would be sticking only to gift cards for their trades. The disposable plastic was easier than cash to carry around, and when the inevitable stop and frisk happened, the police weren't as suspicious of gift cards as they were of wallets stuffed with money. Why José bothered to use the word "appropriations" when "steal" was much more user-friendly, Jason had no idea. He was pretty sure the public wouldn't see what they did as "appropriations."
Jason sighed and put away his book on his sleeping spot as the rest of the crew started trickling into the lair. "Sure, José."
He didn't argue that it wasn't his turn to scour Central Park — he knew a punishment when he heard one.
Before leaving after eating, and after the teasing of the crew was done when they'd found out about the change in assignments, Jason took out his TracFone to check its weather app. He was pleased to see it was going to be a nice spring day. It had to be a coincidence that the actual calendar beginning-of-Spring was tomorrow, because a warm March day almost never happened in New York. Or anywhere else in the northeastern United States, for that matter. It had been some months since he'd been assigned to Central Park, but with the weather the way it was today, it should make his mission easier.
It's been a while since I've seen that hombre Carlson and his pretty sister anyway, he thought. I hope I get a good haul quickly today so I can appease José and get back to finishing my book.
Jason dug into one of his two personal, crew-issued backpacks sitting beside his sleeping bag and got out the quick-change clothes that he would need to pull off Central Park duty. Everything he owned fit into those backpacks — one was for clothes, and the other was for personal items like his toothbrush, his soap, etc. The Urban Survivalists had taught him when they'd rescued him from the streets that the bags were always to be kept packed. If he took something out of one, he had to put it back when he was done. It made quick leaving easier if some street gang decided that they wanted whatever place the Urban Survivalists called home. This had happened a couple of times since Jason had joined the crew, so he could appreciate the precaution. Jason stuffed his secondary outfit into a small string sack, stuck his TracFone in his back pocket, and made sure to add his favorite fighting knife under his shirt just in case he ran into trouble. José didn't believe in guns because they upped the chances of jail if you were caught, so every Urban Survivalist had been well-taught how to use knives, both offensively and defensively, and to stay away from firearms.
Jason slung the string bag across his back and headed out to the roof to use the gang's complicated route that would eventually take him to street level. It would end near a public restroom where he would finish his "disguise." When he opened the door leading out onto the roof and stepped out, Jason squinted against the day's brightness. But out of the corner of his eye he managed to see a shadow dropping down towards him from the little roof overhead. Someone was trying to ambush him! Jason immediately dropped the string bag and dove into a long forward roll. He came up to his feet, still squinting but facing his opponent, a black teen who'd jumped down and landed right where he'd been standing. If Jason hadn't moved, he'd've been slammed down face-first onto his belly. His heart hammered as he reached for his knife, but stopped as his eyes finally adjusted and he realized it was his closest friend in the crew, Rafe Broden. Rafe, who was now breaking down in a fit of laughter, clutched at the sides of his grey Mets' sweatshirt with his hands.
"Yeah, yeah, very funny," Jason grumbled, retrieving his string bag. "What're you doin' hangin' around here anyway?" he asked, holding out a friendly fist to Rafe.
Rafe, crying from laughter, wiped at his dark brown eyes and fist-bumped Jason back. "As a prank, I wanted to get whoever was gonna leave for the next mission. I never guessed that it'd be you!"
"You missed lunch," Jason accused, wanting to change the subject.
"Eh, I ate out. I could afford to today." Rafe pulled out of his back jeans pocket five gift cards of differing types — proof that he'd already been to Carlson's.
"Hey, that's great, hombre! What happened? Luck into a little somethin'-somethin'?" asked Jason a little enviously.
"You know it, buddy!" Rafe replied. "José had me trollin' 'round back of the mall today. And wouldn't you know, one of those boutique electronics stores got a delivery." Rafe grinned a toothy grin. "So while the driver and the store rep were doing their paperwork, I walked by easy as you please, swiped a box from the opened truck, and kept right on goin' as if I was doing the unloading. I moseyed past the store's alley to the next one over, then ducked into it and tore open the box. It was fulla high end camera memory cards! I stuffed my pockets and went right to Carlson. He was pretty happy to see what I'd got and gave me the loaded gift cards in exchange. So now I'm back without hardly even breakin' a sweat!"
"Here's hoping I can have some of your luck today!" Jason said.
Rafe laughed and rubbed his hands on Jason's shoulders. "There, you can have what I didn't use. So hurry up, get your stuff done, and come back. I need you to test me for the science quiz José is gonna give me tonight."
"Sounds like a plan," Jason said with a smile.
The two fist-bumped again, and Rafe went inside while Jason headed off across the roof.CHAPTER 2
Seven minutes after talking with Rafe, Jason jumped onto the next-to-last rooftop before taking the fire escape down to street level. He was getting ready to make the leap to the last rooftop when he heard a crunching noise from feet walking on the scree that littered the surface behind him.
"Hey, ain't you one of those Urban Survivalists?" a voice came from somewhere nearby.
The hairs on Jason's neck went up, and he looked around cautiously. Out from behind the nearest apartment venting duct came an older white teen who was nineteen or twenty years of age. The guy was square shouldered, big chested, and running to fat the way a football player gets when he doesn't play football anymore. But Jason could see that there was still some serious muscle under that growing layer of chub. The older teen was maybe six feet tall, had short brown hair, and a patchy brown beard-and-mustache combination growing around his mouth. An arrogant expression on his smug face topped the whole thing off, like the world was his piggybank and everyone around him owed him something for it.
In comparison, Jason knew he probably looked like a curly black-haired weakling to the guy. Jason was a head shorter, much more slender, and presently had a guarded expression in his brown eyes which the other would probably read as fear. But Jason's slenderness hid a wiry toughness that he knew would help him if he couldn't talk his way out of a confrontation. Jason knew something had to be going down, though, or why else would this bastardo practically ambush him on the roof?
Jason held his ground as the older teen walked towards him slowly and made an internal groan when he saw the gang patch on the other's jacket shoulder. It was of a scorpion with its tail high in the air and ready to attack, which was the symbol of one of the biggest gangs in the area — the Striking Scorpions. It figured. The Striking Scorpions were a long-standing street gang whose members were in and out of jail constantly and who relied on physical intimidation to survive. And this guy looked like prime material for them. As the Scorpion got closer, Jason could see that the stinger was missing from the patch. Jason sighed out loud. That meant this Scorpion was a newbie tough who was out to be blooded — preferably with someone else's blood. That the guy in front of him had the patch at all meant that he had stuck out the initiation hazing, which included crimes such as muggings, rolling drunks and homeless people, hold-ups, and other violent stuff like that. Getting the stinger for the patch, though, went much deeper.
The other Urban Survivalists had warned Jason about the stinger level in the past. A wanna-be full-fledged member of the Striking Scorpions had to find a member of another gang, fight him hand-to-hand without using a gun, and then bring home his colors or something else to prove that the Scorpion had won the fight. Which meant that this newbie tough wouldn't leave Jason alone until the wanna-be had something from him to exchange for the stinger to complete the patch. Rafe had mentioned that while hiding he'd once seen a Scorpion stinger wanna-be scalp someone else to take as his proof. His friend had been immediately shut down by a frowning José, but the bloody image Rafe's words had created had never left Jason's mind. It just figured that Jason had had to get caught by the newbie tough in front of him.
"Hey, come on now, hombre, you don't really wanna do this," Jason half-warned. "There's no need for this. I can just give you something of mine that you can take back to your leaders. No harm, no foul."
"Oh, I wanna do this all right. And I'll take your colors, or whatever it is that you Urbies use," the Scorpion said cockily. "Or maybe just your shirt, soaked in your blood."
Jason frowned at the derogatory nickname for his crew, but the other's words and attitude made him nervous. José had always said that if a newbie tough of any gang was acting all swaggery, it was because he was being observed by a mentor. Which meant this not-so-little pendejo was not alone, which meant running blindly away was out of the question. Jason sized him up and decided swiftly that not only could this guy probably catch Jason, there was no knowing where the Scorpion's backup hid. But Jason had never really been one for running from a problem — he was too stubborn for his own good sometimes, and this was one of them.
The Scorpion sauntered closer to Jason, casually taking out a switchblade knife from the back pocket of his jeans and flicking it open.
"You Urbies are all little pussies, aren'tcha?" the newbie tough went on. "Think you're oh-so-smart? Think you're better-n us? Think you can stay above the streets? Well, think again! You're gonna bleed as easily as any mark!"
The ham-handed way he held the blade told Jason that the newbie tough probably had never been in a knife fight before, which raised Jason's spirits.
Should I pretend to not know what I'm doing? And make it look like I won by accident? Jason wondered, assessing his options.
Jason had been taught since he was a new Urban Survivalist how to hold a knife properly. It was a lesson he'd learned the hard way after slicing himself pretty badly after insisting in a practice that he could handle a real knife. José had had to pose as his older brother and lie to the emergency room medics about how it happened, calling it a kitchen accident. After that incident Jason had been very careful to always pay attention to any sharpened metal in his general vicinity. When he'd been healed up enough, José and the others had taught him how to both fight with his knives up close and how to throw them for long distance attacks. Jason's training had saved him from serious injuries and possible death multiple times over the years on the streets, in scenarios just like this one.
No, better to get it over quickly, Jason thought to himself.
But first he needed to know where the mentor was, because being ambushed a second time would suck. And the fastest way to get info from a gang member, Jason knew, was to insult him.
Excerpted from The Urban Survivalist by Susan Bianculli. Copyright © 2015 Susan Bianculli. Excerpted by permission of Children's Brains are Yummy Books.
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