The gasp tumbled out of my mouth almost as soon as I saw what was going on.
Before then, it had been a typical day for me. I was six years old at the time, and my brother was fourteen. In the spring, he would walk over to the elementary school when he got out of his last middle school class to pick me up, and together, we’d walk back home. Ordinarily, we’d get home and I’d plop down on the living room couch, watching cartoons while my brother got to work whipping something up for us to eat in the kitchen. But that day, almost as soon as my brother had unlocked the door, we’d heard loud noises coming from the basement. My brother told me to ignore them, so at first, I thought I’d just been hearing things. Except the noises kept coming from the basement… and they kept getting louder… and louder… and louder. My brother told me to turn the television up. I listened to him.
In the middle of Tom chasing Jerry, however, I heard a scream that made me literally jump up off the couch. I immediately looked towards my brother. His face bore an equally worried expression, eyes bugged out and everything. He motioned for me to come over to him. I listened to him. He took my hand in his, then walked over to the door in the hallway that lead to the basement. We took the stairs one by one down into the darkness. I heard the sound of men talking. Then we reached the foot of the stairs.
A light was on at the far end of the basement, where my father kept his tool shelf. In the light, I saw two men holding up another man, who was busted up and limp-bodied. A trail of blood trickled down from the man’s split lip to the basement’s concrete floor. Another man stood before the others, his back to us.
“I’m going to ask you one last time, Morris,” I heard a familiar voice ask. “Where… is my FUCKING money?” The man being held up by the other two looked up, then heaved. I looked over at my brother, as he stood to my left. He looked back at me and raised a finger to his lips. I listened to him.
The Morris guy heaved again, then spat out blood.
“I’m… I’m…” he started to say. The guy whose back was to us made a motion with his hands.
“Pick him up,” the familiar voice said. The other two men followed the order, raised up the Morris guy in the light to where he could somewhat stand.
“Now,” the familiar voice started. “What were you saying?”
“I’m…” The Morris guy looked up to where it looked like he was staring right at the man whose back was to us. “I’m… I’m not telling you shit.” The Morris guy spat out into the air in front of him. The man whose back to us seemed to nod his head for a second or two… then he pulled out a gun. And that’s when I gasped.
I hadn’t been able to control it, and I covered my mouth with my hands almost immediately after it came out. By then, it was too late. All eyes in the room were on me, and the man whose back had been to us the whole time turned in our direction. My eyes widened, not so much in surprise – because the man had always had my father’s voice – but in fear. I didn’t know what was going to happen next.
“The fuck are they doing here, man?!” One of the guys holding up Morris asked. “Fuck! Fucking kids!”
“It’s okay,” my father assured him, not taking his eyes off of me. “As a matter of fact, this is the perfect time for a lesson.” My father smiled at us. “Erika Michele. Eli.” Still holding the gun in his hands, my father gestured towards my brother. “Come here, son.”
My brother let my hand go, took slow steps towards the light where my father and those other men stood. When my brother reached them, my father got down on his knees and set the gun down gently upon the floor. He placed his hands on my brother’s shoulders.
“Eli,” my father said, sighing deeply. “It’s time for you to get acquainted with the family business. One of the most important lessons you’ll ever learn is about loyalty, son. Loyalty is important. People these days… don’t appreciate it. They have no respect for true friendship, to honoring the words they give or the bonds they share with others.
“Most times, son, I treat business partners like family. Which means I expect them to be trustworthy, to be loyal. When I see you as family, I love you. You know that, don’t you, son?” My brother nodded.
“Good,” my father said. “So let me ask you this, son… your friend at school, Patrick… he’s been your friend for a while, right?”
“Yes, sir,” my brother replied. “He’s been my best friend since Kindergarten.”
“How would you feel… if you trusted Patrick with a secret… but everyone else found out about it?” I saw my brother’s eyebrows furrow in the light.
“I’d feel hurt… I’d be mad, probably. If it was a secret between he and I, then he wasn’t supposed to tell anybody. And since he’s my best friend… well, I wouldn’t expect that from him. He knows better.”
“Exactly.” My father smiled. “Exactly, son. You understand. So since he’s your friend, if that were to happen, he’d have to be dealt with. Right?”
“Right.” My brother replied, with no hesitation.
“But since he was your best friend… he’d have to be dealt with in a different way.” At that point, my father looked over at the Morris guy. “Because his offense was personal, the punishment would have to be personal, too.” He turned back to my brother.
“Eli, I viewed this man as a friend of mine. I had known him for so long, in fact, I considered him family. But he betrayed me, son. I gave him something to take care for me… and he shared it with other people… he let them steal it away from me.”
“Don’t believe him, kid!” The Morris guy shouted. My father’s head darted towards the man. In one swift motion, he swung the pistol up to where it collided with the man’s jaw. The Morris guy’s head snapped backwards, his blood spraying out in the air. I covered my mouth with my hands.
“One thing you won’t do, Morris,” my father started, “is INTERRUPT me while I’m talking to my son. That shit… will NOT be tolerated.” My father returned his attention to my brother. “But yes, son… before I was interrupted – and I apologize for that… Mr. Morris apologizes, too. Don’t you, Mr. Morris?” We waited a beat for words that never came. My father again turned his head in the direction of the Morris guy. “Well?” The two men holding up Morris jerked him up.
“Yeah,” Morris mumbled. “Sorry, kid.” My father nodded.
“The punishment must be more severe for people you consider family, son. It must fit the crime… be equal to the betrayal.” That’s when my father held out his gun. “Eli. I want you to shoot this man for me.”
“Connor, you can’t be serious!” One of the guys holding up Morris objected.
“And why can’t I?” My father asked. “My son is, after all, next in line. At one point or another, he has to become familiar with the family business. Now’s as good a time as any.” I watched as Eli looked down at the gun. In my head, I prayed my brother would say, “No.” Instead, he took the gun out of my father’s hands. My eyes widened in shock.
I watched as my brother raised the gun, his arms shaking the whole time. He was as scared as I was. He had to be. My father stood up then, walked around behind my brother and placed a hand on his arm.
“Now, Eli,” my father said. “As I said, the punishment is more personal when someone you consider family betrays you. You must teach them… the ultimate lesson. So you must shoot them in a special place.
“You don’t shoot them in the back. That’s for cowards. And you don’t shoot them in the head. That’s out of spite. No…” My father stopped them to guide my brother’s arm, to nudge it to where Antonio had the muzzle of the gun pointed right at the man’s chest. “Son, when it’s personal, you shoot them in the heart. Because you took their betrayal to heart… so must they, take the bullet to their heart.”
“Chris!” Mr. Morris exclaimed. “Chris, you can’t be fucking serious! Chris!” My brother’s back was turned to me now. His arms were still trembling. But I could tell, could feel that he was focused. In my mind, I prayed that something would go wrong. I prayed that the gun might not go off. I prayed that, at the last minute, my brother might lower the gun and say he couldn’t do it.
“Kid!” Mr. Morris shouted. “Kid, don’t do this! Please! Chris, please! Alright! Alright, damn it! Just let me go now. Let me go, and we can go straight to the bank right now. I don’t have all your money, but I can empty my accounts and give you what I have. Just please-“
“Eli,” I heard my father say, barely audible over the man’s pleading. I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to see what might happen next. I just kept praying that my brother would do the right thing.
“ – Just please, for the love of God, don’t-“
“ – shoot him.”
The “BANG!” of the bar’s door as it slammed shut me behind me, caused me to open my eyes, brought me back to the present. The memory had been so fresh and vivid. Had I not known better, I would have thought it had occurred right there before my very eyes… and not twenty years ago. Whenever I met up with Eli after having not seen him in a long time, I always recalled that moment – the day I watched him kill a man in cold blood, a man who hadn’t done anything to him. That was the moment I realized that my father wasn’t the man I thought he was, the moment both my brother and I’s respective paths in life changed.
I was at The River Jordan, a bar that sat around the corner from the police precinct. Eli loved to use biblical references, and because he often worried if the phones were tapped, he would speak in code about meeting places. “Moses” was his code name for The River Jordan. Most of my colleagues in Precinct 112 tended to hit a bar a few blocks away, Callahan’s, so the spot was certainly safe enough. But I knew this place was more than just a convenient meeting spot – our dad would often bring us over here when we were younger, no doubt to conduct meetings of his own.
I looked around the bar, but didn’t see Eli anywhere. I sat down in one of the barstools and asked the bartender for a Heineken. Taking measured sips from the bottle, I again thought about the childhood memory I’d revisited earlier. Before that point, I’d always thought my dad was a garbageman. He would get up early in the mornings in his dark blue “Richmond Waste” jumpsuit and make us a nice breakfast before driving us off to school. At one point when I was little, my mother left. I thought at the time that she had just abandoned us. My brother would tell me later that my mother left because she couldn’t handle the stress, couldn’t deal with always wondering if one day, her husband, her children, or even if she herself might be killed. But my father wouldn’t let her take us with him. Family meant everything to Chris Connor. Everything he did, he did for us, or so he claimed.
After that afternoon in the basement, I’d understand that the garbageman thing was a front, and that my father was in fact the leader of a gangster syndicate that dabbled in drugs and shipping and moving weapons. When I was younger, there had apparently been many groups in the gangster circuit of Detroit, at least as many as you could count on two hands. In a sense, that afternoon in the basement was my brother’s initiation. After that point, my father started taking my brother Eliazor – we called him “Eli” – on his night trips and meetings. He groomed Eli, perhaps because he knew what was coming. Sure enough, not a year after that incident in our basement, our father got arrested. State’s evidence had mounted quite a case against him, and he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. With the help of some of my father’s henchmen, Eli kept things in order around the house. He pretty much raised me in my father’s absence. He finished high school and then devoted his full attention to working with the gang, “Connor’s Bunch” as it’s still known. To his credit, Eli did all he could to handle gang-related business out of sight, though I knew at one point, he had a small cocaine lab operating in the basement. But he didn’t want me involved with the gang shit at all; he was always quite vocal about that. It was almost ironic how, in keeping me out of the family business, he sort of pushed me further towards becoming a cop.
“Erika Michele.” I jerked my head up in the direction of that familiar voice that had penetrated my thoughts. For a moment, I almost thought it was Dad, but I knew otherwise. He was standing at the other end of the bar. It was uncanny how much Eli LOOKED like Dad after all this time – he had the same inviting, dark brown eyes, the same dimples, the same thin mustache above his upper lip, amongst other things. I hopped up off the barstool and walked over to him.
“Eli.” I frowned at him. I wanted to be mad at him. He’d called me at work, for God’s sakes. And of course, as a cop, I certainly shouldn’t have been associating with gangsters. But he wasn’t just a gangster. He was my brother. He flashed his bucktoothed smile at me and I simply rolled my eyes at him.
“It’s like that, huh, sis?” he asked. “I don’t see you in person for almost two years, and all I get is an ‘Eli’ and an eye roll? Fucking family.” He shook his head.
“I mean, I don’t know what you wanted out of me,” I replied, crossing my arms and still faking my attitude.
“I dunno, Erika Michele. I guess I EXPECTED a hug, a ‘Hey, bro!’ Something more than ‘Eli,’ for sure. You’re not that cold with Black Schwarzenigger.” By now, I’d gotten used to the fact that he kept a close watch on me. But I never got used to his nickname for my partner, and I couldn’t resist laughing out loud at that.
“His name is Devon!” I told him. “Damn! How long have I been telling you that?”
“I don’t even know,” Eli admitted. “To be honest, I don’t even care. Swarzenigger is how I know him, and that’s how I’ll always know him.” He shrugged. “Anyway… I see you’re getting fat.” He gestured at my tight-fitting t-shirt.
“Fool, I’m not getting fat,” I said. “I purposely have the one small shirt I wear just cause. I was meeting you, so I was like, ‘what the hell?’”
“Oh. Did you think that just because I was your brother, I wasn’t going to say anything about your big-ass stomach? I’m sorry, your small-ass shirt?” I frowned at him. “I mean, seriously, sis. That shit makes your boobs look bigger than they are. That concerns me.”
“I’ma fuckin’ C-cup!” He started to open his mouth, but I knew Eli could be a smart-ass and I had a feeling where he was going with this. “And if you DARE say some shit about ‘but it looks like you threw some D’s on it,’ I’m going to kick your ass in this bar.”
“You ain’t gone do SHIT,” Eli said. “I got half a foot on your ass.”
“And I’ll break my foot off IN your ass.” I retorted.
“A little girl gets a badge and a potty mouth and thinks she can talk to her brother any kind of way, huh?” I swung a fist at him, and he caught my arm and spun me around into a full nelson headlock.
“Got damn it!”
“Yeah, your little ass wasn’t ready for that, huh?” Eli asked, talking trash. “I took it back to the WWF on your ass. Cobra Clutch, niiiigga!”
“Alright, Eli.” I’d had enough of the games. Besides, my arms were actually starting to hurt at that point.
“Alright. Let me out of this.”
“What you gon’ do if I let you out?” he asked. “Are you going to swing on me again if you let you go?”
“No,” I assured him.
“Are you going to acknowledge that I’m better than you?”
“Um-hum.” He tightened his grip.
“Oww! Damn it, Eli, okay! Yes, you’re better than me. Now let me go.”
“Are you going to acknowledge Eliazor Connor as your Lord and Savior, the light in your life, your guide and life compass?”
“Eli, you play too much! Let me go!” He was pissing me off now. He laughed and finally let my arms go. I started to ball my fist up and throw another punch at him, but I decided against it. Eli simply opened his arms wide.
“Come on now. You know you missed your dear old brother.” He cocked his head to side. “Give us a hug, nigga!” I sighed. Damn, I hated Eli at times. I let myself fall into his embrace and wrapped my arms around him. I gave my brother the kind of hug you gave someone who meant the world to you and who you’d talked on the phone to every other week but hadn’t seen in the physical for two whole years.
“Ahhhh. It’s been too long.” Eli said.
“It has. Where the hell you been?” I asked him.
“Ducking, mostly. It got kind of hot on my end the last year and a half. A cluster of Connor’s Bunch got infiltrated by the FBI, so I had to cover my shit, cut some ends and people loose.” He interrupted his story to get the bartender’s attention. “Ay, lemme get a Dos Equis real quick.” I raised an eyebrow at him.
“Since when does your Miller Lite loving ass drink Dos Equis?” I asked.
“Since I’ve been ducking for the last two years,” he responded. “A nigga can’t evolve?” I shrugged and watched as he took a swig from his bottle.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
“So I’m old now. That’s sibling love in 2011, I guess. Haven’t seen my sister in two years, but a nigga comes back to insults and thrown punches.” I rolled my eyes.
“You’re such a wimp,” I told him. “But anyway… the FBI? You’re serious?”
“Serious as an overweight case on the show Heavy,” Eli insisted. “It was crazy. Couldn’t really trust anybody, save for Saigon, a few of my circle, you of course… it got real crucial real quick, Erika Michele. Speaking of real crucial real quick… did you…?”
“Yeah,” I said. “We snagged him.”
“And?” I’d never seen Eli look so anxious.
“Well, he’s the third guy we’ve busted that’s connected to the Campbell Crew…”
“Meaning by now, I’ve given you enough witnesses to take down Ernesto, right?” he asked.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Um, yes, please. Why would I want you to lie about it?” I rolled my eyes at him.
“Well… I’m trying to get out of the game.” I looked him straight in the eyes for a full minute, then burst out laughing.
“I’m serious, though, sis!”
“Eli, you’ve been ‘trying to get out of the game’ ever since I finished up at the Academy,” I pointed out. “So pardon my skepticism.”
“I’m so serious, though,” he insisted. “Like… this whole time, what we’ve been doing, has been really good work.” I raised my eyebrows at him.
“Really good work? Good work for who?”
“For the past two years, I’ve given you leads on who to bust… which I’m sure has built up your credibility, or at least your arrest rate, with the cops. In busting certain people, you’ve also allowed me to get rid of all my major competition. It’s been mutually beneficial.”
“Yeah, when I haven’t been scrutinized for where these ‘leads’ are coming from,” I told him.
“I mean… who knew you being a cop would turn out to be that handy later on down the line? Not me. But look,” Eli continued. “Once I knock off Ernesto Campbell, it’s just that motherfuckin’ Puerto Rican Carrasquillo I’ll have to deal with. I get ‘Cars & Quills’ out of the picture, then Connor’s Bunch controls everything in Detroit and at that point, I can step away.”
“But not until you’ve taken out all your competition.”
“Exactly.” I shook my head. “What? It’s what Dad would have wanted!”
“For you to get out of the game, yes,” I admitted. “For you to have this unattainable goal that allows you to stay in the game forever, no.”
“Unattainable goal?” he repeated.
“Yeah. I mean, come on, Eli. You don’t seriously think, even IF you give me enough leads to bust enough guys, it’d shut down the remaining two big gangs.”
“Actually, yup,” he replied. “That’s my theory.”
“You can’t kill a dragon by cutting off its scales.”
“Meaning? Ohhhh. Oh, okay, I get it now. You can’t kill the dragon unless you cut off the head.”
“Meaning, you want me to serve up Ernesto on a platter for you.”
“Right.” I replied. “Wait, WHAT?”
“This is about our mutually beneficial relationship,” Eli said. “You want the big bust, you want Ernesto on your record.” I threw up my hands in exasperation. This nigga!
“Look, Eli, contrary to popular belief, we don’t all subscribe to the ‘I need to get something out of this in order to do it’ lifestyle. I want Ernesto off my streets as much as anybody.”
“But it wouldn’t hurt to say you were the one that caught him, would it?”
“But that’s not the-“
“Would it?” I sighed. Damn, I hated Eli sometimes.
“No,” I admitted. “It wouldn’t hurt for my name to be on the bust.”
“Then it’s settled,” Eli said. “I should’ve known not to send you guppies when you wanted the big fish. That’s my bad. But I’m going to find a way to set shit up to where you can do the impossible – to where you can be the person who was responsible for putting Ernesto motherfuckin’ Campbell away FOR GOOD.” I sighed again.
“I guess, Eli.”
“I’ll take that. It’s better than nothing.” Eli took his bottle of Dos Equis to the head, then set it back down upon the bar. “Anyway, I should get to moving. A few things to handle and, even though none of YOUR people recognize me just yet, I’d rather not be around as the cops start making their rounds.”
He took out his wallet and placed a 20 on the bar counter. Then he pulled out seven hundred-dollar-bills and set them on the bar in front of me. I furrowed my eyebrows.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“Sometimes the life I live means I slack off on my priorities,” he replied. “I’ve been an okay brother, but I’ve been a horrible uncle. You keep like $300 of this and spend the rest on Denise.”
“$400?” I asked incredulously. “On a two-year-old? Seriously?”
“Yes, nigga! Swag my niece the fuck out! Okay… actually, that’s poor word choice.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “Your 30-something ass should not be using anything remotely close to the word ‘swag.’”
“Shut up, sis. Spoil her the fuck out, then.”
“We’ll see about that,” I told him.
“I know where you stay, Erika Michele! Better believe I will be watching to ensure my niece got some new shit.” I couldn’t help laughing at that.
“Okay, okay. Well…”
“I guess I’ll see you later, sis.” Eli got up off of his barstool and gave me a big bear hug.
“Be safe,” I said, as we broke away from each other. “Seriously.”
“I always am. Love you. Be good.”
“Love you, too.” It wasn’t until he was walking out the door of The River Jordan, that I realized I’d pretty much just agreed to a deal… a deal whose ideal end result, would be me collaring one of the most dangerous criminals in the city of Detroit, hell, in all of Michigan. It was at once both inspiring and intimidating. I gulped down the rest of my beer, then proceeded to leave the bar. I shoved the front door open.
“Ah, shit!” I heard someone exclaim from the other side of the door. I immediately backed away from the door. The front door then swung open, and a guy walked in holding a hand over his nose.
“Oh, gosh.” I said. “Did I hit you? I’m so, so sorry, man.” I reached to put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up and I was immediately struck by his gray eyes.
“No,” he mumbled, letting his hand fall away. His nose did look a bit crushed in, but outside of that… he was kinda attractive. A little young looking, but that was a good thing. Dark-skinned with a light Cesar haircut. “No, you’re fine.” He perked up. “You really ARE fine.” I tried to keep myself from grinning.
“Are you okay, though?” I asked him. “Seriously. I hope I didn’t hurt you.”
“It’s just a little bump on the nose,” he assured me. “It’s highly likely I’ll live.” I let a giggle escape from my lips. “I appreciate your concern.”
“No problem,” I replied, smiling at him. It seemed like we just stood here looking into each other’s eyes for a few moments. “Umm… well, I’m in a hurry.” The guy nodded.
“I understand.” He took a few steps backward, then leaned back against the door, opening it wide. It took me a minute to realize that he was holding the door open for me. I blinked. I wasn’t exactly used to that. Lord knows when Marcus and I had gone out to Olive Garden, he damn sure hadn’t opened any doors for me. I shook away the memories of that date from hell and simply smiled at the guy.
“Thanks,” I said. I walked past him slowly, looked right into his eyes as I was walking by. Damn, what a beautiful Black man. He was looking snazzy too, was rocking slacks and suspenders over a formal white shirt. I wondered where he’d been before he decided to come to the bar. I wondered if he’d just left from work… or a date… or his wedding… or a funeral. I was pulled out of my thoughts because I thought I heard him say something.
“Did you say something?” I asked.
“Yeah,” the guy admitted. “Just asked if you came here often. To this bar, I mean.”
“Good. Hopefully I’ll see you the next time you come through. And hopefully next time, you won’t be in so much of a hurry.” I fought to contain another smile. I managed to get out a “Have a good day” before I headed back to my car. I didn’t bother turning back around, but I certainly hoped he was watching me walk away. Didn’t want to be putting that extra bounce into my step for nothing.