Meeting Brass Lee
The shop was open, racks of brightly colored running and basketball shoes lining the walls and decorating pillars interspersed throughout. Again, I didn’t recognize any brands. An electronic bell dinged in the back, and a middle-aged Chinese woman hurried out of the back, her smile wide and professional. When she saw the two of us it faded a little, and she stopped in her tracks.
“Hi, can I help you find anything?”
Manny spoke up. “We’re here to see Lee.”
She nodded. “Wait here, please.”
She disappeared into the back, and a minute later someone different came back out. He was a hulking, muscular Asian guy about my height wearing a white muscle shirt showing off the products of many long hours at the gym. His bald scalp shone in the reflected sunlight from the front windows. A tasteful, thick gold chain was around his neck. His look was completed with gym pants and spotless white sneakers.
I identified him, and his name popped up.
|“Leonardo” , Soldado (E3)|
He looked us both over, then his eyes locked on to Manny’s. “Manny, you’re late. You know Lee doesn’t like to wait. You’re lucky we’re still here.”
He was well spoken with a smooth, deep voice and perfect English.
“Sorry, Leo. You know how it is, traffic is shit. I’m here now. Can we see him?”
“Yeah, I gotta search you.”
Leo walked in our direction and Manny spoke again.
“No need, Bro, I’m strapped.”
He lifted his jersey and showed the holstered .38 at his back.
“Give me that. I’ll hold onto it for you. I still need to search you both, though.”
Manny handed over the holstered gun without complaint, which seemed dumb to me. Why bring a gun if you immediately surrendered it?
Leo took the gun and gave it a quick look. “Moving up in the world, are you? Got a real piece and even brought one of your boys. Good for you, Manny. Now, hands up. You know the drill.”
Leo tucked Manny’s gun in one of his large front pockets and quickly patted us both down. I was literally carrying nothing except a bus pass, which he missed.
“You’re good. Wait here a second,” Leo said before disappearing back through the curtain. He reappeared twenty seconds later and waved us through.
The back of the shop was far from glamorous. Long rows of shelves jammed full of shoeboxes. Off to the right was a small room—a tiny kitchen with a table and two chairs. The Chinese woman sat at the table and sipped something from a ceramic cup. She eyed us as we went past but didn’t move or speak.
Our destination was further back, past the rows of shelves and in an area that was obviously used for loading and unloading. The loading doors were open, and I could see an unmarked white van parked outside with the doors closed, backed into the loading dock position.
An old black leather couch was pressed up against the far wall with a tall, elegantly groomed Chinese man lounging on it. His feet were propped up on the scarred, dark wood coffee table in front of the couch. The table was piled high with shoeboxes, some of them opened. He looked up as we entered, and I instinctively identified him.
Brass Lee was only showing his name, and not a Job or title. I wondered if that was a power move or if he just didn’t want us to know.
“Manny! So glad you could make it,” Lee said, revealing perfectly straight and white teeth as he smiled at us.
A shadow darkened the loading gate doors and another man stepped inside. I looked in disbelief between Leo and the new guy before realizing the truth. Identical twins.
|“Raphael” , Soldado (E3)|
The two men were dressed exactly the same and even wore the same bling. I had a wild thought. If you and your twin were both in shadow and one twin had a solid alibi, could you beat a murder rap because of reasonable doubt it was you and not your twin? Seemed likely.
Raphael lounged in the doorway, watching us curiously. Unlike Leo, there was a boxy automatic pistol visible in the waistband of his black athletic pants.
“Hey, Lee. Yeah, Bro. It’s good to be here. I need to re-up. Business has been good.”
“Has it? That’s good to hear. I see you brought a friend.”
“Yeah, this is my boy Mack. He’s cool, I vouch.”
Raphael and Leo both chuckled, but Lee just smiled.
“Oh, you do? That makes me feel so much better.”
Lee’s voice simply dripped sarcasm. It had been gradually ramping up since we entered, but now it was clear.
“Yeah. We’ve been friends a long time. He’s solid.”
Lee stood up and walked around the coffee table. He was wearing what must have been a very expensive tracksuit. It was shiny and the fabric looked soft. On his wrist was a chunky, golden watch. I didn’t know watches, but it was one of those watches that just screamed expensive. There was something about the man that made me want to take him seriously. It was almost like a feel in my belly that this guy was not to be fucked with. I briefly wondered if that was his Street Cred stat having an influence on me.
“Mack. How come I haven’t seen you around before?”
I couldn’t think of a good bullshit answer, so I went with the truth.
“It’s my first time. I’m just here to help Manny. He’s my friend.”
Lee nodded, seeming to take my words at face value. “Friendship. A very powerful thing. Manny here broke your cherry, did he? He chose to do that by bringing you to meet with me? I’m flattered, Manny.”
Manny had nothing to say and neither did I. Now that Lee was saying it out loud, it did sound pretty dumb.
“That’s okay,” Lee said and looked me over. “You look too young to be a cop. You a cop, Jump Street?”
I got the reference, but just barely. The original had been far before my time, but I’d seen the remake.
“Nope, he says. What do you think, Leo?”
Brass Lee looked over at the hulking twin who was leaning against the doorway behind us. “Everybody’s gotta start somewhere, Boss. I think he’s just a kid. Doesn’t smell like a pig to me.”
“And you, Raph?”
Raphael simply shrugged.
“Well, okay then! It looks like you’ve passed, Mack. Welcome.”
Lee stepped back and looked us both over. “You’re here to re-up. How much can we sell you today, Manny?”
“I need an ounce again, Lee, if that’s cool?” Manny said, and pulled the roll out of his right front pocket.
“Manny, Manny, Manny. This meeting had such a promising start. Leo tells me you’re strapped. You even convinced one of your friends to come and have your back. So promising. You were so promising and now you’ve disappointed me.”
“Lee, I would totally scale up if I could but I’m a little cash-strapped. I had some unexpected outgoings. You know how it is.”
Lee nodded and put on an understanding expression. “Of course. Every business has its up and downs. I’m afraid to tell you though, Manny, that the ounce I sold you last time… Well, let’s say it was a trial of sorts. I sold it to you at a wholesale rate in order to allow you to build some capital and show me you were serious. I want all of our freelance associates to be successful. But if you come back to me on your first re-up and buy retail quantity, I’m going to have to charge you retail prices, Manny.
“Raph, grab an ounce for me, would you?” Lee asked, looking over at the man standing in the loading dock doorway.
Raph opened the rear of the van and lifted a black duffel bag. It was one of many lining the van’s floor. All of them were full but zipped. Raph unzipped the one he pulled free and rummaged around in it. He quickly found what he was looking for and pulled free a vacuum sealed bag full of a familiar green plant.
Raph dropped the duffel bag his feet and two strides later had placed the vacuum sealed ounce of weed in Lee’s outstretched hand.
“Your weed. One ounce of our finest. That will be $800, Manny.”
I knew that wasn’t the price that Manny was expecting, and I could almost see it in his body language. He tensed up and was silent. It was almost double what he’d been expecting to pay.
“That’s high, isn’t it Lee? I’m not looking to make a lot of profit at that price. No one’s gonna buy it if I have to charge almost sixty bucks a dime bag.”
“Your profit margins aren’t my concern, Manny. Do you want my product or not?”
Manny looked down at the roll in his hands. I didn’t know him that well, yet, but I was getting the impression that he knew exactly how much money he had down to the last dime. And it wasn’t enough.
“Yeah, but I’m a little light. I wasn’t expecting to need that much cash. Can you front me?”
Lee shook his head sadly, and with a smooth motion tossed the ounce of weed back to Raph who had returned to the doorway.
“I’m afraid we don’t extend credit to our retail customers, Manny. Thanks for coming by. Next time make sure you bring the proper amount of money. I don’t like to have my time wasted.”
Manny started to sputter but I spoke up, unthinking.
“Lee, how much would we need to buy to get your wholesale pricing, and how much is it?” I asked.
Lee smiled and looked at me. “It’s we now, is it? I thought you were just here as backup, Mack?”
“This is what that looks like,” I replied.
I didn’t feel as sure about myself as I was trying to project, and I hoped it didn’t show.
“Wonderful. To answer your question, Mack, let’s say that I’m going to set my wholesale quantities to at least 5 ounces of product. Does that sound fair? As for the price, that depends on quantity. At the minimum quantities, $600 an ounce. None of that helps Manny, though. He doesn’t even have $800 in that roll. Are you going to make up the difference, Mack? Has Manny found himself a new partner?”
I didn’t really like where this was going, but I needed to see it through.
“No, I’m not Manny’s partner. Tell me, though. You said you can’t extend credit to your retail clients. Doesn’t that mean you can extend it to your wholesale clients?”
Lee gave a single amused clap of his hands. “Sharp. I like you, Mack. Yes, that was implied in my statement, wasn’t it? I suppose for our dear friend Manny I could extend some credit. How does three points sound?”
I only had the vaguest idea what he was talking about. Points was the interest rate, I was pretty sure. So a 3% interest rate. It didn’t seem so bad. Hell, shitty credit cards were 20%. Maybe Lee wasn’t so bad.
I nodded soberly. “Seems fine to me. Manny?”
Manny looked at me and I could see the fear in his eyes and hoped that Lee and the turtle brothers couldn’t.
“Wonderful. Now I know we talked about a minimum quantity of five ounces but considering our new relationship and how much your operation is growing that seems parsimonious. Raph, give these fine entrepreneurs ten ounces of product. I will extend you credit for $6000 at three points. Is that agreeable?”
|Loan offered with the following terms:|
|Creditor:||“Brass Lee”||Amount:||$6,000||Vig:||3.0%/7 days|
|Other responsible debtor(s):
|Accept these terms?|
I was kind of surprised that I was included in the loan but backing out now would probably collapse the whole thing. Besides, it was 3% interest. Lee was almost giving the money away. I’d probably have a job tomorrow and if Manny needed help with interest, I could manage that.
The display in front of me changed, indicating that Manny had accepted the terms. I focused my intent to press the accept button and was surprised when it didn’t immediately depress. It took several seconds of concerted intent. An aura visibly grew around the button before it finally clicked into place.
|Loan from “Brass Lee” accepted|
Lee smiled broadly, and out of the corner of my eye I could see that Manny looked sick to his stomach.
“This has turned into a wonderful morning. Thank you, Mack,” Lee said.
Raph removed a lot of the marijuana packets from the duffel taken from the van and pressed the half-full duffel bag into Manny’s arms. Manny held it close, seeming a bit out of it. His small roll of cash was still clutched in his right hand, and after he settled the load in his arms, he put it back in his pocket.
“That will be all, gentlemen. I’ll send one of the boys by in a week to collect my first payment. Don’t make me look for you, Manny and Mack.”
That seemed odd. He wanted his first payment in a week. Fine, at 3% that wouldn’t be a lot of money. I guessed when you dealt with informal systems of lending like this, things were more granular.
Leo ushered us out of the back room and into the front of the store. Once we had passed through the curtain, he returned Manny’s revolver.
“Here you go, Manny. That was a ballsy move, guys. I hope you don’t regret it. See you in a week.”
We left the store in silence. Leo statement and Manny’s body language had me thinking I’d missed something. Something important. As we exited the store a window appeared in front of and quickly disappeared as I mentally waved it away.
|The small favor to “Manny” has been repaid.|
We returned to the Regal and Manny used his keys to pop the trunk and secure the duffel bag. He climbed over the driver’s door, still not speaking.
“Manny, what’s wrong?” I asked, opening the door and sitting beside him in the passenger seat.
“Dude, you fucked us,” he said in a quiet voice.
“What do you mean? The loan? Fuck, man, it’s 3% interest. The banks won’t give you money at 3% interest. What’s the fucking problem?”
Manny spluttered in disbelief before finally managing to get out. “The banks? You’re fucking insane. Brass Lee isn’t a fucking bank. It’s not 3% interest like a bank, Bro. It’s three points. That’s 3% a week, compounded. How the fuck do you not know that?”
My stomach dropped as he said that. I’d never been much of a gangster movie guy. Sure, I’d watched them but more as light entertainment. I’d never in my wildest dreams thought that watching the Sopranos would become useful vocational training.
“Shit. 3% a week? That’s not legal. It can’t be.”
“Of course it’s not fucking legal. We’re fucked. I’ve heard of this. Now they’ve got that debt on us, it’s like a leash. We’ll never pay it off. It will just keep going up and up and we have to do whatever the fuck they say. You and I just became debt slaves, Mack. Fuck!”
Manny slammed the steering wheel of the Regal to punctuate his last curse.
I did the math in my head, and it wasn’t good. $720 a month in interest. But wait, that wasn’t right either. It was compounding weekly, wasn’t it? I focused my will and the debts screen popped up.
|Loans – “Mack”|
|Debts – “Mack”|
|Creditor:||“Brass Lee”||Amount:||$6,000||Vig:||3.0%/7 days|
|Other responsible debtor(s):
|Next payment of $180 due
I now knew why the UI—if that’s what you wanted to call it—hadn’t let me simply press the accept button and had made me hold my intent for a few seconds first. The real question was why Manny, who knew better, had gone along with my stupid plan.
“I didn’t know that. I’m sorry man. Why did you agree? You could’ve just said no and we would have been out of there.”
“I was backing your play, Bro. I thought you had a fucking plan. I didn’t realize your plan was to get us both fucking enslaved to the Brass Dragon Tong. What the fuck are we going to do?”
“The interest of the first week’s only $180 bucks, right? You’ve got more than that in your roll now, and there’s a shitload of weed in the trunk. You just sell the weed. Pay down the principal every week and it’ll be gone before you know it.”
Manny laughed bitterly. “I told you, Brass Lee’s not a bank. If you don’t have the full amount he’s not interested. You pay the full amount plus vig, or just the vig. No partial payments.”
“What? That’s fucking bullshit, man.”
“By the time we sell enough of this weed to pay Lee back the vig will have ate all the fucking profit, Bro. And that’s if we manage to put together enough cash before we run out of product to sell.”
I heard that we and chose to ignore it. I wasn’t signing on to be a drug dealer, shared debt or not.
“Right, so you’ve got to sell it as fast as possible. I thought you had a big customer base, Manny? You got a ton of product now, just sell it. Sell it fast and pay them back.”
“You know me, Mack. I like to talk a big game. My customers are mostly the stoners at school. That last ounce I got from Lee took me nearly two and a half weeks to move. I almost got busted by the school pig three times. I’m not sure I can go back and sell there again. I was going to use this next ounce to find some new territory. Besides, it’s so much. I still have to go to school, you know. I can’t afford to drop out. I’m going to college next year.”
“Manny, I’m real sorry. Let’s just go back in there and give Lee the weed back, tell him we made a mistake.”
Manny laughed bitterly and scrubbed his face with his hands.
“Pretty sure the Brass Dragon Tong doesn’t have a return policy, Mack. No, all sales are final. You heard what Leo said. He was wrong, though. This wasn’t a ballsy move; it was a stupid one. Damnit, why did I take you with me?”
I felt like shit. Manny had what seemed like fairly carefully laid plans and I’d blown them to bits by sticking my nose in. If I hadn’t said anything, we would’ve left empty-handed but without a potentially crippling debt to the Chinese mafia.
“What are you going to do, Manny?”
He looked me in the eyes, his face full of bitter anger. “What am I going to do? This is your debt too, Bro. It’s what are we going to do. Unless you’ve got six grand in your pocket you forgot to tell me about you’re gonna help me sell this weed.”
Manny started the car and with a rumble and a squeal of a protesting fan belt, we roared out of the parking lot.