Finding a new spot

I had unlocked a skill while reading a book. Not some magical skill book either—an ordinary book. There hadn’t been some magical upload of knowledge that I’d noticed. I’d read, taken notes and the system had rewarded me with a useful, tangible skill.

It looked like earning with it was going to be a bitch since it wasn’t directly related to making money, but at least now Manny and I would be able to find territory that wasn’t claimed.

It was at that moment that Manny found me and I realized how much time had passed. The clock on the wall said it was a little after five—well after school let out.

“Hey, there you are,” Manny said. “What are you doing here? Why weren’t you at the college? I went there and couldn’t find you. When I got home, Mom told me you called. What happened?”

I explained to him briefly what happened. The sales, the confrontation with the campus cops, and my escape.

“They kept the bag. There were only three dimes left in it, so all good.”

“Not exactly, Homes. If that spot doesn’t work, where are we going to sell?”

“I think I can do something about that. Let’s go and I’ll show you.”

Manny grumbled, but followed me as we went to leave. Beside the checkout desk was a table full of old paperbacks the library was selling off. Every book was a dollar.

“Hold up a second,” I said, and glanced over the table.

It was fiction of all sorts, but it was the sci-fi section that caught my eye. The paperbacks were worn from reading, but the covers were still bright and interesting. I found one with a promising-looking starship on the cover and handed a single to the librarian assistant manning the checkout desk. She was young and pretty, probably a university student, and smiled at me before going back to the senior citizen she was helping.

We left the quiet calm of the library and emerged into the bright afternoon sunshine. Traffic was beginning to pick up even here in Maywood and Manny was parked down the block.

“Can I see?” Manny asked. I handed him the paperback and he looked it over.

“Looks cool,” he said, and handed it back.

“I need something to read at nights, it’s pretty dull at my Uncle’s. Not that I get much time to read, it’s lights out at nine.”

“What, he like literally turns off your bedroom lights at nine?”

“Yeah. I’ve been busy enough that it hasn’t been that big a deal, but it sucks. I’ve got to find a better place to live.”

“No doubt, Bro. I’d invite you to stay with us, but our house is small and we’re pretty packed in already.”

“I know. Thanks anyway, man. I’ll figure it out.”

The paperback was the right size, so I slid it into one of the big pockets of my cargo shorts. Without the Internet and a smartphone, I had to return to the old-school ways to entertain myself. So far, my life as a drug dealer had been far too PG-13. I resolved to correct that as soon as I could. The wad of cash in my pocket felt like a good start.

Five minutes later we were back on the road. I’d been giving where to find a spot some serious thought. If we were a gang like the Lyle Street Soldados, our territory might be our block. Somewhere nearby. But we weren’t in a gang and couldn’t claim territory. Setting up somewhere like the technical college would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that they had cops, a little gang of their own, to keep us away.

The other high-traffic spots in California were malls, and I knew they wouldn’t work either. Mall cops. No, what we needed was somewhere without its own security, and without gangs. I told Manny about my new skill and my plan to find unclaimed territory.

“Let me get this straight. Some old, homeless guy in the library told you to read this book, and you just sat right down and did what he told you?” Manny asked, his voice a bit incredulous.

“He was trying to help me out. Pete’s a nice guy. This skill is going to be gold for us, Manny.”

“Yeah, maybe. I mean, I’ve read about getting skills from books, but it never happened to me. You sure that book wasn’t special?”

“I don’t think so. Hey, turn in here,” I said, and pointed to a side street.

Manny pulled off into a quiet residential area, slowing down.

“Here? We need foot traffic, bro.”

“I know, just keep looking.”

Manny was right. I wasn’t expecting to find a good spot to sell in this neighborhood. Sure, if we found something, great. What I was doing was trying out my new skill. I was looking at every piece of graffiti and trying to get it to trigger.

Finally, after looking at dozens of tags one felt different.

“Stop,” I instructed.

There was a parking spot nearby and Manny pulled right in and put the Regal into park.

I jumped out and walked over to the tag on the sidewalk that had caught my attention. I focused on it, and a moment later Manny was standing beside me looking down at it as well.

“What, this? It looks just like random squiggles.”

I nodded, not speaking. I was keeping my concentration on the tag, hoping for something more than the vague feeling of difference it was giving me. My concentration kept lapsing, but finally, after what must’ve been almost two minutes, the skill clicked. Information appeared in front of me.

Territory Claim Marker

Charlos Close Blades

“Yep, it’s a marker. Charlos Close Blades.”

“Shit, Bro. Blades territory? Let’s bounce.”

We hopped back in the Regal and Manny roared off, leaving the tag behind.

“You know those guys? The Blades?”

“That one in particular? Nah. The Blades are big time. We don’t want to fuck with them. There are hundreds of Blades cliques in San Tadeo, they’re all over Cali.”

“Like the Crips and Bloods?” I asked.

“Who? Never heard of them.”

I let that rest for a minute. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or annoyed that even the gang names weren’t the same. I had to know, so I asked.

“I forget, who are their big rivals again? Which one wears blue, and which one is red?”

“Blades are red, of course. Gats are blue.”

The Blades and the Gats, red and blue just like back home. Good to know.

I was happy that my new skill worked, even if it was a bit slow to give details. We still didn’t have a place to sell, and we needed to find one. Brass Lee wasn’t going to pay himself.

“Slow down again, Manny. We’ve got to find a good spot that’s not claimed, I’ve got to be able to see the tags.”

Manny slowed down but kept driving. There were two more Blades tags before we left their small territory behind a couple blocks later.

“You know, I bet if I get the right skill, we can claim our own territory. If we can find somewhere good to sell, we can claim it.”

“Nah, bro. Only gangs can make a claim, and we’re not one.”

I thought about that, but it didn’t make sense. “What do you mean? If we call ourselves a gang then we’re a gang. What, do you think we have to go to City Hall and get a permit?”

“Nah, it’s not like that. Anyway, I don’t want to be in a gang. Hell, after Magnus I’m not sure I even want to be doing this anymore. You know that.”

I did and it worried me. If my only friend was going to bail out and leave me alone in this racket, that was intimidating. It felt wrong and cynical to think of Manny like that. To think of him as just a necessary cog in this organization I was building, but he was. At least for now. I needed to make some more friends. How did one go about making their own gang, anyway?

I was about to ask Manny for more details on what the magical process for forming a gang was when I saw flash of green down the cross street to our left, a park.

“Hold on, go down there,” I said.

Manny turned left and drove slowly while I looked for tags. There was no shortage of spray paint, but none of them gave me that special feeling.

Moments later we were at the park, and it was pretty sad. The grass was patchy, more brown than green. A few trees gave shade here and there. In the center stood a steel swingset with one broken swing, one of those spinning carousel things for kids, and a dangerous-looking dome-shaped monkey bars that I thought had all disappeared in the 80s or 90s. Underneath the dome the ground was littered with trash—dozens of beer bottles and discarded wrappers. The park was completely deserted. Crisscrossing the park were dirt trails, many feet having worn through the grass down to the bare earth. Paths of necessity.

“Right here, Manny.”

“What, the park? There’s nobody here, bro.”

“There isn’t right now, but I bet there will be. Let’s do this,” I said.