Buds and Brews
The walk back to the LSS garage was short, and it showed me a bit of the neighborhood. Me and Manny had driven through it on our way there earlier in the day, but hadn’t really had a chance to look around.
We passed busy auto shops and restaurants. The owners all seemed to know the two Soldados. They waved or came out and exchanged quick hellos as we walked by.
“Friendly neighborhood,” I commented.
“It is if it’s your neighborhood. Don’t get too used to this, white boy,” Hondo said, wincing as he spoke. “They’re good people, we protect our own here.”
The yard had been left undisturbed while we were gone, and Hondo produced a key to open the padlock. Once it was unlocked, he slid the gate open just enough to admit us and I closed it when I came through. Manny’s regal sat alone in the yard, reminding me that we still needed to get rid of it. From the looks of the neighborhood, it didn’t seem likely that anyone would snatch to the hip that the L SS boys had the car they were looking for in the yard, but who knew. People were desperate when they were poor.
“You want a beer?” Flattop asked me.
“Yeah, sure,” I agreed.
The two boys got busy, and a few minutes later they had pulled out a folding table and chairs and set them up in the sunlit yard. Three tall, cold beers got produced from a fridge in the garage and sat down on the table. Hondo used a bottle opener on his keychain to open mine and passed it over. I took a drink, and although I could appreciate the taste of beer, my anxiety about Manny was making it hard to relax.
It seemed Flattop and Hondo were feeling the same way, as neither of them drank much either. Hondo wasn’t even drinking and just used his unopened beer to cool his abused forehead.
“I’m sure your boy is going to be all right. We’ll just wait here until he gets back,” Flattop said.
“Yeah, you’re right,” I agreed.
Each of us sat with our thoughts for a good ten minutes, nursing the single beer. I wasn’t expecting Manny to be that close behind us, obviously. He’d still had to make it to the port and get through the gates to find where he would deliver the Mercedes. Who knew how long that would take?
“Hey, I unlocked a new job when we were in the yard,” I said.
“Oh, what job?” Flattop asked.
“Soldado,” I said.
“Really? That’s surprising. I saw how shit you were with that gun. Did you switch to it?”
Hondo, who had been uninterested in our conversation, got up and walked toward the garage.
“Hey, cuz, don’t lie down. You can’t sleep, remember?” Flattop said.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m not going to sleep. If you need me, I’ll be working back here. I got to finish this Camry, remember?”
He entered the garage and closed the door behind him. A minute later the grinder fired up again, the noise thankfully muted by the closed door between us.
Our conversation resumed. “No, I haven’t switched yet. I’m not sure how I even do that since the prompt is gone now.”
“Just concentrate on your job and will it to switch. It’s pretty simple.”
It really was. I concentrated my intent on the idea of my job, and that I wanted it to switch, and a UI popped up.
|Jobs Available (Shadow)|
|Choose one to switch to. WARNING: After switch, switching is restricted for 15 minutes.|
I willed myself to switch to Soldado, and as soon as I did a shower of new UIs appeared.
|Skill Unlocked – Intimidation (F)||Level||1/3|
|Enhances your natural aura of intimidation by 30% when used for 5 minutes. 3 hour cooldown.|
|Skill Unlocked – Threat Assessment (F)||Level||1/4|
|25% of the time when used, gives a color coded assessment of the target’s threat level. Does not convey target intentions. 60 second cooldown.|
“What was your job before? Dealer?” Flattop asked, finishing the last of his beer.
“Yeah. You said you’re a wheelman? Is that actually a job, or just what you do?”
Hondo had left his unopened beer on the table, so Flattop picked it up, opened it and took a sip.
“It’s a job. It’s not made for stealing cars exactly, more for a getaway driver. Still, the money I earn counts towards my advancement. I’ll probably level up when we get paid for the Mercedes.”
“You certainly can drive. Is there a job specifically for stealing cars?” I asked.
“Yeah, I got that one unlocked too, but I don’t use it much.”
“It seems like the skills Soldado unlocked are pretty useless to me,” I said.
“They sure are if you make your money dealing drugs. The second level skill is the one you want anyway. It’s called Unstoppable—Hondo’s dad has it. Basically, it makes you hard to kill. You can take a bullet and depending on how high leveled the skill is you can ignore the damage for a while. I saw him use it once, that shit was scary.”
I put my half-empty beer down. I was done drinking, for now. The conversation had distracted me, but I was still worried about Manny.
“How did those Russians find the Mercedes anyway?”
“Like I said, Hondo probably missed a tracker. It happens.”
“He said that he didn’t, though. What did he mean when he said it was probably marked?”
“That’s bullshit. Street legend.”
I gave him a questioning expression, mentally exhorting him to continue.
“Fine. Supposedly there’s a rare skill that lets you mark a particularly valuable piece of your property so that you can track it. Kind of like a radio tracker, but skill based. Personally, I think it’s bullshit. Every time I’ve heard somebody say the car they boosted was marked, it turned out somebody in their crew had flipped, or they’d missed a really well-hidden radio tracker.”
“If Manny delivers it to the guy at the port with the tracker still on it, do we get paid?”
“Yeah, don’t worry about that. Those guys at the port don’t fuck around. Once it’s theirs, it is theirs. Nobody will fuck with them.”
Flattop excused himself to reenter the garage. He said he was going to get another beer, but with how long he was in there, I knew he was checking on his cousin. He came out with two more beers, setting one in front of me, despite the unfinished bottle I already had.
“Thanks. I’m not really feeling like drinking. I’m worried about Manny.”
“He’ll be fine. I was surprised at how well he drove, actually. If you put most people behind the wheel of car like that and made them drive fast in traffic, they’d just wreck.”
I couldn’t help but agree. Manny had really come through with the driving.
When the cooldown for switching jobs was up, I returned to being a Dealer once again. Maybe at some point I would try to level Soldado to get myself the Unstoppable skill that Flattop had mentioned, but not anytime soon.
Forty minutes later, I was pacing back and forth in the yard and was just about to demand that we get in the Crown Vic and go get Manny out of whatever trouble he was in when someone pounded loudly on the metal gate.
“Hey, let me in,” Manny said.
I rushed over to the gate, unlatched it and slid it open. Manny stood there, no worse for wear and with the dog sitting patiently by his side. He had it on a leash, a makeshift one made out of faded blue-and-white rope. He smiled broadly as he saw me.
The worry I’d been holding in vanished upon seeing him intact. I gave him a big hug and pulled him inside, the dog following along. Flattop slapped him on the back and closed the gate behind them.
“Killer driving, Manny. What did you do with the Merc?”
Manny lifted his shirt, the oversized burgundy tent he’d borrowed from Hondo, and pulled a packet of papers out of his waistband. He slapped them into Flattop’s hands. “Delivered the bitch.”
After Flattop made sure that everything was in order the celebration really kicked off. Hondo stopped working and started drinking. The four of us sat around the table, enjoying our beers in the late afternoon sunshine. Flattop made a call, and fifteen minutes later a large bag of tacos and burritos from the place just up the road was delivered by a young dude wearing an apron. All of us dug in, the spicy meat going well with the light Mexican beer.
Manny had named the dog Buddy, which struck all of us as the least-imaginative dog name ever. Still, the dog seemed to like it. He also really liked the meat inside the tacos. Also the cheese and the shells. The paper it had been wrapped in. Basically, the dog had been starving. The four of us fed him until he stopped looking quite so hungry and laid down, content. He still watched Manny closely, adoration in his little doggy eyes.
“He’s a good boy. My mom’s going to be pissed, but I couldn’t leave him behind,” Manny said.
Manny told us the story from his point of view, how he’d never relaxed even once driving the car. He’d always been scanning his mirrors and watching everyone around him. When the Suburban had rolled up and Baraban had jumped out he hadn’t even hesitated.
“Shit, you’re a natural, Manny. Maybe you should be a wheelman?” Flattop said.
“Yeah, maybe. Driving that car was a hell of a rush. I was sad to let her go at the end.”
“You can dry your tears with the big stack of cash, once we get paid,” Hondo said, laughing.
After our meal and the excitement of the day, not to mention the beers, I think we were all feeling pretty close to one another. We started talking about business. Specifically, our problem with not having a territory to sell in.
“You need that,” Flattop said. “If you sell in neutral territory, all it takes is someone noticing and slapping down a territory marker. Then it’s not your spot anymore, it’s theirs. They are justified to run you off of it, however they want.”
“That doesn’t make sense. What, do they sue us?” I asked.
“Just because it’s the street, don’t mean it don’t have no laws,” Hondo said. “You break those laws, there will be consequences. Isn’t that how you got into it with the Hip in the first place?”
I nodded. “Yeah, we made a mistake and sold on their turf.”
“Rule of turf,” Manny said, like it was self-evident.
“I just don’t understand what the big deal is. So, we sold on their turf, so what? It’s not like it cost them anything.”
“Sure, you did,” Hondo said. “Those territory markers aren’t free, they cost money. Every day. Tick. Tick. Tick. When someone else does business in your territory, it costs more. When that money runs out, it’s not yours anymore.”
“Yeah. It’s like I told you earlier—we’re just barely holding what we’ve got here. It’s just this block now, but it used to be a lot more,” said Flattop.
That changed my perspective, quite a bit. The Hip did have a reason to be angry with us, even if their response was way over the top. We’d directly cost them money.
“Maybe we can help each other out. We need a place to sell, and you’ve got territory. Can we make a deal?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Mack. This isn’t your hood. People are gonna look at you funny if you set up here, even if we do come to a deal,” Flattop said, looking skeptical.
“What the fuck are you talking about, cuz?” Hondo interjected. “If we don’t start making money with this turf, why do we even have it? All it does is cost us money, it never makes us none. What kind of business sense does that make? You’re the one that thinks he’s got the head for that, you tell me.”
Flattop made a dismissive gesture, but I could tell that what Hondo had said had some impact. “What kind of deal were you thinking about, Mack?”
“If you needed to, could you include Manny and I on some kind of white list? Something that would let us sell on your turf without costing you a fortune?”
“Then here’s what I propose,” I said.