The Bodega

I was taken aback for a moment, and didn’t know how to respond to the intimidating figure in front of me. I’d been expecting to order coffee and a croissant or something, not get ordered out of the neighborhood. He was uncomfortably close while I was sitting and I knew there was no way I could draw my gun before he clocked me. Judging by the size of him and his prison tattoos, it’d be an entirely one-sided fight. Without thinking, I IDed him.

Guillem Menendez, Journeyman Mechanical Engineer (D3), Owner, The Ball and Bean

This wasn’t some gangster. This was the owner of the coffee shop. Was it just because I was in the shadows?

“Hey, I’m just trying to have a coffee while I wait for my friends,” I protested.

“We don’t want your friends here, either, esse. Get the fuck up,” Guillem said.

Without waiting for me to respond, or even get up, his right hand shot out wrapped around my throat. He lifted me off my chair with a grunt of effort, his muscles bulging as my feet left the ground.

I tried to choke out a protest, but I was having trouble breathing.

“The next time I see you in this neighborhood it will be the last time, you understand that, pendejo?” he yelled into my face.

I flailed ineffectively at his arm but it was like trying to move stone. In response he squeezed my throat a little tighter. My vision faded, and I reached for my gun.

I was quick, but he was quicker. The gun cleared the holster and had made it to my right hip when his left hand clamped around my wrist.

“You fucking pull on me?” Guillem screamed in rage, shaking me. “In my own place? Hijo de puta.”

Things were getting black when I heard a familiar voice yell out. “Tio, what the fuck! That’s a friend of ours, let him go.”

To his credit, Guillem immediately dropped me heavily back into my chair. I sucked in a lungful of air. Before he let go of my wrist he wrenched the gun out of my right hand and stepped back. I wasn’t in any condition to come after him, but I could admire the caution.

Flattop was beside me, smelling like soap. He squatted down beside my chair. “You good?”

I nodded, not trusting my voice.

“This gringo is your friend?” Guillem asked.

“Yes, he is,” Flattop replied. “We’re going to ally with him today. Him and his boy helped us with something big yesterday, Tio. What the fuck, you can’t leave a random gringo alone for five minutes?”

“Shit,” Guillem muttered.

The old men at the tables around us chattered to each other in Spanish as they watched. None of them seemed like they were in a hurry to leave, despite the sudden violence and the appearance of my gun. This was probably the best entertainment they’d had in weeks.

Guillem dropped the pistol mag into his waiting hand and then worked the slide to eject the chambered round. He caught the round, inserted it into the magazine and reseated it without chambering a new round. He made all of it look like it was no more effort to him than wiping off one of his tables.

With my weapon no longer ready to fire, he set it on the table in front of me and looked me in the eye. The anger I’d seen there earlier was now gone.

“My apologies, senor. Please, sit and relax. I will bring you some coffee and food,” Guillem said. He picked up his dropped tray and left me there.

Flattop pulled up a chair and sat down beside me. “Shit, sorry about that. I would have warned you, but I didn’t expect you to show up at dawn.”

“Dawn?” I managed to croak out. I took my gun off the table and holstered it.

“It’s not even nine o’clock yet. Who you going to sell to first thing in the morning?”

I wanted to explain to him that my ride with Manny was at this time, and I definitely didn’t want to ride my bicycle across the city and into Compton while carrying a backpack full of weed. That seemed like too long of an explanation, so instead I simply shook my head.

“What’s his deal?” I asked. My throat hurt, but it was getting better.

“Tio? Ah, he used to be in the game back in the day. Retired now, but he still watches out for us. When he sees some gringo on our turf he’s got something to say about it.”

That was certainly a way to put it. I didn’t have any hard feelings, despite the sore throat. What really sunk in right then and there was that I couldn’t rely on my gun to get me out of every situation. I needed to be stronger, and I needed to be able to fight with my hands and feet. Maybe knives, too. I was still that same pudgy D&D nerd I had been back in LA, except that I had a gun. That couldn’t continue.

Guillem came back out with a full tray and filled the table. Two coffees, a plate of churros with chocolate dip and a fried potato tortilla were set in front of us.

“Again, my apologies, senor. Enjoy your breakfast,” Guillem said, looking a little embarrassed. He left us again.

“Tio’s a great guy,” Flattop said and took a sip of his coffee. “I’m sorry that was how you met him. After we get you allied up, that won’t happen again.”

I took my own sip of coffee. It was great, cafe con leche, literally coffee with milk. Despite the name it somehow transcended that into pure deliciousness. I swallowed with some effort but things were getting better.

“What do you mean, allied up?” I asked.

“With Hondo’s dad in the can, I’m the acting gang leader. I can set your status with us. I was thinking of setting it to just Friendly, but that won’t work. It’s got to be Allied. There are too many guys like Tio in the hood with attachments to Gato. If they see you here on our turf they might just cap you as a favor to him and us.”

I thought I understood. Old gangsters like Guillem would see me selling on LSS turf and want to do something about it. If they were all as scary as Guillem had been, I didn’t want that.

“Right, so what’s the difference between Friendly and Allied then?” I asked.

“$900, for one,” Flattop said, and laughed.

When I still looked confused, he continued. “Friendly costs me $100 to set, Allied is $1,000. The real difference, though, is that when you’re Allied you can see everyone else that is Allied, and vice-versa. It shows right up on their name plate. Only LSS members can see a Friendly tag, so that’d just be me and Hondo right now. Not so useful in your situation.”

I was kind of surprised at the cost, and I could only hope he didn’t ask me to pay for it.

“Guillem is Allied with you?” I asked.

“Yeah, him and a few other guys around the hood. Gato still has a lot of respect around here.”

I took a bite of chocolate-dipped churro and a sip of coffee. It struck me that this was basically the Mexican version of coffee and donuts for breakfast, yet again.

“Where’s Hondo, anyway?” I asked.

“Sleeping. He doesn’t usually start working until about 11. I’m the early riser of the two of us.”

Back in LA I didn’t usually get out of bed early if I could help it. Things had changed. Instead of staying up late on the Internet, or playing games with my friends, I was hustling and trying not to get killed or robbed. Getting up early seemed like a good idea, but it had it’s downsides as Flattop was quick to point out.

“You should sleep in, too,” Flattop said. “Like I said, there’s not going to be a lot of business around here until closer to lunch time.”

I nodded, agreeing with him. I sure should. If only I had a car. Maybe I could convince Manny to lend me his while he went to school. Then I could pick him up. It seemed unlikely to happen.

The last churro disappeared, and my coffee was just about gone. The last time I’d tried to kill time while waiting for the right time to sell, I’d ended up shooting Zeke. Wandering around Compton didn’t seem like a winning plan. Flattop obviously felt the same way.

“I was thinking. I can let you into the shop but I’ve got a better way for us to kill some time.”

“Yeah?”

“Come on, follow me,” he said, and stood up from the table.

I followed him into the Ball and Bean. It was a long and thin coffee shop/convenience store. Packed shelves lined the walls, stretching the entire length of the shop. At the very back there was a steel door marked as an emergency exit, and beside that a roped-off stairway down into the basement.

Guillem was behind the counter, moving quickly to prepare another tray but when he saw us enter he stopped and came out to meet us.

“Again, my apologies. What’s your name, senor?”

I looked around, but the shop was empty except for the three of us.

“Mack,” I said.

“Don’t spread that around, Tio. He’s got a bounty,” Flattop cautioned.

Guillem angrily gestured at him. “I’m no child, boy. I know the game.”

“Sorry, Tio,” Flattop said. “Hey, can I have the keys for downstairs? I want to get Mack here a new skill or two.”

Guillem looked at both of us for a moment before focusing on Flattop.

“You will clean everything you use. You will return everything to its proper place. Understood?”

“Yes, Tio.”

Guillem reached into his pocket and pulled out his key ring. He freed a chunky key and handed it over.

Flattop took it, and Guillem slapped each of us on a shoulder. “I must return to work.”

“Thanks, Tio,” Flattop said as Guillem returned behind the counter.

At the back of the shop, Flattop moved the rope and led me down a steep staircase. A thick grey door at the bottom was locked, but opened with the key in his hand. It seemed to take some effort, the bolt clunking slowly and heavily as he turned the key.

Just inside the door, Flattop flicked a switch and lights came on. The both of us stepped into the room beyond, and I gazed in wonder at what I saw. The long wall of the room we entered was covered in guns of every type I could imagine. Dozens of pistols, but plenty of rifles, submachine guns and shotguns. An incredible display of firepower.

“Let’s get you some new skills,” Flattop said.