The sun fell behind the skyscrapers of downtown Pittsburgh and the sky became psychedelic. Pink, purple, blue, and orange splotches filled the heavens, with the edges of the clouds glimmering from the suns rays. On the right evenings, air pollution from the mills would paint the sky an array of vivid colors. The sudden influx of clouds added its touch perfectly. However, its mesmerizing effects were lost on a certain pair of wandering individuals…
Kevin was cursing Syd under his breath while his vehicle rumbled atop the potholes of Second Avenue. Why he still associated with the gang was a mystery to him. It was clear they held no respect for Kevin, yet Kevin had not the will to reject them. This time around, they had successfully manipulated him into being their errand boy, using his dealings with Derek as means to gain leverage. Above all, the whole scenario seemed off to Kevin. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. Nor was the amount of marijuana he consumed any help to his paranoia. If Kevin had known of Syd’s plan to send him on a life-threatening transaction, he never would have smoked. The more Kevin pondered it, the more he was unable to douse his suspicions. He switched the cd in his player to “The Infamous” by Mobb Deep and attempted to push the skepticism from his mind. The rugged sounds of east coast hip-hop now reverberated from the surround speakers. Kevin felt his mind easing. He had always been calmed by dark, harrowing street stories told in rhyme fashion. He took pleasure in listening to the poetic mentality of those who lived a harsher life style. It gave him a sense of reassurance regarding his fortunes.
The Mon Valley was hardly a place for cheer. Abandonment and blight passed Kevin on either side—the bones of the city. The avenue was plagued by long deserted storefronts and gas stations that were all primed for redevelopment. The carcass of a large mill site sat nearby along the banks of the Monongahela. A gigantic, broken-down warehouse stood the largest remaining structure. Inoperative pieces of machinery sat side by side with neglected freight cars—the latter of which were splattered in local graffiti. The backdrop to it all was the multi-colored cliff of the Appalachian Plateau, which spanned the length of The Valley on the far side of the river. Kevin would have much appreciated the view under different circumstances.
Although The Valley was only a few short miles from Kevin’s neighborhood, it hardly mattered. In Pittsburgh, a few miles could bring you a world of difference, and hostile territory was never distant for those associating with Syd. After turning from Second Avenue, Kevin crossed a set of train tracks and made a left at the third intersection. He pulled his car into a large open space about midway down the street, purposely leaving room for a quick getaway if needed. It was your typical street found within the flats of the Monongahela. Tiny mill houses sat beyond crumpled sidewalks, with one of every three standing as decrepit.
Kevin stared worriedly at the address on his phone. He wished more than ever for the numbers to be incorrect. But sure enough, the four digits were identical to the numbers painted on the bricks of a nearby derelict house. Kevin didn’t like this at all. He was far from thrilled that Syd had left him without ability to contact those he was meeting. Was he supposed to walk into an abandoned house with a big bag of heroin and just hope everything progressed accordingly? Kevin thought there had to be a mistake. Syd could not be called a poor planner. Maybe The Valley boys had caught wind of Syd moving product in their backyard and formed ideas of their own. Kevin shuddered at the thought. He knew Syd’s expansion was as foolish as it was arrogant. Kevin reached for his phone to call Derek, as he now felt the need to warn the gang of a potential ambush. Yet it wasn’t Derek who answered, rather, it was Syd’s low chuckle that occupied the other end.
“Don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet now?” he chortled, sounding amused.
“I don’t like this at all,” Kevin worriedly replied. “The address you gave me is to a derelict. You certain that your Valley people aren’t planning something?”
Syd laughed again.
“I forgot you’re a rookie,” he mused. “Look, that’s just how business is handled down there. They switch derelicts with each pick-up, keeps the pigs two steps behind em, you feel me. They’ve been operating like this for years. Its not like they don’t have plenty of empties to choose from.”
Then Syd abruptly changed his tone.
“Trust me, K, you’re gonna be fine,” he confessed, his voice now surprisingly sincere. “You hold a decent amount of my money; I want this to proceed smoothly as much as you do. Your deed won’t go unnoticed either; we can negotiate something real nice when you get back. Now do it, aight.”
Syd hung up the phone.
“Well, I guess that’s settled,” Kevin mumbled sarcastically.
He returned his sights to the abandoned house. Every window but one was boarded up, and the front door was completely removed. It stood a very ominous sight. Kevin sat uneasily in the driver’s seat and firmly clenched his steering wheel. He was unable to shake the feeling that something was off, for the situation was beginning to appear more and more like it had been scripted. One thing appeared for certain: he was not chosen for this at random, and it was a thought that greatly unnerved him. But then again, why would Kevin be chosen at random? For if he knew Syd, he knew that only reliable assets were deployed when handling heroin. Was it possible that Syd viewed Kevin a reliable asset? He almost laughed at the idea, for not even Derek was allowed to touch heroin. Regardless, why wouldn’t Syd be precise when regarding a transaction of this financial magnitude? Despite being humble, Kevin would be the first to deem himself reliable. Maybe Syd had begun to think the same. Kevin’s skepticism then returned upon remembering Syd’s newfound sincerity, ending his brief moment of self-gratification. Thinking on it, never in Kevin’s life had he heard a modest Syd, except for when Syd was conversing with Darius. Kevin had seen him bark angrily at his dealers on many occasions, generally for the smallest of infractions. An unpretentious Syd was extremely uncharacteristic, leaving Kevin scratching his head. It seemed apparent: Syd wanted him in that house no matter the cost. But then again why wouldn’t he? Kevin did possess a decent chunk of Syd’s money.
“Fuck me,” he grumbled.
Kevin reached for Derek’s gun to check if it was loaded.
He looked around to see if there was anyone watching. There wasn’t.
This block, like this area of town, was pretty much lifeless.
Taking in a deep sigh, Kevin removed his other hand from the steering wheel, tucked the gun in his pocket, and then stepped to the street.
The Valley was haunting, like an old western ghost town along the riverside. There wasn’t much daytime left, as the iridescent colors were now fading into blackness. Kevin could have caught a fly with his fingers. His senses felt as if they were on overdrive. Every ounce of his energy was concentrated on remaining steady. Pulling his keys from his pocket, Kevin hastily walked to the trunk of his car to grab Syd’s backpack. Then, with his key in the lock, another realization entered Kevin’s mind that froze him in his tracks. He had forgotten about the stash houses. It was no secret that Syd’s gang controlled properties of its own that were strictly used for stashing drugs. Anyone with an inside scoop on how Syd operated knew fully well, heroin was never kept on his person. It was also forbidden within his household. Kevin, on multiple occurrences, had directly witnessed Syd enforcing this rule.
Kevin again questioned the preciseness of the day’s events. What were the odds of Syd breaking his code the one time Kevin was required for service? He also recalled seeing the backpack at Darius’ feet before Syd’s arrival. Something wicked was afoot, and there was no hiding it now.
The hairs on his neck crept upwards and his paranoia returned in full. Kevin placed his hands on his car and lowered his head, unable to move. It was in situations like these when having a knack for extreme detail was not a blessing. Kevin did have a gun, but what would he actually do with it? He was losing his mind.
He eventually raised his head, and then skimmed his eyes franticly about the block before they instinctively settled on the abandoned house. Then what he saw made him jump from his skin. In the one remaining window, a pair of widely rounded eyes remained fixed on Kevin through a manually opened crack in the blinds. As soon as his gaze met them, the blinds were shut and the eyes disappeared.
It was too much.
Kevin scampered to get back in his car, his heart drumming within his chest. After fumbling with his keys, he hopped in the drivers seat and weightily floored the gas pedal. His tires screeched loudly as he sped away. But before Kevin could make it twenty feet, a masked man walked swiftly through the derelict’s missing door. Proceeding to stand in the middle of the street, the shadowy figure unveiled a large, silenced pistol and began to fire at Kevin’s car.
“Jesus Christ!” he shouted.
Kevin swerved as bullets riddled his vehicle, forcing him to duck his head to where he could narrowly see the road. Two of the lead slugs ripped holes in his trunk, and a dangerously close shot removed the driver’s side mirror. Kevin attempted to hold the wheel straight as he drove with his head lowered. He glanced at the road and saw an approaching intersection in the corner of his eye. Kevin whipped his car to the left and completely ignored the stop sign. Not once did he look behind him.
The next several minutes were spent zigzagging through back alleys and side streets. Once confident that he was not being followed, Kevin crossed back over the train tracks to Second Avenue, and then snaked his way up the large hillside that ascended from The Valley. Upon arriving at the top of the plateau, he found himself back in his neighborhood. He then drove to a known secluded street and pulled over, his heart still throbbing.
Kevin remained on the quiet street as the nighttime settled in. He was having a difficult time processing what had transpired. The fact that the shooter had used a silenced weapon was bone chilling. If Kevin had entered that house he would have been executed. There was no doubt in his mind about that one. He was positive that it was Syd behind the curtain pulling the strings, yet the motive to the madness he could only fathom. Lacking patience and desperate for confirmation, Kevin whipped out his phone with the intention of giving Syd a piece of his mind. After hearing the receiver click, Kevin bellowed at a surprised Derek to put his brother on the line, which was soon followed by Syd’s voice emerging from the earpiece.
“Kevin,” he said uneasily. “Did everything work out? Did you get my money?”
Yet Kevin could hear through the phone that Syd had not been expecting this call.
‘Well actually, I didn’t,” he replied, his anger building. “Instead, a masked goon came out of that house and started bustin at me with a silenced piece. The fuck you know about that, huh? You set me up, motherfucker.”
Kevin intensely clutched his phone in anticipation of Syd’s answer, as he was curious to what bullshit Syd would spin him. To Kevin’s surprise, the verses in Syd’s reply spun zero tales.
“Well, I guess the jig’s up then,” replied Syd, now aggravated. “You listen here, K. You need to be real careful with how you wanna proceed with this. Now, if you were to come back here with my product, there just might be a way out of this for you. Shit, you may even get some compensation. Be smart, son.”
But Kevin was no fool. He knew fully well that if he were to return to Syd, he was dead. For the first time in Kevin’s life it was he who held all the cards. It was time to make Syd very angry.
“You know, I don’t think that’s gonna happen,” Kevin replied confidently. “In fact, I don’t think you’re ever going to see me, or this dope again. So you can go fuck yourself, and fuck your whole crew as well.”
He had reached the point of no return. The damage was now irreversible, and Kevin could feel the heat seep from his phone.
“You really don’t wanna take that road, K…”
But Kevin quickly cut Syd off.
“Oh, I think I do!” he laughed. “You picked the wrong homie to play for a chump. Cause and effect my man. Now you go have a good night, Sydney.”
And with that, Kevin hung up the phone. He would have paid good money to see the current look on Syd’s face. It was set to be an unpleasant week for the gang. Kevin relished in the thought. It was common knowledge that Syd had a knack for setting elaborate traps to facilitate his own agenda. Kevin could have spent the night guessing how his death would have benefited Syd. The details would likely never fall to him. Kevin, however, took great pleasure in knowing that he had derailed Syd’s plot. Whether Derek was directly involved or not, Kevin couldn’t say. It wouldn’t have come as a surprise to him if he were.
Kevin was suddenly in a great mood, and he now felt the urge to celebrate. Yet several urgent tasks remained unfinished so he resisted. The first of his two tasks was to remove the heroin from his possession. With bullet holes in his trunk and a missing side view mirror, Kevin made for an obvious police target. But the dope would soon be out of his hands. He knew the perfect spot to stash it as insurance.
Kevin was a quarter mile into the nearby Frick Park when he stopped his car at the end of a thin dirt road, unable to drive any further. He exited from his car and quickly grabbed Syd’s backpack from his trunk, and then slung the bag around his shoulder and entered the dark forest. The hairs on his neck stood straight as an arrow. The rustling of wind and crinkling of dead leaves were enough to keep his toes from the ground, as Kevin felt eyes all around him once again.
After walking about two hundred feet, he strayed from the trail and began to trek his way through the brambles. Upon finding an empty patch of ground, Kevin dropped the bag and stooped to his hands and knees. Lacking a shovel, he dug anxiously with his bare hands. Dirt accumulated under his fingernails as his paranoia steadily resurfaced. At the snap of a twig or the sway of overhead branches, Kevin’s head would shoot up like a prairie dog. His eyes darted back and forth, only to land on spectral trees and phantom shrubbery.
Several minutes had passed. Kevin stood above a substantially sized hole with Syd’s bag in his hands. He unzipped the carrier and viewed its contents. Inside were two tightly wrapped bricks of heroin. Kevin re-zipped the backpack and tossed it inside the hole, shaking his head profusely as the bag hit the dirt. He thoroughly refilled the hole with his hands and then firmly packed down the soil with his feet. Making sure to tally his footsteps, he carefully returned to the trail and placed down a large marker stone on its edge. With his first task now completed it was time to commence with the second…
Kevin sat in his car directly beyond his neighborhood bowling alley, it being far too dark to confirm whether his apartment was watched or not. Derek’s pistol sat in his lap. Although Kevin had tried his best to keep it a secret, he would be foolish to assume that his residence was unknown to Syd. However, the knowledge Syd possessed regarding these apartments was significantly less than his own. So with that, the advantage belonged to Kevin. He slipped the gun into his pocket and swiftly entered the bowling alley.
The voices of rowdy patrons were met with the delta blues and crashing pins. Kevin surveyed the alley for disguised gang members through the thick haze of cigarette smoke. Upon seeing none, he turned his head towards the owner who stood firmly behind the counter. They exchanged mutual head nods. Kevin then walked to the nearby wall and ducked behind the lanes where an emergency exit stood beyond the pins. On the other side of the fire door sat the alley resting below Kevin’s apartment complex. Using a small rock, he jammed the bottom of the emergency door to keep it ajar. Kevin was willing to gamble that if Syd had people watching, it would be his front door they guarded. With Derek’s gun in his sleeve, he proceeded up a little known staircase that led from the lower buildings to the upper ones. Kevin slowly climbed the concrete steps and began to point the gun directly ahead, but then slowed to a halt before reaching the top as he now felt his heart pound his ribs. He placed his back to the wall and briefly lingered against the graffiti coated bricks, before thrusting himself upon the topmost step.
As he emerged at the top, Kevin swiftly rotated his gun to all potential ambush spots. Much to his relief, the coast was clear. To further his benefit, the fire escape to his building was on the immediate right. He quietly ascended the metal stairs until his feet found the sixth floor landing. Kevin grabbed his doorknob and felt that it was still locked, bringing him a dash of relief. He pulled out his key and slid it gently inside the nob. Not once did the gun leave his hand.
Even with the lights dimmed it was clear that his apartment remained untouched. All of his few possessions stood exactly where he had left them earlier in the day. Kevin hastily began to pack, throwing some clothing, bathroom supplies, and twenty thousand dollars into his backpack. When finished, he placed his apartment key on the kitchen table for his landlord, and then reemerged at the top of the fire escape. From the current vantage point, Kevin saw that his path to the bowling alley remained unobstructed. He scurried down six flights of painted metal and then jumped the hidden staircase in one leap. When he reached the fire exit to the bowling alley, Kevin found the door still ajar. He quickly strode past the bowlers and their haze of smoke, meeting no one’s gaze. When he reemerged through the building’s front facade, Kevin half expected to be greeted by a hail of bullets. Not bothering to conceal his haste, he speedily jumped into his second home and tossed his bag to the passenger seat. Adrenaline coursed his veins unlike ever before. After twenty-five years, it seemed as if Kevin’s time in Pittsburgh had met its end. He suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar position, a position of freedom. But as he sped off into the night, Kevin shook his head in irony as his thoughts arrived on his sister…
“Well, it looks like I’ll be joining you on the run, Grace…”
Alex K.A. was born and raised in Pittsburgh’s East End. At age 18, while attending Taylor Allderdice High School, Alex began his writing venture by crafting acapella hip-hop lyrics. In the seven years that followed, he released two full-length hip-hop projects, The Belgreen Sessions in 2012 and Bird’s Eye View in 2015. A month after the release of Bird’s Eye View, Alex set hip-hop aside to write his debut novella, Hell With the Lid Off, which he released in June 2016. In early 2017, he released his second novella, The Windmaker’s Daughter. As for the future, he plans to continue writing and releasing short stories of varying types.