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SPRING 1989, North Beach, San Francisco
I'm in the back office of the Cherry Pie strip club. I know, I know, I hate the name, too. Super gross, right? I don't even think I'd like it if I was into girls, but whatever. I'm not, and it isn't my club in any case, so it isn't really my problem—the name part anyway.
"Can I smoke?" I ask Big Nick. Normally I wouldn't have asked for something stupid like that. I mean, I can wait to get my nicotine fix until I'm on my own time, but he's got me real fucking nervous after the shit he's pulled so far today—what with having a car come by my aunt's place and pick me up at the bus stop when I was on my way to school.
I should be in algebra, but instead I'm sitting on the old worn-out couch they have back here, half watching all the wiggling and gyrating for the early lunch crowd going on through the blinds and waiting for Big Nick to tell me why I'm here.
The thing is, the way I understand it, when you end up in the office for a little chat, you know why. You don't have to ask or nothing. Half the time it's a relief just to get it over with, ya know?
But I really have no idea what would put me here, and my nerves have got me so worked up, I keep thinking I might hurl or something. So I'm guessing a little cigarette smoke is going to go over a whole lot better than an office trashcan full of half digested corn flakes, but that's just a hunch.
It isn't Big Nick the titty club owner that has me all worked up, though. It's Big Nick the drug dealer. I hear that he and his partner, Johnny Hollywood, have their hands in a good ten percent of the coke that moves through San Francisco. Maybe more.
To get that sort of cut, you gotta be a real nasty kind of mean—and be real tight with the Colombians, too. Johnny is both of those things, and Big Nick is old school so he keeps things nice and organized with the locals.
"Yeah, sure, kid, go ahead." He looks at me with an appraising sort of expression. "I didn't really take you for a smoker though." I raise an eyebrow. Not to be a punk about it or anything, but shit, man, since when does Big Nick sit around having a think about what kind of habits I got?
I take out the pack of El Rio's from my pocket and tap them against my palm self-consciously. What was going on with this guy anyway?
I'm just Julio and Chico's kid brother, and yeah they work for him, but it's not like I've been hanging around all that much and definitely not recently. Maybe Big Nick didn't hear about my adventures in faggotry, but Julio sure as fuck did.
Pinche idiot gave me a black eye, damn near broke my arm, and kicked me out of the house a year ago. I said whatever he heard about me was just stupid talk, but he said he wasn't going to live under the same roof as no puto. If I ever figure out who has been talking to my brother about my business, I think I'll go ahead and sock him one.
Big Nick reaches into his desk drawer and pulls something out. I jump at the screeching sound of the runners and then pretend like I didn't. If I was managing this joint I'd have someone oil that thing, but that's just me. I'm lighting up with shaky fingers when Big Nick steps out from behind his desk and takes the few steps in my direction to hand me an ashtray.
"Thanks," I mumble, and then for lack of a better solution set it on my knee.
"Doctor made me quit," he tells me.
"Oh yeah?" I say, wondering if that means he doesn't actually want me smoking, "that's too bad."
The man is a tank, at least six-two, six-three and built like a linebacker with big beefy arms, all pockmarked and covered in jailhouse tattoos. He's Italian, I think, but real dark—like from the far south where they're all mixed up with the North Africans. Or maybe he's just mixed. I don't know, and I have no intention of ever asking.
"You want something to drink, Eduardo?" He selects a bottle from the side bar and pours himself a tumbler of amber liquid.
"No, I'm okay thanks," I say. "You can call me Eddie. Everyone just calls me Eddie."
"Okay, Eddie." He takes a long drink from his glass, and then he's just watching me, and I mean really staring me down hard. I shift uncomfortably and glance away just in time to get an eye full of some chick undoing her top. Jesus Christ, man, what am I doing here?
"Did you hear about Chico?" he asks me at last.
"No," I say. "I don't go home all that much anymore."
"Yeah? I don't blame you for that. Your mom's kind of gone off the handle since your old man got popped. How long is he in for, twenty to life?"
I shrug. "Something like that."
"He's a good man. It was a shame to see him go."
"I guess so," I drawl, taking a long drag off my smoke. "It's saving us all a shitload on dental bills, though. Myself in particular."
Big Nick snorts at this. "You've got kind of a big mouth on you, kid. But they do say out of the bunch you're the smart one.."
I shrug. "Shit, man, my brothers don't offer too much competition and my sister's just a kid. So what? Am I here about Chico, then? Did something bad happen? Is he okay?"
"He might land on his feet alright, it depends. Some of that's gonna be up to you."
"Up to me? I don't follow." I frown.
"Your mom's been pushing those boys pretty hard to help make ends meet. Ever since your father got sent up state."
"I think that's Julio, actually," I say. "He's got ambition now that he's the man of the family and all. Mi madre does whatever he says, man."
"Either way, the problem on my end is that things have been getting real sloppy lately." I shrug again. It still is not particularly clear where I fit into this, but the general direction is starting to feel downright ominous.
"Your dad and I go way back, but those were different times, back when connections to all that smack and grass from Mexico really meant something. Hell, now with all these guys selling crack on every corner of the Tenderloin, you can't have enough kilos. I don't need fucking Mexicans. I need Colombians."
"Okaayy," I say slowly.
"Tell me this kiddo, how much of your brothers' hard earned money do you think goes up your mama's nose?"
My face flushes hot. "I don't know anything about that," I snap. "I don't hang around that. I'm just a civilian, man, and I don't deal with any of that shit." I stub out my cigarette and cross my arms over my chest.
"Chico lost two kilos of coke this week," Big Nick says flatly.
A little thrill of fear runs straight down my spine. "Jesus, what do you mean lost?"
"He says the safe house got hit. I think he's in on it." My eyes go wide. That's got to be at least twenty, thirty grand wholesale. A guy can find himself with a bullet to the head for less than that. "How old are you now, Eddie?"
"Eighteen." I blink, unsure what that has to do with anything. All I can think is I'm somehow calculated into some kind of payback, and it's turning my blood cold.
"Just last month right?"
"Yeah, what about it?"
"No criminal record either. I checked. Not even an unpaid parking ticket. "
"So? A guy has to have a car to get a ticket doesn't he?" The direction of this conversation is making me uncomfortable.
"So you're a good kid. I can see that. What are you, a senior in high school?"
"You get good grades?"
"They're okay, I guess."
"Are you looking at colleges then?"
"I got into a few," I reply flatly. What the fuck is this, a job interview?
"Wow. That's real good." Big Nick nods. "A smart kid like you should get an education. We're going to have to do something about your brother."
"Like what?" I ask, trying to keep my tone as cool and even as Big Nick's.
"We can't appear to be going soft, but I might be willing to give him a day or two to disappear. Maybe you've got some family down south that's willing to take him? I just can't have people seeing him walking around San Francisco like nothing happened."
"That sounds more than fair," I say with a nod. There's a catch hanging in the air so thick I can taste it. I swallow hard.
"Great. So I'm doing you a favor and in return I wanna talk to you about a favor I need."
This can not be good. "What kind of favor?"
"Are you seeing anyone?" My mouth goes dry.
"Seeing? Seeing like how?" I ask.
"Don't be smart with me, Eddie. Do you have a boyfriend or anything like that?"
"What the fuck are you talking about?" There's enough panic racing around my head that it's got to be showing in my face a little. "I don't know what you heard about me, but Julio is full of shit."
"So I'm going to take that as a no."
Jesus. "Yeah, no. On a lot of levels, just no," I say.
He nods again. "I have a Johnny problem," he tells me. "An old friend of his has been hanging around a little too much lately. You know Jaime?"
"I know of him," I say. It's kind of hard to miss a skinny Mexican guy in my neighborhood with a yellow corvette and designer clothes.
"Johnny's been in a weird way lately," Big Nick continues. "I'd call it downright nostalgic for the way things used to be. You know Johnny used to get with Jaime?"
"People talk." I shrug. "But what someone does in his free time is none of my business."
"Sure. That's a healthy attitude to have." Big Nick nods. "Did you know Jaime has a kid?"
Well, that made no kind of sense. "No."
"His cousin's boy, but she was in no kind of shape to be raising him. They took him on when he was just a baby. Johnny still looks on that kid as his own and Jaime uses every opportunity to manipulate him for it."
"That's a real sweet story," I drawl. "Where do I fit in? You need a babysitter or something?"
Big Nick pours himself another drink. "It's real simple. I like Johnny, but more importantly, I need him. I can't run things on my own and we're in the middle of some very complicated transactions right now. If things heat up between him and Jaime again, he's going to be a goddamn useless mess. He's already started drinking too much, maybe using again. I don't know. It's a path I've seen him walk before, but the man is getting too old for this crap. And if he goes down, we all go down."
"What do I have to do with any of this?" I ask. It makes me kind of worried he's telling me all this stuff. People only get this open about things when they want to make you a part of it.
"Johnny needs to be getting a piece, but it needs to be someone who isn't talking so much bullshit in his ear, someone who isn't using drugs and can keep Johnny's head straight too. I just need a little time to get Jaime into rehab and as far away from John as possible."
I clear my throat. "Um…"
"So here's the deal, Eddie. I do your brother a favor you do me a favor."
My face flashes hot and red. "Seriously? You're asking me to fuck Johnny Hollywood? What do you think I am? A hustler or something? I'm no puto."
"I know that. I don't want someone who turns tricks," he tells me calmly.
I take this opportunity to light another cigarette. "Yeah, I don't really think I'm Johnny's type, anyway."
I gesture down to my busted out converse and old jeans, the ones with the holes in the knees. I've seen Johnny in the paper more than in person, but I know the guy is kind of flashy. I am not even remotely in his universe.
Big Nick just sort of cocks an eyebrow at me. "Believe me, you're his type. It used to be me, Johnny, and Jaime back when we were kids, just trying to build up a business. You'd never know from the coked out husk of a person he is now, but you're a dead ringer for that Jaime—the fresh faced little drug mule who liked fast cars and worshipped the ground Johnny walked on."
"No way." I shake my head. "This is an interesting offer and everything, Big Nick, but I'm getting out. I don't want nothing to do with your world. I'm just a civilian, remember? You sort out my brother's problems with my brother. I think Johnny can get his own needs met."
"I could," he says thoughtfully. "I hear you stay with your aunt a lot these days, your father's sister. That's where they picked you up today right?"
My eyes narrow. "Yeah."
"And she takes care of your little sister too? How old is she?"
"Right. I hear Angela's daycare business isn't doing so well and the checks from the family haven't been as regular since your dad went away."
"What do you care?" I frown.
"So she's eight months behind on the mortgage, from the way I hear it. Seems a damn shame, especially considering how much money your brothers have been making. This is your opportunity to make that right."
I cringe. "I can't. Julio would freak out if something like that came back to him. You don't know how he gets. He may've kicked me out of the house, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't still take it upon himself to beat my ass."
"You can. I'll fix things with Julio, don't worry about that. Six months, Eddie, is all I'm asking. You be nice to Johnny for six months, keep his head straight, no drama, no drugs, no fucking around. All you have to do is check in with me once in awhile. You just stay the nice, good boy you are now, and I can fix all your problems—get you a good apartment, some spending money every month. Hell, as long as you stay in school and are making something of yourself, I don't see why we can't keep that part going all the way through college."
I bite my lip. "What makes you think he'll go for it anyway?"
"I know him. He'll go for it. Here's the deal. You start coming round the club and helping with odd jobs. I'll say you're here to help make the thing with your brother right. All you have to do is make it clear to Johnny, when you see him, that you're available. You have experience right? You know what to do when you're with a guy right?"
"Okay," I snap between grit teeth, "let's get one thing real clear here. If I say yes—and I haven't yet— that doesn't make me your damn whore. I'm not answering questions like that."
He thinks this over for a moment. "All right, that's fair."
I blink. I can't believe this is happening. "I gotta ask though," I whisper, "why me?"
Big Nick just shrugs. "You're going to hear a lot of crazy shit. I need someone I know isn't going to go off talking to the cops and I know your family at the very least taught you that much."