"What's the girl's name?"
"Devra Stokes. Should be about twenty-two by now. She worked at the Paramount Beauty Salon on Good Hope Road."
Oliver grunted. "Sounds right. Phil did like to chill in those beauty parlors. Said that's where the girls were, so he wanted to be there, too. But I don't know her. We went through a lot of young girls. We were kickin' it with 'em, for the most part. But we were using them for other shit, too."
"What else would he have used a girl like Devra Stokes for?"
"Well, if she was old enough, and she didn't have no priors, we'd take her into Maryland or Virginia to buy a gun for us. Virginia, if we needed it quick. We paid for it, but she'd sign the forty-four seventy-three. What they call the yellow form."
"You mean for a straw purchase."
"A straw gun, yeah. Course, not all the time. You could rent a gun or get it from people we knew to get it from in the neighborhood. It's easy for a youngun to get a gun in the city. Easier than it is to buy a car. Shoot, you got to register a car."
Strange repeated the name: "Devra Stokes."
"Like I say, I don't recall. But look, she was workin' in a salon, chance is, she still doin' the same thing, maybe somewhere else, but in the area. Those girls move around, but not too far."
"Phil's gonna say I killed my uncle, ain't that right?"
"I don't know what he's going to say, Granville."
Oliver and Strange stared at each other across the desk.
"You standin' tall, big man?" said Oliver.
Oliver was questioning Strange's loyalty. Strange answered by holding Oliver's gaze.
"I ain't no dreamer," said Oliver. "One way or the other, it's over for me. The business is done. Most of the boys I came up with, they're dead or doin' long time. One of the young ones I brought along got his own thing now, but he's cut things off with me. Word I get is, he still got himself lined up with Phil. Shoot, I hear they got two operations fighting over what I built as we sit here today."
"What's your point?"
"I feel like I'm already gone. They want to erase me, Strange. Make it so I don't exist no more. The same way they keep poor young black boys and girls out of the public's eyes today, the same way they did me when I was a kid. Warehousin' me and those like me down in the Section Eights. Now the government wants to bring me out and make an example out of me for a hot minute, then make me disappear again. And I'm a good candidate, too, ain't I? A strong young nigger with an attitude. They want to strap me to that table in Indiana and give me that needle and show people, that's what happens when you don't stay down where we done put you. That's what happens when you rise up. They want to do this to me bad. So bad that they'd fuck with someone who was trying to help me to stop it, hear?"
You left out the part about all the young black men you killed or had killed, thought Strange. And the part about you poisoning your own community with drugs, and ruining the lives of all the young people you recruited and the lives of their families. But there were some truths in what Granville Oliver was saying, too. Strange, following a personal policy, did not comment either way.
"So I was just wondering," said Oliver. "When they try to shake you down and they will are you gonna stand tall?"
"Don't insult me," said Strange. "And don't ever let me get the idea that you're threatening me. 'Cause I will walk. And you do not want me to do that."
Strange kept his voice even and his shoulders straight. He hoped his anger, and his fear, did not show on his face. Strange knew that even from in here, Oliver could have most anyone killed out on the street.
Oliver smiled, his face turning from hard to handsome. Like many who had attained his position, he was intelligent, despite his limited education, and could be a charming young man at will. When he relaxed his features, he favored his deceased father, a man Strange had known in the 1960s. Oliver had never known his father at all.
Copyright © 2003 by George P. Pelecanos
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