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Pepper Herman

Chapter Five

 Saturday, November 2nd

            The stench of garbage was everywhere but Diego didn’t notice it. His eyes were steely-looking. His walk was cat-like, slow and wary. The ground was still wet from an earlier rain as he followed the rows of trash cans, their innards strewn down the alley.  It was uncommonly warm for a November night and though it was eight o’clock, not yet completely dark.

            The old neighborhood looked the same -- and smelled the same.  It was tough living there -- surviving, really.  His father abandoned the family when Diego was four.  He and his mother lived in a seedy walk-up which she paid for by turning tricks on the side.

            When he was eight, his mother gave birth to his sister, Lorena.  It was never known which ‘John’ fathered the child.  After school, Diego would work at Sam Ringold’s drug store, sweeping, stocking the shelves, and doing deliveries when necessary.  Although he made twenty dollars a week, he only contributed fifteen of it to his mother, the other five being donated to a street gang called the Scorpions for ‘protection money.’  Every once in a while, he would steal some candy or a magazine and present it as a gift to his mother and his little sister.  If Ringold was aware of it, he never said a word.

            By the time he was eleven, he became an accepted member of the Scorpions, and no longer had to contribute to the cause.  The initiation took place in the back alley as the gang poured bottles of forties all over him and took turns

“beating him down.”  All members had to get the symbol of a scorpion tattooed

between their thumb and forefinger to show solidarity to the gang.  Their hangout was in front of the pool hall at 7th and Cambria.

            One of the pool players, Loco Juan, had taken a liking to him.  On occasion, he would ask Diego to deliver an envelope for him, no questions asked. Upon his return, Diego would nod to Loco Juan, who, in response, would playfully punch him on the shoulder and give a solidarity handshake.  When his hand came away, there was always a five dollar bill in the kid’s palm.

            When he was nineteen, Diego discovered that his sister, now eleven, was hanging around the abandoned walk-up with the broken windows much too often.  When he confronted her and accused her of doing drugs, she told him to fuck off.  He’d slapped her hard, and she cried.

            It was rumored that a drug lord named Steel was behind the entire operation, but, of course, he was untouchable.  Her pusher was a dude called The Angel, who fed her habit with penny bags.  One night Diego cornered him and began to punch him out.  Being wiry but small, Diego was no match for him and he went home bloodied, beaten and bitter.

            Not long after that, Lorena O.D.’d and, heartbroken, Diego vowed to someday retaliate for his sister’s death.  Three months later, his mother contracted AIDS and was dead within a year.  To support himself, Diego worked, first as a dishwasher in a restaurant and, more recently as an orderly at Drayton Memorial Hospital.

            After living twenty-two years in squalor, he yearned to change his surroundings.  That is, until he was called into Dr. Thomas Dadero’s office for what he thought was a routine check-up that all hospital employees had to undergo once a year.  He had felt his legs go rubbery when Dr. Dadero placed his hand on Diego’s shoulder and told him that Dr. Greyburn, the head of Oncology, had wanted to see him in his 3rd floor office.

Although he coughed occasionally, he attributed it to the unhealthy environment he was  forced to live in.  But lung cancer?  Maybe six months?  Greyburn had intimated that perhaps Diego might not want to undergo the rigors of chemotherapy in his particular case.  And then he placed a card into Diego’s hand and suggested that he seek some support with a small group of people who shared a similar fate. 

            About halfway down the alley Diego found the worn, wooden door with graffiti covering it.  His sister’s face appeared before him for just an instant but he shut his eyes and shook the painful memory away.

            Automatically, he reached for his pocket to feel the hand grenade housed there.  He rehearsed the scenario again.  Scatter the Doomsday cards ... pull the pin... drop.

He knocked.  He waited. Eventually the door opened slightly with the chain still intact. 

            “Yeah?” The tough looking face peered at him.

            “I gotta see Steel.  I got some stuff.  Very special.  Too special to give to any old punk,” Diego said, meeting his eyes.  “But it’s hot and I gotta get rid of it now.”

            “Steel don’t see nobody.  You gotta go through me.  Who sent you?”

            “The Angel.”  Diego had used the name of his sister’s former pusher.

            “The Angel?” he scoffed.  He ain’t got no rights here no more.”

            “Oh yeah?  Well, fuck you.  This stuff’s too special.  I got another taker.  I was only doing this as a favor to The Angel.  I’d rather deal with Loco Juan anyway.  He’s a bro.”

            At the mention of a competitor’s name, the pusher’s face registered second thoughts.  “I ain’t sayin’ he’s here.  I gotta see.”

            “Well you do that, amigo.  Tell him I’m here to deal but I’m not coming in there.”  Shrugging his shoulders, Diego added,  “It don’t mean shit to me.  If he’s interested in doing business, I’ll be standing in front of the pool hall,” he said, pointing at the end of the alley.  “He either comes alone, or I walk.  Comprende?”

            While waiting, Diego circled the area with Doomsday cards amidst the rest of the litter.  They wouldn’t be noticed in the dark, even under the light of the street lamp.

            His stomach tightened as he cautiously watched Steel step off the curb, taking almost ballet-like steps.  His black over-sized jacket hung loosely on his slight frame.  His neck and wrists were encircled with gold jewelry.  His teeth were gold-capped.  Diego knew that face -- knew the pock-marked skin, the bony cheeks, the pencil-thin mustache that dusted his upper lip.

            Steel kept his hand in his pocket, as if shielding a gun.  “You got somethin’ to say to me?”  He peered at Diego suspiciously.

            Diego felt a sudden unexplained sense of serenity as he searched the scar-infested face.  He said in Spanish, “The Angel said you’d be interested in some really good stuff.  I’ve got a kilo here in my pocket.  The best.  If you like it, there’s more.  Lots more.”  He went for his pocket.

            Steel brandished his gun.  “Hold it, bro, how do I know you don’t got a weapon?”

            Diego’s voice became sinister.  “Because my sister, Lorena Bayamon said so.”

            He reached into his pocket.  The grenade shown silvery under the light of the street lamp. 

            Actually, it was split-second timing, but to Diego it was like moving in quicksand before he pulled the pin.  Stunned, Steel fired his gun hitting Diego in the belly.  Diego held his stomach, blood spurting through his fingers.  Dropping the grenade as he went down he choked,  “Vaya con dios, mother-fucker.”

            The explosion caused splintered pieces of the pool hall door to fly at crazy angles, exposing astonished pool players inside who either stood transfixed like statues or dove for cover.  Storefront windows shattered, spraying a stream of glass shards all over the street. The street lamp, which was lifted off its base by the impact,  lay atop the body of Steel.  Through the rubble, some charred remnants of business cards came floating to the ground with the words, “Compliments of the Doomsday Club.”


The newspaper account was brief.


                                              GRENADE FELLS DRUG KINGPIN

                                    Two drug pushers, one reputed to be the elusive

                                    drug lord, Estefan Valdez, better known in crack

                                    circles as ‘Steel,’ were blown up on the corner of

                                    7th & Cambria on Saturday, at approximately

                                    8:19 p.m. by an exploded hand grenade.  The identity

                                    of the other victim remains unknown at this time.

                                    Charred business cards were found scattered

                                    around the site with the words, ‘Compliments

                                    of the Doomsday Club,’ bringing to mind the

                                    destruction of the Quincy Township nuclear power 

                                    plant of approximately four months ago.  These

                                    two seemingly related incidents are presently under

                                    police investigation.


            Don Greyburn took his place at the head of the boardroom table.  To his right lay the newspaper account of the Diego Bayamon incident.

            “Well, gentlemen,” he said to his three cohorts,  pointing to the headline,

“Thanks to Diego Bayamon the world is rid of one more scumbag.”

            “Christ, he used a hand grenade,” Thomas Dadero shook his head in awe.

            “And the cops’ll never touch it.  They’ve got their own built-in Charles Bronson,” Ben Reiger replied.  “They’re happy.”

            Joe Rossigian spoke up.  “I keep telling myself what we’re doing is the right thing -- sacrificing a life for a greater cause and all that.  It’s just that ... this Bayamon thing ... I can’t picture the Doomsdayers being as driven to commit themselves if they knew the truth.”

            “We’ve been through this a thousand times, Joe,” Tom Dadero replied.  “It’s not a wonderful thing, but we screened them very carefully before deciding to expend them.  In a way, these people could almost be considered messianic.”

            Don Greyburn’s voice was humble as he spoke.  “What we do here .. what we’ve accomplished ... is Herculean. It’s only natural that we feel guilt and question the morality of our behavior.  But, damn it, we’re only mortals.  We made a hard decision.  We all agreed this lousy society needs cleansing.”  He paused.  “Tell me the truth, is anyone having second thoughts?”  It was silent.  “No, I really mean it.  None of us will sit in judgment of the other.  This is a monstrous responsibility for the four of us to have to live with.”

Joe Rossigian shifted in his seat.  “I’m okay with it, Don, really I am.  It’s just that expending lives ... well... I think about that once in a while.  You know how

people talk about doctors playing God.  On the other hand, I’m strengthened by the fact that we must be doing the right thing, like you said, for society’s sake.”

            “You’re not alone, Joe,” Ben Reiger responded.  “Believe me, we’ve all had those feelings at sometime or other.”  He looked down at the table, spreading his two hands like fans as his voice lowered, “I’m going to tell you all something that, up to now, has been very hard for me to talk about to anyone, even to you.”  They stared at him in anticipation as he unbuttoned his shirt cuff and rolled up his sleeve, exposing some tattooed numbers on his arm.  “As far as expending lives goes?  Well, this number was given to me in 1944 on my 13th birthday in Germany.  Some Bar Mitzvah gift huh?” he said, looking from face to face, his voice bitter. 

            Sweat broke out on his forehead.  “Somebody -- to this day I still don’t know who -- shoved me onto a train.  Saved my life.”  He looked at  Joe.  “My parents weren’t so lucky.  Their lives were expended ... but for an evil cause.”

            Both Greyburn and Dadero stared at him in horror.

            Rossigian sputtered, “My God, Ben, I had no idea.”  A shock of white hair fell into his face as he sighed, “So you live with ghosts too.”

Chapter 6


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