In silent agreement, the Grove Lords selected their next victim.
All of Miami—or at least the bus-riding, project-dwelling population of the Coconut Grove ghetto—seemed to stop and admire the 1964 Chevy Impala cruising down Grand Avenue. The totally refurbished, twenty-year-old classic had all the trappings of the finest in gang wheels. Metallic blue paint job with a flaming red devil atop the hood. Bumpers, mirrors, and side strips in high-polished chrome that glistened in the sunset. Low-ride, hydraulic suspension that left barely enough ground clearance for a garden snake. The most prized upgrades, of course, were the all-important rims—180-count spoke radials with 24-karat, gold-plate finish. Not bad for three punks from the 'hood. They'd stolen it from a Latino gang leader who had more flash than firepower. A pair of 9-millimeter bullet holes in the rear quarter panel marked the occasion.
Music blasted at ear-splitting decibels from a boom box in the trunk. The dark-tinted windows rattled with the deep-base vibes of "When Doves Cry," by Prince. Thirteen-year-old Theo Knight rode shotgun. He wore his Nike cap backward, the price tag still dangling from the bill. Sweat pasted an orange Miami Hurricanes football jersey to his back. A Mercedes-Benz hood ornament hung from a thick gold chain around his neck. It was the standard uniform of the Grove Lords, a gang of badass teenagers led by chief thief of the week Isaac Reems. Isaac was behind the wheel. Theo's older brother, Tatum, was sandwiched between them on the bench seat.
Isaac lowered the music so they could talk. "You seen him, right?"
"Uh-huh," said Tatum.
Theo didn't answer.
"Theo?" said Isaac. "You seen him, didn't ya?"
Theo knew exactly who he was talking about. The next white dude they spotted was their agreed-upon target. "Yeah, I seen him. Crazy man ridin' straight through nigguh town on a bicycle."
Coconut Grove was one of those mixed communities in south Florida. Long before the developers came with bulldozers and wrecking balls, the Grove was known as a bohemian enclave for tree lovers and flower children of the 1960s. Finding your way through the twisted, narrow residential streets beneath the green tropical canopy was a perennial right of passage in Miami. But to Theo—to any black kid who'd heard the gunshots outside the rundown bars and package stores on Douglas Road—the Grove was a world of extremes. Butting right up against Miami's most expensive real estate was a ghetto that could service just about anyone's bad habit, from gangs with their random hits, to doctors and lawyers who ventured out in obedience to their addictions. It was easy for affluent white folks to become careless and take a dangerous shortcut on their way home to paradise. And there were plenty of opportunists like the Grove Lords to make them pay for it.
"This one's all yours," said Tatum.
"I know," said Theo.
The cyclist turned on Grand Avenue. The Chevy followed. "Let's tail him for a while," said Isaac. "Make him shit his pants."
Tatum laughed and took a long swig from a half-empty bottle of vodka. He passed it to Theo, who pushed it away.
"What's wrong with you, pussy?" said Tatum.
"I ain't a pussy."
"We'll see," said Isaac. "Pop the glove box."
Theo opened it. Inside was a pearl-handled knife with a six-inch, serrated blade that shone like a mirror. It was an impressive weapon, a collector's item with serious pawn value. "What you want me to do with this?"
"Cut him," said Isaac.
"Say what? I thought I just had to take him down."
"What you think 'take him down' means?" said Isaac. "Show me some blood, brotha'. That's your ticket into the gang."
"I can knock his ass off his bike. That'll get him bloody."
"Fucking road rash?" said Tatum. "You think that's gonna make you a Grove Lord?"
The cyclist was pedaling faster, glancing nervously over his shoulder every few seconds, obviously sensing that he was being followed. "Nobody said nothin' about stabbin' nobody," said Theo.
"You want in the gang or don't you?" said Isaac.
"Yeah. I want in."
Tatum took another hit of vodka. "Then shut up and do your job."
Theo drew a deep breath and let it out. Compared to Tatum, Theo was the good kid in the family. Gang life seemed to come naturally to his older brother. Tatum was always in trouble, and Theo had inherited a bad-boy reputation and a slew of enemies without even trying. Not that Theo was a saint. Even with a thug for an older brother, Theo wouldn't have been considered for membership in the Grove Lords if he hadn't shown potential of his own. But his résumé was filled with petty stuff—smash-and-grabs from parked vehicles, some vandalism, that kind of thing. Theo had never really hurt anyone, at least not simply for the fun of it.
The cyclist made another quick left. The Chevy was right behind him. A jerky hand signal told the driver to go around him.
Tatum nearly burst with laughter, slapping the dashboard. "Yeah, right. Like we need you to tell us what to do, white boy."
Isaac smiled. "He knows he's in trouble."
Theo was sullen. "I'm no good with knives."
"Man, why do I have such a pussy for a brother?" said Tatum, groaning.
Theo took a swing at him, but before it landed, Tatum had his younger brother's wrist in one hand and the knife in the other. "Don't you ever turn on me," said Tatum, showing him the tip of the blade.
The cyclist suddenly found a higher gear. He was racing through the green light, crossing six lanes of stopped traffic on U.S. 1.
"Got ourselves a flyer!" said Isaac. He hit the gas, and as the Chevy sped over the gentle crown in the highway, the chassis scraped on asphalt, sending sparks flying. "Shee-it," said Isaac.
On the other side of the highway, the cyclist made a hard right onto the paved bicycle path.
"He's getting away," said Tatum.
"No, he ain't," said Isaac. The tires screeched as he steered the car onto the bike path in hot pursuit. Tatum howled, cheering on the chase.
The path was like a narrow, winding road beneath the elevated Metrorail tracks. A tall chain-link fence topped with spirals of razor wire bordered the left side, separating the public path from warehouses and auto-repair shops. To the right were the three southbound lanes of U.S. 1, an endless stream of traffic headed in the opposite direction at better than fifty miles per hour. The cyclist had nowhere to go but due north along the bicycle path. He swerved a few feet to the left, and the Chevy followed. The cyclist jerked to the right, and so did the Chevy. Isaac toyed with his prey, practically kissing the bicycle's rear tire with the Impala's big chrome bumper. The rider glanced back over his shoulder, terror on his face. He was inches away from being roadkill when they reached a cross street. The cyclist made a hard left turn.
"He's toast," said Isaac.
It was a side road of broken asphalt and rutted gravel. The rider hit a mud puddle and nearly fell, but he managed to right himself and keep going. He had to stand on the pedals to maintain his speed. The all-out sprint was taking its toll.
"Get ready," Tatum told his brother.
Dead ahead was a solid block wall. The paint-and-body shops on either side had closed hours earlier, their windows and doors protected by roll-down, metal security shutters. White boy had found himself a blind alley. He dropped his bicycle and ran, searching frantically for a way to scale the wall. It was like a sheer cliff. He turned and faced the music—literally—as the noisy low-rider raced toward him. His back was to the wall, his chest heaving, as he braced himself for the worst.
The Chevy skidded to a stop. Tatum reached across his brother's lap and pushed the door open. "Get him, Theo!"
Theo didn't move.
Tatum slapped the knife handle into the palm of Theo's hand. "Go on, do it!"
"Take the bike," shouted the rider, his voice quaking. "I paid over a thousand bucks for it. Really. You can have it."
"Now!" Tatum said to his brother.
"Why don't we just take the bike?" said Theo.
"We ain't here for no bike. You gonna cut him or not?"
The rider was ash white with fear, pleading. "Come on, guys. Please. Don't do this. I have a two-year-old daughter."
Tatum had lost all patience. "Cut him, damn it! Cut him good!"
Theo's gaze shifted back to the rider, who was trying to adopt a goofy martial-arts, self-defense pose. Theo could have kicked his ass so easily. It wasn't fear that was holding him back. In fact, there was strange satisfaction in walking up to a Bruce Lee wannabe and laying him out on the sidewalk—but only if there was a good reason to do it, like payback or protection. If Theo was going to turn some random Joe into a noisy amusement for a knife, it was important that he stand to gain something more than acceptance by a couple of punks who called themselves the Grove Lords.
Theo handed the knife to his brother. "You cut him."
"Pussy!" shouted Tatum. He reached across for the handle and slammed the door shut.
Isaac shook his head with disapproval as he hit the gas. The tires spun and gravel flew. Theo looked back and saw white boy fall to his knees, relieved and exhausted.
Tatum shoved the knife back into the glove compartment. Theo thought he heard him say "pussy" again, but the boom box was way too loud. Isaac was singing along to Prince again, changing the words: "This is what it sounds like / when Theo Knight cries."
Twilight turned into night as they drove back into Coconut Grove. Theo retreated into thought. He was no pussy. He just wasn't as stupid as his older brother. Even so, Tatum would pound him when they got home, no question about it. Or at least he would try. Theo grew bigger and stronger with each passing month, and everyone knew that before long the younger brother would have the upper hand.
"Something's goin' down over there," said Isaac.
At the south end of Grand Avenue, right outside Homeboy's Tavern, a crowd had gathered in the street. A line of cars in the right lane was blocking traffic. The Chevy stopped a block away at the red light. Isaac rolled down the window and shouted to another Grove Lord who was standing on the corner.
"Hey, Switch," said Isaac. Switch (short for "switchblade") sauntered up to the driver's side of the Impala. Isaac said, "Hey, what's happenin', bro'?"
"You mean over there?" he said, indicating the crowd.
"I sure don't mean in your shitty little life."
Switch smiled, too dumb to know when he was being insulted. "Some bitch got her throat slit."
"She still there?"
"Yeah. Blood everywhere. And she's wearing this short skirt with nothin' underneath. You can see it all, dude. Definitely worth a look."
"Cops there yet?"
"Uh-uh. Just happened."
"Let's go see," said Tatum.
Isaac raised the window. The traffic light changed, and the car started slowly down the street. Isaac looked at Theo and said, "Here's the deal, bro'. I'm giving you one more chance to make it."
"I ain't cuttin' no dead woman."
"Forget the knife. All you gotta do is walk up to the body in front of all these people. Make sure everyone sees you. And then I want you to steal something off her."
"That's too easy," said Tatum.
"I make the rules," said Isaac. "This is Theo's gig. You up for it?"
"Shit, yeah. No problem."
Isaac steered the Chevy into Homeboy's parking lot and killed the engine. "All right. Go for it, dude."
Theo climbed down from the low-rider and started toward the crowd. About fifty black folks had gathered, most of the adults with drinks in their hands from Homeboy's. The front door to the bar was wide open. The latest hit song from Kool and the Gang filled the warm night air. The nearest street lamp had been shot out by the Grove Lords weeks earlier, so the only source of light was the half-moon and the blinking Budweiser sign above the entrance to Homeboy's. The main crowd formed a semicircle that blocked Theo's view of the fallen victim. Several shirtless teenage boys were on their bellies, getting the X-rated up-skirt view that Switch had mentioned. Not a cop was in sight, but sirens could be heard in the distance. Theo needed to move quickly. He was about to break through the crowd when someone grabbed him by the arm, halting him.
"Don't go there," the man said.
Theo nearly slugged him in the darkness, but at the last moment he recognized his great-uncle. "Uncle Cy, what are you doing here?"
"That don't make no never mind. Just do as I tell ya. Don't go there."
Theo glanced back toward his brother in the Chevy. "I gotta go."
"No, you don't want to do that." Uncle Cy tightened his grip. Theo noticed that the old man's hand was shaking. At six foot two he was taller than Theo, but he was a thin reed who lived on gin and cigarettes and God only knew what else. Theo could have shaken him off like a fly, but Uncle Cy with all his flaws was the closest thing he had to a father.
"You're messing me up here," said Theo.
"I ain't gonna let you do this."
Theo had no idea how the old man knew he was on a Grove Lord mission. He must have just figured that if Theo was out cruising with Tatum and Isaac, they had to be up to no good. "You need to let go."
"No can do, boy."
"Take you hands off me."
"Not tonight I won't."
"Get out of the way."
"It's for your own good."
"Don't make me knock you on your ass."
"You're gonna have to. 'Cuz I ain't lettin' you through here, boy."
Theo shoved him, and Uncle Cy went down like a bowling pin. Theo started through the crowd.
He kept going.
"Come back, boy!"
Theo ignored him.
"Theo, it's your momma!"
Theo froze. There was blood on the street, on her dress, in her hair—so much blood, the color of her long crimson nails dotted with cheap rhinestones. Flies buzzed with interest around the deep gash across her throat. The wound was just below the white leather choker around her neck, a few inches above the rose tattoo on her right breast. Theo didn't want to see her face, but some inner curiosity made him take a good long look. He saw the open mouth, the painted lips, the vacant eyes staring into the night—two black pools behind a hooker's false lashes and enough sparkling purple shadow to let the johns know exactly what she was.
And he saw a leopard-print shoulder bag on the ground, beside the lifeless body.
Sirens in the distance grew louder. Theo stood silent and stared, as if searching for the right emotions. He didn't let his eyes go there, but he knew Switch was right: you could see right up her skirt. The view would have been only slightly less revealing had she been standing in her usual spot on the corner.
"Theo," his uncle said, but Theo ignored him.
He stepped toward his mother, bent down on one knee, and checked to make sure that everyone was watching.
Then he grabbed the purse and ran back to the Chevy.