Black night. Familiar backstreets. Windows down. Cold air. Cruisin’ free.
Top of the world.
This was what it was about, baby. Lit on meth and movin’ at what seemed like the speed of light.
Lords of the night.
Over to Fender’s Body Shop on autopilot. Hands drumming on the dash and seats to the beat of the night and the pulse of the blood pounding through their veins.
Down the slope.
Past the dimly lit customer entrance and around back of the shop the Yukon swung and jerked to a stop. One, two, three of them exited the SUV and glided through the gate that was cracked open.
Wesley Lester was last to pass through the high chain-link fence. He slowed to peer at the snow-covered wreckage way out back of the shop, much of which had sat unchanged, like an eerie sculpture, for months beneath a haze of dim yellow lights. Dozens of mangled cars and pickups, SUVs, a hearse, vans, and an old school bus sat like jagged headstones in a haunted cemetery, some piled one on top of the other.
Several hundred yards away, in the vicinity of the far lamppost, David Lester’s black Camaro lay still and sinister. Wesley’s little brother and two teenage friends had perished in that car with David at the wheel. Seventeen years old. Too dang young to die.
After having rushed to the surreal scene of the wreck in nearby White Plains a year ago, Wesley had never ventured back to reexamine the remnants of his little brother’s car—or the totaled Chrysler that carried an elderly couple from Scarsdale, also pronounced dead at the scene.
On the way toward the huge body shop, Wesley shivered at the chill of the New York winter—a feeling his little brother would never experience again. Grinding his teeth, Wesley ran several yards, bashing the already dented door of a white Beamer. Spinning away, he welcomed the sense of release, thrust his dead brother out of his jumpy mind, and followed the others.
Brubaker led the way through the employee entrance, slamming open the heavy steel door against the outside of the fabricated beige metal building. “Ah, smell that?” he said, not looking back. “Good ol’ Bondo. Be high all day if you worked in here.”
Wesley cruised in last, leaving the door wide open and purposefully taking a giant whiff of the pungent air that reeked of metal and plastic dust.
Like mice, the three figures zigzagged through a maze of halfrepaired vehicles toward an area that glowed white, back in the far corner of the building.
As they drew closer to the dancing light and long shadows, harddriving music mixed with the static sound of a welder. A dark blue ’65 Mustang sat up on a hydraulic lift, and beneath it—behind a welding hood—stood Tony Badino.
Brubaker and Wesley came to a standstill, fascinated by the sparks that rained down on Tony’s dirty, charcoal coveralls and scuffed brown work boots; the kid stopped between them, equally entranced.
Tony must have seen them but went on welding like a macho man, his brawny legs braced apart, tool belt hanging low around his lean waist, broad shoulders and triceps locked in place as he hoisted the blazing welder.
Brubaker was like a four-year-old. Constant motion. Bobbing his head, singing unintelligibly, rubbing his face and arms, and repeatedly peering back toward the door and out the dirty windows. His paranoia was enough to make anybody start seeing things. The kid in the middle watched spellbound as Tony melded metal to metal.
In the scalding flame, Wesley remembered his brother, curly haired and anxious, slapping a twenty-dollar bill into his hand for a teener—one-sixteenth of an ounce of some of the best crank Wesley had ever come across. Then he flashed back to David’s demolished Camaro hours later—what was left of the engine, parts of the car scattered along Post Road, still smoking.
Once again Wesley was slapped in the face by the fact that he was the one who had poisoned his brother’s bloodstream the day he drove to his death.
No. No. No!
It wasn’t the meth that killed his brother. It was the years of Everett Lester’s tainted music that had contaminated David’s mind. It was Everett’s empty promises and repeated letdowns that had sent David longing for the grave and a so-called better life on the Other Side. And Everett would burn for it; uncle or no uncle, he would pay.
Because Wesley was hearing the voice again.
Wesley actually jerked when Tony snapped back the flame, lowered the welder in his right hand, and flipped the dark visor up with the other.
“Boys.” He eyed the dazed kid in the middle.
“This is the dude we told you about, from Yonkers,” Brubaker yelled proudly above the music, rubbing at the insides of his elbows with his wrists. “Needs an ounce.”
Tony extinguished the pilot on the welder, lowered it to the concrete floor by its cord, then walked over to the stereo and turned it off.
“Slow down, Brubaker.” Tony shook off his big, stiff gloves and removed the hood to reveal a tough face with small, pronounced features and a glistening scalp covered only by what looked like about two weeks’ worth of brown hair.
Reaching inside the front waist pocket of his coveralls, Tony pulled out a silver Zippo and a pack of Marlboros. Tapping one out, he stuffed it in the side of his little mouth and lit it with a grimy hand. As he took a long drag and snatched the cigarette away with his left hand, Wesley noticed a small tattoo of an upside-down cross on the inside of his wrist.
Tony was one creepy dude. Knew what he wanted. Had kind of a fiendish aura about him. People were naturally scared of the guy. Maybe that’s why Wesley liked running with Tony, because it was risky and unpredictable. That gave him a rush. And it didn’t hurt that Tony always had the best jenny crank on the street.
Grabbing a hanger light from the frame of the Mustang, Tony walked beneath his work, inspecting the length of the exhaust system.
“How do you know Lester and Brubaker?” He tapped the muffler, cig in hand.
“Uh…a friend introduced me to Wesley at a party,” the middle kid said.
“Met him a couple nights later.”
“Uh…when do you mean?” The kid’s eyes darted to Bru then Wesley.
“Tonight.” Tony stopped and stared at him.
“Earlier today,”Wesley interrupted. “Couple teeners.”
Tony went back to inspecting his work. “That same stuff from the other day?”
“Yeah. Finished it off.” Wesley coughed, feeling somewhat like a raw recruit reporting for duty before some high-ranking officer.
“This new cristy blows that stuff away.” Tony glanced at the three visitors, his right eye twitching. “Just in from Pennsylvania. Keep you amped for days. I’ve been workin’ nonstop since yesterday—goin’ on, what? Thirty-five hours?”
Brubaker and the stranger nodded, swayed, and laughed. Wesley simply stared, promising himself he wouldn’t bow down to the grease monkey like everybody else.
“So you need an ounce.” Tony held the light up close to the tailpipe.
“Yep,” piped up the kid in the middle.
“Good old Wesley Lester. I can always count on him to bring me the finest clientele.” Tony nodded toward Wesley. “Do you know who this guy is? Who brought you here tonight?”
The kid stared at Tony with hollowed eyes and shrugged.
“This is the great Everett Lester’s nephew. Bet you didn’t know that.”
What the heck?
The kid turned to Wesley. “No way.”
“Straight,” said Tony. “You’re in the presence of the bloodline of one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest legends.”
“Dude,” the kid exclaimed, “I saw one of their very last shows—at The Meadowlands. They played three and a half hours, at least.”
“With Aerosmith,” Tony chimed in. “I was there. Wesley was supposed to be there backstage, but Uncle Everett stood him up.”
“That’s cold,” Brubaker mumbled.
Silently, expressionlessly, Wesley agreed.
Tony smirked at Bru, but it went right over the head of the kid in the middle.
“I lived and breathed DeathStroke,” the kid said. “Lester was so stoned out of his mind that last show, he could barely stand by the end. But they jammed their hearts out.”
“And now he’s a Jesus freak.” Tony’s eyes shifted to meet Wesley’s, but his head didn’t move.
Wesley met his glance without flinching. His nostrils flared and his temper cranked up like the flame on the welder. He searched Tony’s face for the reason he would be trying to push Wesley’s buttons. The kid in the middle picked up on the friction.
Tony smirked, knelt down, and began banging his tools into the drawers of a tall red metal toolbox on wheels.
“What’s he like, anyway?” the kid barged ahead. “Everett Lester, I mean…”
Brubaker looked uneasy, twisting and bouncing slightly on his toes.
“He’s a loser, okay?” Wesley snapped, walking over to a workbench cluttered with jars of nuts and bolts and old tools. “Dude’s a lyin’ hypocrite. Dang waste of breath!”
“Where does he live?” the kid asked. “Does he still have a place in Manhattan?”
Wesley’s back was to the others. He fingered the tools without a word. Iwonder if he’d shut up if I heaved this jar of bolts at his head.
Brubaker ran interference. “He has a farm near Bedford and a place in Kansas—where his wife’s from.”
“Oh yeah, that chick who converted him,” the kid said.
Tony slammed the middle drawer closed.
“That was some story. I heard she wrote to him ever since she was like a teenager—Jesus this and Jesus that. And finally it stuck…can you believe that? The guy went off the deep end!”
Tony stood, banging another drawer shut. “Some people hit you over the head again and again with that Jesus hype till you’re brainwashed. Seen it happen.”
“Well, look at the guy,” the kid said. “I mean…he’s changed! I saw him and his wife on Larry King Live and he, I mean, it’s like he’s a different person—”
“Let’s do this deal!” With three long strides and a commanding kick, Wesley booted a large piece of scrap metal twenty feet across the dusty white floor.
The corners of Tony’s mouth curved up into a quick smile as he raised an eyebrow at the kid in the middle, stomped out his cigarette, and walked over to an old white sink. Pushing up his sleeves, he rinsed his hands and squeezed a glob of gray goop into his palm from a bright orange bottle.
“You got the cash?” he asked the kid above the running water.
“Yeah, yeah.” The kid dug almost frantically into his front pocket and pulled out a clump of folded bills.
“Count it, Wes,” Tony ordered, still washing.
Wesley hesitated before snatching the wad and rifling quickly through the bills. “Fifteen hundred. It’s here.”
Tony dried his hands with a dirty towel, wiped his face with it, and looked at himself in the smudged mirror above the sink. Then he found the kid’s reflection in the mirror. “You don’t know where this devil dust came from.”
“Oh…d-definitely n-not.” He smiled anxiously. “I don’t even knowyou. We never met, as far as I’m concerned. Nope. Never met.”
Tony dropped the towel on the edge of the sink and walked to the tool chest. Lifting the top, he pulled out a Tech .22 assault pistol with his right hand and a good-sized bag of off-white, crystal-like powder with the other. Turning, he tossed the bag to the kid, who fumbled it awkwardly but mangled it at the last second before it escaped his hands. Embarrassing.
“You hear about the body that turned up in Canarsie other day? In the scrap yard?” Tony approached the kid, whose forehead was glistening with sweat.
Here we go.Wesley wished Tony hadn’t picked up the gun but, at the same time, found it strangely exciting.
“Uh…no.” The kid eyed the piece. “No, I missed that.”
“Well, don’t miss what I’m telling you.” Tony’s voice grew vicious as he neared the kid’s face. “That guy had it comin’, okay? I know that for a fact.”
The kid’s mouth was wide open, big eyes flashing, cheeks red as radishes.
“He was blabbin’ about where he got his rocket fuel.”
But before the kid could eke out another word, Tony lifted the modified Tech .22 sideways, shoulder-high, squinted, and blasted six rounds across the base of the metal wall beneath the workbench with one squeeze of the trigger.
Brubaker floundered back four feet as the smell of gunpowder hung in the air and the rattle of gunfire echoed in their ears.
The kid’s red face went ash white, and he looked as if he might lose his dinner.
Wesley kept a stone face, not wanting to show a trace of the fear that was making his hands shake.
“You know how many twenty-twos this mag carries?” Tony grabbed the fat magazine with his free hand.
The kid jerked his head in one rapid no.
“Twenty. And I got it rigged so I pull the trigger once and the thing can unload. You understand?”
The kid opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
“Word on the street is, the dude in Canarsie was a rat-squealing tell-all.” Tony lightly tossed the Tech .22 in his right hand. “He got himself whacked for blabbing.”
“And the same will happen to you if you tell one soul where you got that cristy, you read?”
“Oh, hey, I read, I read. I’m not about to—”
“Now beat it!” Tony hoisted the weapon up to his shoulder and the kid scrambled an about-face, practically sprinting for the door with a blubbering Brubaker right on his heels.
Badino’s dark eyes locked in on Wesley, followed by the cock of his head and a smirk. “He ain’t gonna do no talkin’, now is he, Wes?”
Wesley watched the two figures scurry into the darkness. “No, I don’t believe so.”
As Tony banged the Tech .22 back into the toolbox, two things occurred to Wesley: 1) He would love to see the bullets from that weapon rip through Everett Lester’s sickening, superspiritual flesh, and 2) if you ever wanted to commit a murder, Tony Badino was probably a very good person to know.