A dimly lit street in the center of Washington Highlands was a hell of a place for a nighttime stroll.
The Highlands were in the southeastern corner of the District, over the Anacostia River in Ward Eight. Full of high-rise government housing, low-income apartment complexes, and derelict single-family homes on tiny lots strewn with garbage, Ward Eight had been the second most dangerous ward in the District behind Ward Seven, but it had recently retaken the lead thanks to a triple murder in the last week of the reporting period.
But despite the late hour and the area’s infamous reputation, a lone pedestrian ambled calmly through the misty evening, heading north on Atlantic Street SE as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He walked along a broken sidewalk, catching the glow of most all of the streetlamps that had not been shot out or burned out and left black by a city that didn’t give a damn about its poorest residents. He wore blue jeans and a wrinkled blue blazer, his dark brown hair was tousled and damp, and a clean-shaven face revealed him as white, which, around here, at this time of night, meant he was probably up to no good.
It was ten p.m., and the neighborhood appeared devoid of any life other than the solo pedestrian. But while the street itself was barren, several sets of eyes tracked the man’s movements. Astonished senior citizens looked out from behind their barred apartment windows. A single mother up with a sick kid watched through the bolted Plexiglas door of her duplex unit with a wince of regret, knowing good and well the damn fool in the street was going to get rolled at best and murdered at worst. And a teen with a cell phone on a darkened stoop of an apartment building watched the man carefully, reporting what he saw to an acquaintance at the other end of the connection with hopes of collecting a finder’s fee if his friend showed up with a crew and beat every last item of value off of the hapless outsider.
But the teen and his friend were out of luck, because another group of predators were closer, and they also had their eyes on this target of opportunity.
Three dark silhouettes watched the white man from where they stood in a driveway, in front of a fifty-five-gallon drum filled with burning trash.
Marvin was the oldest of the three, and at thirty-one he had eleven priors, most for B&E or armed robbery. Only two arrests had really stuck, the first one earning him eleven months, twenty-nine days in a city lockup. And then, on the inside, Marvin had bought himself a full dime at Hagerstown for manslaughter.
He did six years before being released on good behavior—a relative term in prison—and now he was back on the streets.
And he wasn’t looking for work. He was looking for a score.
In this pursuit he had taken on the two young men with him. Darius and James were both sixteen, and they looked up to the older Marvin since he’d done time and he’d killed a man, and because of this they would follow him anywhere. For Marvin’s part, he liked running a crew of kids because they could take chances; any convictions they earned would likely be expunged on their eighteenth birthdays.
Marvin carried a handgun in his waistband under his baggy boxers. It was a rusty Lorcin Arms L380, a piece of junk, even compared to the other pot-metal pistols ubiquitous on the low end of crime here in the “gun-free zone” of D.C. He’d never shot the weapon, it was for show, really, which meant he kept the grip of the gun on display, sticking out from below his faux leather jacket, but only when the cops weren’t around. If he saw a patrol car a couple of shakes would drop the little automatic down the inside of his warm-up pants and out onto the ground. He could then kick it away or under something, or else he could just fucking run.
Marvin had been running from trouble since long before the two boys standing with him were born.
The two kids had thin switchblades they’d shoplifted from a head shop in Hyattsville. The knives were comically cheap novelty items, but the boys didn’t know any better and they thought themselves impossibly badass for carrying them inside their jackets.
Darius and James fingered their knives under their clothes as they watched the white man disappear in the mist, just past an overgrown hedge strewn with blown trash. As one they turned to each other, smiling in surprise at this evening’s outrageous fortune. The pedestrian seemed oblivious to the fact he’d just walked past the three men standing by the fire, which made them think the fool was drunk, high, or perhaps a combination of both. Even though they rarely saw whites walking around this section of Washington Highlands at night, men and women of all races certainly drove into this neighborhood to buy drugs all the time, especially at night, and the two boys couldn’t imagine any reason for this fool’s presence other than a buy.
That meant he either had cash or drugs, and it didn’t matter which, because around here, drugs were cash.
Darius and James looked back over the flames coming out of the oil drum, towards their leader.
Marvin nodded back to his crew, giving them the prompting they needed. All three left the warmth of the drum and headed down the driveway to the sidewalk, following the white man with their hands hovering inches from the weapons they kept tucked inside their clothes.
At the same instant three hunters were stalking their prey on 8th Street SE, a twenty-four-million-dollar Eurocopter streaked high over D.C., flying from Maryland in the northeast and heading towards Virginia in the southwest. The men on board discussed the chances someone below them was lining up the advanced optical sights of a man-portable surface-to-air missile on the tail rotor behind them, or perhaps tracking the nose of the helo with the iron sights of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Onboard countermeasures were ready, the pilot made defensive maneuvers, and all eyes were focused outside the helo and down at street level, scanning for the bright flare of a missile launch.
But there was no flare and there was no launch, because although the man they feared was, in fact, somewhere below them, he had no SAM, nor did he have an RPG.
He didn’t even have a pistol or, for that matter, any cash.
Court Gentry walked alone through D.C.’s most dangerous district, as aware of the footsteps closing on him as he was of the throbbing in his right forearm and the maddening itch under the plaster cast that went from his elbow to his wrist.
He knew three men were following him—a definite leader and two subordinates, much younger and completely subservient to their boss. Gentry determined all this from a quarter-second half glance as he passed them on the driveway, as well as from the sounds of their footfalls. The man in the middle was more sure, the men on either side uneasy, slowing from time to time, then rushing to catch back up to the one in charge.
Court knew something about the psychology of crime. These street thugs weren’t looking for a fight; they were looking for a victim. The strength of the attackers’ resolve would be reflected in how quickly they acted. If they messed around and followed him for blocks, then they would probably never go through with it. On the other hand, if they challenged him right now, that meant their confidence was high and they wouldn’t be expecting any resistance, and this would indicate to Gentry they were probably armed and they’d done this sort of thing before.
Just then, still half a block from the next intersection, the man in the middle of the three called out.
“Yo! You know what this is. You don’t gotta get hurt.”
Court was pleased this guy was getting right to it. After all, he didn’t have all night. He stopped, but he did not turn around. He just stood there, facing away. The three men behind came closer.
“Turn around, motherfucker. Do it slow.”
Court took a few calming breaths, but he did not turn.
“Yo, bitch! I’m talkin’ to you!”
Now Court slowly pivoted to face the threat.
The three attackers stood only six feet away on the sidewalk. Court scanned their eyes. It was always the same in a threat situation. Determine the will, and determine the skill. He pegged the leader as cocky, amped up from excitement, but not from concern. The other two tried to show confidence, but their furtive eyes sold them out.
All three clutched weapons. The leader had a small gunmetal blue pistol and the two men with him— actually now to Court they appeared to be teenagers—each held up a knife.
Court spoke calmly. “Evenin’, gents.”
The leader cocked his head in surprise. After a second, the thin black man said, “I want that wallet. And that phone.” He looked around on the street, then asked, “Where your car at?”
Court ignored the man’s voice and focused on the pistol in his hand. “What do you have there?”
“It’s a gun, motherfucker!”
“Right. What kind of gun?”
“The kinda gun that’s gonna pop a cap in your ass if you don’t pull out that wallet and drop it off, real nice and slow.”
The man raised the pistol to eye level, in Court’s face now. Even though the light was bad, Court was able to identify the weapon quickly here, just three feet from the tip of his nose.
He sighed. Disappointed. “An L380? What the hell am I supposed to do with that piece of shit?”
The armed man stiffened his gun arm, then smiled. “Oh, I got it. You tryin’ to die tonight.”
Court looked around at the two others. “Any chance you kids are strapped?” The boys glanced at their boss, confused. After a second they held their knives up higher. “I didn’t think so.” Court looked up into the wet sky with a half smile. “Just my luck.”
Marvin had been pointing guns at people since before his thirteenth birthday, and in all this time he’d never seen anyone so utterly unimpressed. Normally eyes widened to saucers and fixed on the muzzle of his weapon, and no matter what he did for the rest of the encounter, the person at gunpoint never ever glanced away from the instrument in his hand. They rarely even blinked.
But this guy turned to the other men, looked around at the street, into the sky, and at the windows of the duplexes all around. He didn’t seem at all concerned that there was a motherfucking gat in his motherfucking face.
The white man didn’t look high, and he didn’t smell drunk. His languid eyes were clear, his relaxed body did not sway. For some reason he just didn’t give a damn.
And this infuriated Marvin. He had no plan B for intimidating a victim.
The two boys stepped to either side of their prey. Now Marvin had a pistol pointed to the man’s forehead, and his crew had stilettos in range on the left and right.
But the white man wasn’t worried about the knives, either. He just sighed more deeply now, his shoulders slumped all the way down. “Any chance I can persuade you guys to step off? I don’t have any cash, no phone, no car. I don’t have a thing to offer you but trouble, and I promise you, I’m a lot more trouble than I’m worth. What do you say we call it a night and—”
Marvin was tired of this asshole. He stepped forward a half step, raising the gun higher to drive his point home. As he did so the white man’s left hand shot up and forward and he spun on his left foot in a blur, pirouetting his body out of the line of fire. Marvin was stunned by the movement. As the man turned, his strong hand locked onto the slide of the pistol, just aft of the muzzle, and he shoved the weapon to the side and down. Marvin instinctively pulled the trigger. The Lorcin cracked loud in the empty street, but the white man had both rotated his body away to Marvin’s right and pushed the gun down low to Marvin’s left just as it fired.
Marvin realized instantly he had missed.
James leapt into the air, the stiletto dropped to the ground as he grabbed at his lower leg with both hands. He fell into the grass by the sidewalk and wailed.
The kid had taken the .380 hollow-point round through the top of his foot.
Marvin knew he had fucked up, but he still had the gun in his hand, and for some inexplicable reason, his intended victim released his hold of the weapon. The man turned away from Marvin now, his attention on Darius and his blade, leaving his back exposed, just a couple of feet from Marvin’s gun.
Marvin couldn’t believe this fool could be so stupid as to let go of a loaded gun and then turn his back on it. Marvin raised the weapon and pointed it at the back of the fool’s head, ready to kill the man before he did anything to Darius. He pulled the trigger.
Court ignored the asshole with the gun behind him because he knew the man was out of the fight for the next few seconds. By grabbing the slide of the weapon, Court had kept it from cycling after it fired. Now there was a spent shell inside the chamber of the Lorcin, and the dude behind him could pull that trigger all damn day and it wouldn’t go bang, not until he racked the slide to eject the spent casing and load a fresh round from the magazine.
And Court didn’t think for an instant he would figure this out for at least a couple of seconds. The attacker was in a fight for his life; his adrenaline would make him spastic and unable to process the flood of information coming his way.
Court had learned long ago that in any gunfight, one does not rise to the occasion. Instead, one defaults to the level of ability he has mastered.