My cell rang, I snatched it off the passenger seat, looked at the display and it said, “Shift calling”.
Then I sighed.
Then I flipped it open, my other arm twisting so I could look at my watch.
Twelve oh two.
Shift was impatient, as usual.
“Hey,” I said into the phone.
My eyes went out the passenger side window, through the two guard towers, down the long tunnel created by two sides of high, cinderblock walled fence topped with razor wire circling through lines of barbed wire, the heat sweltering on the day making the air down that open, empty tunnel wave and shimmer.
“Nope,” I answered.
“Fuck!” Shift clipped. “What’s takin’ so f**kin’ long? He’s supposed to be released at noon.”
“Shift, it’s noon oh two,” I told him.
“Yeah, so?” he asked back, sounding pissed and impatient. “They’re releasing him from prison; I doubt he’s sticking around for a going away party.”
I doubted that too.
“I’ll call,” I promised.
“They got seven minutes,” he threatened and I stifled a sigh.
This was Shift. He was a thousand miles away. He was a full-time pimp slash drug dealer and part-time ass**le (though, that said, he put far more effort into being an ass**le than his other occupations) and he thought he had some sway over the California Corrections Department.
“All right,” I said.
“Call me the minute that brother breathes free air,” he bit off and then hung up.
I flipped my phone shut wondering, for the seven thousandth time, why the f**k I was doing this.
I came up with no answers except for the fact that when Ronnie was murdered, he’d left me with one thing.
I would have preferred a vast estate, a fortune in jewels or, perhaps, nothing.
I got Shift.
And although after Ronnie died I wanted nothing to do with that part of his life, I wanted to move on, turn my back on it all, Shift wouldn’t allow that. If Shift got his talons in you, they went deep, attached straight to the bone, the tips sprung open into claws that sunk into your marrow and didn’t let go. Not for anything.
And Shift had his talons in me. I didn’t want it, didn’t invite it but there they were.
The good news was, he didn’t often scroll down to my number on his phone.
The other good news was, when he did, the shit he asked for was usually not that hard to do and it was never illegal. He knew me. He knew where I stood. He knew there was no f**king way I’d get involved in any of his garbage.
But he also knew I loved Ronnie more than anything in this world and Ronnie, for reasons only known to Ronnie, loved Shift only slightly less than he loved me (though, I had to admit, sometimes then and now, I wondered if he loved me slightly less than he loved Shift – but I didn’t often go there).
So he knew I’d take Shift’s back.
Unless Shift tried to get me dirty. Then he knew I’d throw him right under the f**king bus even if I had to take my life in my hands to do it.
So he avoided that. Not that he cared about my life, just that I might succeed before he took me down.
The other good news was, Shift loved Ronnie more than anything in the world so he didn’t play me… too much.
The bad news was, he was in my life and therefore I was sitting outside a prison in southern California in my 2011 electric blue Charger with the two wide, white racing stripes that went up the hood, over the roof and down the trunk and spoiler waiting for a man named Ty Walker to be released from prison.
Shift did not give me a full brief about this assignment. He told me to be sitting right where I was at noon, to wait for Walker, to call him the minute Walker got released and then to take further directions from Walker. He also told me Walker would know it was me and my Charger waiting for him.
I took a week’s vacation to do this. I had nothing else planned for my vacation and Shift was footing this bill so I thought… whatever. I thought this mainly because that was the only thing I could think. Shift didn’t take no for an answer very often and Shift freaked me out. He loved Ronnie, this was true, they weren’t blood but they were closer than it. But Shift was not right. Not at all. There wasn’t something missing in Shift that most other human beings had. There were multiple somethings missing. And all the things that were missing were the good things like compassion, humor, decency, honesty. He knew about loyalty, he knew brotherly love. That was all he knew. Other than that, he had no morals that I’d witnessed. None.
And Ronnie was dead.
When Ronnie was alive, he stood between Shift and me and he stood between Shift, his world and my world.
But Ronnie was dead and I didn’t suspect loyalty and brotherly love for a dead man would stop Shift from doing what he had to do to get what he wanted, including from me.
I didn’t have to balance this line often but it was there. I knew I could push him and I also knew just how far I could push him. And, for whatever reason, me picking up Ty Walker was important to him, important enough that I knew Shift’s loyalty to Ronnie would vanish if I pushed him too hard and then I’d topple over that line.
I didn’t need that shit.
So there I was, waiting for a soon-to-be ex-con to walk out of prison.
I sat in my car in the hot sun, no breeze flowing through my opened windows thinking that it seemed like I spent a lifetime doing this kind of crap to steer clear of shit. It was exhausting. I was tired of it. Bone tired. And scared. Because I knew the odds were against me that I could stay clear of it. With Shift in my life and my number on his phone, someday, he’d need me to do something and it would be something where I’d get hit with shit.
I had to get out.
I glanced at my watch to see it was twelve oh seven then I glanced down the tunnel again and something was moving through the shimmers. That path was long and the heat on the day was immense so I didn’t see much but something made me keep watching.
And as the thing moving through the shimmers formed into a man, I kept watching as my breath started sticking in my throat.
Then the man kept getting closer, coming into focus through the heat waves and my breath grew shallow as my body got still.
I didn’t blink. I didn’t move. I just watched that man coming at me and my car.
Then he got even closer and my body moved for me. I didn’t tell it to move, it just did. Without taking my eyes off him, my hand reached for the door handle, released it and I unfolded out of the car, losing sight of him only when the roof was in my way for less than a second.