Toad’s eyes were as dark and blank as the six bullet holes behind him, looking way over my shoulder while we talked about who just shot his friend in the stomach.
“Shit, Detective Jurgis, I was ducking; I can’t say for sure,” he said, flipping his hands into a shrug. “Probably them Grub bangers. You know how it is.”
He bounced foot to foot in his baggy olive jeans. Played it cool.
I picked bits of plaster, shot from the wall behind him, out of his high-top hair.
“I know you won’t tell,” I said, “even if you knew.”
I couldn’t help mother the kid because, in a way, Toad was cool. Early ’90s cool—my kind of cool. He had a Kid Coolout haircut. Memorized Salt-N-Pepa songs. Quoted Fresh Prince episodes.
Never shot anyone I knew of. I didn’t even mind that he wouldn’t meet my eyes—he didn’t look down like most; he kept them way, way up on the horizon.
“Got to get to The Job now,” he said, already turning and loping off.
I looked at Toad’s white-tee back and imagined bullet holes in it.
Toad had The Game. And Toad had The Job. I’d tailed him on both.
Watching him at The Game was my job—he slung crack, H and pills for D30. Toad’s role: Greet the Jettas, Civics and Tauruses at his corner. Take their cash. Point them toward a tween holding the dope.
Sometimes I’d haul him in to liven things up. Nothing stuck. Mostly, we both treated his role as untouchable.
Watching him at The Job was my curiosity. It’s not every day that I get to go to Le Pavillon Hotel.
Toad’s role there swapped the baggy pants for a black valet vest: Greet the NFL Commissioner in his white Mercedes, Condi Rice in her motorcade, Brad Pitt in his Prius. Take the keys to their six-figure ride. Charm them between arriving and driving off.
Toad shined like he was spot-lit. Always cool. Always with the latest sports, gossip, world news. Not admiring them; earning admiration. Not acting like he belonged. Belonging.
He shone when among his D30 homies, but I saw something sad about him through the department-issue telephoto lens—like a firefly in a jar without holes.
He’d laugh too long at jokes. Get too loaded to talk. Pace the smoky shotgun house rooms, looking at walls like he was startled they’d appeared.
Toad felt he had to draw two incomes. I felt he had one too many.
I showed up at Le Pavillon when he was on deck, flashing my badge and hassling guests.
Two days later, Toad vanished.
The last time I saw Toad was at another shooting.
This time, he was the target. And this time, he couldn’t play it cool.
I looked down at Toad, and his eyes didn’t leap. They just stared. Emptier than ever.
He didn’t have anything funny to say now. Or hip. Or cool.
When he did start talking, it was just to give names.
“Pook was at the wheel. Big Chris pulled the trigger on me. Little Owen, too.”
“They say I bailed on ’em, leaving the Game for my uptown executive assistant job.”
“They going to keep coming?”
“Probably, jealous motherfuckers.” Toad scratched his ear, looked at the eco-friendly three-bedroom shot up behind him, as if checking it hadn’t faded into dream. “I’ll talk to Brad about getting me a new place. Maybe across the river.”
“Yeah,” I said, trying not to smile from pride. “You talk to Brad.”