Most clients ask me for pills, or a phone, or some weird porno they can’t score from anyone inside. One crazy bastard even paid for a trained mouse, so he could send messages and weed between cells. But Fast Times Ricky asked me for a one-of-a-kind item: Respect.
I once spent eight hundred and ninety-two days inside Rikers, so I understand it gets lonely in max. I know it’s hard when you’re a king on the boulevard, but just another meat-bag when that cell door slides shut. Because I can put myself in the client’s shoes, I’m very good at customer service. But I still told Ricky he was crazy, until he said how much he was willing to pay, cash, through his father. So I took the job.
Ricky’s version of Respect fit into the false bottom of the guitar case I use for my cover gig. That Monday night, I reached the post-industrial armpit of South Dickinson at a quarter of seven, parking my van in the dirt lot three blocks from the roach motel of a bar where I was scheduled to play my set. I looked every inch the traveling hipster musician: chunky black glasses, faded Captain America t-shirt beneath a brown corduroy blazer, obnoxious neon-green sneakers. I played fifteen songs and only one drunk threw an empty glass at me, which counted as a success.
In the van afterwards, I chucked the costume for my real work outfit: a Hazmat suit spray-painted black, rubber boots, surgical mask, headlamp, a crowbar and other tools, and Respect in a waterproof bag. Walking to the edge of the lot, beyond the sickly glow of the streetlamps, I pried up the cover of the storm drain and wormed my way underground.
Dickinson State Prison was built during the Civil War, to host Confederate prisoners, and grew like a concrete-and-iron cancer down the sides of the hill above town. During prep work a few weeks back, I had cut a hole in the sewer pipe that runs beneath the outer wall, big enough for a slim guy like me to slither into the maintenance area behind the cells. Once through, it took me ten minutes to crawl up the catwalks to Ricky’s level.
Lying on my stomach, I peered through the small grate into Ricky’s cell. He was already waiting for me, his face pressed against the heavy mesh. “Smelled you coming,” he hissed.
There was just enough light from the cellblock to see the bruises on his cheeks, his left eye swelling shut. “Give me a break,” I said. “I just crawled through two hundred yards of crap. You ready?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” He raised a bandaged hand. “I won’t make it another month.”
I took Respect out of its bag, began stripping it to pieces. “You know this won’t solve your problems.”
“You’re wrong. You know the Sandman?”
I nodded. The Sandman had turned two generations of New Yorkers into heroin addicts, including yours truly. Now he resided inside Dickinson on a lifetime bid. I once delivered him some hardcover books, which make good body armor, because business is business.
“Sandman been beefing with my old man for years,” Ricky said. “Nobody can get close, he got too much protection in here.”
“You want to die?”
He shrugged. “Not leaving here anyway. Might as well go out a legend.”
I fished a pair of pliers out of my pocket and pried a hole in the grate, big enough to fit pieces of Respect into Ricky’s waiting hands. He reassembled the pistol with a speed that would have made a Marine proud. “Bullets?” he asked.
I passed them through, one at a time.
“Can you take a message?”
“Tell my old man I didn’t mean to talk.”
“Sure thing,” I said, retreating.
I figured I had a few hours to get out of town before Ricky held court with the Sandman. Sooner or later, the guards would discover how the weapon came in, but that was okay. It was a big country, with lots of prisons, filled with people who knew how to reach out when they needed a special delivery.