Authors: J.V. Roberts
Tower of the Dead
Copyright 2015 by J.V. Roberts
For Rod Lynch, gone but never forgotten.
Other Books by J.V. Roberts
The Rabid: Rise
The Fall of Man: The Saboteur Chronicles
My old block was bulldozed last year to make way for coffee shops and strip malls; those places with the window displays filled up with the sort of glittery shit folks like me and mine can’t afford. We knew the move was coming. The big shots in the suits had already knocked on our doors with the papers and the sheriff in tow and we could see the buildings going up to the east. I’ve never seen something built so fast; they couldn’t get em’ up fast enough.
Folks did what they do; they protested, marched in the streets with cardboard signs, yelling and screaming for their rights. Couple of em’ got their heads knocked in and their eyes filled up with pepper spray. Not me, no sir, I stayed home and I packed. I’m not one for standing in front of speeding trains. The ones in charge, the ones shuffling the papers and signing their names on the dotted lines, if they wanna move us, then they’re gonna move us; won’t be happy till they push us right out of the goddamn city.
Some, like my wife, say we should not just sit around and take it, and I agree. But a man like me, a man with a family, I’ve gotta pick my battles, and I’ve gotta fight them smart, not hard. Besides, won’t be too long now; I’m saving up some money. Gonna move us out of here. Someplace quiet and out of the way. Fix up cars for a living. My land, my rules, and ain’t nobody gonna push me off.
The brakes squeal and the bus lurches to a halt. This is my stop, my new neighborhood, the Sheldon Taylor Projects. It looks a little different than the last place we lived; less trees, more high rises, more liquor stores, less food trucks. But it’s still familiar, same faces doing the same things.
As I approach my building, I can see Cecil slouched down in his folding chair against the wall, the brim of a dirty ball-cap pulled low over his eyes. He lifts it at the sound of my footsteps.
“How’s it hanging, old timer?”
“Low and lonely.” He pushes himself up in the chair. “What ya got there, Markus?” He points to the package under my arm, wrapped up in a dirty shop towel.
I hold it out and pull away the towel like some magician.
“What on earth?” Cecil reaches a calloused hand towards the contraption and then rips it away as if he’s afraid the damn thing is gonna bite him.
I laugh. “It’s a hatchet.”
“Don’t look like no hatchet I ever saw.”
“Been working on it at the shop these past few weeks; made the handle out of an old axle from a junker that came through.”
“Things that slow over there, you ain’t got nothing better to do?”
“I don’t know what world you’re living in, old man, but two doors got kicked in on thirteen last week, another got kicked three weeks ago on eight; man’s gotta protect himself.”
“So, be like normal folks and get a gun.”
I wrap the piecemeal weapon and tuck it back under my arm. “You know how Tasia feels about guns.” Her brother was shot to death in Louisiana two years before we met, by a couple of punk asses looking for a new pair of shoes. They didn’t even get the laces untied before someone else came along and spooked them off; it was too late by then, he bled out long before the ambulance showed.
“How does she feel about you making weapons when you’re supposed to be putting food on the table?”
“I guess I’m about to go find out.” I slap him on the shoulder. “See you later, Cecil.” I jog up the steps as a sedan with green spoke rims creeps down the street behind me, shaking the earth with the deep bass coming from the speakers in the trunk; my wife calls it a hood lullaby.
The Golden Boys are in the lobby, the usual spot where they set up shop to run their dope game. They guard the stash and keep a young one out on the corner to negotiate all the deals. He comes in, hands them the money, and they give him the product to bring back to the customer.
Me and the Golden Boys, we tolerate each other; they come with the neighborhood. They eye me hard as I come through the door. There are six of them spread across the room. Three leaning against the elevator (which has been broken for over a month now), two standing near the entrance to the stairwell (where they keep their stash), and one standing in the middle of the room with his arms crossed. I’m surrounded by no less than seven guns (Tone-Tone, the one in the middle of the room, likes to keep a strap on his ankle in addition to the piece tucked into the front of his jeans).
“How’s business, fellas?” I’m just trying to thin out the tension enough to make it to the stairwell.
“Be better once you get your greasy ass on out of here,” Tone-Tone says, cocking his head and folding his hands at his waist.
, that’s a classic. They’ve used it on me before. I’m assuming—though they’ve never confirmed or denied—that they’re referring to my work coveralls, which are covered with an accumulation of the grime and grease stains from the cars that I’ve worked on over the past two years (there’s only so much a washing machine can do).
I absorb the verbal blow the same way I have the others in the past and approach the door to the stairwell. The two men standing in my way are wearing oversized tee shirts with gold logos, gold chains, and have gold grills in their mouths. They barely allow me enough room to squeeze through sideways; their squad mates in the lobby laugh hysterically as I strain to make it. The two gang members follow me into the stairwell to make sure I don’t mess with their stash. I hit the stairs and keep a rapid pace, feeling their eyes drilling a hole through my back as I ascend; I don’t let up until I hit the second landing.
“Punk ass motherfucker!” one of the men yells after me before letting the door slam home.
I pause for a moment to collect myself. I only gotta put up with this for a little longer; a year or two, maybe, at the most. This is me just paying my dues. It’ll all be dust off my shoulders soon. Not asking for much, just a little house at the end of some dirt road with a garage and some shade; that’ll do me and mine just fine.
I pace myself once I get going again. I’ve been hiking these stairs for a month, I should be in better shape by now, but I’m always panting by the seventh floor, my brow dripping with sweat. Just as I’m turning to hike my way up to the eighth, the door to the seventh-floor hall opens up and Paul, the building maintenance man, appears, toolbox in hand.
“Going up?” I ask
“Oh, no, got one more job down on four and then I’m calling it a day,” he says, his thick Swedish accent filling up each word. I don’t really know how to say it, but his accent makes it sound like he’s smiling even when he ain’t. Paul sticks out around here, ain’t no doubt about it. But no one messes with him. Folks know better than to mess with the man that fixes their toilets.
“You didn’t happen to get that elevator working yet, did you?” I’m only half-joking as I wearily eye the next flight of stairs.
“Afraid not, no; city still hasn’t sent me the part.”
“Little duct tape and a prayer should do the trick, that’s what my momma used to use.”
“Oh, don’t I wish.” He laughs. “Less work for me.”
“Alright then, Paul, you take it easy.”
Ten minutes later and I am standing in front of my apartment. My legs are cramped to hell and I’ve barely got the strength to lift the key into the lock. Thankfully, my wife has some sixth sense. The door swings open and I’m greeted by Tasia’s effortless beauty (her real name is Latasia, but I’ve called her Tasia since our first date). I’d say she’s as pretty as the day I met her, but that’d be a lie; she’s prettier. I swear this woman is aging backwards: almond eyes, them full lips, silky hair falling in clumps across her shoulders; she’s also wearing them jeans she knows I go crazy for, the ones ripped up in the knees and thighs.
She hides her smile behind a closed fist as she looks me over from head to toe. “Elevator still broken or did you go for a swim?”
I charge in at her, wrap an arm around her waist, and spin into the apartment with her as she giggles and squeals and pounds lightly at my shoulders; it’s a daily greeting ritual for us.
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry; put me down.”
I set her down in the kitchen and return to close the door and bolt it shut.
“How was work?” she asks as I walk into the kitchen. She’s got something boiling on the stove and is munching off a stack of chopped vegetables piled on top of a green cutting board.
“Slow.” I sniff the boiling pot and swipe a slice of carrot from the board. “If Tomas don’t stop giving free labor to charity cases, we ain’t never gonna make no money. I think word must be spreading around the city ‘cause everyone that comes through seems to have a sad story; he just eats it up.”
“Maybe he’s just nice, you ever think of that?” She winks at me over her shoulder as she deposits a dash of salt into the rolling liquid.
“Let him be nice on his own dime. I’ve still gotta put food on the table and put some money back so we can get the hell up outta here.”
She walks over and leans on the counter as I step into the living room and drop the towel-wrapped hatchet onto the cushions of our threadbare, brown couch. “I’ve told you before, I can get a job.”
“And I’ve told you before, no you can’t. I want someone home with Alisa. Where is that girl?” My daughter usually has her arms wrapped around my thigh by now, begging me to take her for something cold and sweet, a request that I give into on a nightly basis, something that causes my wife no small amount of exasperation. But she don’t say nothing. She knows my baby girl has me wrapped around her little finger and that I’m powerless to resist her.
“She’s down playing with that little Rhonda girl.”
“What little Rhonda girl?”
“I don’t know, some little girl down on thirteen that she knows from school.”
“I ain’t never met no Rhonda.”
“I met her and her folks once over at the market; seemed nice. She’s fine.”
I’m not worried about her as much as I am jealous. This is daddy and daughter time. I don’t get to see the little brat all day and she’s due for bed in a few hours (school comes early). “Well, alright then.”
“What’s that?” Tasia has finally taken notice of the package on the couch. She cocks a hip and fixes me with that look: raised eyebrow, tongue pinched between her lips, already preparing herself for the worst.
I begin negotiating before I even make it back to the couch. “Listen, so you know how those doors have been getting kicked in?” I pick up the package and hold it out to her as if making an offering to some powerful god; she is not pleased. I begin to unwrap it as I speak. “Things have been slow at work these past few weeks and we had some scrap parts just sitting around, so I figured I’d see what I could come up with, you know, figuring that we could use something around here for home defense.” I hold the hatchet above my head with a smile, hoping she’ll be impressed by my ingenuity.
She’s not. “Nuh uh, you didn’t.” Tasia is shaking her head. “What in the world is the matter with you, Markus? You lost your damn mind?”
“I don’t like weapons in the house, Markus, you know that!”
“You don’t like guns.”
“You know what, don’t even talk to me right now!” She turns back to the stove, holding her hands up in surrender.
“Babe, it’s to keep us safe.”
“To keep us safe?” She slams a wooden spoon against the counter. I jump a little bit. “What if Alisa gets hold of that?”
“I’ll teach her how to use it.”
“Teach her how to use it?” Tasia is back at the counter now, hands on her hips. “Have you lost your goddamn mind? Is it the exhaust fumes from being in that garage all day?”
“See, now you’re just being insulting.”
“Nah, Markus, I’m trying to understand you. This ain’t the Middle Ages, we don’t live in a castle, I don’t see no one wearing armor around here. You’re wanting to teach our daughter to use a hatchet. On what? Where you gonna teach her? Out back of the building in front of the dope boys, dancing around in that nasty ass canal?”
“Use your damn head, Markus!”
I’ve had enough; it’s not worth the fight. “You…fine, you know what? I’ll bring it back tomorrow!”
“Good!” She goes back to stirring the pot, shaking her head and mumbling profanity.
I wrap the hatchet back up in the towel and walk into the kitchen. I place it on top of the refrigerator and hesitantly approach her from behind, wrapping my arms around her waist and placing them flat against her stomach. “I’m sorry.” I nuzzle her neck; my words are muffled against her skin. “I just worry about ya’ll. It’s my job to keep ya’ll safe.”
She sighs. She’s always been quick to anger and quick to forgive. “I know, babe. I overreacted. I’m just…I still don’t feel safe with weapons in the house. Maybe one day, but I’m just not there yet.”
“Say no more, I’ll bring it back up to the garage tomorrow. I’m sure Tomas will be happy to have it. He’s a single man, no woman at home to keep him in line.”
She turns and wraps her arms around my neck, a big smile on her face. “I love you.”
“I love you more, babe.”
“The food is almost ready,” she says, letting go of me to shuffle through the cabinets for plates and bowls.
I undo the top two buttons on my coveralls. “It’s a furnace in here.”