The air was thick but cool on lonely Seagull Street in Camden, New Jersey. While crickets and cockroaches were the scourge in surrounding cities, gunshot and glass-breaking were average ambient annoyances. This made William Glover uneasy as he tapped the face of his watch, which had stopped at 8:13 and refused to come back to life. Double checking the correct time of 12:48 on his car clock and cell phone, he nervously eyed the door to a house in its thirties. He had checked the time four times now, only seeing a change once.
“Twelve-fifty and I’m going inside.”
“Stay until one. I heard something interesting today, from an older student.”
There was a girl with messy, dyed blond hair sitting in the passenger seat of his silver SUV. She was cute. She was younger than 18, but dressed like she was older than 25. She was loud. She flipped the overhead mirror down, applied cherry lip-gloss. “He said,” the girl continued, flicking wispy bangs from her eyes, “—the guy actually said that,” she lowered her voice as best as she could to impersonate, “to become a master you have to have a girlfriend for every cord. Every rank. And a good wife—‘cuz the girls don’t gotta’ be good.” She crinkled her nose up, as if she had smelled something bad. “He added that last part as if it was nothing! Can you believe that? So, I asked him, what if you’re a girl who wants to become—Hey! Are you listening?”
“I saw something about—a few minutes ago.” He tapped his driver’s side window. “Over there.”
“It was probably just a cat.”
“Out of the corner of my eye. I don’t know. It was dark.”
“The nighttime is dark. There are a lot of strays around.” The girl giggled and wiped the corners of her mouth while looking in the mirror. “I had pepper in my teeth!”
“Right there, between my front tooth and the pointed one.”
“What? Your canine?”
“And you didn’t say! Hey!—why do they call them canines?”
“Because dogs have them. I don’t know. Look, go inside.” He shifted in his seat. “I’m right behind you.”
“Does that make you a dog, Willy?”
“What? I don’t know. Don’t call me that.”
“But I want a way to feel special. And you call me Vic. And you’re cute like a pug.”
“We spent the day together.” He resigned, relaxed his tense position, and smiled at her. “Pugs are cute?”
“Yes. Especially the puppies.” Victoria grabbed William by the hand and moved it to her stomach. He smiled and absent-mindedly moved his thumb back and forth across her dress. Vic brushed her hand against William’s face, the sticky smear of gloss on her thumb wiping across his lips. “Darling Ligeiro, don’t be mean to us.”
His nostrils flared and all he could think about was cherries. Cherries were sold in the market next to the whores. He was in another place: in Brazil. The memory of sounds of hustlers hitting whores, children cursing, and crashing glass bottles and windows caused his eyes to glaze over and Vic’s last words were interrupted.
A loud crack–that familiar glass-shattering sound–a startled shriek, and a feeling like warm milk being poured over his forehead snapped him back to reality and pushed him into darkness.
Someone suddenly said something in Portuguese.
The milk on William’s brow had trailed into his half-open mouth and tasted spoiled and metallic. When he opened his eyes, he wondered for a moment if it was cherry juice on his face. Was this what cherries tasted like? No. This was bitter. Blood. He attempted to investigate with his hands but was bound. And then William realized he was sitting inside a much younger house than he had been looking at earlier.
He was tied against a wooden, powder blue chair that was broken and missing its back. He imagined a similar fate for himself. The paint was peeling from the walls, a sickly yellowish color, even though the house was, at least, ten years younger. He had seen walls like this in Brazil—scrubbed meticulously by battered wives or drug gangs to wipe off the ruddy red stains; it left the same tacky tinge that destroyed walls and created a unique scent. Blood. The ironically haunting sound of a siren that would not help him trailed off in the distance. He assumed this had awoken him from his undesired slumber, and silently thanked the emergency howl of the vehicle.
“Contra-Mestre você fêz um erro,” said a figure in front of him, tapping a cold, heavy gun barrel against his face. He registered this phrase as unfriendly. He also knew that he was a contra-mestre—an almost-master of a Brazilian martial art called capoeira. But he was in New Jersey so none of that mattered. He attempted to respond back to the man but realized his mouth was full of the substance that definitely did not taste like cherries.
A muffled cry and a few gentle movements rocked his prison perch and he recognized the scent as belonging to Vic. “Why is she here?” he demanded in the same Brazilian tongue, chunky bits of blood spattering from his lips. “Victoria, are you all right?”
“Não pararia de gritar… Loud.”
“I didn’t ask you why she’s gagged.”
“Você morrerá,” the gunman threatened, suggesting violence with the weapon once more.
“Ok. All right. I’m actually fine with the gag.”
The man with the gun grunted.
The man without the gun groaned.
“Meu mestre está vindo,” he said, motioning to the door. “Soon. You wait.”
“Nobody has to die,” the tied man reminded his assailant. “No morra. No morte.” He wondered how much of his Portuguese he still retained after fifteen years in New Jersey.
The gunman was neatly dressed but had no shoes. He wore an all-white, clean, cotton outfit. William recognized the brown cord around the gunman’s waist by the way it was knotted. Negativo. The clothing the gunman wore had the appearance of a uniform but no emblems to indicate an affiliation with anything. It gave him an official look, though he seemed to be a lackey. He was probably seventeen years old. Twenty would be a shock.
The man on the baby blue broken chair was named Hector in Brazil. No one called him that anymore. Not even letters in his mailbox or phone solicitors called him by that these days. He had abandoned his name when he fled Brazil. In New Jersey, his business cards read ‘William Glover, Contra Mestre, Capoeira Brazil,’ which most found shockingly American for an athlete from Brazil. Nevertheless, his students lovingly and loyally called him Contra-Mestre Ligeiro—always.
Formed by African slaves in Brazil as a way to practice illegal martial arts all practitioners of capoeira had to take on second names. These names were used as code to protect them from bad men with killing weapons. Ligeiro, meaning “Agile” in Portuguese, thought how ironic this naming practice was to him at this moment. He thought he saw something that was not a cat. He thought this very thing up until the moment the cherry smell overwhelmed him. And now he thought the name had been a joke, given to him by the man who controlled the gunman. “Where is Negativo?” he said to the gunman.
A taller man, dressed in a dark suit with a white tie, entered the room. He was missing two teeth on the upper row, which he had replaced with gold: A true gangster. Gold canines? Where had William seen this? He could only see the shine of fangs when the tall man grinned wide—when he wanted him to see them. The fanged man folded his hands tightly in an overlapping ‘X’ arrangement and rubbed them quickly, the rings on his fat fingers clacking like soft bullet shots. He stopped, clicked his tongue, and the gunman retrieved a small mirror. “Meu fren’,” he said, using his pinky finger to clean his teeth. “Welcome.”
“Friend?” William arched his left eyebrow, causing the scarred area across his right brow to wrinkle comically. He was in his thirties, he guessed. He did not know his actual age. In Brazil, being born in the slums meant two things: no birth certificate and no hope. That was why he had left. He wanted to be educated—to educate his children. And if nothing else, his future son’s right eyebrow was at stake. He did not want his son having a bald spot where the hair refused to grow back, because a prostitute with a broken bottle believed an eight-year old boy had taken her heroine cash.
William never got children from his wife so he opted to open a school and teach martial arts. To him, his students were his children. He even named them as he had been named. He raised them. Taught them to fight, but also taught them to protect. The future of the girl tied behind him was all he could think of right now. This in mind, any sarcastic remarks he had for the man in front of him now stayed inside his blood-soaked mouth.
“Please, let Vic go and then we can talk, Mestre Negativo.”
He grinned his pointed, gold grin again at the mention of his title and William thought of a rabid dog that had attacked a man named George in Brazil; and then, of an online video Victoria had sent him of a fatal dog attack. The blood, staining the arms of the mother who tried to rip her child from its jaws. He had reported the video to the streaming service and it was quickly taken down. America was great, sometimes. In Brazil, people paid for that kind of “entertainment.” The flashy villain in front of William had personally hosted the blood baths. Being called “Negative Master” seemed to fit the sadist’s appearance. He was professional-looking, with not one black hair out of place on his greasy head. He had neatly trimmed eyebrows and straight teeth, which contrasted the gold in an unnaturally white gleam.
He placed his palms together.
He was a Master.
“No, I think I keep her. It ups da’ ran’sum. Ran’sum for her be very high. They want you return to Brazil. Money help dis’. You return ‘dere, you mestre.” He paused and unfolded his hands at the mention of mestre. Master Negative had not been in the United States long but enjoyed gangster movies. “Here, you got nothin’,” he snarled in his best impersonation of an authentic American mob boss. “In dis country, gotta’ make da’ money firs’. Den’ when get da’ money, get da’ powa’. Den’ when get da’ powa’, den’ get womans.” He turned his gate to slowly circle the man, lowering his head almost to his shoulders and keeping his gaze fixated on Not-Master Agile. “You only Contra-Mestre Ligeiro now. Means NOT Master.” Negative clapped his hands quickly in William’s face, but he did not flinch.
“I know what it means,” William said.
Negative barked out a laugh. “Same guy, dis’ Ligeiro. So strong.” Negative looked at Victoria. “But I bet you know dat’, girl?” He placed his hand on her stomach and then grabbed her so hard she screamed through her stifled expression. Negative’s lackey must have heard Vic mention the baby. William knew getting his attention back on mob movies would work. “And don’t butcher that quote.”
“Butcha’? Não, não, meu fren’, I no butcha’. Blades for da’ weak.” Negative held his hand out to the gunman. When his lackey responded by handing over the gun, Negative effortlessly grabbed the gun barrel, dove downward, lifted his leg backwards and around to trip and throw his own gunman. In lightning-fast motions, he pinned the gunman, removed his gun, and held it to the boy’s head. Victoria squeaked again. Negative let out another howl of laughter. William snapped his eyes shut and there was another familiar sound.
“Weak,” Negative said, dropping the gun.
“Still killing innocent children, I see,” said William. He had remembered this mongrel in an instant. He had told the hooker heroine-addict that Hector stole her money. Back when he was Hector. Back when he was like Victoria. Innocent.
“Pardon?” Negative said, stepping on the dead gunman as he slinked to Victoria. “Innocent?” He cackled as he tried to wipe off his blood-stained tie. “No innocent. Weak ones die. But you strong, Ligeiro.” Victoria was shaking but silent for the first time. Negative leaned his own face to hers and curled a strand of her golden hair around his index finger. “What pretty, clear eyes,” he continued, roughly pulling her hair to stare eye-to-eye. Negative’s eyes were blacker than pitch and they gave him the appearance of death. “Azul,” he whispered, holding the last syllable out in a growl. “But—innocent.” Negative removed Victoria’s gag.
“Puh-please,” she said. “My baby—you can’t.”
“Shhh,” Negative said. He replaced her gag. He grinned at William.
William made an attempt at heroics, shifting his strong shoulders forward and back. The bind was tight and he had known, five minutes into waking, that he could not struggle free if he was given a week to do so. Tsk, tsk. He knew what cats looked like. Cats weren’t six feet, five inches. This Brazilian thug wasn’t a cat. He was a dog and Victoria had become the pepper stuck between the two canines. William wished he had been kinder to her. He could have insisted she go inside at midnight like he wanted. He should have listened to his dead watch instead of tapping it and wondering if that morning’s beach trip had killed it. Sand in the cogs. Water. It was a deep-sea diving watch—a Rolex Vic gave him for his birthday—but he doubted its authenticity now. What he did not doubt was his own imminent internal clock stopping soon. He wondered what time it was. He became frustrated that his last thought might be what time is it? Moving his bound arm in phantom wristwatch-checking memory he recognized the bare feeling he only had in the shower and in bed—the only two times he took his watch off. He wished he had been kinder to her.
“I will give you as many watches as you want if you just let Victoria go.”
“What is d’is booh-sheet?” Negative ripped his hand away, pulling a few delicate strands from Victoria’s stifled but shrieking scalp.
“Your lackey took my watch,” William conceded, giving in to the gangster game.
“Meu lah-kee?” Negative’s eyes rolled wildly in his head, as if the words were literally making his thoughts toss and turn. He frowned and recoiled at the realization of this disrespect to the boss. “You mock me,” he yelled, something between a question and a statement. He would not let the Agile Not-master win. He cleared his throat, closed his eyes, and cocked his head back. “You fuck with me—you fuckin’ wit’ best!” Negative had obviously been watching Scarface more than any other movie, thought William. And Negative thought he was Tony Fucking Montana. But sadly, he was also fucking right.
Master Negative smiled his expensive grin again. He was staring straight at the gold band on William’s left ring finger. “Or jus’maybe you da’ fuckin’ best.” He laughed. “I guess you da’ mestre now. You ‘xactly like me.”
Not-Master Agile had been caught. That is why he had wanted to walk inside earlier. Why he knew it was no cat. He had been sitting stupidly in a brand-new car in the New Jersey ghetto and he knew better. Oh, how he wished that it had been a cat. Even a car jack—bash his skull in, throw the girl to the pavement, take the car, and split. But he had gone to Brazil when the dogs set in on Vic. Cherries, and the unusual peace of the Yankee ghetto, and the reassurance of the girl had all intoxicated him. He had just driven the girl who was supposed to be like a daughter to his home and he knew better. He was waiting for her to get out of the car and go inside, because he knew better. He didn’t want her to leave, and she didn’t want to leave, but that was beside the point—he knew better. She should have never been at his house the night before, and he should not have let the power go to his head. He knew if he was caught that his wife would divorce him, but besides knowing better, he did not care. Cherries were sweeter than barren orchards. Sweet-as-cherries Vic had told him—shown him—what it took to be a master, and although she thought the words to be naïve, he knew better.
He had no children of his own, but he had tasted cherry for a night, and now, now he knew better. He would never be a master of anything.
Rebecca Greer is an aspiring professional cheese and wine taster who wants nothing more than a dog-friendly hammock to be invented. When she was three, she wanted to join the circus or become a professional writer; sadly, her juggling skills were not up to par. She is a graduate of Rollins College and works as a technical writer in Huntsville, AL. Her 2018 goal is to cook better than her professional chef boyfriend. Wish her luck!
5 Questions with Rebecca Greer
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
RG: Honestly, it came from my head. Too many martial arts movies and scandal papers (guilty pleasure).
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
RG: Neil Gaiman or Edgar Allen Poe – but some believe these are the same man.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
RG: In my hammock because, come on, it is a flipping hammock (sometimes literally).
TD: Favorite word?
RG: Arapaima. It’s a fish in the amazon. I think I will name my next dog that.
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
RG: I have a collapsible hammock that I got online for $20. It’s hard as a board but moveable. This allows me to wander around and read (mostly in nature) but because it is stiff, requires me to take frequent breaks.