Babylon Boyz by Jess Mowry: all rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work by any means except short excerpts for use in reviews. The Kindle edition, to date, is the only legally authorized ebook or web-accessible edition of this work. If you find this book being offered anywhere else, either as a download or to be read online, it is there without the author's permission (aka STOLEN PROPERTY) and in violation of copyright law.

  Babylon Boyz

© 1997 - 2012 by Jess Mowry

   To Apollo

       “Hey, homo!"
       The boy tensed like a drive-by target. He scoped the scene in a glance, then spun like a dancer and leaped with an arm reaching skyward. The ball came out of the sun; a wild overshoot past the backboard. The boy's strong fingers made a casual capture and he landed lightly in big battered Cons on dry yellow grass.
       His grin was a secret flashed to his friends as he turned from
the taunts being howled at him from the court. Then he tossed the
ball over his shoulder like trash. It arced easily over the back-
board and dropped without skin through the hoop. The curses
cut off like an AK-47 cleaning its clip, replaced by mutters of reluctant respect. But the boy didn't look back, just grinned again at
his homies. The other two boys also smiled as if at some dirty but dusty joke, then all faced the rusty schoolyard fence and went on with their slow walk to nowhere.
       The trio paused as Coach came puffing across the dead yellow weeds and mush-colored dust that passed for a playing field. Again the boys exchanged secret smiles, which probably looked more like smirks to the man. Coach was big, beefy and beer-bellied, stuffed in a
rat-colored track suit streaked with heavy sweat stains. The boys waited chill. All wore only faded gray gym shorts in addition to sneaks, and their black and brown bodies glowed warm in the sun. But their faces went cold, showing nothing, and there was no nervous shuffle of feet that might have betrayed an emotion.
       "Carefully, Coach, y'all have a coronary."
       It was the boy who had carelessly dunked, now standing between his two friends. Newly fourteen, he the was tallest, and his hard-muscled body could have been sculpted from coffee-brown bronze. His shoulders were wide, his biceps like baseballs, and his pecs high and jutting like a pair of small bricks, tiny nipples almost invisible. His torso tapered to a slender waist below an arch of rib cage above a perfect six-pack. His hands were strong and sinewed, and he held them paw-like to make instant fists. His face had fierce cheekbones, a determined jaw, a small pug nose like a newspaper boy’s, and above a high forehead his hair was a natural Afroish bush shading bright amber eyes. His mouth was proportioned to the leanness of his jaw, but full lips often made him look sulky. If his face had a flaw, it was somehow because of the teeth... too white, too big, and too often showing, as if his lips could only cover them with a conscious effort. He showed them now: the smile of a panther, which is not a smile but a warning.
       Maybe Coach caught the clue, because he stopped a few paces
away and seemed to avoid the muscled boy’s eyes.
       "I'm sorry for what the guys said, Pook. But it's hot, it's June, and they're... just being boys."
       Pook stretched as carelessly as he’d dunked, his muscles rippling with a natural grace that no bench-built body could match. The small sapphire stud in his left earlobe winked in the sun like a tiny blue spark. The boy was too beautifully male, and the man couldn't watch him without being scared. To cover he cleared his throat.
       "That was a hell of a shot, Pook. Why don't you get in the game with us... and try-out for the team? There's no reason you always gotta be out here walkin' laps."
       With them.
       The last two words didn't need to be said. They hung in the air like stink from a Dumpster. The boys traded smirks of contempt. Coach's eyes went to the one on the right and he let his disgust drop its mask.
       Wyatt might have been the fattest eighth-grader in all of West Oakland -- or maybe the world -- though no one knew how much he weighed because most scales only went up to 300. His chest was a pair of huge water-balloons that looked about ready to pop, their nipples inverted like soft little slits; his vast belly hung halfway to his knees with a navel like a railroad tunnel, and he had more rolls than a bakery truck. His mammoth bottom was always half bare -- more than half now in his straining shorts -- and looked like a pair of planets colliding. His face was as round as a dark-chocolate moon, his cheeks engulfing his wide snubby nose above a wobbly trio of chins, and his eyes were black coffee and often amused. His hair was woven in raven braids that tumbled over his massive shoulders and midway down his blubberey back. A slim silver chain encircled his neck -- or where a slimmer boy’s neck would have been -- and a tiny replica of a Krylon can nestled between the orbs of his chest.
       Coach often dissed Wyatt because the only thing wrong with fat kids was that they chose to be non-physically-motivated. He jerked a thumb toward the fence. "Keep walkin', blubber-butt!"
       But, Wyatt didn't move; just grinned and slapped his belly, which rippled like ocean waves. "Free Willy!"
       Coach's scowl deepened, but he forced his eyes back to Pook. "You're good. That's all that matters in the game. And... there's really nothing wrong with you."
       Pook's grin widened to show even more teeth. "Sure there is, Coach. I can't think straight."
       Coach winced as if slapped, and the boy on Pook's left started to snicker. Pook's stony chest heaved in a movie-set sigh. "Oh pleeeze, Coach! I wanna get all hot an' sweaty chasin' air-filled objects around! That make me a real boy! "
       Coach's mud-colored cheeks took on a pink tone. "Just what in hell do you want to be?"
       Pook's grin faded, though his lips wouldn't close all the way. "A doctor, you ‘phobic ol’ fool!"
       Coach's eyes narrowed, but he fought back his anger. "Uh huh! Where you gonna get money for college, cupcake? And then for medical school? I’m talkin’ a lot of thousands... boy! You figure all them A's you gettin' in this suckhole gonna score you points in the real game? You can slide by here with a B average by just not pullin' a gun on your teacher! ...And, you're a fool if you think them college admissions people don't know that! You'd be a natural for a basketball scholarship if you'd make the right choice!"
       Pook only smiled his smile that wasn't and stepped forward a pace. He held out his hand in a casual fist, showing scarred knuckles. "This slow you what choices I got?"
       Coach was easily twice Pook's size, but he took a step back. These boys bothered him because they couldn't be bullied or brainwashed into being team players: Wyatt wasn't the ashamed of his fat, and Pook defied every rule in the book. In a last-ditch effort to save at least one, Coach turned to the boy on Pook's left. "Dante? Why don't you get in the game? You don't belong with these losers."
       Thirteen, Dante had small, kid-muscles -- the kind that came with genes, not exercise --  tightly defined under skin the shade of a moonless midnight, though he still had a childish tummy. His hands were slender and fine, with delicate fingers that might have been able to spin silken webs. His soot-colored hair was a jungle of dreadlocks that trailed down over his chest and back. The dreads framed an angular, narrow-jawed face and shadowed large eyes the blackest of blacks that were almost half-hidden by long silky lashes. His nose was a small-bridged, wide-tipped snub above pouty lips that could easily smile, and his feet looked lion-cub large in big battered Nikes.
He wore a beaded necklace in colors of red, yellow, and green. Except for his wild Rasta mane, he seemed all Afro-American male and fit to be cast in most of the roles that young black men were expected to play. Maybe it took the eyes of his friends to see what Coach obviously couldn't? Even then it was hard to describe, but Pook had once said it best... Dante looked sort of scuffed; worn down from too many games like somebody’s hard-played B-ball.
       Pook draped a hard-muscled arm over Dante's shoulders and aimed eyes like amber lasers at Coach. "What you all about, fool? He don't got no choices at all!"
       Ignoring Pook, Coach studied Dante as if judging a pork chop. "I know what it says in your record, son. But, maybe you just need to exercise more? Your heart's just a muscle, and muscles get stronger with exercise."
       Wyatt waddled over to stand next to Dante. "Yo, beef brain! Your mind’s just a muscle, an' it probably never been exercised since you was housebroke!"
       Pook touched Dante's chest, spreading strong fingers as if to protect what beat underneath. "Hearts like his don't get no better! He need a operation, fool, not a bunch of health-nazi shit you got off the Web or TV!"
       Coach clenched massive fists. "Shut up, you...!" He took a deep breath then turned back to Dante, who looked like a pouty little black lion with an oversized mane. "So, why don't you have that operation, son? You can't improve your self-esteem without life-quality enhancement."
       Dante scowled. "'Cause operations cost money! Just like everythin' else entrance you in Babylon!”
       Coach snorted. "Don't try pullin' that phony Rastafarian, 'Babylon-stands-for-the-root-of-all-evil' bull crap on me! An' don't try to justify yourself as culturally victimized, either."
       Dante spit on the ground. "I got all the choices Babylon gave me."
       Coach glanced down at his shoe... Dante had missed, but not by much. "What about Children's Hospital?"
       "Been on the waitin' list all my life."
       Pook nodded. "They don't call what he got 'life-threatenin'.”
       "Yeah," Dante added. "You been snoopin' my records, you oughta know that. They told me if I take real good care of myself, I might even live to be thirty!" Then he smiled and touched Pook's shoulder. "Pook gonna do my operation. When he a doctor."
       Shouts and curses carried from the court, where a fight had broken out. Coach spun around. "Damn!" Then he glanced back at Dante. "You best take real good care of yourself if you gonna wait for him to help you! ...Make your will next week!" His eyes shifted to Pook and he let out a snort of disgust. "An' I sure don't know what God was thinkin' when he gave you a body like that! What a goddamn waste!" He broke into a clumsy run for the court.
       "Ol’ wack sufferin' from rectal-cranial inversion," muttered Pook.
       "Huh?" said Wyatt.
       "Got his head up his ass."
       Wyatt grinned. "Gots hydrophobia, too."
       "Nah, hydrophobia. Sucker still wet.”
       Pook looked down at himself, then turned to Dante. "Um...what he say, 'bout God...?"
       Dante smiled. "Jah don't make mistakes."
       "Nah," added Wyatt. "But He like a good joke once in awhile."
       "Oh, shut up," said Pook. Then he faced Dante again. "You okay, man? Ol’ fool didn't jack up your blood pressure?"
       Dante shrugged. "Take a lot more than his dissin' to drop me." He shook back his dreds, and a glitter of gold caught the sun from the ring in his ear. "C'mon. Coach gonna be spendin' the rest of this period dealin' with that fight. We can go chill behind the backstop."
       The boys continued their walk to the fence. Their pace seemed set to the slow steps of Wyatt, who looked like an earthquake in Jell-O, but it was Dante who wiped sweat from his face and sucked breath through his teeth as they crossed the dusty baseball diamond and slipped into a slim strip of shade behind the backstop. He sank down against the rotten old boards, and Pook knelt quickly beside him.
       "Put your head between your knees, man. It help."
       Dante lowered his head, the long locks hiding his face. "Yeah. Thanks."
       Again, Pook put his palm to Dante's chest. "You gonna get palpitations?"
       "Nah, I can always feel them comin'. Just need to chill a minute, is all."
       Wyatt was looking toward the court, where fists were still flying despite frantic blasts of Coach's whistle. "Dante’s right. He ain't gonna get them thuggers peaced 'fore the bell." He subsided roll upon roll  beside Dante and blew out a satisfied sigh.
       Dante's breath was coming a easier now. "Wonder what they fightin' about today?"
       Wyatt shrugged. "What boys always fightin' about... who gonna be the Alpha.”
       Pook rose to a crouch to scope the court through the backstop’s rusty mesh, then snorted and sat down again. Wyatt kick-backed with his arms behind his head. Pook glanced around, then his bright amber eyes flicked to the street beyond the barbed wire and chain-link fence.
       "Our little homeless brother back."
       Dante raised his head and brushed back his locks. It was about fifty feet from the backstop to the fence, where a small figure stood on the sidewalk outside, fingers clutching the mesh like a prisoner, gazing in at the boys. "Poor little B," Dante murmured.
       Wyatt shrugged again. "Just another little black ant waitin' to get stepped on."
       "Nobody choose bein' homeless," said Pook.
       Dante was still studying the kid. "Ever check how he look sorta different? Like he from somewheres else?"
       "Bet he wish he somewheres else!" said Wyatt. He gave the kid a glance. "He do look kinda strange. ...'Course, you look a little strange too if you cribbed at the Dumpster Hotel." Wyatt gave the kid a more critical scoping. "But he been eatin' regular. Swear he get fatter every day."
       Pook laughed."So do you.”
       “Just a little thing I do.”
       Pook cocked his head. "Funny, I think I seen him before. ...Somewheres else, what I sayin’."
       Dante crossed his arms on his knees and rested his chin on top. "Don't think I forget seein' a a dude like that. ...Check out his clothes, all dirty an' old. Maybe he eatin' at one of them malnutrition management centers or somethin', but ain't been nobody takin' care of him for a long time."
       Pook scanned the kid. "Big belly like that can come from not havin' enough food. Like them poor kids in Africa."
       Dante nodded. "Yeah. An' check out his hair, all nappy an' wild."
       "He never talk much," added Pook. "'Cept axin' us for money."
       Wyatt shrugged again. "What else you 'spect him to say? Ain't like he'd have a lot to talk about."
       Dante sighed. "Everbody gots a story in Babylon, but nobody wanna hear 'em. ...I'ma give him my lunch dollar again. I hate seein' little kids beggin'."
       "Some of 'em only doin' it for rock money," said Wyatt.
       "Well, duh. But I don't figure he one of them."
       "Don't got the symptoms," agreed Pook. "You can always tell by the eyes."
      "Well, it your green, Dante," said Wyatt. "Anyhow, it Wednesday, all-you-can-eat meatloaf at mom's, so you can spare the change."
       Dante frowned. "I give him my dollar anyways.”
       “Scared of gettin’ fat?” asked Wyatt.
       “Oh, shut up, man. Dad say it be like kickin' one more brick out from under Babylon every time we help each other."
       Wyatt jerked a thumb toward the boys still fighting on the court. "An’ stupid suckers like them jam ten bricks right back in for every one you kick out!”
       Dante got to his feet. Pook rose, too, and reached into his shorts. "Gots me a quarter, I give him that."
       Both boys looked down at Wyatt, who groaned.
       "I just wanna sit here till the bell ring!"
       Dante smiled. "Aw, c'mon, man. Kick a brick."
       Wyatt sighed, then struggled to his feet with Pook and Dante’s help. "Okay,” he puffed. “I'm in for a quarter. Down with Babylon."
       The boys went to the fence. The kid on the sidewalk waited, his fingers still clutching the mesh, looking like a child locked out of somebody’s birthday party. His clothes were ragged and dirty: a baggy jail jacket of faded blue denim, and a grimy T-shirt that might once have been white, above old jeans that looked almost like leather, and ancient Adidas with mismatched laces. A greasy black X cap was clamped backward on a woolly-wild bush of rusty-red hair.
       There were many mixed kids in Oakland, and at first glance he  seemed to be one, yet Dante still wondered if this boy could be from some other land. Lots of black people had rust-colored hair, but this kid's just somehow seemed different. His face looked foreign, too: broad at the cheekbones but tapering to a V-shaped chin like an elf’s. His nose was bridgeless but very wide. His mouth was also wide, but his lips just full enough to give it expression. His eyes were set some distance apart in a way that went well with the width of the cheeks. They were large and bronze-toned with a shading of green. The kid's complexion was a beautiful brilliant brown, like fresh cocoa powder, but his lips were a rich ruby red, like pictures of apples in grocery store ads. His face was dirty, the sooty-streaked look that belonged to the homeless who couldn’t wash anywhere, but if you scoped really close you could make out a dusting of freckles over his nose. The small fingers laced in the fence could have been half-sized copies of Dante's, but the kid's fingernails showed crescents of dirt. He looked a young thirteen and still mostly childlike... that age when some boys are more pretty than handsome. The big baggy jacket was buttoned even in the afternoon heat and hid most of what might have been a baby-chub body, except for the bulge of a big round belly. Dante's eyes saddened a little as he flashed the peace sign and offered his dollar.
       The kid’s fragile brown fingers curled tight on the winkled old paper, but his green-tinted eyes met Dante's black ones and saw no mockery there. He accepted the dollar with dignity. His voice had a high, husky squeak as if it wasn't used much. "Thanks."
       There were crinkly metal sounds as he shifted to pocket the bill, and Dante saw that the jacket's flap pockets were stuffed with aluminum cans. He exchanged glances with Wyatt, who stepped up held out his coin.
       Pook was carefully scanning the kid as he offered his quarter. The kid gave Pook a scope in return, seeming to admire his body, then said thanks again before turning to go.
       Pook's voice was gentle. "Yo, man."
       The kid turned around with a crinkle of cans. "Yeah?"
       Pook smiled, looking a lot more handsome than pretty. "That the first time you say somethin’ ‘cept thanks."
       The bronze-green eyes searched Pook's to see if he was being dissed. "Sooo... what should I say?"
       Dante smiled, too. "Try tellin' us your name first." He pointed. "That Wyatt, he’s Pook, I'm Dante."
       The kid met the other boys' eyes, seeming more shy than suspicious now. "I'm Radgi. Thanks for the money."
       "Kick a minute, man," said Pook as the kid turned to leave once more. "You cool, brother? ...Y'all ain't sick or nothin'?"
       "I'm okay." A mix of expressions crossed the kid's face, the last a small smile. "Are you? I never see you playing games."
       Pook shrugged. "Gots me a handicap."
       The kid studied Pook again. "What?"
       "He allergic to moose," said Wyatt.

       "Mooses," said Dante. "There's a lot more than one."

       "Still moose," said Wyatt.

       "What?" asked Radgi.

       Wyatt glanced at Pook. "You gonna say it, or should 1?"
       Pook shrugged. "I gay, man."
       The kid's eyes went wide in wonder. “You? You sure don't look gay!"
       “You oughta see him on Christmas mornin’,” said Wyatt.
       Radgi asked, "Um, does anybody else know?"
       Pook grinned. "Everybody know, even it ain't nobody's business.”
       “You do show it off,” said Wyatt.
       “No I don’t, I just bein’ me.”

       "To them that's showin' off. Like wavin’ a red flag in front of moose.”
       “I thought that was bull,” said Dante.
       “Bulls,” said Wyatt, but don’t go there.”

       Radgi smiled. "Now I know why you're always out here instead of playing with the other boys."
       "He'd like to play with the other boys," said Wyatt.
       Pook snorted. "Oh, shut up, man, I got values."
       Wyatt grinned and slapped his huge belly, making it wobble all over. "Figure why I always out here?"
       Radgi smiled again. "I think you look cool. You aren't somebody a little kid would be scared of."
       "I dunno," muttered Pook. "He might want to eat 'em."
       Wyatt punched his shoulder. "Oh, shut up, or I might make believe you a cupcake."
       Then, Dante felt Radgi scanning him. He'd never given much thought about how he looked, but the interest in Radgi's eyes now sparked a sensation of pride. It was stupid, but he suddenly wanted to puff his small chest.
       "Um?" asked Radgi. "Are you gay, too?"
       Dante tried not to frown, as if he’d been caught flexing in a mirror. "No. There somethin' wrong with my heart. My mom was on crack when she had me... She died."
       "...Oh. I'm sorry." And Radgi did look sorry... more than Dante would have thought.
       "So," said Pook. "What wrong with you, Radgi? " He aimed a finger at the kid's jutting belly. "You gettin' enough to eat?"
       Radgi looked uncomfortable and tugged at his baggy jacket. "Sure."
       Wyatt asked, "You ain’t shy ‘bout bein’ fat? That only shows haters where to stick the knife.”
       “I’m not shy!”
       "Well,” said Pook. “Ever been checked by a doctor? You could have worms."
       "Worms!" Radgi drew back a pace. "No! I'm... just a little chubby, that's all. And I’m not shy about it!”
       "Yo, Radgi,” said Dante. “It cool. Pook gonna be a doctor. He always axin' stuff like that."
       "...Oh." Radgl's eyes returned to Pook. "You know about doctor things?"
       "Oh sure... well, a little. Got me a medical book."
       "He really up on all that," said Wyatt. "Dude we know got shot in a drive-by. Right here in the side, man. Couldn't go to no hospital 'cause five-oh woulda drilled him. Pook took out the bullet with nothin' but  some tweezers. I got pictures."
       “Cool!" said Radgi.
       Dante pushed his dreads back to show the gold ring in his ear.
"Pook done this for me when he was only eleven. Like, his first operation. An', he gonna be fixin' my heart in a few more years."
       Radgi's eyes returned to Pook, and Dante felt something strangely like envy. He kicked the toe of his sneak in the dirt. But then Radgi came closer to the fence.
       "Those are way cool dreads, Dante. And that's a real pretty necklace, too."
       "Uh... oh. Thanks, man. My dad give me that. It from Jamaica."
       "Are you a real Rastafarian?”
       "Well, I don't smoke ganja... gives me headaches... but I believe in Jah, an' tryin' to love people, don't matter if they rate it or not."
       Suddenly, Pook's head came up, alert, as the skip-firing thunder of a huge V-10 engine bumped rumbling vibrations down the street. Radgi looked uneasy and moved backward against the fence. Dante, Pook, and Wyatt clutched at the mesh like prisoners and stared up the block as a burly black beast on four massive tires cruised toward them.
       "Oh, maaan," Dante sighed. "I in love!"
       "Oh, sure," muttered Pook.
       Wyatt stared at the oncoming car, so black it glowed like a hole in the day. "The hell is that?”
       “Viper," sighed Dante, clinging to the fence like a crucified kid, the mesh pressing X patterns into his chest. "Eight-liter engine, four hundred horses, zero to sixty in four-point-five seconds!"
       Wyatt shrugged. "Don't cream your jeans. So, how much a ride like that cost?"
       "Fifty big bills."
       "Oh. Chump change."
       Dante frowned. "A Porsche cost almost a hundred!"
       "Yeah but you get a roof.”
       "Oh, shut up."
       "I think the Viper rocks,” said Pook.
       Wyatt grinned. "Ain't doctors s'posed to want Beamers or Audis?"
       "Oh, shut up.”
       "Well," said Wyatt. "Somebody makin' it in Babylon, rollin' wheels  like that."
       Dante's eyes narrowed as the car came closer. "Ain’t hard to figure how he got his green."
       Pook stretched to his full height, then raised up on tiptoes, squinting into the sun glare reflected from the Viper's metal-sheathed muscle. "Oh, maaan!”
       "What?" asked Wyatt.
       Pook sank down on the soles of his Cons. "I in love!"
       Dante poked him in the side. "Get outta town.”
       "Well, I know he a punk, but a beautiful punk! I got hormones, too."
       “We know.” said Wyatt. "But, don't confuse 'em no more than they already are.” He shaded his eyes with his hand as the car slowed and came angling toward the sidewalk. "Shoulda knowed it be Air Touch. Really got over since he drop out school."
       Dante scowled. "Don't call what he do gettin’ over, ‘cause he only gettin’ over on us!”
       The Viper eased to a stop at the curb, thug-rap bumping from pile-drivers. The boy behind the wheel looked almost a part of the car. Like the machine, he seemed to be sculpted from midnight-black metal. His big shirtless body seemed all solid muscle: heavy-slabbed chest, bulging biceps, and a belly like ripples of stone. But his proportions were pumped and awkward from workouts. About
seventeen, his ebony face was too hard to be handsome, and his fade too perfect to fit him.
       Radgi had tensed, small hands clenching to little brown fists and crinkling the cans in his jacket pockets. "I gotta go."
       The boy in the car killed the engine and hopped over the door to the sidewalk. Two phones were clipped to his big sagger jeans, and his spotless new high-tops landed him silent on the dirty cement.
       "That you, Radgi?
       The kid hesitated, then took a defiant stance. "Yeah, it's me. So fucking what?"
       "Wondered where you got to. Down with what's up yet?"
       Radgi seemed to be shaking a little, as if wanting to leave but frozen by anger or fear. "Fuck you!"
       Dante sensed Radgi's helpless rage. Grabbing the fence mesh, he rattled it hard. "Leave him alone!"
       Air Touch turned toward the fence. "What you all about, bitch?" His gunmetal eyes considered the eight feet of link and barbed wire, then he grinned and stepped close, crossing his arms over his chest. "Well, check it out! Should be some kinda sign sayin' don't feed the monkeys!" He studied Pook for a moment, as if comparing the younger boy's body with his own, then looked back at Dante. "You the crack baby with the bad fuel pump. Careful, boy, you might get a vapor lock. 'Specially if somebody do... THIS!"
       Air Touch slammed the heel of his hand into the fence against Dante's chest. Dante staggered back, falling to his knees, his hands clutching over his heart. His eyes rolled up and he sucked air in gasps.
       Pook's body snapped tense as steel. Cursing, he almost leaped up to scale the fence, but then dropped to the dirt beside Dante, his arms going around Dante’s shoulders. "Lay back, man. On the ground. Here, I help you."
       Air Touch laughed, watching Pook lay Dante down. Dante's eyes were squeezed shut and his small chest heaved for breath. Air Touch stepped to the fence, gripping the links and grinning again.
       "Yo, Rasta boy! Thought Jah-love s'posed to fix anythin'! ...An', you, faggot! Try kissin' him all better! Best do it quick, 'fore he die of a broken heart!"
       The crackle of cans was the only warning. Too late, Air Touch spun around as Radgi slashed out with a box knife. The razor ripped across Air Touch's up-flung forearm, and a spurt of bright blood spattered the sidewalk. Air Touch cursed and leaped back, easily dodging the next clumsy slash. His eyes flew wide in surprise for a second, but then slitted in fury. Blood dripped from his arm, but his lips back curled in a smile. His hand dipped into his pocket and came out with a switchblade. The knife was old but looked well made and not some piece of Chinese junk. He thumbed the button and the steel snicked out, gleaming deadly bright in the sun. He held the knife almost delicately, like a doctor would hold a scalpel when he knew exactly where he was going to cut. He smiled once more as Radgi edged away. "You step to the wrong man, little bitch!"
       But then another metallic click sounded, and Wyatt's voice
cut steady and strong. "Back off, shithead!"
       Air Touch froze. The only movement was his eyes, flicking to find Wyatt gripping a cheap little pistol with both chubby thumbs cocked on the hammer. The small gun seemed toylike against Wyatt's bulk, but Air Touch carefully lowered his knife. His big pumped-up body seemed to deflate like a punctured truck tire. For a few seconds there was only the sound of Dante's desperate breaths. Then a new expression crossed Air Touch's face... almost curiosity.
       "How you get that past the metal detector?"
       Wyatt's eyes never wavered, but he lowered one hand to pat his belly. "Even you could figure that out."
       Air Touch tried a smile. "Hey, you all that, big brother."
       Wyatt snorted. “Spare me the brother bullshit, boy! You ain't even the same species as us!" Gripping the gun in both hands again, Wyatt aimed square at Air Touch's chest. "Lose the blade... reptile! Carefully! Then crawl in your showtime snakemobile an' slither your slimy ass back to the sewer!"
       Heat shimmered up from the sidewalk, but that wasn't why Air Touch was sweating. Eyes on the gun, he folded the knife and eased it back into his pocket. Then he held up both palms and backed toward the car. Wyatt poked the gun muzzle through the mesh and kept him locked in the sights. "Carefully ‘brother!’ I know you gots steel in there, but don't even think about it!"
       One of Air Touch's phones bumped a thugger tone. He almost jumped out of his skin. Radgi's high-husky voice carried above the tinny thump.
       “Maybe it's your mommy. Time to go home for milk and cookies!"
       Air Touch reached to cancel.
       "Carefully, boy," Wyatt reminded.
       Sweat trickled down Air Touch's face and gleamed on his muscle-bulked body as he punched the tiny button. He slipped a hand behind him to grasp the door handle. "I gotta use my hand, man... to turn the key... an’ shift.”
       "One hand, boy!” warned Wyatt. “Keep the other one on the wheel!"
       Opening the door, Air Touch slowly slid in, but then paused to give Radgi a look. "Nowhere to run, bitch. Remember that!"
       The kid just flipped a fragile brown finger.
       A bell jangled back at the school building. On the ground, Dante was struggling to sit up with Pook's help. His breath still came hard, but he managed to gasp, "Shit! We gonna get tardies!”
       "Not if we don't take showers," said Pook.
       Air Touch fired the Viper's engine.
       "Carefully!" Wyatt called again, the gun held steady as Air Touch shifted into first and the black car thundered away.
       Then, Radgi ran to the fence. "Dante! You okay?"
       Dante nodded. "Ain't as bad as it look... only a little one."
       Wyatt watched the Viper as it retreated down the street, then glanced across the school yard where the rest of the class was headed for the gym. "Bell always stop the fights, even if Coach can't.” He lifted a handful of blubber and stashed the little gun somewhere underneath, then turned to Radgi. "Yo, man! What you done took balls, slicin’ Air Touch! Wish I had my camera!"
       Dante got to his feet with Pook's help. "You cool, Radgi?"
       Radgi met Dante's eyes. Dante wasn't sure what the look carried, concern or sympathy. He suddenly realized that he'd been seeing that look for most of his life. It stirred something inside him now, something almost like anger that a homeless hood-rat might be feeling sorry for him.
       "I’m okay," said Radgi. "Um, maybe I'll see you brothers around? Carefully, Dante."
       Dante turned away, now feeling ashamed that it took so little to put him on his back. "Yeah. Carefully, Radgi."
       Wyatt took Dante's arm. "C'mon! Don't need no detention!"
       Dante shook free of Wyatt's hand. "I can walk by myself!"
       They headed off across the dusty field, and Pook glanced over his shoulder. "I know I seen him somewhere before."


                                             End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.