(view excerpts from this graphic novella-in-progress)
“During happy times, pride and extravagance
are dangerous. If one is not prudent in ordinary times,
he will not be able to catch up. A person who advances
during good times will falter during the bad.”
—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”
THEY RAN DOWN 31st Street NW. It was midnight. Man 1 carried a sack full of expensive items over his right shoulder. Both men headed to their van a block away at N Street NW. They might’ve parked closer if all the spaces outside the row house weren’t taken.
A cold wind and the snow-covered sidewalks said it was winter. Both men saw their breaths when they talked. The mist left their mouths and hovered over them like empty thought clouds.
It had been an easy job as Man 1 promised. No guns. The cold meant there’d be no couples strolling home from a romantic dinner at the Georgetown restaurants that lined M Street NW. There’d be no surprises. The block was quiet except for cars cruising through intersecting streets.
Bypassing the home security was a piece of cake. After cutting through the land-line with bolt-cutters, the system was ineffective. The men disabled the audible alarms by smashing the control panel once they got inside the house. Their dark clothing helped conceal them as they walked through the darkened rooms. Outside, they’d blend with the shadows of parked cars and bare trees.
The rich residents kept their windows bare for everyone to see their priceless artworks, grand pianos, and jeweled vases. Wasn’t it time someone showed these people what happened when they flaunted their excesses while others struggled just to survive.
Man 2 followed behind Man 1. The second guy smiled as he neared the getaway van until a kick to the ribs bounced him back, as if he’d ran and jumped against a rubber wall. The pain was a wild fire spreading through the forest of nerves while he lied on his back, next to the bag; its contents—his-and-her platinum Rolex watches, gold decorative plates, and several pieces of jewelry scattered over the street.
Man 1 wheeled around with his ivory-handle fixed blade out. He was startled by the figure standing before him at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. The pale white skin, red eyes, and bushy yellow afro almost threw Man 1 off his game. But he shook his fear. His combat knife, nearly the size of his forearm, did a dance in the air before he lunged at the figure, who sidestepped the attack. A strike to the bicep and wrist made Man 1 drop his weapon. A kick to the groin brought him down, and a blow to the head put him out cold.
The avenger tied up both men back to back against a lamppost before calling the Metropolitan Police Department. A civilian employee at the Second District Station picked up.
“Hey Case, I left you something,” the avenger said.
“What you got for me Cornbread?” the employee said.
“Two amateur burglars wrapped with a bow,” Cornbread said. “Call it an early Christmas present.”
“How the hell they get on your radar?”
Cornbread Othello was already at his car, a black Lexus ES300. It was a 1998 model that he bought used. Earlier that night, he parked it around the corner from the 7-Eleven. He was leaving with a beef patty and TropiKing all natural fruit punch when he saw the two men.
“I saw two dudes running; one had a sack over his shoulder,” Othello said. “I knew they weren’t Santa’s elves.”
Case chuckled. “We have cars patrolling the area.”
“What the hell’ve they been doing? Just hanging?”
The albino smiled. “Aight, peace!”
“Our bodies are given life from the midst
of nothingness. Existing where there is nothing
is the meaning of the phrase, ‘Form is emptiness.’
That all things are provided for by nothingness
is the meaning of the phrase, ‘Emptiness is form.’
One should not think that these are two separate
—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”
CASEY MALONE HUNG UP the phone. He radioed a car patrolling Georgetown to make the pickup. That normally wouldn’t have been his duty since he wasn’t a dispatcher, a job usually held by civilians and retired officers. Dispatchers had their own building where they answered and sent emergency calls and assignments through a police radio to officers out patrolling.
As a civilian employee assigned to work from the station, Casey wasn’t on the street responding to 911 calls, and he was OK with that. He’d seen enough action as a Marine in Afghanistan, where he served with Cornbread. The news reports of blown up hummers and soldiers living with lopsided heads, after having parts of their skulls blown off, were G-rated next to everything else Case and Cornbread had seen.
Yeah, Case was through with the action. But that call about the two men and the botched burglary attempt was funny as hell. He had to dispatch that call himself. He knew the guys would enjoy that.
Leave it to Cornbread to jazz up an otherwise mundane night of answering phone calls for accidental property damage or taking reports on thefts from automobiles—mostly iPods, phones and other electronic devices people carelessly left lying around. Those incidents accounted for more than half of the crimes in the Second District.
Case’s job gave him something to do and earned him some extra income. He could survive off that and his military pension since he didn’t have a family anymore. They were another thing the war took from him. He looked at what were once his flesh-and-bone legs.
Seven years had passed since his injuries brought him home. The first two of those years were tough. Case hated his wife’s pity—Susan following behind him, ready to assist with everything. He wasn’t a little boy. The last straw was the night he had snapped, blaming her and their son and daughter for what happened to him. Susan couldn’t understand why Case thought he was the only one suffering. It was already hard for her to see him the way he was. She loved him enough to hang in there though, but not at the expense of her and the kids being his scapegoats. Susan took the kids and left that night of the argument. A year later, she filed for divorce.
Seven years since his injuries, and his mind continued replaying the IED attack that blew off his legs below the knees, took a finger, and fractured both arms. The force of the explosion caused a traumatic brain injury that made it impossible for Case to be an officer.
Case liked the ease of his job, but it wasn’t for everyone. He couldn’t see Cornbread doing police reports for walk-ins—booking and watching over people who didn’t make bail. He had to be where the action was.
Casey knew the war had affected Cornbread differently. Back when it started, both he and Casey were eager 23-year-olds ready to put their boot heels up some Taliban asses. When Casey first saw Cornbread, he thought he was straight out of a Rambo flick—the way he seemed fearless amid enemy fire. And at times, Cornbread came off to Casey as a jarhead, even if everything he did was according to principle. Cornbread was always carrying around a little black book and quoting from it.
“In a matter of life and death, a true warrior chooses death,” Cornbread once told him.
It was after the U.S. and Afghan military fired on al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, both of whom were staked out in the mountains. The U.S. under-estimated the Mujahideen militias, which fired back with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. That day, Casey watched eight of his fellow soldiers die—guys who had just scratched the surface of what it meant to be adults.
That point went over Cornbread’s head. He was convinced that his role over there was that of a samurai, which didn’t make sense to Casey. Samurai were Japan’s most influential class of citizens even though they had masters. Cornbread didn’t come from a life of privilege. The only connection Casey made was that Cornbread, like the Samurai, carried a heavy responsibility to restore order. Where Cornbread’s responsibilities came from, Casey didn’t know.
But he knew Cornbread was brainwashed by his black book.
“To consider a man who died without reaching his full potential as a wasted death is only foolish,” Cornbread continued. “In death, the true warrior finds his way.”
“And what way is that?!” Casey had shouted. He’d had enough of this Way of the Samurai bullshit. “Our men are dying, and we still haven’t found any weapons of mass destruction,” Casey said, shaking his head. “You and that little black book are as full of shit as the government that has us here.”
Casey remembered Cornbread being unfazed by his comments. The disillusionment didn’t hit his friend until the Marines body count kept raising. As the war continued without them uncovering WMDs, Cornbread, like Casey earlier, wondered why they were there.
Cornbread wasn’t with Casey during the IED explosion, but he was nearly as traumatized when he found out that fellow Marines targeted Afghani civilians for murder, hacked them up, and kept their body parts as trophies. Cornbread saw some Marines pissing on the corpses, and that’s when he was changed. He’d be a lone samurai, an avenger who fought on behalf of oppressed peoples.
That vision was a far cry from that of the Metropolitan Police Department. The Second District Station clock above his desk told Casey it was 00:30 hours. Ten minutes had passed since he dispatched the botched burglary call. He stood up to stretch. With his prosthetic legs, he was just under his original height of 5-foot-7.
Casey liked his job because it kept his mind busy. No time to replay events. He did have time for a bathroom break before it was back to the phones—answering questions and assisting other civilians with directions. His mind could not be idle for too long.
If the calls were already taken care of, he’d do a sweep through the holding cells and watch over those locked up, or handle and distribute property for those who made bail; anything to keep from remembering.
“…if one thoughtlessly crosses a river of unknown
depths and shallows, he will die in its currents
without ever reaching the other side or finishing
his business. This is the same as when one is
indiscriminately eager in being a retainer without
understanding the customs of the times…and, as a
result, is of no use and brings ruin upon himself….
One should consider first stepping back and getting
some understanding of the depths and shallows
and then work…”
—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”
JAPANESE HISTORY SAYS samurai were the only class of people who could have both a family name and a personal name. Born Julius Johnson, Cornbread Othello’s personal name came from nicknames his teachers and peers gave him. He was Othello to his teachers because of his talent for acting and his love of poetry—he had a sick Shakespearean flow, everything from sonnets to rhyming couplets.
His peers called him Cornbread because he was lighter than cornmeal, a result of albinism. The doctors told his parents that they both carried the hypomelanosis recessive gene. That’s why their son lacked melanin pigment in his eyes, hair and skin.
Cornbread Othello’s first encounter with power and abuses of it wasn’t as a Marine, but as a kid. He remembered how the other black kids at his elementary school were scared to touch him because they thought they’d catch what he had. Looking back, Cornbread chuckled at the irony—white folks were once just as scared that black people’s skin color would rub off on their own.
Those encounters didn’t get better in middle and high school.
“Ey, golden boy,” one kid shouted when his crew cornered Cornbread after classes. “You know you’re ugly as shit, right?” Everyone laughed.
“Well, at least I’m not brown like it,” Cornbread said.
It got quiet. The ringleader shoved him. “Whatchu’ say, Powder?”
“You heard me, Black Pepper!”
The boy shoved Cornbread again. Cornbread kicked his groin, and the crew was all over him like ants on a crumb. Cornbread was in a hail storm of kicks and punches until a voice yelled, “Y’all leave that boy alone, yuh hear!”
The ringleader spun around. His tight face went slack and his fists unclenched when he saw the tall, middle-aged man wearing an aqua blue windbreaker and the crispest New Balance he’d ever seen. “Hey, Mr. Cookie,” the boy said.
That name seemed to be the magic words that stopped the brutal storm and changed the weather real quick. Cornbread knew Cookie, the owner of the Soup Spoon Diner off Florida Avenue NW, who sponsored the Summer League basketball games at the Barry Farms projects. Cookie had enough pull to bring together the best pro streetballers around the country for intense showdowns that continued long after the sun was replaced by the rec center’s outdoor lights.
Shaquille O’Neal, Stephon Marbury, and Allen Iverson were regulars, who ran a few games with the Barry Farms All-Stars against the AND1 streetball crew. One year, Cornbread and his parents were at a game, cheering when Skip To My Lou, one of AND1’s popular ballers, had three guys on him. When the guard saw an opening, he smiled before bouncing the ball through the first guy’s legs and faked an around the back past that got the second guy off him. With the third guy so close, Skip brought the ball left, and through his legs to the right before doing a spin move that sent the guy crumbling across the blacktop.
Those games were partly responsible for Cookie’s popularity. His cache of street cred among criminals was that Soup Spoon was a front for his illegal arms business. His sophisticated scheme involved crew members employing their family members in other states to buy small increments of pistols and long guns from their local gun shops. This kept the operation off the ATF’s radar, which would otherwise become suspicious of a large or repeated purchase by a single individual.
After getting word, Cookie’s crew went to retrieve the firearms across state lines. Under the guise of a family barbecue, none of the neighbors were suspicious of the unknown cars on their street and the people going back and forth with cake boxes and large Tupperware containers that hid the guns. The Soup Spoon had a hidden door to a basement that only Cookie’s crew knew about.
Staring at the gang that had beaten up Cornbread, Cookie gave them a look of disappointment. “Ain’t y’all got some better to do than beat down someone because they look different?”
The boys lowered their heads.
“See, that’s what’s wrong with your generation. Y’all don’t know your history. If you knew how white folks and their laws beat us down because we were different from them, you’d know better than to continue that oppression.”
No one dared to challenge Cookie. They all kept quiet and let the man speak. Cookie’s slicked back hair and gold Rolex told anyone that his gear wasn’t for a workout. Cookie was so clean he made anything he wore look stylish, even the aqua blue windbreaker that would’ve looked corny on anyone else.
“Y’all get outta’ here before I kick your asses myself.” He pointed to Cornbread. “Get in the car.”
Cornbread got inside Cookie’s cream-colored Lexus GS300. It was a 1998 model. The black interior made it seem like nighttime. Cornbread stared at the glowing large circles of the dashboard and at the navigation system. He noticed the wood trim along the console and the gear shift handle.
“It’s a mean ass machine, ain’t it,” Cookie said when he got behind the wheel.
“Out of all the luxury cars, the Lexus is the most reliable. You can’t say that about a Mercedes. Those cars stay in the shop so much, it’s like Cheers when you go to their dealerships; everyone knows your name. But not with the Lexus.”
Cornbread kept quiet, bobbing along to a bouncy piano solo.
Cookie smiled. “You like that, hunh?”
“Who is this?” Cornbread said.
“That’s Herbie Hancock. This is his song ‘First Trip’.”
They both listened as Cookie drove Cornbread home. Cornbread continued bobbing along while Cookie tapped his hands against the steering wheel.
When the song finished, Cookie let out a sigh. “See that, right there? That’s Lexus music. If they were to do a commercial for these cars, they’d have Herbie Hancock playing in the background while the car does all these mean clean maneuvers.
“The Lexus is a different type of animal. It handles so well that even the big machines, the road bullies, think twice before messing with a Lexus.” Cookie glanced at Cornbread. “You gotta carry yourself the same way.”
“Like a Lexus?” Cornbread said.
“That’s right,” Cookie said. “You gotta let folks know you’re not to be fucked with, but do it so it’s classy. What’s your name by the way, son?”
“Julius, but everyone calls me Cornbread.”
“Jesus,” Cookie said, shaking his head. “And you don’t know how to handle yourself? With a name like that?”
Cornbread didn’t have anything to say to that.
“You’re gonna have to know how to protect yourself, boy. You looking the way you do, it ain’t gonna get any easier.”
Cornbread gave Cookie a hard look.
“Don’t be mad at me, son. I ain’t the world that’s putting you through it. Don’t nobody like someone who looks different. You heard me out there with them boys. Look at the history of white folks and what they do to people who don’t look like them.
“You’re gonna have to know how to fight them, your own people and the system. When I say fighting, I don’t mean just with your hands. You gotta build up your mind too, son.
Oh, yeah. My name’s Cookie, by the way.”
Cookie pulled up outside Cornbread’s house and parked. When his parents saw his face busted up, when the school administration refused to take action since it happened outside of the building, Cornbread’s parents felt helpless until Cookie, who had decided to take Cornbread under his wing, offered to pay for him to take a self-defense course.
Through his training, Cornbread built up his self-esteem by striving harder at defending himself. If the other black kids wanted to exclude him from extracurricular activities and social events, he had Judo, which he excelled at before studying other martial arts. He entered tournaments, won medallions and gold medals. Cookie was at every match, cheering with Cornbread’s parents.
During that time, Cornbread developed an interest for Asian culture, especially after learning that the first Japanese Shogun, Sakanouye Tamuramaro, was a black man born during the eighth century. Cornbread beamed with pride at knowing that scholars of Japanese history called Tamuramaro a “paragon of military virtues.” Tamuramaro was who the Japanese government called when the crimes got out of hand and incidents outnumbered the police force. Cornbread felt a kinship with the black shogun—both of them tasked with the thankless job of bringing about justice. That connection was felt so much so that the shogun’s spirit, which warned of danger, became to Cornbread what the “spidey senses” were to Spiderman.
Tamuramaro’s story was somehow tied to the African presence in ancient Japan. The earliest evidence uncovered was a Stone Age hut near Osaka that looked like the earth lodges of the Berbers in Tunisia. Japan’s ancient hut was dated to be about 22,000 years old.
That some Japanese scholars still dismissed Tamuramaro and Africans in ancient Japan as myths didn’t surprise Cornbread. They reminded him of some American “historians” who pretended that slavery didn’t exist.
And on that topic of slavery, the only issue Cornbread had with the samurai code was the part about warriors honoring their masters and/or lords, which he saw as another form of oppression. That’s why when he came back to DC after his seven-year tour of Afghanistan, Cornbread lived as a ronin. They were masterless samurai, who weren’t always fighting.
During peaceful times, ronins were Confucian scholars and teachers. Some of the best writings and works of art from ancient Japan were done by ronins. They were also martial arts instructors and bodyguards.
Back home, Cornbread was a cultural critic for the Washington City Paper, while moonlighting as a bouncer at the 9:30 club. As a columnist, Cornbread’s essays about displaced residents and city council corruption motivated people to protest and exercise their voting power. A piece he did highlighting a film student with financial hurdles spurred an outpouring of donations from readers that helped the student complete his thesis film.
Cornbread also loved being a bouncer, but night club security could be crazy like what happened a few months before. Third District Police responded to a call from the club. An off-duty officer and his boys were causing a disturbance outside when Cornbread wouldn’t let the officer carry his gun with him. “Sorry, it’s club policy,” the bouncer said.
“Sorry?” The officer mocked him. “You’ll be sorry, if you don’t let me and my boys through.”
“No one goes inside with a weapon, unless they’re officers on official business.” It was clear that the cop, who was already intoxicated, wasn’t there for official business.
When Cornbread offered to check the officer’s weapon, the cop said, “I could arrest you for harassment.”
“I’m not harassing anybody,” the bouncer said. “You’re just not getting through with that piece.”
When the officer shoved Cornbread, the bouncer felt the presence of Sakanouye Tamuramaro’s ghost. A big guy grabbed the bouncer from behind and attempted to move him aside. The shogun’s ghost worked through Cornbread, lifting the bouncer’s arms and dipping him low enough to slip from under the hold. Cornbread’s wristlock had Big Man tippy toeing. Holding the beefy arm like a bat, the bouncer swung low, dropping Big Man across the sidewalk. Shortly after, Tamuramaro’s ghost was gone.
Everyone backed off, except the officer, who told Third District Police that Cornbread threatened him, which was discredited by the people waiting outside and the heavy smell of alcohol on the cop. At the request of a Third District sergeant, the officer left the club.
Every night wasn’t always like that, though. Earlier that evening, when Cornbread Othello caught the burglars, he was on his way to 7-Eleven after the Pharoahe Monch show at the 9:30 club. That was one of the perks of being security. He got to see his favorite emcees for free.
Now, he was headed home, cruising through Rock Creek Park in his black Lexus that took the turns like a cougar prowling the night. He rode with his stereo loud, tapping the steering wheel while flowing with Pharoahe: The epitome of lyrical epiphanies/ Skillfully placed home we carefully plan symphonies.
Nobody was rapping like that. It had been a good show. The crowd’s energy was right. Corn didn’t have to throw anyone out the club.
He came to a stop light, and watched the moon above the Potomac River. That night it was close enough to its water-worn reflection that, together, they formed a mouth as round and sumptuous as a woman’s. That night, it was hard to miss Desiree, the bartender. She’d had her eye on Cornbread, who was so focused on his job that nothing else mattered. How hadn’t he noticed this tea-colored woman, her short and shapely frame?
She turned it up that night—her curves more pronounced, they even shouted through her dark form-fitting top and tight skirt. Cornbread Othello watched some guys spend all night trying to get with her. They left alone. She was usually quiet, perhaps waiting on him to spot her checking him out before he made a move. However, that night, she initiated the small talk. She flirted every time he passed her section.
When he had a minute, Othello leaned against the bar and they talked about the show and their favorite emcees. He was happy she was a Pharoahe Monch fan, and not just a fan of his solo stuff. Desiree knew the lyrics to most of the tracks on the Organized Konfusion albums. That impressed Cornbread.
They talked about why they hated the radio and artists who needed a public platform. Desiree blindsided Othello when she mentioned Cannibal Ox and their debut album.
“Whatchu know about The Cold Vein?” Cornbread asked.
“It was only Vast Aire’s and Vodul Mega’s ground-breaking album,” Desiree said.
Cornbread was still catching his bearings. This sista was a hip hop fan for real.
“C’mon!” Desiree said. “That album’s the best thing since 36 Chambers.”
Cornbread dug how fun and easy it was to talk to her, but he had to get back to his post. Around closing time, Desiree told the bouncer she enjoyed their conversation and that they had to do it again, next time off the clock. She smiled at that last part; they both laughed and exchanged info. She jumped in her BMW.
“Nice body,” he said.
“It’s a 7-series,” she said.
“That much room, huh?”
“I bet it’s fast.”
“Watch it. I’m a good girl.” She winked at that last part.
“I was talking about the car.”
The both laughed when the BMW hummed before she took off.
The traffic light was still red. Cornbread glanced at the Memorial Bridge that seemed elastic the way it stretched over the Potomac River. Across the water was Virginia, where Desiree lived.
He sighed and smiled, tapping the steering wheel as he continued rhyming with Monch. He peeled off when the light turned green.
“There is nothing so painful as regret. We would all like
to be without it. However, when we are very happy and
become elated, or when we habitually jump into something
thoughtlessly, later we are distraught, and it is for the most
part because we did not think ahead and are now regretful.
Certainly we should try not to become dejected, and when
Very happy should calm our minds”
—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”
CASEY MALONE WAS ALREADY EATING when Cornbread Othello entered the Soup Spoon diner. At noon, it was packed. The servers scribbled orders, while busboys pinballed between the busy brunch patrons, clearing off tables. Watching all of this, Cornbread enjoyed Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” playing through house speakers. He looked around and spotted Cookie standing at Casey’s table.
The old man was still sharp. He wore brown dress slacks and matching tie over a mustard color dress shirt—not even the white apron tied around Cookie’s waist could dull the old man’s style. When Cornbread got close, he and Cookie slapped palms before they embraced. “I’ll send out Amanda to take care of you,” Cookie said. He pulled off the apron and wrapped it over his right arm. “I’ve got to set some stuff up.”
“Is everything OK, Cookie?” Cornbread asked. He thought it was unusual for the old man to seem hurried. Any other time, Cookie couldn’t wait for Cornbread to stop through. The two men would sit and shoot the shit about sports, women, and music. Even when Cornbread wanted to be alone, he never told Cookie. The old man was nice enough to let him eat for free—something he did for folks he called “family”.
Something wasn’t right. Cornbread felt it despite how calm Casey seemed, folding his toast and shoveling hard-scrambled eggs and melted cheese over the crease. Cornbread watched Casey chomping through what looked like a sad fajita or a goofy soft taco.
“I gotta go, son,” Cookie said. He snatched his coat off the chair back. “I already told Case, and I’m telling you now, y’all let me know if you need anything.”
The way Cookie said anything, Cornbread knew he wasn’t referring to things a customer might ask for: an extra order of fries or free refills on fruit juices.
Cookie grabbed Casey’s shoulder, held it for a beat, and was gone.
“You know those two burglars from yesterday?” Casey asked, swishing the last of his coffee around.
“Yeah. So?” Cornbread asked, going over the menu.
“Well, you really stepped in dog shit with those two.”
Cornbread looked up and studied his friend’s blank expression, waiting for the smile that always told him Casey was messing with him. That’s when Amanda came by their table. “So what’ll it be, Sweety?”
“Buffalo wings with bleu cheese and a small order of fries,” he said.
“Anything to drink?”
“Water’s fine. Thanks”
“Coming right up.” Amanda said, heading to the kitchen.
Not seeing his friend’s smile, the bouncer asked: “How much of a mess did I get on my shoes?”
“Those two guys are part of the Hornets Crew.” Casey said. “They’re a professional network of burglars hitting homes and businesses throughout DC, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, and northern Virginia. This crew was organized enough to have three divisions: residential, retail, and junior league.”
“A junior league?” Cornbread asked. Amanda brought his order and asked if they needed anything else before she left. Both men said they were fine. Cornbread started on a drumstick as he shook his head. “Lord knows what those boys have to do for a promotion,” he said.
Casey told Cornbread that that division committed thefts from automobiles. A plain white van drove around, dropping off boys at parking garages near subway stations. The boys took the steps to the top floor, and worked their way down. They’d pick the passenger side door lock. If the alarm sounded, they had enough time to pop the hood and disconnect the battery without drawing attention. They made off with car radios, CDs and electronics.
The retail crew was a whole ‘nother beast. During 62 thefts, these masked men stole over $200K from the registers of fast food chains, discount shops and gas stations. Any DNA evidence was destroyed when they splashed bleach over the crime scene.
And there was also residential. This squad usually hit around Christmas Eve and Christmas. Drivers were sent to scope out affluent areas—to pass through these neighborhoods, park and sit in their cars and watch for residents heading out of town. The drivers jotted those addresses down and came back through with the crew.
“Last night, there were only two guys because it was supposed to be a piece-of-cake job,” Casey said.
“That’s why neither of them was packing,” Cornbread said. “I’m willing to bet they both had blades in case they ran into trouble.”
“And trouble put them both down.”
“I’m serious,” Casey said. “You mess with any member, and a swarm of them come for that ass.”
Cornbread sometimes forgot that Casey wasn’t a brother—well, not on the surface. He was one of those white boys who grew up around black people, and who genuinely spoke the way he did and wasn’t trying to be what he wasn’t. That’s why he and Cornbread hit it off right away. “It’s a soul thing,” Cornbread once told him.
He shook the thought and was on his last wing. Watching Casey, he asked, “What these hornets stinging with?”
“Something serious,” Casey said, smiling when Amanda brought the bill.
In recent weeks, hundreds of firearms were reported missing from area gun stores and pawn shops. Casey said the guys at the station believe it might be related to the eight burglaries done by the Hornet’s retail division, where over 200 firearms were stolen.
“Those guys will do the time because they know what’ll happen if they snitch,” Casey said. Both suspects’ hornet tattoos on their necks were dead giveaways to the officers at Second District Station. “Watch your back,” Casey said. “Most likely, they’ve already phoned back to the hive and gave them your description.”
“You too, Case,” Cornbread said. “Us sitting here all chummy like this, they’re bound to get ideas on how to bait me.”
Casey hadn’t thought about that, but he wasn’t worried. He’d cross that bridge when he got there, if he ever got there.
They paid the bill and were laughing as they exited the diner until they saw Cornbread’s car—four tires slashed and the windshield busted. His pulse drummed. The adrenaline rush made the air smell clearer. The back of his neck and the rest of him went hot as he looked up and down the block. He looked at the car and found what he thought might be a vengeful note under the one windshield wiper that wasn’t yanked off. It was just a folded photo of Cornbread.
Case walked his friend away. He’d give Cornbread a ride home. But, first, they’d have to get the car towed to a shop. Cornbread stopped to glance back at the wreckage. Without looking, Casey said, “Stings, don’t it?”
“It is good to carry some powered rouge in one’s sleeve.
It may happen that when one is sobering up or waking
from sleep, his complexion may be poor. At such a time
it is good to take out and apply some powered rouge.”
—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”
Two months later.
DESIREE WRIGHT WAS ONLY WEARING an over-sized jersey. She crossed the bedroom, looking around her desk and under the comforter that fell from the bed the night before. It had been a full evening that started with drinks and light refreshments after a staged reading, of which Cornbread Othello was a cast member. It was a play about an English statesman whose dirty dealings from his past he kept a secret from his wife, who was proud of the honest man she thought she married. The statesman feared that if his wife knew what he’d done, she’d stop loving him. Cornbread played the role of the friend who counseled the statesman.
Over Eggplant with Garlic Sauce and Sauteed Orange Chicken at a China town restaurant afterwards, she told Cornbread she enjoyed his reading the best. They laughed about the elderly woman who snored through one of his lines, and who—after being elbowed awake by her friend— dropped her cane when she fell asleep again. The evening ended with a drive through Rock Creek Parkway, past Haines Point and the Lincoln Memorial, and through Virginia.
When Cornbread rolled over and didn’t feel Desiree, he sat up to see her already dressed— wearing grey windbreaker pants and a matching top. She pulled her locks back into a bun. “Kind of early, don’t you think?” Cornbread said, wiping sleep from his eyes. He looked at his cell phone; it was 5:30a.m.
“Go back to sleep,” she said. “You know my morning routine.”
“But it’s Saturday.”
“And?” She smiled as the light blue washing away the inked-out sky said the sun wasn’t far off. The moist after-the-rain smell that drifted through her bedroom window was calming. Those mornings, she’d plug up her ear buds and take off for the Custis Trail down the street from her Arlington apartment. She’d run through the rose garden at Bon Air Park to Wilson Boulevard, and along the Key Bridge at Rosslyn. “You know what I gotta do,” she said.
Those morning jogs started nearly a decade ago, when Desiree and her sister, Deidre, were invited to a friend’s pool party. They were both in their early twenties at the time. That day, the two women went out shopping for swimsuits. While modeling their suits for each other, Deidre cracked up at how Desiree’s tummy and love handles spilled from the two-piece. “Damn, girl!” she had said. “That thing tight enough to be a blood pressure cuff.” To which Desiree said, “I don’t know why you’re laughing. On you, that one-piece looks like a snake swallowing a whole animal?” They left the bathing suits at the store. That night, they sat by the poolside, watching their friends splash around and have fun. When their friends called them over to the water, the sisters tried to smile as they waved them off. Desiree and her sister found out about an aerobics class from a woman, who was close enough to hear them talk to each other about being self-conscious of their bodies.
They enrolled and got with an instructor who set them up with a routine. When they shaped up nicely, the instructor suggested they tone up by lifting weights. The guys at the gym started checking out Deidre, who was more disciplined than her younger sister. While she took her routines seriously, Desiree dragged her feet. When Desiree complained about the lack of attention, Deidre said, “You’ve got to work hard if you want what I’m enjoying.”
And when Desiree did, the sisters talked about running marathons and traveling the world. It was Deidre’s dream, and Desiree was down to tag along. To show she was serious, Deidre made her loop pinkies and promise to carry out those dreams if anything happened to her. It wasn’t something Desiree wanted to think about: being without her sister. They were inseparable for as long as Desiree remembered. Everyone around their hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, jokingly called them the Double Mint twins, though Deidre was two years older.
Over several months, the sisters started training for their marathon dreams, which seemed attainable—that is, until Deidre was rushed to the hospital. Earlier that day, Deidre called off training because of a headache and ringing in her ears. She complained about her head feeling tight just before she was admitted. When a doctor came out to the waiting room and told the family that Deidre was suffering from a brain aneurysm, Desiree panicked. She fainted when the doctor said Deidre died when the bulging blood vessel had burst.
And so went their dreams, Desiree thought. She stopped training and went into a deep depression, which she eventually got out of with her family’s support and prayers. She was on her way to a full recovery when she met Cornbread, who she wasn’t expecting. That night they connected during the Pharoahe Monch concert, she knew there was something more than just the bouncer who kept riffraff out the club. He was gentle. When she told him about her sister and nearly broke down, he held her. Cornbread told her about his friends he lost while fighting in Afghanistan. They were like his brothers; so he knew what it meant to lose a sibling. He supported her whole-heartedly when she decided to start back training.
Desiree laced up her white New Balance. “Will you be here when I get back?” she said.
Cornbread yawned and rubbed his eyes. “Probably not,” he said. Saturday was one of the days he trained at the Mixed Martial Arts gym above the wine and spirits shop on U Street.
Desiree adjusted her armband mp3 player and plugged up her ear buds. “I’ll call you later,” she said, smiling before went out the door. Her playlist, which started with Pharoahe Monch’s “God Send” and shuffled to MF Doom’s “Lickupon,” was the perfect soundtrack to the still wet streets and dewy air. She took a deep breath and set off for the trails.
Later that day, while checking his cell phone after the workout, Cornbread saw he had a missed call from Desiree. He played the message and was concerned when he heard a man’s voice. The voice told him he messed up some serious money by botching the burglary. So, in exchange, he took something valuable from Cornbread, who heard a muffled sound somewhere behind the voice. If he wanted to see her again, the voice instructed him on where to meet up with the payment.
“Whether people be of high or low birth, rich or poor, old
or young, enlightened or confused, they are all alike in that
they will one day die. It is not that we don’t know that we
are going to die, but we grasp at straws. While knowing that
we will die someday, we think that all the others will die
before us and that we will be the last to go. Death seems a
long way off.
Is this not shallow thinking? It is worthless and is only a
joke within a dream. It will not do to think in such a way and
be negligent. Insofar as death is always at one’s door, one
should make sufficient effort and act quickly.”
—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”
IT TOOK A WHILE for Desiree’s eyes to adjust to the dark. The outlines of a desk and opened file cabinet told her where she was used to be an office. She was bound to a metal chair with her arms and legs tied up. The rag in her mouth made it hard to keep her throat moist. The moldy smell from the damp carpet and mildew dotting the wood paneled walls told her that the room was old. If what she saw was any indication of the rest of the facility, the building had been abandoned for some time.
Nothing Desiree saw around her hinted that she was at the old Wonder Bread and Hostess Cake Factory by S Street NW in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, an area that transformed from a freed slave settlement to the pre-Harlem hub of black intellectual and cultural life during the early 20th century. That area’s northern boundary was marked by Florida Avenue and the adjacent neighborhoods of Columbia Heights and LeDroit Park. Shaw’s highlights were Howard University and both the retailers and theaters along U Street, 14th Street in the Logan Circle area, and centered along 7th Street NW.
The Wonder Bread and Hostess Cake Factory was a 50,000-square-foot facility. Dudley Development tried to convert the abandoned building to office and retail space, but the bad economy sunk those plans. The developers even tried to renovate inside to host art soirees as part of an international cultural festival—that is, until a city inspector said the building wasn’t structurally safe. Desperate to keep the warehouse from being demolished and bulldozed, Dudley Development submitted applications to have the factory added to the DC Inventory of Historic Sites.
From where Desiree sat, there was nothing history-worthy about what she saw. Any value it might have had was also lost to Cornbread Othello and Casey Malone, who watched the building from Casey’s car parked a block away. The Wonder Bread and Hostess Cake Factory, which dated back to 1913, was now an eyesore of busted glass and rusted window grates. Cornbread and Casey knew, according to word around the way, that addicts went behind the factory to speedball, or shoot up a cocktail of cocaine and heroin.
Watching the building, Cornbread was struck by how human the tired structure seemed—its gaze just as listless as the dope heads who once nodded along the alley beside it. “This can’t be the hive,” Cornbread said, looking through a pair of binoculars. Across from the factory were small Victorian row houses. The gridded streets were quiet except for the few cars that passed by the building, headed to 9th Street—what was known as “Little Horn of Africa” for its string of Ethiopian and Somali restaurants and bars.
Behind the warehouse was the abandoned Howard Theater, a 1,200-seat venue, which faced T Street NW. When it was up and running, the theater hosted acts such as Duke Ellington and his band, Billy Eckstine and Ella Fitzgerald. Later, when it became a venue for rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues during the mid-20th century, Sarah Vaughn, Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Washington and Lena Horne were among the stars to grace that stage. In 2002, two decades after it closed, the DC Preservation League listed the theater among the city’s Most Endangered Places.
Across the alley from the theater was a restaurant that specialized in Pan-African, Caribbean, and Soul Food dishes named after historic figures such as the Harriet Tubman Burger, Martin Luther King Greens, and Lumumba Sweet Potato Fries. During its heyday, it hosted live performances, a poetry open mic, and independent film screenings any day of the week. But shabby service and bad accounting put the restaurant on life support. It was further doomed when the owner unsuccessfully tried to rescue the establishment from debt by hosting strippers for Friday night performances. Rumor has it that the owner set the grease fire that almost destroyed the restaurant to collect insurance.
“I don’t think this is the hive,” Cornbread said again, still looking through his binoculars. He didn’t trust the Hornets to let him simply exchange the money, which he planned to borrow from Second District Station’s evidence room, for Desiree. What’s to stop the crew from shooting them both? He and Casey planned to burglarize the factory the day before the scheduled money drop.
“Think of this factory as a temporary spot for the swarm to cluster,” Casey said, checking the magazine clip of his Beretta CX4 Storm. “You sure you’re not gonna need any firearms.” Casey loved his semi-automatic civilian rifle that was equipped with red-dot sight and tactical light. If he came head-to-head with trouble, he could let off 10-20 rounds.
“I’m good,” Cornbread said, patting the .40 caliber blowgun he laid across his lap. His left pocket held the darts, which had been dipped in both Thorazine and Navane—two anti-psychotic drugs used to treat paranoia. These were major tranquilizers that knocked out their targets fast and quiet. Cornbread got the drugs from Casey, who had those prescriptions to treat his severe Post-traumatic stress disorder.
Casey shook his head as he watched Cornbread inspect the sharpened wire darts. “You still tryna’ be a ninja.”
“You know I follow the samurai code,” Cornbread said. Besides, his blowgun, which fired darts at 350 feet-per-second, had all he needed. Cookie gave them a catalogue for him and Casey to pick whatever they wanted. “Check it; I got a foam hand grip for easy handling, an anti- inhale safety mouthpiece, and a muzzle guard with handy sight. If I need to move quickly, this sling right here makes it easy to throw the blowgun over my shoulder and haul ass.”
“Blah, blah, blah,” Casey said. “It’s still a toy, if you ask me.”
They left the car and walked up the alley. With both the theater and restaurant unused, they provided great cover from T Street NW. Cornbread and Casey didn’t have to worry about anyone discovering them cutting the lock off the factory’s back door. Walking through the dark basement, they split up to look for Desiree.
“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.
Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one
should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles,
spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves,
being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by
lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, fall-
ing from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing
seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without
fail one should consider himself as dead.
There is a saying of the elders’ that goes, ‘Step from
under the eaves and you’re a dead man. Leave the gate and
the enemy is waiting.’ This is not a matter of being careful.
It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.”
—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”
Cornbread wandered through the warehouse’s basement until he came to a stairwell with plush pink walls and a read liner that almost seemed poured down the middle of the marble steps. He couldn’t help thinking how it looked like the interior of an esophagus. He took the steps cautiously with his blowgun drawn as he approached the voices swarming at the top.
He was surprised at the casino-style layout of the second floor. All around him were maroon-colored felt roulette wheels and black jack tables. There were also slot machines…and those voices. They were coming through house speakers—idle conversations about NBA games (whose team would take the championship this year, players that were going to be traded and was thought to be overrated, and so on). Cornbread wondered if someone mistakenly left the mics live. The place wasn’t well lit except for a few lamps. There were plenty of dark spots for him to move through without being spotted by security cameras.
Crouched by one of the tables, Cornbread had a flashback to Afghanistan, where he and a small team of marines cautiously approached what looked like an abandoned factory. The structure was one of several on the list of WMD sites. Cornbread remembered it being too quiet. If it was a trap, they were ready. They wore their facemasks to protect against any biological attack. They were scared and, at the same time, driven by their curiosity of what the WMDs looked like.
Cornbread wondered how Desiree would look when he found her. He imagined her tied up, gagged, and sweaty with her hair wild. He also imagined her scarred up from when the kidnappers tortured her to find out what she knew about the Hornets. They were a shadow operation; you knew they were there, but never saw them. And they intended to keep it that way. If they killed Desiree during the questioning, as far as they were concerned, it was worth it to keep their anonymity.
Cornbread slipped through the floor to a side hallway, looking for the voices that were now laughing at a sitcom playing in the background. He went room by room until he came to one at the end of the hall with a maze of cubicle walls. It was Afghanistan again with his team of marines carefully moving through the labyrinth of plaster and cement, waiting for something to explode or jump out shooting. He lifted his blowgun with his lips already on the mouthpiece, ready to take out what was hiding behind the last wall.
His fingers trembling and his pulse drumming, Cornbread whipped around the corner and was stunned. This was the last room. And, like the WMDs, Desiree was nowhere around. Instead, what he saw was an elaborate computer system wired to the building’s alarm. It was as if the Hornets were expecting Cornbread and Casey. The recorder, plugged to the sound board for the casino speakers, were set to go off through the alarm’s sensors, which Cornbread and Casey triggered when they broke the back door’s lock.
It was a while before Cornbread heard a soft chime, before he realized that chime was coming from a bomb wired to that computer system. Staring at the maze of rooms before him, he couldn’t help but feel like Theseus. Cornbread remembered the Greek mythology, the Labyrinth, which he read as a kid. He was sure that Daedalus, who barely escaped his own labyrinth, would be impressed by how the Hornets laid this trap, complete with an exploding Minotaur to wipe out intruders.
But the more Cornbread thought, the more he realized his luck was far from that of Theseus’s. After all, the Athenian hero had slain the Minotaur—not the other way around. Plus, Theseus had the good sense to plot his own escape before entering the labyrinth, and he did it using thread. Watching the bomb’s remaining 10 minutes, Cornbread listened to its incessant beeps tethered to his and Casey’s inevitable doom. He listened without a thread of a clue to lead him to Desiree.