Jamal and Andre had been at the Wildstar clothing store since 8 o’clock that morning, their only client that needed special attention. The other employees had long since left. Only the owner, Jerry Nyguen, was still around somewhere in the back doing paperwork. If it wasn’t for the thrill of what he and Andre were installing, Jamal would have been back home preparing for his finals hours ago.
“You ready yet?” Andre said as he sent another text to that week’s girlfriend.
“Nah,” Jamal mumbled as he continued adjusting the settings on the new cash register. “And I wish you’d quit sweatin’ me about it.”
“C’mon, man — it’s midnight.” Andre slapped his hands together, “Stem Cell research don’t even take this long, son!”
Jamal laughed, secretly amazed that Andre had stuck with him this long without knowing the Big Secret. “If innovation and running a business was easy errrybody would be doing it,” he replied. “Okay, I think I’m ready now… try again.”
Andre reluctantly stood up, swiped the tags on several jumpsuits. Jamal looked down at his laptop; the prices appeared on the screen and the new cash register. Andre then backed up and made a dash for the door only to slam headlong into it as a loud siren chirped from the laptop. Pictures of each tagged piece of clothing appeared on the screen along with their total value and a snapshot of Andre’s surprised expression as he stumbled back from the front door. Andre rubbed his forehead and started to chuckle when he heard Jamal laughing — after so many trial runs it was the first time he ran for the door and it was actually locked.
Jamal jumped up with a Tiger Woods victory shimmy, “Cha-Ching!”. By cobbling together some Open Source software, crudely hacking up some of the code, and tying it into a security camera and an X10-controlled automatic door locking mechanism, he had put together a self-regulating inventory package that doubled as an anti-shoplifting system. When it came to winning potential clients, it was as if he had figured out how to turn Pearls into Platinum — and he knew it.
Jerry jumped out from the back with a Glock in hand, looking around like a bad B-movie cop, then froze at the sight of Jamal and Andre laughing at him. By the time they had finished demonstrating how the new system worked, Jerry couldn’t stop grinning. “So what do I have to do to get this set up in my other stores?”
Jamal saved the settings then closed down his laptop. “Right now, this is just a working prototype. Dre and I still have a ways to go before this is ready for prime time”.
Jerry nodded, staring at the laptop as Jamal pack it up. “Are you sure you don’t want me to put that in the safe?”
“Nah, we’re good,” Jamal replied, anxious to leave and make backups of everything. He didn’t want to take any chances. A guy like Jerry could smell money with a package like this and could afford to pay some geek to bypass the laptop security and steal it. Catching the train out the Bronx after midnight actually seemed like the better option with less risk. After some quick small talk, Andre and Jamal headed out for the station.
A few blocks away after walking in silence, Andre spoke up. “Jay, I gotta ask. I know Jerry’s a client and all, but I got a funny vibe. He was eyeballin’ your laptop like it was Halley Berry naked.”
“From what I’ve seen, he seems like a good guy,” Jamal shrugged, “but I saw that, too.”
Andre shook his head with a chuckle. “That’s why you didn’t take him up on his offer with the safe, right?”
“Sorta,” Jamal replied with a quick around, “Main reason is that we’ve got another stop to make before headin’ back across the bridge.”
Dre glanced at his watch then rolled his eyes. “Damn man, if we keep this up I’ll have to start dating insomniacs. Where to now?”
“To stash some backups in the safest place in the city.”
Jamal and Andre arrived in Harlem and after getting buzzed inside and walking up six flights of stairs they were greeted with hugs and kisses from Jamal’s Aunt Edwina.
As usual for Aunt Edwina’s place, once they walked inside her apartment something smelled delicious. “Baby, I haven’t had a chance to make groceries this week so there wasn’t much in the fridge to work with,” Edwina said, embarrassed in an old school way by being caught off-guard without any food ready for guests. “I have some sweet potato pies in the oven that are almost done so go wash up.”
Years had passed since Andre and Edwina had seen each other; she still treated him like one of the Washington kids. As they sat at the kitchen table sipping on Hot Coco and eating slices of pie, Jamal caught her up to date on what’s been happening in his life: classes were going pretty well. Leila was still upset at him for a spat they had outside of Café Zanzibar about what she thought was his “coming up to her job and getting drunk”. It didn’t matter that he only had the one drink Benny gave him to toast in honor of Justin — her mood that night wouldn’t allow her to hear his explanation. Edwina responded with a meandering monologue about how she had seen men at bars do far worse and that it would all work itself out soon enough. When Jamal asked for permission to pull out his laptop at the kitchen table (ordinarily a big no-no while food was present), she immediately changed subjects, nodded her approval and then asked him to clarify his hushed phone call. “What’s all this about emergency backends?”
“They’re backups, Auntie,” Jamal replied as he anxiously pulled out the laptop. “They’re so I don’t lose anything important. I need to hide a backup here with you.”
Jamal started the backups as he explained the system he had put together. Edwina and Andre’s eyes lit up. As Jamal’s business partner, Andre knew if they kept this system safe it would be serious money maker for both of them. Edwina’s face tightened as she sensed something a little strange in Jamal’s story. “Baby, when you tell me everything that’s really going on, I just might let you stash one of those backups here.”
Jamal’s jaw went slack as it always did whenever she caught him or his brother or sister saying anything but the full truth. Unlike the incidences in the past, he was speechless, once again convinced that she had psychic powers. That’s when he broke down then slowly confessed the truth to both of them: “Okay, this client Jerry… has a clothing store — and it’s a front for an underground casino.”
Andre almost choke on a mouthful of pie. Edwina rolled her eyes with a long sigh. After an uncomfortable silence she added, “Do they have Roulette and Keno?”
“HUH?” the boys gasped.
“Good gracious, don’t square up on me now,” she laughed. “In my day I knew cats like Ellsworth before he became a household name around here.”
“Ellsworth?” they asked.
“Ellsworth was what his momma named him. Folks in the street called him Bumpy ’cause of this big bump on the back of his head.”
“Bumpy Johnson?” Andre mumbled.
“THE Bumpy Johnson?” Jamal added.
Edwina nodded, tickled at their bugged-out reactions. “You boys act like all old people was raised in convents. By the time I met Bumpy he was workin’ with Queen Stephanie and, believe me, by then they was Open For Bizness.”
As far as long-time residents of Harlem were concerned, Bumpy Johnson was somewhere between a legend, a notorious bad man, and a counter-culture hero — depending on whose stories you were listening to at the time. Johnson was the only notable Harlem gangster from the era of the likes of Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano that actually lived long enough to die of natural causes as a free man. And much to Jamal’s disbelief, Edwina was somehow connected to him.
“Bumpy was already working with the Queen when my friend Essie and I first met him at the Cotton Club,” she said, caught up in reflections that Jamal and Andre would never understand. To the latenight party people of Harlem back then, Bumpy Johnson was apparently the equivalent of a Sir Lancelot against The System, stickin’ it to The Man whenever he could. As she began telling a tale that Jamal’s family had never heard, she guided the boys into the den and instructed them to move her big-screen TV off to the side then told Jamal where to kneel down and handed him a butter knife. “Press the tip down between the third and fourth floorboards.”
When he pushed it down, a panel of floorboards several feet away next to the backdoor popped up, revealing a dusty metal box that fit perfectly between the beams. Inside the box awaited almost a dozen cans of Spam, a plastic bag with old copies of the New York Times, an old Colt revolver, a collection of rare coins, an unmarked bottle of wine, a small leather-bound portfolio and some spider webs that hadn’t been occupied in decades.
Andre carefully pulled the newspapers out. “Oh Snap,” he said as he thumbed through the clippings, “These joints is from wayyy back… Huey Wins? Yo, this one is from the day Kennedy got shot! And Malcolm! And King!”
“Yeah,” Jamal nodded, not paying much attention as he slowly admired some coins that pre-dated the 1930s. Next he glanced inside a leather bi-fold filled with stock certificates for International Business Machines Corporation from 1947. Edwina watched as Jamal quietly looked up something on his cell phone. When she noticed their puzzled expressions, she patted Andre on the shoulder and a story unfurled…
Edwina and her husband Oswald moved to this part of Harlem just before the beginning of the Depression. She had been earning money part-time by cleaning up at the Cotton Club. He was doing odd jobs while looking for steady work. Thanks to the end of Prohibition, the Harlem turf wars had started. Bumpy Johnson and Madame St Clair were battling against Dutch Schultz to maintain control over their numbers racket. All along Lennox avenue it was open season on all Black numbers runners and on one fateful afternoon, Oswald was sweeping off a loading dock when a gunfight broke out between a couple of Johnson’s runners fending off a surprise attack from Schultz’s shooters. Oswald dove beneath a truck, only to emerge and find all of the men on both sides either dead or dying. One of Johnson’s men called out to Oswald and with his last breaths gave him a package and instructions where to take it. In those days, above all else it was understood to keep Johnson’s packages out of the hands of the police. Hearing sirens and whistles off in the distance, Oswald didn’t bother to collect his day’s pay before he left. As his reward, Oswald was given $200 dollars (alot of money back then) and hired on the spot by Bumpy Johnson himself.
Tears began to swell in Edwina’s eyes as she wistfully stared at the stocks. “Ozzie took a job downtown as a janitor in one of those high rise buildings. One of the tenants, Mr. Berkowicz, a nice Jewish man, took a shine to him and taught him about the stock market.”
The only company Oswald ever invested in was International Business Machines because they made typewriters and mainframe computers, figuring that these would always be used in business. Neither he nor Edwina ever imagined that company would still be around today as IBM. After some online research and quick math, Jamal stared at his cell phone in disbelief. The stocks alone were worth over $250,000 dollars, not including all the stock splits over the years. Only a stock broker could tell how much she was worth.
“These stocks reached their peak back in the 80s,” Jamal said quietly. “Why didn’t y’all sell and leave Harlem?”
“That’s part of my rainy day savings,” she replied. It became apparent to Jamal why her stocks were treated almost like a dirty secret — no one in the family knew Papa Oswald was a runner for Madame ‘Queen Stephanie’ St Clair. “Ozzie and I weren’t the only nobodies that made good money while Bumpy ran Harlem,” she added. “There were plenty white people, too. Some of their kin even grew up to take over as big shots on Wall Street now.”
After listening to stories about those days, Andre was convinced Aunt Edwina was gangsta, even for an old lady. Enlightened by her wisdom, he smiled. “Everybody that’s rich got over somewhere.”
“Not always,” she replied, making sure she had Jamal’s attention before she continued. “Mark my words, many of those Fortune 500 big timers have put in work on the way up. The only difference is whether or not they had blood on their hands by the time they got there.”
As Jamal carefully hid the backup CD in the case, his mind kicked into high gear. Between everything he had heard in his business classes and experienced with his internships, Edwina’s commentary made sense. The business world is not only hostile but most of the games that get played are just plain evil in many ways. He started to wonder if he would live to Edwina’s age and have dirty secrets he kept from his young relatives about how he made his fortune — and there was a tiny echo inside that said if they were all living well because of his sacrifices, maybe it wouldn’t matter.
Somewhere south in the Soho, Jerry Ngyuen adjusted his Bluetooth as he talked on the phone while pulling into his building’s parking garage. Engaged in a conversation about the casino, his Boss was upset about the rumor that Jerry had introduced an outsider into their business venture. Jerry’s attempts to validate Jamal’s skills didn’t relieve the concerns. “Yes sir,” he said, “but the guy is brilliant, talented beyond his years. He’s got some skills we can use. He’s invented an anti-theft inv–… But… No… No, sir. I checked him out — he’s a nobody, no crew to speak of… Yes, I understa–…” and before he could continue, the call ended.
Jerry slowly pocketed his earpiece then clenched the steering wheel, overrun with regret over the decision he was faced with. Once again he wished he had never heard of the Flying Dragons, let alone allowed them to get their hooks into his operation. Jerry was the son of an Vietnamese immigrant, raised as a simple businessman that eventually had dreams of owning a small casino. The only reason his Latino employees were accepted was because they were known shooters in the Bronx, protection for the casino that the Dragons saw as disposable bodies in the event of a raid. Jamal presented a different kind of problem — he had no record, and if he got caught by the the police during a raid he had nothing to lose by cooperating. If he was jacked by a rival gang he could give up enough info for them to use to take over that spot.
Upstairs in his penthouse, Jerry ignored the flashing voicemail notice on his PC screen as he locked the deadbolts and then flopped down on the couch and turned on the TV. The Boss’ final comments were so enigmatic he couldn’t tell whether or not a permanent solution was in order. The thought of making Jamal or anyone else disappear to appease his Boss was never part of the deal — nor was the possibility of ending up in a secluded Jersey landfill himself if he didn’t comply.
Two picture-in-picture security windows appeared on the TV, showing one of Jerry’s bar managers walking across the parking garage and toward the elevator. Unlike the other managers that would drop off the nightly deposit in a hidden drop chute inside the elevator, Jerry buzzed this person up to his floor. It was his brother — and anytime he had problems of this caliber he needed someone to talk to.
Little did Jamal know, once again drama was in his forecast.
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