(An excerpt from a fictional work in progress.)
Hernando already had a 200-gram bag of heroin on the table, as well as a smaller baggie of fentanyl, a canister of baby formula, four packages of Benadryl, and several small open cardboard boxes, each holding 600 of the glassine envelopes they would be putting their product into. Enrique helped Hernando package the heroin to be distributed to the dealers Hernando had below him. In return, Enrique got a break on his own supply.
Hernando used to do a 40/60 cut of the heroin with the baby formula, but Enrique had convinced him to do a 50/50. The better the product, the quicker they would sell out, and the faster their brands and reps would grow. There was so much quality on the streets these days, no one wanted to buy shit. Now that Hernando was also getting a few grams of fentanyl to mix in, their brands were banging, although Hernando always urged caution, and resisted all of Enrique’s attempts to move to an even bigger fentanyl presence. Fentanyl’s the future, Enrique told him. He argued that the fiends loved the rush fentanyl added, and the fact that it lasted three to four hours before they started feeling sick again (compared to heroin’s six to eight hours) would only increase sales. But Hernando countered that it was better to be the longest-selling dealer than a flaming star. Kill too many of your customers and not only would your business drop, but the judge would drop the hammer on you. Hard time.
They put the heroin in a coffee grinder to break it down into as fine a powder as possible, straining it again in a sieve, and then mixing it with the baby formula and Benadryl. The Benadryl had been Enrique’s idea. It added another pleasing rush, and with all the competition out there, they needed to stand out. He and Hernando made an additional batch that they mixed with brown sugar.
Hernando was very accommodating to his customers. There were many who stayed away from white heroin for fear of the fentanyl, which was fifty times stronger than heroin, but was indistinguishable from heroin by sight. Some dealers were starting to not even sell heroin at all. They just threw a healthy sprinkle of fentanyl in with the cut. It got the job done. Many customers, who had overdosed on white heroin or who were scared over the loss of friends who had died from fentanyl-laced heroin, were just focused on maintaining normalcy. For them, ordinary heroin was preferable to recapturing or exceeding that first great high. They had learned to be disappointed, and now they just wanted to be alive and not sick. Others who were afraid of fentanyl made certain they used smaller amounts of a new brand just to be sure of its potency. Many told tales about waking up hours later with a needle still in their arm. Others woke up in an ambulance, their high robbed by Narcan, their extra bags gone. If they had been in a car, their car was towed and impounded, or left in an unsafe area subject to easy vandalism. One by one, they were learning to be cautious. Still too many users were greedy, and did not moderate enough. Whether it was to escape their suffering or to end it, it was the way of the world. That’s fiends, Enrique thought. That’s all of us. Living on the razor edge. Keeping the ambulance people working.
To the white batch, they added the fentanyl. Hernando watched Enrique closely to make certain he mixed it evenly, but Enrique was a master of sleight of hand, making certain the mix wasn’t all the way mixed, and what he was packing for himself was of higher potency.
“I’m watching you,” Hernando said. “I know you spiked the last batch of your Kryptonite. You’re one heartless motherfucker for being so young.”
“No, I think you’re just selling to the same old tired fiends. I’m getting all the new blood that isn’t cynical to the product yet.”
“It doesn’t bother you when they take their last breath?”
“It’s not that I don’t warn them. My packages don’t say: ‘Love & M&Ms.’ They say: ‘Beware. It knocks down Superman. Even if you’re wearing a cape, you best look out.’”
“Only truth is you’re going to pay for it. We all are. Some sooner and that’s going to be you, my cousin.”
They used 0.1-gram spoons to parcel the combined product into each of the glassine envelopes. Enrique had a 0.15-gram spoon that he’d bought on Amazon that looked identical to the 0.1-gram spoon that Hernando provided. He switched spoons out when he was packing his product, but he was careful not to overfill. He figured he was only adding an extra 0.02 to his envelopes. He had added the requisite amount of baby formula to the initial mix so the count would even out.
“I might as well tell you now: you sold your last bag of Kryptonite,” Hernando said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you watch the news, man? They showed your bag in the papers. It’s time to distance.”
“I’ve seen that. It looked good. I’m going to start a scrapbook.”
“You’ll be peeking out of jail bars, you keep selling it. “
“Risk of the game.”
“For a smart boy, you’re stupid. Somebody’s got to look out for you. Mario came by a couple hours ago complaining about you taking his business, making his threats. He’s selling Superman, and you go and antagonize him by coming out with Kryptonite. He’s still mad you came out with Lebron when he was selling Kobe, and your Lebron packs twice the punch.”
“Lebron throw down,” Enrique said. “He posterizes any fiend that gives a go.”
“I know your rap, but Mario got to be respected. I said I’d talk to you and, as a peace offering, I sold him your stamp for $300.”
“$300, that’s my stamp!”
“And it’s my $300 for you overmixing the fentanyl. I saw you pull that move again. Don’t think I don’t know you.”
“I’m doing you a favor on account your momma was my favorite tia, and out of respect for your old man, an original bad man, and crazy in the head like you.”
“Mario’s gonna sell all cut and call it my Kryptonite. That’ll tarnish my reputation. And how am I going to stamp my bags? My new designs ain’t arrived yet.”
“I got you covered.” He tossed a plastic STAPLES bag on the table. A rubber stamp set was inside. “$11.99. Ten stamps. I’ll give you your first choice.”
“Are you kidding me? I’m not representing any of those. A+, check mark in a box, light bulb, a ladybug, ‘Great Job.’ Who’s going to buy that except some eighty-year-old school teacher?”
“It isn’t the brand, it’s what’s inside, and the brand just reminds them they got it from you. You and your art. It isn’t the art they’re loving, it’s the product. When their done, the product is in their blood making all their worries vanish, and your bag—it’s crumpled up and thrown out the car window, lying on the cold ground.”
“No, you don’t understand the fiend. The picture of that bag is imprinted on his brain like a picture postcard of a girl in a bikini at the ocean. It’s a pleasure memory. You stick a fiend in one of those MRI machines and the doctors go ‘Oh my goodness! Look at that!’ Amid all the black and white and grey medical image, right there in the middle of the brain in full Technicolor is a cowering Superman himself. Kryptonite! It’s so real in the fiend’s mind, it isn’t just blue and green, there’s red in there too. And Superman’s moving. He’s going, ‘That Kryptonite is strong. I can’t hold out much longer. My eyes growing dim!’ They’ll write research papers about the phenomenon, no doubt.
“Quality and design go hand in hand. Mario’s going to be selling Kryptonite, I’m going to be selling ‘Good Work’ and my beeper’s gonna stop ringing. I’d rather sell blanks than one of these stamps.”
“Do with it what you want, but like I told you, the police are looking for Kryptonite. And the Boogie Man is no doubt out there reconning. Dudes getting fucked up. Dimes dropping. Goldman’s out there holding his press conferences, and the jail filling up past capacity. Best stay low under the radar. Plus, they’ve got that new law, they can charge you now they link up a dead body to your brand, and catch you selling it. Listen to me, use one of these stamps or sell blanks.”
“Blanks! Blanks are for nobodies!”
“And get yourself a new burner. You’re getting a lot of calls?”
“I had to turn the phone off.”
“You know everyone’s calling you.”
“Most everyone wants my Kryptonite.”
“Police get your number, they’ll be calling to set up a buy. ‘Hello, we’d like to buy some, err Kryptonite. Just a couple bags. We’re not cops. We’re fiends, yeah. We’re fiends, just looks for some bags of that, what’s that bran? Kryptonite. Yeah, Kryptonite.’ Then the next thing you know, they have you on the pavement, in a headlock with their knee digging in your back. And their bad cop breath enveloping you in a cloud of badness that don’t clear till you’re an old man.”
While Enrique pretended to be pissed, he had to admit that was a worry he sometimes had. He had done time in juvie, and a couple overnights in the High Street lockup when caught up in sweeps, so he fully expected to find himself back inside for a fair stretch in the future. Build up some more street cred. But what Hernando said made sense. That was part of Hernando’s job—to keep trouble on someone else’s block, oversee the peace and ensure that his territory was productive, that enough profits went to those above him to keep him on the favored list.
They were all cogs in the machine, Hernando a bigger one than Enrique. Hernando tried to keep Enrique happy, but he also tried to keep him small to keep him safe. Hernando had four underlings who sold his product for him so he never sold retail himself. Besides those four, he was also an enforcer over four other dealers, including Mario, who was second in line for Hernando’s post. If Hernando moved up, Enrique would have to report to Mario, the fuck. Something needed to change there, for certain.
Enrique was an individual not well made for the work structure. Hernando was always warning him about his bags drawing too much attention, which was not good for anyone. But Enrique sometimes fancied the idea of being the independent hero, the wanted man like his father had been back in the day when his Last Call stamp proved to be just that for a few too many customers, though it was the rival Kings who got him, not the law. Enrique would be more elusive. He imagined police looking for the mastermind behind Kryptonite, and just when they are about to pounce, he’d switch brands, and they’d be back to ground zero. They would try to get to him through his customers, but his customers protected him because he always had the strongest stuff for their fiend cravings. They’d easily give up other dealers and shit brands, but they wouldn’t reveal the secret to their Man.
Maybe it was okay Mario was taking on Kryptonite. Let him take the fall. Enrique laughed to himself. Sucks to be you, he’d say to Mario when they perp-walked him down Lafayette Street to the courthouse.
“You just don’t want to be looking at murder,” Hernando said. “That’s what I’m saying.”
Enrique was not one to dwell. He loved that Kryptonite stamp, but in the meantime, he had to get product out. Hernando had an alphabet stamp, and Enrique decided he would go simple like that special exhibit he had seen today at the Wadsworth Athenaeum. Enrique had been going to the Athenaeum since he was a kid when his Dad had worked there briefly as a security guard. He loved everything from the Egyptian Mummy to the crazy Revolutionary War battle scene that ran almost the length of the wall to the Hudson Bay Last of the Mohegans landscapes. He loved the modern art and the impressionists. He even liked the crazy shit like the paper-mâché of the fat lady sunbathing in the lawn chair. It was all good.
Today the special exhibit had large white canvases with words boldly printed on them in black: PEACE. OPPRESSION. HATE. LOVE. ENVY. KNOWLEDGE. SEX. There was no subtlety. Stark statements. Made you think. That’s what art did. A part of him wished he had come up with the idea himself. HEROIN. SPOON. TOURNIQUET. HIGH. OVERDOSE. DEATH.
He set the letters up and started stamping. Two simple lines.
Now that was a statement. Bold. Simple. Artistic. He sealed and folded each bag, and then put a rubber band around ten, making a bundle. Every five bundles made a brick. $5 a bag. $30 a bundle. $125 a brick. Every bag kissed by the reaper.