That night, he sat on the stoop sharing an energy bar with the dog. As a puppy, the purebred pit bull belonged to a hit man. When Isaiah put the guy in prison, he kept the dog and named it Ruffin after Marcus’s favorite singer, David Ruffin. At ten weeks, Ruffin was cute and funny and weighed twelve pounds. Nine months later, he was a formidable fifty-seven-pound, slate-gray adolescent with amber eyes that made him look fierce and nobody thought he was cute or funny, and he could pull Isaiah down the street like a child’s wagon.
Isaiah had a Google Earth map of East Long Beach inside his head with landmarks for every gang turf, crack house, flophouse, bar, dance hall, pool hall, drug corner, hooker stroll, murder scene, sex offender, abandoned building, liquor store, and park in the area. Any locus of criminals, crime, or potential crime.
Leo couldn’t have been anything else but a loan shark; weasel-faced, rose-tinted aviators, and a malicious smirk, his hair moussed, glistening, and swept back over his ears. His fashion sense tended toward paisley disco shirts with jumbo collars; nobody telling him that seventies retro was not now and never had been in. Leo was a gold-medal asshole, giving you shit even when you paid him off, and he didn’t seem to care that everybody, including the people he called friends, would rather hang out at the morgue than have a drink with him.
“He works for a triad. 14K. Thousands of members. They’re vicious dudes. They’re into sex trafficking, dope, kidnapping, all kinds of f****d-up things.”
Ken stood up and felt his body swell. He felt like a wolf, defending the last shreds of flesh on a rotting carcass. “I paid for the best private schools,” he said. “I paid for tennis lessons and art lessons and piano lessons. You were playing Beethoven when you were eleven years old. We went to concerts and museums. I took you to London and Paris and all over the world. You’ve seen the Forbidden Palace and the Ganges and the goddamn pyramids and do you want to know why?”
The Red Poles were Tommy’s enforcers, recruited from Hong Kong’s rooftop slums. Thousands of people who couldn’t afford two grand a month for an apartment the size of a one-car garage lived on the roofs of old buildings; six or seven families crammed into a shack made from corrugated tin and scrap lumber; one toilet, no ventilation, sleeping on newspapers, infested with rats and white ants, sweltering in the tropical heat, drenched during the rainy season. Survive there and you’re a hard remorseless motherfucker. Chosen from there and you’re loyal as a robot.
But the dog lived like Isaiah; isolated, with few outings except their long walks and with little contact with other people or dogs. Pedestrians crossed the street to avoid them, cops looking at them as they drove by. Isaiah didn’t like that part, people thinking he was one more gangsta with his big bad dog. Training went by the wayside. As long as the dog was on the leash, he was fine, Isaiah telling himself he was too busy to go through all the exercises.
Isaiah put on Coltrane’s Ascension, forty-five minutes of improvised pandemonium and musicianship. Music helped Isaiah bear down and think, his neurons forced to overcome the sounds, the notes filling in the blank spaces between thoughts, keeping more pleasant diversions out of his head; having an espresso, reading, walking the dog, tinkering with the car. He lay down on the sofa with an ice pack on his ear, his middle aching where Ari punched him. Ruffin trotted over. He mewled and rested his head on Isaiah’s knee. “It’s okay, boy,” Isaiah said. “Everything’s okay.” It was common knowledge that dogs could sense your emotional state, but nobody ever said how a species that bears no resemblance to humans, doesn’t speak English, and was bred to herd sheep, retrieve dead birds, or ward off predators knows that you’re upset and comes over to comfort you. Most humans weren’t nearly that sensitive.
Over the years, 14K and the triads found easier ways make money, gradually shifting their interests to gambling, drugs, credit card fraud and other financial crimes, leaving the business largely to the snakeheads. Most were small operations, some family-run, others groups of common criminals. But Tommy realized the triads’ lack of interest had left a fortune on the table. Despite its problems, he got back into the business, gradually taking over a substantial part of the market in both California and Nevada. Some of the competition had been absorbed, the rest were visited by the Red Poles and forced to relocate. Tommy made lots of money.