Stylized skulls leered at Jaybird as she descended into the basement. Spray paint covered the mildewed drywall: monstrous, exaggerated tributes to fallen gang members. Jaybird touched two fingers to a skeleton with an Afro of blue fire. Big Ray had died almost a year ago, shot twice in the gut during a Joker drive-by.
Most of the gang was already here, crowded around a skinny white girl lounging barefoot in an oversized beanbag chair. Jaybird scowled as she recognized her. “You dragged my ass down here for this slut?”
Terrence slid off the coach. “Peace, girl,” he said. “Robin here just wants—”
“I want to be a full LT,” said Robin, wiggling ruby-polished toes. “I want to be part of your family.”
“Right,” said Jaybird. “You’ve been sniffing around LT boys for the past month like a bitch in heat ’cause you’re looking for a big brother.”
Robin stretched her arms over her head, straining her blue tank top so tight Jaybird could count her ribs. Not that anyone else was looking at Robin’s ribs.
“Why not let me in?” Robin flipped thin blonde braids over her shoulder. “They let an old Indian girl like you join.”
Jaybird’s father’s family was from India, but her mother had been as white as Robin. Around here though, only the dark counted. “Go home, girl. We don’t play with Barbie dolls here.”
“I’ll play with her,” said Terrence, earning several high fives.
Robin’s plucked eyebrows lowered, and Jaybird nearly took a step back. There was no fear in those cool blue eyes.
“You think this is a game?” Jaybird slapped Robin’s head, testing her. “You don’t belong here.”
Robin bobbed her head to an unheard rhythm. “Gotta be strong, gotta keep your pride. Who’ll tell baby Mia how her mama died? Flash those tats, you’re a real LT. They let you in, why you dissin’ me?”
The impromptu rap earned a few whistles, which Robin acknowledged with a small bow of her head. Jaybird silenced the room with a glare. “What do you know about Mia?”
Robin smiled and sat back in the chair. Jaybird started to reach for her, then caught herself. The girl didn’t know shit, and she didn’t belong here. Even that fancy hundred-dollar tattoo on her shoulder labeled her an outsider.
Jaybird wore her tats with pride. She had a blue teardrop at the corner of her left eye for Big Ray, Mia’s daddy. The vertical bars on her arm were Army insignia: Lieutenant bars to mark her as LT.
Robin’s tattoo was so detailed it looked like a photo. The full-color tattoo covered her right shoulder with a burning hockey net. Midway between the elbow and shoulder, an oversized puck shot up her arm. The top of the puck read Robin G.
“Did the Jokers tell you about Mia?” Jaybird asked.
“It’s all good,” said Terrence. “Robin just wants to party with the LTs, right?”
Jaybird spat. “Bullshit.” Terrence was as dick-blind as the rest. Those diamond earrings, the fancy miniskirt, everything about Robin screamed outsider.
Jaybird glanced around for support, but found none. They would have backed her up if Robin had been a guy.
Jaybird grabbed a pair of dice from her pocket, changing tactics. “You want to run with the LTs? Whatever number comes up, that’s the number of guys who get a turn.”
“And how many of these good fellows did you take?” Robin smiled. Her teeth were bleach-white and perfectly straight.
“None.” Jaybird pushed up her other sleeve, showing the small double-sixes tattooed on her arm. “They jumped me in like a man. Twelve minutes I stood there, letting them pound the shit out of me.”
“I’ll follow that same road.” Robin snatched the dice from Jaybird’s hands. She put them to her mouth and blew. When she opened her fingers, Jaybird’s dice were gone, replaced by two ebony cubes.
“What the hell?” No way had Robin palmed Jaybird’s dice. She wasn’t wearing enough to hide them. Jaybird tried to grab Robin’s wrist, but the girl twisted away.
A flick of Robin’s thin fingers sent the dice bouncing on the concrete floor. “I never play with other people’s dice.”
Jaybird backed away. Forget the dice. She’d take them when Robin was a crying mess on the floor.
The dice continued to spin. Jaybird nudged one with her foot. It danced away, wobbled briefly, and kept twirling.
Robin flashed that inhumanly perfect smile and settled back into the beanbag chair.
The dice began to circle one another. One slipped into a crack in the cement, but instead of stopping, it hopped right back out like a grasshopper.
“The dice will stop when the time is right,” Robin said.
Before Jaybird could ask what that was supposed to mean, the door burst open and a Mexican girl named Gigi ran in.
Gigi’s pale, sweaty appearance drove the fight from Jaybird’s mind. “You’re supposed to be watching my kid! Where’s Mia?”
Gigi’s face was wet. “I tried to fight ’em, Jaybird. They put a gun to my neck.”
Jaybird’s gut went cold. “Who?”
“Crazy Dog and his Jokers. They were after you for roughing up Crazy Dog’s girl last month. You weren’t there, so they took Mia instead.”
In the shadows beneath the table, the dice clattered to a halt.
The engine coughed like a dying junkie. Jaybird yanked her hands off the wheel and punched the roof. Her old Cadillac had worked fine not an hour ago.
A dark green Cavalier with silver-tinted windows pulled up beside her. Jaybird had her .380 out and the safety off by the time the passenger window slid down.
“Need a lift?” Robin patted the dash of her car. “This beauty can burn a loop ’round all of Chicago in forty minutes.”
Jaybird flipped her off. She tried the ignition again, pumping the gas, but her car was dead.
“Stay there if you like, fighting with your ride,” Robin said. “But what’s more important? Mia or your pride?”
The Cavalier’s passenger door swung open, though Jaybird would have sworn Robin never touched the handle.
Jaybird grabbed her bag.
Robin’s car was a mess. Bobble-head dogs and cats infested the rear window, nodding stupidly. Empty Dr. Pepper bottles littered the floor.
“Head west on 290 and take the Ottawa Street exit,” Jaybird said. “Crazy Dog’s place is a few miles past the train station.”
Robin turned on the radio–some country station–and drove off. She grabbed a pack of Juicy Fruit from the ash tray and offered a piece to Jaybird.
She rolled her eyes and ignored it.
“You’re as stubborn as your father was, you know that?” Robin said.
If Jaybird hadn’t been so worried about her girl, she would have hauled Robin out of the car right there. “I don’t know what you heard, but the next time you talk shit about my daddy–”
“You’ll kick my ass or shoot me, I know.” Robin chewed for a moment, popping her gum. “You must be a wonderful mother. ‘Stop chewing that electric cord before I bust a cap in your diaper!'” She pointed her finger and pantomimed the shot.
Jaybird glanced at the door, wondering if she’d be better off on foot than in a car with this whack job. But Robin was already pulling off the interstate. She hadn’t been kidding about the car’s speed.
Flickering yellow lamps lit the Maple Street bridge, the unofficial border of Joker territory. Painted playing card images leered from the underside of the bridge. Street names and tags of various gang members were painted around the Joker. Near the front, a red bulldog with dripping fangs perched with his paws on the letters CD: Crazy Dog’s sign.
To the right was a fresher image, a Joker head atop Lieutenant bars, with Jaybird’s name scrawled upside down. A death threat from Crazy Dog.
Jaybird unzipped her bag and pulled out makeup and a Mets cap. She tucked her hair into the cap and used eyeliner to pencil a faint mustache. Her sweatshirt was baggy enough to hide her breasts.
This wasn’t the first time she had passed as a man. None of it would stand up to close inspection, but hopefully that wouldn’t matter. So long as it got her into the house.
They drove past rows of two-story houses, with mismatched siding and rusting chain link fences marking off each yard.
Robin slowed. “I could get her out peacefully. Safely.”
Jaybird pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over the cap. “You don’t ever lay a finger on my girl, hear me? Keep your ass here, with your eyes wide and the engine hot. I’ll be back soon.”
“Your father never wanted to ask for help either.”
Jaybird slammed the door behind her.
Jaybird hung out in the yard for a while, sipping beer in the shadows and saying as little as possible. Crazy Dog always partied after shit like this. The lawn was crowded with wannabes, each one trying to out-gangster the next. Most of them wouldn’t last five minutes against an LT. But she grunted and laughed with them, giving the folks inside time to get good and buzzed.
Finishing off her beer, Jaybird shoved into the crowded entryway, wrinkling her nose at the familiar stench of smoke, beer, and sweat.
The music was a mash-up of pop crap and hardcore street rap, blasting through the house at window-buzzing volume. She almost missed the faint wail from upstairs. She froze, back against the wall, and listened hard until she heard it again. No mama could mistake the sound of her baby girl screaming.
One of the Jokers stopped to stare at her.
“Bathroom?” Jaybird said before he could speak. Adrenaline gave her voice a gruff edge. He jerked his head to the left.
Jaybird threaded her way through the crowd, glanced back, then made her way toward the stairs. Boards creaked as she climbed the narrow staircase. She kept one thumb in her waistband, hand close to her gun. Her other hand was trembling. What was the matter with her?
It was that bitch Robin’s fault. She had to go and bring up Jaybird’s daddy. Now she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
A carload of kids had been hunting him after some drug deal went bad. He made it halfway across the living room before the bullets ripped through his neck and chest. Stray shots had torn up Jaybird’s room as well. Only a miracle kept her alive.
That wasn’t going to happen tonight, she told herself. She survived then and she’d survive now.
The narrow hallway at the top of the stairs was empty. Jaybird could hear Mia crying behind a chipped, unpainted door.
She palmed her gun, flipped back her hood, and turned the brim of her cap to the right. Right for the east side. Right for LT. She refused to hide her allegiance from the asshole who had taken her daughter.
Mia yelled again, and Jaybird rushed in.
Crazy Dog sat on an old mattress with Mia on his knee. He was trying to tickle her with a mangy shark puppet, but she kept pushing his hand away.
Jaybird fixed the barrel of her .380 right between his dark eyes. She barely stopped herself from pulling the trigger right there. “Set her down and get on your fucking knees.”
Crazy Dog laughed. “What took you so long?”
Mia’s face was wet with snot and tears, but she didn’t appear to be hurt. She wore the same purple pajamas she’d been in when Jaybird left. One whiff told her Crazy Dog hadn’t bothered to change Mia.
By now, Mia had spotted Jaybird and was reaching for her. Crazy Dog kept his hands around her waist, making Mia scream even louder.
“Last chance, Dog.”
“Drop the gun, Jaybird.”
Jaybird swore. Gigi stood behind her in the doorway with a little silver revolver pointed at Jaybird’s head.
“You’re a dead girl,” Jaybird whispered.
“I don’t think so.” Gone was the weeping babysitter. In her place stood a cocky, sneering kid. “I gave you to Crazy Dog. I’m in.”
“You think they’ll respect you for stealing a baby?” Jaybird laughed. “Sure they’ll let you in. Then they’ll beat you and rape you and turn you into a Joker whore. That what you want, Gigi?”
A metallic buzz interrupted her. She turned to see Crazy Dog holding a small tattoo gun over Mia. He had unzipped her pajamas, exposing the olive skin of her chest.
Jaybird wrapped both hands around the grip of her .380. “What are you doing?”
“You scarred my girl last month,” Crazy Dog said. “Seems fair that I mark yours in return.”
Did he really think Jaybird wouldn’t kill him? Sweat stung her eyes. Her hands were shaking again, dammit. “So mark me, not Mia.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” he asked. Mia reached for the tattoo gun, but Crazy Dog pulled it out of reach. “See? She wants a tattoo, just like her mama.”
“I’ll kill you,” Jaybird whispered. He shrugged. He really was crazy.
“Who’s your friend?” Crazy Dog asked.
Robin G squeezed through the door, past Gigi. Fucking great. Now instead of one stupid bitch to deal with, Jaybird had two. Gigi’s gun wavered, moving to Robin, then back.
“I told you to stay in the car,” Jaybird snapped. “I can take care of my own kid.”
“You didn’t come here to save Mia,” Robin said. “You came to show Crazy Dog that you’re tougher than he is.”
Crazy Dog grinned. “So much for that.”
“I’m not strong enough to save you both,” Robin said. She dressed like a whore, but something in her eyes made Jaybird look away, a sadness that was too old for that smooth face. “I can take you or Mia away from this. Choose.”
“Yeah, right.” Crazy Dog looked Robin up and down. “I bet we could work out some kind of trade, though.”
Robin stepped closer to Jaybird. She smelled like lilacs.
Jaybird almost told her to go to hell. “Who are you?”
“Call me an old family friend.”
They were all crazy. Gigi, Robin, Crazy Dog…Jaybird too, probably. But if there was any chance Robin could do it….
“Get Mia to my grandmother.” Grandma would keep her safe. She’d keep Mia away from all this shit. “Screw up, and I don’t care where you go, I’ll find you.”
Robin flashed that blinding smile and pointed a black nine millimeter at Gigi. The gun hadn’t been there a moment ago, and there was no way Robin could have hidden it. She squeezed the trigger.
A stream of water shot from the barrel to splash Gigi’s face. Robin whirled and fired a second stream into Crazy Dog’s eyes.
Crazy Dog stood up, dumping Mia from his lap. Robin moved too fast to see, catching Mia and cradling her with her free arm.
“Where’d she go?” Crazy Dog shouted.
Gigi was screaming and wiping her face. Robin stood within arm’s reach of both, but neither noticed.
Robin pursed her lips and blew across the barrel of her gun. She gave it a quick twirl, and the gun disappeared.
“Good luck,” said Robin.
Before Jaybird could respond, Crazy Dog’s fist smashed her jaw. Her head hit the floor, and her .380 bounced out of her hand.
“Where is she?” yelled Crazy Dog. “How the hell did she vanish like that?”
Robin stooped beside her. She had to raise her voice to overcome Mia’s crying, but still Crazy Dog and Gigi didn’t notice. “Mia will be safe.”
Jaybird tried to get up, but Crazy Dog kicked her in the side.
“Damned gangsters all, banished from the light,” Robin said. “I go, I go, like a bullet in the night.” She danced past Gigi and disappeared out the door.
Crazy Dog slapped Gigi to stop her screaming. “Don’t let her leave,” he said, pointing to Jaybird. “I’m going to find that bitch.”
The instant he left, Jaybird licked her bloody lips and looked at Gigi. The silver gun in her hands was shaking.
“You gonna do it, Gigi? You gonna pop me?”
“Crazy Dog was just having some fun.” She almost sounded like she believed it.
Thanks to Crazy Dog’s kick, Jaybird felt like she’d puke if she tried to move. She tried anyway, climbing to her hands and knees.
“I’m warning you, Jaybird.” Gigi’s eyes darted to the corner of the room, where Jaybird’s gun had fallen.
“Go ahead.” Jaybird drew several slow, painful breaths. She didn’t think Crazy Dog had busted any ribs, but she was still hurting. She shifted her weight toward the gun, eying Gigi the whole time. She kept telling herself Gigi was too green to shoot.
Gigi went for Jaybird’s gun. Jaybird pushed off, slamming her heel into Gigi’s knee. Gigi collapsed, wailing and holding her leg.
Jaybird twisted the pistol from Gigi’s hand and pointed the barrel into her sweaty face. “You took my kid, Gigi. You took Mia!”
All Jaybird wanted was to pull the trigger, to make Gigi pay for her betrayal.
“You’re the one who was too busy banging to take care of her,” Gigi whispered through clenched teeth. “Go ahead, kill me.”
The smell of lilacs still lingered in the air, and for a moment, something in Gigi’s tear-streaked face reminded her of Mia. Maybe it was a trace of babyfat in the cheeks, or the way those wide eyes stared up at her.
“Shit, Gigi,” Jaybird whispered. “I just want my kid back.” When Gigi hesitated, she waved the gun. “Get out of here!”
As soon as Gigi crawled out of the room, Jaybird slid both guns out of sight beneath the mattress, then tried the window. It wouldn’t budge. She grabbed one of the pillows, pulled it over her fist, and punched the glass. Already she could hear Jokers pounding up the stairs.
She broke the worst of the shards from the windowframe, then jumped.
She was almost to the street when they tackled her.
Jaybird didn’t know how long the Jokers beat her. She lost consciousness once, but they dumped beer on her face to rouse her. They probably would have killed her if Gigi, of all people, hadn’t begged them to stop.
By the time they dumped her on the sidewalk, the sky to the east had begun to lighten. Jaybird lay with her cheek against the cement, listening to the occasional car drive past. Nobody stopped, not in this neighborhood.
Eventually, she crawled to the fence and pulled herself up. Pain split her skull. She would have thrown up if she hadn’t already puked her guts out early in the beating. The scent of lilacs made the nausea even worse.
Robin sat on the hood of her Cavalier. Mia slept with her head on Robin’s shoulder.
“Welcome back, chhoti pancchi,” said Robin.
Those words drove everything else from Jaybird’s mind. Little bird. “Nobody calls me that anymore.”
“Your father did, the night he was shot. When he made the same choice you did tonight. When he asked me to save you.”
Jaybird’s fingers clenched the fence as she fought a surge of dizziness.
“My lord and lady, they asked me to watch over your line.” She began to pace around her car. “A centuries-old bond between the fairy king and queen, and a young Indian boy.”
“You’re crazy.” Or maybe Jaybird was.
“He stayed among us for a while, an honored guest of my lady Titania.” Robin was still circling the car. “He was your great, great, great…. I lose count. Call him your very great grandfather, for short. Like you, his presence caused a great deal of conflict and strife.” Robin grinned. “‘Twas a most memorable midsummer night.”
Jaybird lurched toward the car. “Give me my daughter.”
“I said I would keep her safe,” said Robin. Her voice seemed to come from far away. “As I should have done with you. But alas, these days I am but a weak and weary sprite. My tricks fade at my power’s twilight.”
She made another lap around the car. Looking at Robin made Jaybird’s head hurt. It was like the girl wasn’t all there.
Jaybird wiped crusted blood from her lip and grabbed for her daughter. Her hands passed right through Mia and Robin. It was like plunging her hand into icewater.
“Mia will be safe,” Robin said. “She will be treasured. Go back to your family. Go back to the Lakeside Terror, who let you come here alone to face Crazy Dog.”
“Don’t talk shit about the LTs.” Jaybird tried to say more, but she was too tired to front for Robin. The pride and anger just weren’t there.
Jaybird was OG, original gangster, one of the oldest members of LT. But not one of those punks had offered to watch her back. “Mia’s all I’ve got.”
Robin waved her fingers, plucking Jaybird’s lucky dice from the air. They bounced off the hood of her car and fell to the street. Another bit of hand-waving produced a red disposable lighter and a dinged-up soup spoon, which she set on the Cavalier’s roof.
“Follow, if you dare,” she said.
“You’re a fucking ghost. How am I supposed to follow you?”
Robin shifted Mia to her other arm. With her left hand, she ran her fingers over the hockey tattoo on her bare arm. The hockey net rippled, and ink ran down her skin. Soon all that remained was the name Robin G. inside a puck. Before Jaybird could speak, Robin took another step and disappeared.
Jaybird sat on the sidewalk thinking about her daddy. She remembered hiding beneath the bed, springs tearing her scalp as she cried. Glass breaking, people shouting form the street, tires squealing…. The bullets had sounded like balloons popping outside. She had pissed herself when the shooting started.
She glanced at the dice on the road. Double sixes. “I don’t believe in that fairy magic shit.” She imagined she could hear Robin laughing at her.
She grabbed the spoon and lighter and opened the car door, collapsing into the passenger’s seat. There, she stripped off her sweatshirt and pushed up her sleeve. A flick of the lighter produced a two-inch flame. She held the bowl of the spoon over the flame until the handle grew almost too hot to hold.
Before she could change her mind, she pressed the blackened metal against the LT tat on her arm.
Every muscle tightened like rock, but she forced herself to take it. She hadn’t made a sound when they beat her into the gang, and she wouldn’t cry out now. Teeth clenched, she forced herself to count to ten before peeling the spoon away. Charred skin stuck to the metal, and blood dripped down her arm.
Three times she burned herself before the mark was gone. The lighter and spoon clattered to the floor.
“Thought I couldn’t do it, didn’t you?” she gasped. She grabbed a green bandanna and tied it around her arm. Pain nearly made her black out as she dragged herself out of the car. She clutched the mirror to keep from falling.
Seven times Robin had circled the car. Jaybird was strong enough to manage that. “Don’t worry, Mia. Mama’s coming.”
She rapped a fist against the car. “If you’re still playing with me, I’ll kick your ass from your world to mine and back again.”
The lights on the street twinkled like laughter as Jaybird left them behind.