You cannot believe the kind of liquid terror that ran through my entire body when Meek told us that next morning. We stared, shocked and betrayed. I felt as if there was a stalking demon behind me. And though I did not want her to repeat herself, she did anyway.

“Latin Kings lost last night. The Cobras came into our neighborhood. Look around,” she whispered.

I had not heard it. My mother said nothing about it when she woke us up. I remember her being very quiet, hugging us tightly and being almost unwilling to set my baby brother down.

I saw the hood of Cage’s father’s truck was dented in, as if someone had stood on it, the windshield caved in from some sort of bludgeoning weapon. The sidewalk had a great slash of green running down it, from our house to the end of the block, from a spray paint can. Mailboxes had been ripped off houses. Tires all down the block had been slashed. The neighborhood had been victimized, lay ravished around us, and the fear I felt was crippling.

“Do they have the block now?” I asked.

“I don”t know,” Meek said. “My mother wouldn’t say.”

“It doesn’t even matter, the Cobras or the Kings, it’s all the same,” my sister said. “One is as good as the other.”

And she was right. The truth was that nothing we could do would make a difference. We could not pick who ran our streets any more than we could pick who was are parents. You get what you get. You live under whatever rule you have to.

That was when Chops came out from around Cage’s house. He wore his leather jacket and his bowie. He had his doberman pincher with him, and I could not look at it for long. Those dogs struck horror in me when none other did. As far as I was concerned, no dog was as vicious as a doberman. But this morning, as much as I hated Caesar, it was good to see him.

Chops sold weed for the Kings out of the attic of Cage’s house. He was tall, built of lean muscle, and he had a bad look to him. Just the kind of guy who, when you see him, you get a crawling sensation on your body, as if your skin is fighting to walk away with you.

Chops was a black belt in two different forms of martial arts and I had seen him fight four men before. If you wanted to call it a fight.

He stepped out from around the corner of the house and we all ran to him. He was our one connection to the Kings, the man set to run this street.

“Chops,” I said. “It’s good to see you.” And it was. If Chops had been hurt the night before, it was obvious the Kings had lost their hold. This was the best thing we had seen all day.

Chops looked around as if he had not even heard us before he said, “I’ll walk you to the bus stop.”

We walked through the streets in shock, staring at the damage done in horror. Cars vandalized. Chars from fires that had sprouted up in odd places, sidewalks and stone walls. We walked past the corpse of a rottweiler and my sister burst into tears.

“That thing was a menace,” Chops said. “Nearly killed Caesar.” Chops spat on it and Lisa looked up, snarling.

Chops gave her a smack across her face. My heart stopped and I gripped the knife the Kings had given me at the back yard clean up. I looked at Caesar, knowing that dog would rip me to pieces if I pulled it, and I growled but did nothing. Lisa looked at Chops and gasped.

“Took Caesar and Shy together to bring that thing to the ground,” Chops said. “Look at her!”

I looked at the doberman, seeing bite marks on its neck and a gash on its flank that I had not seen before. The dog still walked like a soldier. Still looked around alert and unfazed. It was then I realized Caesar was a soldier. He was a King, and I patted his head.

“We had better get moving,” Chops said.

We walked past the big, white, brick building on the corner of the block and saw Old Man Lech with a paint roller and a five-gallon bucket of paint, rolling the side of the building from white to yellow.

“Kings gonna pay for this paint?” he asked as he looked at Chops.

I looked at the wall, seeing a crude Cobra and the Cobra name spray painted on it.

Chops stopped long enough to pull out his wallet and fish out a hundred dollar bill. He stuffed it in Lech’s breast pocket and patted the guy on the back.

When we reached the main road that went by our block, we saw that the window of the Salvation Army Store was being replaced. A police car was parked nearby and two cops were questioning the owner of the store. When the owner looked up and saw Chops walking by, she looked at her feet and shook her head.

One of the cops stepped in front of Chops, who stepped back and looked him up and down. “What do you want?” Chops spat.

“What happened here last night?” the cop said.

“You better get the fuck out of my way!” Chops snapped.

The cop looked at his partner, who shook his head.

As Chops walked by, the Doberman snarled at the cop as if he could smell an enemy.

We got to the bus stop and stood in silence for a few minutes until I turned to Chops with the question we all had running on a loop through our minds.

“How did this happen?” I asked.

He looked at his feet, then looked to me. He seemed to, at that moment, possess all the patience and all the sadness of a dozen men.

“I can’t tell you that,” Chops said. “You don’t really want to know. What you want to know is this. This is what you need to hear. You are safe. Nothing has changed. Today when you get home, it will all be over. Until then, don’t talk to anyone about it. Don’t ask any questions, and before everything else, don’t answer a single question asked of you by a cop. That is the most important one right there.” He grabbed my chin in his oddly gentle hands, looked at me and softly said, “No cops. Ever.”

We got on the bus and Chops turned away. I think he was going to have a busy day.

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