Scooby stabbed at a can of baked beans with a switchblade until the torn-up lid fell to the floor of the kitchenette. His scrawny fourteen-year-old arms struggled to dislodge the contents into a chipped pot. A jagged purple scar started under his left eye, wound down his face, and sliced into his nostril. The flap of nose had dangled free following the beating two years earlier, but at least it reattached itself, although crookedly. Doctor bills and proper stitches didn’t take priority over food. Now, with the flared nostril, one side of his face appeared permanently angry.
“You ready to be el mas chingon or what?” a voice said in his ear, frightening the can right out of his hand. Scooby lunged to catch it, knocking the pot and portable burner off a folding chair. He failed to catch any of the clanking pieces of metal, but his brother was fast. Not only did his swiftness avert a fiery disaster, but in the same motion he grabbed a Glock 9mm from the back of his sagging jeans and pistol-whipped the bottom of the beans, which glopped into the pot. “I said… you ready, little brother?”
El mas chingon . . . How could Scooby be the toughest man when even a stupid voice at his back made him flinch? When even the fucking ninety-nine-cent can of gelatinous goo punked him? The scar pulsed with frustration whenever blood rushed to his face. Scooby, the toughest? With his skinny body and slow brains? He looked up to his brother and shook his head. “Nah . . .”
The 13 tattooed on his brother’s neck proved his toughness. “Cheer up,” Goofy said. “This ain’t like any other night. It’s your time to shine, mano.”
Scooby had heard that before. Each job with the crew was different: robbing, racking, slanging, trafficking. As a recruit, he’d always served as ventana—the lookout. He rolled his eyes.
“Hey. You got your head right?” his brother asked, his large hand landing on Scooby’s shoulder.
Before Scooby could answer, a quiet cry snuck around the partition that separated the living room from the kitchenette. The banging pots had woken Sophía from a nap, or maybe it was her growling stomach. The clock on the wall read 9:05 p.m. Scooby put his hand over the beans to gauge the temperature. Lukewarm. The cries turned to sobs. Shit. he grabbed a cracked plastic bowl out of the sink and scooped some of the sludge into it.
His sister’s bawling stopped when he placed the meal on a TV dinner stand next to the couch and turned on the television. “Rooby rooby roo,” Sophía said urgently, pulling her curly, matted hair off her face and wiping the tears from her puffy eyes.
“I got you,” Scooby said, flipping to a Scooby Doo rerun. “Mama’s gonna be home at some point. Don’t know when.”
Sophía gestured to the floor, pouting.
Of course. The stuffed animal was on the floor with all four legs spread wide, floppy ears dangling to the side. As he always did before they left for the night, he picked up the toy that had cost him his face and pretended to make the thing walk toward Sophía, until it ended up in her lap. She smiled—Scooby’s favorite thing.
Maybe he hadn’t caught the joy on her face when he first gave it to her, but now he cherished those dimples every time. The glint of happiness evaporated the moment the first bite of canned awfulness hit her lips, replaced by a scowl—Scooby’s least favorite thing. “I get you a real feast one day soon,” he said.
“Do you really have to go?” she asked, her big eyes blinking. “This is the best episode.”
If only he could stay with her tonight. Just once. When Goofy came in, Scooby didn’t budge from the couch.
“You want her to eat that nasty shit forever?” his brother asked.
“You didn’t get that ugly ass scar for nothin’, now did you? After tonight, you’ll actually be able to help take care of this family. Tonight you earn that nickname of yours.”
“Ouch, Scooby,” Sophía said. “You’re hurting my hand.”
He released his clenched grip on his sister’s fingers, told himself to take a breath. That’s why his brother was so serious in the kitchen. Tonight was the night. When recruits officially became part of The Lords Latino, their given name ceased to exist. From tonight on, he’d be known only by his nickname. If he survived.
“You look like you seen a slob or some shit,” his brother said.
Scooby stood up. Act cool. He wasn’t. Not with what he would be forced to endure in a few hours. When he’d daydreamed of this night, he’d felt good, confident, but facing it was completely different. Scooby willed his shoulders back. “You know which one they thinkin’ for me?”
“Nah, but most everyone goes through thirteen seconds. You survived longer, ain’t you?” But this would be different than the beating he’d gotten two years earlier. Tonight he’d have to stand defenseless while four of the gang’s soldiers brutalized him however they wanted for thirteen seconds. If he didn’t die, he’d become a Lord Latino and earn the 13 tattoo. Or . . .
“What if I draw the other one?” Scooby’s voice quivered.
His brother didn’t answer immediately. The hesitation spoke to his level of confidence in Scooby. Getting beat-in took luck and a few weeks of healing, but the other initiation took something deeper, something that tested a man.
“Ain’t nothing to worry about,” his brother said. “Don’t want to jinx shit, but I got you a welcome gift.” He handed him a dark cedar box the height of a brick but wider. The scratches and dings in the wood didn’t stop it from being the classiest thing he’d ever received. Scooby unclasped the latch and opened it.
Resting on a red velvet cushion inside was a shiny Glock 9mm with “Scooby” inscribed on the barrel. He ran his finger over the engraving and then around the scratched-off serial number. The gun felt heavy in his hand, like a dumbbell. Scooby’s finger curved around the trigger.
“Now you got one of those things, too?” Sophía asked from the couch.
The Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles sat in the smoggy armpit of two busy freeways. A yellow haze hovered above and glimmered when the moon struck at just the right angle. Scooby gazed out the window of his brother’s beat-up royal blue Dodge Daytona.
To a gavacho passing through, Pico-Union looked like any other poor part of town. But to Scooby, all the graffiti marked the territory of the Lords Latino, whose signature was a crown made of fingers with sharp nails: On street after street, steel fences surrounded the yards and doubled as drying racks for laundry; bars protected windows. The poorest folks slept in tents under bridges. Those people bought their chiva, kept the Lords Latino rolling in cash.
One house with horrible salmon paint and a lawn flamingo to match belonged to Scooby’s childhood friend and soon to be carnal brother, Pelé, who’d beat-in six months earlier despite becoming a recruit after Scooby. He wanted to stop and tell him it was his night now, but the Daytona cruised right on by. More fences. More graffiti. More neighbors. Then the silver dubs turned right, and Scooby’s feet, wearing the new Air Jordans he’d bought with his last cut, began tapping rapidly. He immediately recognized the Castle.
The large house’s round tower shot toward the moon at the end of the shadowy cul-de-sac, dwarfing the other dark houses that lined the street.
“You know who lives here?” his brother asked.
“Then you know who gonna interview you.”
The Daytona pulled to a stop in the cul-de-sac, a single bulb on the porch casting dark shadows on five large men wearing blue bandanas sitting on ragged couches and recliners. They were waiting for him. Scooby hesitated, then turned to his brother, who said, “I’m proud of you.” They exchanged a final nod before Scooby opened the door and put one foot on the street, gravelly asphalt crunching underneath his weight.
Unlike the other houses, there was no fence in front of the Castle, just a cement walk with overgrown weeds sprouting from cracks. When he reached the porch steps, he waited, folded his hands over each other in front of his crotch . . . too awkward. He dangled them at his sides. No, behind his back. How long would they stare at him? he wondered. When would they beat him?
Finally, the front door creaked open. A short man covered head to toe in tattoos emerged. He limped down all but one stair, leaving him eye level with Scooby. Everyone in the hood whispered about his shortness, but even at five feet, he seemed larger than any man Scooby had ever met. His name was the Belcher, so called because of the detailed tattoo covering his face: a snake skull at the center of his forehead, the scaled body wrapping around his eyes and over sharp cheekbones leading to a tail that formed an L-13. The image sank its fangs into Scooby’s heart, venom stopping it for a beat. The belcher snake was said to be the most venomous in the world. A few milligrams of its poison could kill a thousand men.
“You notice anything different about my house?” the Belcher asked, his voice high-pitched and squeaky, like he just swallowed a mouse, startling Scooby.
Anything different? Scooby heard the question, but focused on steadying his wobbly legs. The Primera Palabra, or leader, of the Los Angeles clica, repeated himself slowly. “What be different about my house, mano?”
“Uh . . . it’s bigger.”
The Primera Palabra stepped off the final stair and stood a head below Scooby. “You think size be important to me?”
Scooby could feel his brother’s eyes judging him from the car, urging him to give the right answer. There must be something else. Something different. His eyes darted around. The blue siding. A shed. What was it?
“You scared?” asked the Belcher.
“No,” Scooby said, although the fact this man had killed more men than the snake inked on his face made Scooby’s voice crack when he responded. Carnal weren’t supposed to show fear. He steadied himself, cleared his throat, and answered with confidence: “No.”
“Don’t be scared, don’t be scared.” the Belcher soothed, running his hand over Scooby’s scar. “Just tell me what’s different about my house.”
Scooby’s mind raced. None of the answers it came up with seemed right. “I don’t know.”
The short primera peered past Scooby toward his brother in the car, then gave him an almost imperceptible shake of the head before turning to limp up the steps.
Fuck, Scooby didn’t understand what had just happened. He didn’t realize there would be a mental test like the ones he always flunked when still in school, like the one he must have just failed. Countless hours and nights he’d worked as a recruit, spent time away from Sophía so he could become a member and actually support her. Now, the clica’s leader was turning him away because he didn’t know what was different about his fucking house? “Wait,” Scooby said softly.
The Belcher stopped but didn’t turn. In the window, above the leader’s shoulder, something caught Scooby’s attention.
Two small eyes stared out from behind the glass. A young girl about the same age as Sophía quickly closed the small crack in the blinds when he spotted her. The window. That was it. A big pane of glass with no bars. There was nothing to protect it, just like the yard. “Your windows don’t got no bars,” Scooby said.
“Ah, bars protect a man’s family,” the Belcher said softly before turning back around. “I got a wife, two baby girls, two baby boys. They’re mí corazon. Shouldn’t I have bars to keep the bad guys out?” The Belcher slithered back to Scooby, slipping a set of brass knuckles on his right hand. The metal points dug into Scooby’s back as the smaller man pushed him up the stairs, closer to the five hulking men and their waiting fists. “When I was your age, I ask my father, ‘Shouldn’t we have bars to protect us?’ But he couldn’t afford them. I get married and ask myself, ‘Shouldn’t I have bars to protect her?’ But I got no money. I got little niños and my wife asks me, ‘Shouldn’t we have bars to protect them?’ but I still ain’t got the cash. Then, I become the primera palabra of the Lords Latino and I ask myself, ‘Now that I got enough oregano to buy the strongest steel in the world, shouldn’t I have bars?’ Look how easy it would be for my enemies to come into my home.” Tink, tink, tink. The Belcher tapped the fragile glass window with his brass knuckles. “They could come and kill me. Rape my wife. Eat my babies. I tell them to come and fucking do it. Hell, I’ll leave my door open.”
The Belcher moved so close that Scooby could smell the smoke and cloves on his breath, like a fire was raging deep inside him. “The only thing stronger than the strongest steel is this glass. Why? Because my enemies know what happens next if they leave so much as a fingerprint on my windows.”
Scooby wanted to say something. He needed to say something. Yet his brain failed him. All he could see were the brass knuckles. A Lord to the one side of him also put a pair on. Any toughness he’d faked earlier washed away, and the Belcher picked up on his fear like it was a scent. “Tell me, how many men have you killed?”
“That’s what I thought.” He gave Scooby one final inspection head to toe, then nodded to the jury of executioners.
The segunda palabra, or second in command, stood. They called him Capone because he always wore a hat like his namesake. Scooby saw thirteen seconds of hell strutting his way, wood planks creaking under the weight of the man’s dense, muscular frame. Light caught the silver blade strapped around his trunk of his leg.
“Capone goes with you tonight,” the Belcher said.
The statement took Scooby off guard. Goes where? “It don’t happen here?” he asked.
“You ain’t getting beat-in.”
The Belcher slipped off the brass knuckles, but the words punched Scooby in the gut. The thought of what that meant—what he’d have to do next—made him wish he could keel over into a tiny invisible ball, like a roly-poly bug. “My answer about your window . . . The bars not right?” he asked.
“It ain’t what you answer, it’s how you answer. Capone will go with you and your brother.”
The words ran through his head like storm water into the gutter. How would he do it? How would it go down? He hated himself for showing fear. If only he’d acted like el mas chignon.
The two leaders of the Lords Latino continued to speak quietly.
“I trust his brother to handle this,” the segunda palabra said, having to lean down to the primera, who considered, then said, “No, this one is too complicated. I need you to actually be there, Capone.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
“Gracias.” The Belcher turned back to Scooby. “Once you become one of us—if you become one of us—you’ll get the chance to atone for that ugly-ass scar on your face. You want that, right?” Scooby nodded, fully understanding what he agreed to. Any gang member who didn’t beat-in went blood-in.
“Good,” the Belcher continued, “Capone will show you who to kill.”