Ruby opened the car door and made a large show out of setting the anti-theft alarm on the dashboard, then got out of the car and carefully locked the door.
"The Jacksons live here?" she asked one of the three young men, the biggest one with a gigantic bush of an Afro.
"A lot of Jacksons around here," he said sullenly. "Nice car."
"That's not a nice car," said one of the other younger men. "A deuce and a quarter, that be a nice car. A hog be a nice car. This just be a Continental."
"Shut up," said the biggest youth. "This car's
'That's right," Ruby said agreeably. "It's a nice car, and I'm the nice owner, and I'm asking you nice one more time. The Jacksons live here?"
The big youth met her eyes, and there was something cool and confident in her look that made him give civility higher marks than usual.
"Fourth floor, back," he said. "Who you?"
"Friend of the family," Ruby said. "Keep an eye on the car, will you? Tell anybody who tries to steal it that there's a poison gas canister inside that goes off if anybody tries to start it without a key."
"Sure," Ruby said. "But it's not as bad as it sounds. It doesn't really kill them. Just makes them permanently blind."
"That's heavy," the youth said.
Ruby nodded. "Makes it tough to sink jump shots."
She walked quickly up the steps of the old building, whose stone entranceway looked like an entry blank in the international four-letter-word contest. At the top of the stairs, she pushed the Jacksons' bell. Behind her, she heard the three youths discussing vigorously where they might be able to steal a gas mask so they could steal the car without being blinded. She smiled to herself. There was no answer to the doorbell, so she pushed open the unlocked inside door and walked upstairs.
There was another bell outside the Jacksons' fourth floor apartment, and it did not work either. She pounded on the door until a voice from inside said, "Stop that banging, for heaven's sakes. Who is it?"
But the door did not open. "Aunt Lettie, it's Ruby." "Who?"
"Ruby, your niece."
The door still didn't open. The woman's voice instead asked, "What's your mama's name?"
"Cornelia. And she still smokes her corncob pipe and still wears that silver dollar medal you gave her * once."
The door swung open. A little black woman, her face prunelike with age, looked Ruby up and down, then grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her inside.
"Ruby, child, what's the matter? Who's after you?" She quickly closed the door.
"Why do you think somebody's after me, Aunt Lettie?"
" 'Cause not many people comes to Newark just to visit. You all right, girl?"
"I'm fine, Aunt Lettie. Really fine." And when the old woman was finally convinced, she swallowed Ruby up in a hug strong enough to make up for the last ten years in which they hadn't seen each other.
"Come on in, girl. My, my, how pretty and big you got. Come in and talk to your Aunt Lettie. How's your mama? What brings you here, anyway?"
"I thought maybe you could put me up for a few days," Ruby said, as she followed the woman
through the neat but sparsely furnished railroad rooms into the kitchen.
"Now I know somebody's after you," Lettie Jackson said, "you wanting to stay here."
Ruby laughed. "Really, Aunt Lettie, you are the most suspicious woman I ever saw. Can't I just want to visit?"
Finally, cajolery and Ruby's obvious good humor pacified the old woman. As Ruby sat at the kitchen table and they talked, the old woman fussed about the kitchen, baking cookies, making tea, insisting that Ruby tell her everything about what she had been doing and how she was and how her mother was and her brother, no-account-Lucius, which the old woman pronounced all in one, as if it were a title and name like Prince Charles or King Edward. No-account-Lucius.
Throughout the day, children drifted into the apartment. Lettie's children, her children's children, her nieces, her nephews. She introduced them all formally to Ruby, daughter of her sister, Cornelia, and Ruby instantly forgot all their names. In the big commune, no one seemed to mind. As it grew dark, Mrs. Jackson explained to Ruby that since she was a guest, she would have a bed to share with only one other person, a sixteen-year-old cousin who had heard that Ruby was in the wig business and wanted her to send two wigs, one for daytime and one for nighttime, so she didn't have to mess with doing her hair.
At last, Ruby went to sleep.
'That's the place?"
Solly Martin looked away from the gray building and at Lester Sparky McGuri.
"Yeah," he said. "Then well get out of this town and go someplace to make some money." He waved toward the street. "Look at this street," he said, in a voice crisp with indignation. "You'd think anybody with brains'd want to burn down the whole city. But the guy paid us for this building, and so this building's it."
"I better go do it then," Sparky said.
"You all right?" Solly asked "You all charged up and everything?"
"I guess so. I feel okay," the boy said.
"It knocks me out," Solly said, "how you can just go into a building and wave your arms around and fires start, just like that."
"Me, too," Sparky said. "I never know how it works. It just works. I think it's getting stronger, too. The last time I was really good."
Solly nodded. His eyes looked around the street. It was dark and empty. He was surprised to see a fancy white Continental parked in front of the building. It was not the kind of car one would associate with this street. Sure, there was a myth that welfare chiselers drove Cadillacs and spent all day watching color television, but the fact was that the Cadillacs were usually five years old and burned three quarts of oil going around the block. This Continental didn't look like one of those.
Sparky McGurl slipped out of the car, ran across the deserted street and into the tenement building.
Solly waited. Newark was bad pickings. Everything worth burning down in town had already been burned down. There was only this building, and the goal tonight wasn't property destruction, it was death. The man who had hired them wanted people to die. Solly shrugged. It was all the same to
him. He looked at the five-story tenement building. And it was all the same to Sparky. The boy would set anything afire just to see the flames.
Sparky walked quietly up the five flights of stairs. He set his first fire in the top floor left, then sparked off one more on each landing on his way back down. Before the. fire was discovered, the stairwells would be burning good, he thought.
Remo walked across the narrow street in front of his hotel, into a park that had been constructed over an underground parking garage.
When he was a child, the nuns of the orphanage would, once a month, take their classes to the Newark museum, but the highlight of the day was stopping later to eat a picnic lunch in this park. It had been elegant then, spotlessly clean, filled with families and students and businessmen.
But it too had succumbed, as had the city itself. As he stepped into the park, Remo felt cheated. Very little of his childhood belonged to him; very little of it had any meaning; but he had remembered this park fondly, and it saddened him to see it now.
Winos sat sprawled on the benches, under the sharp glare of the overhead night lighting. Back in the bushes, Remo could hear young couples giggling in the dark. He walked farther into the park and saw a black drug pusher, wearing almost as much gold around his neck as he had in his mouth, leaning against a small maintenance building.
A pack of youths stood about twenty yards away from the pusher, watching him, and Remo realized they were waiting their turns. First one would come up to the pusher, hand over some money, and