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A Life for a Life

A Novel

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From the acclaimed author of Satisfied with Nothin' comes a searing and unsparing story of the unlikely bond between an African-American father and the teenager who killed his son, a tale of violent self-destruction reclaimed by the inexhaustible power of love and forgiveness.

In A Life for a Life, Ernest Hill explores the volatile emotional terrain of a black youth's coming of age in rural Louisiana. When a local drug dealer threatens to kill D'Ray Reid's kid brother unless he comes up with $100 within an hour, D'Ray decides to hold up a convenience store in a nearby town. The young clerk at the cash register attempts to foil the robbery and in the scuffle D'Ray shoots and kills him. What follows is an absorbing drama in which D'Ray becomes a fugitive with a lengthening resume of violent crime. Yet it is ultimately in the person of Henry Earl, the slain boy's father, that D'Ray sees his future. When he is forced to reckon with his destruction of the boy's family, D'Ray finds that Henry Earl is his only advocate and the person who will ask of him what no one, not even his family, had ever asked before.

A Life for a Life witnesses the resuscitation of two lives by love, forgiveness, and gratitude. The relationship that develops between D'Ray Reid and Henry Earl is nothing short of miraculous: Their discovery of humanity and harmony in the most unlikely place will reverberate in readers' memories.

Chapter 1

He sat in a small wooden chair with his hands tied behind his back. Yes, he was guilty as charged, but it had all been a mistake, a misunderstanding. The day had begun innocently enough. He had met Beggar Man, Crust, and Pepper on the corner under the big oak tree. It was hot, one of the hottest days that any of them could remember. It was too hot to be outside, and sitting in the pool hall under that old window fan wouldn't be much better. They needed air-conditioning, and the only place in the projects that was air-conditioned was Kojak's Place.

They all knew what went on at Kojak's Place, but they were hot and they agreed that they would stay just long enough to cool off, or just long enough for the sun to move from the center of the sky, or just long enough for a few clouds to rise. None of them knew how long that would be, but it couldn't be that long. So like a pack of wild animals drawn to a communal watering hole in spite of the dangers lurking nearby, they marched forward.

Even after they started walking, they searched for possible alternatives. A movie would do the trick, but they didn't have a dime between the four of them. They could mill about downtown in one of the department stores, but they knew they wouldn't be inside long enough to stop sweating before someone asked them what they were looking for. A dip in the town pool would be ideal, but even though it was 1987, in Brownsville, Louisiana, for all intents and purposes, that much-desired treat was still for whites only. So it was Kojak's Place or no place.

When they went inside, all he wanted was relief from the heat. He only wanted to sit in the back and wait for the sun to go down. It was the others who wanted to have a little fun once they were inside, not him. It was Crust and Pepper who followed the two skimpily clad prostitutes through the room and up the back stairs, not him. They were working girls, and he knew as well as Pepper and Crust that their empty pockets meant none of them had what it took to gain the women's attention or garner their affection. It was Beggar Man, not him, who took a seat at the bar and tried to talk Walter into giving him a free drink. He didn't bother. It was too hot outside and there were too many people inside for Walter to be giving away drinks.

When he sat beside her, it was purely coincidental. He saw the empty seat before he saw her. She was beautiful, and he couldn't help but notice her too short cutoff jeans, or her snug-fitting crop top that drew attention to her voluptuous breasts and exposed her flat, taut stomach. Even after he noticed her he said nothing. He sat silently, staring out the window, enjoying the cool air, wondering how long before the sun went down or a few clouds rose. She spoke first. "What brings you to Death Row?" He was sure that he had never seen her before, but as soon as she spoke, he knew she was from the area. She had said, "Death Row." Everybody knew that the Brownsville Projects were a bad place, but only the locals knew about Chatman Avenue. People died on Chatman Avenue. So many people, so often, that the locals began calling it Death Row.

After a brief silence, he answered her question. "Relief from the heat," he said dryly.

"Is that all?" she wanted to know.

"What else is there?" he asked.

"Whatever you want," she responded. "This is Kojak's Place."

"And what do you know about Kojak's Place?" he asked.

"More than most," she said boastfully.

"Is that right?" he responded sarcastically.

"That's right," she told him. "I'm his sister."

He had been running with the fellows for only a couple of weeks. They were all older than him. He had just turned ten, but he looked older. In fact, most of the people around town affectionately called him Little Man. As a group they called themselves the Posse, and his brother was their leader. On his birthday his brother had told him it was time. And then he was one of them. Each day they had taught him something new. But today they had carried him further than ever before. They had taken him to Kojak's Place. Now he was on his own, and she was his first big test.

After she told him who she was, she asked him to accompany her to one of the back rooms. When they arrived, she offered him Kojak's glass pipe. When he told her that he only smoked weed, she just laughed. When he told her he was broke, she told him that he didn't need any money. When he asked her if she was sure that it was OK, she assured him that it was. So, for an hour and a half, they smoked. Inside, under the cool, dry air, away from the heat and humidity, in a private room, they smoked. It was her party, and he was her invited guest. That's what he told Kojak when he demanded payment for his drugs. That's what he told Kojak just before Kojak hit him on the side of the head with that empty whiskey bottle. That's what he told Kojak before Kojak dragged him out behind the club and into the small storage shed. That's what he kept trying to tell Kojak as Kojak was tying him to that chair. That's what he screamed as Kojak placed the gun barrel next to his temple, mumbling, "You gone pay me or die."

He had closed his eyes never expecting to open them again. He had anticipated hearing the gunshot. He had anticipated feeling the excruciating pain of a bullet boring through his skull. He had imagined his lifeless body slumped over in the chair, a pool of blood collecting at his bound feet. He had heard the deafening wail of his brokenhearted mother, the angry moan of his dejected brother, the pitying words of his friends, and that question that white folks always ask, "Why do these people do this to each other?"

There was no point in pleading. This was Kojak, a ruthless dope dealer who killed with impunity. He and the cops had an understanding. He gave them a cut of his profits, and they gave him free reign to peddle his drugs and his women, as long as he confined his business to places like Death Row. Kojak was a businessman. Little Man had smoked that for which he could not pay. Therefore he had to die.

He didn't know how he knew to come. Someone must have called him. Maybe Crust, maybe Pepper, maybe Beggar Man; he didn't know who, but someone. When he heard him yell, "Kojak!" he flinched. When he felt the gun barrel fall from his head, he opened his eyes. When he saw him standing there, he sighed. It was D'Ray, his brother.

For a moment D'Ray and Kojak stood staring at each other. They were two different versions of the same thing. At thirty-five, Kojak was a seasoned criminal. At fifteen, D'Ray was just beginning. D'Ray spoke first.

"What's the deal, Kojak?" he asked loudly.

"Who wants to know?" Kojak responded, looking him over carefully.

"D'Ray," his brother answered.

Kojak frowned. He didn't recognize the name. Perhaps if D'Ray had said, "Outlaw," that would have made a difference. After all, that's what most people called him.

"D'Ray who?" Kojak asked.

"D'Ray Reid," he told him.

Kojak smiled wryly. The last name was familiar.

"You Papa World's boy?" he asked.

"That's right," D'Ray told him.

Kojak looked at D'Ray and then at Little Man.

"Him too?" he asked.

"Him too," D'Ray told him. "He's my little brother."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Kojak said coldly. "World always been good to me."

"He been good to a lot of people," D'Ray added.

For a brief moment Kojak's eyes softened.

"How World making out these days?" he asked.

Papa World was in South Louisiana serving a life sentence in Angola State Penitentiary for killing a white man.

"He's making the best of a bad situation," D'Ray told him.

"That's what we got here, young blood," Kojak said. "A bad situation."

"It don't have to be," D'Ray countered. "What's the problem?"

Kojak raised the gun and rubbed the barrel against his cheek.

"He's a thief," Kojak said.

D'Ray shook his head in disagreement. "He's a little hardheaded, but he ain't no thief."

"Well, what would you call a person who takes what he can't pay for?" Kojak asked.

"What he take?"

"Crack."

"Crack!" D'Ray shouted.

"Yeah, crack," Kojak said. "He must be a fool stealing from me. Little nigguh just don't know, I'll take 'im out."

Little Man started to speak. Kojak wheeled and pointed the gun at his head.

"Wait," D' Ray yelled. "I'll pay you."

Kojak lowered the gun.

"You got money?"

D'Ray patted his front pockets, then extended both hands in front of his body with both palms up.

"Not on me," he said. "Let me owe you. I'm good for it."

"You must be tripping."

"Come on, Kojak," D'Ray pleaded. "Cut us some slack. He's just a kid."

"Kid!" Kojak barked. "Ain't no kids in the projects. Papa World's boys ought to know that as good as anybody."

"I need a little time," D'Ray told him.

"Ain't no time," Kojak responded.

"Give me till tomorrow," D'Ray said. "I swear on my daddy's honor you'll get your money."

There was silence.

"What you say, Kojak?" D'Ray asked. "How about first thing in the morning?"

"Papa World always been good to me." Kojak spoke as though he was thinking out loud. "You got one hour."

"One hour!" D'Ray yelled.

"One hour," Kojak responded coldly. "Papa World or no Papa World, you ain't back with my money in a hour, you can tell your mama she got one less mouth to feed."

D'Ray turned to leave, then stopped.

"How much he owe you?"

"One hundred dollars," Kojak told him.

"One hundred dollars!" D'Ray shouted.

"Homeboy, the clock's ticking."

Copyright © 1998 by Ernest Hill

Ernest Hill was born in Oak Grove, Louisiana. He holds degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, and UCLA. He is the author of five novels, including A Life for a Life, Cry Me a River, It's All About the Moon When the Sun Ain't Shining, and A Person of Interest.

More books from this author: Ernest Hill