The building had the feeling of grand dreams worn away by time and reality. Solid brick walls pockmarked and dirty. Huge glass windows, covered over in places with cardboard and tape. Hallways littered with graffiti. It was a high school, but not the place to nurture dreams.
For the vast majority of students, it was simply a way point along a path to nowhere.
Jerome Smith was quite possibly the only exception.
Jerome was short and dumpy. He was a quiet kid. And he was the school’s only promising academic. He listened to teachers. He not only read his homework, he read other things as well. He was, in other words, a smart kid who wanted to grow.
Almost nobody in that school knew his real name. They called him something else, “Violin Boy.” For years, he’d been carting his violin case everywhere he went. Nobody at school had seen him play – but the rumors multiplied. The dominant theory was clear: he’d inherited the violin from some rich relative and it was too valuable to leave at home. Maybe he didn’t trust his two sisters, his mom, or their various and sundry boyfriends.
It was a cold December morning when the Principal knocked quietly on the door, thrust himself into the classroom and passed a simple note that changed Violin Boy’s life. The teacher read the note and a long-lost expression – and expression of hope and pride – crossed her face. She stood up, banged on her table for a modicum of quiet and then read the note to class:
“Jerome Smith,” she started.
“Who??” said some kid in the back row.
“Violin Boy,” another voice announced derisively.
“Jerome Smith,” the teacher started again, “A college representative is waiting for you in Counseling.”
You wouldn’t have known it from his face, but Jerome wanted to cry. For him alone, this school was a rung on a ladder – and for the first time in his life it looked like he might just reach his dreams.
The class erupted in catcalls. Every student in there knew what college meant, and every student was jealous. Some were jealous angry, but more than a few were jealous and proud. Violin Boy might make it. Violin Boy was their hope too.
But they catcalled nonetheless. Just as they’d beat him countless times.
Social decorum required it.
Violin Boy stood up, quietly. Meekly. And he shuffled out of the room – leaving it to its explosion of conversation and its absence of hope.
He made his way down the littered halls – preparing himself for what he was going to say. “Disadvantaged kid. Single-parent family. Black. Awful neighborhood. But a persistent kid. A kid who had overcome massive odds to get out of the ghetto.” He knew his story well, but he rehearsed it nonetheless. He’d never told it to anybody, but he still hoped it’d work in its first reading.
He approached Counseling, knocked on the door and waited.
“Come in,” announced a deep voice from behind the glass. With a buzz, the door was unlocked.
Jerome Smith opened the door, stepped inside, closed it and then looked up.
The man facing him was no college administrator.
The man facing him was dressed in a $1500 suit. He was polished and clean. His diction was perfect. While he’d come from the neighborhood, everybody in the city knew who he was. He was the CFO.
Violin Boy turned back to the door – hoping he could leave. But the CFO spoke one simple sentence and Violin Boy stopped. “Boy,” he said, “Sit down, I want to talk.”
When the CFO asked, you tended to listen.
So Violin Boy did as he was told. Reluctantly, he sat – his violin case laying across his lap. He lifted his eyes and allowed them to meet the CFOs.
He expected hard eyes, cold eyes – but the CFO’s eyes were soft, and seemingly caring. It was easy to forget who he was.
“Mr. Jerome Smith,” said the CFO, “I hear you wanna go to college?”
Meekly, Violin Boy nodded.
“Well, Mr. Jerome Smith,” said the CFO, “I would like you to go to college.”
Violin Boy nodded again, silently.
“Some excitement?” said the CFO, a little edge in his voice.
Violin Boy nodded again. He was trying to hide his fear.
“I guess that’ll do,” said the CFO, “Here’s the deal. I will pay you to go to college. Tuition, room and board, everything. I want you to have an education. Specifically, I want you to have an education in Finance and an education in Chemistry. You think you can do that?”
Violin Boy nodded.
“I didn’t hear you,” said the CFO.
“Yes,” said Violin Boy, quietly.
“So,” said the CFO, “You are going to get yourself a BA, and then I’m going to provide you with your Masters. On the street.”
“Can you do that for me?” asked the CFO.
Summoning every ounce of his will, Violin Boy whispered, “No.”
“Excuse me?” said the CFO.
“No,” answered Violin Boy, slightly more loudly.
“I thought you said that,” said the CFO, sitting back in his chair.
He paused for a moment, pursing his lips, his soft eyes resting on Jerome Smith’s shaking hands.
“Boy,” he said, “Do you know why they call me the CFO?”
Everybody knew that. But Violin Boy waited for the explanation.
“They call me that,” the CFO explained, “Because I recognize I’m only the second-in-command. I might run the money and I might run the gangs, but the Devil himself is still my boss.”
“Now,” continued the CFO, “You know how this works. You’re a smart kid, a promising kid. But you go to college, some black inna’ city nigga’, and they’ll eat you alive. I know, I was there. But you go with me behind you and you will succeed. No worryin’ about tuition, no worryin’ about a job after school. You will be on a ladder. And I will put you there. Now, what do you say?”
Violin Boy again answered, “No.”
The CFO leaned forward, “Boy,” he said, “Look at me.”
Violin Boy lifted his eyes – fear written across them.
“Boy,” said the CFO, “Let me tell you something about my job.”
Violin Boy waited.
The CFO continued, “I run a multi-million dollar enterprise. We clear over $150M a year in profits – tax free. We have a superb organization from sales and marketing to distribution and competitive analysis. And the entire organization hinges on one thing. You know what that is?”
Violin Boy shook his head.
“Boy,” said the CFO, “Everything rides on people. Now, I’ve got three kinds of people who work for me. I’ve got Bodies. Grunts. Pushers. They stupid, but they’ll do anything for me. You know why?”
Violin Boy shook his head again.
“Because,” said the CFO, “I’ve broken them. Bodies is all they are. Their souls? They sacrificed their souls early on. And they are so ashamed of what they’ve done – what they’ve done for me – that they’ve written themselves off. I’ve got Bodies who’ve put caps in they sisters, they mothers and they baby brothers. Those Bodies, they’ll do anything if it means they don’t have to look in a mirror. Of course, you’ve got to keep those boys busy or they’ll likely kill themselves.”
The CFO paused.
“Do you want to be a Body, boy?”
Violin Boy shook his head, no.
“Didn’t think so,” said the CFO.
“Now,”, he continued, “In the second group we’ve got the Spirits. These boys, and even a few girls, I didn’t need to break them. They come broken. They are killers – but not outta shame. They’re killers because they love it. They love the danger and they love the blood. They are spirited, so you gotta keep a tight leash on ’em. Of course, these boys – you gotta give ’em sometin’ to do or they’ll find sometin’. And you don’t want that. Now, I’d ask if you are a Spirit, but something tells m
e you ain’t one of these.”
Violin Boy didn’t move.
“And then,” continued the CFO, “We got the last category. The Brains. These boys are cold, calculating – they see the angles, they know the numbers, they have a feel for the business. They make everything dance. Now, boy, you are a Brain – and there aren’t a whole lotta you out there. Understand?”
Violin Boy muttered, “Yes.”
He raised his hand. “Yes?” asked the CFO.
“What are you?” asked Violin Boy.
“I am a Spirit and a Brain and as far as I’m concerned, motha fuckers like me are better off dead.”
He chucked, paused again, and regained his train of thought.
“So,” he continued, “Mr. Jerome the Brain. You are valuable. And so I want to recruit you. No, no,”
The CFO paused, his eyes hardening.
“I WILL recruit you. You will become my trusting and loyal friend. Now, you know how this works – you’ve seen it done and I know you pay attention. You ain’t stupid. In most cases, I’d start off offering protection – and then I’d go straight to the threat. But you, you need something else. You need a future and so I started off very generously. I offered you a future: A college education. A guaranteed job. A real challenge in life. And it sounds like you want to turn me down. Is that correct?”
Violin Boy nodded.
“Well,” said the CFO, “If you were a Body, I’d just kill you. I can’t have people in this neighborhood ignoring my needs. But you ain’t a Body. You valuable. So I’m not gonna to kill you. Here’s how it’s gonna work. And remember, you can stop me at any time and I’ll become your best friend. You understand?”
Violin Boy muttered, “Yes.”
“Okay,” said the CFO, “So, I’m gonna start by killing your sisters. Then I’m gonna kill your momma. And their deaths will be on your head. And then, I’ll just start killing kids at this school and kids at the playground. Bodies are gonna pile up until you agree to my offer. Do you understand?”
Violin Boy nodded.
“So,” said the CFO, “Do you want to go to College for me?”
“No,” answered Violin Boy, as firmly as he could muster.
The CFO was surprised. And then Violin Boy, without waiting for dismissal, got up from his chair and walked out the door.
The CFO pulled out his cellphone, speed-dialed a number, and said simply, “Tonight.”
And then, with a touch of anger in his voice, he added, “I’ll come.”
They weren’t driving a flashy car. It was a gray 1985 Buick Lesabre and they planned to torch it in about 15 minutes.
The lights were off and it was sitting in Park at the beginning of Hamilton Road – Violin Boy’s road. The driver, the CFO, had his foot on the brake.
Next to him was a Spirit – a MAC-10 in his hands. He was looking forward to the screams that would come. Behind him, a Body, his SKS aimed out the window. He was soullessly going through the motions of murder.
The Spirit and the Body chambered their first rounds.
The CFO lit the wick on his Molotov cocktail.
And then, he stuck the car in Drive.
But before he could punch the gas, the windshield was shattered by a bullet.
And then, in quick succession, three more rounds came flying through where the windshield had been.
One bullet in each man’s head.
The car slumped forward as the CFO’s foot came off the break. It bumped into and old Chevy parked along the side of the street and came to a stop. The wick on the Molotov cocktail burned down and the car exploded in flames.
Nobody saw him, but Jerome Smith smiled.
And then he methodically unscrewed the silencer from his rifle, pulled the scope from its mount and collapsed the stock. And then he carefully placed everything back into place – in the custom foam mold in his violin case.
And then he stood up and walked away, once again the image of a meek, and slightly overweight, child.
He allowed himself a small chuckle.
He’d enjoyed his evening.
The CFO, like so many others, had misjudged him.
He was a Brain AND he was a Spirit.
And he was going to college.