"They have a job to do, but their interpretation of its constraints leaves much to desire."

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"You see, what you gotta do, boy, is learn the rules!" Roman Pettigrew kicked the prone youth again, savagely. "But you just never seem to learn, that's all."

Roman turned to his partner, Kendrick Sutherland, and grinned broadly, so his tobacco-stained teeth shown like the moldy rind of a slice of watermelon. "Don't that burn your ass, Ken? Here this punk has been passing bags on our beat for who knows how long, and does he think about us? Huh?" Another kick. Kendrick thought he heard something crack in the boy's body.

The kid screamed softly and curled up. He moaned, "I didn't know! I didn't know! I swear!"

But Roman only laughed and kicked his victim again. "Bull! Your kind would swear your mother's soul to hell for a ten dollar rock!" Yet another kick.

Kendrick was genuinely concerned that the boy would die. Yet he said nothing. He did nothing. He simply stood there and watched.

"What the fuck do you want?!" demanded the tortured dealer defiantly. "I'll pay anything, just back the fuck up!"

Roman's grin broadened. With a confident swagger and adjustment of his heavy belt, the officer did indeed take a step backward. "Now we're hearing what we want to hear, punk. But you just watch that mouth of yours. More filth like that outta your hole and I'll kick your teeth in."

"Okay, okay," panted the wretch, struggling to rise. He made it to his knees, then a terrible spasm of coughing wracked his body so he could but double up and struggle to breathe. Finally, spitting up a wad of blood and mucous, the dealer managed to find his feet. Face bruised, lips swollen, he asked proudly, "How much?"

"That depends," returned Roman coolly. He was taking a turn in the cul de sac where the squad was parked, searching for witnesses among the broken windows and gaping doors of condemned apartment buildings, which lay in heaps all about. The night was dark, save for a thin slice of moon. All the streetlights in these quarters had long ago been smashed and forgotten. "How much business have you been getting lately, Jon-Jon?"

Jon-Jon spat to one side and gingerly rubbed his abused ribs. "I been doin' aw'right."

"'Aw-right'" mocked Roman, reaching for his baton. "You better start with the numbers, boy." The officer's menace didn't require further threat.

"Two G's a week. Sometimes three, but usually two."

"Okay. We want five hundred from you, each and every week that we see you on the streets. Got it? Five hundred."

"God damn, take my fucking dick while you're at it!"

Roman was surprisingly quick for such a large man. Jon-Jon was on the ground in an instant, laid out flat on his back, out cold. Several of his front teeth were broken and blood filled the kid's mouth.

Kendrick used the toe of his well polished shoe to turn the boy's head to one side so he wouldn't drown in his own blood. "Why did you do that?" demanded Roman, once more surveying the darkened windows and shadowed stairways.

"He might have choked on his own teeth." Roman laughed. Kendrick hadn't meant to be funny. "What do we do with him now?"

"Now? We wait. He'll come around sooner or later."

"Then what?"

"We make sure we have an . . . arrangement. Then we let the punk go."

"Yeah, sure." Kendrick also surveyed the deteriorated tenement that crowded the cul de sac on all sides save one. This was, the rookie considered, the sad destiny of all things. Darkness. Neglect. Decay. All things that start straight must end crooked.

Their radios crackled to life. It was an urgent call. Roman cursed and answered. Passing the codes back and forth that indicated his squad would be on scene, expedite, he directed Kendrick to the car. "Get in, we'll go do this call and be back before the scum wakes up."

Uncertain, the younger officer hesitated. "What if . . ." he couldn't finish. What if what? What if somebody flushed the toilet, and all this shit was just so easily washed away?

"C'mon, Ken! It's Big Sarah calling for back-up. There might be something in it for us!" The squad's engine was already roaring to life. It thumped into gear and started off in a tight turn before Kendrick could get the door shut. He grunted and struggled to pull it closed. "You act like you want to do this for the rest of your life! We gotta think about early retirement!" Roman floored the accelerator and punched up the lights, no siren.

The door at last shut and his seatbelt in place, Kendrick smoothed back his hair and watched the ruined city slide past. Abandoned slums gave way to stark industrial functionality. Smoke belched from countless stacks. Rusted railcars sat upon rusted tracks, each waiting patiently to be filled with shiny new goods that would all too soon end up rusting in a landfill. All was red bricks and gray mortar. All was concrete and steel. All was inhuman, cold, untouchable. Poisoned. Poisonous.

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