Inspired by the music of DMX
It was daytime but it felt dark. As the bus vibrated them up and over a hill he saw it for the first time up close and not across the bay or on a screen. He shook his already rattling head. A million thoughts swirled through his mind. The beatings his crack-addicted mother administered to him, his desire to wander the roads of America with the one creature that had ever shown him any real love or loyalty – a Pit Bull he’d rescued from a storm drain – his first and last robberies, the last blunt he’d hit, the last piece of ass he’d hit, his dreams of being a rap superstar, and on and on. They all crashed together and merged as one pure and clear conviction: stay alive in the belly of that grim beast. The upside-down kingdom waited before him, and the bridge that extended forth like a tongue gladly welcomed them ready for the monster to chew them up with its razor teeth.
All his life Earl Leonard Mayers had been told he wouldn’t make it to see 25, and now at the age of 23 he was sitting in a small bus with shackled wrists and ankles headed for the infamous isle. Maybe they were right; maybe they were wrong. Either way, he wouldn’t go easy. As much as he would have loved to say that the lawyer had fucked him or the white judge had been racist, truth was he was guilty. He’d done the deed and was now headed into purgatory to await trial and sentencing to Hell.
Life on the inside is nothing like life on the outside. Wrong is right and evil is the norm.
* * *
The smell of dirt, bleach, and sweat clogged his nasal passage. The battleship-gray walls with bars caked in dust smothered him like a blanket. The cacophony of screams and shrieks assaulted his ears. All enforced the realization of where his new home would be for the foreseeable: Rikers Island.
“For all of you who have been here before,” bellowed the corrections officer, “you already know what to expect.” He paused and grimaced before continuing, “For those of you who haven’t, if this is your first time you’d best tighten your pants.”
The slam of the gate echoed out as they shuffled forwards into the bare room with pitted walls. They stripped naked as commanded. It wasn’t his first strip search, but it was not something he could ever get used to either. Un-cuffed he visualized head-butting the nearest guard – “Lift up your nut sack” – imagined stomping down on his skull – “bend over and spread your cheeks” – all the while knowing that this was just part of the process and not the time to be acting up.
Across the way, the barred entrance into the corridor that led to the dayroom of his new house started to fill with the pumped bodies of predators coming to eye up the fresh meat. The light was blocked out to form a foreboding silhouette filled with hungry, piercing eyes. Some of the fresh fish in the holding cell began to wriggle and show their true colors even before school had started, but this wasn’t new for him. Sure, it was his first time on the Isle, but he was well schooled now at 23. From a broken home, into a crack house, to boys homes, to juvi, to the streets of NY, and now finally here. Gladiator school. He’d been prepared as best you can be for it, but there was never any kind of guarantee that you would have a graduation date in here. You take every day one fight at a time, and every fight one blow at a time.
“Move out!” the officer commanded. School was in session.
As they filed through the now open gate and deeper into the paint-chipped belly, the screaming and hollering built up to almost overwhelming volume. The scent of fresh blood in the air excited the animals and drove them into a frenzy of violent posturing and verbal abuse. The guards strolled through the room looking tense and on high alert but Earl knew how to carry himself too. His blatant lack of fear shielded him more than his cut and taut physique from the initial fronting and foaming jaws, but he knew that his first real test would soon be upon him. This was just a little taste for the circling sharks to spot the weakest fish in the school.
* * *
The years of passing through the revolving doors of America’s penal institutions meant that the cell came as no surprise to him. A blank, gray, lifeless box with only the bare essentials that would serve as his temporary holding pen until the shot-callers had checked him out. It didn’t take long for a black-skinned man to swagger up to the bars eyes glaring, his orange jumpsuit hanging from his lean frame.
“Papers nigga,” demanded the prisoner.
Earl took his time. He knew the drill and also wanted to let them know from the jump that he wasn’t some punk to be pushed around. The system had given him a number, but he was damned if they wouldn’t all know his name soon enough. He slid his documentation through the bars and growled, “Be quick about it.”
The other prisoner sucked his yellowed teeth and snatched what he came for. There was a moment of eye balling before he turned and swaggered away to another cell to collect more court documents to begin the next step of the process, all the while cussing under his breath.
Out in the day room, they circled him with bare black muscles swollen and tensed ready to do battle. Into the center stepped a giant with thick beard and ’fro, unsmiling and never blinking.
“You all good young ’un,” the shot-caller nodded before running his enormous battle-scarred hand over his beard. “Stick to the script and there’ll be no shit. Price to ride in the car be a carton of smokes up front an—”
“I ain’t no fucking passenger nigga,” Earl barked and stepped forward into the giant’s sweat-slicked chest. The man smirked and stepped back into the line of the circle that now closed tight like a noose.
“Ayo, what size them Timbs?” a voiced asked behind him, and then the first punch landed on the side of his head.
Seconds pass like months when you’re being jumped. A single punch from a human fist takes on the appearance of a sledgehammer wielded by an angry Thor when he’s high on a cocktail of crack and crank. Adrenaline and testosterone can only do so much.
When Earl awoke he was on the cold floor of a different bare gray box in almost no light. Pain engulfed him like a forest fire raging through drylands searching for more scrub to incinerate. He didn’t bother to try getting up from the sticky concrete. His eyes remained closed as he pulled the broken teeth from his knuckles and spat the iron taste of his foe’s blood from his mouth. Sure, he’d gotten stomped but he’d given almost as good as he’d got considering he was one against many.
Respect had been earned.
As the weeks rolled into months his rep got bigger and badder, and he became a regular contender for the guards to gamble their wages on. He won some and lost some before making the mistake of turning on his captors. He’d get props from a few behind the wall for wailing on a bull, but he still had dreams of being adored by legions in the outside world.
You get no medical aid or time in the infirmary when you spill the blood of a uniform.
* * *
Life in a box is no way for any creature to live. Fed scraps and left to the darkness for days at a time, Earl’s mind slowly started to turn on him. He tried to keep his sanity by reciting his rhymes while beating his hands on the grime-covered concrete he slumped on, but his jaw still hurt and his ribs hadn’t healed from the beating the guards had given him all those months ago.
When he heard its voice that first time, Earl assumed it was a guard or another con, but then he realized how cold the air was. The darkness appeared blacker and he was frozen to his core.
“You look like you could use a friend,” said the blackness that Earl now scrambled around in, “or perhaps a guardian angel.”
“Who the fuck—”
“Just call me D for now.”
Earl caught himself and controlled his breathing, telling himself that he must have already gone mad in the hole as there was no way he could possibly be seeing the figure before him. It appeared to have multiple faces that never settled on one for more than a moment. Each time he thought he could make out specific features it shifted again. He wanted to lash out from fear. Fear of the figure there with him, fear that he was about to be attacked, but most of all fear that he’d really gone insane.
“And you should know that I can give you what you’ve always wanted. And more.”
“What is this?” Earl finally managed to bark.
One of the faces appeared to smile before stating, “Opportunity. You want power and wealth, fame and fortune, love and respect.”
“Fuck you want?” Earl snapped.
“All you have left,” the demon whispered back as he approached.
“I ain’t got shit,” he forced through gritted teeth as his knuckles tensed white.
“You have everything you need to make a deal with me,” D almost smiled again. In his slender hand he held a thick, leather-bound book that he offered to Earl.
The convict stared down at the object, struggling to see in the darkness but very sure it was a book.
“Every great rapper needs some rhymes,” the stranger said matter-of-factly. “Here are some to get you started. Add to them as your name grows bigger.”
Earl started to reach out for the book and then stopped himself, leaving his hand out there only inches away from the leather.
“What good is a book of rhymes to me in
here?” he said as he dropped his hand back to his side.
“Why stay here?” D smirked. “You like your own company that much?” he asked rhetorically as he began to idly walk around the cell. “Maybe it’s the alluring aroma,” he smirked to himself this time. “Like I said Earl, I can give you what you always wanted and more.”
Before him, Earl began to see a light grow bigger and brighter until it took shape and showed him what his future could be. He saw himself on a massive stage, illuminated by strobes and lasers, an ocean of fans all chanting his name and reaching out to touch him. The vision swirled and he now saw himself lounging in a hot tub on a luxury yacht, surrounded by bikini-clad vixens who served up champagne and freshly rolled blunts as they massaged his naked torso. Earl’s aching jaw hung open and his eyes grew wide as he reached out for the illusion before him. He could feel the warmth of the Sun and smell the perfume of the playmates, then in an instant it disappeared and his hand fell through the blackness and back to his side.
“What do you want?” Earl half-whispered and half-cried.
“I think you already know the answer,” D said coldly.
“My soul,” replied Earl as he fell down to his knees.
“Your soul?” D shook his head and looked down at the fallen man. “One soul for all of that? I don’t think that’s fair.”
“Then what?” Earl cried up at the towering figure cloaked in black.
“You want to get out of jail,” the demon held up a finger. “You want to be a rapper,” he extended a second finger. “You want to become famous,” D paused for a moment, “with longevity one presumes,” he pretended to think about this as he looked down at the confused man. All five digits on his other hand extended to the ceiling. “Five platinum-selling number-one albums would do this.” The demon crouched down to eye level with Earl, “Money, power, women…” fingers and thumb again extended for each.
Earl stared wild eyed back and forth at the two bony hands of the demon stretched out like they were shooting electricity into the sky.
“But I don’t have 10 souls to give,” Earl’s voice trembled.
D placed the leather-bound book before Earl. The front cover was marked with a red seal, the likes of which the poorly educated criminal had never seen before.
“He who bares my mark kills in my name. All that he slays belongs to me.” D stood tall, all 10 digits still extended, a warlord’s battle-ready eyes piercing his victim’s shaved skull. “Do we have a deal Earl Leonard Mayers?”
The kneeling convict was barely able to utter a hushed, “Yes,” before he screamed out in agonizing pain at the sensation of the seal of the demon burning itself into the flesh of his chest.
“Arise Darkman and pay me what you owe,” the demon commanded.
* * *
He ripped up every stage he stood on and decimated every beat he rode on. His lyrics energized the fans and the music world adored him for it. With each new album came more fans and more adoration. He was a superstar, a legend in the flesh. The critics praised him and what negative press he did receive only kept his albums sitting at the number one spot longer, caused his bank balance to swell further and the streets to chant his name louder and more ferociously.
When he flowed beneath the bright lights he was the epitome of hip-hop. But in the darkness there was a debt to be paid. Late at night, away from the limelight and prying eyes. Beyond the sight of the fans, press, and music industry, Earl dressed in black and committed the evil deeds that prolonged his success.
The first kill had been back on Rikers Island, the one that set him free. An easy target, a pedophile who had it coming as far as Earl was concerned. He’d managed to get him through the fencing out on the yard that separated the high risk cons from the gen pop. He planned it well and executed it with finesse. An extra-long shiv that he rammed between the rusted mesh of the metal ensuring to hit those parts of the human body that let it bleed out quickly and painfully. Too fast for uninterested guards and underpaid medics to fix.
D fulfilled his end of the arrangement. Old evidence incriminating Earl was lost and new evidence that he was somewhere else on the night of the robbery made its way into the right hands. Soon he was back out on the streets.
After that were a couple of street-hardened hoods who enjoyed making it rain at the same strip club every Friday night. They’d been just as easy to stake out and drop. Earl did them in the parking lot, under the neon lights on rain slicked tarmac. Both got wet worked with a silenced .45 beside their BMW before the strippers had even had a chance to finish picking up all the bills that they’d been showered with by the inebriated bangers. They should have known better than to keep to the same spot every week.
The fourth murder was another hustler, a dealer in a projects in the heart of the Zoo. Earl had to be more careful when creeping through the back streets of Brooklyn and managed to trap the young black man as he walked up the stairs to his 12th floor apartment. The Darkman had disabled the battered elevator an hour before he knew the dealer would stop clocking and head home for the night to count his cash. Earl had stood, flanked by graffiti and with broken glass under his Timberlands, in an unlit part of the stairwell that stank of death and decay. He made it look like a robbery and deposited all the money into a church drop box on his way back out of the borough. He was already a millionaire by that time and needed neither the cash to spend or evidence to be implicated.
Victim five had taken a lot of alcohol and self-motivation to get done. She was a school teacher and a single mother of three. Just a regular civilian as far as he could tell. When questioned, D had simply reminded Earl that their deal had never included negotiations, unnecessary information, or ethical considerations. Souls for favors – no more, no less. He’d made it look personal, not professional. The hours had felt like years laid out on the back seat of her station wagon in the blackness, the only sounds his heart and breath; each rapping about how wrong it all was. She’d been the last to leave after a long day of teaching unruly inner-city kids and then being berated by their parents all evening for not making their idiot offspring geniuses. The plastic bag over her head had been the last thing she was expecting as she started the car’s engine. The smell of her urine clogged his nostrils and wouldn’t relent even after he’d slid out and lit up a Newport.
When the demon next appeared Earl had a heavy heart. He no longer felt like a star. Now he felt like a loser. For weeks the liquor had been tasting like piss and the weed was ashes in his mouth. The cold air sent shivers through him as he drove D through the city night and listened to what was expected of him. The bomb was to be placed inside a trash can in the lobby of a government building and set to detonate hours after the doors had been locked. The soul to be claimed worked late and would be the last to leave. It all felt wrong. The neon and car lights blurred past his peripheral as the Rolls-Royce Phantom cruised deeper into the jungle on perfectly aligned wheels sporting giant rims that reflected the animals they passed.
“I’ll just shoot him,” growled Earl before sucking his teeth. A bomb seemed needlessly complicated, loud, attention-grabbing, and risky. There was too much room for mistakes and other people getting killed or injured. You kill someone the right way, a lazy detective gets the job of finding out who did it. You kill someone the wrong way, the FBI get involved. “I don’t need that kind of fuckin’ heat.”
“Come on dog, you know how this goes,” D smirked.
Tonight he kept the appearance of a black male, mid-twenties, dressed in designer labels. The pair looked the part in the luxury ride, all kitted out in Rick Owens, Alexander Wang, Off-White, and Versace. They shared a blunt and bottle of Hennessy, which Earl knew were meant to soften his mind and dull his senses. In the beginning the demon had merely told him who to kill from the darkness, but then it started spending more time with him, talking in his ear rather than whispering from the blackness. The duo looked like wealthy playboys cruising the city night for fresh pussy without a care in the world, but that couldn’t be further from the rap star’s mind.
* * *
The Darkman cursed under his breath as he paced the box room, spat words of venom at himself between beating his head with his fists, screamed aloud in rage as he smashed his knuckles into the rotten drywall.
It had been all over the news for two days straight, ‘Bomb explodes in office block overlooking Central Park, kills 5, injures dozens.’ Earl couldn’t believe what he’d gotten himself into. He sweated profusely in the shit-hole apartment he’d holed up in, located in the worst part of town.
Nobody knew where he was, which was the best he could think to do for the time being. There was no way anyone would suspect him of planting the explosive, but when you commit a crime of that magnitude things get real hot real quick. The authorities will move Heaven and Hell to find the guilty party and Earl couldn’t be sure that he’d covered his tracks well enough to get away with it clean. He wasn’t convinced there would be any getting away when it came to detonating a bomb that assassinated a mayoral candidate.
As he strode around the almost bare rooms, half-naked and full of self-loathing, he couldn’t help but think about how the deal with the demon had now swung in his favor. He stopped pacing and almost smiled. The deal was 10 souls for 10 favors. So far, D had only done eight. Their pact had been for five albums and the Darkman had only recorded three. If the FBI did come knocking, those last two albums would be forgotten about and new terms would have to be met. He nodded confirmation to himself that he’d figured out how to escape going back to jail and more than likely death row.
Then his phone rang.
“Who dis?” Earl barked into the sleek piece of tech in his hand.
“Such squalor is not becoming for a super star of your magnitude Darkman.”
The voice sent shivers through Earl and he slumped down onto the single mattress that lay on the bare floorboards.
“Ayo, shit’s changed D—”
“Nothing has changed!” boomed the demon. “Get back to the studio. Get back to recording those next two albums.” And with that the call ended.
Earl stomped around the dirty floorboards that creaked and flexed under his weight, anger bubbling for a short time before boiling over in an outcry of yelling, smashing, and throwing his phone through the window covered in grime that barely let any light in.
The Darkman crumpled to his knees and thought about just how bleak things had gotten for him. As a child he’d had no real family or upbringing to speak of, just beatings and neglect. From there it was more violence, no trust or nurturing, only solitude and sin on the streets. Sure, he’d run with some crews as he got older but they were always short-term arrangements. Link up, do a score, go your separate ways, keep your mouth shut.
He believed that the fame and fortune would bring him love and happiness, but now the American dream was just a pitch-black nightmare. His life had become more violent and deadly than ever before. He was still alone. He was still angry.
Suddenly, the thought of being adrift on the open road struck him and was very alluring. Just disappear. Leave everything behind. No big money, no name, just the empty road before him. Maybe now that he’d fulfilled his end of the deal with the demon, if he didn’t take what was owed he could save his own soul.
Through the shattered window the sound of frenzied barking and people yelling interrupted his thoughts of flight and focused him back on the here and now of his situation. The noise of the scared dog reminded him of the one time in his life that he’d felt like he had a real friend. Someone he could trust and maybe even love. The authorities had taken his Pit Bull away when they’d caught him shoplifting and locked Earl up in juvi.
Before he could register what he was doing, he was up off the dusty boards, on his feet, and heading for the howls from the canine in distress outside.
The youths didn’t realize he was there until he’d thrown one of them against another and sent the two of them rolling across the cracked concrete. The remaining two tried to stand tall between him and the cowering dog, skinny chests pushed out while brandishing sticks gripped in fists. That all changed when he took the Glock from the small of his back. The four scattered down the alley and out onto the street. Earl tucked the pistol away and slowly approached the mangy black dog growling from behind the bins.
“You hungry?” he asked with a smile. “I’m gonna get something from the bodega just over there,” Earl pointed to the end of the alley. “You still here when I get back, I’ll split it with you.”
* * *
After pawning his Diamond Boyz grill along with his other jewelry and withdrawing everything he could from an ATM, Earl threw a blanket and other stuff into the old pick-up. Then he threw his Dunhill Biometric wallet into the trash. The previous owner of the truck hadn’t even bothered to throw out the empty food containers and soda cups, yet alone replace the missing knobs on the battered cassette deck.
The dog had taken to him after being fed and watered, but it wasn’t ready to let him give it a wash or try combing the knots out of its long black hair yet. He didn’t mind – trust couldn’t be earned in a matter of hours and they had all the time they needed ahead of them on the road. He figured he wasn’t smelling or looking too fresh himself at the moment either.
Earl turned the key in the cracked ignition and heard the V8 engine rumble into life as the smell of dust filled the cab, mixing with the odor of grease and oil. He looked at the dog riding shotgun and said, “I’m Dark—” then stopped and sighed. “I’m Earl.” He smiled and slowly reached out to the rusty name tag buried in the thick Stygian fur. There was no address or phone number of an owner, just the name ‘Dantalion.’