Excerpt from Life in the Fish Bowl

“Off the Books”

Bug told me we could pick up the dope at BeeBee’s house. This was almost too good to be true, because BeeBee had rules – and the main rule was that no one did business from BeeBee’s house. Keeping dope deals out of his primary living spot is a supplier’s rule of thumb. BeeBee might not have been the biggest dealer or the smartest or – despite his occasional tendency to shoot people who crossed him – the deadliest. But he stayed with the rule. These dudes just didn’t buy or sell narcotics or guns where they rested their heads at night. One police raid and they could lose all their personal swag – their cash, their rides, their flat-screens. Not to mention their supply. Losing a supply was even worse, considering it came from someone higher up the chain and it is not free. Although they refer to the dope business as their game, it isn’t a true game for these guys. It’s a way of life and death. They play by rules set by OGs (Original Gangsters) dating back decades. Bottom line: lose a few kilos of coke worth $50,000 to a police raid and somebody will die.

And they have families to protect.  Most of these entrepreneurs kept girlfriends and children on the side. Some of them even kept girlfriends on the side of the girlfriends. They still tried to make sure the real wife and kids were “safe” and out of the gang-styled, sociopathic, shoot-then-ask-questions-later game. It was, obviously, the classy thing to do.

BeeBee was a Crip, specifically a “Four Trey N-Hood” gangster (a subset of the Crip gang), who had a sensible demeanor, but also possessed a side that made one wonder if he were truly crazy. He was formidable, too. At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, his dark skin and his mass of gang and jailhouse tattoos accentuated his lean and muscular build. With his volatile temperament, he had racked up a long prison sentence from which he’d just been recently paroled and had already retaken his position as a family heir to the cocaine distribution biz. He had also wasted no time asserting his gangster-style dominance in the area as he launched rounds from an AK-47 into the home of a suspected rival. He was back in the game and was now as hard as ever.

This time BeeBee was making an exception to the house rule, which I took to be a gesture of trust. This was a huge step for me. I would be OTB (my term for working off-the-books) on my own. No one at the Fort Worth Police Department knew where I was, what I was doing or how I was doing it.  I was going rogue, only with a disciplined focus. BeeBee was throwing me a bone and I intended to fetch it.

I was a 36-year-old cop pretending to be 10 years younger. I had burrowed further inside the Crips than anyone had thought possible. For one thing, the Crips were notoriously suspicious of outsiders. For another, the Crips were black. And I’m white.

Not just white, but pinkish pale with blonde hair. Yet I had worked my way in deep and I wasn’t leaving any breadcrumbs to find the path home, either. I was just feeling my way, using my training and intuition, and opening doors as I came to them.

At the moment, I was trying to raise Bug and keep a lid on my anger. I didn’t like waiting around when there was business to be done. I kept blowing up his phone, growing more pissed with each number I punched. He was supposed to be the informant working for me, but he sure didn’t act like it. I would have to put up with it though. Even mediocre informants were hard to find and Bug was good.

Finally, just after 10 p.m., he answered: “Yo.”

“Bug, what the heck, man?”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry. I got all caught up waiting on a friend for something.”

A friend? Where did he think we were going, a picnic?

Bug said, “But I’m ready now, bro.”

So was I.

Bug drove his car and I drove mine, a dark Mercedes E-Series seized from an eccentric meth dealer a few years earlier. It screamed drug kingpin.

I looked and sounded my part, too: baggy jeans, wraparound shades, and backward baseball cap. On the stereo, I cranked up the Dirty Wormz. This put me into the mood I needed: mean, focused and aggressive. As always, I carried my Smith & Wesson .38 in the front of my pants.

We headed for the Fish Bowl, a scooped-out hillside of curving streets on the east side of Fort Worth. The Fish Bowl had once been a solid working-class subdivision of small clapboard homes built after World War II. But over the years it had deteriorated into a nest of gang killings and crack sales – the worst in town.

The playgrounds were empty by day and with the streetlights shot out, dark at night. Every month or so, a dead body turned up in a vacant lot or the trunk of an abandoned car. Fish Bowl violence became such that most cops answered calls at least two-deep. Nobody wanted to go in there alone.

Fort Worth, needless to say, is not Los Angeles. It has no beach, no palm trees and no movie stars. It is a friendly, historical cowboy town with subtle affluence and an understated business hub that made the city grow under everyone else’s nose. Its reputation as a culturally Western town remains, but it is a lively, advanced and modern city of 750,000 and growing. It does have, like every other large and thriving city, a hood with a booming drug trade. This combined with the growth and understated persona, made Fort Worth prime territory for the West Coast Crips.

From their home base in South Central LA, the Crips expanded like fast-food franchises: test the market, develop a strategy to dominate the area, then bring in an effective branch manager.

An effective Crip leader had to be able to do at least a couple of things well: count and kill. To handle the Fish Bowl and surrounding turf, the Crips had sent in a guy named MD.

MD was local. He and his understudies had gone west and trained in the business of dope and gun trafficking with a family connection in Compton, then come home to run the place.

Quiet, unassuming and handsome, MD had the management smarts to grow and operate a sprawling enterprise staffed by street thugs. He had another advantage as well: he was a sociopath who would murder without hesitation. To date, he had notched at least five killings: three he shot himself and two others via contract.

By this time, I had been chasing MD and watching his control over the eastside Crip network grow for six years. I still didn’t know as much about him as I wanted. But I did know this: MD was the head of the snake.

I knew the road to MD ran first to BeeBee’s house. I gunned the Benz to a smooth 75 through light traffic. The sun had been down for a few of hours, but the temp was still hanging in the high 90s. In the distant oncoming headlights I could see the waves of heat ghosting off the pavement. As we approached, I turned down my radio, lowered my windows and took a deep breath. “OK, here we go, Lord. I know You certainly helped me get here so I expect You’ll get me out!” Over time I’d developed a pretty intense, yet casual relationship with God and often threw out short, spiritually conversational tidbits just to make sure He had my back.

We made the Fish Bowl in 15 minutes. My plan was a low-key transaction: score the bird (a kilo of cocaine), hang and shoot the breeze for a few minutes, then get out.

My purpose tonight wasn’t to bust BeeBee, who was the classic drug middleman: a few steps up from street dealer, but below top management. I was engaged in brand building, in selling my persona. I was Tee, a no-BS, cash-heavy guy from the rich side of town, with a long list of wealthy clients from uppity country clubs and west side inheritors. To dig deeper into the Crip hierarchy, I needed BeeBee as a reference.

The first sign that my plan might be screwed, though, came when I saw Bug get out of his car with Carlos in tow.  This was the “friend” he had mentioned: Hispanic, short, quiet, and unassuming. Bug re-introduced him to me. We’d met several weeks prior.

We nodded toward each other in general respect. I was not pleased to see him again. Bug had filled me in on Carlos before. Working from Northern Mexico, Carlos had supplied half of South Texas with cocaine before he got too much attention from the feds and “retired.” His business affiliation, Los Zetas, was responsible for thousands of drug-related kidnappings and murders, including police, politicians and federal agents. They were famous for decapitating police officers and leaving the heads on the courthouse steps.

“This should be interesting,” I quietly told Bug.

“Tee, he ain’t gonna cause any problems.”

“And you know that how?”

“Come on, he knows this business. He’ll sniff out a set-up in a split second.”

Well, okay, maybe. I had business to transact and needed to stay focused. So I said, “fine,” and led the way to BeeBee’s place with my newly formed posse.

Bee’s house sat next to a vacant corner lot full of trash and was small and old. It was so dark I could hardly see my own feet. I calmly knocked on the burglar-barred front door.

            Suddenly, and without warning, the wooden door behind it swung open and I found myself staring down the barrel of a shotgun. I recognized the guy holding it as Pimp, one of BeeBee’s stooges I had seen while rolling around the Bowl the last few months.

I guess he had short-term memory problems. “Who the fuck are you?” he asked.

“Whoa, bro!” I held up my left hand as a gesture of peace, but my right hand stayed next to my gun. “We’ve got business here,” I told him. “Let me talk to BeeBee.”

Pimp kept the charm coming. “You don’t know who you messin’ wit’, white boy! You at the wrong house!”

I stayed cool, but he kept the shotgun fixed on me. He was trembling and sweating like a guy high on something and he didn’t seem to hear a word I was saying. My tactical brain was engaged. If I couldn’t get him to calm down I would have to go for my gun. I’d have to move quickly and step to the side of his aim and off the porch, forcing him to come out and get me. This would give him a difficult target to hit, and it would move his shotgun barrel away from my posse while I raised the .38 and drilled him a new eye socket if he were stupid enough to pursue. The lights from inside the house shone into my face and caused me temporary blindness, though, and I was not at an advantage.

            Even if I pulled it off perfectly, I would probably be hit if Pimp managed to squeeze off a shot. The spread of the shotgun pellets at this distance would make it almost impossible for him to miss me completely, no matter how bad his aim. The feeling I had while considering all this was, in a word, intense. While I stood there, I simply relied on Pimp not to shoot. All he had to do was pull that trigger before I decided to move, and I was toast. If I moved first, I would surely cause him to shoot and someone would at least get hurt. I sided with patience and my calm demeanor since I had more people there to be concerned with than just myself.

So I was relieved when BeeBee came from the back of the house, racing to the doorway.

“Put it down, Pimp!” BeeBee ordered.

Pimp lowered the gun slowly and reluctantly. He didn’t look happy to be doing it, either.

I said, “This ain’t so great for business, Bee.”

“We straight, kinfolk,” BeeBee said. He unlocked the burglar bar door for us, saying, “come on in,” as if we had dropped by for cookies after church.

I walked inside, followed by Bug and Carlos. BeeBee paused and eyeballed Carlos suspiciously and asked, “Who’s the caboose?”

This got Pimp going again. “Yeah, you Latin King wannabe motherfucker? I’ll waste you right now! Get out my hood, man, you lost.”

Many things mattered to someone like Carlos: money, women and cars, to name a few. But nothing mattered more than respect, and he was getting none. Pimp had no idea who he was dealing with. He may have driven by a few houses and fired into windows as ordered by some low-end neighborhood gang leader, but Carlos killed entire families. He was ruthless and was a boss to many.

Before I could step in and explain a little bit of this to Pimp, Carlos pulled a pistol from his waistband and charged BeeBee’s boy. He pinned Pimp against the living room wall, jammed the pistol into his mouth and screamed something in Spanish.

Pimp dropped the shotgun on the floor. I rushed over and stood on the barrel so no one could pick it up while I kept my eyes about the room.

BeeBee and I pleaded with Carlos, but let Bug do most of the talking in Spanish. “Carlos,” Bug said, “this moron is worthless. Wasting him wouldn’t be worth time in prison. Besides, this is Tee’s deal!” The sound of four desperate male voices in two languages demanding cooperation and the guttural screams being thrust from deep in Pimp’s soul commanded the room. I don’t know how anyone understood anything. I was almost certain someone was about to die. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be us.

After an eternal minute of consideration, Carlos pulled the gun out of Pimp’s mouth – hard. He left him spitting teeth and bleeding all over Bee’s floor and couch.

Now it was my turn to step up. “Get Carlos outta here!” I screamed at Bug. “Are you frigging insane bringin’ this here, man? This is supposed to be a place of business!”

“Come on, Carlos! Sorry, Tee,” Bug said. Everyone was still hollering as Bug led Carlos out the door. Carlos would later tell me he left without protest because he realized he had disrespected me by stepping on my deal. I suppose even mass murderers have some manners.