Maze made me feel like I had overdosed on Valium, too much happiness for me to keep down. Maybe that’s how Thug could survive Monster and even thrive; his appetite and appreciation for the insanely optimistic. The Pacific Ocean showed itself around one switchback and again when we neared the 101. I wanted to be at that bank already. Those checks in my pocket were burning against my leg. I couldn’t suppress it, the joy I felt. My ship had come in; I’d be able to breathe easily and think clearly about my next move. Now that I had gotten a taste of Monster’s money, I wanted more, wanted to drink from it, the unlimited fountain of wealth that he wanted to bestow on me. I wanted to swim in it, maybe even drown in it. I felt Thug’s huge hand on my shoulder. “Didn’t I tell you that Monster is good to his word? When he says he going to do something for you, he don’t bullshit.” “I guess so. I never had somebody just give me a hundred thousand.” “You got a guess on how much Monster is worth?” I shook my head, “I don’t have a clue.” “About 400 million. What he gave you he wipes his ass on. That muthafucka sneezes 100K. See, I’m bringing in about 50 grand a month, plus bonuses. I save that shit too. I don’t waste it, ’cause I know this ain’t gonna last. One day this house will come crashing down around all our heads.” “Why?” “Somebody is gonna catch on to what goes on here. You know, if Monster wasn’t paying off everybody, he’d be richer than Oprah. Shit, sometimes when I get to adding all them numbers up it makes me sick to my stomach . . . he’s paying fools. What you got paid ain’t unusual. And you gonna keep getting paid. See, me I keep my eyes closed. I don’t want to know what he’s doing. When that famous lawyer Tommy Cocktail comes in from Beverly Hills and sets a card table up in front of the gates and the parents bring their boys and sign a release, I escort the boys into the mansion and turn around and leave. And the boys have a slumber party with a 38-year-old man. The next day, when the kids are gone and Monster calls you in to take care of something and on the nightstand you see the Polaroids of boys, you know everybody gets paid.” “Why you telling me this? I thought this was the kind of shit you were supposed to keep to yourself.” Thug smiled, showing a mouth full of beautiful teeth. “I’m a muthafucking dog.” “Yeah, well, I know that.” “That’s part of the deal when he hired me. I can’t help it. It’s part of my dog nature. I got to be true to that.” “You got to be,” I said, finding myself admiring this giant, psychotic gay black man. Couple of sheriffs were drinking coffee outside of a Starbucks, next to the Bank of Santa Maria. Thug didn’t even slow when he turned into the strip mall, like he owned the world. Monster did own the strip mall we just entered, or so Thug told me when he parked the Maybach. He gave the sheriffs the brotherman nod, and we headed into the bank. “All right, dog, you take care your bizness and I’ll take care of mine.” I nodded with a lump in my throat. I didn’t want to think about the possibility of me getting played. I wanted this to work so much it made my head hurt. The cashier, a cute blond, took a look at my check and called for the manager. He came quickly, a short man with bushy eyebrows, and asked me to sit down. “You’re working out at Monster’s Lair?” “Yes, for about a year.” “Would you like to open an account? Many of Mr. Stiles’ employees have accounts here.” He handed the checks over to me. “You’ll need to endorse these.” As I signed them, I found myself asking a question I didn’t know I had been formulating. “How long will it take for these funds to be available?” “They’re available now. Mr. Stiles has a very special relationship with us, and once we ascertain that the check is legitimate, your moneys are available.” “Oh,” I said calmly, but I felt lightheaded. Giddy even with the idea of cashing out now. Take the money, buy a car and drive away into the sunset. Be done with Monster and his cast of characters, and see what life has to offer with Elena. Really, it made no sense to stick around, but something held me back. It would be so easy if not for the promise of dipping into that river of endless wealth that ran right through Monster’s Lair. It felt like the late ’90s, when everybody with sense knew the bubble couldn’t last, but folks still threw down into the crap game because if you didn’t get in, maybe you’d miss out on what was still to be got. Who knows? Who knows what Monster might pay to guarantee my silence? Yeah, it could be astronomic. That’s what I needed. All the money I could scoop up in my hands, in a bucket, a garbage truck, a barge. Just like anybody who had the opportunity to get paid, I discovered the greedy fuck that I am. I wanted all the money. It couldn’t be a good decision, to risk whatever I had accomplished since getting out of prison, the halfway house and the wreck I had made of my life. Maybe it was curiosity, to see how it would play out, how everything would resolve. What would happen with Monster, what would happen to me? I tried to make up my mind up as I sat there in an uncomfortable, overstuffed chair, watching the bank clerk process paper. I walkedto the parking lot with $10,000, a fat wad in my pocket. The beauty of the central coast and me disappearing into it was past me now, its allure tarnished by the glint of gold. I stood by the Maybach, waiting for Thug to return, but I didn’t see him creep up and hit me in the shoulder with a rolled-up magazine. “Check it out,” he said. I unfolded it, a real estate throwaway. “I’m thinking of buying this little winery. Yeah, bet I could make bank with my own Zinfandel. You know brothers like sweet wine. ‘Thug’s Zinfandel,’ fine wine for the gangsta!” He unlocked the doors and I slid into the front seat; almost instantly my stomach churned. I tried to rush to get my head out of the window, but a half-second too late, and vomited against the door. Thug scowled in my direction. “Damn, nigga. You sick? Now, I gotta get this fucking car washed.” I tried to apologize, but not quite fast enough, and my stomach erupted all over again. This time I managed to vomit mostly out of the window, but that didn’t please Thug much. “What the fuck did you eat? Next time put your head out of the window!” I listened to Thug yell as my head swirled in waves of queasiness. I should have regarded my stomach as some kind of gastric early-warning system and leaped out of the car as soon as Thug slowed at a light, but no, I would see this bit of greed-inspired insanity all the way to the end, no matter where that might take me. Tervalon most recently co-editedThe Cocaine Chronicles,out this month from Akashic Books. Wednesday at Velvet Margarita, Akashic hosts a launch party for the book.