At this stage of the story Malcolm is living in Harlem, making a living as a low-level criminal. One of the criminal enterprises he gets mixed up in is the numbers racket: an illegal lottery. But Malcolm doesn't just sell lottery tickets; he starts playing the numbers as well. He becomes more deeply involved in gambling, placing bets with a formidable character by the name of West Indian Archie. One day, Archie and Malcolm fall out over a bet. Archie accuses Malcolm of collecting on a wager he never actually made. Malcolm, for his part, is equally insistent that he did indeed make the bet and is entitled to keep his winnings.
Neither man wants to back down, but Archie forces the issue by giving Malcolm twenty-four hours to pay back the money. This is a low point in the story for Malcolm. Not only is he a criminal; he's also taking drugs and getting deeper into debt. Worse still, he's constantly looking over his shoulder, worried that at any moment he might get killed by Archie, not to mention the hustler he's just punched and the Italian gangsters who think he's robbed one of their craps games.