If you’ve read my novella “Friends, Lovers and Other Killers” you might recall that the catalyst for all the drama (okay carnage) in that tale was the friendship between characters Mitch, a divorcee, and Cynthia, a woman in a troubled marriage. You might also recall Mitch mentioning and reflecting on his failed marriage and how it impacted his friendship with Cynthia. When FL&OK took place, Mitch’s ex-wife was in prison. How that happened will be explained next year in my novel “The Hitman Chronicles.” What happened between Mitch and Margaret is chronicled in this excerpt, a tale inspired by the late, great Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.”
DREAMS TO REMEMBER
Her voicemail message said that she’d be working late again and to not wait on her for dinner. She told him that she’d catch a bite on the way home.
Mitch wanted to go out tonight. He was in a serious mood for some cheese ravioli, and the only place that made it the way he liked was a little Italian restaurant across the street from the beach in Long Branch, his hometown.
This was the second night this week that Margaret worked late. She did this more often lately, but he didn’t want to complain because she really loved her new career as an accountant. But damn it, she worked on salary. She wasn’t making any more money for the extra time.
And he really wanted some cheese ravioli.
He walked naked from the master bath’s shower into their bedroom and stood under the ceiling fan, letting the downdraft cool the moisture from his walnut-brown skin. He caught a glimpse of himself in the dresser mirror. He was thirty-four years old and his stomach was still flat and hard. Crunches every morning before work saw to that. Push-ups and dumbbell curls kept his arms and upper body in shape. He needed to get to the gym more often to work on his legs, though. He turned to the face the mirror, studying himself a little closer. If it weren’t for the thinning hair on the top of his head he could have passed for someone ten years younger, because he kept himself in excellent physical condition. He had to stay in shape to keep up with Margaret.
They met twelve years ago when he was twenty-two and she was eighteen. He’d worked in the Housekeeping department at the hospital in Long Branch since he’d graduated high school. Through hard work, he’d made shift supervisor in four years, even though he was the youngest guy on his crew.
Margaret had been a new hire on his shift. He’d thought she was gorgeous; a slender dark chocolate beauty with black eyes that could look right into your soul and a smile that could melt your heart if she chose to grace you with it. She melted his the first day he laid eyes on her.
They hit it off right away, and in less than a month they were a couple. Two years later they were married.
They’d had a lot in common back then, not the least of which was their appetite for sex. He’d never met a woman who wanted to give and get it as much as Margaret. She insisted on having at least one dick-induced orgasm a day, preferably in the morning. Otherwise, in her own words, she’d be a grumpy bitch all day. Nighttime sex was her way to close out the day, her sleeping pill.
In addition to wanting to satisfy her own needs, she believed that the only way to make sure he didn’t fool around was to see to it that when she was done with him, he had nothing left to fool around with. She’d told him a thousand times that if he was going to come at all, it was going to be in her, his wife. To Margaret’s way of thinking, even masturbation was an insult to her womanhood, unless of course, she was the one doing it for him. The result was that for every day of their marriage, unless one of them was sick or very tired, they fucked. If it was her time of the month, she did other things to get him off. Even when they argued and weren’t even talking to each another they fucked. They just did it in silence.
So he had to keep himself in top shape to keep up with his wife. He had absolutely no complaints about their love life, however. Mitch knew plenty of guys who practically had to crawl and beg their wives for a little pussy every now and then, so he knew he had it good.
His body was dry now, but he was going to have to wait until his rock-hard erection died down before he could get dressed. Even after twelve years, thinking about his wife always had this effect on him. If she’d been around right now to see his condition, she would have been on him like white on rice. But she was working late again.
He decided to go for the ravioli. The restaurant was on the shore, some thirty miles from their condo in Lakewood, but tonight nothing else was going to satisfy his craving. Since he’d planned to take Margaret to dinner, his clothes were already laid out on the bed: Charcoal gray cords, black cable knit turtleneck sweater and over the ankle Rockports. He got dressed and rushed downstairs, throwing on his black calf-length cashmere overcoat as he headed out to the parking lot to his Jeep.
He never used to eat alone. Early in their marriage, he and Margaret had been inseparable. When he was just a Housekeeping shift supervisor and she one of his workers, they loved going out together to eat when they got off from work, before they went home. Margaret used to say that it was like foreplay; they knew they were going to get naked as soon as they got in the house, so stopping somewhere to eat served as a tease, prolonging the pleasure they were both dying for.
Two years after they married he was promoted again, to manager of all the Housekeeping shifts. Margaret was happy for his success, but she was pissed that he got to work a nine to five while she still worked the evening shift. But their conflicting schedules didn’t cut down on their lovemaking. Margaret wouldn’t allow that. No, he just got a whole lot less sleep. She’d get home at around midnight and shake or suck him awake, or he’d wake up gasping for air because her pussy was pressed against his face.
His next promotion came as a result of his love of computers. He started out working with the hospital’s system administrator in his spare time, helping him troubleshoot problems or set up new programs. Before he knew it, the administrator had moved on and the job was offered to him. It was a better job paying better money doing something that he truly enjoyed, so of course he accepted.
He and Margaret had agreed early on that at the five-year point in their marriage, they would start making babies, and now that he was the hospital’s Systems Administrator, he made enough money to allow her to quit her job and start working on getting pregnant. But when that time came, Margaret threw a monkey wrench into what he’d thought was a rock solid plan. She told him that she wanted to go to college and get a degree before she became a mother.
Of course he supported her, even though he was disappointed that they wouldn’t become parents according to their original schedule. He paid her way through college, and to Margaret’s credit, she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting in just three years.
And then things started to change.
It was nothing drastic, just some little things. Like all of a sudden their old friends, people from the Housekeeping staff that they’d hung out with for years, weren’t good enough for her. Like how she’d traded in the Sebring convertible he bought her for her birthday the day after she got it for a Lexus, without even telling him. She paid the extra cost, but damn. Her reason had been that she had an image to maintain, that people expected a white-collar worker to drive a white-collar automobile. Like that she didn’t want to play racquetball with him on Saturday mornings anymore. She’d taken up golf, and now she hung out on the links on Saturdays with the suits from her firm. Like that they hadn’t gone out to dinner together at their favorite Italian restaurant in over a year. The only true constant in the two years since she’d become an accountant was their sex life.
Mitch parked his car around the corner from the restaurant and walked up the street toward the front entrance. He’d been so deep in thought that he almost walked right by the white Lexus parked four spaces up from his Jeep. He wouldn’t have noticed the car at all; after all there had to be dozens of white Lexus’ in this county alone, except for the black Raggedy Ann doll perched on the rear window deck.
Her Raggedy Ann doll.
He stood for a minute on the curb with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his overcoat, looking at the car. There had to be a logical explanation. Margaret said she’d be working late. It was a quarter to eight now. She got off at five-thirty. She worked all the way up in Newark, at least an hour away in the best traffic. So if she’d just worked an hour over, she could be here by now. But they lived straight down Route 9 from Newark. This restaurant was twenty miles out of her way. Why would she drive all the way out here? Had she had a sudden taste for ravioli too?
The hostess asked him if he’d be dining alone. He said that he wasn’t sure, that he thought someone he knew might be here. She led him into the dining area.
Mitch spotted her sitting in a booth in a corner near the back of the room. Her back was to him. Some light-skinned pudgy-faced brother in a suit sat across from her, talking animatedly. Mitch couldn’t see Margaret’s face, but she was leaning forward and nodding her head as if she were hanging on this guy’s every word.
Mitch made himself relax. There was no point in assuming something without knowing the facts. Maybe this dude was just her co-worker, or even her boss. She’d never introduced him to the people she worked with. He told the waitress that he’d spotted his party and headed for their booth.
Margaret was lifting something from her plate with her fork. She raised it…and offered it to the suit.
Mitch froze in his tracks.
The suit stopped talking and smiled at his wife, then accepted the bite. A bit of the food remained on the corner of his mouth. Margaret—his wife—wiped it away with her bare finger. The suit kissed her fingertips.
Mitch moved quickly, without thinking, and was standing over them in an instant. She looked up at him, and her face answered every question he could have thought to ask. He asked anyway.
“Is this how you always work late, Margaret?”
He watched her struggle to find the words, to come up with some saving explanation. But there was no suitable excuse—not when you’re caught red-handed—and she knew it.
Margaret—his wife—breathed out a heavy, resigned sigh and said, “Mitch, could we please talk about this at home…”
“What could we talk about Margaret? What the fuck could you possibly say?”
The suit cleared his throat. Mitch ignored him.
“Mitch, please,” she said. “Don’t make a scene.”
“I’m not making a fucking scene. I came here to get something to eat because my wife said she was working late. If I wanted to make a goddamned scene, I’d be tearing this place apart.”
Her eyes scanned the dining area. “Please keep your voice down, people are watching.”
He snatched her hand up, and before she could protest, pried her wedding band off her finger. To his disappointment it slipped off easily. He’d hoped to peel some flesh off with it.
Margaret gasped. The suit stood up.
“Now see here, fella…” the suit began.
Mitch stabbed him in the middle of his expensive silk tie with the tip of his finger, cutting him off in mid-sentence. “Motherfucker, the smartest thing you will ever do in your life will be to sit your ass down and shut the fuck up, right now.”
The suit didn’t move. They stood eyeing each other like two pit bulls waiting to be let off their chains so that the battle could begin. The dining area had become as quiet as a tomb. All eyes were on them.
Mitch shifted his feet on the carpet, left foot forward, right foot back and perpendicular to the left, bending his knees a little to set his balance: a boxer’s stance. He kept his hands low, but if this cocksucker so much as flinched…
Margaret knew him well, and when she spoke there was a trace of panic in her voice. She grabbed his wrist. “Mitch, don’t please.” She looked at the suit. “Thomas, sit down.”
That’s right bitch, Mitch thought, save your boy’s life.
The suit named Thomas looked down at her, considering, then said, “All right, dear,” and took his seat.
Margaret breathed a sigh of relief and let go of his wrist. “Let’s talk at home, all right?”
Mitch glared down at her, said, “Fuck you,” and left the restaurant.
He’d almost finished packing when he heard the front door open downstairs. Shit. He’d hoped to be out of the condo before she returned. He wanted to leave her while he was still angry. He knew the pain would come soon enough.
She stood in the bedroom doorway, watching as he closed his suitcase.
Don’t say anything to me. Just let me go.
“You don’t have to leave, Mitch.”
He tried not to look to her as he spoke. “One of us has to go, and I never liked this place anyway. You picked it out, remember?”
“Where are you going?”
“To a hotel. I’ll start looking for a place tomorrow.”
“Mitch, I’m so sorry. This is not how I wanted it to happen.”
He looked at her now. “Yeah, cheaters never plan to get caught.” He lifted his suitcase and stepped to the door. She didn’t move out of his way. “Excuse me…”
Her eyes shone with tears. In all the years he’d know her, he’d never seen her cry. She always fancied herself as the epitome of the strong black woman.
“I really need to go.”
She touched him, her fingers tracing over his sweater. A single fat tear slid down her dark chocolate cheek. “Can’t we at least say goodbye to each other, just this one last time?”
She stepped closer to him, her face nuzzling against his neck, her hand sliding against the front of his pants.
He thought about their life, their relationship. How it had always been.
Even when they argued and weren’t even talking to each another they fucked. They just did it in silence.
He thought about how she looked naked. Her dark slender body: always wanting; always needing; and always giving. She was an incredible lover, certainly the best he’d ever had, and they’d grown and learned together. Nothing had ever interfered with their sex life. Even now, as much as he hated to admit it to himself, he wanted her. He could feel himself growing under her coaxing touch.
He looked at her, deep into the depths of her black eyes. “Just tell me one thing, Margaret…”
“Did you fuck him yet?”
“Oh Mitch, I couldn’t…I wouldn’t do that to you. I swear it.”
He stared at her. She looked back at him, her tearful gaze unwavering.
He thought he believed her. He wondered what it could hurt, to do it this one last time.
Margaret had already stepped out of her pumps and was taking off her business jacket. She pulled her blouse out of her skirt, unbuttoned it and slipped it off, letting it drop to the carpet at her feet. Her bra followed.
Firm, dark breasts; even darker nipples. What would it be like to never know them again?
She unzipped her skirt and let it drop around her feet.
Tiny black bikini panties and thigh-highs as dark as her legs. She’d always hated pantyhose.
She peeled her panties down, watching him watching her. Fresh tears—so shocking because he’d never seen cry—flowed freely.
He stood in his bedroom, his suitcase still clutched in one hand, staring down at the woman he’d desired most in the world, the woman who was about to become his ex-wife.
Nothing had ever come between them and sex before. Nothing had ever been greater than their desire for each other. But this…
Mitch looked down at Margaret as she waited for him on their bed; on her bed now. He couldn’t imagine that he’d ever sleep in it again. He thought about all that he’d invested—the love, the trust, and the years—in the belief that they would be together until one of them put the other in the ground.
He could have cheated. He’d certainly had his chances over the years. He couldn’t even remember how many opportunities had come his way, opportunities that he’d turned down because he’d wanted to do the right thing. He wondered when things had changed for Margaret, when she’d stopped wanting to do the right thing by him and their marriage. What had made her lose so much feeling and respect for him that she could go to another man?
He pictured them again in the restaurant, the way she’d fed the suit from her plate, the way she’d wiped food from his mouth, the way he’d kissed her fingertips. Those weren’t the kinds of things you did when you were just thinking about fooling around with someone. And it wasn’t the kind of thing you did in a public place if you were worried about getting caught. Those were the kinds of things that people in the midst of new love do. The kind of things you do when the person you care most about is sitting across from you. Someone you’ve been intimate with.
She swore that she hadn’t slept with that guy, but could a cheater be trusted to tell the truth? He and Margaret made love almost every night. Had he been sleeping with her, fucking her after another man had been inside her, perhaps just a few hours before him?
Mitch looked at Margaret, naked and waiting for him to come to her. Would she have fucked the suit tonight first if he hadn’t caught her, and then come home to let him have what was left? Had she done it before, on one of those nights that she’d said she was working late? Had he already been getting sloppy seconds…from his own wife?
He was glad now that he hadn’t eaten anything, because suddenly he felt sick. His stomach was trying to churn up and expel the remnants of whatever remained from his lunch. He backed toward the bedroom door.
Margaret sat up, surprised. “Mitch?”
She was in danger. He’d never laid a hand on her before, but he wanted to hurt her now. He wanted to hurt her badly.
“Mitch, wait. I told you, nothing happened between Thomas and I.”
She’d spoken his name. From their bed, she’d spoken his name. By speaking his name she’d brought him into their bedroom.
“Find a lawyer Margaret,” Mitch said, his voice tight with anger. “Find a lawyer and get me his name. I’ll have mine contact yours and tell you what I intend to keep.” He turned and left the room.
As he reached the stairs he heard her call out, “It wasn’t anything about you, Mitch. I still love you.”
Mitch stepped out of what used to be his home and closed the door quietly behind him. He stood on the stoop of his condo for a moment, breathing in the cool autumn night and wondering where he might go. A hotel was an option, but he had plenty of relatives in Long Branch, any one of whom would take him in without hesitation. But they would ask questions and feel sorry for him, and he couldn’t stand that right now; wouldn’t be able to take the pity. Already he could feel the pain starting to spread, pumping from his heart like blood and coursing through his system.
He could go to his best friend Eric’s place, but that presented the same problem. He couldn’t take the sympathy, even from another man. Even thinking about it now made his eyes burn with pain. He hurried to his Jeep, blinking the hurt from his eyes as he moved.
He tried to conquer his sorrow with anger, by visualizing her laying with her lover, doing the things to him and for him that Mitch had thought were his gift alone. But that image brought a new bolt of agony to his heart so powerful that it almost made him moan. He got into his jeep with his suitcase and slammed the door.
Now that the image of Margaret with her lover had entered his head, he couldn’t push it out. He turned on the radio as he wheeled out of the parking lot, hoping to blot out the vision of his wife naked with another man with music.
Jammin’ 105 out of New York was playing Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.”
Son of a bitch.
I’ve got dreams, dreams to remember
I’ve got dreams, dreams to remember
Honey, I saw you there last night
Another man’s arms holding you tight
Nobody knows what I felt inside
All I know, I walked away and cried
I’ve got dreams, dreams to remember, listen to me
I’ve got dreams, dreams to remember
Mitch braked at the corner of Prospect Street, put the Jeep in park and let Otis’ plaintive vocals rip into his soul. This song was a killer for anyone with a broken heart, but he wasn’t going to let it get to him. He hadn’t cried since he was thirteen, when he’d decided that he was a man and above such things. Children cried. Females cried. He was a man, damn it, and he wasn’t going to break down.
The rookie cop waited as his partner returned from side of the black Jeep Cherokee driven by a black male, approximately 30 years old. The Jeep was stopped at the corner of Massachusetts and Prospect Streets in Lakewood with its blinkers on.
As his partner slid back under the wheel of the police cruiser the rookie gave him a questioning look. “Well, what’s up, Sarge?” he asked.
“Forget about it,” his partner said. “This guy just found out that his wife is cheating on him, and he just walked out on her. He lives right back there in Wyndham Place. This is as far as he got before life punched him in the gut. The poor bastard is sitting there bawling his eyes out.”
“So what are we gonna do? He’s blocking traffic.”
“You’re not married, are you kid?”
“Well, I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna sit here for a while and make sure nobody rear ends him. Let’s call it a public service; helping a citizen in need. Call back in to the desk and tell them to disregard.”
I know you said he was just a friend
But I saw him kiss you again and again
These eyes of mine, they don’t fool me
Why did he hold you so tenderly?
I’ve got dreams, dreams to remember, listen honey
I’ve got dreams, dreams to remember
I still want you to stay
I still love you anyway
I don’t want you to ever leave
Girl, you just satisfy me, me
I’ve got dreams, dreams to remember
© 2002 Christopher Bynum
Lyrics excerpted from “I’ve Dreams to Remember,” written and recorded by Otis Redding, released posthumously in 1968.
Purchase FRIENDS, LOVERS & OTHER KILLERS here:
The Hitman Chronicles: Return to the Hurting Place
Duncan Gray flew from Newark to Tokyo using a passport and driver’s license that said he was Charles Washington. Since he wasn’t working the fake identification was probably a waste of good paper. This trip was supposed to be a getaway; a last minute vacation to reunite with a friend. There shouldn’t be danger involved, but he figured where Nikira Horikoshi was concerned, he couldn’t be sure.
Maybe it was simply as Nikki said when she’d contacted him after they hadn’t spoken in almost five years: that she missed their time in Fussa City and wanted to revisit it. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe she was the one working. Their business made them hunters. It could also make them prey.
In spite of the possibilities Duncan agreed to meet Nikki in Japan. His logic told him that if she were working and if he was the target it wouldn’t make sense for her to contact him. She knew that would put him on his guard. Better to catch him unaware when he was feeling safe at home than let him know he was on her mind.
Okay, if he were being honest with himself, there was another reason he’d agreed to go back to where they’d spent fifteen months training together, learning their craft. He missed her too.
He hoped missing her wouldn’t get him killed.
The Boeing 777 attained altitude over the Pacific Ocean, and there was nothing to see from his window seat but clouds. Duncan pressed the ear buds of a new device called an iPod into his ears, closed his eyes and let Sade accompany him into sleep. It was going to be a long flight, and he wanted to be rested when the plane touched down at Narita Airport in Tokyo. Once he stepped off the plane he was going to need to be alert and ready for whatever might come at him.
Using his international contacts Duncan could have had a car at his disposal when he arrived in Tokyo, but decided against it. Even though Fussa—a city of sixty thousand people—was only about thirty miles from Tokyo proper and considered one of its suburbs, with Japan’s insane traffic it could be a four-hour drive between the cities. It wasn’t worth the trouble. He took the train instead.
The people crushed against him on the train reminded Duncan of how crowded it was in Japan, and as a result how its citizens were accustomed to physical contact with strangers on the trains and streets and almost anywhere else in public. It put Duncan on edge; an assault could come from anywhere in the mass of humanity packed around him and he might not see it coming. If this trip was a setup it wouldn’t even have to be Nikki doing the wet work. The blade slipping through his ribs could be clutched in the hand of any of the couple dozen people packed around him on the train.
As he rode Duncan scanned the faces of the people nearest him. Most of them looked back at him, some of their faces curious. He was the strange one, the black man in their country. But this wasn’t like back home in the States. The people here didn’t view him as a potential threat. The expressions on most of the faces looking at him were friendly. Some even smiled at him.
The smiles didn’t put him at ease. Duncan remembered that on the one occasion he and Nikki had worked together on a job she’d smiled, too, as she’d killed a man.
That job had been his assignment, while they were still in training. Against the professor’s wishes Nikki had wanted to tag along. She’d ended up pulling the trigger on the target. She was smiling at the man as she watched his fear and then watched him die.
Somewhere Duncan had heard a saying that if you loved what you did for a living, then it wasn’t really work. He had a feeling that for Nikira, killing for money wasn’t work. He’d seen it in the way she’d smiled and in the cold emptiness in her black eyes as she’d squeezed the trigger on his target.
For all the good things he remembered about Nikki, there was something wrong about her too.
Looking at the neighborhoods from the back of the taxi, at the Kanji text on street signs and storefronts, and at the people who for over a year had been his people, Duncan felt a longing for what he once had been. Though he’d killed before he came to Fussa five years ago, this was the last place at which he’d been an innocent. Before coming to Japan he’d killed in self-defense, and then to attain justice for someone he cared for and revenge for himself. Maybe, he thought, that was another reason he’d come back here. Maybe he’d wanted try to recapture some of the person he used to be when he was innocent, before he’d started killing for money. Maybe even if Nikki was working that was worth risking his life for.
The apartment complex was a grouping of five-story buildings just off Highway 16 in Fussa. Five years ago when the professor sent them to Japan to train he’d set them up in a unit in this complex because it was a few blocks from an American Air Force base. Dozens of newly arriving military personnel and their families rented units there short-term while waiting for a home in base military family housing to come available. Living there among other Americans, Duncan hadn’t stood out.
Nikki selected the same place for their reunion. She told him that she’d leased a unit for a month. Maybe she did so out of sentiment. Or maybe, Duncan thought, she wanted him to go to a place he knew and where he’d feel comfortable and perhaps let his guard down. As the taxi slowed to a stop in front of the complex’s rental office Duncan told himself to stop over-thinking things and to just be ready for anything.
The rental office wasn’t equipped with security cameras, which was a good thing. However the old woman at the desk was the same woman who’d been there five years ago. Duncan didn’t think she’d remember him, but when he entered the office she said in halting English, “So nice to see you again, sir. A long time.”
“Yes, it has been.” He didn’t try to refresh her memory further by saying how long.
“Your wife already here,” the woman said. She retrieved a tagged key from her desk drawer and handed it to him. “This time you live in 2-C, okay?”
Duncan wished the old woman hadn’t remembered him. If Nikki were working and things happened in apartment 2-C and he survived, he would to have to take care of anyone who knew of his presence in the apartment. The old woman didn’t know his real name, but with all the resident traffic coming through this place, if she remembered his face after five years she’d probably be a police sketch artist’s dream.
Considering that he would be a sitting duck in the elevator should anyone be looking out for his arrival Duncan took the stairs to the second floor. No one was waiting for him on the second level exterior balcony. To minimize the noise of his arrival he carried rather than rolled his carry-on down the walkway to apartment 2-C. He paused at the door, retrieved his leather gloves from the pocket of his overcoat and slipped them on. If Nikki was working and in a hurry to finish her job and if he were able to stop her he’d might as well not leave fingerprints. He unlocked the door, and leaving his carry-on on the balcony for the moment, stepped in quickly, ready for whatever.
No response. The only sound Duncan heard was his own voice echoing down the long entrance hall.
The apartment was laid out the same as the one they’d shared five years ago. A hallway extended from the entry and terminated in the main living area. A few steps beyond the entry were two equal-sized rooms on either side of the hall. Duncan remembered that those rooms were barely larger than an American walk-in closet. He checked them first. Both were empty; not even furniture. The rooms made him think about five years ago; about plums.
He retrieved his carry-on from the landing, and with his senses on high alert moved deeper into the apartment, toward the main living area.
Nikira had furnished the main living area sparsely, with just a futon sofa and a 19-inch television/DVD player combo sitting on a wheeled stand. The efficiency-sized kitchen lay just off the living room, behind his right shoulder. The kitchen was empty. The bathroom entry stood just off the kitchen. Duncan thought the bathroom would be a good place to hide if an unsuspecting target walked straight through the main room into one of the bedrooms without checking it. She could sneak up behind them. He checked the bathroom and found it empty.
The rear right bedroom was as empty of furnishings as the two front rooms. The left bedroom held a full-sized bed, a dresser and mirror and in the closet, female clothing and shoes, to include a couple of pairs of stiletto heels. Duncan thought about plums again.
Five years ago, on an evening when they’d left training after a day of learning nothing but kicks until Duncan felt like his legs were going to detach from his crotch, Nikki had said that she wanted to stop and pick up a few things before they returned to the apartment. They went to the Seiyu shopping center, where Nikki bought a package of plant hanger hooks, a roll of shipping twine, and a couple pounds of plums.
Back in the apartment she’d had him screw one of the hooks into the ceiling of the empty front room and attach a length of twine to it. She attached a second hook to the end of the twine, and then hung a plum on the hook, about six feet above the floor. She left the room and came back wearing a pair of her stiletto high heels.
When he’d asked her what she was doing she’d said, “I figure when I’m in heels the best spot to place a kick is through the eye. Instant brain damage.”
It took Nikki a of month of dedicated practice to put her heel through a plum on the first try, every time. But she wasn’t done. She’d said that a target wasn’t going to stand still and let her kick his eye out, so she’d had him swing plums back and forth on the string. It took her three months to master putting her heel through a moving plum. And she still wasn’t satisfied. Next they were in the apartment’s long hall and he was tossing plums at her.
By the time they left Japan Duncan was pretty sure that Nikira was the only person in the world that could kill a flying plum with a pair of Jimmy Choos. Woe be unto the person who pissed her off while she was dressed up.
Standing in the bedroom that was a replica of the bedroom from five years ago his muscle memory kicked in. Duncan flexed, and was almost surprised that he felt no pain. During their fifteen months in Fussa learning to use their bodies to kill they were always in pain, always in recovery from some training injury.
He stood in the bedroom doorway, looking at the bed and remembering.
Being in such pain, they shouldn’t have wanted to fuck so much, but they were young and strong. He was twenty-one when they began. She was nineteen. Nikki said it was because they were animals, that their training had broken them down to their base state of being. Animals hunted and killed and ate and fucked and slept, and the next day did it over again. So they learned to hunt and kill because that was to be their livelihood, their means to food. They fucked because she was female and he was male, and their bodies craved each other. They’d shared a two-bedroom apartment just like this one, but they’d only slept in separate bedrooms the first month of the fifteen.
Master Ono—who the professor had sent them to to learn lethal methods of hand-to-hand combat—didn’t allow them to spar with his cadre of expert martial artists. Rather, he told them to try to survive against them. They suffered for their survival, but they learned. Duncan recalled that on some particularly brutal training days, when their bodies were so battered and battle-weary by the time they returned to the apartment that they could barely move, Nikira would be especially horny and wouldn’t be denied. He’d wondered if she wanted sex because they were in pain. With Nikki he could never be sure.
Like he wasn’t sure why he was here.
In their conversation last week Nikki told him that five years ago she’d been too busy training to think much about her heritage. So she’d wanted to come to Fussa again. But she wasn’t even born in Fussa. Her mother was.
Her mother had been a poor shop girl who’d had the misfortune of falling in love with a wealthy businessman. The businessman had only loved Nikki’s mother for what she could do to please him with her body. When she became pregnant he wanted her gone because he didn’t want to bring disgrace to himself. He was after all, a married man. So he shipped Nikki’s mother off to the island of Okinawa, seven months pregnant and with a small stipend that was gone by the time baby Nikira was born.
Nikki’s mother did what she had to do to make ends meet. Mostly that involved servicing American Marines stationed on the island for money. It wasn’t her choice, buy she had to feed her baby. When Nikira was two years old her mother married a Marine who adopted Nikki and moved them to San Diego.
Nikira was as American as Duncan. Five years ago she’d shown no interest in learning about her Japanese heritage. Now all of a sudden she wanted to return to Fussa. She’d told him that as before, she wanted him by her side.
In their business the hunter could easily become the hunted.
Maybe Nikira was the hunter and he was the…
It was starting.
There’d been a change in the quality of light in the apartment. It was just for an instant, but Duncan caught it. He hadn’t heard a sound, but he knew that the apartment door had opened and closed. Someone had come in. Someone who could move as silently as a shadow.
He spun in the bedroom doorway.
So fucking quick.
Quicker than him.
Duncan tensed as watching him, she shrugged out of her overcoat. Beneath the coat she wore a bulky black cable knit sweater and tight Levis. Her shoes were over-the-ankle numbers with wedge heels. At least they weren’t stilettos. He didn’t see any weapon, which didn’t matter. Her body was a weapon.
Nikki said, “I went shopping yesterday, got a couple of steaks and some wine. It’s going to be nice being here and not having to do anything. Oh, and I got you some of those nasty instant noodles you like.”
Japanese by birth or not, she was more Southern Californian than anything; more about Big Macs and Mexican food than sushi and sake.
“How’s your jet lag?” she asked.
Still standing in the bedroom doorway Duncan said, “I’m good. I slept a lot on the plane.”
“Good. You hungry? If you don’t feel like the steaks tonight we can go out for dinner.”
“I could eat,” Duncan said.
“Then let’s eat now and get it over with,” she said, “because once we get undressed nothing’s gonna happen but us.”
Later, when she was naked in the bed and as he was perched over her, Duncan noticed a small, circular indented scar at the edge of her left shoulder. The wound hadn’t been there five years ago.
As Nikki clutched his erection and guided him to her he slipped his hand under her and felt rough scar tissue at the back of her shoulder. He was surprised at himself at the pulse of rage he felt; at his desire to hurt an unknown someone.
Seeing the rage in him Nikki said, “It went straight through,” and rubbed the head of him along her silken cleft. “Pre-trial witness protection contract. I watched the safe house for two weeks. One of the two agents guarding the target went for groceries on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Just dumb bad luck that the day I picked, he forgot his grocery list. That’s what he said when he came back in: ‘I forgot the friggin’ list.’ Then he saw me.”
She sighed as she pressed the head of him against her bud.
“What happened?” Duncan asked.
“I already had the other agent down—got him from behind. Didn’t kill him, though; this was federal and the professor said to try to minimize collateral damage. Anyway, the target was done; bleeding out from his throat. The grocery shopper had his gun out. My Sig was holstered so he had me. Mmm, this is nice. Stay in me all night, okay? Hard and then easy, remember?”
He remembered. He throbbed in her hand because he remembered. Muscle memory of her.
“So how’d you get away after you got hit?” he asked.
“He was across the kitchen from me. I wasn’t about to try to run and get shot in the back, so I went for him. I think that surprised him, that I went for him; threw his aim off. I didn’t give him a chance to shoot me twice.”
Nikki was so quick. Duncan imagined the agent’s surprise that she could be across a room and then in his face in a blink.
“I broke his wrist and he dropped his weapon. My shoulder hurt so bad, so I had to focus the way we learned in Master Ono’s fucking torture chamber and put the pain away, in another place.” Nikki rose up and kissed him, flicked her tongue against his lips. “I miss us,” she said. “Stay inside me until we become one again.”
Duncan didn’t know if they’d ever been one, but he wanted back in. And it was going to be nice to do it without pain being a part of it.
“He broke pretty fast,” Nikki said. “At first he was whining about having a wife and kids, like I cared. Then it was ‘Please don’t hurt me anymore.’ And this is after he shot me. He shot me, Duncan. I took my time until he was begging me to kill him. I told him if he told me he was sorry for shooting me then I’d kill him and end his suffering, but he had to be really sincere in his apology and make me believe him. I believed him.”
She was really wet now, and Duncan wondered if it were because she’d been rubbing the head of him against her clit or because she was reflecting on how she’d killed a man with her bare hands, slowly.
With Nikira Horikoshi he could never be sure.
They spent the first week in Japan acting like tourists during the day and fucking each other to exhaustion at night. Midway through their second week in Fussa Nikki placed the keys for her rental car on top of the television, said “I’ll be back soon,” and left the apartment.
She was gone for four days.
On the third day after Nikki left the apartment the television news was full of a story about a man named Tanaka going missing. From what Duncan could tell Tanaka was the head of his family’s business empire, manufacturing electronics.
On the fourth day after Nikki left the apartment the media announced that Tanaka’s remains had been found in a storeroom in one of his company’s warehouses. He’d been strapped to a worktable, hacked to pieces and beheaded with a meat cleaver.
At 3:17 in the morning of the fifth day Duncan was awakened by the sound of the washing machine running. He found Nikki standing in the tiny kitchen, naked and stuffing her clothes into the washing machine. Her wrists and forearms were stained with dried blood.
She picked up her bloody sneakers, looked at him and asked, “Do you think Air Jordans can stand a washing machine?”
“Screw it,” she said and dropped them in the machine with her clothes.
“Where’ve you been, Nikki?”
“You’re not supposed to ask me that. It’s not professional.”
“You had me come here under false pretenses. You made me a part of your work. So tell me what I’m a part of.”
She shook her head as he spoke, then said, “No, I wanted to come back, and I wanted to see you. I’m not working.”
“I need to take a shower. Come shower with me.”
“Tell me what the fuck is going on or I’m on the train to the airport.”
Nikira braced her hands against the countertop as if she needed support to stand. Without looking at him she said, “People with money think they have power, and think they have power over people who don’t have money. They think they can use people and discard them like trash when they’re done with them, just because they have money. I wanted to teach him how weak and helpless he was when his money couldn’t buy him the thing he needed most.”
“What did he need most?”
“He had no idea I even existed; thought my mother had aborted me or killed me at birth or gave me away or something. He said my mother dishonored him by not having a boy. The fucker.”
“We should go home.”
“I know. But I need a couple of days here. I need to stay here and honor my mother by breathing her air—air that’s fresh and pure again because she’s not sharing it with him. And I need you with me, Duncan, because somebody’s gotta hold me when I start crying.”
He’d never seen her cry. Not through all the bruises, all the pain. He’d wondered if she even had the capacity to shed tears, because usually she seemed so cruel, so heartless.
Duncan supposed it just went to show that with Nikira, you could never be sure.
The Hitman Chronicles series begins in 2014
When the law isn’t on a man’s side and he doesn’t want to break the rules, all he can do to seek revenge and attain justice is what the law allows…
Everything the Law Allows
“Are you Sean Daniels?”
Sean looked up at the dude standing in his office doorway. Light-skinned brother. Light brown eyes. Wavy hair—the shit they called good hair back in the day.
“Who wants to know?” Sean asked.
The dude came into his office, stepped about halfway to his desk and stopped. “I’m Derrick DuShane. That name mean anything to you?”
Sean leaned back in his desk chair. He thought about his Smith & Wesson SW1911. It was safely locked up back at the house. He kept it under lock and key so his little girl Nina couldn’t get to it. Probably wouldn’t need it for this bitch, though. “The name doesn’t mean a thing to me, man. I might have heard it…but it doesn’t mean shit.”
The dude took a step closer. Just a step. Still wasn’t close to his desk. “Well let me tell you who the fuck I am, bro,” the dude said. “Lisa is my wife. You know her, huh?”
Sean leaned farther back and laced his fingers behind his head. He smiled like he was reliving a pleasant memory. A very pleasant memory. “Oh, Lisa…yeah. Our paths have crossed.”
“Well make sure you uncross ‘em motherfucker, you understand me? Stay the fuck away from my wife!”
Sean almost laughed. This punk was so mad that he was standing there with his fists clenched, shaking like he was about to explode. But he still didn’t step too close. Bitch. “I’m not interested in Lisa…anymore,” Sean sneered. “She served her purpose. I was done with your wife months ago, bro.”
“I ought to kill your ass,” DuShane spat.
Now Sean did laugh. “Shit sucks, doesn’t it Derrick? Did the paternity test not come out like you expected?”
Now the bitch blinked. “What…how did you know about that?”
“Just put two and two together…bro. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t found out something. Your wife’s baby doesn’t look too much like you, does it? See, women aren’t the only ones who can punch pinholes in condoms.”
“Motherfucker, why would you do some shit like that?” DuShane asked.
Now Sean stood up. He put his fists on his desk and leaned over it. “Because it’s not illegal to sleep with another man’s wife,” he spat. “See, I’m doing what the law requires. I’ve been doing that for the past seven years. Sometimes when I think about it, I get so pissed that I really want to hurt somebody. But that would be illegal. But fucking Lisa…your wife? Well, as wrong as it might be, that’s something the law allows.”
DuShane backed toward the door. “Man, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Just stay the fuck away from my wife, got it?”
“Oh, I have no problem doing that,” Sean said. “Like I said, I’m done with her. You have a good life, bro. And have fun paying for my baby for the next eighteen years.”
Sean hung up his coat, loosened his tie and stepped into his living room. The aroma of marinara sauce drifted out from the kitchen. His stomach grumbled in response.
Hearing him come in, his daughter Nina came bolting down the stairs and leaped into his arms. “Hey Daddy!” she yelled. She hugged him tight and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Sean felt his heart fill up with love for his little girl. “Hey baby,” he said. “How was school today?”
“It was good! I made you and Mommy a Memorial Day card. Come and see!” Nina squirmed out of his arms and took his hand, leading him into the kitchen.
Donna was standing at the stove stirring sauce in a pot. She turned to give him a kiss. Sean made himself not flinch away. The memory of today’s events—of the visitor to his office—was still strong. They reminded him of things about his wife that he wanted to forget. Things that made him not want to kiss her, or even touch her.
“C’mon Daddy, look at your card!” Nina said, pulling him toward the refrigerator door, on which her homemade cards and other artwork hung.
Sean looked down at his little girl. She was light-skinned, not like him. She had light brown eyes and wavy hair—the kind they called good hair back in the day.
Nina looked just like her father. The man Donna lay with behind his back almost eight years ago.
But the law said that because Nina was born during the course of his marriage, he was the one who had to pay. There was nothing Sean could do about that.
All he could do was what the law allowed.
© December 2007
A Conversation Among Male Characters About Women
GORDON MONROE (Simon’s Cousin): Featured In: Golden (Insatiable: Book Two)
ARTHUR GREEN (Simon and Gordon’s Uncle Artie): Featured In: A Southern Belle: Forbidden
GRAYSON PAGE (Gordon’s Neighbor): Featured In: What Becomes of the Brokenhearted
WESLEY: Featured In: The Neighbor
The Setting: The basement billiard room in Simon Bishop’s Monmouth Beach, New Jersey home.
“So here’s a question for you dudes,” Wesley said. “What’s your favorite outfit on your woman? What do you like to see her in?”
“Boy, what kinda freaky talk you tryin’ to get started up in here?” Uncle Artie snapped.
“Nah man, I’m just wondering. I had this conversation with Gail last night and she said that she didn’t think men cared enough about what women wore to really notice. She said that other women notice what a woman is wearing, but all men want to do is figure out how to get them out of their clothes.”
Gordon said, “Gail is right, in general. But yeah, I think we like certain things, too.”
“You’re talking specific things on our woman only?” Grayson asked.
“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” Wes said.
Grayson grinned, “Oh, hell yeah,” and leaned over the table to line up his shot. “Two in the corner pocket.”
Simon laughed, “Sounds like Grayson has something specific in mind on Ivy.”
“You know we all do,” Gordon said. “So what’s your thing on Elle, Cuz?”
“Are you talking about in or out of the house?” Simon asked. “Some things aren’t meant for public consumption.”
Gordon shrugged. “Okay, either. Both.”
“You fools don’t know jack shit about what a woman looks good in,” Uncle Artie grumbled. He glared at Gordon. “You gonna take your shot or stroke your stick all day?”
Gordon leaned over the table. “Every time I see Elle she’s looking like she getting ready to go model for some magazine photo shoot. I don’t know how you can pick just one thing, Cuz. Ten, cross-corner.”
“That’s why I asked if Wes meant in or out of the house,” Simon said. “But you know me G; my favorite ensemble on any woman is naked. If she’s wearing an ankle bracelet she’s overdressed.”
Wesley raised his beer bottle. “Hell, we’ll all drink to that one, Simon. But I can do naked with some heels, too.”
“Ya’ll a bunch a freaks, that what ya’ll are,” Uncle Artie said. “Ain’t no woman prancing around bare-assed just ‘cause you like it. Ain’t a woman God ever made happy about the way she looks with no clothes on, and you can write that shit down. I’ma put that three-ball in the side pocket…gotdamnit! Ya’ll got me thinking about naked hammers so I can’t see straight to shoot!”
“Nah man,” Gordon laughed, “You just can’t shoot pool for shit.”
As Simon leaned over the table he said, “Yeah, Elle does her thing, for sure. But it’s not all her. Sometimes I take her shopping because I feel like it; get her stuff because I want to see her in it. Some of the stores we go to and stuff we get aren’t for public consumption, either. Fourteen, straight up.”
“What kind of stuff?” Wes asked.
“Can’t go there and tell her business,” Simon said. “But one thing she can rock well is basic. She looked good as hell this morning wearing just my shirt. I think it was the light in the kitchen that did it. When the sun hit her just right and made the shirt kind of translucent, that was a sight worthy of photographing to hang on the wall. Sexy without trying to be sexy, you know?”
Gordon nodded. “Yeah Cuz, sometimes the simple things are the hottest. All that lingerie shit? Not always necessary. When we’re just kicking it around the crib when Kia is home Aurelle will wear my boxers and a wife beater. Something about that always gets to me.”
“I’ll tell you what it is,” Uncle Artie said. “It’s the dog in you.”
Uncle Artie said, “Simon likes Elle wearing his shirt. You like Aurelle in your drawers. Hey, does she know you used to piss in your drawers? Remember that, Simon? Boy couldn’t see a damned raindrop without letting the waterworks go.”
“Fuck you old man,” Gordon spat. “I was like three years old.”
“I’ma have to talk to Aurelle and warn her about your pissy drawers,” Uncle Artie laughed. “Anyway, what I was saying is that you cats like seeing your woman in your clothes ‘cause you’re like dogs; you want to mark your territory. Your woman wearing your stuff is her wearing your mark. Lets you know she’s yours and makes your dick feel bigger.”
“There’s probably some truth to that,” Grayson said. “We don’t think about it consciously, but there’s probably some primal thing going on, like we killed the animal and she’s wearing its fur.”
Gordon said, “I don’t know; maybe. But Aurelle said that when she wears my stuff it makes her feel closer to me.”
“And when she says that your dick gets big, huh?” Uncle Artie grinned.
“Fuck you again, man.”
“Well you dudes can speak for yourselves,” Wesley said. “I like the lace and frills. I didn’t think I did until I met Gail. That woman single-handedly raised the price of stock for Fredericks of Hollywood.”
Grayson said, “I think the hottest thing I’ve ever seen Ivy in was back before we got involved. She came over to chill wearing these gym shorts that must have been passed down from her slave ancestors. They were raggedy and full of holes but she made them look hot.”
“You know she wore them to fuck with you, don’t you?” Simon smiled. “A woman isn’t going to dress down for a new man without a motive. Either she’s not interested and is trying to keep you at bay, or she knows what she’s wearing will flip your switch.”
“She had me flipping switches like Thomas Edison,” Grayson laughed. “I keep meaning to ask her what happened to those shorts because I haven’t seen her wear them since.”
“They served their purpose,” Simon said. “She hooked your ass so she doesn’t need them anymore.”
Wesley said, “The thing that did it for me like that was Gail wearing nothing but a towel when she came out of the bath. The first time I saw that I damned near had a stroke. I think right then was when I started getting into full-figured women.”
Simon said, “So the bottom line is that it doesn’t take much for us, huh? Women can put in a lot of effort to look good, and we appreciate it for sure, but when it gets right down to it, clothes aren’t that important.”
“See, ya’ll’s some young, ignorant fools,” Uncle Artie said. “Women don’t dress sexy and smart like they used to. Ain’t nothing in the world looks better than a woman wearing seamed stockings and one a them tight skirts that hug their hips and hind parts…what’cha call them skirts, Simon?”
“A pencil skirt?”
“Yeah, that’s it, a pencil skirt. And a tight sweater that hugs them tiddays? Lord have mercy Jesus! See, ya’ll don’t know nothin’ about women who know how to look good and still be classy.”
“No, I feel you Unk,” Gordon said. “I’d rather see a woman like that than some chick flashing her thong and a tramp stamp. Classy is definitely sexier.”
Simon said, “That’s what I was talking about about in or out of the crib. You want your woman to represent when she’s out in the world.”
“You mean represent you?” Wesley asked.
“No, represent herself as a lady. Look good, look sexy, but don’t show the hungry assholes out there sniffing around after her what’s on the menu. That is, not unless you’re playing like that.”
“Playing?” Grayson asked.
Simon said, “Sometimes we just want to fuck with people when we go out, so Elle will wear something smoking just to draw that attention.”
“So you don’t care if other dudes look?” Wesley asked.
“They’re going to look anyway. I’m not paranoid like that. As long as they don’t step to her or disrespect her, no problem. But when she’s dressing like that we have to expect some comments to come. That’s the entire point: take her out, show her off, leave hard dicks in her wake.”
Grayson said, “I think Ivy does that sometimes on purpose, but to women.”
“Okay man, you seriously need to explain that one,” Gordon said.
“No, I mean she’s one of those women that I think sees other women as competition. I think it’s because she was married to a pro football player and women were always after him. So she had to keep her game on point back then, and now she still does. So I think sometimes she’ll wear something extra hot as much to piss women off as to appeal to men.”
“And other women will notice and hate,” Gordon said.
“…that’s what she was wearing when she came to see me…” Uncle Artie mumbled.
The men looked around at him. Uncle Artie stood leaning on his cue stick with a faraway look in his eyes.
“What’d you say, Unk?” Gordon asked.
“She came to see me last fall,” Uncle Artie said. “Shocked the shit out of me because I hadn’t seen her in forty years. But I knew her right away, because she still looked good and, well, I never forgot her.”
“Who are you talking about?” Simon asked.
Uncle Artie said, “The woman who bewitched my young, dumb ass back in the day: Olivia Bettencourt. Girl made me want to cheat on my fuckin’ wedding day.”
Gordon shook his head. “Damn, Unk…”
“Why’d she come to see you?” Simon asked.
“I was in my office at the dealership, and I heard Keisha out in the hall say, ‘That’s his office,’ and I looked up and there she was in the doorway. I almost couldn’t believe it; thought I was dreamin’…but there she was…”
“What’d she want?”
“Just to say hello and take me to lunch. So that’s what we did. After all these years I didn’t think she’d remembered my dumb ass, but she did. She remembered…things…some things that I’d forgotten about.”
“What things?” Gordon asked.
Uncle Artie shook his head. “It’s like Simon said; some things about a woman’s business you don’t talk about to nobody. She has to be sixty by now, but Lord have mercy Jesus she still looked good…”
Simon said, “Let me guess: She was wearing a pencil skirt and seamed stockings.”
Uncle Artie nodded.
“See, that’s when a woman really has it going on,” Simon said. “We forget thong panties and a tramp stamp showing as soon as it’s out of sight. But a woman that you’re still thinking about decades later, for whatever reason? She’s got it going on.”
Wes said, “Okay, so that brings up another question. What is it about a woman that appeals to you? Like, I’m feeling thick women. So what’s your type, or what feature is the one you want to be on point for a woman?”
Uncle Artie snapped back to the present and said, “Boy, who the hell are you with all these questions, Walter Cronkite?”
From the stairs came the lilt of feminine voices and the sound of descending footsteps.
In a low voice Simon said, “We’ll pick this up later.” As Aurelle appeared, followed by Elle, and then Ivy and Gail he spoke louder. “So who do you think was more valuable at their position, Mariano Rivera or Michael Jordan?”
Elle laughed and said, “Don’t even try it.”
“What were you guys really talking about down here?” Ivy teased.
“Women, probably,” Gail said.
Aurelle said, “That’s fine, as long as it was about us.”
“Don’t worry about that sugar,” Uncle Artie said. “These fools might be fools most of the time, but they got enough sense to appreciate their blessings.”
Elle said, “Well, the pizzas are here. Are you coming up, or do you want to eat down here so you can talk about us some more?”
© 13 March 2013
Find the books starring these characters here:
Mapleton, North Carolina, 1955
Joshua walked up the dirt road, his aching feet dragging, his battered work boots kicking up dust. The dust didn’t matter. He was already so dirty and sweaty that it was going to take three baths before he felt anywhere close to being clean again.
His legs and thighs ached, but that ache was nothing compared to the agony in his back and shoulders. He wiped his brow with the back of his arm and gazed toward the heavens. The summer sun was low in the sky, but still the late day heat was stifling.
Lord, give me strength…
This was his first day on the job – twelve hours breaking his back in the tobacco fields under the sweltering sun. Every muscle in his body cried out for him not to go back tomorrow, to find some easier way to earn a living. But there was no other way. And he was thankful just to have the job.
There’d been some news today that there might be trouble coming. Some woman down in Alabama had refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, and she’d been locked up for her trouble. Folks were worried that just to make sure nobody starting getting any such ideas here in Hertford County, the nightriders might make an example out of somebody. So everybody in the fields today was nervous. And nobody slacked off on the job.
He’d been walking for over two hours, and finally his little house came into view up ahead. It wasn’t much – just two rooms and an outhouse – but it was home. Their first home. He’d rented the place from the same man in whose fields he’d spent this day breaking his back.
Even looking at their home from a distance Joshua was reminded that the place needed some work, starting off with patching the hole in the tin roof before the next rain. He figured he’d get to that tonight after supper.
Lord, I’m so tired.
Now that home was in sight his aching body felt as if it wanted to give up. He felt like he could just fall out right here, lay his head in the dirt and sleep his life away.
But he kept walking.
He thought about how hard this day had been, and that all he had to look forward to was more days and weeks and months and years like this one, days in which he worked his body until he had nothing left. He thought about getting up tomorrow and the next morning, six days a week, to do it all over again. That’s how his father had lived his life, and his father before him. And that was what he had to look forward to.
He was a man, but the thought made Joshua blink back tears of despair.
Lord, why have you made my life so hard?
As he limped into his front yard the aroma of skillet fried pork chops, collard greens seasoned with fatback and fresh hot cornbread greeted him. His stomach rumbled a return call.
The front door was open, and as he reached the house she stepped out onto the creaky wooden porch. His heart jumped in his chest, and his despair rinsed away like sand in a rainstorm
Rose – his wife, his love – wore a faded hand-me-down calico dress under a worn apron on which she wiped her hands. Her coal black hair was pulled back from her beautiful brown face, which glistened with perspiration. She’d probably been cooking all afternoon on that wood-burning stove. Joshua figured it had to be hot in that house, as hot in there for her as it had been for him out in the fields. Still, when their eyes met she greeted him with a smile.
In spite of his sore feet and legs his stride lengthened and quickened, and in two steps he was on the porch and sweeping her up into his arms.
As he hugged and kissed his new bride he forgot his exhaustion and the ache in his muscles. He forgot his despair. If he had to toil for the rest of his days in fields of fire in the pit of hell it was worth it.
It was worth it because she was worth it.
ABOUT LOVE II
Long Branch, New Jersey
“Look Rosie, it’s starting to snow!” Mrs. Porter exclaimed. She was so excited that for a moment she took her hands off the steering wheel.
Rose tensed in the passenger seat and mentally prayed that this fool wouldn’t kill them. She didn’t want to die, especially right before Christmas.
It had been five years since Joshua brought them up from North Carolina to New Jersey, and in those five years she’d ridden in more cars than she had in her entire twenty-one years of life previously. But Rose still couldn’t get used to Mrs. Porter’s crazy driving. It was a wonder they gave the woman a driver’s license.
To Rose’s great relief Mrs. Porter grabbed the wheel and stopped the car just before they reached the red light at the corner of Third Avenue and Broadway. Another foot and they would have been in the boot of that big old Chrysler Imperial in front of them.
“It will be so nice to have snow this Christmas,” Mrs. Porter said. “Did you have much snow at Christmas in North Carolina?”
“No, not too much,” Rose said. She was proud that she’d remembered not to stick a “ma’am” at the end of her answer. She’d noticed that up here in New Jersey colored folks didn’t call white folks “sir” and “ma’am” just because they were white.
They turned off Third Avenue onto downtown Broadway. It was evening, and the street was lit up with Christmas lights. Decorations hung on the lamp posts. Shoppers hurried up and down and across the street amidst the gently falling snowflakes, skittering in and out of stores like bees buzzing around their hives.
To Rose the scene looked like something out of one of those nice old holiday movies. The spirit of Christmas swelled within her breast.
She hoped that Joshua would be home in time to celebrate Christmas with her and the children. If he wasn’t back from his trip in time it would be the first Christmas in their eight years of marriage that they’d be apart.
“This is so lovely,” Mrs. Porter sighed. “Lord knows we need something cheerful in our lives after all that’s happened lately. Can you believe it’s been a month since they killed the President in Dallas?”
“It seems like it happened yesterday,” Rose said. She answered her employer but her mind was on her husband, who was on the road for his company, delivering aluminum doors and windows.
They turned off Broadway onto Liberty Street, and two blocks later onto Monmouth Avenue. Rose gathered up her things as they neared her house. As Mrs. Porter pulled to a stop at the curb Rose said, “Thank you for the ride, Mrs. Porter.”
Even though they’d taken this same ride five days a week for the last four years, Rose didn’t think it hurt to show appreciation. She still remembered how Joshua walked for miles to and from the fields every day when they lived in North Carolina. Old Mr. Jenkins would never have thought to give any colored worker a ride home.
“It’s my pleasure Rosie,” Mrs. Porter said. “I really appreciate all you’ve done for me. “In fact, Mr. Porter and I have decided that we really ought to show our appreciation for all your hard work by giving you a Christmas bonus this year.”
From her purse she extracted a crisp fifty dollar bill and handed it to Rose.
Rose stared in shock at the money. This was twice as much as she made in a week cooking and cleaning for the Porter family.
This year for Christmas she and Joshua had bought a new set of cap pistols for Little Josh and a doll for baby Carol. There were still two days to go before Christmas. With this money she could buy them more toys, and get something nice for Joshua, who worked so hard to support them.
Rose fought to contain her emotions. “Mrs. Porter, thank you. We all thank you so much,” she said.
Mrs. Porter patted her hand. “Think nothing of it, dear. As I said, we really do appreciate all you do for us. And that’s something else, Rosie. I do wish you would call me Ruth. After all, I consider us friends.”
Rose went up the walk to the house blinking tears from her eyes. The Lord sure was good to them. After all their struggles in the south He’d seen His way to guide them up north to a better way of life. Now if only He could find a way to bring Joshua home before Christmas.
Nessie Thompson lived in the upstairs half of the house they rented. Nessie watched the children while she and Joshua were at work. Rose decided that she’d go into her own house and take off her coat and rest her feet for a minute before she went up to get the children. But when she opened the door to her living room Joshua was standing right there in front of the Christmas tree, holding Little Josh and Carol in each of his strong arms. He was grinning at her from ear to ear.
“Merry Christmas, Baby,” he beamed.
She didn’t remember running across the room to her family, and didn’t know how Joshua managed to hug her while still holding their babies. But Joshua had always managed to take care of his family, whether it was suffering in the sun in the tobacco and cotton fields, or finding a way to move them north to a better life. So she wasn’t surprised at anything he managed to accomplish for them.
“How did you get home?” she said into his chest.
“By driving that danged truck like I was in the Pony Express,” he said. “The boss was surprised to see me back so soon. I told him don’t get used to it, but ain’t no way I’m gonna be away from my woman and my babies for Christmas.”
Unable to speak through her emotion, Rose just hugged her man tighter.
Joshua said, “And guess what, Baby? The boss appreciated me working so hard and fast, so he gave me a fifty dollar bonus on top of my pay. Now don’t that beat all?”
“Yes Honey, that’s just about beats all,” she said. “Now come on and sit down. I’m gonna make some pork chops and collards and corn bread.”
Joshua smiled even harder. “Just like the old days, huh Baby?”
Rose handed him the fifty dollar bill given to her by Mrs. Porter. “No Husband, nothing is like the old days. I want to thank you for that – for giving us a better life.”
Joshua looked down at his wife. He remembered that hot summer day eight years ago when he’d felt so tired and helpless thinking about the future. He remembered Rose coming out onto the porch, sweating from her day over the stove.
“No, I’m the one who ought to thank you,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for wanting a better life for you, I’d still be working in the fields just like my daddy and granddaddy did. Love is what got us a better way of life. And love will always keep us.”
Rose couldn’t find the words to respond. So she held onto her man and leaked tears onto his shirt. The Lord sure is good to us, she thought again.
Joshua said, “Baby, it’s a little cold out, but do you feel like taking a walk? I don’t want you cooking tonight. Let’s go downtown and have us a nice eat out dinner. You deserve it. Nessie already said she’d watch the kids and feed them.”
They walked up Monmouth Avenue with their arms around each other. Big feathery flakes of snow flurried around them, and they walked with their heads bowed against the chill December night. But they really didn’t feel the cold. Love warmed their hearts and their spirits.
As they turned up Liberty Street and then neared Broadway, they heard the voices of carolers filling the night with holiday cheer. They stopped on the sidewalk and listened to the beautiful lyrics of Silent Night.
“Oh Joshua, do you feel it?” Rose asked her husband as they enjoyed the carolers.
“Feel what Baby?”
“God. God is out here tonight. I feel him all through my bones!”
Joshua smiled down at his wife. “He’s always out here, Baby. It’s just that sometimes, when everything seems like it’s going wrong, we forget that He’s right there, waiting for us to use His strength to get us through. Look at where we’ve been, and where we are now. That ain’t nothing but the Lord moving us with His blessings.”
“Then let’s keep moving,” Rose said. “I can’t wait till we get there!”
“You that hungry, Baby?”
“No husband,” Rose said. “I can’t wait to get to the next wonderful thing God has planned for us.”
Everything The Law Allows
“Are you Sean Daniels?”
He looked up at the dude standing in his office doorway. Light-skinned brother. Light brown eyes. Wavy hair – the shit they called good hair back in the day.
“Who wants to know?” Sean asked.
The dude came into his office, stepped about halfway to his desk and stopped. “I’m Derrick DuShane. That name mean anything to you?”
Sean leaned back in his desk chair. He thought about his Smith & Wesson SW1911. It was safely locked up back at the house. He kept it under lock and key so that his little girl Nina couldn’t get to it. Probably wouldn’t need it for this bitch, though. “The name doesn’t mean a thing to me, man. I might have heard it…but it doesn’t mean shit.”
The dude took a step closer. Just a step. Still wasn’t close to his desk. “Well let me tell you who the fuck I am, bro,” the dude said. “Lisa is my wife. You know her, don’t you?”
Sean didn’t think this asshole was really asking a question. “Oh, Lisa…yeah. Our paths have crossed.” He ended his statement with a smile.
“Well, make sure you uncross ‘em motherfucker, you understand me? Stay the fuck away from my wife!”
Now Sean almost laughed. This punk was so mad that he was standing there with his fists clenched, shaking like a leaf. But he knew not to step too close. “I’m not interested in Lisa…anymore,” Sean said. “She served her purpose. I was done with your wife months ago.”
“I ought to kill your ass,” DuShane spat.
“Shit sucks, doesn’t it Derrick?” Sean said. “Did the paternity test not come out like you expected?”
“What…how did you know about that?” Now Dushane looked confused.
“I just put two and two together…bro. Your wife’s baby doesn’t look too much like you, does it? See, women aren’t the only ones who can punch pinholes in condoms.”
“Motherfucker, why would you do some shit like that?”
DuShane stepped closer, but Sean didn’t think he knew what he was doing. Still, he figured he ought to be ready, just in case. He stood up and said, “Because it’s not illegal to sleep with another man’s wife. See, I’m doing what the law requires. I’ve been doing that for the past seven years. Sometimes when I think about it, I get so pissed that I really want to hurt somebody. But now that would be illegal. But sleeping with your wife…sleeping with Lisa? Well, that’s something the law allows.”
Now DuShane backed up, toward the door. “Man, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Just stay the fuck away from my wife, got it?”
“Oh, I have no problem doing that. Like I said, I’m done with her. You have a good life, bro. And have fun paying for my baby for the next eighteen years.”
Sean hung up his coat, loosened his tie and stepped into his living room. The aroma of marinara sauce drifted out from the kitchen. His stomach grumbled in response.
Hearing the door open, his daughter Nina came bolting down the stairs and leapt into his arms.“Hey daddy!” she yelled. She hugged him and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“Hey baby,” Sean smiled. “How was school today?”
“It was good! I made you and mommy a Valentine card. Come and see!” Nina squirmed out of his arms and took his hand, leading him to the kitchen.
Donna stood at the stove, stirring sauce in a pot. She turned to give him a kiss. Sean made himself not flinch away. Memories of today’s events were still strong. They reminded him of things he wanted to forget – things that made him not want to kiss his wife.
“C’mon daddy, look at your card!” Nina said, pulling him toward the refrigerator door, on which her homemade cards and other artwork hung.
Sean looked down at his little girl. She was light-skinned. She had light brown eyes and wavy hair –the kind they called good hair back in the day.
Nina looked just like her daddy.
But the law said that because she was born during the course of his marriage, he was the one who had to pay. There was nothing he could do about that.
All he could do was what the law allowed.