Free Story: 21
I was going through my archive of stories and came across this one. Then came the quandary: to expand, edit and publish, or leave it as is? Considering that my publishing schedule is booked for almost the next year, I’m leaving this one as is. I recall that it was a fun write, especially after I thought I was done and thought, “But what if this happened?” Thus the Hitman Chronicles tie-in.
I hope you enjoy.
Regency Square Mall
It wasn’t that crowded in the mall. There was no reason for that chick to bump into me. I looked at her as she smiled at me and said, “Excuse me.”
She was cute; sort of a mix of Keyshia Cole and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez. And she was giving me this sultry gaze. She wanted to hold my attention.
I touched the right rear pocket of my jeans as I spun around. I saw the dude in a puffy hooded jacket with the hood up, walking away through the crowd, fast. He looked around and our eyes locked. I started running before he did.
Some white woman screamed when he shoved her out of the way and hauled ass toward the mall exit.
The motherfucker was fighting his way through the crowd, pushing people, knocking some over. That helped me out. He was clearing the way for me, unwittingly helping me gain ground on him.
The baby stroller came out of nowhere. I jumped over it and then cursed when I landed hard and felt a twinge along the side of my right knee, a remnant of too many basketball wars on too many concrete courts.
I was almost on the dude now. He wasn’t looking back, because that would slow him down. But he was almost at the turn leading out of the building. If he got outside he’d be harder to catch.
He made the corner, running so fast that he couldn’t make a hard cut. His momentum carried him toward the pillar on which the mall directory was posted.
I ignored my bad knee and pushed off hard, launching myself at him. I hit him between his shoulder blades, knocking him head first into the pillar. I heard some part of his face or head crack the glass covering the directory map.
I didn’t want to give him a chance to turn around. The sprint through the mall had me winded and I didn’t know how much I had left for a fight, so I punched him as hard as I could in the back of his hood. His face hit the glass again. He tried to spin away but I rammed my shoulder into his back, slamming him against the pillar.
He yelled, “Get off me man!”
He turned his head back toward me, so I put everything I had into a right cross that caught him on the jaw. I hadn’t hit anybody that hard in twenty years. He went to his knees. I shoved him all the way down and rammed my knee into his back to keep him there.
“Hey, hey, stop that!”
Somebody was yelling at me. I was gasping and disoriented, and looked the wrong way, to my left. I saw the girl who’d bumped into me walking fast toward the exit, hips swaying in tight jeans as she made her escape. Her eyes caught mine for an instant. She looked scared as hell, damn near horrified. Then she looked away and hurried toward daylight.
I looked the other way. A stocky female mall security guard was standing nearby, her hand clutching at something black on her belt. I was about to get up, but then realized that she was reaching for her two-way radio, not a weapon. She didn’t have a weapon. I pushed my knee harder into the thief’s back and went into his pockets.
The guard yelled, “Mister, I said stop that!” She was trying to sound hard but she wasn’t coming any closer to me. Good. I just needed a few seconds.
I found my wallet in one of the pickpocket’s deep pockets just as he was getting himself together. He tried to push himself up. I punched him in the back of his hood again. His forehead bounced off the hard tile. This time he groaned and quit moving. Someone in the crowd that had gathered said, “Good, that’s what he gets!”
The security guard said, “I’ve radioed for the police! Now get off him!”
I kept my knee on the thief’s back as I snatched my retired military ID card out of my wallet. I held it up so the guard could see it. “He lifted my wallet,” I gasped. “Does this look like him or me?”
I left the mall before the cops got there, going out through the Macy’s exit so I wouldn’t run into them coming in the main entry. I hadn’t committed a crime; I only did what I had to do to retrieve my property. But I don’t trust cops and didn’t want to take a chance on getting into some Rodney King drama. For all I know they might say I should have let the poor citizen go and charge me with assault.
I was still breathing hard as I exited the store, and the twenty degree winter air alerted me that I was sweating hard under my leather jacket. The twinge in my knee told me that if I knew what was good for me I’d be wearing my knee brace for the next couple of days. My right hand throbbed. I looked at it. No broken skin on the knuckles. Hopefully I didn’t break anything else. I’d put some ice on it when I got home.
I saw her out of the corner of my eye in the parking lot. Instinct told me it was her before I turned to look.
She was about four car rows over from me, looking away from me toward the mall’s main entry. I guess she was hoping that her boy would find a way to get out of there.
My car was parked one row past where she was standing. I kept her in my sights, hoping that she wouldn’t see me. Odds were that if she saw me she’d break and run. I had no intention of chasing her. But I also didn’t want her to get a better look at me than she already had. Even with dozens of witnesses in the mall, all they really saw me do was chase some young dude, take him down and take a wallet from him. Who knew how that might play out if the cops ended up questioning me at a later date? I had my wallet back. For me the issue was over. Case closed.
The girl tugged at the door handle of the car she was standing next to. It was locked. Even from a distance I could see the big sigh she let out; the plume of frosted air that escaped via her exhalation. She hugged her arms around herself, looked toward the mall and sighed again.
From here it looked like her jacket was pretty thin. Way too thin for this weather.
I kept walking to my car.
This is a quiet part of Henrico County, more suburb than City of Richmond. Public transportation doesn’t come out this far from the city.
She could call a taxi. That is, if she had any money.
Would her boy be stealing wallets if they had money?
It was late afternoon. The day was getting colder. It was supposed to be down in the teens tonight.
I punched the remote door lock as I got close to my car. Then I saw a Henrico County police cruiser pull up to the mall entry, its light bar rolling and flashing. Yep, time for me to roll, too.
The girl turned away from the mall. Apparently she didn’t want the police to see her face, either. She walked around the car and tried the other door. It was locked, too. She put her hand to her forehead as if she were feeling the onset of a migraine. Another big sigh. Another plume of frosted air.
It was cold as hell out here, and going to get colder.
I walked toward her, hoping she wouldn’t realize who I was and bolt before I was close enough to speak to her.
Another police car pulled up at the front of the mall, this one with its lights flashing and its siren wailing for good measure. The girl looked at the mall again and then turned away, toward me. I was one car away when she saw me. It took her another second to realize who I was. She backed away from me between her boy’s ride and the car next to it.
“I’ll scream,” she warned, moving away from me around the front of the car.
“Go ahead,” I said. “Get the cops over here. Let’s talk to them.” I stopped at the back of the car and put my hands in my pockets, trying to look as non-threatening as possible.
She said, “Just leave me alone, all right?”
“No problem,” I said. “I just noticed that you were trying to get in that car and it’s locked. Is that your boy’s car?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Not much. But it’s cold out here and you’re already freezing your ass off. That jacket isn’t helping you much.”
“I’m fine. Just leave me alone, okay?” She shot a glance toward the mall.
“Your boy isn’t coming out,” I said. “He’s probably on his way to jail, if any witness speaks up. Then what are you gonna do—wait out here until he’s paroled?”
“What I do is no business of yours.”
“Yeah, and I shouldn’t give a damn, considering you set me up. But it’s cold out here. You don’t need to be out here, especially without a decent coat.”
“Just leave me alone, okay?” She was trying to stay hard but her bottom lip trembled.
I didn’t think she’d go for option #1, and I wouldn’t blame her. That was for me to give her a ride wherever she needed to go. Most children know better than to accept a ride from a stranger. And to get in a car with somebody you just tried to rob? Please. I decided to go for option #2.
“Do me a favor,” I said to her. “Step away from the front of the car.”
She frowned at me. “Why?”
“Because I’m coming up there, that’s why.”
I moved between the two cars toward the front of the vehicle that must have belonged to her partner in crime. She backed away, across the driving lane to the next row with her arms folded over her chest against the cold and her head swiveling back and forth to keep an eye on me and the police cars at the mall entry.
I stopped near the windshield and reached for the wallet the punk had tried to steal from me. I took out a ten dollar bill and stuck it under the wiper blade. The girl was watching me. Her frown had transformed from one of distrust to one of confusion.
“Cab fare,” I said, and turned away from her and headed back to my car.
I sat in my Impala, listening to the radio while I waited for the engine to warm up.
Some day this turned out to be. I’d gone to the mall to try to find a birthday present for my mother and ended up almost getting my wallet lifted and aggravating an old sports injury. I should have looked for a gift on Amazon.
Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You came on the radio. I hit a preset button in a hurry, changing to another station. I can’t listen to that song by Whitney. It was the first song Stephanie and I danced to at our wedding. It reminds me of her, of how beautiful she looked in her wedding gown. She was always beautiful to me, even after disease and useless chemotherapy ravaged her body. In my mind my wife will always be as beautiful as she was on our wedding day. That’s how I choose to remember her.
She’s been gone for a year. The sharp pain of loss is mostly gone. Now it’s just a dull ache sometimes. It usually hits me when something good happens in my life, something that I would have shared with her. I miss sharing life with her. What stays with me more is the unfairness of her passing.
Stephanie was only thirty-five. She was a sweet, kind person to everyone. It just didn’t seem fair that she lost her life so young while assholes lived and propagated like roaches.
We got married when I was twenty-five and she was twenty-one. We took out extra life insurance policies, something more than the automatic insurance provided by the military. It was something we did thinking about one of us leaving this earth at a ripe old age, not when one of our lives was barely half lived.
I deposited that insurance check in the bank. That’s where the money’s been for the past year. Untouched. I have my military pension. My wants and needs are few, so I don’t need the extra money. It can’t buy happiness. And even if it could, I don’t have anyone I want to share it with.
The girl from the mall is coming toward me from the next lane over, making her way between the two cars parked in front of me.
Now what the fuck?
She stopped just beyond my outside mirror and made a motion with her hand, indicating that she wanted me to roll my window down. I did, and she took a step closer. Close, but not too close. I noticed that her caramel cheeks were flushed red and dry from the cold.
She held up the ten I’d left under the wiper blade. “Why’d you do this?” she asked.
“Because it’s cold out here and I figured you wouldn’t accept a ride home from me.”
“But why, after what happened inside?”
I said, “Because you’re locked out of that car and you’re going to freeze your ass off out here in that little jacket.”
“But why do you even care?”
“I guess because you’re a female and my mother raised me right.”
She stepped closer, now across from my window but staying beyond arm’s reach. She was looking at me…studying me hard. “What you did inside…that was crazy,” she said.
“I don’t like being ripped off. I worked for my money. I’m not going to let some punk just take it.”
“I’m sorry about what happened.”
“People are always sorry when they get caught.”
“I didn’t get caught.”
“Your boy did.”
“He’s not my boy. He’s just…a friend.”
“Well, like you said before, it’s not my business.” My car was warmed up now. Time for me to bounce. I put the Impala in reverse. And then something occurred to me. I put the transmission back in park. “Hey, do you have a cell? Do you need me to call that taxi for you? If you’re out here much longer you’re going to get hypothermia.”
She let out a little laugh that came out riding a shiver and said, “H-hypothermia?”
“Yeah, that means—“
“I know what it means. It’s the cooling of the body’s core temperature. It goes so low that muscle and brain function are impaired. Thanks for that cheerful thought.”
Now I had to laugh. And I was impressed. Since this sister had tried to rob me I figured that she was just some hood rat or worse, an addict. But it looked like she’d actually put some of her brain cells to use.
She shivered hard and hugged her arms around herself. Not much protection against the cold. Then she said, “Well, I figure if you give me a ride I can use the ten to buy something to eat.”
“Right now getting warm takes top priority.”
“You’re not worried about getting in my car?”
“I don’t know…are you going to do something crazy, like cut me into tiny pieces?”
“Yeah, that, or I might steal your wallet.”
As I pulled out of the mall parking lot and headed north on Parham Road she said, “You have a nice car.”
“It’s just four wheels to roll from A to B,” I said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a Pinto or a Ferrari, they serve the same purpose.”
She frowned at me. “What’s a Pinto?”
“How old are you?” I asked.
She gave me an indignant up and down look and snapped, “How old are you?”
“You run like a kid.”
If she knew how my knee felt right now she wouldn’t say that.
“I’m twenty-seven,” she said.
“You’re too old to be hanging out with thugs.”
“And you’re not old enough to be my father or tell me who to hang out with.”
“Whatever. There’s a Hardees right there if you’re hungry.”
“I’m good,” she said.
I noticed that she was still shivering. I turned the fan up on the heater. I thought that hot food would probably do her good. “Look, if you want something to eat, stopping is no problem.”
“Fast food is poison.”
I wanted to make a comment about beggars not being able to be choosy but I let it go. Instead I asked, “So do you want to get some food or do you want me to just take you home? Where do you live?”
“I’m staying on the South Side,” she said.
Richmond’s hood. Okay.
She looked at me then and asked, “Is that out of your way?”
“I live on this side, but it’s no problem taking you where you need to go. Just point me.”
We turned right on Broad Street, heading for downtown Richmond. Broad Street is one of the city’s main drags, running from the city out to the suburb called Short Pump. I’d been here for six months—since I retired from the Air Force—and was just getting comfortably familiar with the area.
I’d elected to move to Virginia rather than back home to New Jersey because I knew my family was just waiting to throw me a widower’s pity party and try to hook me up with somebody to help me move on with my life. Well for me, their well-meaning sympathy would only make the pain of loss worse. And I wasn’t ready for a new relationship. I still had things to deal with. I had to get myself together before letting someone else into my personal life.
The girl’s exclamation brought me back to the here and now. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t have a house key,” she said.
“It’s locked in your boy’s car?”
“No, I don’t have a key. It’s Shawn’s place. I’m staying with him until…for the time being.”
“Shawn is the dude in the mall?”
“Yes. Hey, there’s a Books-A-Million. You can drop me off there.”
“They’re not open twenty-four hours,” I said. “What are you gonna do when they close…burn books to stay warm?”
“Why do you care?”
“Yeah, my bad. Not my business.”
Fuck it, I thought. I hit my turn signal and moved to the right lane to turn into the book store parking lot.
She let out a big sigh. Big sighs must be her trademark. She said, “Look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m just so stressed out right now. I really appreciate the ride and the money, especially after everything…”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Just watch yourself. You seem like a nice sister; too smart to be caught up in whatever you’re caught up in.”
I slowed to a stop in front of the book store.
She looked out through the passenger window, gazing into the store.
I waited for her to get out.
Bill Wither’s song Lean On Me came on the radio:
Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain; we all have sorrow
But if we are wise, we know that there’s
Lean on me
When you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
Till I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on
Stephanie used to love that song. It always touched her heart, made her cry. It affected her so because she was the kind of woman who would give a stranger her last dime if they were in trouble. She thought Club Nouveau’s funky remake was musical blasphemy, kind of like putting a hip hop beat to Amazing Grace.
I waited for my passenger to get out. She hadn’t even reached for the door handle. Still looking through the window, she let out another big sigh.
Okay, she was just trying to collect herself. In a moment or a minute she’d get out into the cold winter night and go wherever and do whatever. Like she said, it wasn’t my business. And I’d go to my crib and put dinner on and log into Amazon and look for a birthday present for my mother. My life would go on.
This sister’s life wasn’t my business.
Her issues weren’t my issues.
I’d gotten as involved in her life as I was going to get.
If Stephanie was sitting in this car right now she’d slap the shit out of me.
To the girl I said, “You don’t have any place to go, do you?”
She shook her head. I could see her face reflected in the passenger window. Her eyes glistened like tiny pools in the fading light. Then she sniffed, and a tear brimmed and slid down her face.
Now it was my turn to let out a big sigh. I said, “Okay, look…I’ve got some chicken breasts marinating in jerk sauce at my crib. I made enough for leftovers. If you want, you can have dinner with me. Then we can check online and in the phone book…there’s got to be some women’s shelters around.”
She still didn’t look at me but she wiped at her face and nodded.
As I pulled out of the parking lot and back onto Broad Street she said, “My name is Kya.”
“That’s a pretty name. Is it African?”
“It’s supposed to mean ‘diamond in the sky.’”
“I’m Monty,” I said. “Short for Montgomery. I have no idea what the hell it means.”
Now she looked at me. Her eyes still glistened, but she smiled and said, Pleased to meet you, Monty. And thank you so much.”
Copper Mill Apartments
“Is this your home or did we accidentally walk into Best Buy?” Kya asked.
We were standing inside the entry to my one-bedroom apartment. Kya was looking around and shaking her head.
My living room is crammed with my fifty-two inch television, my stereo system for music, a multi-media system for movies, all the required speakers and shelves holding hundreds of DVDs and CDs. My computer desk takes up part of the dining area. That leaves room for a loveseat and a coffee table in the living room and a four-chair dinette set in the dining area. It works for me.
I closed and locked the door as Kya moved into the middle of my living room and looked around. Then she turned back to me. “I was going to ask, but now I don’t need to,” she said.
“If you had a lady in your life, and if she’d be okay with you doing this for me. But seeing this place, I know you don’t have a lady. You don’t even have curtains, Monty.”
“I have blinds,” I said. “They do the job.”
She smiled and shook her head at me as if I were sadly pathetic in my ignorance. One thing I noticed: some of the hardness and stress had melted from her face. She was cute when she smiled. Actually pretty.
There was an awkward moment in which we stood staring at each other. I broke eye contact before she’d start thinking that I really might cut her into little pieces and said, “I’m going to get dinner started. Make yourself comfortable.”
“May I use your restroom to wash up?” she asked.
I felt a moment of anxiety, wondering if there was anything in my bathroom valuable enough to steal. I did a quick mental inventory. The most costly single item in there was an eight-pack of Gillette Mach 3 razors. Those things are priced like they’re made of gold. “No, go ahead. It’s right there.”
She went into the bathroom and I went into my kitchen. I turned on the oven to preheat and washed my hands at the kitchen sink, listening for sounds of thievery coming from my bathroom. After a minute I heard the toilet flush and then water running from the sink. Okay.
I took a covered Tupperware bowl out of my refrigerator. The bowl held four boneless, skinless breasts, seasoned and soaking in Jamaican jerk flavored marinade. I transferred the chicken to a casserole baking dish, covered the dish with foil and popped it in the oven.
The water in the bathroom had stopped but Kya hadn’t come back yet. My apartment has a single bathroom. When you leave the living room/dining room area you enter an alcove. In the alcove there’s a door to the bathroom on the right and the door to my bedroom on the left.
I stepped out of the kitchen and saw Kya standing in the alcove, looking into my bedroom.
“No curtains in here, either,” she said. “You really need a woman’s touch. Prisoner’s have better décor than this.”
“Oh, like you know how prisoners live.”
She turned to me, gave me a funny look. Then she came out of the alcove back into the living room. “Do you need some help in the kitchen? It’s the least I can do.”
“You want to make the salad?”
“Sure. Just point me.”
I showed Kya where the salad fixings were. It felt weird to me, maneuvering around her in my narrow galley kitchen. I’d been in this apartment for six months. It occurred to me that other than my mother and sister down on a visit from Jersey, Kya was the first female to set foot in my place. And being so close to her, in the aura of her femininity, made me achingly aware of that fact. I got out of the kitchen as fast as I could.
While Kya made the salad I moved the clutter on my dinette table—my laptop, books by James Patterson, Eric Jerome Dickey, John Grisham, Langston Hughes and Tananarive Due, a deck of playing cards and various magazines—down to the far end of the table. As I neatened things up I couldn’t help stealing glances toward the kitchen. It felt weird seeing a woman do work in there.
Weird, but not in a bad way.
Kya set the table…really set the table: Napkins on the left, then the dinner forks, salad forks next to the plates, knives to the right of the plates, glasses placed at the upper right. She could have learned to properly set a table by being a waitress, but for some reason I didn’t think so.
She’d taken the liberty of making rice to go with the chicken and salad. She’d added onion and green pepper to it and flavored it with drippings from the chicken. It was delicious.
“This chicken is so excellent,” she said. Her smile extended to her brown eyes, warming them. Maybe the cold persona she’d been trying to effect was melting.
“So is the rice,” I said. “You threw down on it.”
“Thank you. My father used to say “you put your foot in it.’”
This was the first mention she’d made of anything to do with her background. I tried to think of something to say to keep her talking about herself.
She watched me as she took a sip of cranberry juice, and then said, “Monty, I can see question marks floating over your head.”
“Look, I don’t know you, Kya, but when you’re not trying to be hard you seem like a decent person. I was wondering what a nice, intelligent, beautiful woman like you was doing in the mall ripping people off.”
“Don’t assume I’m so nice, Monty. You don’t know me.”
She was right about that. But I could tell by the way she spoke and carried herself that she wasn’t from the streets. And I remembered how she’d looked hurrying out of the mall: Absolutely terrified. Like it was her first time doing something like that, and it had gone wrong on her.
I decided to ease into my questions, see how far I got. “Are you from Richmond?”
“No,” she answered as she cut off a small bit of chicken.
Okay, that was my fault for asking a closed-ended question, one that could be answered with a yes or no. I tried again. “Where are you from?”
She kept her eyes on me as she placed the chicken in her mouth, seemed to be contemplating as she chewed slowly. I waited.
She had very nice lips; lips that looked like they were made to be kissed, and kissed often. I watched as she swallowed and dabbed at those kissable lips with her napkin.
“Las Vegas,” she said.
Her lips distracted me. I’d almost forgotten that I’d asked the question. “How long have you been in Richmond?”
“A couple of weeks, this time.”
Shit. I was losing my touch, letting her get off with another closed-ended question. As she cut another piece of chicken I asked, “So what brought you from Vegas to Virginia?”
She put her cutlery down hard enough to damn near break the plate. “Monty, do you always interrogate your dinner guests?”
Whatever was in her that had started to melt froze over again. Damn it. Okay, if it had to be this way…
“Oh, so you’re a dinner guest now.” I snapped.
That slowed her roll; I could see it in her face. A bit taken aback. A bit hurt.
“I’m sorry…I apologize,” she said. “I appreciate this, Monty, I really do. But I don’t owe you my life story just because you helped me.”
I didn’t think it was about her owing me her story. My gut told me that there were things she didn’t want to talk about. Maybe painful or embarrassing things. Things that made a decent sister end up as accessory to theft in a shopping mall.
“Fair enough,” I said.
We finished eating in silence.
Kya insisted on clearing the table and cleaning up the kitchen, saying again that it was the least she could do. I sat and watched her from the dining room. I wanted to take a shower and get the sweat I’d worked up chasing her boy off me. But that would have to wait until she was gone. I didn’t want to take a chance on her ripping me off while I was taking a bath.
Once she had the dishwasher loaded and running she wiped down the counters and stovetop. Then she looked around for something else to clean. She started wiping out the sinks. We were supposed to be looking for a women’s shelter after dinner. I knew she was stalling.
I snuck looks at her booty in her tight jeans as she leaned over the sinks. I reminded myself that her issues weren’t my issues. The sooner she was out of here, in a shelter or wherever as long as she was out of my hair, the better. But then I said, “You don’t have any family or friends you can stay with?”
She came to the dining room entry, wiping her hands with a paper towel. “I don’t know anybody else here except Shawn. Not since…um…there’s a friend of mine here…he’s locked up.”
Now the plot thickened. And now she was talking because it gave her more time.
“Shawn is the dude in the mall?” I asked.
“So you have a friend in jail and Shawn is a thief. Did anyone ever tell you that you have no skills at picking your friends?”
“I didn’t pick Shawn. He’s Derrick’s friend.”
“Derrick’s my…my ex. He’s in prison.”
“Oh. So since your boyfriend is in jail you’ve hooked up with his boy.“
She came back into the dining room. “Ex-boyfriend, and it’s not like that. I don’t know anybody else here.”
“Okay well, we’ll start looking online for a place for you.“
She was standing on the other side of the table now, behind the chair in which she’d sat while we ate dinner. The hardness was gone from her face. She looked distressed.
I looked up at her, waiting for her to say what she was going to say. In my previous life I was used to studying people, reading their faces to determine what might be in their heads. Kya was struggling with herself right now, trying to find the words she didn’t know how or didn’t want to say.
Then she looked away from me, toward the end of the table to which I’d moved my things to make room for us to eat. She went to that end of the table, picked up my box of playing cards and said, “I have a proposition for you.”
She sat down and removed the cards from the box and started shuffling them. She shuffled with astonishing speed and dexterity. That reminded me that she’d said she was from Vegas.
“Do you play poker?” she asked.
She cocked a brow at me. Her eyes were on me but she didn’t miss a beat shuffling those cards. “I thought all guys played poker.”
“Not me. What’s this about? What proposition?”
She dropped her eyes to the cards, thinking as she shuffled. Then she said, “How about Twenty-One…Blackjack? You play that?”
“I don’t want to go to a shelter,” she said. “The idea scares the hell out of me…a strange place with people I don’t know. They could be drug addicts…anything.”
I held off my impulse to tell her that she couldn’t stay here. I watched her, watched her bottom lip trembling; watched her blink rapidly trying to keep her tears in check. It didn’t work. She mumbled, “Damn it!” and put the cards down and used the crumpled paper towel to blot her eyes and blow her nose. I watched her as she let out one of those big sighs, picked up the cards and started shuffling again, riffling the cards hard, like they’d done something to offend her.
She was mad at herself for crying, I could tell. She was one of those women who didn’t like to be seen crying. Somebody had hurt her. Maybe more than one somebody. Life had taught her that being vulnerable made you a target for predators.
When I thought she had herself together I asked, “What’s this proposition?”
She sniffed and said, “What if we play Twenty-One through the deck once, and whoever wins the most hands wins?”
“If I win, I sleep on your loveseat tonight. If you win…” She let out another one of those big sighs. “…I’ll leave.”
I watched her shuffling the cards, fanning them out in the air, the cards moving like they were on a string. I’m not a sucker. She’s from Las Vegas. I wondered if she knew how to count cards. “This sounds like a hustle to me,” I said. “And maybe my winning isn’t worth the risk.”
She stopped shuffling, got up and went to the living room and retrieved her too-thin-for-winter jacket. She put it on, came back and sat down and picked up the cards again. “How about if we sweeten the pot?”
“Well, since you don’t play poker we’ll do this: Every time I lose a hand, something comes off.”
“You mean instead of Strip Poker…Strip Blackjack?”
She smiled and said, “Exactly.”
Kya lost the first three hands, and took off her too-thin-for-winter jacket, then her Tims, and then her socks.
“Do you want me to turn the heat up?” I asked. “Because the way this is going, you’re about to get chilly.”
“Keep joking, funny boy,” she said. “We’re just getting started.”
On the next deal I got a six and an eight. She was showing an eight so I told her to hit me. I was busted by a jack. Then she won the next hand with blackjack.
“Maybe I should have had you strip, too, “she smiled.
“Nope, you made the rules and you can’t change them once the game is on.”
On the next hand I beat her seventeen with an eighteen. She took off her belt. Then she took a hit on sixteen and busted. She hesitated as she tried to decide what to remove next.
“Your earrings and any other jewelry don’t count as clothes,” I said, trying not to grin.
She stuck her tongue out at me.
She thought for a moment as I watched her, waiting. I tried to pretend that I was much less anxious than I really was. And then she tugged the bottom of her pullover blouse out of her jeans and stuck her hands up under it. She started fumbling under her top and going through a bunch of contortions. After a minute she pulled her bra out from under her blouse, presenting it like a magician who’d pulled a rabbit from his top hat.
“Nice trick,” I said. “Let’s see you do that with your panties.”
She smiled and said, “It’s not going to come to that. I’m getting ready to crush you.” She dealt the next hand.
Her top card was a four. Mine was an ace. She saw it and pressed her lips together in a thin line of irritation. I couldn’t help noticing her lips again. Kissable-looking. I looked at my bottom card and grinned as I turned it over.
“Do you need some scissors to get those panties off?” I smirked.
“Don’t get too happy,” she shot back. “It’s not over yet.”
She thought for a moment, considering her options. Then she unsnapped and unzipped her jeans, and staying in her chair, pushed them down and lifted her legs out of them under the table.
“You’re not going to stand up?” I asked. “I thought the whole idea was for me to see my winnings.”
“You haven’t won yet,” she said. “You don’t get to cash in your chips until the game is over. She was trying to sound cocky but it wasn’t working. We were about halfway through the deck of cards.
She dealt the next hand, and muttered “Damn!” when my top card showed ace again.
I said, “I have a question.”
“I’m not standing up until the game is over,” she said.
“My question is how many times have you and Shawn done this?”
“How many people have you ripped off?”
“You were the first time, for me anyway. And since it didn’t work I guess for me the answer is none.”
I looked at her, trying to gauge whether or not her answer was bullshit.
She looked me straight in the eye. Her gaze didn’t waiver. “I got back here two weeks ago,” she said. “Derrick is getting out next month so I wanted to be here for him. I’m looking for a job, but in this economy even with a degree it’s not easy.”
“You have a degree?”
“Yes. Does that surprise you?”
“In one sense, considering how we met, yeah, it does. But it makes sense. I knew you had something going on.”
“I got my Bachelor’s in Business at VCU four years ago. I met Derrick while I was here in school. He’s a nice guy; hard, but I liked that about him, that he was hard with everyone but me. Right before I graduated he…went to prison.”
Another big sigh. “He got into a fight. He shot someone.”
“Since he’s about to get out I guess he didn’t kill whoever he shot.”
“No, he didn’t.”
She was talking now. I wanted to keep her talking. If there was a chance that she was going to be in my place all night I wanted to know as much about her as I could. “And you waited for this guy for four years? You must really love him.”
“We’re not together…it’s not like that anymore,” she said. “But I owe it to him to be here for him when he gets out.”
“Because what happened was my fault.”
“I was at Derrick’s apartment…the place he rented with Shawn back then,” Kya said. “I’d stayed over that night. Derrick got up early and was already gone to work when I got up to go to school. It was raining like crazy and I didn’t have a coat with me. Shawn was there. He told me to just wear one of Derrick’s jackets. He gave me one to wear.
“On my way to school I found one of those prepaid cell phones in Derrick’s jacket pocket. He had a regular cell phone. This one I’d never seen before. I checked the contact list and found a bunch of girl’s numbers in it. So of course we had an argument that night. Derrick claimed it wasn’t his phone and that he didn’t know how it got into his pocket. I didn’t want to hear it. I told him that since he wanted to play, I’d show him how I could play.
“There was a frat party that weekend. I told Derrick I was going. He told me I wasn’t. He knew I was mad at him and he was worried about what I might do, which was exactly what I wanted. So I went to the party. Derrick showed up there; he and Shawn crashed the party. I was so pissed at him. I wanted to teach him a lesson. So I acted like he was invisible and started talking to this cute guy, a receiver on our football team. His name was Tony. I really played it up, Monty. I was all over Tony. I wanted to make Derrick jealous and scared of what I might do with another guy. I wanted to punish his ass.”
I listened to Kya, pretty sure where her story was going.
She continued: “Derrick got into a fight with Tony. I didn’t expect that. I thought Derrick would just get mad and leave. Tony beat Derrick up. Shawn was trying to jump in but other guys at the party kept him in check. Then Shawn yelled at Derrick, ‘Man, shoot that nigga!’”
“Derrick was on the floor. I didn’t even know he had a gun. He pulled it out and shot at Tony, hit him in the leg. Everybody ran then. Derrick got up. He looked at me and said, ‘This is your fault, Kya. You did this shit.’”
“So now he’s about to get out and you feel obligated to be here for him?” I asked.
“If I hadn’t wanted to hurt Derrick and make him jealous none of it would have happened. He wouldn’t be in jail. Like he said, it was my fault. I wouldn’t even have gone to that party if I hadn’t been mad at him.”
In my previous life, I’d spent my first eight years in the Air Force in Security Forces: the military police. During my last twelve years in the military I worked in the Office of Special Investigations: the Air Force version of the FBI. My OSI training taught me to examine evidence and testimony, to evaluate information, consider circumstances and come to likely conclusions about what occurred.
I said, “And if you hadn’t found that phone, you wouldn’t have been mad at him.”
“And if you hadn’t worn Derrick’s jacket, you wouldn’t have found the phone.”
“I know that,” Kya said.
“But you wore that particular jacket. And why was that, Kya?”
“That’s the one Shawn gave me. What are you saying, Monty?”
“I’m saying that before you come to a conclusion, you have to consider all possibilities, all the possible cause factors.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Have you communicated much with Derrick since he’s been locked up?”
“Sometimes. I can’t call him and he can only call me collect. I’ve written, but Derrick isn’t much for writing. Mostly Shawn calls me to tell me what’s up with Derrick.”
“Okay, so has Derrick ever admitted to you that that phone you found was his?”
“No, he stuck to his lie,” Kya said.
“Are you sure he was lying?”
“The phone was in his pocket. It didn’t jump in there by itself.”
“I’m sure it didn’t,” I said.
“What are you saying?”
“Maybe your wearing that particular jacket wasn’t by chance. Maybe it wasn’t just Derrick’s bad luck.”
“You’re saying that Shawn gave me that jacket on purpose, because he knew the phone was in it?”
“That’s one possibility,” I said.
“What’s another one?”
“That Derrick wasn’t lying about the phone. Maybe it wasn’t his.”
“That’s crazy. You’re saying Shawn put the phone in Derrick’s jacket?”
“I’m saying that to get to the truth, you have to consider all possibilities and then eliminate the ones you verify are false. In the end, whatever is left is the truth.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Shawn is Derrick’s boy. Why would he do something like that?”
“If Shawn did plant the phone and give you the jacket, there could be all kinds of reasons. People do crazy things for crazy reasons, Kya.”
“Not to your best friend. It just doesn’t make sense. That’s crazy.”
“Crazy doesn’t make sense. That’s why it’s crazy.”
“It’s crazy to think that Shawn would want to break us up.”
“All right, a question, Kya: Did Shawn have a girlfriend while you were seeing Derrick?”
Kya let out a little laugh and said, “Shawn? Please! He went through women like women go through shoes. He had to have something new all the time. And he could get any girl he wanted.”
“Maybe he couldn’t.”
Kya understood what I was getting at and shook her head. “No, it wasn’t like that. Shawn and Derrick are best friends.”
“Which of them was the alpha male?”
“In every male relationship there’s an alpha male—the leader. In some relationships the hierarchy is natural, like with a father and son or an older and younger brother. Among friends it’s usually the stronger personality that becomes the alpha male. He’s the leader in most things. The other guy is the follower. So between Shawn and Derrick, which was the most outgoing, the more forceful, the one who had all the ideas and suggestions? Who was the leader, and who was the follower?”
Kya put the remainder of the deck of cards down and began tapping her fingers on the back of the top card as she contemplated. After a few seconds she said, “I used to fuss at Derrick sometimes about always doing what Shawn said, you know, like, if he jumped off a bridge would you jump off too? That kind of thing. I never thought about this alpha male thing. Never got into it that deeply. And now that I think about it, Shawn was always trying to one up Derrick…always tried to outdo him in things, or would put down anything good that Derrick did like it was no big deal.”
“I’ll bet that even though Shawn was the leader, Derrick was the smarter of the two,” I said.
“He was. But it was like he couldn’t see that in himself, that he could do so much more than Shawn if he really wanted to.”
“Including pulling a nice, beautiful, college-educated girl.”
“You think Shawn was jealous?”
“It’s a possibility,” I said. “It may not be the case, but you have to look at all possibilities. So here’s a question: How many times has Shawn come on to you since you’ve been back?”
“Not even once?”
“Well, I mean, he’ll make jokes, you know, little flirty comments. But he always did that. He even did it in front of Derrick, so he doesn’t mean anything by it.”
I didn’t say anything; let her think about it.
Kya said, “The leader of a wolf pack—that’s the alpha male. He has all the females. When the male cubs get older, the alpha male drives them away from the pack…“
“Or kills them,” I said.
We didn’t say anything for a couple of minutes. I think Kya was mulling over the circumstances of her relationship with Derrick and Shawn and their relationship with each other.
I had another question for Kya, and when she picked up the cards to resume our game I fired it at her. “Why were you in the mall with Shawn picking pockets?”
Another big sigh, the biggest one yet. “I lost my job at a marketing firm in Vegas last fall. This economy being what it is it was hard to find something else in the industry. So I worked as a dealer in a casino off the strip. It paid the bills, barely. Shawn had been calling me every month or so since I graduated, and more lately. He told me that Derrick really missed me and wanted to see me when he got out. Shawn said that considering how things went down, I owed it to Derrick to at least be there when he got out. He said that if I didn’t, Derrick would feel like I set him up and walked away.”
“And you fell for that?”
“You have no idea how guilty I’ve felt, Monty. I think about it, how I used another guy to pay Derrick back for having that secret phone. You have no idea how angry I was at him and how evil I felt. I wanted to hurt him so bad. I wanted to torture him. And poor Tony, he was so good at football. He couldn’t play anymore after what happened. And it was all my fault. I’ve tried to contact Tony to apologize. He’s in South Carolina now. When I called him he hung up on me. I messed up so many lives just because I was mad over a stupid phone.
“Shawn wired me the money to take the train out here. When I got here he said he’d just lost his job, and that he’d used the last of his money for my ticket. I’ve been looking for work since I’ve been here, put in applications everywhere. But it seems like more people are losing jobs right now than getting hired. I got hired to work at a cosmetics counter at the mall out in Glen Allen, but I don’t start until next week. But we ran out of food this week.”
“So Shawn’s solution was to steal, and for you to help him?”
“He said that all I had to do was bump into whoever he picked, distract them for a second and walk away. I didn’t want to do it. But he said he would’ve had food money if he hadn’t bought my train ticket. He said it would be easy, that we’d do it and be out of the mall and on our way back to the crib in five minutes. I was so scared. And when you turned around and starting chasing Shawn I thought I was going to die. I just knew I was going to jail.” She looked at me, met my stare with an unwavering gaze of her own. “I’m sorry, okay?”
“I’m not going to call the cops.”
“I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
“I’m not Shawn or Derrick,” I said. “I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on you. You lay enough guilt on yourself.”
“I am guilty. One man is in jail and another man’s possible sports career was ended because of me playing games.”
“Yeah well, women shouldn’t play those kinds of games, Kya, because people can get hurt over bullshit. But you didn’t put the gun in Derrick’s pocket. He came to the party armed. And you didn’t tell him to shoot. That was Shawn. In fact, it seems to me that Shawn was at the center of a lot of what went down back then, and again today.”
“Yeah, it sure seems that way.” Kya picked up the cards and dealt the next hand.
My top card was a five. So was hers.
“Look,” I said, “If you want to concede we can call it quits right now. We’ll find you a shelter, or I’ll take you wherever you need to go.”
She kept her eyes on her cards and said, “Do you want a hit?”
“Hey, did you hear me? We don’t need to keep playing.”
Now she let out another one of her big sighs. After about thirty seconds she said softly, “I want to keep playing.” She was fighting back tears again. Her voice trembled as she said, “I’m terrified to go to one of those places…a shelter…and I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Okay, I spent twenty years in the Air Force, enlisting straight out of high school. I didn’t grow up on the streets, but I know to watch out for a con. I didn’t want to trust this sister. But my gut told me that she was a better person than the company she kept.
“Do you want a hit?” she asked.
I hadn’t looked at my bottom card. I was thinking.
I said, “Okay, look Kya, you can stay here tonight. But I swear to God if you pull any bullshit I’ll have the cops on your ass so fast you’ll think you killed the president.”
“Thank you, Monty.”
Her thanks looked and sounded genuine. I hoped that I wouldn’t end up regretting my decision. I pushed my chair back and stood up.
“Game over?” she asked.
“Yep. I’ll step out so you can put your jeans back on.”
Okay, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Kya in her panties. But I stepped out. I’m ex-military. I’m used to doing things I don’t want to do.
We stalled for time by watching Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys on DVD. I tried to focus on the movie, but I was so aware of Kya’s nearness on the other end of my loveseat. I was barely following what was going on in the movie. It was all I could do to keep my eyes on the television rather than on the swell of her chest under her blouse (she hadn’t put her bra back on) and the curve of her hips in her tight jeans.
Maybe it was because it had been so long since I’d had a woman in my space that Kya seemed to be hyper-feminine. That thing that made her a woman seemed to roll off her in waves, reaching out to pull at me like a riptide. Basically, her womanhood was fucking with me.
Kya seemed totally focused on the movie and completely unaffected by our proximity or the fact that I was a stranger. Maybe that was because she was weary. I noticed her yawning a few times near the end of the movie.
“Are you tired?” I asked.
“A little,” she said. “This has been a crazy day.”
“Would you mind if I took a shower? I really want to get this day off me.”
“Okay…no problem…um, I’ve got sweats you can wear if you need something.” Okay, like she wouldn’t need something to wear.
“Thank you, Monty,” she smiled.
“They’re clean.” Like I’d give her my dirty clothes to wear.
“That’s good to know.”
Damn. I was talking like I didn’t have a brain in my head. The idea of Kya naked in my crib, even if it was in the bathroom behind a shower curtain, had my cerebral circuits shorting out.
The movie was over. I switched the input from DVD to TV and got up. I figured it was better to vacate than sit there and make a bigger fool of myself. “I’ll go get you some things,” I said, and headed for the bedroom.
I was at the alcove entry and thought I was free and clear.
I stopped and looked back at her. Damn, she was pretty…even prettier when she smiled, like now. “Yes?”
“Would you happen to have an extra toothbrush?”
Once I was away from Kya my brain turned over and started running again. I took out a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt for her, and the new toothbrush I kept for backup. Then I thought the sweatshirt might be too hot and took out one of my large tee-shirts, too. She could decide what she wanted to wear.
I was going to give her my bed, and I’d sleep in the living room. My loveseat pulled out into a bed so I’d sleep on it. There was only one entry to my apartment. If she tried to rip me off she’d have to sneak by me in the living room to get away. Still, I decided that while she was in the bathroom I’d hide anything of value, just in case.
From behind me Kya said, “You’re a really nice guy, Monty.”
Brain scrambled again. “Yeah, okay. I’ll put fresh linens on the bed.”
“You’re such a gentleman, but you don’t need to give up your bed. The living room is fine. It’s a lot better option than what I had.”
I almost felt guilty that she thought my reasons were honorable.
I left my bedroom, closing the door behind me to allow Kya privacy as she got ready for her bath, and so that she wouldn’t think I was some kind of pervert. Then I waited in the living room while I imagined her naked and thought perverted thoughts about her.
I sat on the loveseat, staring at the television. I heard the bedroom door open. I made myself stay in the chair, to not look to see what Kya was wearing (or not wearing) as she went across the alcove to the bathroom.
I tried to focus on whatever was on the tube. But all I could think about was that a beautiful young woman was in my crib, just a room away.
When I heard the shower start I got up and went to the bedroom. I took my Smith & Wesson Sigma and the box of ammo out of my nightstand drawer and hid them in a shoebox in my closet. Then I changed the bed linens. The most expensive items in my jewelry box were my wedding band and a silver neck chain. I took them out and hid them in a rolled up pair of gym socks. I left my Timex and Casio watches in the jewelry box. If she was desperate enough to go after that stuff then more power to her. Valuables stashed, I went back to my loveseat.
After what seemed like hours I heard Kya come out of the bathroom and go back to the bedroom. I stayed riveted to my chair. I figured that when she had herself together she’d come out.
I was getting ready to nod out when the sound of the bedroom door opening brought me back to full alert. Kya padded out to the living room wearing my sweatpants and tee-shirt. I watched as she sat next to me, drawing her legs up under her on the loveseat.
“God, I feel like a human being again,” she said.
I needed to get human again myself. The sweat I’d worked up in the mall had long since dried on my skin and in my clothes.
Kya asked, “Do you want to watch another movie?”
“Maybe in a bit,” I said. “I need to get cleaned up too.”
“Okay. May I have some water?”
“There are bottles in the fridge and in the cabinet. Help yourself to either.”
I got up to go to the bedroom. Kya got up too. When she straightened up she had to grasp the waist of my sweatpants through the tee-shirt to keep them from falling down. That sight gave me a minor heart attack.
In my bedroom I noticed that she’d folded her jeans and blouse and placed them on the foot of the bed. I saw the edge of her bra and panties peeking out from underneath them. Thinking about her wearing nothing under my sweats and tee-shirt gave me another small bout of cardiac arrest.
I got clean underwear and another pair of sweats for myself and turned for the bathroom. Kya was standing in the doorway with a bottle of water in her hand.
“If you need to wash anything I have a washer and dryer,” I said.
Kya smiled at me. “You really are one of the nice guys.”
I brushed my teeth and rinsed my mouth and then undressed and jumped in the shower. Out of propriety I’d resisted the urge to leave the bathroom door open so that I could hear what Kya was up to. With the door closed and the shower running she could rob me blind and be gone by the time I was done. Well, my keys and wallet were in my pants pocket on the bathroom floor. My gun and jewelry were hidden. I supposed that if she was creative and moved fast she could find my suitcases and stuff them full of DVDs and CDs, grab my laptop and haul ass. Then I told myself to chill and stop being paranoid. The truth was that I thought she was a nice young woman. Just like she thought I was a nice guy.
Yeah, I was one of the nice guys. That’s what she’d called me.
These days and to some people that was almost an insult.
Kya appreciated that I was a nice guy. But she’d been hanging out with thugs, or at least wanna-be thugs. As I showered I pondered why so many women seemed so confused about the kind of man they wanted.
It wasn’t always the way it is now. Back in the day, a young woman wasn’t attracted to man who didn’t have anything going for him and wasn’t even physically attractive. She wanted the nice-looking guy. She wanted the dude who was nice to her; who treated her like a lady…with respect. All of the music about relationships back then was about love, or about how much a man desired a woman, or about how beautiful she was. A young woman wanted a man who would treat her the way the songs described. But things have changed.
Now so many young women are attracted to thugs, or at least she is while she’s young. It’s all good until one day she looks up and sees thirty-years-old up ahead. And thirty-years-old stops and waves at her to come on, to hurry up. Then, if she’s smart, if she’s not too lost in the bullshit imagery presented on MTV and BET of a world offered but that doesn’t really exist, she starts thinking about her future. She starts to worry. She starts worrying, and she starts looking around. She starts wondering about those good men she’s heard about: the nice guys. Because she’s starting to realize that it’s time to stop playing at life and live it for real.
Now, when thirty-years-old has stopped walking somewhere up ahead and is coming back to get her, she knows that she needs to find some way to get her shit together. It’s time to think about her future. The thug can’t help her with her future because he’s surviving day to day. His life is a daily hustle. To move to the next phase in her life she wants to be with a man with a plan, a man who has his shit together.
Now it’s time for a nice guy.
Kya said she was twenty-seven years old. Yeah, thirty-years old was looking back at her now, waiting for her to catch up. I hoped for her sake that she’d figure out that it was time to get her shit together and step away from the thugs before it was too late. It had almost been too late today. Today could have gone wrong for her in so many ways.
Movement in my peripheral vision interrupted my thoughts. I turned my head and saw a moving silhouette through the shower curtain. Kya was in my bathroom.
She came straight toward the shower. I tensed up.
This could go a couple of ways. Worst case scenario, she’d snatched a French knife from my kitchen and was going to try to make that scene from the movie Psycho real. Best case scenario, well…
I saw her hand grasp the edge of the shower curtain, and then she pulled it open.
No knife. And no tee-shirt and sweats, either.
I said, “I guess you didn’t get clean enough the first time.”
She said, “I told you…I really think you need a woman’s touch.”
Then she stepped into the shower with me.
Her mouth tasted of my toothpaste and my mouthwash.
I made myself leave the sweet tenderness of her lips; kissed my way down her neck. She clutched my head and sighed. This sigh was different from her other sighs.
I bent, grasped her waist and lifted her up so that she was standing on the molded shower seat.
Water glistened on her plump golden breasts; droplets like liquid diamonds shimmering on her nipples. I licked the diamonds away and then sucked her nipples like they were the source of the water and I was dying of thirst. She sighed again, and then whispered my name.
I kissed my way down over her flat belly, savoring her smooth wetness. She smelled of my shower gel and my lotion.
I pressed her into the corner of the stall so that she wouldn’t slip and then pressed my lips against the soft hair that decorated her treasure, making her gasp and then moan. I extended my tongue, tasted her fruit. She groaned and shivered and thrust herself at me, offering me more.
She’d said that I needed a woman’s touch. Until now I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed being touched by a woman. But I also needed to reciprocate, to touch a woman, to taste her.
She groaned and grasped my shoulders and fed me her orgasm.
I feasted on her offering.
I wanted to do that again, to make Kya groan and spasm for me again. She came so sweetly, and it had been so long. My hunger was insatiable. But she slipped away from me and down off the shower seat. She wrapped her arms around me and melded her warm, smooth, wet body into mine. She kissed me deep and long. It was like she was trying to show me all that I’d missed and all that I was about to receive via her lips and her tongue. Much too soon she ended her kiss. But then she smiled up at me and said, “Let’s get dry and get wet again in bed.”
We dried each other off, playing with each other’s bodies during the process. By the time we were dry somebody was as hard as steel and somebody’s fruit was oozing passion’s juices.
We didn’t even take the time to turn down the bed.
I couldn’t get enough of her. It had been so long. At some point past midnight we finally went to sleep. But I woke up in the middle of the night and went to the living room to turn off the forgotten television. During that short walk the memory of Kya’s amazing body worked its magic on me, and by the time I got back to bed I had to wake her up. She made no comment or complaint, only kissed me in the darkness and gave me what I needed.
A woman’s touch.
One Year Later
Asbury Park, New Jersey
The Framing Life Gallery
“You’re evil,” Kya said. “Truly, cruelly evil.”
I was standing in the entry to her office, grinning and holding a bag from TJ’s Pizza. The bag contained two Italian subs. The aroma of Genoa salami, onions and oil and vinegar wafted through the air.
“That’s going to be five pounds on my hips,” she said as she got up and came around her desk.
I acted like I was about to turn around and leave. “Well, if you don’t want it I’m sure somebody here–“
She said, “Gimmie!” and rushed at me and grabbed the bag.
I do this a couple of times a week–bring Kya lunch at her office at the gallery. I don’t work so I have time. I have my Air Force pension, and I finally had a reason to make use of the money from the insurance settlement. The settlement paid for our bungalow across from the ocean in Bradley Beach with plenty to spare.
A week after that day in the mall in Richmond I’d gone back there and found the security guard who’d tried to stop me from handling my business with Shawn. I asked her if he’d been arrested. She said that no one wanted to be a witness to what had happened, and since I couldn’t be found they had to let him walk. I figured it would be best to get Kya out of Richmond. That way there was no chance she’d run into Shawn or Derrick.
Kya didn’t need to get a job but she wanted to. She said she had to contribute to our life together. I don’t see it that way. It’s not about who pays what. But part of me is glad that she’s the kind of woman she is. As it turned out she’s a nice sister.
She got this job at the Framing Life Gallery through our neighbor in Bradley Beach, a sister named Simone. Simone reminds me of Nona Gaye. She and Kya are around the same age, and they hit it off right away. Simone hooked Kya up with her aunt Maisha, who owns the gallery.
Maisha and her husband Duncan are cool people. Duncan and I hang out sometimes, usually me at his crib in Oceanport, shooting pool or the four of us playing Spades. He’s the kind of dude who can tell you about himself without really telling you anything at all. My training and my instinct tell me that there’s more to him than meets the eye. Like if there was ever trouble going down, Duncan Gray is a brother I’d want on my side.
But I don’t expect any trouble.
“What’d that bitch say?” Derrick asked as Shawn hung up the phone.
“Her moms said that she can’t tell me where Kya is. She said that fuckin’ ho doesn’t want to talk to me or you.”
Derrick got up and started pacing the room. “Nigga, I still can’t believe you got that bitch to come back here and then let her slip away.”
“Man, don’t get pissed at me. That ho is slick. She must have figured out some kinda way that when you got out you was gonna pay her trick ass back for setting you up at that party. That’s why she’s in ghost mode now.”
“Yeah well, that shit won’t last,” Derrick said. “I met this brother in the pen…he knows all that computer shit…said he can track anybody down if he has their social security number. And he’s out next month.”
Shawn reached to the coffee table and picked up the purse Kya left in his car that day at the mall. The credit cards had been no good; she cancelled them in a hurry. But her social security card was in the purse. To Derrick he said, “So what you really gonna do when you find that ho?”
Derrick stopped pacing and said, “I’ma fuck the shit outta that bitch. Then I’m leave her corpse in a fucking ditch somewhere. And any motherfucker who gets in my way will be bleeding right beside her.”
State Route 195 West
Ocean County, New Jersey
“So are you two thinking about marriage?” Simone asked.
“I don’t know,” Kya said. “Things are working fine as they are. We’re life partners, you know?”
“Meaning you’re in it for life?”
Kya grinned. “Yep.”
“Then why not get married? I mean, I don’t mean to get in your business, but…”
“But you’re gonna do it anyway, huh?”
“Girl, shut up,” Simone laughed. Then she glared at the Cadillac in front of her and grumbled, “Man, can these people go any slower?”
She flicked her turn signal and checked the side and rearview mirrors. A Chevy Blazer and a BMW were in the lanes to her rear, both far enough back for her to maneuver into the passing lane. She moved to the left lane and jammed the accelerator of her RX-8. The car rocketed past the Caddy at seventy miles per hour.
Kya looked at the Caddy as they passed. “That’s an old lady driving, Simone. You probably scared her to death.”
“She’ll get over it,” Simone said. “She ought to be home knitting sweaters or something anyway.” She checked her rearview. Nothing but the Blazer and Beemer in the vicinity back there. Other vehicles were so far back they were just glares in the morning sun. Even if one of them was a cop their radar couldn’t read her from behind and they were too far back to judge her speed by sight. She gave her Mazda more juice, took it up to eighty.
“So this Cherry Hill Mall is nice?” Kya asked.
“Yep. It’s as big as Monmouth Mall, maybe bigger. But what I like is the movie theater across from the mall. They make these soft pretzel bits with melted cheese dip that puts popcorn to shame. I go there to see a movie just for those pretzel bits.”
“Is that why you’re driving so fast?”
“Girl, when you taste those pretzels you’ll understand my pain. They’re almost better than sex.”
“Um, Simone…just for the record…?”
“Yeah, I know. Nothing is better than sex!”
They laughed together. Simone checked her rearview for police and pushed her RX-8 up to ninety.
“Speaking of sex, why don’t you have somebody in your life?” Kya asked.
“I’m on sabbatical.”
“I lived in Paris for a few years,” Simone explained. “I had way too much fun over there. Now I’m letting my body cool off.”
“How long ago was this?”
“I got back three years ago.”
Kya turned in the passenger seat to look at her friend. “Damn, Simone! Three years?”
“Yeah, well, I had a lot of fun.”
“I think I’d go nuts. Plastic and batteries can’t replace a real man.”
“Yeah, but until you find the right guy plastic and batteries provide so much less bullshit.” Simone checked her rearview again. There was still no sign of law enforcement. “Hey, are you afraid of a little speed? I want to take it over one hundred for a second.”
Kya grasped the armrest and said, “Okay, but just for a second. I want to get home to my baby in one piece.”
Simone shook her head and said, “Just for being so damned syrupy sweet I’m gonna run us into a tree.” She jammed the accelerator to the floor, letting the Mazda’s engine have the reins.
As Simone brought it back down to eighty Kya said, “Now I know what it feels like to break the sound barrier. Jesus, Simone!”
Simone didn’t answer her. Kya looked at her friend. Simone was cutting glances at the rearview mirror and frowning.
“You see a cop?” Kya asked.
“What’s the matter?”
Simone said, “Do me a favor…look back and read me the plate number on that SUV—the black Blazer.”
“What’s wrong?” Kya asked. Is it a cop?”
“The plate number, Kya.”
Kya turned in her seat and looked back. The black SUV was in the passing lane behind them. But it was too far back for her to make out the tag. As she looked she felt a sense of foreboding, something at the edge of her consciousness. “I can’t read it from this distance,” she said.
Simone took her foot off the gas and let the RX-8 slow naturally. The Blazer drew closer, close enough for Kya to recognize that the vehicle bore a Virginia license plate. The bad feeling intensified as she looked up through the SUV’s windshield, and flared into terror when she saw Shawn behind the wheel, and Derrick riding shotgun. She gasped, “Oh my God…”
Simone shot her a glance. “What?”
“Those guys I told you about…from Richmond…remember?”
“Yes. Oh God, go faster, Simone! Let’s get outta here!”
Simone took her Mazda back up to ninety. The Blazer kept pace. She hadn’t noticed the SUV before they got onto 195, but it was unlikely that those guys had picked them up by chance on the highway. Most likely they’d followed them from Bradley Beach. Most likely they knew where Kya and Monty lived.
Simone said, “Kya, I need you to do me a favor.”
Kya was looking back at the Blazer, her eyes wide with fear. She looked at Simone. “A favor? What?”
“Yeah, a favor. I need you to stop being a woman, okay?”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means that I’m going to need you to do exactly everything I tell you, without asking questions.”
Kya wanted to call the police. Simone told her not to.
She wanted to call Monty. Simone said no.
Instead Simone had taken the exit off the highway into someplace called Jackson Township, and now they were driving through an area that looked like the bowels of the Deep South. They were on a narrow two-lane road bordered by nothing but trees.
Kya looked through the rear window. They’d just come around a curve. She couldn’t tell if Derrick and Shawn were still behind them. She looked at Simone. “Shouldn’t we have stayed on the main road where there’s more people?”
Scanning the road and the woods on either side Simone said, “You’re being a woman, Kya. Stop it.”
“Damn it, Kya!”
Simone braked suddenly, put the car in reverse and rolled back to where the woods opened onto what looked like a dirt bike trail. She stopped and said, “Get out.”
“Go up that trail as far as you can get. Don’t come back until I come to get you.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Just go, okay? Hurry up!”
“Simone, there could be animals in those woods, a—”
“The animals are behind us in an SUV. Now get the fuck out, Kya.”
Kya got out and watched Simone drive on. When the car disappeared around the next bend she whispered a prayer and headed up the trail into the woods.
“There they are, Derrick said. The RX-8 was stopped up ahead on the shoulder of the road.
“You sure you wanna do this man?” Shawn asked. “I mean, if you scared to get your payback it ain’t no thing…”
“Nigga, I ain’t scared a shit. This is two for the price of one. Let’s get them bitches.”
They got out of the Blazer and walked toward the Mazda. As they neared the car Derrick called out, “Yo, Kya, c’mere. I need to talk to you.”
Shawn wanted to laugh at this fool, thinking that Kya was stupid enough to just come because he called her. They were going to have to drag these bitches out of the car. He was glad they were stupid enough to come down this country road. Now him and Derrick could get that ass without having to take them anywhere, just throw them in the back of the Blazer. Thinking about finally getting in Kya’s pussy was getting his dick hard already. And that other fine bitch? Damn! After they were done with them they’d put them back in their car and light it up. That way no DNA.
They were closer to the car. Shawn decided that he wanted Kya first. Let Derrick get his sloppy seconds in that bitch. Or maybe he’d fuck her and make her drink his nut, teach her a lesson for being a fucking tease.
The driver’s side door opened. The bitch who lived two houses down from Kya got out and started walking toward them.
Derrick said to her, “Tell Kya to get out, too.”
The bitch didn’t say anything. She was just smiling and walking. To Shawn she didn’t look scared. These Jersey hos must think they were tough. Let’s see how tough she’ll be with a dick up her ass, he thought.
The girl had almost reached them now. Shawn stepped to her and said, “Bitch, what the fuck you grinning about?”
He was choking, strangling on something. Shawn rolled over on the road and coughed and spit, groaning through the pain in his face and head. He opened his eyes and saw that he’d been choking on his own blood. He spit again. Teeth came out with the blood.
He groaned again pushed himself up on his hands and knees. Then he reached under the back of his shirt, feeling for his piece. It was gone. He heard footsteps, running. He turned his aching head and saw her running toward him, like a football kicker gathering himself for a kickoff. She made his head the football.
Shawn woke up again to amazing pain blasting in his head. He heard crying. Somebody sobbing like a hurt little girl. Derrick?
He forced his eyes open. The girl was kneeling next to him, looking down at him. She was still smiling. She had a gun pointed at him. Not his gun. He didn’t have a silencer on his piece.
“This is an AT380,” she said. “It’s made in Switzerland. It’s nice, huh? You can’t get them in this country anymore, unless you know somebody. I know somebody.”
Shawn tried to say something, but his smashed mouth wouldn’t work. He heard Derrick whimper, “Ah, help me…”
The girl said, “Your boyfriend doesn’t like being pistol-whipped. Must be a Southern male thing, crying like a bitch. Men up here take their ass-whippings with dignity.”
Shawn tried to say ‘fuck you,’ but instead coughed and choked as blood from his shattered nose drained into his throat.
The girl said, “I want you to consider me your angel of mercy, because today I’m going to let you assholes stay alive. But if you don’t go back to where you came from, and I mean today, I’ll know. I have methods of finding out that you’ll never understand. So if you’re not back in Virginia today, someone will come looking for you. It might be me. It might be someone else. If it’s me, I’ll kill you quickly. If it’s someone else, then God help you. So take my advice: Take your bitch asses home. Don’t even stop to find a hospital. And if you ever come across the Delaware Memorial Bridge into New Jersey again you will die here.”
AMC Lowes Theater 24
Cherry Hill, New Jersey
Kya dipped the pretzel bit into the warm melted cheese and popped it into her mouth.
Simone was watching her, grinning. “See, didn’t I tell you? As good as sex, right?”
Kya swallowed and said, “Forget the pretzel. I want you to tell me the truth. What happened with Derrick and Shawn?”
Simone looked around as if she were studying the crowd of movie goers and said, “I told you: I told those idiots that I knew somebody in the State Police and that I had their license plate number, and if they didn’t leave you alone I was going to call somebody and have them picked up.”
“You were lying to them, weren’t you?”Kya asked.
And you’re lying to me too, aren’t you?”
Now Simone looked at her and said, “Kya, you’re being a woman again. Now shut up—the movie’s about to start.”
Song excerpt from Lean on Me by Bill Withers © 1972