GRAB YOUR COPY FROM THESE STORES:
Something bad always happened in The Section.
The night’s silence was pregnant with danger. No cars hooted, no dogs barked, no children cried. Even the papers that littered the street lay still as death- not even a whisper of wind to flutter them. It was as if the world was holding its breath, waiting for tonight’s evil to happen.
The only sign of human life was a solitary nondescript couple, both in their late teens or early twenties, walking down the concrete footpath. The man was tall, slender and sported a tapered crew cut. Despite the night’s chill he wore nothing more than a black t-shirt and gray sweatpants. But he walked with the confident swagger of someone unafraid of the evil that slithered in the dark corners of The Section.
The woman only came up to his shoulder and was several shades darker than he was. Her navy sweatshirt swallowed her painfully frail body to pool around faded denim pants. But her diminutive figure was nothing new around here. Every day another painfully thin girl got raped, pregnant, high or died in these poverty infested streets.
The couple’s scuffed sneakers barely punctuated the still night air as they made their way down the deserted street. Dim streetlights illuminated their path, the dirty glow like a beacon toward death.
“We shouldn’t be here, Lanie,” Nicolás Gavilan mumbled.
“You didn’t have to come with me,” Melanie Daniels, his girlfriend, replied.
He snorted in response and griped under his breath, “Can’t believe I survived Iraq to come and get killed here.”
Yes, they shouldn’t have been out here. Melanie knew exactly how dangerous it was to dare out of the relative safety of their apartment at this time of the night. She’d lived in The Section all her life and knew all too well the human monsters that lurked on the corners of these streets. If she had a choice, she’d be tucked up on the ratty couch she spent her nights on, uncomfortable-but safe.
But she had no choice.
Her brother, Marcus, was out here, somewhere, and she had to find him before trouble did. The last time he’d stayed out this late, he’d ended up in juvie for a month for boosting a car. She couldn’t afford the court fees or the anxiety that came with knowing her brother was in lock up.
However, her determination to find him was no shield against fear. Her heart throbbed loudly in time to the rhythm of her own footfalls, and her ears were on high alert to catch any sound that didn’t belong. She almost jumped out of her skin when something smashed against a trashcan nearby. A quick turn of her head toward the sound revealed a cat jumping off the roof of Kutz Hair Hospital.
“It’s okay.” Nic put his arm around her slim shoulders and settled her closer against him.
Though she trusted him and knew that, as a soldier, he was the best person to be walking around with at night, it wasn’t that easy to dispel the icy fear cooling her blood. She nervously rubbed her upper arms as she said, “I should’ve checked on him after school.”
“He is old enough to check on himself,” Nic said curtly.
Melanie kept silent, unwilling to get into an argument over Marcus. Her younger brother was a topic they’d beaten to death and still couldn’t agree on. Where Nic thought it wasn’t her job to chase the fifteen year-old, Melanie wasn’t about to let her brother get killed because he didn’t have the common sense God gave a rock.
They trailed the streets in search of Marcus, peering into each dimly lit alleyway with no success. They were about to give up when they heard it – loud arguing behind Mama J’s Cakes.
“You said if I drop you a gram tonight you finna have all ma paper. Finna have all ma paper,” someone yelled.
“C’mon RayRay, you been my link for how long? You know I’m good for it,” a pleading voice returned.
At the mention of RayRay’s name, Melanie’s blood slowed in abject fear. Everyone knew Raymond ‘RayRay’ Walker by face, name and voice. His father, Big Ray, ran The Section’s underworld. From drugs, to brothels to protection rackets – Big Ray had his hand in every illegal racket in the neighborhood. Using The Runners, a gang of young men as his muscle, he maintained a chokehold over everyone not smart enough to get the hell out of the neighborhood.
“Bitch, I ain’t runnin no Red Cross here. Ain’t running no Red Cross here,” RayRay yelled. “Yo, Stinger, tell this ho to gimme ma paper or I’m finna smoke her. Finna smoke her.”
“On the real, give him his paper.” Melanie would’ve recognized Marcus voice anywhere.
So now they were calling him Stinger? That stupid boy. How many times had she told him to stop hanging around with the Runners? But he wanted to be a man and help her support them. How about he be like other fifteen year-olds and go to school?
When she started to turn the corner, Nic pulled her back. She whirled to demand he let her go, but he pressed a finger to his lips and mimed, “Wait.”
She didn’t want to wait. She wanted to drag her brother out of that alleyway by the scruff of his neck. But she trusted Nic, so she stayed put and instead peered around the wall to get a better look down the alley.
Tanisha, a known streetwalker and junkie, stood on one side of the alley. Her face caked in make up and dressed in a short, tight dress that gripped the rolls of fat on her body like a second skin, the woman tottered dangerously on skinny heels. Her voice hoarse, she begged, “RayRay, I swear I’ma get you the rest of your money by tomorrow.”
RayRay, who was a full head shorter than Tanisha, looked like he was high on his own product. He bounced wildly on the heels of his blue sneakers while yelling, “Gimme my fuckin’ money. Gimme my fuckin’ money.”
But despite RayRay’s histrionics, it was his two cohorts who drew Melanie’s gaze. The two, Vance and ‘Stinger’, lounged against the wall watching the proceedings with bored amusement.
If RayRay was the Prince of The Runners, Vance was the group’s Head Psycho. Brutal, sadistic and unmerciful! Melanie had once seen Vance beat a late ‘tax’ payer to an inch of his life and laugh while doing it. Tattoos zig-zagged his light skin, from his bald skull and into the neck of his white t-shirt. Rumor had it that each tattoo represented a body dropped. Melanie had no reason to doubt the rumor. But despite his rank he still wore a red leather bandana around his wrist that marked him as a Runner and lackey to Big Ray and by extension RayRay.
Then there was Marcus. Compared to Vance’s close to seven feet height, he looked like a baby. The top of his head barely reached Vance’s shoulder and saying he was half the other man’s size would be a generous description for his slight coltish body. Even on a good day he was thinner than Melanie. That snapback, the oversized t-shirt, the pants that started at his knees and the electric blue high-top trainers only made him look younger. Like Vance, he was wearing the red bandana around his wrist.
He looked like a teenager with a death wish.
But he seemed relaxed enough in the company of Vance and RayRay. Or maybe his relaxed vibe was because of the white home-made cigarette between his fingers. Smoke rose lazily from Marcus half-opened mouth as he watched RayRay and Tanisha with a half-smile.
Ugh! She was going to kill that boy. Only Nic’s firm grip on her arm kept her from marching right there, right now, and smacking him upside the head.
Tanisha searched her sequined purse. “Just take this thirty and then-”
“No, fuck that! Fuck that.” RayRay interrupted as he snatched the purse from her hand. Tanisha lunged for it, trying to grab it back but RayRay stepped to the side and Tanisha went sprawling to the concrete. She landed on her side with her legs up in the air and the dress rose to reveal that she had no underwear on.
The Runners laughed and heckled at her as struggled to pull her dress down. Meanwhile RayRay rifled through her purse. He came up with a small cylindrical mass of white wrapped up in clear paper. He tossed it towards Marcus who caught it deftly.
“You finna be my lesson to all these crack hos out here who think they can play with my paper. Finna be a lesson.” He pulled a gun from his hoodie and pointed it at the still prone Tanisha. “Don’t play with RayRay’s paper. Don’t play with RayRay’s paper.”
The sudden tension was palpable. Tanisha cowered, Marcus straightened from the wall, Melanie stiffened, Nic’s grip on Melanie’s arm tightened. The only person oblivious to the strained atmosphere was Vance.
Vance sounded bored as he suggested, “Let Stinger pop her.” He pulled deeply on his blunt. As the smoke seeped out of his nose and mouth he said, “She can be his first.”
That was enough for Melanie. No one would be Marcus’s first anything. She yelled, “Marcus.”
RayRay, Tanisha, Vance and Marcus turned their eyes toward the alleyway’s mouth. Melanie yanked her arm from Nic’s hold and emerged from their hiding place behind the wall. The moment Marcus saw her he dropped his blunt and stepped on it.
“Mel?” He shot her a nervous look. “What you doing out here?”
Melanie was aware of Nic standing beside her but right now her focus was on her brother. “Let’s go home.” She gestured for him to walk toward her.
Marcus moved towards her but only made a few steps before Vance stopped him with a hand on his chest and pushed him backwards against the wall. Vance said, “Well, well, well, if it ain’t Melaaanie from the hood.”
Melanie ignored him and called out, “Marcus.”
Vance folded his arms over his chest and smiled. “You gon have to come and get him.”
Did she dare go into the lion’s den? Did she even have a choice? Melanie started walking even before she made her decision. She’d forgotten Nic until his footfalls fell in rhythm beside hers. The thought of her brother left in the hands of The Runners kept her moving, but it was Nic’s presence that gave her the courage to walk straight to Marcus and take his hand. “Come on let’s go.”
Vance’s voice cracked in the silence. “He ain’t going nowhere.”
Up close, it was easy to see why the man was so feared. From his powerful build to the tattoos the man screamed ‘beware’. But it was eyes that chilled Melanie. His pupils were an eerie shade of amber, emphasized by their deadened glaze. Being touched by them was chilling, like being marked for death. That frozen gaze briefly lingered on Nic before it settled on Melanie, crawling up and down her body.
Vance whistled. “Mm mm mm. Marcus you got a fine ass sister,”
Marcus’s palm was cold in Melanie’s, mirroring the fear that glimmered in his eyes but he bravely started, “Man, she ain’t got nothin’ to do with -”
Vance raised a finger and Marcus shut up.
“Why you running around with these crackers, Melaaanie, when you can get a real nigga to lay that pipe down on you?” Vance asked, as if he wasn’t almost as light-skinned as Nic was.
He took a step forward but Nic thwarted his attempt to get closer to Melanie by stepping in front of her.
Over my dead body! Nic didn’t say it aloud, but the words were there in his stiff posture and the fisted hands. Vance chuckled as his gaze met Nic’s. The two men stared at each other. Despite Vance’s obvious size advantage, Nic didn’t move or cower away. Vance smile disappeared and for the first time Melanie saw emotion in his eyes. Anger.
Sudden fear for Nic swept through her and she grasped his upper arm. Vance was too dangerous for him to be playing brave soldier right now. But he continued to stare at the larger man.
“Shit, I ain’t got time for y’all. I ain’t got time for y’all,” Ray interrupted the stare down, his bouncing even more agitated as he waved the gun at Tanisha. “We smokin’ this ho or not? We smokin’ her or not?”
“Looks like Melaaanie’s just in time to see her little brother become a man.” Vance pulled a gun from the back of his pants and without looking away from Nic and held it out to Marcus. “Time to be a man, Marcus.”
Marcus hedged, “Man, my sister’s here and-”
Vance smiled. “You kill the ho, or I kill your sister.”
Melanie couldn’t see any other gun on him but she had no doubt that his was no empty threat. Marcus must’ve thought so too because his gaze shifted between Melanie and Vance, then he reached for the gun. On instinct, Melanie grabbed the gun before he could. Her brother wouldn’t be a killer.
Her fingers closed around the barrel just as the sound of sirens filled the alleyway.
“Popo,” RayRay yelled.
Everything happened in a flash. One moment they were all in the alleyway, the next Tanisha had ducked behind the dumpster, and Vance, RayRay and Marcus were on the other side of the alley scrambling over the wire fence like trained high-jumpers. Before Melanie could react, headlights flashed at the mouth of the alleyway, blinding her.
“Put your hands where we can see them.”
She put them up; gun and all.
* * * * *
“WHOSE GUN IS it?” The detective slammed a fist on the table sending a plastic cup of water tumbling.
Melanie flinched at the loud sound but didn’t dare raise her eyes to the man seated opposite her. She kept her gaze on the table watching as the water trailed across the table and dripped to the floor.
The detective tried again, this time adding a threatening growl to his voice, “Whose gun is it?”
“I found it in the alley,” Melanie repeated for what had to be the one hundredth time this night. Her tone resigned, she added, “It was lying on the ground and I picked it up.”
Resigned was her latest emotion in a vortex of many. First came the shock as the cops cuffed her and Nic, and shoved them into the back of one of their wailing cars. Then anger at the realization that this was Marcus’s fault and that he hadn’t even stayed to see if she was okay. Then came fear as she realized that she was about to become another black statistic in the penal system. Now she was at resignation because, despite her anger and fear, she knew what she had to do.
If she snitched on Vance, Marcus was as good as dead.
Once again, she had no choice.
“So you’re telling me you just happened to be taking a walk in the dead of the night and, wonder of wonders, stumbled on a gun that’s been used in twenty three murders in the last year alone?”
“Yes.” Melanie didn’t look up.
“I’ve checked you out, Melanie. You’re a good girl, no record, good grades, working two part time jobs to help out your auntie. You’re not the kind of girl who should be in here. I don’t want to keep you in here. I don’t want to charge you with possession or murder,” the detective coerced. “Tell me who gave it to you and you can walk out of here right now. Clear and free.”
Melanie kept silent.
“Is it your brother’s gun?”
“No.” Her response was quick, curt and loud. She lifted her chin, staring the detective square in the eye with steely determination and said, “Like I said, I found it on the street.”
Disappointment flickered in the detective’s eyes. “If that’s how you want to play it then-”
Before he could complete the sentence, the door flew open revealing a uniformed cop. “Jensen, captain wants to see you.”
Detective Jensen followed the uniformed cop out of the interrogation room leaving Melanie alone with her thoughts. She’d worked hard to keep her record clean so she could apply for Marcus’s custody and get them away from her aunt. Yet all it’d taken was one ill-advised night stroll and a dirty gun to ruin her plans.
She supposed she should’ve expected it. Karma, it seemed, had it out for her. The bitch kept throwing Melanie problem after problem, curve ball after curve ball. Would she ever catch a break? What would happen to her now that she’d finally crossed the line from protective sister to felon?
The sudden reopening of the door yanked her out of her thoughts. Detective Jensen walked back into the room, his mouth set in a hard straight line as he pronounced, “You’re free to go.”
What? Melanie was too shocked to react.
“Out,” Jensen barked and pointed to the door.
Melanie scrambled out of the seat almost tipping it over in her haste to get out of the room. But before she exited she had to ask, “What about Nicolás?”
“He’s waiting for you outside.”
What had just happened? Had they found something to exonerate them? Did she care? Woohoo – she was free.
Melanie fast-walked down the corridor, eager to get out of there before someone discovered that they’d made a mistake and hauled her back into the interrogation room. The main floor of the station was busy; arrestees being dragged into the station; a woman weeping as she stood in front of the desk of a harassed looking cop; calls coming in and calls going out.
Her gaze bounced over the stream of people, searching for Nic. She found him lounging against the wall by the entrance almost at the same time his gaze found her. In what seemed like a split second she was across the room and in his arms.
“Jesus, Lanie, you fucking scared me,” he muttered roughly as he pulled her into his embrace. A familiar electric awareness swept through her and her body luxuriated in his touch.
“I’m sorry.” She owed him an apology. After all if it wasn’t for her he wouldn’t even be here.
“Are you okay?” His low voice vibrated against her hair as he squeezed her waist.
“Yeah.” She burrowed deeper into him, taking in his masculine scent. She loved how protected and loved she felt when she was in his arms. It was like she was the most precious thing in his world and he had no intentions of ever letting her go. Every part of her was aware of the hard chest against hers, achingly conscious of his muscular thighs and his hands caressing her back in slow circular strokes.
She lifted her eyes to meet his. “You?”
“I’m good.” His mouth swooped down to take hers in a possessive kiss. Her arms tightened around his neck when he lifted her off the ground so they were closer in height. His lips were firm against her soft ones, consuming her and his arms spun her waist tightly as if he had no plans of ever letting her go.
His kiss was like stevia; sweet, intoxicating and so addictive. She never wanted it to end. He slanted his lips over her, pushing his tongue in to tangle with hers. She met him without restraint, giving her everything to that kiss, trusting that he would treasure and protect whatever she gave.
It’d always been like this for them. From the first time they’d reached for the same cut of brisket in the grocery’s meat section those three years ago, the zing between them had been undeniable. Passion and want were the chain that drew them to each other while love and understanding were the padlock binding irrevocably together.
He pulled on her lower lip, teasing it. She ran her palm over his short soft as silk hair as she suckled his lips then dipped her tongue in for another taste of him. Everything disappeared in the wake of that kiss and for a moment they two stood there, lost in their world of passion.
“Get a room, you two,” someone yanked them from that world.
They pulled apart, staring into each other’s eyes as the present slowly closed in around them again; cops rushing past them, the ringing of telephones, the stench of an arrested drunkard passing by , a prostitute yelling to be released. And with it came the memories of the last couple of hours. Her interrogation, the arrest, Marcus…
Her anxiety returned full force. “They have Marcus, don’t they? That’s why they let us go.”
“No, they don’t have Marcus,” Nic reassured her.
Melanie didn’t know whether to be relieved or scared. There was every chance that Marcus was still with RayRay and Vance. In that case, police custody was probably much safer for him. But maybe he’d decided to use his common sense and gone home. God, she hoped so.
She said, “We need to find him.”
The first light of dawn welcomed them as they stepped out of the precinct, its chilly air laced with a healthy dose of freedom. She gulped a relieved breath as they descended the steps. But still something didn’t seem right, and the question niggled at her.
She turned to Nic. “I wonder why they let us go.”
Looking straight ahead, Nic shrugged. “Dunno.”
But there was something in the way he studiously avoided her gaze as he pulled his earlobe. That earlobe pull was his tell – whenever he was hiding something, he pulled.
Melanie stopped walking and turned fully to face him. “You know something.”
“I don’t know anything.” He took determined steps down the stairs even as he reached for his earlobe again.
“You’re lying.” She grabbed his arm to stop his movement. “Tell me.”
“I don’t know anything, Lanie.” He turned to face her. His eyes were a blank slate that revealed nothing. “Can we just go make sure your brother is at home?”
She wanted to ask more question, but he was right. The first priority was to make sure Marcus was okay. There would be plenty of time later to get the truth out of Nic.
Or so she thought.
The next day Nic was gone. Just like that. Without a word!
9 YEARS LATER
The wedding dress would look lovely on her.
Melanie could see the wedding in her mind’s eye.
A nice summer day… no…. autumn day. Definitely autumn! A light breeze cooling the air, the soothing thrums of the orchestra crooning in symphony with the sound of waves crashing against the beach as she strolls down the aisle towards him. Him. His anticipatory smile drops and his eyes widen at her beauty…
“Oh God! It’s horrible, isn’t it? That’s why you’ve gone zombie on me,” Cece Scott wailed as she stared at her best friend. “I should’ve gone with the A-line design. I should’ve listened to Aunt Honey when she told me I’m too thick to be wearing these tight dresses.”
“Calm down, Miss Thang.” Melanie laughed as she straightened out the hem of the white strapless trumpet gown. “The dress looks amazing on you.”
She wasn’t pulling Cece’s leg. The dress looked lovely on her friend. Its stark white contrasted dramatically with the woman’s dark, smooth coffee complexion and its satin smoothed lovingly over her voluptuous curves adorably.
Melanie would’ve given anything to have Cece’s tall and evenly proportioned body. In the last few years, Melanie had gained one, two, maybe twenty pounds in weight. All of them had gone straight to her hips. However, her boobs were still embarrassing bee-stings and there was nothing to be done for her height short of walking around with her own chair to stand on.
“You look great,” Melanie reassured. “This is your dress.”
“Really?” Cece stared anxiously at her own image in the mirror, twirl to and fro.
“Really.” Melanie straightened and stepped to the side. “Now walk for me. Let me see you work that dress.”
Cece’s first step was reluctant but soon she was striding across the room like she owned the runway. She even managed a quick three sixty spin at the end that got Melanie catcalling, “Girl, yes. Work. It. Out.”
By the time Cece made her way back to Melanie’s side she was beaming. Her grin widened when the boy standing by the door piped up, “Aunty, will you marry me?”
Both women laughed and Cece said, “Boy, you are too late. Your Uncle Jeff already got there first.”
“We still got time. You’re not married yet.” Sly returned earning himself another round of chuckles. Maybe if he was taller, or older, they’d have taken him more seriously. Unfortunately he’d inherited the family height. At nine years-old, he looked more like a diminutive seven.
“You done with your homework, Player?” Melanie asked.
He nodded. “Can I play with your computer now?”
“Yeah. But only games. No internet.”
“No. Internet.” Melanie’s insistent tone brooked no argument. Sly opened his mouth to protest further, but catching the warning in her eyes he reconsidered. He shrugged then turned on his sneakered heels and strode towards her office.
“Girl, why are you cramping that boy’s style,” Cece asked as she turned so that Melanie could help her unzip the dress. “All his little friends are messing around on Instagram or whatever right now.”
“You wouldn’t be advocating for him if you knew the nonsense he’s been up to.” Melanie clicked in irritation. “Yesterday, I caught him on bigboobs.net.”
Cece’s widened eyes met hers in the mirror. “Noooo.”
“Uh huh.” Melanie nodded. “That little boy isn’t getting back into the internet until he’s thirty. No -fifty.”
“Mm Mm Mm. I feel for you, girlfriend.” Cece ducked into the curtained dressing cubicle. Despite the orange fabric barrier, her voice was clear enough when she said, “I’m so glad Jeff doesn’t want any rug-rats.”
“Don’t call them that. They’re not that bad.” Melanie picked one of the earlier wedding dresses Cece had discarded on the gold brocade bench and pushed a wooden hanger through its sleeves. She added, “And you’re forgetting that babies aren’t just about you and Jeff. He may say he doesn’t want babies but one year from now his mama will be asking what’s up with your oven.”
“She got her an oven too, don’t she?” Cece retorted. “She can pop some kids if she wants them so bad.”
“I want to be there when you tell her that.” Melanie chuckled. As a veteran of both marriage and divorce, she knew all too well the pressures that came with in-laws. “And what about Aunt Honey. You think she’s just gon’ stop dropping those hints?”
“Gah! Don’t remind me,” Cece complained. “I swear if she leaves another pregnancy test on top of my bed, I’m gon’-”
A rap on the door cut Cece’s words short and Jo, Melanie’s sales-assistant poked her head into the room. “Mel, Kimber Lee’s asking for you. Something about her dress.”
Melanie groaned then said, “Gimme a minute and I’ll be with her.”
After making her excuses to Cece, Melanie emerged from the private fitting room, and out to the main floor of the store.
By most standards, Darlene’s was small. But it was Melanie’s pride and joy and all the clothes hanging from those circular racks were her own designs. When she’d dropped out of college to raise Sly, she’d never imagined that someday she’d move from mending dresses at the back of Honey’s Tailoring to owning her own store.
A short woman, with strikingly purple, waist-length hair and wearing enough fur to give PETA a seizure, was holding court right in the middle of the store. Kimber laughed boisterously at something Jo said, then catching sight of Melanie, she trilled, “Melly.”
“Hello Kimber.” Melanie met Kimber’s air kisses with her own. “It’s nice to see you. What’s this about the dress?”
“Okay, so I know you’ve like designed it and everything…” Kimber’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm. “… but last night I had like an out of body experience. The Dalai Lama was there, and he said ‘Kimber, if you want Mr. K to leave that ho he calls a wife and finally marry you, you need to do better’. Then he showed me a new design.”
“Oh.” For a moment Melanie was lost for words.
‘Designed it and everything’ had involved three weeks of sketching, patterning, sewing and negotiating over a design that met Kimber’s qualifications for a nice cocktail dress. The woman wanted something, shiny, tight, short and clinging to every inch of her body, yet conveyed classy instead of slutty. Somehow, after days of practically pulling out her hair, Melanie had come up with something that worked. And here the lady was acting like designing were something you could do in your dreams.
It took everything in Melanie not to berate the woman. Instead, she gave Kimber her warmest smile. “I’m sure it’s an amazing design. Why don’t you show me the sketches?”
Of course Kimber had no sketches. It took two hours to convince the woman that the former design was just the thing to break a home. By the time, Kimber exited the store, armed with a pair of five hundred dollar shoes, Cece had already left and Melanie was ready to close shop. Heaving a sigh of relief, Melanie release Jo then went to her office to get Sly so they could go home.
“Can we have subs for dinner?” he asked as he shrugged into his jacket.
“No subs until the weekend.” Melanie grabbed his backpack then led the way out of the office. Once he was outside, she handed him the bag and locked the door. “I’m gon’ make us a healthy spinach and mushroom casserole.”
Sly fake retched. “Yuck!”
“Hey, my casseroles are awesome,” She muffed his head playfully. “Don’t play like you didn’t lick your plate when I made the last time.”
“Yuck!” His fake-retch was overshadowed by the dinging of the bell the store’s main door. They both turned towards the sound. The moment Melanie saw the late walk-in her heart dropped to her stomach and instant fear eclipsed her.
“Well, well, well. If it ain’t Melaaanie from the hood,” Vance drawled as he strolled into Darlene’s. He wasn’t alone. RayRay flunked his left side while a tall, a svelte redhead stood to his right, and two thuggish muscular men loomed behind him.
But Vance held all of Melanie’s attention.
“Melaaanie, Melaaanie, Melaaanie.”He let out a high whistle that reverberated in the store and sent fright skittering through her.
The years had changed him. He still had those deep-set blank eyes the color of dark gold that sent frightened chills through everyone he set them on. But he’d since abandoned the oversized chains, muscle-shirts, oversized denim pants and sneakers for a more upscale look. His terrifyingly muscular and tall frame was ensconced in a stripped three piece suit and a Rolex dangled from his wrist.
He looked almost civilized. Tame even! Melanie wasn’t fooled. If ever there was a case of a wolf taking on sheep’s clothing and still looking a wolf, then this was it.
Melanie’s whole body clenched in frightened response at this unwelcome blast from the past. She drew Sly closer to her, with a protective arm around his shoulders. “What do you want, Vance?”
“That the way you holler at your old friends, Melaaanie?” He swaggered towards her.
Melanie didn’t answer. She moved Sly in front of her and crossed her arms over his chest defensively. The rise and fall of Sly’s chest sped up under her palm indicating his own terror. She wanted nothing more than to carry him and run, but Vance’s cohorts were blocking the door. And even if they weren’t there, Melanie doubted she could outrun Vance and her past.
Vance stopped in front of Melanie and Sly. His vacant gaze flickered over the little boy then upwards to Melanie. “Been a minute, ain’t it?”
Melanie kept silent. A minute was not long enough. She thought she’d escaped him and The Runners after moving away from The Section to start afresh in Berkeley. But apparently she hadn’t run far enough. What was he doing here? What did he want?
“I see you got yourself a nice place here. Darlene’s. And you named it after your mama too.” His gaze skimmed the store and its racks of clothes. He nodded. “Nice place, ain’t it, RayRay?”
“Bitch’s a’ight. Bitch’s a’ight.” RayRay sniffed and ran his hand beneath his nose before tucking his hands further into the pockets of his oversized denim pants. His movements drew Melanie’s attention to the red leather bandana around his wrist.
“Melaaanie, got her own li’l shop n everything. Making her paper.” Vance fingered one of the dresses hanging from the rack closest to him.
If Melanie could, she would’ve snatched the fabric away. She didn’t want his hands crawling over anything of hers. He’d already done enough damage as it was.
He slapped his hand over his forehead. “Look at me forgetting the introductions. My bad. You know RayRay, don’t you? And this…” He strode towards the red head, stopping beside her to pat her ass. “…This is Iona. She…” Vance smiled. “… is your new business partner.”
* * * * *
SOMEWHERE IN PARIS, Nic was preparing to meet an enemy of his own.
His fingers slid over the screen of the tablet as he read through the intel he had on his target one last time. He’d already memorized everything, but it never hurt to make sure. It was only when the limousine slowed down that he looked up to meet the eyes of the two men who made up his protection detail, Diego and Rafael.
Both men were olive-skinned, well built, tall and had the hard-eyed look of men who’d seen too much depravity to be fazed by anything. But that was where their similarities ended. Diego sported a crew-cut and, as Rafaél liked to tease, a face that only a mother could love. His features were marred by knots on his forehead and a scar running all the way from one ear to the side of his mouth.
Rafaél was the pretty boy of the two. He’d grown his midnight black hair to his shoulders and held it back from his face with a thin black band. The only thing saving his long lashes and broad lips from being completely girly was his square jaw-line. His prettiness didn’t mean he was any less of lethal than Diego. Just that people were more likely to underestimate him. An unfortunate mistake, as anyone who’d crossed the wrong side of him would testify.
Nic ordered, “No fire unless necessary.”
They nodded curtly just as the vehicle slowed to a halt. Rafaél stepped out of the car first and stood by the door, followed by Diego. After straightening his white trench coat over his navy blue, custom-made suit, Nic exited the limo to find them waiting for him.
Chez Homme sat smack in the middle of Paris, yet few people were aware of its existence. The restaurant was tucked besides a building much taller and more imposing than it. There was no decorous sign advertising it, only a blank silver door with a small black sign with the word ‘eat’ typed in lower case on it. So innocuous was the eatery that it disappeared into the crowd easily and only people looking for it found it.
Diego pushed open the door and the three men stepped into the dimly lit hovel. The moment they did, all heads lifted and eyes turned to them. Whisperings in the hidden corner booths stopped as the restaurant’s shady clientele, observed its new entrants. Their eyes followed Nic and his men as they made their way between tables to the deepest corner of the room.
Though it didn’t show in his expression, Nic noted every single person in the room, memorized them and cataloged them according to their potential for violence. In case things went south he needed to know who to shoot first.
He stopped right at a table where a blond man sat alone. Timo Kuhn.
Timo was sipping a dirty brown fluid that looked like coffee and reading the day’s copy of Le Figaro. Nic didn’t wait for an invitation to share his table. Diego pulled out a chair for him and he settled himself comfortably in it waiting for Timo to acknowledge him.
His eyes still on his newspaper, Timo said in German, “I hate when people interrupt my coffee.”
“Then you should drink it in your own house,” Nic retorted in equally perfect German.
The table fell into silence again as Timo continued – or pretended – to read his paper. Nic raised his hand, gesturing for a waiter to come over. When the waiter appeared at his side, he ordered, “Thé glace pour moi, et un autre café pour mon ami.”
“Oui Monsieur.” The waiter walked off and came back minutes later with a glass of iced tea for Nic and another coffee for Timo.
It wasn’t until the waiter placed the coffee in front of Timo that the blond man spoke again, “Who are you?”
That brought Timo’s head up fast and the man’s blue eyes widened as he stared at Nic. “You’re Cabrera?”
Nic didn’t answer. He wasn’t surprised that Timo knew his name but not his face. He’d gone to a lot of lengths to make sure he was a shadow in the criminal underworld. A myth everyone whispered about, yet no one had proof of its existence.
Allowing Timo time to get over his shock and have his fill of staring at him, Nic tasted his tea. It was worse than crap, like tasting sewer water. His face expressionless, Nic set his cup on the table and said, “I want to know about Hoffman.”
The change in Timo was immediate. Wariness flickered in his eyes and his shoulders stiffened. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you?” Nic held out his hand and Rafaél placed a phone in it. Nic swiped his finger over its screen to unlock it before pressing on the play button.
Timo’s voice filtered through the phone.
“Hoffman will be in Paris by Monday. I hit him there and no one can trace-”
Timo slammed his fist over the phone with such strength it shattered into several pieces. The table shook with the force of his blow and some of his coffee spilled onto it, but his actions had the inevitable effect of quieting the recording. However, the damage had been done.
“No worries. That’s not the only copy I have.” Nic’s lips twisted into a crooked smile. “But that’s you plotting to kill your own boss, isn’t it? Tsk, tsk, tsk.” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “You’ve been a very busy man, Mr. Kuhn. Does Hoffman know what you’ve been up to? I wonder how he’ll react when he hears this recording.”
Timo was visibly shaken when he asked, “Where did you get it?”
Nic grinned. “I believe the better question would be what do I want.”
Timo was silent for a moment as he stared at Nic. Then his gaze lowered to the table and his shoulders slumped in defeat. “What do you want?”
“Gute frage,” Nic said. Good question.
After that, convincing Timo into his way of thinking was easy enough.
Nic wanted details about Hoffman’s gun running operation. As his number two, Timo was well placed to get that information. After giving Timo the time and date of their next meeting, and assuring him they’d be watching in case he chickened out, Nic walked out of Chez Homme.
They’d just settled back in the limousine when Nic’s phone rang and his screen flashed the name Brett. The moment he saw the caller ID, Nic’s pulse sped up and dread pooled at the pit of his stomach because it could only mean one thing.
Melanie was in trouble.
Maybe she was in denial.
No, there was no maybe about it. She was in denial.
Even three days after Vance’s visit and pronouncement Melanie still refused to believe that this was happening to them again.
“You and Sly gotta get out of here,” Marcus’s tone was both insistent and pleading.
Avoiding his gaze and words, Melanie looked around the wide open room that served as the visiting area. Noting the chitchatting families and the general air of forced cheer that permeated the room, she gestured towards the vending machines. “Do you want me to get you something?”
“Mel, listen.” Marcus drew her gaze back to him by grabbing her hand. “Walk away.”
In the last couple of years, he’d filled out into manhood. When he’d gotten in his clothes had been falling around him. Now the blue chambray shirt and denim pants fit his muscular frame right. But it was the anxiety in his expression that held her attention.
She wasn’t used to a worried Marcus. He’d always been a ‘you only live once’ kind of guy, taking life where it led him. Even being sent to San Quentin State Prison hadn’t seemed to faze him. But today he looked genuinely scared.
She shook her head. “I’m not leaving you.”
“You don’t know how crazy Va-” He abruptly stopped talking. His nervous gaze skittered across the crowded room before it came to rest back on her. Leaning forward, he lowered his voice. “You don’t know how crazy Amber is.”
“I know how crazy she is,” Melanie said. “And that’s why I can’t leave you. She’ll hurt you if I don’t do what she wants.”
She had no idea how her brother had found out about Vance, but the moment she’d turned up at the prison for Saturday visitation, he’d confronted her.
“Quit worrying about me,” Marcus insisted. “I’m cool in here. She’s out there and can’t fuck with me.”
“Don’t be stupid. You’re the one who told me that Amber has friends in here.”
“Why you gotta be so hard-headed?” He ran a frustrated hand over his face.
Seeing him so frustrated softened her. She reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “I’m not being hard-headed. I’m trying to keep you breathing.” She leaned forward and whispered, “You’re out in three, we can…” In case someone was listening to their conversation, she said, “…renegotiate,” instead of run.
“Three month’s too long for you to be messing around with Amber.”
“We don’t have a choice,” she reminded him. “Besides it’s already been three days and Amber hasn’t come back to the store again. Maybe she changed her mind.”
Marcus’s eyebrows shot up. He sat back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest. “Now who’s being stupid? You know she don’t change her mind.”
I know. Melanie sighed.
Vance had commanded her to clear up one corner of the store in preparation for the jewelry shop Iona was about to open there. Melanie wasn’t stupid enough to think that they were actually going to sell jewelry there, so the longer they stayed away the better she felt.
Was it so bad to hope that he’d forgotten them or changed his mind? Maybe he’d discovered that Darlene’s wasn’t the ideal location for whatever he was selling. Maybe he’d decided that Berkeley was too far from Oakland. Maybe just maybe!
“I can handle mys-” Marcus started.
She cut him off. “You get out then we ru – renegotiate.”
Her mind was made up and not even her brother could change it. When Vance had visited her he hadn’t made any explicit threats, but she knew how he operated. If she didn’t do what he wanted he would come for someone she loved.
It was the same thing he’d done to Marcus. He’d corralled him into taking the rap for a murder he’d committed on the threat that something would happen to Melanie if he didn’t. She was Marcus’s Achilles’ heel as he was hers and Vance knew it.
Marcus had made a lot of mistakes in his life. But for him to get locked up for something he didn’t even do – for her – was the stuff tragedies were made of. She’d protected him for so long, only for her to end up being the albatross that brought him down.
Though she’d hired the best attorney she could afford, it was hard to defend someone intent on falling on his own sword. Marcus had gone down for voluntary manslaughter, six years. It wasn’t a far stretch to imagine Vance doing something far worse to Marcus.
She wasn’t going to let it happen.
She’d protect her brother even if it killed her.
Fortunately Marcus dropped the subject and instead asked, “How’s Sly?”
“He’s doing good. Making those A’s.” She rolled her eyes as she added, “Bothering the little girls in his class.”
“A’ight.” Marcus chuckled. “My man’s stuntin’ like his daddy.”
Melanie joined in his laughter before further updating him on his son’s latest escapades. Marcus had gone in when Sly was just three years old leaving Melanie to raise him. As it stood her nephew had only tenuous memories of his father, kept on life support by the photos and anecdotes she kept feeding him.
She tentatively offered Marcus, “I could bring him with me next week.”
Marcus eyes filled with a wistful expression and he smiled sadly before shaking his head. “Nah. Not like this.”
She would’ve insisted, but that would be a waste of effort. Marcus was embarrassed about the mistakes he’d made in his life and afraid that seeing him behind bars would only make Sly more ashamed of him. Oh, he was too proud to come straight out and tell her that but she could read between the lines. All her efforts to convince him of the contrary had so far yielded no results.
The only upside to his new attitude was that he was actively working to improve himself. Though his stay in prison had been bumpy, he’d gotten his GED and finished a course in mechanics. He was finally becoming the man Melanie had always thought he could be and she was beyond proud of him.
Hopefully, when they got out of here, he could make even more of himself and be the father Sly needed.
That is if Vance didn’t kill them first.
“We’ve only got to do what he wants for three months,” she reminded Marcus as she hugged him goodbye. “We’ll be fine.”
* * * * *
BY FRIDAY, IONA still hadn’t turned up to claim her corner. Her absence stoked Melanie’s fragile hope that the threat was gone, but come early afternoon the tides turned. At exactly two forty five, Iona marched into Darlene’s trailed by two men, each carrying two briefcases.
Two forty five.
Melanie watched their entrance with the sinking feeling that her life had taken a U-turn she couldn’t back out of.
The red-head didn’t even bother to greet Melanie. She headed straight for the left-hand corner of the shop and slapped her purse on the counter. One of the men set one of his cases on the counter and she flipped it open. Surprisingly, the inside of both cases was lined with jewelry – if you could call those garish, oversized medallions jewelry.
“This would look lovely on you,” Melanie told her client as she furtively watched Iona arrange the gleaming pieces of metal on the counter’s glass shelves. She waited for Iona to reveal the jewelry in the other three cases, but she didn’t. Instead Iona made her way to Melanie’s office with the cases in hand. When she came back out, she didn’t have any cases and headed straight to Melanie.
Stopping in front of Melanie and her client, Iona pointed toward the office. “You not go in office,” she said in heavy Slavic accent. She gestured towards Jo. “You or girl.”
“What do you mean?” Melanie shrilled. “That’s my office. Where will I work?”
Though she still designed the clothes, she now outsourced the actual sewing to a tailoring shop downtown. However, any minor adjustments after the second fitting were done in-store and that office doubled as her sewing room.
“Vance said.” Iona shrugged as if that was all the explanation needed. She glanced toward the front door. “Where is key?”
Melanie offered her a hard-eyed glare. Find it yourself, bitch.
“You give me key to front door,” Iona insisted. “Vance, he said you give me key to door. Everyday morning, I come to shop first then you come. Evening, you leave then I leave, Da?”
What was Melanie supposed to say? Da?
Did she even have any other choices other than to say, Da? Vance had boxed her in a corner where the only path of exit was obedience. Sullenly, Melanie strode to the front desk, unzipped her bag, pulled out a ring of keys and unclipped one of them. It took all her effort not to smack the grin off Iona’s face when she handed her the front door key.
The moment Iona opened shop her clients trailed in. Well – clients was a generous term. Most of them were young men who looked like they’d missed the route to Felon City and ended up in Darlene’s. Muscle shirts, oversized pants, tattoos all over, grills in their teeth, cussing with every word they spoke; most definitely not Darlene’s usual patrons.
Their presence was enough to deter many of Melanie’s regulars. The few women brave enough to venture in endured leering looks and catcalls, and they too hurried away. With each passing hour it became clearer that if this continued, Melanie would lose her business. And there was nothing she could do to stop it.
It was all too much.
Melanie really thought she’d handle this better, but the realization that Darlene’s was practically dead tipped her over the edge. An overwhelming sense of helplessness filled her.
She stroked the handgun in her bag – the one she’d started carrying the moment Vance had reappeared in her life – as she watched them walk in one by one. What would they do if she flipped out and started shooting?
She’d given up so much for this little place. Teenage years supposed to be filled with fun, college education, even her marriage. To have it all taken in one swoop…
Her fingers tightened around the gun.
They were killing her dreams, why shouldn’t she kill them?
Sly and Marcus. Their names floated into her subconscious forcing her to ease her hold on the gun. She had to stay sane for them. Tears pricked at the back of her eyes.
She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t cry.
But a few minutes later, she found herself barricaded in a cubicle in the restroom, seated atop the toilet seat with her face buried in her hands. Like a torrent, the tears streamed unabated, unleashing every emotion she’d held hostage in the last week. Fear, anger, disappointment, sadness; they all spilled out like a dam bursting its banks.
The life she’d built for her family was tumbling all around her ears like falling dominoes. They’d already lost so much. Both their parents, any hope of a normal childhood courtesy of the alcoholic aunt, Marcus’s freedom…
Darlene’s was supposed to be their ticket out. That this time something would work out for them and they could finally etch out a glimpse of normal for themselves. She’d put everything into the store; worked her fingers to the damn bone so she could give them a better future to look forward to.
Every sleepless night, every hoarded penny, every drop of sweat she’d put into her dream was now laid to waste. And it felt like pieces of her body was being torn away from her and thrown into the trash like they meant nothing.
It hurt like hell. The pain tore through her heart like a knife being shoved into her. Melanie clasped her arms around her stomach, rocking backwards and forwards as her tears fell. This was too much for one person to handle. She’d been carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders for so long that all she wanted to do was lie down and give up.
Just give up.
TO READ THE REST OF THIS BOOK, GRAB YOUR COPY FROM THESE STORES: