Preview Novel-Westerlynne: Welcome Home

(This is an excerpt from the novel I am currently revising and hoping to have published early 2018. All feedback is welcomed and appreciated!)

Flashback: Thank God

The professor walked in wearing his favorite purple blazer paired with his usual no nonsense expression. He stopped at the blackboard, his patent leather penny loafers screeched at the sudden break in movement. He chalked in the date: December 16, 1998.

“Take out your book.” He told everyone.

Elaina wondered had she remembered to put it in her bag after studying last night. She fished around in her tattered briefcase, moving aside the rolled joint she planned to smoke right after class. From under her Walkman, which was wrapped tightly with the cord of her headphones, she pulled out her borrowed copy of “The Making of a Chef.”

Thank God, she thought and laid the book on the long table in front of her.

Even though her long black box braids were pulled back with the lacy white headband a few braids still fell loosely in her face. Elaina grabbed at the annoying strays and placed them behind her.

“Damn,” whispered the skinny brunette sitting next to Elaina. Elaina looked to her side to see what the skinny girl’s problem was.

“I forgot my book,” The girl said to Elaina while giving her bright green bookbag another look through. The class was very small but still somehow took on the attitude of the professor, impersonal. Elaina shrugged her shoulders and scribbled something in her notebook.

For less than a minute, the shuffling of students in their chairs and even a few more soft spoken cuss words filled the small classroom. Then just like that it was back silent.

“Turn in your books to chapter six, it should start on page…” A knock at the door interrupted the professor. He mumbled something about respecting the craft and walked to the door.

“Elaina Wright,” The professor called out. Anyone could have answered. It wouldn’t have made the professor any difference. After nine weeks of class, he still hadn’t put any student’s name with its corresponding face.

Elaina frowned. She had half a mind to just stay put. Let him believe that the person in question was absent. She couldn’t believe they hounded her down in class. The Financial Aid office had been bugging her on the daily now about her skipped payment. She ignored their phone calls and prayed she could just float through until her next paycheck. Her priorities were rent, utilities, school then groceries. Her stomach growled.

“Elaina Wright,” the professor called again. The skinny brunette looked at the notebook

Elaina had been scribbling in. Her name written huge in pen then outlined in neon pink highlighter screamed from the page. Elaina looked at the girl, slammed the notebook shut and stuffed it along with the book she hadn’t forgotten back in her briefcase. She stood up and walked to the door. That wooden door slamming behind her would be a sound that haunted her for the rest of her life.

“Elaina Wright?” a woman who had voted for presidents Elaina only read of in history books stared at her over a silver pair of wire framed glasses. The woman used her shaking finger to push the glasses up further on her face and squinted.

“Yes,” Elaina answered.

“You have a call up at the front, in the office. It sounds like a family emergency, dear,” The frail antique of woman placed her boney hand into the cushion of Elaina’s back and walked her to the office.

“El?” a voice asked softly from inside the beige office phone.

“June? What’s going on? You alright?” Elaine looked around the office. Everyone pretended to be busy at work. Noses pressed in computer screens, fingers busy typing. Wasn’t nobody that damn happy to be getting paid minimum wage. Elaina lowered her voice and turned away from her audience.

“I know this is a lot to throw at you all at once El, but I don’t have anyone else to call,” June said.

Elaine knew her big sis wasn’t lying. They only had each other and they were blessed for that. The court could’ve split them up when they were ten and thirteen, after their mother died and no one cared to claim them. Thank God, they were placed, together, with the Martin family. A small home only down the road from where the girls had grown up. Inside of it, a fifty-eight-year-old praying husband named Nate and his lovely wife, who was just a year younger than him, who he called Puddin. Nate and Puddin doted on the girls and used what years they had left making June and Elaine feel like real family. As soon as the girls had become grown women, their beloved adopted parents died only weeks apart from one another. They left the sisters their house and everything in it. It was shabby but it was mortgage free and most importantly, it was theirs.

“Well, June I ain’t got no money so…”

“El, I had a baby,” June whispered.

“What you say?” Elaine asked, knowing she heard good and damned well what her sister had said. June knew it too.

“A boy. I named him Emmanuel.”

June started to cry into the phone. Her cry sounded muffled like she was trying not to be heard.

“It’s going to be okay. That’s a good thing. A baby is a blessing,” Elaine tried to comfort June with words Papa Nate would’ve said.

“I don’t think so El. This family I have gotten involved with is a piece of work and I don’t trust them,” June started.

“What you mean? What family?”

“Emmanuel’s father’s family. El, they’ve got money. So much money. They treat me bad because I don’t.” June explained.

“Then why are you even dealing with them?” Elaina asked bluntly. She was good at that.

“Quincey is not like them. He’s different, but he’s not here right now and I think me and my baby’s life are in danger.”

“You need me to come and get ya’ll? Ya’ll can come back to Cleveland with me. It’s only a one bedroom but hey, and if they come here trying anything funny it’s gon be something,”

“El, I’m serious,” Elaina was serious too. She’d go to work over her sister but she could tell that talking about beating down her sister’s new baby daddy’s entire family tree wasn’t being taken well so she kept quiet and let June talk.

“Something ain’t right. I just know it. I need you to come home, El.”

“Okay. I’m coming.”

Elaina had only stopped to fill up her tank. She had run three red lights and yelled at two children, throwing snowballs, to get the hell out the street, on her two-hour drive to Columbus. Thank God, for clear roads and the new car. Since she was the one headed off to college, her and June decided it would be best that she take the Ma Puddin’s car. June kept Papa Nates work truck.

She finally pulled up to the valet at the hospital where her sister had birthed a secret just three days ago. She didn’t have any money but she handed her keys to the man anyway and ran inside, ignoring the sign that read, valet service: 3 dollars. She booked it up to the receptionist at the counter.

“I’m here for June Wright,” Elaina spit out quicker than she could think it. She spent a few seconds trying to catch her breath.

The receptionist clicked away at her computer then stopped, “Looks like she just checked out of room 204.”

Elaina pounded her fist on the desk. The receptionist looked at her unbothered. She must have seen this type of behavior before. She went back to staring at the computer screen, then she looked up.

“Are you Elaina?” The receptionist asked.

“Yes…yes,” Elaina said, nodding frantically.

The receptionist stood up from her seat and came from around the glass partition. She pointed to a staircase at the end of the room.

“You can head right up those steps, make a left at the top of them and then another left at the end of that hall. The nursery will be smack dab in front of you. You can’t miss it.”

Elaina was stunned but not necessarily confused. She was here for her sister and her baby but clearly, she would only be leaving with one of them.

The hospital had Emmanuel all prepared to go with a diaper bag and a car seat. He was completely wrapped to where she couldn’t see him but she knew something little and fat was under the blue blanket. Elaina walked outside the hospital and waited for valet. The same man she had handed her keys to pulled her red 1997 Volkswagen Jetta to the front door.

“Mam, you still need to pay,” the young man said gently. “Nice car,” he added. The car always made people believe Elaine had more money than she did.

“Oh, does this cost?” Elaina tried. The valet looked at her like she knew better. Still, Elaina kept up her role of clueless.

“I thought it was free. It’s a hospital. Shit! It should be free,” Elaina spouted off. The car seat on her arm was heavy. She couldn’t understand how something so small was weighing her arm down so. It was too cold for this. All of it.

“It’s only three dollars, mam,” The young man stated looking confused at the pretty red car once again and then back at Elaina.

“It should be free,” Elaina repeated trying to shift the weight of the car seat and the diaper bag to one side so she could look in to her purse for the three dollars she didn’t have.

“Here,” a woman said. A woman old enough to be Elaina’s mother in a black fur coat and a matching hat stuffed five dollars at the valet man.

“Keep the change.” The fancy woman demanded.

Thank God for decent people, Elaina thought.

A shiny black Lincoln Town Car had pulled up so quietly behind Elaine’s car that no one had even noticed.

“Let’s get this show on the road,” the woman insisted. She obviously had somewhere to be. Elaine said thank you but got no response. She didn’t care. She stuffed her new bundle in the backseat of the Jetta. The woman headed back to where a gentleman waited to open her door for her.

“Mrs. Carolina,” he nodded as she stepped back into the limo. Her pale nose to the sky.
Elaina ran around to the driver’s side of her car and got in. She drove like there was a newborn baby in her backseat. Careful and slow, she pulled up to the home she had grown to love. Tears streamed down Elaina’s face as she watched Papa Nate’s and Ma Puddin’s home go up in flames.

The smell was terrible. In fact, it wasn’t the thick black smoke billowing from every window and door that warned Elaina that she’d never walk back into the classroom with the distant professor and the forgetful brunet. Not even, would the crackling sounds of the ever-growing fire give way to the fact that her big sister, June, was gone. However, it was the disturbing smell of burning flesh that told Elaina that although she participated in none of the joys of making a child, she would now parent the infant cooing and wiggling in her back seat.

As the sirens got louder, Elaina fished around in her briefcase in the seat next to her. She fished past the Walkman and headphones, the culinary textbook and the notebook with her name scribbled bright within it. Finally, she found Papa Nates Bible. She looked through the pages for a sign. Anything to help her understand this fate. She went to the glossary and found the name Emmanuel, spelled Immanuel. Next to it said “God is with us.”

“I sure hope so,” Elaina said aloud as she wiped tears from her face.

She reached in the backseat and pulled the blue blanket from off Emmanuel’s face. He squirmed and smiled and offered her the deepest set of dimples she’d ever lay eyes on. Her nephew, without knowing it, offered her a little light on the darkest day of her life. Elaina knew she would be able to get the house back because her adopted parents swore by home owner’s insurance, which her and June kept current. Her car was pretty much brand new and it would last them a while.

She smiled back at her little man,

“My Manny, God is with us.”

Chapter 1 Emmanuel

It was nine thirty in the morning and Manny tried to keep from checking his email for the fiftieth time today. He had been glued to his phone since yesterday afternoon. He gave in to his urge and double tapped the screen on his phone to turn it on.

Damn, still nothing. He sighed. His head fell back on the faded plaid sofa. His dark dreadlocks hung from the back of it. He stuffed the phone back into his pocket. The new cell phone was his only birthday present this year. A complete surprise, being that his Aunt still only had a land line.

Manny was not-so-patiently waiting on a response from Westerlynne Ridge Estate’s “It Takes a Village” foundation. Two months ago, he had turned in his 2000-word essay, where he expansively explained why he would be the best candidate for their summer internship program. Every summer Westerlynne Ridge, the richest African American community in Columbus, Ohio, would take in a less fortunate high school graduate. One lucky winner would be chosen to stay in a suite at the Westerlynne Ridge Hotel for three months. All expenses were paid by the foundation so that an intern could live comfortably among these well-to-do men and women and their families. Then, through personal one-on-one interviews, career shadowing, and even home visits with some of the most prominent men and women in Ohio a young black man or woman would be given the secrets to success, along with the tools to achieve their wildest dreams. Any minority  high school senior, who had maintained a 3.8 g.p.a for both their junior and senior years could apply for this once in a lifetime opportunity. For some it was too good to be true and so they didn’t even bother trying. However, for many it was the g.p.a requirement that took them out of the running. Nevertheless, every black teen in Columbus, at some point or another, imagined what it would be like to live a day behind those gates.

At night, when the lively city of Columbus, Ohio became romantic, its beds were filled with young boys and girls who dreamed of one day getting married and raising a family behind those gates. In the surrounding universities, young entrepreneurs studied hard with hopes of devising something world changing so that he or she could one day get their very own personalized pass codes to the country club entrance where they could golf and play tennis with their uppity neighbors.

Of all the people dreaming to peek behind the gates at Westerylynne Ridge, Emmanuel “Manny” Wright may have been the kid who wanted it most. From a young boy, Manny signed up for any and every sports league sponsored by Westerlynne Ridge Country Club. Not only basketball and football either, Manny had played junior golf, tennis and even swam for the Club. He performed hard for the team coaches as if he were trying out for a NFL football camp. What he was hoping for, was to find his father. He wasn’t picky. If his biological father wasn’t there, any wealthy black man would do. His number one goal was to find Quincey, the nice, rich man his mother spoke of to his aunt. However, he had a backup plan, which included but was not limited to, being snatched up by some rich fellow who had never quite gotten around to making kids of his own, but deep down always wanted a son just like Manny Wright. A straight “A”, super athletic, classically handsome, well-mannered, willing to conform, just waiting to be loved, black little boy like Manny.

Manny had maintained a 4.0 g.p.a since the sixth grade, since the summer he had overheard Coach talking about the summer program with another coach. Like it was yesterday, Manny could hear the loud rich voice saying to his assistant, “This boy has gotta arm on him remind me of Wes. He keeps throwing like that and he won’t need to get into the internship program to go places!” Manny could care less about whoever this cat Wes was with the arm or even about becoming a professional football player, instead he went straight to the library. He googled “Westerlynne Ridge internship program.” The search results changed how he moved, thought, and planned for the next six years. He kept his grades up and whenever the scare arose that a “B” might be in his future he begged his teachers for extra credit. The email he was now waiting on was all he needed to prove his efforts were not in vain.

Aunt El came dragging her feet from her bedroom dressed in a housecoat and slippers. She had a floral scarf tied that covered her two French braids. Manny knew the braids were there under the scarf, even though he couldn’t see them. They always were.

“Hey Boo,” she said to Manny pinching at the sides of his ribs compelling him to squirm and roll his eyes. He wasn’t in the mood.

“Don’t do that,” Manny said, annoyed. Aunt El looked at him sympathetically.

“Ain’t heard nothing yet, huh” she asked Manny?

“Unh Unh” groaned Manny looking at his aunt stale faced.

Do you still think I’d still be here with you! He thought. He knew better than to say it out loud. Although he was eighteen, a whole grown man, his aunt would have gotten in his ass.

“Want some French toast and coffee?” Aunt El asked. She always cooked good on her days off.

“Mmm, don’t that sound good?” she went on.

She didn’t wait around for Manny’s response. She walked into the kitchen and started whipping eggs and cinnamon and all sorts of aromatic seasonings together and soon enough the sound of bread sizzling in the fryer was enough to pull Manny’s mind away from his phone.

“I’ll take some Aunty,” Manny shouted, hoping she had put on enough for him.

“Mmhm,” Aunt El said grinning and winking at him

“We got O.J,” Manny asked as he got up and went into the kitchen to pour him and her some drinks. He felt bed for treating her dryly.

“I don’t think so, we got some Kool-Aid packets. Make some of that,” She yelled over the sound of the frying toast. She flipped over a piece, proud to see the golden crisped bread peppered with cinnamon. Gourmet breakfast, almost fit for a king, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was the only item on the menu, not including the Kool-Aid.

I bet the people in Westerlynne got O.J., Manny thought to himself as he stirred the bright red fruity liquid.

As always, Aunt El’s breakfast hit the spot. When the plates had nothing left but syrup on them, she grabbed her and Manny’s dirty dishes and headed to the kitchen sink. That’s when she started.

“I can’t understand why you wanna work for some uppity ass black people like them anyway when Mr. Carghil been asking for your help down at the car wash for about four summers in a row, now. He pay good money, too,” she said while scrubbing the mess out of them plates.

“Man, Aunty, don’t nobody want to work for Old Carghil crackhead ass” Manny said disgustedly.

“Watch your mouth, boy,” Aunt El said raising an eyebrow. Her glare begged Manny to open his mouth and make another sound so she could smack the delicious aftertaste of their breakfast right out of it. Seconds felt like minutes before her eyes went back to the sudsy plates.

“He got his issues, same as me, same as you but Mr. Carghil is good people. He fixed my car on credit many times. The same car that drove your little ass back and forth to school, every day. ”

Barely, Manny thought as he envisioned Aunt El turning the key in the ignition and the engine whining and groaning but not turning over. Something was always wrong with that old beat up Volkswagen Jetta.

Aunt El couldn’t stand Westerlynne or any other community of people who acted like their shit didn’t stink. She accused those types of people for her sisters death. She had no proof that some wacko from Manny fathers side had started the fire that ended her sister’s life but she did know that no estranged father ever did show up to gather his son, to claim what was his. So, she blamed them, for all of her troubles. She blamed them for all of the things she could never blame her nephew for. Rich folks were the reason she never finished Culinary school. It was also their fault she hadn’t married and had kids of her own. The extra weight pocketing around her middle and all over her ass, yep, they did that too. Thus, she talked about the people who lived in hidden in gated communities, tucked away in  cul-de-sacs, every chance she got. Tore them up. Crazy, horrible stories she told Manny, that would typically dissuade a person from wanting anything to do with such a place. However, for Manny, it did the opposite. He was attracted to the adventure that seemed to go on there. He wanted nothing more than to get closer to it. It had to be better than where he was at now. Hell, compared to the mundane neighborhood he grew up in, Westerlynne may have well been a kingdom. Westerlynne Castles, it could’ve been called. One thing was for sure, he knew niggas weren’t in Westerlynne begging for rides and borrowing shit that couldn’t be given back, like cigarettes and sugar. Manny refused to sum himself up as one of them blacks, wanted nothing to do with them, as a matter of fact. As cold as his arm was he wasn’t throwing a football for some closet alcoholic football coach at West Central High. He didn’t want to hang out with their bound-for-nowhere children, either. His Aunt El would have been cast out too, but she was all the family he had, until maybe he could replace her with a classy black family from Westerlynne. One with a car that ran and enough money to do shit like go on vacation.

He didn’t know if he really meant that but Aunt El just didn’t understand, working for Carghil was exactly the shit he was looking to get away from. The folks in Westerlynne didn’t need shit fixed on credit. They would never leave their hot whips in the hands of an addict. The nigga been done sold their shit for a couple of rocks and got high. All of this Manny thought about, but he wanted to keep the peace.

“You right Aunty. I’m sorry, I’m just a little on edge. I’m gone walk over to Brandon’s.”

Aunt El stood drying her hands on the thin kitchen towel. She looked at her hands and she didn’t recognize them. They were someone else’s. The life that she had lived for the past eighteen years was someone else’s. None of this had she asked for. She groaned out loud.

“Auntie,” Manny called out. He hated it when she went there and left him here. He wasn’t sure for how much longer but he needed her, still. She snapped out of her trance, Manny smiled at her to show that he was truly sorry for how he was acting. The magic crawled from out his deep dimples. Her head tilted as she came back to her reality.

“Okay, Sugar,” she smiled back. “Tell his mom and dad I said hello.”

Manny walked through the park that separated his house from Brandon’s. He was walking but his mind was running. He checked his notifications in his phone again and acted not to care this time when he had no new emails. He stuffed his phone back in the pocket of his shorts and looked around at the houses surrounding the park. The homes weren’t too run down. They were definitely a step up from the projects but Manny fevered to be around the proud black home owners on the ridge. Manny loved his culture, but he hated seeing his people represented by the down on his luck, ain’t got two nickels to fucking rub together, blame it on “the Man”, blacks. He wasn’t like some of the desperate Toms from his neighborhood, though. The ones who practiced to get rid of the rich base in their voices and to gesture with no rhythm what so ever, to fit in with those who weren’t fortunate enough to be gifted with pigment. That’s what impressed him the most about Westerlynne. You didn’t have to choose. You could be rich, as well as black. Not Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell black but black black; afro wearing, big booty girl chasing, barbecuing in your back yard while listening to Hip Hop and R& B black. Not hood rich either. Not like these Big Meech wanna-be cats claiming project turf in Manny’s neighborhood, but truly wealthy. Honest earned money is what Manny believed was what had gotten those well to do black folks behind those dark burgundy brick walls. Talents that proved you deserved more than the others. Forward thinkers and determined go getters, who were nothing like the people Manny grew up around, made up the neighborhoods on the ridge. What Manny didn’t know was that regardless of race or class, every neighborhood is pretty much made up of the same key characters. If only he had looked harder, if his mind wasn’t clouded with his own dream, he could see that every neighborhood was more the same than it was different. Some neighborhoods may have the money and tools it takes to conceal its trifling ways, nonetheless, the issues, the drama, the skeletons are always there and Westerlynne was no exception.

Chapter 2 Acceptance

Manny skipped up Brandon Porter’s porch and tapped gently on his screen door. He had been dogged out before for knocking too hard. Brandon’s father looked back at the door from over his shoulder and from where he sat on his couch, without even acknowledging Manny, called for his only child.

“Yes sir,” Brandon responded from another room?

“You have company at the door.”

“Yes sir.” Brandon said as he appeared into the front room. He flashed a silly grin at Manny. Brandon was always the class act in front of his parents but he was nothing of the sort once he stepped out of the house. Funny thing is, although were best friends, his dream was pretty much the opposite of Manny’s. He loved hood shit.Brandon lived in the same neighborhood as Manny, but because he grew up with two working parents, he was brought up completely different. Brandon always got the new Jordan’s, as long as his grades were worthy. He did his chores and he was awarded with video consoles. In return for all of his parents’ hard work and guidance, he secretly sold nickel and dime bags to his peers. Now that he had graduated high school, Brandon wanted to move to Cali to get in where he fit in with the new legalized marijuana business.

Brandon walked out the house straight and stiff, like Carlton and by the time they had walked halfway through the park, magically, had turned into the Fresh Prince. He had even added a pimp’s limp to his walk. He tugged at the elastic on his black joggers showing the top of a gray pair of basketball shorts. The book bag attached to his back danced to the rhythm of his new walk.

“I can’t wait to get the fuck outta my parents’ house,” Brandon spat giving a quick side eyed glance back at his front door.

“Who you telling,” Manny agreed.

Brandon looked at Manny like he was crazy.

“Nigga, you good. Aunt El is perfect. Always frying up some good shit, like bologna and salmon patties,” he grinned impishly. “She real as fuck too,” Brandon said in a more serious tone. “Shoot, real talk, she the one that told me to go to Cali. About a month ago, she was buying a bag off me, because you know I always give Aunt El the discount…”

“Man, don’t nobody wanna hear about that,” Manny cut him off.

Brandon was cracking up.

“She know what she talking about. That’s all I’m saying. Get out your feelings, nigga,” he said still chuckling a little.

Manny was obviously feeling some anxiety. He was snapping on everyone this morning.

“You get your acceptance letter yet? From Westerlynne,” asked Brandon?

“Naw man,” Manny replied. He let his face reveal the salt. He could be real with his homeboy.

“Who else they gon pick? Nobody else entered the contest,” said Brandon matter-of-factly. “Don’t nobody want that shit, for real. It’s just a way for them rich motherfuckers to get out of paying taxes.”

“That’s not true,” Manny said defensively. “It’s a program dedicated to helping young African Americans see what’s out there for us.”

Once again Brandon was cracking up, “Shut up, man. You sound like a commercial!”

“Whatever, man. Anyone who could apply…did apply.” Manny said looking at Brandon side eyed. “Gotta’ be able to read and write,” Manny added. This time it was him doing the laughing.

Brandon was finding it hard to find the humor in Manny’s dig, considering that for Brandon to pass the ninth through the twelfth-grades he had seen a language arts tutor twice a week. He changed the direction of the conversation quickly.

“What you got on a game of one on one?” Brandon asked.

They had reached the basketball court in the park and was standing underneath the basketball hoop. The hoop’s net hung by a few threads. A colorful court spray painted with all kinds of creative hashtags and R.I. P’s. Even though it was a tore up, it was still a hot spot every summer. The court would get packed. Pretty, young things with frozen hairstyles and pointed nails would sit on benches, laughing and smacking loud on salt and vinegar potato chips and ginger ales or sometimes cheese curls and orange pops. The dudes in cut off tees and shiny shorts, would play extra hard to impress their queens. It was early still, and much of Manny’s neighborhood was in bed.

“Ok. First to thirty-three.” Manny responded sitting his phone down on a dirty metal park bench.

Brandon dug into his book bag pushing aside small measured bags of weed and little wads of money held together with rubber-bands. He pulled out a dirty dark orange basketball and bounce passed it to Manny. Football was Manny’s sport and basketball was Brandon’s, hands down. So, it didn’t take Brandon long to hit the final three point shot to put him at 34 points. Manny had been beaten worse. He was happy with his 28 points and the game had at least gotten his mind off the email.

By now, there were a few other guys from around the way showing up yelling they had next. Brandon was fired up and ready for anyone who had the heart to step up.

Manny walked over to take his seat on the bench and wait for his turn to come around again. He grabbed his phone and double tapped the screen, now more from habit than on purpose. He had two missed calls and two voice mails. One of the phone numbers was private. He checked his voicemail. He entered the password, his mother’s date of birth, at the prompt and waited to hear the message.

The recording spoke loudly, “You have two unheard messages. To listen to your messages, press one…” Manny did as told.

“First unheard message…Hey Babe, It’s me. Just wanted you to know you have some mail here. Looks fancy, real pretty envelope. Rich people waste money on shit like that so it’s probably from Westerlynne. Alright, Baby. Love You, …Oh yea! If you can, see if Brandon’s mom got two or three eggs I can borrow, I was going to make some more French toast for dinner. Okay, Love you…”

Manny’s heart began to race. He pushed a button to skip to the next message.

“Second unheard message…Good morning. This is Aileen Lemon from ITAV. This message is for Emanuel Wright. I am delighted to tell you that you have been chosen as this year’s candidate for our summer internship program. We sent out a welcome package and in it you will find everything you need to inform you further. Please feel free to call me here at the foundation with any questions. The number is in the packet. Once again, hun, welcome and congratulations!”

By now Manny was in pure shock. Clearly, he had just died and come back to life twice listening to the message. He could still barely catch his breathe. He exhaled and then gathered himself.

Brandon was showing out on the court, killing every cat who tried to stop him. Manny stood up and caught eye contact with Brandon. He threw up a peace sign and shouted,

“Hey B, I’m out!”

“Aww, nigga, you scared I’m gon do you like I’m doing this punk?” Brandon shouted while stealing the ball from his towering opponent. Brandon was only 5’11. Many of the guys coming for him stood at least 6 foot but for Brandon, height wasn’t a factor. Manny, in a lighter mood than earlier, laughed at both Brandon and the guy who had just gotten the ball ripped from his hands.

“Whatever, Guy!” Manny yelled back while jogging. He was already closer to his house than the court.

When he got home, his Aunt was in her room. His mail was on the kitchen table, already opened. He hated when she did that. He wondered if the children of Westerlynne had parents who respected their privacy. Manny hurried to the table and picked up the cream envelope. Inside it was a welcome letter, as well as a few papers that needed his signature, including a disclaimer stating that Westerlynne Ridge Estates was not liable for any deaths, injuries, or losses of property alleged to be caused by residents or staff of the community. An empty space was provided for Manny to sign away all his future legal rights. There was also a contract that prohibited Manny from disclosing information about the business and affairs of the inhabitants of Westerlynne. Manny signed the papers without a second thought, disregarding all the legal schmegal. There was no small print threatening enough to make him change his mind now.

Aunt El stepped out of her bedroom smelling of Brandon’s finest. Still in her morning clothes, she was barely present. While she had been sucking on the end of a precisely rolled blunt, something else had been sucking at her very existence. Usually she paired her smoke sessions with praying and Bible reading. That was her church. From the way she looked, she still had some things she needed to leave at the altar.

“Did you get the eggs?” she questioned scratching under her scarf.

“They didn’t have any, Auntie,” Manny lied. He’d completely forgot to ask.

Aunt El hunched her shoulders to sign that it was no biggie.

“It’s fine,” She said. “We have cereal.”

“Ok, I’m not hungry, anyway.” Manny’s appetite was lost in his excitement. He wished he had someone to share it with, someone to jump up and down with, but his Aunt wasn’t an option. She couldn’t play off her brand-new mood, if she tried and so she didn’t. She pressed her eyelids together and breathed loudly through her nose. Manny looked around the room for help. There were no conversation pieces like in rich people’s homes. No paintings or vases set up to aid a man in talking himself out of a difficult situation.

“What time you need to be there, Manny?” Aunt El asked breaking through the awkward silence as if it belonged to her.

“Tomorrow morning at eleven,” Manny responded. I can catch a bus if you want me to,”

“Have you ever had to catch the bus?” she asked him. Manny shook his head ‘no.’ Aunt El shook hers too.

“I’m taking you. Beyond my better judgment, I’m taking you, into that den of wolves.” Aunt El said sashaying back to her smoke-filled room. Before she closed her door, she winked at him and said, “But I know God is with you. So, there.”

Manny said his prayers that night. He loved his Auntie and everything, but he knew it was time for him to grow up and out into the world as the man he was meant to be. His aunt couldn’t teach him that. She had given him all she had. So much, that at times Manny wondered what was left for her. Even still, the lessons it would take to turn him into a strong black man were nowhere in her to begin with and he thought there was no place better to learn those, but in Westerlynne. He truly believed that him getting this internship was his destiny, and who’s to say it wasn’t? Manny thanked God for the opportunity, prayed that his Auntie would be okay and then grabbed up his signed papers he would need for tomorrow. He shuffled under his bed for a second until he found a folder. He placed his contract papers into the used red folder and turned out the light. Sleep came easy.

Chapter 3 Behind the Gate

The Westerlynne hotel was where Manny was ordered to report this morning. Manny was hoping to get himself checked in and get his aunt on her way with little to no incidents of embarrassment. Pulling up in the noisy hoopty had already chipped away at those hopes. Still, he couldn’t believe he was finally behind the gates of Westerlynne. Just as Manny thought, all things were better here. The houses looked even bigger up close with lawns a shade of green Manny had assumed came only in boxes of Crayola. He could’ve swore the bird were singing a different tune. The sun even looked to be shining brighter. The buzzing coming from his aunt’s Jetta also sounded louder than usual as if it, too, wanted to be noticed.

Aunt El was a mess. As much as she claimed not to give “two fucks” about these “uppity niggas” she went out of her way not to look poor. In the wee hours of the night she decided to set her hair with rollers, to create a cascade of curls and waves that came to a halt at her shoulders. Her lips were stained dark red, which really stood out on her caramel face. A mauve blush shone on her cheeks and made them look like satin. She even traded in her pants with elastic at the waist for ones that buttoned. She wasn’t Gladys or Patti but for Aunt El, this new look was a major improvement. Manny thought she looked good, made him wonder how her life might have been different without him in it. Dewy skin and shiny hair always gave way to the notion that at one point in time his aunt was bad. Today it shown through. That was, until she started crying. She had at least waited to unravel until after the light skinned cutie at the front desk had taken Manny’s paperwork and escorted them to a close-by office. Now, between the black eyeliner that had ran down her face and the dark colored lipstick all over her mouth, which she had smeared when she wiped snot from her nose with the tissue, she looked as if she were melting.

She looks like one of them Muppet’s off Sesame Street, Manny thought!

“Aunt El, come on, pull it together” Manny said, shaking his head.

“Okay Baby. I’m okay,” she barely sniffled out. She wiped her nose again with the ragged tissue.

They stood in a small overly clean room that had only a desk and one chair. There were no extra chairs for guests. A single window let in natural light and warmth from outside. On the wall opposite the window were perfectly hung pictures of previous interns with their name and their attending years engraved into the frames. The last frame was empty. Manny smirked at the blank space, assuming he’d be the one to fill it.

Soft footsteps echoed from the hallway outside the room they stood in.

“Someone’s coming,” Manny whispered, fixing his posture and praying his aunt would follow suit. Aunt El sniffed a final time and quickly blinked her wet lashes.

A lady built like a teapot, with skin the color of banana pudding, walked into the now overcrowded room. She sported a neat gold fade. The neutral toned attire she wore which worked well with all the browns and greens in her eyes, a clue that her hair color was probably natural and not dyed. The red folder tucked under left her arm stood out like a stain on her blazer. She held out her right hand and smiled.

“Hello Emmanuel. I’m Mrs. Lemon. I am the president of Westerlynne’s It Take A Village foundation.” Manny shook her hand. He recalled the raspy voice from the voicemail.

“Hi,” Manny replied.

Mrs. Lemon was one of those types who talked with their hands, she pointed one of her tan painted nails at Manny. “Young man, I want to congratulate you again.” She pressed her pretty hands to her chest , “I am very excited to have you here with us at Westerlynne. You have very much earned your place here.”
Aunt El, rolled her eyes and sucked her teeth dramatically, “Earned?! Ain’t that about a bitch,” she said under her breath. Mrs. Lemon conveniently switched her focus to the red folder.

“Looks like you have everything signed and ready to go in here,” she said slowly as she skimmed through the signed contracts and closed Manny’s folder.

Manny was ready to part ways with his aunt. Ready to fully take in this awesome moment. Ready to forget where he came from and to act the part. Metamorphose himself into a Westerlynne resident. It was time for Aunt El to go.

As if Mrs. Lemon could read his mind she said, while smiling at Aunt El, “And if there are no questions?”

“Well, I did have some questions, actually,” Aunt Els tone shut the bullshit down quick.

“Aunt El,” Manny tried to interrupt.

Aunt El pushed on, “I just wanted to make sure he would be able to call home every night,” then she added softly, almost pleadingly, “and could I come maybe to visit once and while. I mean, three month is a long time.”

Mrs. Lemon placed her hand on Aunt El’s shoulder, partly to console her and partly to begin walking her out of the office.

Speaking as if she were consoling a child, she said, “Ohhh. Aunt El, is it?”

“Elaina Wright,” Aunt El stated, not nearly as sweet and broken as she had sounded just seconds earlier. She promptly brushed Mrs. Lemon’s busy hand away from her shoulder. She stood still, back straight, chin up. She would not be escorted anywhere. She would leave when she was good and ready.

“Elaina,” Mrs. Lemon began.

“Ms. Wright” Aunt El corrected her.

Now that’s petty. Don’t nobody call her ass Ms. Wright except the bill collectors, Manny thought. He was in awe and entirely bothered. His aunt was cutting up.

“Ok. Ms. Wright,” sighed Mrs. Lemon. You could now see the creases in Mrs. Lemon’s forehead. She was clearly bothered, as well.

“This is an internship,” she spat, trying her hardest to not let the top off of her own truth and accidentally spill ghetto from her mouth. Instead it exited through her hands as she went on,

“So, it will for the most part be treated as a job. Emanuel will have a schedule with people to meet and places to go each week. However, in his off time he can do as he wishes.”

“Ok, and will I be able to see him?” Aunt El asked curtly.

“Emanuel will be allotted a driver that can take him on home visits when he is not busy. However, you, mam, will not be allowed back into the community, for security purposes.” Mrs. Lemon fingernail pointed towards Aunt El, and Aunt El’s raised eyebrow threatened to break it and all of its wicked counterparts off with one snap.

“The invitation is for Emanuel solely.”

Damn, that’s deep, Manny thought. They don’t play.

Aunt El wasn’t in the least bit impressed. Her cheap makeup had dried in all the wrong places, making her angry look crazy. She turned and addressed Manny now, as if they were the only two in the room.

“Hey, Boy, look at me,” she said as she reached up and grabbed her nephews long face. Manny gave Aunt El his eyes. He knew that resisting her would only lead to more ghetto antics. He needed this part to be over sooner than later.

“Yes, Auntie?” He asked respectfully.

“If you need me, you call me,” Her tone quiet and serious. “Remember what I’ve taught you, everything that glitters, ain’t golden. You didn’t earn your spot here, it’s your God-given right. Ain’t nobody here bleeding diamonds, they bleed just like you and me. And another thing, ain’t not one nigga here stopped by to offer a dime to help me raise your skinny, yellow ass. It Takes A Village my ass…”

Manny couldn’t bare another word.

“Auntie, Auntie, I get it,” he interrupted! “I’m going to call you tonight, as soon I’m settled in.” He stared down into his aunt face. Saw her pain and wanted to stop it.

“I’m coming to visit you, too. Every chance I get,” he added with a smile.

“You promise, Manny?” she asked him. The tears were coming back. She placed two fingers in both of his dimples.

Of all the hard times they had gone through together, Manny had never seen Aunt El look so troubled. Aunt El was always able to see a light at the end of the tunnel. However, leaving Manny at this guarded property without a promise to give him back, without surety that he’d want to come back, took her there. Manny could see it in her eyes. She was worried.

“Yes, Auntie, I promise,” Manny said, this time really meaning it. Aunt El brought the face she held down near hers so she could kiss it.

Mrs. Lemon was pretending not to listen while she fingered through the papers in the red folder a third time. The room was too little, and Aunt El’s whisper attempt was too loud for her not to hear. The air was still a little stiff but Aunt El broke through the silence like it was her profession.

“Ok,” she sighed with a new found joy. “I’m gon’ go on home. Aileen, you take care of my nephew. I want him back just how I gave him to you.”

Manny wondered if his aunt realized that that included broke and parent-less. Mrs. Lemon nodded but didn’t smile. Just perfect for Aunt El.

“I think I can find my own way out of here,” Aunt El said, before she added, “I mean, if it’s okay with security, that is?”

Mrs. Lemon’s facial expression read that she would rather Aunt El drop dead but instead she insisted, “That is perfectly fine.”

Aunt El sauntered off proudly, as if she had achieved something. Manny watched as his family, in its entirety, left the room, surprised at the immediate sense of lonesomeness he felt. He would miss her. He would call her. He would visit.

Mrs. Lemon, on the other hand, felt only relief. She let out a loud sigh and smiled at Manny.

“Now, Mr. Wright, let me show you to your suite.”

Manny followed Mrs. Lemon to the elevators just outside the small office. They got on.

“During your internship, each morning promptly at 8 am, you will report to the room we were just in. That is my personal office. I will give you your job for the day as well the tools it will take for your complete it if you do not have them.” Manny imagined he would need every tool they had to offer.

“Today, your afternoon is completely free, Emmanuel. There will be a welcome party at six o’clock. Dress code is casual.”

She stopped to check out Manny’s current attire. His first-day-behind-the-gates outfit. She took in the stiffly pressed black pants, the soft blue dress shirt, and black dress shoes.

“What you have on now is fine.” Here at Westerlynne we don’t do fashionably late, so be on time.” She shook her finger up an down.

“Where is it?” Manny asked. Wondering would he be utilizing his personal limo tonight.

“Right next door, Dear. At the banquet hall. You can’t miss it. The lights are beautiful at night.”

The elevator doors opened with a “ding!” They stepped off and following Mrs. Lemon’s lead stood to the right of the elevator.

“Your suite is at the end of the hall. Room 314.” Mrs. Lemon said pointing down the hallway. She handed Manny a magnetic key card.

“Make yourself at home. Get comfortable. If there is anything you need, if you realize you’ve forgot something or lose your room key, just call down to the front desk.” She nodded her head at Manny to ask him if he understood. He nodded his to let her know he did. “Today I think I saw Raele working. Tomorrow morning, it’ll be Louise. Both ladies are awesome at their job, and will be glad to assist you. As a matter of fact,” Mrs. Lemon paused and gawked at Manny from head to toe, twice.

“You two may hit it off quite nice, Raele and you,” She grinned. She winked one golden eyelash at Manny. Manny smiled back to be courteous.

However, the last thing he wanted was to come to Westerlynne and hook up with the help.

Chapter 4 The “Suite” Life

The large suite, where Manny would call home for the next three months, came equipped with a small kitchen, a living room, a study and two full bathrooms. The study had a built-in library, already filled with everything from classic literature to mainstream to comic books. Sitting smack dab in the middle of the study was a cream colored over-sized recliner. Two multicolored floral printed pillows sat in each one of its arms and a dark purple chenille throw was tossed loosely over its back. The recliner faced a stone fireplace with an empty marble mantle. The two large windows sat at each side of it and offered a breathtaking view of a lake. Ferry’s and small fishing boats were attached to the dock. From this angle the backyards of some of Westerlynne’s homes could be seen. Manny stared out of one of the windows in awe. Everything was still except for the peaceful waves which moved in perfect synchronization. Westerlynne Ridge was one of the ridges in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The slopes were covered in a variety of trees with a leaf for every color of every season. If it had not been for those tiny waves on the lake, Manny could have easily mistaken this view for a painting. It was pure art.

Manny hadn’t a clue where to start. His only orders were to make himself comfortable. He strolled into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.

Just like I thought, Orange Juice, Manny thought when he saw the pitcher of fresh squeezed OJ.

In addition to the OJ, the fridge was stocked with fresh fruit and veggies, greek yogurts and bottled water. The cupboard with mostly fancy snacks and fine crackers. There was also almond butter and various jarred fruit preserves. He was staring to regret not touching the plate of food he was too excited to eat this morning, Manny’s stomach was now touching his back. He grabbed a handful of the small orange crackers that sat in a clear dish on the table. He shoved them all into his mouth and then fiercely spit them back out into the sink.

“Ugh!”

What the hell was that, he wondered.

He snatched a cold bottled water from the fridge and quickly gulped it down to wash away the bitter fish taste that fought to linger on his tongue. He opened the cabinet door and pulled down a package of Oreos, something he recognized. Then he poured himself a glass of milk. All the dishes were crystal, so even regular cookies and milk, looked like some shit from an upscale magazine.

After scarfing down six cookies, Manny went to put his things away. He opened the double doors that separated the living room from his bedroom and Jacuzzi bathroom.

Now, this is what the fuck I’m talking about!

Manny fell face forward, arms out wide, into the king-sized bed covered in luxurious satin bedding. Like a new best friend, the mattress adjusted to his slim athletic frame and hugged him in all the right places. Manny experienced a comfort he never knew he wanted but now never wanted to live without it. He smiled when he realized this is where he’d be sleeping for the next three months. He picked up the remote from off the night stand and turned on the 42-in. flat screen television mounted on the wall directly in front of him. A display popped up presenting him with a variety of apps including Netflix, Hulu, You Tube, and even Facebook. He pressed on the Facebook app and logged into his account using the qwerty keyboard on the remote. He didn’t have a lot of friends in real life, but on social media he had thousands. He posted a status: “When dreams come true. #Westerlynne.” Manny stared at his new status for a few seconds, and wondered should he delete it.

Does it sound too soft? Is it a bitch ass comment?

Then he thought of his friends list and realized that they were all below him now. How could any of them judge him? While he was on the roll, he laid back on the plush pillow and snapped a selfie with his cell. He posted it to his Instagram account with the caption “King bed for King Manny #Westerlynne.” In the Instagram app, Manny pressed on the Westerlynne hashtag he’d made and to his surprise a load of pictures popped up. Manny had figured people in Westerlynne would be too busy traveling, networking, and investing to be bothered with social media. He tapped on a picture of a man who went by the username “hoodgenius614.” In the picture the heavy set 40-something aged man, in full New York Yankees attire, was kneeling down next to black t-top Monte Carlo SS, raised up on twenty-eight inch rims. The caption read: “I’m out here straight flexin’ on these niggas like #Westerlynne”

I’m sure you’re not, Manny thought.

Another picture was posted by someone going by the name “24K.” The image was of a chocolate young lady standing next to an even darker skinned young man. Both of them had shiny black hair wavy enough to make a person sea sick. They were posing for this year’s prom in front of, what appeared to be, their big ass mansion. They stood up against a dark red Rolls Royce. The pretty lady, in a a short sequined gold dress, leaned into the chest of the man who wore a typical black tuxedo and white dress shirt, however, his vest displayed a tribal print. That whole African prom theme was popular this year. It was pretty dope, Manny thought, when done right. He had decided against the embarrassment of attending his senior prom. He knew that his aunt would have bent over backwards trying to rent a tux and that it would have set them back financially, which he wasn’t sure how much further back they could possibly go, yet he wasn’t trying to figure out. So, he convinced her that he did not want to go. Honestly, in the right setting, such as Westerlynne, Manny would have loved to attend prom.

Now that’s flexn’, he thought, while he stared at the bossy young couple. They both seemed to be around Manny’s age, however the boy wore a very mature demeanor. Maybe, it was the power stance he stood in: his back straight, chest out and head cocked but whatever it was, his cold attitude could be felt through the photo. The young lady seemed to be more carefree, ready to kick it. She was glowing, serving up sultry eyes and pretty pink grin.

The caption under the picture read, “We are definitely about to turn up and turn out #Westerlynne” followed by a ton of party emoji’s including the dancing lady in the red dress and heels.

Manny surprised himself when he heard his own voice exclaim,“ Damn, she’s fine!” So awfully engrossed with getting into Westerlynne, Manny had abandoned his teenage love life. Well, not entirely. He did make time to lose his virginity to the cute talking Latina girl who lived next door. Kesari Vasquez had always smiled at Manny and made small talk with him any time that they had ran into each other by the trashcan, at the mailbox or in the driveway before school. The Vasquez family had lived next door to the Wright family for as long as Manny could remember and still, Manny and Kesari were not good friends. They had no deep love connection with basketball or anything like that. Losing their virginity to one another was not a planned event, it kind of just happened. Well, on Manny’s part at least. It was on an early Saturday morning, year before last, right after Manny’s seventeenth birthday. The previous evening, Kesari’s parents had come over and informed Aunt El that they were moving to Florida. The cold Ohio weather had finally broken them down. As she did most of their neighbors, Aunt El had grown to like the Vasquez family. She easily traded Manny’s moving services for a stolen case of chicken Kesari’s dad had taken from his last day on the job.

The snow on that Saturday morning had all of Columbus looking dark and dirty. People drove careful or scared, or both. So, when Kesari’s parents went out to make their rounds at the local grocery stores to retrieve empty cardboard boxes, it went without being said that it would be an hour or two before they came back. Manny was in the kitchen wrapping coffee mugs in newspaper when Kesari walked up and kissed him in the mouth. The surprise of the act had stolen its delight, making Manny wanting a do over. He kissed her again and this time butterflies made their way into the space between his heart and stomach. A space that may not have even existed before that moment. The butterflies must have gotten to Kesari too, because before Manny knew it, she had led him by his hand upstairs to her small empty bedroom. The rest was history. After that day, that act, those butterflies, he never seen or heard from her again. Manny took it for what it was, and moved on.

“Shit! The party,” Manny said! He had fallen into a deep slumber without even realizing he had ever gotten tired. Dreaming of pretty girls with long hair blowing out the windows of dope whips. The car was his, so were the girls. Time wasn’t as thoughtful as the Vasquez family. It had left without a notice. Packed up and moved out without a kiss goodbye. Manny hopped out the bed. The last thing Manny wanted to do was show up late to his own party. Good thing the event was taking place right next door. The clock built in to the phone on the nightstand read three thirty. His clothes had wrinkled while he slept, the armpits of his shirt were wet.

“Fuck!” he yelled. He couldn’t afford to mess this outfit up. Literally.

Manny grabbed the phone sitting on the nightstand and dialed zero.

“Front desk, this is Raele speaking,”

“Hi. This is Manny, I mean Emmanuel in room, um…” Manny couldn’t remember his room number. He looked around for a clue.

“314. Yes, Mr Wright,” How can I help you?” Raele asked.

“Do you all have a washer and dryer I could use?”

“We do offer laundry service, here, Mr. Wright. Would you like me to send someone up to collect your things first thing in the morning?”

“Ah nah, I needed it right now.”

“You have some things you need washed now, sir?” Raele asked, leaving out a bit of the pep that had just been there a second ago.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Manny answered, hurriedly.

There was an irritated sigh, then quick enough to make Manny ask himself did he ever hear it, Raele went back into the-customer-is-always-right mode, like a malfunctioning robot.“Okay, Mr. Wright, I’ll be right up to collect your things.

“Thank you,” Manny said and hung up the phone. Quickly, he pulled off the wrinkled pants and the sweaty shirt. He put on a pair of shorts from his bag.

A soft tap at the door , followed by Raele’s voice, told him that time was up. He picked up the dirty clothes, making sure the wet armpits were hidden.

He opened the door, and to his surprise the young lady staring back at him didn’t look like help at all. On the contrary, she was pretty enough to be some rich mans spoiled daughter. Manny figured that’s probably why they hired her. She looked like money. Raele had dark small features that stood out effortlessly on vanilla latte colored skin, much like him. Raele was lighter than Manny. She was the type of light skinned that made folks ask you if you were mixed with something. Manny was just the type black folks called high yellow but they knew his ass was one hundred percent black.

Raele looked at a shirtless Manny through skinny dark eyes. If she was impressed by his chiseled little six pack her expression refused to show it. Small lips, covered in clear gloss didn’t smile. Her black hair hung long, reaching her back. Manny caught himself staring too long, wondering was it weave. Wondering would it slip out if he pulled on it. He snapped out of the trance and tried handing her the clothes in his hand. Raele shook her head.

“Put them in a bag please,” She raised an eyebrow and smirked. “I don’t know you like that, bro.”

Her curtness brought a smile to Manny’s face. He was happy to meet someone he wouldn’t have to put on an act in front of.

“I don’t have a bag?” Manny replied.

“Raele used her foot to pull down the metal latch and prop the heavy door open. She walked into the room and pulled open the door to a closet on her right with a familiarity that told Manny this wasn’t her first time showing ghetto ass teenagers where rich people kept shit. Prior to this moment, Manny hadn’t even noticed the closet. In it there were six hangers, two garment bags, an ironing board and iron, and three plastic laundry bags. Manny knew they were laundry bags because they all read “LAUNDRY” in bold blue print right across them. Raele snatched down a bag and turned to Manny with a face that read, Here’s the bag, stupid.

“Oh, shoot I didn’t even see that closet,” Manny said. He took the bag and stuffed the clothes inside.

“It’s fine. What time do your need your clothes back,” she asked taking the bag along with another quick peak at Manny’s half dressed body. She wasn’t slick. Manny smiled and so did Raele.

“I mean if you don’t want me to get dressed, just say the word,” Manny tried his game hand. He walked a little closer to Raele. His height over her, his dark dreads still messy from oversleeping, tripled with those dimples and made the temperature in the room rise. Raele took a step back.

“Boy bye,” she laughed. “Sorry, but I’m taken.” She added. She raised an eyebrow and scooted her glossed lips to the right side of her face to form a grin that admitted in another time, another place, she might have made another choice.

Manny was fine with that. He’d be here awhile.

Manny remembered he had more pressing matters at hand, “The welcome party is at six o’clock. So, five is good.” he said.

“OK, Mr. Wright, I’ll have your clothes ready.” Raele said, remembering she was an employee and not a guest.

Raele went about her way. Manny hit the shower.

Chapter 5 Party and Bullshit

Manny walked into the event as if he had grown up in Westerlynne; cool, calm and collected, contrary to how he was feeling on the inside. Under the amber glow of the party lights, his blue dress shirt, freshly cleaned and pressed, complemented the golden tones of his skin perfectly. His dreadlocks were pulled back, away from his face, and hung in a half ponytail leaving some dreads out to fall onto his collar. Although, he had arrived a few minutes before six and he was supposedly man of the hour, the party had started without him. People were cliqued up and already mingling. The Weekends “I Can’t Feel My Face” had people young and old up on the dance floor. Manny was unsure of what to do. Dancing was out of the question. Not because he couldn’t either. Rhythm was in his soul and dancing came natural to him, but one wrong move and he’d ruin his chance to make a good first impression. He still needed to feel these folks out. Find out what they were looking for, what they needed so that he could fill his role.

Across the room a familiar face caught Manny’s eye. Mrs. Lemon waddled over wearing a mint colored silk blouse with white slacks. Shimmery gold heels peeked out from under her pants.

“Hello Emanuel, I hope you found your room suitable for your needs?”

“Yes, everything is fine,” said Manny.

“Alright,” Her response was short as if to say, Duh, it’s fine to your broke ass. “Well, now it’s time to introduce you to the community. Walk over there with me to the stage.” Mrs. Lemon’s golden fingernails ordered Manny where she wanted him to stand.

Manny followed Mrs. Lemon as they walked up the stairs onto the stage and faced the party of people.

With a point and a nod from Mrs. Lemon the DJ quieted the music. With ease, she spoke into the microphone, “Good evening everyone.” People from the crowd looked up, still chewing on hor d’oeuvre’s, still laughing and finishing their sentences. Soon enough, it was silent and Mrs. Lemon continued, “I am honored tonight to introduce to you all, our annual winner of the It Takes a Village internship, Emanuel Wright.” There was an applause. Mrs. Lemon pointed her hand at Manny and smiled. She went on, “This young man has not only maintained a 4.0 grade point average for all of his years of middle school and high school, but he has also kept a perfect attendance record for all eight years.” The Westerlynne residents looked up at Manny from the dance floor as if he were some test subject. Their Guinea pig. Just as curious and intrigued of him as Manny was of them.

“And if that wasn’t enough to impress my socks off,” Mrs. Lemon went on dramatically, her hands on her wide hips, “his essay was surely the icing on the cake. Taken from the last paragraph of Emanuel’s essay, and I quote, ‘I’ve always known there was more inside of me than what I was capable of achieving on my own, and I believe the Westerlynne community can show me how to find it.’ ”

Mrs. Lemon turned from the audience and faced Manny.

“Emanuel Wright, you are absolutely correct,” she said. The crowd clapped again.

“Family and friends of Westerlynne please help me tonight in welcoming Emanuel to this place we call home. Now let’s party!”

The DJ in the corner moved up the sliders on his box and the sounds of Drake complaining about his girl not calling him on his cell phone bumped through the speakers.

“Ayyyeee, that’s my song,” yelled out a gorgeous mahogany hued girl. She pushed herself pass the crowd of people and closer to the where the DJ was. She moved her arms up over her head and then back down and did her body side to side. She was stepping! Manny was mesmerized. He couldn’t quite make out what she looked like because her eyes were closed and her mouth was tooted to one side. Her long ponytail swayed back and forth as the funky calypso beat took her over. There were others dancing to the song but Ponytail was killing it. Manny would have loved to go out and grind up on all that body she was working, share a moment in a song with her but after the wholesome ass speech Mrs. Lemon had just given he thought he’d better just enjoy the view. To keep from seeming too captivated Manny grabbed a cup of whatever they were serving from the refreshments table then he stood back and positioned himself, not too far back but still inconspicuous enough, in a dark corner. His eyes still glued to Ponytail. The DJ did something with the song and slowed it down and it was just the music. Just that hypnotic beat. She got low and moved her hips and ass like someone was going to throw her money. Then she opened her eyes and as if there were no one else in the building, she stared right at Manny. She gave him a bashful smile, that made him wonder was the dance for him. Now, with her eyes on him Manny recognized her. It was the fine ass girl from Instagram earlier, 24K.

Manny’s breath left his body swift and indefinite. His mind was running, but not as fast as his heart was beating.

“OK Khia! I seen you getting it out there,” a girl shouted as Ponytail walked towards Manny with tunnel vision.

She was breathing a little heavy, due to the workout she had just finished. Her soft blue skinny jeans stuck to her like bubblegum unlike the pink loose fitting cropped tank top that showed off her belly button. Her black Pumas accentuated her small ankles and small feet. Silver bracelets moved up and down her skinny wrists when she used her hand to wipe the sweat and loose hairs from off her forehead.

“Hi Emanuel. Welcome to Westerlynne. I’m Khia Jameson.” She said, popping her head to the side and stretching out her hand. Manny shook her small chocolate offering, while struggling to think of the perfect thing to say. This wasn’t just some rat from the club, or ghetto ass cheerleader from his high school. This was a girl who went to the prom in a fucking Rolls Royce. A real catch and he was only new at fishing.

“Um, hello, nice to meet you, Khia.”

Khia giggled, and started to walk away.

Shit, shit, shit, Manny thought, I have to do better than that. She was obviously wanting Manny’s attention but she was way too fine to beg for it and she knew it.

Manny softly grabbed her hand, and smiled, presenting those irresistible set of dimples. His never-failing bait. “Where you going? I wasn’t done introducing myself.”

Khia laughed aloud at his meager attempt at game spitting. She bit.

“Okay, well, introduce yourself,” Khia said, flirtatiously swinging her pretty ponytail behind her.

“Um, okay well, first off, you can call me Manny.”

“So, Manny, what part of the Bus you from?”

“I’m from the west side. I graduated from Central High,” Manny said apprehensively. He feared mentioning that ghetto ass hood would be a conversation ender. If he could’ve gotten away with lying he would’ve but the info was too easily attainable. Mrs. Lemon might have even mentioned it in her speech.

Khia’s dark eyes focused towards her Pumas. Manny turned his embarrassed eyes to the dance floor. The more mature crowd were stepping to the upbeat tempo of the Anthony Hamilton and Jill Scott duet.

“You gon have to take me there sometime,” Manny heard a sweet voice say.
He had to assess Khia carefully, to make sure she wasn’t joking, poking fun at their obvious differences. She was serious.

“What you wanna see over there,” he asked her. Confusion was written all over his face.
Khia shrugged her narrow shoulders.“I’ve just always wanted to go to the west side. Those are my people too.” Khia said defensively.

“Um hm,” Manny answered, not quite convinced.

“I’m not bougie,” Khia said with her arms flapped across her puffed out chest.

“I didn’t say you were bougie,” Manny said laughing. He found her little attitude adorable. However, her ninety-nine problems weren’t adding up. “Well, unlike here, you don’t need an invite to get into the hood. Why have you never been,” Manny asked?

“Well, truthfully” Khia said and then paused and pursed her lips. She looked at Manny like she was deciding if she wanted to continue on with this conversation or go find someone more interesting to talk to. Good thing he was man of the hour and the amber party lights were shining just so to make his dark features look rich against his yellow skin. Perfect how his dreads were pulled back from his face, so that Khia could see the structure in his jawline, and the bulge of his Adam’s apple. It was nothing short of a blessing that even with his clothes washed and pressed, the signs that he’d worn the outfit more times then he could count, were still there, to intrigue her about his upbringing. She sighed and went on, “My daddy would never let me or my brother go anywhere. He thinks anywhere outside of Westerlynne is Straight Out of Compton.” Manny smiled and shook his head. Not because he thought her father was wrong but because he wanted to show Khia he was on her side. Although her little fits turned him on, and he understood that the sport of fishing consisted of a lot of give and take, he wasn’t sure he had provided her with enough give on the line to be pulling it back so soon. Manny listened to Khia’s bratty complaints with undivided attentiveness.

She finished her spouting with, “I’m a grown ass woman, now, so that’s a moot point.”
Manny allowed his eyes to travel from Khia’s ankles, where he wrestled his imagination from grabbing them and placing them above her bouncing ponytail, to her silky baby hair framing her heart shaped face.

Raele who? He thought.

He nodded to let her know he agreed with her last statement. She was definitely grown and clearly woman. The mood lightened . Whatever it was she had seen in Manny from that stage with Mrs. Lemon and then from the dance floor with Drake, she was seeing now and it caused her to blush. Quickly, she regained her ladylike composure and started moving the conversation back in the way she had initially planned it to go.

“Still, Manny, you know I can’t just walk up in the hood when I don’t know nobody there,” Khia said. She twiddled with the ends of her shirt. Pulling on them and letting them go which made the mid-drift shoot up higher each time. Manny searched the delicate cocoa face for a clue. He tried to figure out was she accidentally or intentionally teasing him. It didn’t matter. The damage was done and although he had planned to completely do away with the west side of town, unfortunately, right now, it was the only card he had, so he played it. He pulled out his cell phone, double tapped the screen, and navigated to his contacts. “Well, I mean if you put your number in my phone I could hit you up the next time I go home to visit.”

Manny handed his phone to Khia. She hesitated. A moment passed. It was only seconds, but in it, the two had both come to the conclusion that they needed to see more of one another. There, in that moment, hungry eyes and greedy smiles silently exchanged vows to meet again.

“And when is that going to be?” Khia asked while typing her digits into Manny’s cell.
Manny started moving his head back and forth like he was in the Drake video and jokingly sang, “You’ll know when that hotline bling.” Slow and steady he reeled in the line.
Khia busted out laughing. “Okay, okay, I got you.” Her smile lingered until it hurt her face. She handed him back the phone.

“No, I’m kidding, I just haven’t gotten my schedule yet but, I mean as soon as I’m free we can hook up.” He gave the line some slack.

“Okay, Manny, don’t forget about me.”

“How could I?” Manny asked softly grabbing at her hand again. He dropped the whole damn pole.

Khia blushed, rolled her eyes and swung her ponytail out of her way again. She walked back towards the dance floor, switching. She had caught her fish.

Manny was feeling super high. This night couldn’t possibly get any better. The DJ played Missy Elliot’s, “Where You From” and it had compelled people of all ages to act out. Manny headed to find the bathroom, stopping to shake hands and greet people on the way. He finally came to a hallway with two closed doors on opposite sides. The men and women restrooms, he figured, but with no signs to show which was which. Manny tried the door on his left slowly twisting the knob and peeking just in case it was the women’s.

“Mmmm. Harder. Harder,” a woman way too pretty to be real was facing Manny but her eyes were too busy trying to roll into the back of her skull to notice him standing there. Her dewy chestnut colored skin looked like it could melt under too much heat. Her blonde hair swayed back and forth, hitting her bare breast with each stroke. The young man behind her, moaned, trying to follow direct orders. His eyes closed. The young man, with skin black as a silhouette, wore a tribal necklace with a cross hanging from it. He wore nothing else, anywhere else.

“Yasmine. Shit,” He repeated over and over, between the breaths he sucked in through his teeth.

Manny closed the door just as slowly as he had opened it. There had to be at least 250 people in this joint right now. Manny wondered who in the hell would go into a room, not lock the door, get completely naked and get busy at a party?

I guess that’s what older married couples do to keep their marriage exciting, Manny rationalized, trying to keep in his mind the perfect image of Westerlynne he’d always had. Manny was scared to try the other door but shit, he still had to pee. This time he knocked, the door swung open with such a fierceness Manny’s hand was still in knocking position as the tall brown skinned, clean cut man stared down at him.

“You lose something?” the tall man asked.

“Nah, I’m just looking for the bathroom,” Manny responded still a little shaken from what was behind door number one.

“You see one in here,” the tall man asked.

“Maurice, stop talking to that boy like that,” a gentle faced pregnant woman, looked to be in her late twenties or so, sat on a love seat in the dimly lit room. Her face was still wet from the tears Manny had obviously interrupted from falling. The air was thick.

“My bad, Man,” Manny said turning and walking back up the hallway he’d come down. The door slammed hard behind him.

Walking back into the party room everyone was now just kind of mingling about. Khia was looking salty, standing next to a silky head bright skinned brother. Khia was wearing the man’s khaki colored trench coat. Manny knew better than to say anything to her or the man. Both of their faces were screwed in a knot. Mrs. Lemon walked up from out of nowhere and spoke to the man.

“Good evening, Dr. Jameson. I didn’t think you’d be able to make it tonight. Yasmine told me you were called in to do a last minute surgery.”

“I finished up earlier than I thought and decided to swing by. I’m glad I did, too! Khia dressed like she doesn’t own an article of clothing large enough to cover herself with.” The doctor proclaimed.

Mrs. Lemon completely skipped past the ladder of Jameson’s conversation.

“Well, I’m so happy you could join us. Let me introduce you to Emanuel.”

This time it was Manny pretending to not be eavesdropping. He was turned facing the refreshments table acting like he couldn’t decide what to choose. He could hear footsteps nearing him.

“Emanuel, meet Dr. Terrance Jameson. Dr. Jameson, Emanuel Wright.” Manny turned around to face the man.

“Hello, son. Congratulations on your internship here at Westerlynne.” Dr. Jameson turned to his daughter and waved her to come over. “This here is my daughter, Khia, and somewhere around here is my son Terrance Jr. and my lovely wife, Yasmine.”

The DJ announced he was going to play a blast from the past, an old Biggie joint.

Chapter 6 Fingers in the Foyer

A soft digital purring ring came from the phone on the nightstand in room 314. It was barely loud enough to wake Manny. No matter. He hadn’t been asleep long. His eyes peeled apart slowly. He picked up in the middle of the fourth ring.

“Hello?” Manny answered.

“Good Morning, Mr. Wright. This is Louise from the front desk. This is your wake-up call. It’s six a.m., Monday morning and the temp is seventy-five degrees, with a sixty percent chance of rain.” Louise sounded older, like his aunt, maybe mid forties. Her voice was lively like she had been awake for hours.

Manny had been awake most of the night, himself. Between the two doors down the hallway and Khia Jameson’s pretty ponytail, the party had left Manny’s mind overflowing with questions.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Manny said.

“We can send room service up with breakfast, if you wish”
“Yes, please.”

“What will you be having,” Louise asked?

“Do you have French toast?” Manny’s could hear the soft sizzle of Aunt El’s toast frying in real butter.

“We sure do. Would you like to add a fruit topping?”

“Huh? Um, no, just syrup please.” Aunt El never added fruit to hers.

“As you wish, Mr. Wright. Our special on the menu today is Eggs Benedict. Would you like me to place you an order of that, as well?” Louise offered. Manny wondered what the hell that could be. He didn’t want to ask.

“No, thank you. Is there steak?”

“There’s always steak, Mr. Wright. How would you like yours cut and cooked?”

Manny was stumped and out of embarrassment of not knowing how to order it he decided to do without, “Um, never mind, cancel the steak. I’ll just have French toast, four pieces. Thank you.

“Got it. Room service will be right up with your order.”

While he waited on his French toast to arrive, Manny used the larger of the two bathrooms to get himself cleaned up. Walking into the shower was like entering a spaceship. Inside were two built-in seats, made of bamboo wood, to match the flooring. On the shower wall was a computer control panel with acupuncture massage, steam, and aromatherapy options. Manny pushed a few buttons and before he knew what hit him a minty rainfall began rejuvenating his most inner being. He let out a moan louder than he was comfortable with. He pushed another button and jazz music whistled while he washed. He tilted his head back and let the water soak into his dreads and run over his face.

No wonder rich people are able to bounce back after a long ass day, Manny thought as all his worries seemed to go down the drain. Manny wished his aunt could experience this. He knew she needed it and deserved it way more than he did.

Manny pulled down two of the folded towels from the shelf, one to wrap around his waist and one for his dreads. He sat on his bed and took his phone in his hand. He swept the bad idea he had, to call up Khia and spit a little sexy good morning game, into a corner in his brain. He called his aunt instead. Manny knew she was at work, which made it the perfect time to call. He could get away with just leaving a message.

“Hey, Auntie. It’s me, Manny. I was just checking in with you. Letting you know I’m good.” He thought about telling her about how nice his room was but he knew she would only have something negative to point out. He knew better than to tell her about the bullshit at the welcome party. She would have hopped in the Jetta and drove straight through the gates to save her nephew.

“Anyway, I love and…I miss you already. Alright. Bye”. Manny sat staring at his phone for a second after ending the call in disbelief that he was really missing Aunt El. Not her food or the care she provided, but her love. He had never before went a day without it.
Manny stood up and left the towel that used to be around his waist on the bed. He loved seeing his clothes in the regal looking dressers, even though his no name brand, over-worn clothes truly didn’t belong. This morning a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt served sufficient to eat breakfast in and then later to run down and get his marching orders from Mrs. Lemon.

A knock at the door turned out to be room service. A well put-together studious looking brother stood in the doorway balancing a silver dome covered dish on his white gloved hand.

“Here you are, sir. Enjoy” said the man.

Manny took the tray and told the man thank you. The man stood politely but did not move. Manny smiled an odd smile, looked to the side and closed the door slowly.

He sat down at the dining area and pulled the top off of the dish. There was four pieces of French toast with a generous warm cup of syrup as he had asked. There was also a steaming, juicy looking, steak and a side of scrambled eggs. A small bowl with sliced kiwi and strawberries inside sat on one side of the tray and a small cup of coffee on the other. Beside the coffee were two tiny cups of cream and a few sugar cubes. There was a small card folded down on the tray as well. Manny opened the card:

Mr. Wright,
I took it upon myself to add a little more to your breakfast order. I hope you do not mind. The steak is cut New York Strip style and cooked medium well. If you ever need any help with our menu or anything else throughout your stay, please ask. That is what I am here for.
Ms. Louise, front desk
P.S. Don’t forget to tip the room service

“Shit!” Manny ran back to the door but the gentleman that had brought him his breakfast was gone. It didn’t matter, Manny had no money. He closed the door and grabbed a glass from his cabinet and filled it with orange juice from his refrigerator.

The French toast didn’t have shit on El’s but it was good. The steak was definitely the best he’d ever tasted. Manny demolished everything that was brought to him including the coffee. He usually didn’t drink coffee but he could use the extra kick this morning. The excitement of being at Westerlynne mixed with the hot cup of coffee and that amazing shower were the perfect ingredients for a great first day.

When Manny got to Mrs. Lemon’s office she stood turned with her back to the door, her wide bottom pressed against the desk. The large digital clock read seven fifty-seven. Manny would have been down sooner if he wouldn’t have dripped a little of the syrup on his sweatpants. He hadn’t expected it to be that thin. At home the syrup was thicker and stickier. Manny stood in the small office wearing the black pants from last night. He kept on the sweatshirt hoping that it made the pants look different. Manny produced a cough and cleared his throat.

“Good morning, Mr. Wright,” Mrs. Lemon began her journey to turn around, slowly, to give her hips time to catch up with her feet. She shuffled and wiggled her butt while her petite painted hands pressed against the desk eagerly trying to assist her. He said good morning back and then looked around the room to give her hips and ass a little privacy.

“So, how was your first evening?” Mrs. Lemon asked, smiling wide. He hadn’t noticed before the gold tooth located on one of her top molars, highlighting the edge of her smile. Maybe because of the lighter colors she had wore previously. Today she was dressed in a navy blue pants suit. The gold tooth stood out like an accessory. He figured she was asking about his sleep being that she was at the party.

“I slept well,” Manny lied.

“Wonderful. Well, first order of business will be to shadow Maurice Hines, the detective.”
Sounds boring, Manny thought. Of all the careers to shadow, Manny thought this had to be the stupidest. A detective, no matter how good, didn’t make Westerlynne money.

“Sounds exciting,” he said.

Mrs. Lemon checked over what Manny had on and shook her head no.

“Today’s dress is business casual. I’m not sure what Maurice has in store for the day but he rarely ever dresses up. Business casual should cover it.”
She reached into the front drawer of the desk and pulled out a set of keys. She used one of them to unlock one of the desk’s bigger drawers. She pulled out two twenty dollar bills and two fives.

“This should handle lunch for the day, including the tip.” Mrs. Lemon stretched her arm to hand Manny the money. Manny walked toward the desk looking down in the drawer where she had just pulled the money from. A charcoal gray cash box with the top open, filled to the top with brand new dollars. Manny estimated it had about a thousand dollars in it, maybe more. Mrs. Lemon’s knee closed the drawer. Nothing else about her moved or changed. Manny took the money and said thank you.
“After your shadow, the day is yours. Maybe you should use your free time to get acquainted with some of the younger ladies and gentlemen of Westerlynne. It’s supposed to rain today, so I’m not sure how many people will be down at the club,” Mrs. Lemon shrugged her shoulders.

“ But if the weather lightens up, you should really get over there and introduce yourself.”

Manny nodded. “I will do that.” He wondered if Khia hung out at the country club.

Mrs. Lemon clapped her hands together.

“Alright. That is all. Your driver will be to pick you at nine-thirty to take you to the Hines residence. From there you will be with him until he is done with you.”

Manny took the elevator back up to his room.

Casual in the hood usually meant joggers, a t-shirt and basketball shoes. Manny matched a khaki pant with an orange polo. He stood in the mirror until he came to terms with the fact that this was as good as it got. He hoped it was business casual because there was no better option.

Shit, this is a church outfit, Manny thought to himself.

Rich people golf in shit we wear to job interviews.

Manny was standing outside of the hotel when a dapper man, seeming to be in his early 60’s, pulled up in a Lincoln MKT limousine. The man got out and walked around to the back door of the limo. His rich black skin was a direct contrast to the white hair on his face. The blue eyes that pierced through the driver’s dark skin, like marbles in tar, had taken Manny by surprise. He had never seen such a thing.

Westerlynne’s dark skin niggas have blue eyes, he thought and chuckled to himself.

“Good morning, Sir. My name is Ritz. I will be your driver throughout your stay here. I am at your service so you feel free to call me any time. Understand?” The blue eyes stared, waiting for a response.

Manny nodded. Ritz opened the door for Manny and he got in.

“Where to this morning?” Ritz asked, hopping in the driver’s seat.

“To Detective Hines,” Manny told him. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to have an address. If he was, he didn’t. All he had was a name.

“Detective Maurice Hines’ residence,” Manny clarified.

Ritz looked in the rear view mirror at Manny.

“Got it,” He said.

The old black limo driver didn’t say much on the five minute drive to Detective Hines home. Every so now and again, he would whistle a tune or tell someone who couldn’t hear him and wouldn’t listen to him if they could, to slow down or watch where they were going. Manny stared at the homes from out of the tinted window. Massive homes, they were, with pointed roof tops. Each house was different from the next. Personal and customized. Some had huge windows that let you see right into their living rooms. Others were hidden and barely able to make out through the bushy northern red oaks.
The limo stopped in front of a brick Tudor style home. A variety of plants filled a large bay window. There was a sport sedan BMW 750 parked in the over-sized driveway. Manny stepped out of the limo and it pulled off, but not before Ritz handed him his business card.

On the porch, was a medium sized box. It had no type of postage or anything but it seemed to be a delivery left by someone for Hines being that the box read “Hines” smack dab across the front of it. Manny took the box under his arm and knocked on the front door. The door opened. Like Déjà vu, the tall man from door number two the other night was looking down at him again. This time not nearly as angry but still not smiling.

“And so we meet again. Let me formally introduce myself. I’m DEA Agent Maurice Hines,” he said. He held out his hand to shake Manny’s but then noticed the box. His hand went limp.

“This was left on your porch. I thought you might want to bring it in. It’s supposed to rain.” Manny said looking into Hines’ eyes when he spoke. Hines seemed to be the type that would take advantage of a man if he noticed the space and opportunity. Manny wanted to set up their relationship of man to man instead of boy to man, off rip.

“Emmanuel Wright,” Manny’s hand was firm while they greeted. Hines took the package and led Manny into his home. They had only made it to the middle of the the foyer when Hines opened the box and then quickly threw it down. Manny watched in terror as four bloody fingers rolled out of the box and scattered across the shiny marble floor.

“What the fuck?” screamed Hines. Fear had stolen Manny’s voice and only air pushed past his lips when he tried to scream.

“Everything alright?” a woman’s voice called form upstairs. Hines frantically fell to the floor to gather the dismembered body parts.

The pregnant woman from the other night stood in a nightgown, holding her protruding stomach while she squinted from the top of the stairs.

“Everything, okay?” she asked again.

Hines stared at Manny, trying to read if he was the ride or die or the snitching type.

“Yes, Ma’am. I accidentally dropped my hash browns and got ketchup on your floor. My bad,” Manny improvised while he bent down and snatched up the last of the fingers that had landed at his feet.

“Maurice, if you yell at that boy one more time, I swear to God…” She said walking back away from the steps. “Let me get on my robe and I’ll come clean it up.” Manny handed the the finger, not attached to his hand, to Hines.

“I’m sorry, baby,” Hines chimed in taking the finger. He stuffed the mess back into the box from which it came and rubbed the blood from his hands onto his dark blue jeans.
“My dawg,” Hines said quietly. For the first time he smiled at Manny. Then, without missing a beat, he yelled back up the steps to his wife.

“Babe, we’ll get it up. You just relax. Last thing you need is to be down here scrubbing floors.”

Mrs. Hines never did come downstairs. Hines left Manny standing in the foyer to regroup, while he went and mixed up a concoction of peroxide, water, and dish soap. When he came back, he and Manny wiped the blood stains from the floor, in silence.

Hines looked at his watch. “We need to get out of here. Let me lock up and tell the Mrs. that we’re out,” Hines said turning around and punching in a numeric code into the alarm system. He ran upstairs to talk to his wife.

Manny stood there speechless. He looked at the spotless floor and pictured the fingers rolling out of the box. He let his eyes follow the ghost of their fall and remembered the sickening sounding thud they made when they hit the ground. Along the side of the steps camouflaging with the white paint of the staircase, was a small note. Must of fell out of the box when Hines threw it down. Manny bent down and picked it up:

SEVEN MILLION BY THE END OF MONTH OR WIFE AND BABY NEXT

Manny slipped the note into his pocket and waited for Hines to return.

Chapter 7 Maxine’s Diner

Instead of riding out in the BMW parked out front, they left the house through the garage and got into a matte black Dodge Challenger that sat on two pair of black twenty inch rims. The 35 percent tint on the windows prevented people outside the car from seeing inside at all. Manny sat down in the gray leather bucket seat. Hines pushed the button next to the steering wheel and the engine growled. Inside was decked out as if Batman himself rode in it. Once the car was on, a touchscreen laptop and police scanner unfolded from out of the dash.

They rode away listening to nothing but the grumbling sounds of the muscle car until the gate of Westerlynne was closing behind them.

Hines let out a loud sigh of relief.

“Thanks again, Man. You had my back, back there. I ain’t think you had it in you.” Hines looked at Manny like they had just become buddies, partners in crime.

Manny couldn’t conjure up a “You’re Welcome” for the life of him. For what, exactly? Hiding chopped off fingers from Mrs. Hines and cleaning up blood stains. He wasn’t even sure why he hadn’t just told her the truth or run out. Manny nodded and looked out of the window uncomfortably at nothing.

“Look, Youngin, I’m sorry to pull you into my shit like this. You just showed up to the wrong place at the wrong time,” Hines said.

“Fingers though, Nigga?” Manny blurted out. Many of times, he had found himself in a suspect place at an inopportune time, but he had never seen no shit like what he’d seen in the foyer of Detective Hines home this morning.

“Let me explain…” Hines started.

Manny interrupted, “Keep it real, too, nigga, because according to this letter, you ain’t got a lot of fucking time.” Manny retrieved the letter from his pocket and held it up for Hines to see. Hines snatched the letter from Manny and read the threat printed inside.

Manny stared at Hines, and watched as his emotions turned from anger to fear to nausea. Instantaneously, Hines veered over to the side of the road, slammed on the breaks, opened his door and tossed his cookies on the curb. When he positioned himself back into his seat, Manny couldn’t distinguish if the tears in Hines’ eyes were from crying or puking.

“Fuck!” Hines yelled, smacking his steering wheel. “Okay, fuck it. This shit is outta control.

Look, you in this shit with me or not?”

Manny looked at Hines who seemed to be quickly spiraling away from all imitations of sanity.

“Hey, I ain’t got shit to do with this,” Manny said putting both of his hands up as if he was under arrest.

“I mean you’re a cop can’t you just show the letter and the, um, box to some of your officer friends or whatever? Maybe they could trace the fingerprints. Shit, you have the fingers!”
Hines was obviously crying. He held his nose and mouth in his right hand as tears streamed down his face. Manny felt bad for Hines but this shit had nothing to do with him and so far, he had already bit off more than he could chew. Hines wiped his face with his hands.

“Ok,” he said trying to get control of himself. “You’re right. You don’t have anything to do with this but you do know what they gone find if they search that box for fingerprints, Youngin?” Hines was mad now.

“Hell, as far as I’m concerned you delivered the fucking box! I ain’t see no box before you got to my house! The way I see it, you’re just some hoodlum from the bad part of town trying to con me and my wife out of our hard-earned money. I could report your ass to the Westerlynne security right now and this whole little internship shit you have going for yourself… gone.”
“Man, please! You know this shit was going on way before I got here!”

“I don’t know what I know,” Hines said realizing he had gotten Manny’s attention. Hines had techniques to persuade a person into making the choice he wanted them to make. One of the first things he had learned in Interrogation.

A part of Manny was telling him to hop out of the car and call Mrs. Lemon, the police, his auntie, shit, anybody. If he could explain himself before Hines spread the lies, he could surely get someone to understand how he had ended up in this situation. On the other hand, another part of Manny was wondering if this was just the in he needed. Hines wanted a rider. Someone to have his back in whatever this mess was he had gotten himself into. If the situation wasn’t too crazy, Manny might be able to prove his worthiness and be taken up under Hines’ wing, like a son or little brother. AS of right now, after the three-month internship was over, Manny would be escorted back home by limousine to the west side of Columbus from where he had come from. Unless. Unless, he could prove to someone in Westerlynne that he was too valuable, way too essential, to be let go of.

Manny looked out of the car window as the rain poured down it.

“Who’s after you,” Manny asked. He could at least find out how bad it was.

“You mean after us?” Hines said, glaring at Manny.

Nah, nigga, I mean after you, Manny thought. He glared back

“Whatever,” Manny said.

“It’s a long story, I’ll fill you in over breakfast, you hungry?”

“No, I ate.”

“Ok, well I’m going to stop for coffee.”

Manny and Detective Hines sat across from each other at a window seat in a small mom and pops restaurant called Maxine’s Diner.

“Good mornin’, Detective. I thought maybe you weren’t comin’. Probably got held up in all that rain, huh?” A simple faced, mature white woman wearing a red button up dress shirt, jeans and a ruffled red apron walked up to where they sat. The dress shirt had “Maxine’s” written in cursive on the chest in white lettering.

“Yea, it’s coming down, Max,” Hines answered.

“You want your regular,” Max asked, clutching a small yellow notepad and blue ink pen in her hand. She chewed ferociously at her gum.

“Yes, thank you,” Hines said.

Max switched her almost friendly focus from Hines to Manny.

“And you, honey, whatcha want?”

“I’ll have a glass of water,” Manny said.

The lady nodded and scooted off.

Hines looked out of the huge window. The gloomy weather was fitting for the story he was about to tell.

“Alright,” Hines sighed, “ Three years ago, my partner and I was assigned a case. The goal was to infiltrate Borgella Cartel.”

“The who?” Manny asked.

“The Borgella Cartel.” Hines repeated. “It’s a Haitian drug cartel. They’re biggest cocaine trafficking ring in Haiti and a major midpoint for cocaine en route from Colombia to the United States.”

“Oh,” Manny said, kind of understanding. Kind of not caring.

“A few years ago, the Senator made it the DEAs top priority. He believed that cutting the Haitian and US ties here in Columbus would be beneficial in stopping the distribution throughout the Midwest. We were successful and after two years of building the case we went in and seized drugs and money from their major stash house during a routine exchange. Two hundred kilos of cocaine and ten million in cash.” Hines looked at Manny, earnestly. “Have you ever seen ten million dollars in cash, Youngin?”

Nigga, you know I ain’t seen ten million dollars in nothing.

Manny sucked his teeth, and his facial expression told Hines what he was thinking.

“Right” Hines said!

“I figured just a couple handfuls of that could change my entire life. I mean the money was going to rot in evidence for years and then who knows what the department would finally decide to spend it on. So, when the opportunity presented itself,” Hines paused then frowned, “I shaved four million off before turning it in.”

So that’s how a DEA agent gets to live in Westerlynne.

Hines checked to see how Manny was taking this information so far than focused back out of the diner window. Outside the rain was coming down even harder than before. He went on.

“My partner was shot and killed during the raid,” Hines said. “So, the final report was all on me. I turned in everything except for the four million I took.” Hines looked down and shook his head, then looked at Manny.

“You know, we aren’t too different, you and I,” he said.

Shiiiit, four million dollars! We are very different, Manny thought.

“I grew up in a small ass town about two hours north of Columbus, in a raggedy ass project housing with nothing but my hopes and dreams of making it out one day.”
He had Manny’s full attention.

“After I graduated high school, I moved here to go to the University. I loved the big city feel. So after I completed my DEA training in Virginia, I came back and made Columbus my home.
I met Kerris in college but we got more serious after we graduated. Dating her was biting off more than I could chew. She’s from a well to do family down in GA. When I asked her pops for her hand, he made me promise to give her at the very least, what she was accustom to. We got married and with her teaching and me on the force, we bought a nice little home not too far from Parkway Mall.”

“Oh shit, ya’ll was balling,” Manny slipped into the conversation and then back out again. The Parkway Mall area was definitely not to be scoffed at. Yet, no Westerlynne Ridge.

“It wasn’t like our shit now but it was nice, her father was happy, but I wasn’t satisfied. I had to show her pops that I could give her more than he ever could,” Hines covered his face with his large hands. Manny could tell he was spiraling downward again.

“What the fuck was I thinking?” Hines shook his head and slammed his hand down on the table, “I was just too fucking wet. I couldn’t wait any longer. Trying to impress Kerris and her uppity ass family.” Hines looked up to the ceiling, almost seemed to be praying.

“I knew when I took that money it was going to come back around to bite me in the ass. Now, I’ve put my family’s life in jeopardy.”

A different white lady, wearing the same shirt as Max, but much younger and prettier, strutted up to the table. She sat a glass of water in front of Manny and placed a straw down on the table. In front of Hines, she placed a small white mug along with a slightly tarnished carafe full of black coffee. He also had a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. The toast was smeared with butter and grape jelly spread in the shape of a heart. Manny wondered did they do that to all the toast. Or maybe just the grape-jellied, or maybe only for the detective.

“Thank you, doll,” Hines said. He winked at the girl.

The young lady smiled a flirtatious smile and switched away. Hines bit into his toast. The food calmed him a bit and he ate silently for a few minutes. Manny sipped at his water, not because he was thirsty but to avoid looking across the table. The rain outside was letting up.
Hines chewed and licked his lips. “Where was I?” He asked.

You were banging on the table and whining like a punk.

“You were too wet,” Manny said. Hines snapped his head to the side so much Manny wondered did it hurt.

“What you say?” Hines asked as he peered into Manny’s eyes to let him know they weren’t equals. Hines may have been in an unfortunate situation and sure, it had brought him to tears one too many times this morning, however, it were these same emotions that made him seconds away from strangling the next motherfucker to come at him crooked.

“You were saying…uh, how you were too wet and you knew you shouldn’t have taken the money,” Manny stuttered.

“Oh, right, right,” Hines shook his head and then an uncomfortable smile grew across his face. His eyes still somber. He went on, “I sat on the money for about three weeks. Went to work like everything was normal. No one at the office noticed the missing money. Still, at one point, I got so damned paranoid I thought about turning it back in but what the fuck would that help? I would’ve been fired and probably laughed at for being a such fucking pussy. Still, I hadn’t spent a dime.”

Manny couldn’t imagine having that kind of money at his disposal and not spending any of it.
“Finally, I caught a break. I’m watching the news one night and they were talking about an anonymous person hitting the Powerball for 4 million dollars but choosing to stay out of the public for safety reasons. It was like a gift from God. I told my family and colleagues it was me. I hit the lotto,” Hines admitted, a sense of pride trying to break through his emotional roller coaster.

“What about your wife? She ain’t want to see the ticket?” Manny asked, more cautiously this time, not wanting to strike another chord.

“I told her I had already turned it in to the Ohio Lottery Association.” Hines said as he stuffed eggs and toast into his mouth. “I told her it would be best for us to keep a low profile and to not tell anybody if it wasn’t necessary.” Then he added while shrugging his shoulders, “She ain’t have no reason not to be believe me and she could care less about the details once she seen that cash.”

Manny nodded. He understood keeping people on a need to know basis.

“That same day, I bought her the Beamer you seen parked out front my house and we turned in our application to purchase an estate in Westerlynne Ridge, that same week.”
Hines pushed his empty plate to the edge of the table and sipped his coffee, black.

Manny was still waiting for the story to add up to this morning. The fingers in the foyer. The note he’d slid in his pocket.

“We were living our dream until about two months ago. I started getting phone calls, first at the office then, starting last week, at my house.”

“What they say?” Manny asked.

“They would say shit like, ‘You’re gonna pay’ and ‘Borgella wants his money back.’”

“What would you say?” Manny asked.

“Nothing. I would just hang up. I didn’t want to panic because they might not really know shit and may have been fishing for information. You know, trying to get me to talk.” Hines lowered his voice and moved in closer to Manny, “Thing is, last week when they called my house, that’s when I knew it was real. They know too much and they asking for way more than what I took.”

“Damn, so this morning it just got extra real, huh?” Manny said, knowing the answer because he had witnessed it.

“Yea, man. That was they’re way of letting me know they ain’t fucking around.”

“Why they wait ‘til now to want they shit back? I mean you said you stole this money a year ago, right?” Manny asked.

“Because they’re just now finding out their money ain’t locked up in evidence,” Hines said as if he shouldn’t have had to.

“How they find that out?” Manny questioned.

Something had dawned on Hines that hadn’t before. Without even trying, Manny had given the detective exactly what he needed. A brand new puzzle . A way to start thinking logically. A way out of his emotions. A way out, period.

“Not how, Youngin. Who. Who the fuck in evidence is leaking information to Borgella? That’s the question.”

Hines reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He slapped a fifty-dollar bill on the table and stood up.

“Let’s go.”

The weather was just as flaky as Hines’ mood. The rain had now completely stopped and the sun was trying to make itself visible through the gray clouds. Manny pulled on the wet handle and got into the car.

“So, I wanna run something by you. Just listen, alright?” Hines peered at Manny.
Manny nodded.

“You have a good head on your shoulders and I could use a sharp thinker. A street kid, hungry and not afraid of the grind. A lot of dudes in the hood know me and I’m not going to get anywhere fast asking questions, but you, you could be my eyes and ears. You can get the answers I can’t. I promise to keep you out of danger and I’m willing to pay…a lot,” Hines offered.

There wasn’t any amount that could make Manny get involved with this mess. However, he just wanted the day over with no more cinematics. It was barely noon and his day had already been filled with too much horror and drama.

“I’ll think about it,” he offered.

Hines wasn’t pleased but he was patient.

Chapter 8  A Day at the Club

He mulled over his shoe options. Manny could either rock a pair of yellowish Reebok Classics, which in earlier stages were actually bright white, or the pair of black Chuck Taylor’s that Aunt El had surprised him with the day before he left because she thought he would “like something new to help him fit in with their rich asses.” They were, at least, new to him. The brown church shoes that curled up at the toe as soon as he took them off, were out of the question. He went with the lesser of three evils and chose the Chucks. He paired them with cargo shorts and a not so vibrant blue tank top. He let his dreadlocks hang free. Manny cringed unsatisfied with the makeshift outfit that reflected in the full-length mirror. He hadn’t used the fifty dollars yet, being that his outing with Hines ended before his appetite began, but Manny wasn’t sure if he was free to do as he wished with the money or not. Mrs. Lemon never told him if was supposed to give her receipts or change or anything like that. It was too early in the game to be messing up the churches money.
“Unh-unh,” He said aloud and pulled off the tank top. He looked at his other shirt options spread out on the bed. Faded colors and peeling appliques were one of the few things Manny had in abundance. He wanted to just call Mrs. Lemon and tell her he had become sick. Tell her wouldn’t be able to meet and greet down at the country club today. Maybe it was something he had eaten at the welcome party or better yet, something he had seen.

Fuck it, he thought grabbing a plain white T-shirt.

Manny hoped to see Khia today. Even though he didn’t feel like he looked like a million bucks, his longing to see here again outweighed his fear of showing up and not fitting in.

At the Westerlynne Ridge Country Club, Manny sat at a bench attached to a little picnic style table . He scanned over the spacious area. Nearby, there was an intense game of three on three basketball being played by a crew of boys who looked to be around Manny’s age. Many of the older men were playing golf out on the course, on even grass . The majority of the people at the club today, however were in the pool. Some doing laps, some wading. The tennis court wasn’t being occupied, at all. Manny thought about going and getting winners in the next basketball game.

A few young ladies sat at the pavilion, opposite Manny, gossiping and giggling. They all wore bathing suits and were sitting on their towels. A thick girl with a head full of wet curls, sitting with her legs crossed, smiled and waved. Manny waved back.

“Why are you sitting by yourself? Come over here with us, Emmanuel,” said the one with skin like a toasted almond who was wearing nothing but a bikini and a smile that stretched from ear to ear. Her two thick cornrows hung down past her shoulders. Manny went over and sat down, directly across from the curly head. She seemed to be the most welcoming.

Cornrows began, “So we were wondering,” The three girls looked at each other impishly and snickered. Manny coolly laughed along.

“So, you into Khia, or nah” a smooth husky voice asked. She must’ve only recently moved in because she still had a hood twang.

“Oh, my God, Sasha. You have no chill,” The thick girl with wet curls said.
Sasha was a skinny thing. Pale skinned girl with long features. She rocked a golden colored afro to match a gorgeous set of hazel eyes.

“Shut up, Dominique,” Sasha pointed playfully at the curly headed girl across form Manny. Dominique smiled and shook her head. Sasha went on, “We seen you at the party tee-hee-heein’ all up in her face.” Sasha looked over Manny, awaiting a response.

“Yea, I’m feeling her,” Manny said smiling back. The creases at his cheeks growing deeper.

The girls “awwwed” simultaneously like they were watching the kissing scene from their favorite chic-flick. Sasha placed a hand on her chest to indicate where his comment had touched her.

“Where is she?” Manny asked.

“I don’t know what she’s up to today,” Dominique answered before the others could. The other girls let her tell it. There faces said, If there was anyone to ask, it was her.

“She hasn’t called me back yet,” Dominique added. Her curls were starting to dry in the sun’s heat.

“Oh, okay,” Manny said, nonchalantly, although he was itching to lay eyes on Khia again. He would’ve loved for her to be sitting here, too. In a two-piece, chocolate skin dripping wet, her shiny hair sticking to her face.

Not-as-pretty girls watched as Manny tried to play off his disappointment and wished they had someone as engrossed in them as he was with Khia. They were used too it, however. Khia was always picked first. That light skin/dark skin shit went out the window with her. Her beauty spoke beyond skin color. She was every man’s preference. In high school, even the white boys were fiending for her. It wasn’t just her perfect complexion, or the satin mane that fell to the middle of her back, but the air she walked in was different. Confidence, sass, pride and a bit of mystery surrounded her. They bounced in her walk. Spilled of her lips when she spoke. Got you drunk, hungover and needing more. Her presence commanded the respect and attention of a king. Mediocre men knew not to even step. Manny surely wouldn’t have tried his weight if she hadn’t have did that dance for him. If it hadn’t been for that Drake song.

He had unknowingly turned all the girls at the pavilion to mush on the inside. Living vicariously through their gorgeous friend, they were cheering him on and hoping he would get to see who he was obviously here for. Cornrows sat with her chin in her hands, eyes dreaming. Dominique was smiling, as if the love connection was already said and done.

“She might swing by,” Sasha said. Her hazel eyes peered into Manny’s, trying to read him. Diagnose him. He was love-sick and she felt a little sorry for him.

The boys on the court must have sensed another alpha in their territory because all six of them were headed to the table, looking like lions ready to pounce.

“Hey Dominique,” The boy holding the basketball said. He was an average height, plain looking young man. Like his entire team, he wore basketball shorts and fresh J’s. Manny checked his own gear over, praying that he was being too harsh on himself and looked better than he thought.

“Hey Chance,” Dominique said wryly not looking at the boy.

“Damn, so that’s the only body you see sitting here?” Sasha asked rolling her eyes, causing them to glitter in the sunlight.

The boy looked around the table. His expression said he couldn’t find anyone else of significance.

“Ugh, your so rude,” Sasha said scrunching her nose up like she had gotten a whiff of dog poop.

Another boy, taller than Chance but not as sturdy, offered out his hand to Manny. Manny went to shake it but he must’ve been too slow because the boys hand was already pulled back up to his naked chest.

The guys laughed and gave each other dap to confirm an unspoken one-up.
Sasha and Dominique sat unamused. Cornrows laughed.

The tall slim boy popped down next to Cornrows and kissed her on the lips.
“Corey, that was unnecessary” Dominique said disgusted.

Corey looked at Dominque and frowned at her unsolicited opinion. He looked at Chance and new better than to speak on it.

“Aww, we were just joking with him,” Chance said grabbing at Dominique’s hand.

“Don’t touch me,” Dominique threatened to smack the smirk off Chance’s stupid face. He looked at her annoyed and then carried the same face over to Manny.

“So why are you sitting over here with the ladies, Emmanuel. You didn’t see us down there playing ball. You’re not afraid of a little three on three, are you?” Chance asked.

“I ain’t scared of shit?” Manny responded standing up.

“Good and from the looks of it you’re already prepared.” Chance pointed at Manny’s shoes. Manny prayed the boy was finished.

“Look like my boy here, got those shoes handed down to him from Chuck Taylor himself.”

Now, the only one who didn’t laugh was Dominique and Manny who both looked ready to throw up. Dominique from hearing too much of Chance’s voice and Manny from being in the situation he had feared most.

“Like, I said before, I ain’t scared of shit,” Manny lied. He wasn’t scared of corny ass Chance or his weak cohorts, but he was terrified of this exact moment. Being looked over, measured and evaluated, and then deduced not good enough. It took everything in Manny to not make Chance pay with a black eye and busted lip, however, he was outnumbered and even more importantly, here as only a guest. He couldn’t slip up and lose his internship. He could, at least, handle himself well on the court.

“Bet you won’t be talking this shit after I beat your ass on the court…,” Manny paused and then pointed at the shoes that had gotten him in this mess. “with these Chucks Taylors’ on, Carlton,” He spat.

Chance winced at the comparison. Then he quickly wiped away the fear of being beat in front of Dominique and replaced it with a contemptuous smile. He winked at his pack and they followed him down to the court.

“First team to 10. You have to win by two,” Chance shouted. Each regular shot would be one point and each deep shot, would be worth two points to make it tougher to get to 10 points. Sasha and Cornrows were sitting on the benches on the outside of the court. Dominique had parted ways. She had been saved by a phone call. Manny didn’t get so lucky.

Chance picked Corey and another boy hovering around 6’3. Manny looked at the leftovers. A boy who stood 4’11, on his tippy toes and weighed about 200lbs, not soaking wet, was already stretching it out on the court. A gangly 6’1 character with the form of a praying mantis just stood smiling snidely, rubbing his hands. The last one looked normal enough, at least compared to the other two. He stood 5’11 with an athletic build. Manny chose him first and then supposed it was best to at least use the praying mantis for his height. The bowling ball rolled over and sat with Sasha and Cornrows.

Chance looked at Manny and shouted, “Make it, take it. Your shot.” Manny grabbed the basketball ball and watched his shot fall like water. Swoosh, into the net. His team would get to have the ball first.

“Check-up,” Manny shouted. He rocketed the pass to 5’11, who took the shot. A beautiful, well-planned structured shot that made basketball look like art.

Chance and his team all moved out the way. Chance screamed out, “Self-guarded!” Then him and his boys busted out laughing. The ball kept flying until it was over the backboard.

“What the fuck was that?” Manny yelled at 5’11.

“I don’t even like basketball. I’m a beast at rugby tho,” 5’11 quipped back, as if anyone cared.

Then why the fuck are you out here on the court! Manny thought.

Corey ran to the top of the three-point line.

“Check ball,” he yelled out. Chance maneuvered himself around a clueless 5’11 to grab the pocket pass from Corey. He cut to the basket for an easy layup.

“What the fuck are ya’ll doing,” Manny screamed at his teammates. Clearly, 5’11 and Praying Mantis could care less about playing defense.

“That’s one point,” Chance laughed. “This is going to be easy,” Corey said and shook his head. Then he yelled, “Check ball.” Manny struggled to defend all three of his opponents. However, whoever he wasn’t guarding, was scoring. Sooner than later, Chance’s team had won the game with the six-foot-three kid dunking and hanging from the rim for the final point.

Manny was tired and furious and if he was honest, he could add hurt and embarrassed to the list. The long walk to the limo, with Chance and his boys laughing behind him, added insult to injury. He had to get these lames back but he also had to keep a good report with the powers that be in Westerlynne. Manny had something in mind.

Ritz was standing, away from the limo, against a small dogwood tree, enjoying a cigar. Manny took out his cell phone and rang Hines.

“Before we head out this bitch pretending to be Batman and Robin, I need to know where I’m gon play a part in all of this and what I’m gon get for it?” Manny blurted into the phone.

Hines didn’t seem surprised and for once his mood was unwavering. He was as chill as he was when he dropped Manny off the day before.

“I was just thinking about you Youngin’. I’m glad you called. I can pay you $100,000 cash by tomorrow morning, if you will be my eyes and ears in the street. If we are successful at stopping the hit on me and my family, I will pay you another $400,000. That’s a half million dollars, Youngin. What do you say to that?”

Truth is, Detective Hines had Manny at $100, 000. Tomorrow. Cash. Manny was sold. The rest was just icing on an already eaten cake. Manny held back the urge to shout “Hell Yea, It’s Going!” and simply stated, “Cool.”

“Alright, Robin it’s me and you. I’ll get you a vest and gun by no later than tomorrow evening. I’ll only call you when I need you. After tomorrow we won’t be seen outside of Westerlynne together. Got it?” Hines asked

Gun? Thought Manny.

“Got it” he replied.

“Alright. Let me go. I gotta get to the bank.”

Chapter 9 Money Matters

Detective Hines was looking like he might turn out to be a man of his word, because sure enough, Manny was sitting on his bed, the next morning, counting the one hundred piles of bills for the second time. Each stack worth a thousand dollars. Manny couldn’t believe his eyes. He wanted to call his boy Brandon but that was against the first rule of the agreement Hines had went over with Manny when he had dropped off the bag.
“Rule 1. Don’t tell anyone about the situation or the negotiation.”

“Rule 2. If we just so happen to run into each other outside of Westerlynne; You Don’t know me”

“Rule 3. Always, always, always wear your vest outside of Westerlynne. You’re no good to me if your chest is blown open.

Manny’s schizophrenic thought process was all over the place. Deprived Manny thought about heading to the mall and buying every pair of Jordan’s, and Timb’s in sight. Maybe have Ritz come pick him up in the limo and take him back down to the Country Club so he could stunt a taste. Bitch smack Chance and his pack of laughing hyenas with the back of his new pistol. He thought about taking Aunt El a couple stacks, partly to show his appreciation for all she had done for him but also to prove to her that Westerlynne was the right choice.

Entrepreneurial Manny was wondering what he could do, who he could talk to, to flip at least half of this money into something bigger. He knew it took money to make money and now that he had some, he was already doing the math on how he could make sure that he’d always have it. Then there was Vigilant Manny, who was more than ready to put all the money back into the duffel bag and give it back to Hines. This Manny was sitting in the backseat, however. Deprived Manny was driving.

Manny set aside 5 stacks and then placed the rest of the money back in the bag. He pulled out his phone and scrolled through his contacts. Manny had punched the limo driver’s info from the business card into his phone. Ritz Montgomery was his name.

“Good morning, Mr. Wright. How can I be of service?” Ritz’s voice was rich and strong.

“Good evening. I wanted to go to the nearest mall and maybe if we have enough time, I’d like to see my auntie back on the West side.”

“You got it, Sir. I’ll be there in ten.”

Manny looked over at the cash laying on his bed. Too much to fit into his wallet, he stuffed it all into a pocket in his cargo shorts. It wouldn’t lay flat. It bulged and spilled stupidly from it. He looked at himself in the mirror.

“I ain’t ever had these kind of problems,” he said, his reflection grinning back at him like the Cheshire cat.

Manny split the money up and put a thousand dollars in 5 different pockets including the two big baggy ones that sat just above his knees.
Twenty-five minutes later, Ritz pulled up to the Parkway Mall entrance and Manny got out.

“I’ll be just five minutes away. Take your time. Just ring me when you’re ready to head out.”

People coming and going, watched Manny, curiously, trying to figure out who had just shown up via limousine. He dropped his shoulders and added a little extra swag to his usually upright walk.

“First thing first” Manny said to himself, “I have to get some new kicks.”

Upon his entrance into the shoe store, multiple guys, all close to Manny’s age and overly friendly , offered to help him with his choice and for once his answer wasn’t “I’m just looking.”

Manny looked at the dark-skinned boy in front him. He was rocking a crispy drop fade with a deep part. He was wearing the signature striped shirt that all the employees wore but at his feet his were a shiny black and white pair of Jordan’s.

“What are those?” Manny asked the young man.

“These are the Concord 11’s. We don’t have them in anymore. They sell out within the first hour they drop. I do have a website I could order and have them sent to your house but the price has um…,” He looked at the shoes Manny were currently wearing and assumed he might as well go another direction with this conversation.

“The Retro 5’s just dropped today if you wanna look at those,” the young brother said.

Manny scrunched his brow and gave the boy the “negro, please” face.

“I’ll take both”

“What?”

“As a matter of fact, I’ll take those Timb’s in the green and the brown, as well,” he said pointing at the boots on display.

Manny left the shoe store with two pair of basketball shoes and two pair of boots. He also ordered the Concord 11’s costing him almost $700 alone.

The cargo shorts and white tee Manny had on actually looked fresh with his addition of the Jordan ones in all white. After hitting a couple more stores the bags were adding up and Manny’s pockets were finally feeling lighter. He now had attire for all occasions, including accessories. He pulled out his phone.

“I’m right outside. Pulling around to the front now, Sir,” Ritz answered.
Inside the limo, Manny scrolled through his contacts until he reached the K’s and took a deep breath.

The phone rang three times and then there was a lively recording:

“Hey! This is Khia Jameson, sorry we missed each other. I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m available, …well, that’s if you leave a message. Bye.”

“Hey Khia, what’s up. This is Manny, umm, you met me the other night at the party.”

Damn, I know that sounded stupid. I should hang up…ugh… That would be weak.

“So, you say you want to see what it do in the hood, right?” Manny laughed into the phone, uneasily. He hoped that by the time it reached Khia’s ear it sounded cool.

“Anyway, I was headed home for a minute and didn’t want to break my promise. I see you’re busy tho, so maybe next time.” Manny ended the call slightly disappointed not to be hooking up with Khia but kind of relieved that he could just relax for a minute. He didn’t have to put on for anyone else today. Being judged was hard work. He sat back in the soft leather seat and let Ritz drive him home.

“They taking care of my baby out there? Feeding you, good?” Aunt El asked not needing an answer. She spooned a large portion of hot-out-the oven mac and cheese on to a glass plate then added two pieces of fried catfish and a piece of bread. She used her hand to grab up some pieces of fried okra, which sat on a greasy paper towel inside a bowl on the stove, and laid it down on Manny’s plate.

“Hmm,” she said pushing the plate at Manny who was already seated at the table. Manny grabbed the hot sauce that sat in the middle of the table along with the rest of the never changing décor, including a fake crystal set of salt and pepper shakers, a collection of old mail, and a small orange plastic cup that held toothpicks and a couple writing pens. Manny gave the bottle three good shakes and then opened it up. Aunt El had taken a seat opposite him and was prepared to watch him eat when it hit her she had forgotten his drink.

“Oh shit, I’m gon’ choke you! Want some iced tea or some Kool-Aid?” she asked as if both their lives depended on it. Manny decided on the Kool-Aid. He was here to let his hair down.

Manny ate silently. When he stuffed into his mouth the last piece of bread sopped in crunchy fish crumbs and hot sauce, he was trying to remember to keep his innocent eyes from not seeming too hungry but his greedy mouth moved so ferociously it counteracted the game plan.

“Mmhm,” Aunt El murmured. She made two more plates, the same as the one Manny had just made disappear, and wrapped them in foil. She tossed both plates on the counter space next to the stove and breathed loudly to substitute for all the things she wanted to say. Aunt El walked over to Manny. She grabbed her nephew by the shoulders and shook them lightly. Then she grabbed his face and brought it close enough to where she could kiss it.

“There’s some mail on your bed,” Aunt El said taking a step back and smiling.
Manny looked at his Aunt to ask what had come for him.

“I ain’t open it. I know you don’t like me opening your stuff,” Aunt El said waving him to go on and get it.

“Thanks, Auntie” Manny said walking off toward his room.

College acceptance letters responding to last minute applications that Manny had filled out after fretting that ITAV foundation wouldn’t choose him. Manny tossed them into a wastebasket next to his bed. Quickly he retrieved them. He pulled out the empty tattered Converse shoe box from under his bed and placed the unopened letters in the box. He retrieved all the change he had left in his pockets from shopping earlier and placed it in the box, as well.

Manny sat with his Aunt for a little while longer, telling her about the people he had met and things he’d gotten into while away. He left out the part about what he had saw behind the game show doors at the party and the shit he’d gotten himself into with Hines. He told her about Khia, who Aunt El summed up as “fast and curious” and about Ritz, his personal limo driver, which his aunt responded “mm hmm, I seen his black ass outside.”

Aunt El went to the bathroom and Manny slipped into her room and placed five hundred dollars under her pillow. He quickly went back and stood in the living room and waited for her to come out.

“Leaving?” Aunt El asked when she walked in the room and seen Manny up on his feet.

“Yea, I have a busy day tomorrow” Manny lied. He hadn’t a clue what was on the agenda. The lie however reminded Manny that he had completely forgot to check in with Mrs. Lemon this morning. The money, the shopping, the entire arrangement had swallowed his mind up whole and he hadn’t thought of the internship since Hines gave him the duffel bag. A sense of panic came over Manny but soon left when he thought about the fact the he’d be rich regardless once he finished this shit with Hines. The Internship at best, was now just a way to increase his small fortune and at the very least, a cover for his new role as Robin. Still, he’d check in with Mrs. Lemon first thing in the morning.

“Really? What them crazy ass people got you doing?” She asked.

“Aunty,” Manny said sucking his teeth at his Aunt’s name-calling. He didn’t know the answer to her question.

“I’m sorry, baby.” Aunt El lied. She wasn’t, not even in the least bit. “What was them letters on your bed?” she asked, smiling as if she already had read them. Manny didn’t put it pass his aunt to take a fingernail file to his mail, read it then neatly repair it and give it to him as if nothing had ever happened.

“I dunno yet. I’m taking them with me. I’ll read them when I got back to my room,” he lied again.

“Alright baby, I love you and I’m so happy you came home to see me, tonight,” Aunt El spoke truth.

“Love you too, Auntie,” Manny followed suit.

Aunt El grabbed his face and kissed it a few more times, praying to leave some of herself behind on her one true love to protect him while out of sight. She wiped her face dry.

“Come back soon, baby. I’m lonely here all by myself. I’m going to have to find me a man,” Aunt El joked or at least Manny prayed she was. He cringed.

“Oh and yes,” Aunt El remembered, “grab them plates off the stove on your way out. One is for you, one is for your friend who waited on you out there all this time. I know his black ass gotta be hungry,” she laughed and waved out the door at Ritz, who was alerted by Aunt El turning on the porch light.

Ritz nodded and waved back.

Manny grabbed the plates and left, his aunt staring out of the screen door his entire walk to the car. From inside the car Manny watched Aunt El’s silhouette shake its head and walked off into into its own world.

Ritz was still staring at the spot where Aunt El stood. He looked lost in thought. Puzzled. Manny handed him the hot plate and he was more delighted to get the food than Manny had imagined he would be. Ritz drove away from the house, but paused longer than necessary at the stop sign at the end of the street. He pulled the foil off his plate, grabbed a piece of fish and pressed it into his mouth. Sucking his tongue to savor the flavor, he let out a “mmm, mmm, mmm” as he chewed and then cleared his throat.

“Mr. Wright, your mother sure put her foot in this cat fish,” Ritz was looking at Manny through the mirror. The street lights glowing into the car made it possible for them to see each other in the, otherwise, too dark limo. He stared, waiting for an answer to a question he hadn’t asked.

“Um, that was my Auntie, sir” Manny replied.

Ritz made a noise that at the very least let Manny know he had heard him. His eyes averted back to the plate of food. He used a handkerchief that was stuffed in a pocket on the inside of his jacket to wipe his mouth. He recovered the plate, Manny assumed it was so he could eat later, at a more opportune time. However, the car still did not move.

“How long you been staying here? In this neighborhood, that exact house?” Ritz asked, not so casually, at the same time sucking deliciously seasoned cornmeal from his teeth and peering at Manny through the mirror.

“All my life, sir” Manny answered again, wondering why the sudden interrogation.

“Yeah…yeah,” Ritz said nodding.

“And you about what, eighteen now, nineteen years old, huh, Mr. Wright?” Ritz went on with his twenty-one questions.

“Um, yep. I’ll be nineteen coming up in December.” Manny looked away from Ritz’s beady blue gaze and started picking at the foil on the rim of his own plate. The silence was louder than anything Manny had heard all day.

Oh, my God. Why aren’t we moving? He thought.

“Nineteen in December,” Ritz repeated, not answering, not telling, just saying. Perhaps remembering. He was looking at Manny through the same mirror but now as if he was a completely different person than who he’d been chauffeuring around all day. Not the way you would a stranger in your backseat, however. He was looking over Manny the way you’d look at old friend or foe, even.

Ritz cleared his throat again and finally pulled off.

Chapter 10 Commune

“Good morning, Mr Wright. This is Raele at the front desk,” a soft voice said into Manny’s ear.

“Aww. What’s up Raele?” Manny interrupted Raele before she could finish the “this is your wake-up call” speech. So far it had always been Louise. Manny was happy to hear the change. He adjusted the phone and got a little more situated in his bed, like they were about to chop it up like old friends.

“What’s up Emmanuel,” Raele laughed. Manny imagined her smile and smiled back.

“Where is Louise ?” Manny asked just to make small talk. Louise was cool and all but he couldn’t care less about her fifty-plus-year old whereabouts.

“It’s my week to work mornings. She’ll be working the desk tonight,” Raele answered.

“Oh, ok.I was wondering where you’ve been.”

“Yea, I had a few days off. Took my daughter to the little indoor amusement park up in Cleveland.”

“You have kids.”

“Yes, Nosy, I have a kid. ” Raele replied defensively but her smile was still evident through her tone.

“My bad. I just meant you don’t look like you have kids. That’s all.” Manny back peddled.

“Don’t nobody care what you meant, boy.” Raele laughed. “Anyway, this was your wake-up call. Wake your ass up. Bye” Raele hung up.

Manny grabbed his cell phone. No missed calls or messages. He checked his social media. He had quite a few new friend requests and followers. Probably people who had heard he’d gotten the internship. Wanted to see what he was posting. He snooped on Khia’s page. She hadn’t added any new photos since he last checked, last night.

Manny took a shower. He was getting used to the luxuries of Westerlynne. The soft rhythm and blues spraying down over his face smelling like patchouli and sweet orange this morning was starting to feel standard. Like he would never have it any other way. Using the bag of money stashed under the bed, he planned to keep it that way. Yet, he wasn’t sure how.

**********

Manny chose to skip room service and eat what his aunt had sent back with him. After breakfast, he dipped himself in all new clothes, from head to toe, and it felt right. Like it was how it was always supposed to be.

The space in front of the elevator was packed with a line of people still in their pajamas, waiting to go down to the lobby for breakfast. Manny hit a hard left and took the stairs down to Mrs. Lemon’s office. He had already practiced the speech, a lie, about why he hadn’t shown up yesterday. To his surprise her office door was closed an locked. A small chalkboard sign hung from a small hook in the door. On it was written “Community Meeting at 11 am. ”

Manny decided to go around to the front of the lobby and see Raele. She grinned when she saw him walk up.

“Why you hang up on me?” Manny asked, dimples on display.

“Why were you all in my business?“ Raele answered his question with her own. Her twist-out was wavy and big. Her tiny frame was being swallowed up by her Westerlynne Hotel and Suites uniform, a yellow dress shirt tucked into black pleated slacks and a metal rectangular name tag pinned just over her right breast.

“My bad,” Manny laughed. “But you were still wrong for hanging up on me like that. I thought we were cool.”

A white middled aged man in business attire walked up to the front desk and handed Raele his room keys. Manny stepped aside to let her work. She turned on her “the customer is alright right” voice and checked the man out of his room. Seconds later, she had turned back into a “down ass chick”. Manny needed to know her story.

“So, where are you from? I know you don’t live here in Westerlynne,” Manny asked her.

“Hell no, I don’t live here. I wish I had it like that.” Raele answered.

“I feel you,” Manny chimed back. They looked at each other and shared a “SMH” moment.

Manny pushed his head closer to Raele and lowered his voice, “These motherfuckers got it made.”

“You don’t know the half,” Raele added. “You’ve only been here barely a week. Boy, wait ‘til the end o f this internship. If you make it that far,” Raele said.

“Why you say that? If I make it?” Manny asked.

“Not all of the interns before you made it three months. These folks be into some weird shit,”Raele said. Her skinny eyes tried their best to widen to add a touch of dramatic flair to her tale. Manny’s mind immediately went back to the dim hallway at the welcome party.

“Damn, what happened to them?” Manny asked.

Raele pushed her head back, her brow wrinkled with question.“You really haven’t heard?” she asked. Her voice almost a whisper.

Manny shook his head slowly, unsure he wanted to know.

A young couple walked up and handed Raele their keys. Her face was serious. She held up an index finger to let Manny know to hold on.

“I’ve only worked here for two years, so some of it’s hearsay, but the last two I seen with my own two eyes,” Raele started as she walked back to the part of the desk where Manny was waiting.

“Well, just tell me the shit you seen. I don’t need to know the gossip,” Manny said. Raele pursed her lips. The one eyebrow lifted told Manny that wasn’t shit she was about to say “gossip”.

“So, Evan White, he was the intern here the summer I started, stayed here at the hotel for a little over a month. On one of his career shadows I guess he saw something he ain’t like and tried to go to the police. They turned that shit around on him and had his entire family in court. Broke their asses worse off then what they were to begin with. A month later, Evan was found dead. Gunned down in a park in his own neighborhood. Do you know they had the nerve to have the hotel staff send his family flowers?” Raele paused for his response.

“So what you think? Somebody here killed him?” Manny asked.

“I don’t know who did it. I just know the shit don’t read.”

“What about the last year’s intern? What happened to him?” Manny asked.

“Elijah. I forget his last name. Nobody knows where he’s at. He left here right before his internship was over. I’m talking days before. Never went home. Never came back here. Just gone. His family still calls here sometimes asking if we’ve seen him,” Raele said.

He wasn’t sure if it was the look on Raele’s face or the bullshit he knew was already a part of, but he felt an eeriness about the air. Like he was listening to a horror story. Like he was being warned. However, there was no chance in hell Manny was walking away from this golden opportunity to change his life. They’d about have to drag him out in handcuffs to get rid of him, now.

“That shit is crazy but for real it could just be coincidence. The first dude was from the hood so I mean, it’s unfortunate but he ain’t the first nigga to be gunned down in a park. Probably by one of his own hating ass friends,” Manny said.

Raele looked unconvinced.

“The other one ain’t dead. His ass probably just got scared off by you and these wild ass tales,” Manny grinned.

Raele’s frown turned up and she laughed, finally, breaking up the tension in the air.

“Emmanuel, just be careful. The rich can be ruthless. This I know,” Raele said, staring earnestly into Manny’s eyes. Manny could now see the mother in her. A line was forming at the desk. More and more people were checking out.

Manny checked his phone. It was half past ten. He decided to peace Raele out and go change into formal business attire before heading next door to the community center.

**********

Much like what would have happened in the hood, the important Westerlynne community meeting ended up turning into a party. After committee members discussed the issues at hand, the same DJ from the welcome party strolled in with a laptop and got the party started. Manny felt way more confident in his new attire. He could see Khia sitting with her father and his wife across the way. They caught each other’s eye and Manny could feel his breath getting lost. He would wait until she was alone to talk to her. For now, he just smiled and nodded. He gave the same greeting to Dr. Jameson and Yasmine. Yasmine was trying to pull her husband out to the dance floor. He declined and used his fingers to slick back his dark waves. Yasmine sat down next to him with her arms crossed like a bratty little girl.

Mrs. Lemon found Manny through the crowd. She waved him over to her. Manny went over the lines in his head.

“Emmanuel, I am so sorry I was ill the other day. I hope you got the message I left you on the chalkboard,” she said.

Manny nodded slowly. He swallowed the sour lies sitting on the tip of his tongue.

“How have you been getting by?” She asked, grinning as if there was no way the answer could have been negative.

“Every thing’s been going great,” Manny said.

“Oh good! I knew you would love Detective Hines and his sweet wife, Kerris. Aren’t they just a power couple,” she stepped back and waited for his answer.

For a second it ran through Manny’s mind to spill the beans on the detective and his twisted ways, but then he looked down at the $250 pair of burgundy Stacy Adams alligator skin loafers on his feet and remembered his own crooked deal. He remembered Evan White.

“Yep, they are an interesting couple,” Manny said.

“Well there are so many more interesting people and families here in Westerlynne for you to meet. I am so pleased that you have been making yourself known,” Mrs. Lemon said squeezing Manny’s shoulder. “I am going to set something up for you to meet with the Jameson Family. The Dr. is a very busy man, so I’ll get back to you on that one.” Mrs. Lemon winked and waddled back into the crowd.

Hines was lurking up against a nearby wall, tucked into its shadowed corner. Manny could tell by the lame grin he was sporting that he had purposefully overheard him and Mrs. Lemon’s conversation.

“You did good,“ Hines said and nodded. “I like your suit …and are those gators?” Hines enthusiastic tone didn’t match his facial expression. Then he added, “Watch yourself, Youngin. The last thing you want to do is draw any extra attention to yourself right now.”

“Nobody knows me. They don’t know where I got this stuff from.” Manny explained.

“And you don’t know them. You have to be smart,” Hines stated pointing to his head. Mrs. Hines was sitting only some feet away. Manny wondered was she pretending not to hear. She looked back and smiled sweetly at Manny. She waved and went back to devouring pickles dipped in ranch dressing.

She’s oblivious, Manny thought.

“OK, my bad,” Manny replied. Hines was right. Manny didn’t need people asking him questions he wasn’t prepared to give answers to. Hines looked over Manny’s tailored Italian chino suit. The legs of the pants tapered into his ankles so his shoes could make their debut. The muscles in Hines’ face began to soften.

“I’ll tell you one thing, Youngin. You sure have good taste.” He smiled.

Manny snickered, “Thanks, man.”

With that, Detective Hines sat down next to his wife.

The DJ played something sexy by Jill Scott and the new crowd made their way to the dance floor. So, he wouldn’t look like something from a R. Kelly step video, Manny removed his jacket and left it at his table. He buttoned his collar of his dress shirt and stepped out on the floor himself. He moved smooth and mellow like the song. Pretended to be dancing with the chocolate beauty that was slowly gyrating by herself in the corner. She was trying her hardest to keep her cookie tamed. Manny could sense it trying to get his attention. He winked at her. She smiled in response. He went to her.

“What’s up, Miss Twenty-Four K,” he said.

Khia laughed. “You’ve been stalking my Instagram?” she asked playfully.

Manny nodded and grinned. His dimples snatched at Khia’s cookie. She crossed one of her legs in front of the other one to keep it in tact.

“What’s your username? I’m going to have to follow you,” she said and stuck her hand in her pocket.

“MannyFresh97,” he told her. She pulled out her phone and added him, right then and there.

“Did you get my message the other day,” he asked. At the same time, she said, “I got your message the other day.” They laughed at their in-sync brain waves. Manny nodded.

“I was out of town, on a college visit. My father made me go,” She rolled her eyes back and shook her head.

“Oh really, what college?” Manny asked.

“Spellman,” she answered with no sentiment at all.

“Oh. Okay.” Manny nodded.

“But, I’m not even sure college is for me. You know what I mean?” she asked Manny.

“I know exactly what you mean,” he answered.

“Right. Like there’s plenty of people who’ve made something of themselves without going to college. Steve Jobs, Racheal Ray. He’s not trying to hear any of that tho,”

“Who’s not?” Manny asked.

“My dad.” Khia laughed. “I’m sorry. I’m getting completely off topic” She batted her dark eyelashes. “I was super salty I couldn’t take you up on your offer.”

“It’s all good. What are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked her. It had already been too long. He’d thought about her everyday since he last saw her. He would’ve tried for tonight if it wouldn’t have made him seem too thirsty.

“I’ll have to check my calendar but I think I’m free,” she was looking in her phone trying to pull up the calendar application.

“Okay, I see you,” Manny said. He held his fist up to his mouth. He walked behind her and looked with her at the calender. She smelled like dessert. He contained his inner Cookie Monster.

“Well, you do that. See if you can find some time for poor me in your busy schedule, right there.” Manny said and pointed from over her shoulder at the upcoming Friday on the calendar.

They both laughed. Excited and nervous.

“It ain’t like that, Manny,” Khia said softly. She bit the inside of her mouth and squeezed her thighs tighter. “I just had to make sure…”

Manny stepped in front of her and gave her puppy dog eyes. “Come on. Let me take you out.” He offered not sure how he was going to make it all happen. He just knew he had to spend more time with her.

“Alright!” She playfully pushed him back. “It looks like I’m free anyway.”

“So, it’s a date?” Manny asked.

“It’s a date” Khia blushed.

Chapter 11 Ether

Manny stood in Mrs. Lemons office, with his hands in his pockets, awaiting his orders for the day.

“The detective called and said he could use you today so I pushed back the home visit with the doctor for next week,” Mrs. Lemon said pointing to a next Monday on her desk calendar. Her nails painted a fresh lavender color to match her dress and blazer.

Shit, Manny thought. He could have spent the day at Khia’s. Instead he’d spend the day with Hines’ crazy ass. Tonight, however, was date night anyway so Manny figured he could wait a couple more hours to see her. Mrs. Lemon gave Manny money for lunch and dinner. Although, now the fifty dollars seemed small he new rejecting it would look suspicious. Also, the internship was all inclusive so he was just taking what he was owed. Manny put the money down in his pocket and began to walk out.

“Oh and Emanuel?” Mrs. Lemon called out.

“Yes?” He turned back round.

“Remember why you’re here.” She said. Even with her smile, her face was stern. Manny had an idea of where she was going with this but he needed to hear her say it to be sure. As much as he didn’t want to hear the words, he needed to hear them out loud. So, it wouldn’t just be in his head anymore.

“Here at Westerlynne, you will come to find that there are many pretty young women. These ladies have been raised from little girls to grow up to marry a certain…caliber, should I say, of fellow. You should steer clear of making any types of relationships other than mere friendship with the residents here.”

Manny nodded but his eyes didn’t meet hers.

“I understand,” he said.

“Now, Raele, I think would be a wonderful fit for you. However, she does have children, I believe” Mrs. Lemon stated.

“She has a child,” Manny said quietly. His thoughts were running from him. He couldn’t get a handle on them. Telling him how he’d never be good enough for Khia. His ghetto ass upbringing were no match for the silver spoon she had been born with. Still, he wanted to get to know her. Besides, she had come on tho him. Right? He didn’t even know anymore. Manny changed the subject.

“What time am I meeting with Hines?” he asked.

“Nine,” Mrs. Lemon answered. Hines would be there in forty-five minutes. The air was a little stale in the small room with Mrs. Lemon and all of her judgment. Manny needed some fresher air. He also needed to get ready. He was already dressed the part, business casual, but now when he went out with Hines he was to wear his vest and carry the gun.

Hines was outside of the Westerlynne Ridge Hotel at 8:59 am. Manny neared the glass doors and they slid apart.

He felt weird wearing the bulletproof vest under his clothes but even more awkward carrying the gun in his back pocket. He sat down in the leather seat slowly, cautious not to trigger something that would leave a hole in his backside.

The bat mobile growled as they rode away from the residential community.

“So where are headed,” Manny asked anxiously.

“The Black House,” Hines said turning the steering wheel.

“What’s that?”

“The Borgella’s storage warehouse. I figured we should go back to the crime scene.”

“Why the fuck would we want to go there for. That’s where the Borgella are, right?” Manny thought of the package he had watched Hines open and throw down in the foyer. The memory made him cringe.

“Nah, Youngin.’ They’ve cleared out. Plus, you’re wearing your vest right?”

“Yea, but I wasn’t planning on being shot,” Manny said while trying to keep the fear out of his voice. He seen what these guys could do.

“You never know. You got your piece?”

“Yea,” Manny answered. He looked out the window. Before his dealings with Hines, he had never held a gun let alone shot one. He turned back to Hines.

“Hey, man what if someone shoots at my head or my arms or something,”

Hines didn’t take his eyes off the road.

“Duck and dodge. Look for cover,” He answered matter-of-factly.

Manny’s heart was racing. His spit felt thick. He wasn’t sure he had the skill.

Shit, do I duck first or dodge? Or did he mean do it at the same time? What if there it ain’t any cover?

Hines looked to his right and could read the concern written all over Manny’s countenance.

“Like I said, the place should be cleared out. The vest and gun are more for precautionary measure.”

“If it’s cleared out than why are we going there,” Manny asked. Hoping this would be another Aha moment and Hines would pull into the next gas station for a quick U-turn.

“Well, they are asking for way more than I took. That money has to be somewhere. What if the money is still there? Hidden.”

“Don’t you think someone would have gotten to it by now,” Manny asked.

“Maybe, but maybe not. We can’t afford to not look.” Hines said looking at Manny.

“True,” Manny replied, looking away.

After a forty-minute ride, south of Westerlynne Ridge Estates, Manny could hear the tires of the bat mobile crunching and popping over gravel and broken glass. They pulled up into a narrow driveway with no edges. Patches of grass stuck out from beneath rocks. Manny could safely bet all his money that the two cars resting in the front yard had not a chance of ever starting up again. The black SUV, that sat on the side of the dilapidated garage might be of use if it had had tires. The warehouse was big enough for a football team to play a game on its roof.

“Follow me,” Hines said as turned around and slowly began walking up to the wide building with the flat roof. All but one of its ten front windows were boarded up. Hines peered into the dirty window. The double doors had a single wood board propped through the handles. Nail holes in the door’s frame said that at one point in time the door had been boarded up better.

How in the hell is that supposed to keep anyone out! Manny thought. His jaw clenched while his stomach dropped as he imagined a group of angry Haitians waiting for them inside. They may have came in through the back door and kept the board on the front door for illusion, a trap.

The thought didn’t skip the detectives mind. Hines slowly slid the board out of the way and placed it up against the dirty white brick wall. He turned around at Manny and put up his pointer finger to tell him to wait. Hines pulled his weapon from his belt holster and opened the door quick. He stepped in and aimed his gun to left of him and then to the right. He carefully walked to each of the rows of shelves, leaning up against it and peering quickly down its walkway.

The inside of the warehouse was cleaner than the outside. The tall ceiling made the place seem a bit safer. Made it feel open. Made Manny feel like there was less of a chance that an angry Haitian was hiding behind some dark corner waiting for the perfect opportunity to blow their heads off. Still he walked on the detective’s heels. Hines turned around. He looked annoyed. He pointed to an area that had yellow crime scene tape streaming from beams. On the ground had a chalked outline of a body. Manny shook his head no.

“That’s where my partner fell,” Hines said sounding forlorn. “I understand if you don’t want to search there. I’ll take it.” Hines pointed to another spot closer to the entrance.

“You look over there, by the forklifts,” He ordered. “We need to take this place in sections. It’s too big for me to be holding your hand through it. You’ve been paid well to do your part.”

I ain’t ask you to hold my hand.

Manny took offense to the innuendo and his face told it. Still, he thought it was a bad idea to split up. That’s the first wrong move in any scary movie, but he sure as hell didn’t need a babysitter. He took off in the direction opposite of the chalked outline.

The forklifts made it hard for Manny to see Hines but he felt safe enough to venture off a bit on his own treasure hunt. He wondered if he would be like Hines and shave off the top of his findings before reporting, in the event he found the missing millions.

Wooden pallets laid on the ground with huge boxes on top of them. Manny pulled on a box and looked inside. Empty. He imagined that at one point the boxes were filled to the brim with packages of cocaine. On a metal table that stretched from one wall to the other, were utensils that belonged in a kitchen. Across from the table was a makeshift lab with knocked over burners and pots. Along the wall but some ways down, there were four tall blue metal barrels. Large enough to stash money. Hidden in plain sight. Manny tried moving a barrel but it wouldn’t budge. After a few seconds of prying, he lifted the lid and checked for treasure. The sweetened alcoholic aroma hit him hard. Manny dropped the lid and backed away. He blew hard out of his mouth. Then inhaled fresh air.

“What the hell is this,” Manny shouted out to anyone who would answer.

“You find something?” Hines shouted back from another area of the warehouse.

“Yea but not money?” Manny said. “Some weird smelling liquid.”

Hines peered over from in between the slits of a towering shelf. “In those barrels?” he asked.

Manny nodded.

“That’s ether. Leave that stuff alone. Don’t get any on you?”

A few bars from a Nas dis track ran through Manny’s mind and alarmed him. He carefully placed the lid back on the barrel praying to God that his soul wasn’t already burning slow.

Hines walked over to where Manny was.

“You alright, man?” he asked. Manny was still a bit shook.

“I smelled some of it?” Manny said, his voice right on the verge of panic. Nas’ lyrics still permeating his brain cells.

“What?” Hines looked annoyed and confused.

“The ether. I inhaled it,” Manny said allowing worry to take over his entire face.
Hines chuckled.

“Oh. You’re good,” He assured Manny. “Go out for a minute and get some fresh air. I’m going to look around some more.”

“Alright,” Manny gladly obeyed.

“As a matter of fact, check some of those old cars. See if they’re unlocked,” Hines added.

Manny left the warehouse from a back door because it was closest. He forgot to be scared of the Haitians. He hastily walked out onto a large open field that was twice the size of the warehouse. The grass was overgrown. Five beaters that all resembled cars that had been parked on his street at some point in Manny’s childhood were parked in a crooked row. Manny tried the driver door of a rusted 1990 Pontiac Bonneville. It opened right up. The inside of the car smelled old but better than the barrel of pungent chemicals he had just had his nose in. He checked the glove compartment and then remembered what he was looking for. He had never seen four million dollars in cash but he doubted it could fit in there. He looked at a yellow button that read “trunk release” above it and pushed it in. When he got no response, he tried pushing it again but holding it a little longer this time. Still nothing. The car needed to be on for the release to work.

Manny exited the Bonneville and went on to another. The old tan 1985 Toyota Corolla was also unlocked. On the driver’s side Manny found the trunk release lever down by his feet. He pulled up on the lever and it broke off in his hands, but not before popping the trunk. Excited, Manny jogged to the back of the car and lifted the trunk door. Nothing of value. A tire jack and a few other rusted tools. Manny pushed the trunk door down. It popped back open. He slammed it down once more and it stayed. When he looked up, a stranger, a young man, who couldn’t be much older than himself, stood looking back at him. Manny quickly went for his gun. The man put up his hands quick and then put a finger at his mouth to tell Manny to be quiet. The strangers eyes said he wanted to talk. Needed to. Manny was shaking but something told him he wasn’t in any danger. The man looked hungry. His eyes were sunk in. His lips chapped. Hair grown out and unkept. Possibly a drug addict. Maybe, looking for the dealers who once worked out of this warehouse. He put his gun down but not away. Immediately the young man began speaking.

In a hushed tone he asked, “Are you with Hines? He inside?” His whisper smelled like hard days and nightmares. Manny took a step back and nodded.

“Are you with the Borgella?” Manny asked the guy. He shook his head no, but seemed to understand exactly why Manny would’ve asked.

“Are you Emmanuel Wright?”

Bothered that the estranged man knew his entire government name, Manny asked,“Yea. Who the fuck are you?”

“I’m you,” The guy said still speaking in almost a whisper.

“What?” Manny asked. The guy shook his head and his expression said “nevermind”.

“You have any food?” The young man asked. Pride and embarrassment were things of the past. He looked right in to Manny’s eyes. Waiting. Hoping. Praying. Manny wondered how did a man this young get in this bad of shape. Where was his parents? Then Manny remembered his own story and realized, the guy was right. If it hadn’t been for his aunt, this could very well be him.

“Nah, man. I don’t. Sorry,” Manny said. He reached down in his pocket with the hand not holding the pistol and pulled out the money from Mrs. Lemon. His daily stipend. He gave the man the money.

The guy hurriedly grabbed the charity and pushed it down into his own dirty pocket.

“Thanks man. If you get a chance, come back and talk to me. I could help you.”

Manny looked at the man in confusion. Wondering.

Does he mean come back here? Does he live here at the warehouse? How could he possibly help me? Who the fuck is he? However, out of his mouth came only one question.

“When?” Manny asked.

“Tonight,” The man said.

“I can’t tonight. I’m busy. You going to be here tomorrow night?” Manny asked him.

“God willing,” The young man said.

A resemblance of a smile tried to grow across the bottom half of his face but his top half wouldn’t conform. Manny tried to muster up one as well. He knew he should be asking more questions but the man’s eyes told their own story. Told Manny that their owner was honest, not dangerous but desperate and most importantly informative. His eyes said he had answers. Manny didn’t know what or how. So far he gathered that the man knew his name, knew Hines, and wanted to talk. He wasn’t even sure if what the man knew would be useful. Still, Manny needed to know what he knew.

“Ok. I’ll come back tomorrow about 9 o’clock,” Manny said.

The guy nodded and scurried on his way back to sit inside of a black Dodge Intrepid with tinted windows and four flat tires.

Back in the warehouse Hines was bent over the barrel where Manny had almost been taken out like one of his favorite rappers. Hines’ back was to Manny and he was moving his hand back in forth in a sweeping motion.

“I ain’t find nothing,” Manny said.

“Me neither,” Hines responded coolly and stuffed the small duster into his back pocket.

“But like I said before, we had to at least give it a try. You hungry? My treat.”

Manny was starving. The morning had been long. The night would be even longer.

Chapter 12 Date Night

He hadn’t seen her since the community meeting and with all the crazy shit going on with the detective he had forgotten exactly how and why even, Khia had stolen his heart. Now it was all coming back to him, as she sashayed herself confidently up to the limo window, wearing a black sleeveless tunic that read “Paris” across the front with paired with black lacy leggings. The back of the flat black studded Chanel sandals slapped across the heels of her feet as she neared the car. Her hair, tightly spiral curled, bounced on her shoulders.

Manny found it hard to look at her for too long and simultaneously keep his composure. He looked away, pretending to need to check something on his phone. The closer she came, the footsteps got louder and his breathing faster. Manny inhaled the warm night air and pushed it, along with some of his nervousness, back out threw his nostrils. When he looked up Ritz was looking at him through the rear-view mirror. They both looked away. Both caught, both slightly embarrassed, but both not really giving a fuck.

“Sir, if you don’t mind me butting in, it’s good etiquette to get out of the car and open the door for the young lady.” Ritz said respectably.

“Oh yeah,” Manny said as if he had only forgotten.

Manny opened the door, but to his surprise Khia wasn’t impressed. In fact, she seemed to be slightly disappointed as she stepped into the back seat. Manny scrunched his face and looked at Ritz, who was now back to minding his own business.

Manny shook his head, thinking, What I look like taking advice from this old motherfucker. He probably ain’t had no drawers since the 80’s!

Khia was cool though. She was excited to see what Manny had in store for their night out on the town.

He wore his dreads in two thick flat twists parted down the middle. A dark gray CK tank top worked off its weighty price tag by showing off the cuts in his slim but muscular neck, shoulders and arms. The black pair of shorts with gray huaraches on his feet made him look sporty but the expensive gold watch and chain he wore said he was able to fit in anywhere. Let alone he was in the back of a limo with the baddest shorty, in the land, on his arm. Well, she wasn’t holding on to his arm yet but the night was young and Manny was prepared to see where it would take him.

“So where you like to kick it?” he asked Khia. The first words spoken between the two, in hours, sounded awkward to Manny. He had to find his chill. He thought back on Mrs. Lemon’s words from earlier and in Manny’s mind they equated to “You’re not good enough.” He had fought with that haunting idea all day and finally, just an hour before it was time to meet up with Khia, Manny had recounted the cash in the duffel bag. Reminded himself he was not the same broke ass chump he was when he came to Westerlynne. He could show Khia a good time. He was good enough.

“Oh, it’s super boring if you plan on staying around here. Nothing but a bunch of clubs filled with lames popping bottles and showing off for thirsty ass half-naked whores,” Khia said.

Manny had to use context clues to conclude that this was a bad thing, because from the description she gave, it sounded like the place to be!

“I’m trying to see how the real niggas kick it.” Khia said grinning.

Manny assumed that the “real niggas” Khia was referring to were all back in his old neighborhood. He knew some real niggas there, alright. Real whack and real broke.

Why is she so obsessed with the hood, he thought?

“I can make some calls, see if anything’s popping” Manny said, pulling out his cellular, all important-like.

He called Brandon.

“What up, Boy…I knew you wouldn’t forget about me when you made it out the hood,” Brandon answered the call. Manny could hear Brandon’s cheese smile through the phone.

“What’s up, B…what’s good?” Manny laughed. He was happy to hear from his boy.

“Shit.”

“You trying to kick it”

“Hell, yeah! Come grab me. Show me what it do in Westerlynne.”

Khia was singing along with the soft music Ritz had playing in the car. Something new by Solange.

“Actually, we were going to just slide through.”

“Nigga? I know you don’t have a car full of honey dips. Who’s that singing and shit in the background? Come grab ya’ boy!”

“It ain’t even like that, B” Manny said laughing. Then he lowered his voice, while keeping a watchful eye on Khia to make sure she wasn’t paying attention.

He whispered, “Only one.”

“Is she bad as fuck? I know they got some bad bitches out there, bro.”

“Nigga, you wouldn’t even believe it” Manny answered, still talking low, almost mumbling now. Khia was still singing. Her eyes were closed. Neck rolling.

“Oh, shit! See if she got a friend.”

“What?” Manny asked.

“You heard me. Tell her I got some fire,” Brandon attempted.

“Nigga she don’t burn?” Manny whispered.

“Yes, I do” Khia said without even looking at Manny. Not even opening her eyes. He wondered how long her ass had been listening and how much of the conversation had she pieced together.

“You got a friend we could pick up…um, for my boy” Manny asked, figuring she probably heard that too, so, he might as well.

Khia rolled her eyes and pushed her mouth over to one side of her face, “Yeah, I have a friend. What does your boy look like?”

“Um, I don’t know. He’s cool,” Manny said. He had never assessed his homeboy that way. All he knew was that his homey was loyal, funny, and could hoop.

“Nigga…what? Let me talk to her,” Brandon’s tiny voice screamed through the speaker of the device in Manny’s hand.

Manny and Khia both laughed and he handed Khia the phone. With Manny’s phone, up to her ear, Khia was now laughing even harder.

“Um hmm. Umm hmm” Khia said playfully. Almost as playfully as she was when her and Manny had first met. Manny wondered if he had made a mistake by letting them talk. Just now, Manny suddenly realized that Brandon’s swag and game had always been one hundred percent.

She better not try and holler at my boy.

“No reaaally. She’s cute!” Khia blurted out. Brandon had flipped it and now had Khia trying to convince him that her girl was good enough for his hood ass.

Khia handed Manny his phone back then pulled out her own. A grin still plastered across her chocolate face.

Manny finished making plans with Brandon and Khia called her girl. Manny sat far away from Khia in the extra wide backseat, wishing he had the courage to pull her closer. After making her call to her girl, she used her phone to check her makeup.

“This is it,” Khia said, pointing at her friend’s house.

The limo pulled up in front of a house not too far from the Hines’ residence. A quaint home. Not too impressive compared to some of the others. The curvy curly-haired girl Manny had met at the country club, the same day he had been beaten horribly in basketball, came strutting up to the limo. She paused at the door. Manny wondered if she had just remembered she had left something. Her purse, maybe. Ritz, who was already outside the limo, reached over and opened the door. He kindly gestured for her to get in.

“Hey Emmanuel,” Dominique waved. Her smile, pretty and genuine. She sat in the seat across Khia. Scooted up so there knees touched.

“Hi Dominique,” Manny said back. He smiled back but she had already started whispering and giggling with Khia. She was trying to get as much information as possible about who this stranger was she was being set up with.

Manny, too, was caught up in thought about a strange person. As Ritz slowly drove away from the curb, Manny had turned around and looked through the back window. He could see the detectives home in the distance . A slender shadow of a woman was leaving the yard. From the angle and the pace that she moved in, Manny could tell she didn’t have the protruding bulge at her stomach. It wasn’t the slow, wide-legged gait of Mrs. Hines. The shadow tossed long flowing locks away from her face and pranced towards the car parked in the driveway. The fancy round streetlights in front of the home, shown only enough light to cast shadow and doubt. To the unbeknown, it was nothing, but from what Manny had went through these past few days, it had caught his attention. He wondered if the woman was a wanted or unwanted guest. If she was there leaving another unwanted package. If she was Borgella affiliated.

Chapter 13 First Kiss

With Dominique and Brandon now tagging along, it had become an official double date. They chose to go to Coast, a hip-hop skating rink, about 5 minutes from Manny’s and Brandon’s neighborhood. It was packed. Music, mostly bass, was bumping and big hips guided by roller skates swayed all over the joint, riding the beat. Brothers were right behind them. The smoke cocktail made up of tobacco and marijuana was thick in the air. Lights were dim, aiding the alcohol in making folks look better than they ever did. Khia loved the place on sight. Came in clapping her hands and swaying her arms in the air. Dominique was taking her time warming up to the new scene.

Dominique was a classic Hillary Banks in the looks department. Long bushy curls and yellow skin. She was shorter and thicker tho. Ass and tits for days, however her demeanor, and outfit gave way that she ain’t have the slightest clue of what to do with them. Brandon wasn’t paying attention to neither her demeanor nor her outfit.

“Damn, she righteous!” He whispered to Manny as they headed to a booth in a corner. He was walking slowly behind Dominique rubbing his hands together like a preacher watching his offering plate grow.

Dominique wore a floral bohemian style wrap dress with a denim jacket and tan gladiator sandals. Her toes were perfectly manicured and matched her short neat cream colored nails. The over-sized flowy dress would have swallowed most girls whole but Dominique’s bodacious curves were taking on a life of their own and had taken full possession of the fabric. Her accidental bounce teased the brothers and intimidated the sisters as she squeezed through the crowd to get to their table.

“I’m sorry. Excuse me,” Dominique said about twenty times. Her tone quiet and polite .
Manny stole a quick peak, himself, just so he could know if his boy was exaggerating and being unnecessarily thirsty. He wasn’t. He looked at his own date, who was walking like she had been here before, confident and sexy. Her waist smaller than Dominique’s, ass smaller too but rounder and firmer. Manny licked his lips. Khia must have felt the eyes on her because she looked back at Manny and smiled. He produced a sheepish grin biting down on his bottom lip, making his dimples appear.

Manny and Khia sat next to each other across from Brandon and Dominique.

“Ya’ll wanna order something to drink or eat, or ya’ll wanna get skates or what” Manny asked.

“Ya’ll can skate. I’m trying to get to know Miss Dominique here” Brandon flashed his pearly whites towards Dominque. She eyed him down cautiously. Manny laughed shaking his head. He wondered how his boy was going to catch this one. He usually had no trouble in the fishing department but with Dominque he was going to need to find some new bait.

Khia touched Manny’s hand, “Let’s skate,” she said. Her tone asking but her eyes demanding.

Khia could skate her ass off but Manny was no novice, himself. Aunt El had held a few of his birthday parties at this exact Coast. He grew up knowing a thing or two about dancing on roller skates. Now with Khia next to him, the two of them were looking like a modern-day Soul Train couple while they bumped, twirled and glided from all angles to Beyoncé’s “Hold Up.”

“I see you trying to keep up,” Manny joked. Khia was skating backwards with her hands in Manny’s. opening and closing her legs and moving her torso up and down like a roller coaster. She smiled.

“Yeah, I can do a little something-something,” she responded as her body moved fluidly. She turned around, bent over, dancing up and down and side to side. Manny followed, this time, letting her lead the way.

When the song was over, out of breath, they traded in their skates for their shoes and headed over to the bar. Needing to take a break but still wanting to be alone. Neither of them was old enough to buy alcohol so they ordered sodas, Khia a cherry Coke and Manny a Sprite.

“So, Manny, are you getting home sick yet” Khia asked for the mere sake of small talk.

“Nah.” Manny shook his head.

“You don’t even miss your parents?”

“I don’t have parents” he said, regretting his answer as soon as the words left his mouth. He didn’t want to ruin this moment with his sad ass story.

“Oh, really. You were created through some sort of spontaneous combustion or something, huh.”

Manny laughed then nodded his head, “I have parents. My mom is dead and my father has never been in my life. Never knew the motherfucker.”

“Damn, sorry” Khia said compassionately.

“Don’t be. I’m not” Manny said casually.

“Who raised you?” Khia wanted to know. Her eyes squinted with worry.

“My Aunt El. My mother’s older sister. Only family I have, for real, for real.”

“That’s deep.”

“Not really, it’s some pretty common shit for broke people. You wouldn’t know nothing about that, Miss Moneybags.”

Khia rolled her eyes, then lowered them. “Boy, you don’t know me.”

“Trying to get to,” Manny said, sending the conversation back down a path he was more comfortable with. He softly pulled on one of Khia soft curls, let it go and watched it spring back to her sit at her shoulder.

Khia’s demeanor relaxed back to how it was before she felt judged.

“So what about you?” Manny asked.

“What about me?” Khia asked as if she couldn’t think of one thing exciting to tell about herself in all her eighteen years.

“You always lived in Westerlynne?” Manny asked.

“No, I moved in with my dad last year after he and my mom got divorced,” Khia answered.

Manny was quiet. Thought about saying sorry for her circumstances, but in all honesty, he would have traded anything for the life Khia had. Rich kids had the liberty of being mad at silly shit like parental custody battles while hood kids were just trying to get parents to acknowledge their existence which they themselves had created.

Manny suddenly remembered what he had seen at the welcome party with his own two eyes, behind door number one, and was thankful that Khia wasn’t part of some incest bred family.

“So Yasmine, who your father was looking for at the party, isn’t your mother?” Manny asked nonchalantly, as if the answer was of no importance. He didn’t want to let on that he knew anything of the drama brewing in Khia’s home.

“That bitch is only nine years older than me. Hell nah, she ain’t my mom.” Khia blurted out, her face chopped and screwed worse than the Paul Wall joint playing in the background. Out on the floor a line of skaters moved in sync all leaning to one side.

“Anyway, she’s about as light skinned as Dominique. Her and my daddy couldn’t pull off a cocoa colored dream like me if they tried.” She rubbed both of her hands down her face until they met in a clap at her chin.

“Damn! So, what, she’s like twenty- six, twenty-seven years old?” Manny asked giving Mr. Jameson props for bagging such a PYT.

“Twenty-seven,” Khia answered. Her tone unenthusiastic.

“So, I take it ya’ll don’t get along too well?” Manny asked.

“What makes you say that?” Khia seemed confused and still a little annoyed by the topic of their conversation.

“You addressed her as, that bitch,” Manny reminded her.

“That’s what she is. She was my mom’s friend and assistant before she met my dad. My mother trained her and got her the job with my father. She started working for my father and within months of her working for him, they were telling my mom the good news. I tell you, boy. Bitches ain’t shit.” Khia as starting to sound like the girls from his high school. Her neck rolling, lips smacking, fingers popping and the whole nine.

“Damn, that’s dirty. Your momma whoop her ass, at least?” Manny asked.

“Oh no, my mom is a true woman of class. She’s was born in Ethiopia and only come to America in the 90’s. The way her morals and character are set up,” Khia shook her head, “she would never get caught looking like the women you see on these realty shows.” Khia laughed a little to herself.

Manny stared at Khia. Now he understood why her beauty was so damned mesmerizing. Why her movement so gracious. She was half Ethiopian. Her features were so strong and ethnic, her color so dark and rich. Her eyes twinkled like little diamonds, and that body of hers, just ridiculous!

“Boy, why are you staring at me like that? Are you even listening to me?” Khia’s head was tilted sideways.

“Yes, I’m listening to you,” He took a sip of his Sprite and stared into his cup. “It’s just hard to pay attention because, well, you’re so cold to me, Khia.” Manny surprised himself with his candidness. Did he say that out loud? He looked to see if she had heard him.
Khia blushed earnestly. She put her head down and shook it. When she looked back up, her expression was different. Her eyes were wanting. Manny knew what she was asking for. He took her small hand in his.

“Let’s walk outside for a second,” Manny said. Khia had been tamed. She followed Manny. Hand in hand, they walked passed Brandon and Dominique, who seemed to hitting it off okay. Dominique had switched seats and was sitting across from Brandon, but her eyes were softer than before and her guard seemed to be set aside for the time being.

“Hey B, we gon step outside for some fresh air,” Manny informed Brandon.

“Aight, dawg” Brandon replied, voice drenched in new found puppy love.

Khia and Dominique held a telepathic conversation, using only their eyes, then they both giggled.

Out on the balcony, looking out into the endless night sky, the city was without division. There was no prejudice between poor and rich, black and white, good and evil. The dark had swallowed all that nonsense, leaving only naked truth and real emotion. Soon enough, with the dawning of new day, the biases and stipulations would be regurgitated and come spilling back to plague the minds. Anyone with sense knew better than to take this moment for granted.

A little light shown from a bulb in a faraway corner, played peek a boo with Manny and Khia’s features.

Although she was facing Manny, Khia stared downward and played with ends of her long tank top. Her body was propped on the balcony railings. Manny walked up to her and placed his hands on each side of her body. Khia bit her lip and looked up. The same needy look she had worn before.

“Like I was saying inside,” Manny started, “I’m really feeling you and well…” Manny had no clue on how to get over the bridge. How to get from where he was to where Khia’s eyes were saying she wanted him to be. Khia supplied a hand.

“I like you too, Emmanuel Wright. Thank you for taking me out and showing me the west side,” she blushed and licked her lips.

Manny took one of Khia’s hands and kissed it lightly still staring into her eyes. Asking her, with his own, if it was okay.

Khia adjusted her footing and exhaled softly. Her eyes told Manny that his actions had only made her want more. He kissed her hand again and then pulled her body into his. Khia let out a soft moan. The kiss sent them over the moon. Manny was tasting sunsets in Ethiopia and fine wines from lands he had never visited on Khia’s tongue. Khia was swathed in every hood romance novel she had ever read. Manny was her Midnight. Nothing and nobody else mattered.

Manny and Khia floated back to their table on cloud nine but Brandon and Dominique had fallen under and were looking at each other from beneath a haze. Something had gone awry, and they were no longer feeling each other.

“I’m ready to go,” Dominique said, staring off into nowhere, pushing her pink little mouth to the side.

“What’s wrong girl, what happened?” Khia asked, upset that her girl wasn’t floating on the same cloud as her.

“Somebody needs to teach this little boy some manners,” Dominique spat out, looking at Brandon and then rolling her eyes.

“What little boy you talking about, Bitch?” Brandon said looking at Dominique, as if he really needed her to answer.

“Really, Brandon?” Manny stated more than questioned.

“You know my name. Don’t disrespect me.” She shot back. Her eyebrow letting him know he had one more fucking time. “Ugh, I knew better than to step out with your ghetto, no home training, uneducated, broke ass in the first place,” Dominique was getting loud but Usher’s “No Limit” made sure anyone not standing within three feet of her couldn’t hear it.

Manny could tell that Dominique’s last comment had left Brandon wounded. Shots fired had left his boy’s spirit with a hole in it.

Brandon attempted to shake it off. “Man, fuck her.”

“You need to get your boy.” Khia said to Manny.

Manny looked at Khia, struggling not to slip off the cloud they had floated in on just moments ago. He looked at his childhood homeboy, who was still pretending to not be bleeding from his soul. Brandon chewed at the inside of his mouth, face frowned, leg bouncing under the table.

“Everybody just need to chill out,” Manny replied, trying to play the middleman. The was no respect for the undecided referee. Brandon looked disappointingly at Manny and shook his head. Khia tilted her head and looked at Manny like he was tripping.

“Fuck this. Take me home, now. I have better shit to do than to waste my time on some charity case.” Dominique spewed calmly as if she hadn’t just pulled out a machete and sliced Manny’s ass back to reality.

Dominique’s insults cut Manny deep but they were true. He may have come up on some money but he wasn’t from money like his spoiled date and her bratty ass friend. In Khia’s and Dominique’s eyes, Manny and Brandon were just something to do when they wanted to take a break from the monotony of a life with no problems. Manny wished he had never strayed away from his plan. He was at Westerlynne to do one thing, and like Mrs. Lemon had warned him, just this morning, Khia was not it.

“Yeah, you’re right” Manny said to Dominique, then looking at Khia, he said, “I don’t know what I was thinking either.”

Khia’s eyes fell to the floor. Cloud nine had completely evaporated.

Chapter 14 E.W.

The entire day had led up to this moment. Slow and painful, Manny had went through the monotonous steps of his internship. The wake up call, the eucalyptus infused shower, the not as good as Aunt El’s french toast, the judging hazel eyes of Mrs. Lemon, the quiet dark ride out on the town with Hines and finally the drop off back to room 314. Manny was disappointed to hear Louise on the line this morning when he answered. Raele was off this morning so he didn’t even get to have their morning chat. He was anticipating telling her what had went down at Coast. Getting her opinion in the whole matter. He didn’t want to call Brandon, because the embarrassment of it all hadn’t quite wore off. He didn’t want to call Aunt El because he didn’t want to accidentally get over emotional and have her buzzing up here in the Jetta with her attitude on one hundred. Raele would have been the perfect one to run it by because for one, she could be objective and two, she could give some insight from a woman’s point of view. Hopefully, she’d be in when he got back. For now, Manny could finally push Khia to the back of his mind. The gravel snap, cracking, and popping under the tires told Manny where he was. The limo slowed to a stop. Manny grabbed the small bag sitting in the seat next to him. As he stepped away from the limo, he told Ritz not to go to far.

“I got it, Sir. I’ll be right up the road.” Ritz responded. The sound of the limo pulling away, taking with it the only light in the warehouse’s parking lot, made Manny’s stomach grow tense.

What am I doing? Manny thought. His back teeth clenched tight together.

Manny touched on the bulge in his right pocket for reassurance. The loaded weapon that was supposed to make him feel safe only made him feel more like he was making the wrong decision.

A car door shut just loud enough to be heard by him. The hungry young man from the other day slowly walked from around the back of the building and peeked around the edge of the warehouse walls with frightened eyes. When he saw Manny his face grew kind.

“I’m happy you came back,” The man said he removed one of his hands from out of his pocket and offered it to Manny in a handshake.

“So, you living out her?” Manny asked shaking the poor man’s hand.

“Basically,” He said back.

“Why?”

“I’m going to get to all that. You bring anything to eat?”

Manny handed him the bag in his hand. He had ordered extra at dinner tonight, just in case.

A smile planted itself smack dab across the man’s face. He went to pull his left hand out of his pocket, then quickly shoved it back down. He took the bag with his right hand.

“Thank you, bro,” He said. “Come back here. Follow me.”

They walked together not speaking but not silent. The plastic bag of food hit at the side of the man’s leg as he led the way back to his home away from home. To Manny’s surprise when the guy opened the door to the old car, its interior lights came on.

“If I keep the door open I have light, but not too long. I have to preserve what is left of the battery,” he said.

“That’s good,” Manny responded, feeling thankful for all his aunt had provided for him.

He sat in the car with one leg hanging out mimicking the man.

Hungrily, the guy sifted through the bag. He smiled widely when he saw the thick chunk of meatloaf on top of the double serving of mashed potatoes.

“My favorite,” He exclaimed. He used his dirty hands to grab up all the French style green beans and shove them into his mouth. Slightly embarrassed he looked over at Manny.

“Pardon me. I haven’t eaten at all today,” the man said, licking at his hand. His other hand was under the plate that was sitting on his lap.

Manny looked away. Feeling that it would impolite to watch. “There’s a fork in the bag,“ Manny said. “Those garlic mashed potatoes are the bomb, “ He added smiling.

“I know. I used to order this meal all the time during my internship,” The guy said. He looked to see Manny’s face and then pulled the plastic fork from the bag. He ate slower, now. Waiting for a response.

“You’re last year’s intern? The one Raele told me went missing. Elijah, right?” Manny said, knowing more than asking. The man nodded then smiled.

“Raele still there? She’s cool. Fine too,” Elijah said. Manny nodded in agreement to all Elijah had said but his expression told that he was a bit worried. Now, knowing that he was sitting next a missing persons.

“Close the door,” Elijah said. Manny listened. Elijah closed the door on the driver’s side, as well. The car went pitch black and the people caught inside became shadows. Out of the shadow came sound.

“My name is Elijah Washington. Last summer, I was in your shoes. Broke, looking for a way out. I thought the Westerlynne Internship was the way to go. Crazy thing is, I never applied for it. Someone reached out to me, first. I should have know then something wasn’t right.”

“You didn’t do the essay and all that shit?” Manny asked slightly jealous. He had dedicated his entire childhood to get to where he was.

“Nope, I had heard about the internship. Who hasn’t? My grades in high school were always mediocre. Nothing impressive. So, I didn’t apply for it when the opportunity came around. Still, I’m not sure how they found me.” Elijah said.

“What happened? Why did you run away?”

“Is that the story? I ran away? I didn’t run away? I was fucking held hostage!”

“By people in Westerlynne?” Manny asked.

“No, by the Borgella!” Elijah said. Although Elijah couldn’t see it, Manny was wide eyed and more than bit freaked out. He was trying to remember Hines’ story. Trying to run it all back to see where Elijah fit in. If Hines had purposefully left him out.

“Did Hines know?”Manny asked. A part of him feeling sick to the stomach because he knew the answer.

“Hell yeah, he knows,” Elijah said. His black silhouette moved angrily.

“I’m asking because he’s in some deep shit with them right now. Maybe ya’ll could help each other. Raele told me, the word is you went missing. So, maybe Hines just assumed you ran off or…”

“He knows! Hines doesn’t assume shit. He’s a fucking detective for God’s sake,” Elijah’s shout was combined with fear and anger. The sound ringing in Manny’s ears and the emotions permeating his very soul.

“I was naive like you at first, too. Wanted to believe the internship was a gift from above but soon enough I learned it was a fucking curse from the pits of hell! You need to pack up, go home, and get you and your family as far away from Westerlynne as you can,” Elijah said. His hand grabbing Manny by his shirt sleeve. It was too dark to be sure but Manny imagined Elijah was getting the greasy remains of his supper all over his plaid Trukfit button up.

“Man, get off me. Calm down,” Manny yelled, pulling back his arm and brushing away Elijah’s hand. The silhouette stared back at Manny. It’s eyes, barely visible by moonlight, shone an iridescent hue of violet.

“Now, I don’t know what went down with you and Hines. What kind of relationship ya’ll had…” Manny continued, taking center stage. He was getting tired of the doubt this homeless man was casting on his plan. Now that Manny thought back on everything, how he came to know all he knew. The package on the porch, the fingers in the foyer, the death threat that had landed at the base of the steps, there was really no room for Hines to lie. All he did was fill Manny in on the details. Maybe Elijah wasn’t so lucky. Maybe he had to come to learn about the Borgella the hard way. As unfortunate as that was it wasn’t Manny’s problem. As a matter of fact, he had his own fucking problems. It was time to push he bullshit aside, the fear and the doubt along with it. It was time to man up and set the record straight.

“… but I know Hines has been upfront with me. He was pretty much forced into telling me the truth so, I know everything. Everything!”

“Did he tell you about me? Did he mention me?” Elijah asked haughtily like he knew the answer already.

“What’s so important about you. Look. I understand. You got fucked over and I’m sorry about that but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to me. We are not the same.”

Elijah looked down at his plate. Manny watched him knowing there was a lot left unsaid. The man’s problems ran deep and although Manny couldn’t get involved, he still felt sorry for him. He reached in his pocket and pulled out two hundred dollars.

“Here,” Manny offered.

Elijah hesitated. He wished he could be petty. Act too mad and refuse the money but he wasn’t sure where his next meal was coming from. He gave in and took the folded dollars from Manny. He shook his head in the dark.

“You’ll see,” he said. You’ll be back.”

“I doubt it. I hope shit turns around for you, bro,” Manny’s said. With that he exited the dilapidated automobile. Walked to the front of the building and waited for his limo.

*****

Back at the hotel, Raele wiped down tables in the lobby with a damp cloth. When she saw Manny walking in he bright face lit up even more.

“Hi, Emmanuel” She said grinning. Quickly, she noticed the bad mood he was wearing, on his face, in his walk and all about his shoulders. She frowned, “Aww. What’s up?”

Manny looked up. Raele had her hair parted in the middle and it sleekly fell down and framed both sides of her face. Manny smiled.

“I see you finally got that wig busted.” He played. He walked over to where she was cleaning and took a seat on the couch.

“Yep,” Raele replied whipping her hair from side to side like she was in a Dr. Miracles commercial. They shared a laugh.

“So why you walking around here looking all brokenhearted? Looking like a lost puppy?” She asked. Her question reminded Manny of his original problem that he had wanted to run by Raele. Now was perfect. The hotel traffic slowed down at night. It wasn’t the kind of place people left the club and ran to for a quickie. It was quiet. There wasn’t a guest in sight. Raele sat down next to Manny on the couch.

“I took Khia out on a date,”

“Khia Jameson? Little Miss Rich Bitch?” Raele asked. She looked a little shocked but she refrained from saying what she was thinking.

Manny nodded.

“Okay, so what? She got all boujie on you?” Raele asked.

“No. It ain’t that. I invited my homeboy, Brandon. She invited her girl…”

“Domnique.” Raele stated.

“How you know?” Manny asked.

“They’re best friends. One goes, the other follows,” Raele said. “I don’t really know them, know them but I’ve ran into them a few times here and there during my employment here.”

Manny nodded. He went on.

“So we all out. We went to Coast. Downtown. Everybody was good, at first. Me and Khia hit the floor, and danced a little bit. Then we went outside. We kissed or whatever.”

Raele looked to the TV and fidgeted with the rag in her hand to hide the disappointment in her demeanor that wasn’t supposed to be there. Manny didn’t notice. He was remembering. Remembering the taste of the cherry gloss that had stained his lips for the night. Remembering floating in a cloud and then watching it turn into a storm. His eyes fell down and then back up to meet Raeles.

“When we walked back into the joint, Brandon and Dominique were beefing,”Manny said, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head.

“About what?”

“That’s what I’m saying. I don’t even know,” Manny said.

“That’s it? What the hell that got to do with you and Khia?” Raele looked confused.

“That’s my boy. We grew up together. Dominique was talking real wreck-less,” Manny said.

“That’s a whole grown man and a whole grown woman, Emmanuel,” Raele said. She pursed her lips like she was disappointed.

“I couldn’t let her talk to my dude that way,” Manny went on.

“So, what did you do,” Raele asked.

“I basically said fuck ‘em. Sided with my boy and we bounced,” Manny said.

“You left them there?” Raele asked, getting a little loud and dramatic.

“Dominique said she ain’t want ride in the car with B’ so she called an Uber,” Manny answered.

“That’s fucked up, Emmanuel. I’d get my big brother to whoop your ass if you did some shit like that to me,” Raele said.

“I wouldn’t do that to you. You wouldn’t have been acting all corny like that,” Manny said.

Raele swallowed away the moment that could have grown from his last comment.

“So why you hanging out with them if you think she’s corny?” Raele asked.

“I didn’t say she was corny, I said they were acting corny.” Manny said. “I really like Khia. She’s cool as shit. She was looking too good that night, too,” Manny said softly, He bit his bottom lip and closed his eyes.

“You’re feeling her, huh?” Raele asked, offering up a soft smile. She was a sucker for true love and in love with romance.

Manny nodded. His eyes couldn’t hide what was in his heart.

“Then let your boy and Dominique work out there problems by themselves. This ain’t high school no more. There was no need for you to take sides. Call Khia up and apologize because you were wrong. If that kiss was as good as you acting she’ll accept your apology.” Raele laughed but deep down she was trying her hardest to keep from sneaking a peak at Manny’s lips and those deep dimples but she knew she was right because she knew that kiss was bomb and she knew Khia’s sheltered prissy ass was more than a little bit turned out.

Manny smiled too.

“You’re right. You’re right. That’s why I ran it by you. I knew you would tell me truth.” Manny grabbed Raele’s small frame and pulled it next to him. He embraced her and then messed up her perfect hair with his hand.

“Boy, I will fuck you up,” Raele screamed. She stood up swatting flies that weren’t there. Manny laughed. He stood up and used his hand to smooth out the hairs he had gotten out of place.

“Okay, you good,” Manny assured her.

“I better be,” Raele said. She went back to wiping off the tables. “So all this went down tonight,” Raele asked.

“Nah, that was last night,” Manny responded.

“So, why you coming in all late tonight, then? Where you been?” she questioned.

Manny thought back on Elijah. He figured he’d better not say too much about that, yet. He wasn’t sure how to play that hand.

“I just went out for ride to clear my head,” Manny said.

Chapter 15 Ball ‘Til You Fall

In the wee hours of the morning, finding it difficult to sleep, Manny figured it was the perfect time to take advantage of his full featured Jacuzzi tub. He had the day off, as stated in the amended schedule he had found at the foot of the door on the inside of his room when he returned to it last night.

The bubbles beat at Manny’s tense muscles. He let out a moan of relief and appreciation and allowed his head to fall back. Sweat beaded and framed his face while the tips of his dreadlocks floated atop the water. He held his breath and slid under, looked around for a moment and decided to drown the drama from the past few days, right there. When Manny resurfaced he felt a little better. Of all the shit that had happened to Manny in the last 48, the most tragic was having love snatched from him just as quick as it had been handed to him. Honestly, right now, he should have been more concerned about what else Detective Hines might have been keeping from him but he couldn’t stop replaying his kiss with Khia over and over in his head. The thrill he had felt on the balcony, in the dark, under the stars. The first time he felt like everything was right, just the way it was. On the balcony, he wasn’t worried about being good enough, or rich enough anymore, because Khia’s eyes had begged him to take her into his world. She wanted him. Manny couldn’t forget the look on Khia’s face when he had pretended not to care, pretended to be just fine not speaking as she and her friend stood across across the parking lot from him and his homeboy while waiting on their rides. He remembered how her eyes fell to her sandals when he looked past her as she got into the car. Feelings he thought he’d just drowned surfaced all over again.

“Fuck” Manny said, as he grabbed a towel and dried his warm red skin. He opened a package of boxer briefs and slipped into a new red pair of Hanes.

I should call her. Manny stared at the cell phone lying on the bed. He knew Raele was right. He needed to call Khia and make things right, but his ego was still bruised and he hadn’t gotten his words in order yet. He pulled back the perfectly folded bedding and climbed into his bed where he pretended she was there next to him sipping sodas, sharing dreams and kisses.

The telephone rung. The same telephone that had rung yesterday and the day before that, but now it sounded loud and angry. The clock on the nightstand said it was 7:30 in the morning.

A half sleep and groggy Manny grabbed the noisy nuisance and brought it up to his ear.

“Hello.”

“Gooood morning, Mr. Wright. This is Louise from the front desk. This is your wake-up call. It’s 7:30. Wednesday morning and the weather is 80 degrees, bright and sunny. Would you like me to send room service up with some breakfast?” Louise asked.

“I’m off this morning, I don’t have anything on the agenda. Would I be able to sleep a little longer and call down later for lunch or something,” he inquired?

“That’s sounds excellent, Mr. Wright. I apologize for waking you, but since I have you on the phone, would you prefer me to have your cleaning services canceled for the day,” Louise suggested?

“Yes, please,” Manny answered.

“Well, okay, then. You are all set, Mr. Wright. Sweet dreams”

Mixed emotions made his dreams everything but sweet, but he did fall into a deep sleep, where bouncing ponytails slipped from his grasp and bloody fingers fell instead of rain. When he finally woke up, it was in a gasping sweat.

“Damn, it’s 4:30?” Manny asked no one, looking at the clock. He checked his phone to see if anyone had called. He had one missed call and two messages. He looked to see any of the correspondences were from Khia. The call was his aunt. She hadn’t left a voicemail. One of the messages was from Brandon, just making sure he was good. The last was from Detective Hines:

Sup Youngin. Cancelled our business for the day to follow up on some leads. I think I may be on to something. I’ll call you later tonight with more detail.

The message had been sent three hours ago. Manny wondered when was “later.” Hunger knocked on the back of Manny’s rib cage. He grabbed the phone and ordered supper. Afraid the chefs and room service attendants would leave for the day and he would be left to starve until morning, he ordered enough to last him throughout the night.
Waiting for room service to show up Manny used his phone to scroll through his Instagram. This time he went straight to “24K.” Khia had posted a meme about over-complicating relationships earlier in the day. She had also posted two pictures of herself sporting the hell out of yellow bikini, putting paid models to shame. She posed on a lawn chair beside her in-ground pool. Her hair wavy and wet. Manny tried to think of a clever way to comment that would not make him look neither salty or thirsty, however he decided against any comment at all since the action within itself said that he was probably a bit of both.

Manny grabbed a controller and pushed the button on the XBOX One. He sat back on his bed and decided to see what the Call of Duty craze was all about.

Half an hour later there was a knock at the door. Manny’s stomach growled at the thought of the steamy silver platter that was about to be delivered.

“One second,” Manny shouted hurriedly tripping into a silver pair of basketball shorts. He grabbed up a few dollars from his wallet to tip the room service with and rushed to the door to get his dinner.

Hines stood there looking like a wild man. His five o’clock shadow looking like dirt and his wrinkled flannel opened showing another mess of a shirt underneath it. He pushed himself into the hotel suite.

“Fuck, man. They got her,” Hines looked at Manny with puffy red eyes that had already cried too much to produce any new tears.

There was no need to ask who.

“Shit,” Manny said shaking his head.

“I swear if they hurt her, man. If they hurt my child, I don’t know what I’m gon do,” Hines pressed his fingers against his temple, his teeth gritted.

Manny couldn’t lie and say it was going to be okay because he didn’t know if it was. From what he’d already witnessed these guys weren’t fucking around. So, he skipped the part where he tried to make Hines feel better and instead tried to help him figure the shit out.

“Did they leave any clues behind, any way for us to trail them?” Manny asked.

“I don’t know.” Hines answered, desperation falling off every word. “Oh, God, please don’t let them hurt her?” Hines paced the floor.

There was another knock at the door. Hines jumped and his bulging eyes demanded to know who was at the door? Manny walked to the door and looked out the peephole. He looked back at Hines, “It’s just room service.”

The exchange was quick. Manny shut the door behind the attendant and sat at the table with the platter.

When Manny looked up from his smorgasbord of a supper, Hines was staring at him, disgusted.

“How can you eat at time like this?” He asked Manny.

“My bad,” Manny said and recovered his food with the silver dome.

“Okay. Okay,” Hines was pacing again and contemplating the next move. His phone chimed and he looked to see what the notification was. Hines fell to his knees, phone in hand and let out the cry of a wounded beast.

“What?” Manny asked scared of whatever could make a grown, six-foot five-inch man crumple to the floor. Hines face flushed, he stood up slow, holding his stomach. Tears were streaming down his face.

Damn. They must’ve killed her and sent him the picture.

“They…. they…they emptied my bank account.” Hines stuttered. He was drained. He could barely get a grip. Suddenly, he jolted to the bathroom and hurled.

Damn. Manny watched with empathy. He couldn’t conceive having it all one moment and then it being taken away like that.

Hines went to rinse his mouth out in the bathroom sink. When he joined Manny back in the living room his chest was moving up and down fast and hard. He looked around the room as if he needed help remembering where he was.

“How much money do you still have left?” Hines asked Manny. Manny’s first thought was to lie. To say he had already spent it all but then he thought “why”. What business was it of Hines how much money he had left? He wasn’t getting it back.

“Why?” Manny asked.

“I may need it to get my wife back, man!” Hines said as if he shouldn’t have had to.

“Hell nah! I’m sorry about what’s going on with Mrs. Hines and all, but the money you gave me is mine. Fair and square. I’ll do what I can to help you get her back but I can’t give you that money back,” Manny said straight forward. Manny didn’t want to sound insensitive but he was wondering how Hines planned to pay the rest of what he owed.

“No. You’re right. It’s my problem. My bad for even asking,” Hines said. He wasn’t pleased but he was patient. He gave the room another glance over, quick but calculative, and then walked toward the door to leave.

“Hines, I’m for real. I’ll help if I can. Just call me when you want to ride,” Manny shouted to Hines on his way out.

Manny watched Hines walk out wondering how he planned to deal with the mess he’d gotten himself into. He looked down at his phone and watched it for a second as it buzzed and sang. He answered as he sat back down to his meal.

“What’s up, B? I meant to call you back,” Manny said, chewing on al dente cooked fettuccine noodles covered in Alfredo sauce.

“It’s all good, bro. I just had to make sure you were good after the other night.” Brandon said. He sounded way better than what Manny had expected.

Nigga you the one the that got shot down, Manny remembered the series of L’s they had both taken last night. Brandon had definitely taken the biggest one.

“I’m alright. What about you, Pimp?” Manny asked. Brandon tried to shush a female giggle in the background.

“Never mind, I see you bounced back quick, like usual,” he laughed.

“Nah, it ain’t like that this time. Hold on, Dog” He brought his voice down to a whisper.

“Shhh. Dominique! You crazy,” he laughed.

“Dominique?” Manny asked.

This nigga! I’ve been sitting around here lonelier than a mutha…

“Oh yeah, I tried to call you earlier. We worked it out. You and your girl kind of got caught up in our crossfire. Sorry about that, bro. Hope ya’ll good,” Brandon said.

How the fuck we gon be good!?

Manny sighed loudly. His mind traveled to Khia for the first time today without feeling guilty about it.

“Where ya’ll at anyway?” Manny asked.

“We hanging out at the country club,” Brandon told him.

“Out here?” Manny asked.

“Yeah, bro, Dominique came through and scooped me. You should come down,” Brandon said.

“Alright, give me a minute,” Manny said. “I have to get dressed.”

The sun only had about another hour or so before it called it quits for the day. The future night’s shadow was beginning to drape over what was left of the present daylight hours.
Brandon and Dominique were sitting at the pavilion table, where Manny had first met her.

“Hi Emmanuel,” Dominique said. Her face wore embarrassment from attempting murder on him and his homie the other night. Brandon chuckled hearing her for calling his boy by his government name.

“Hey Dominique,” Manny responded. He wasn’t as worried about the events of the other night as he was interested in finding out how they got back to cloud nine so quick. Dominique was sitting with one of her chunky legs across both of Brandon’s. Manny held out his hand and his boy dapped him up.

“What up, B?” Manny asked. “I see ya’ll back chummy like last night ain’t even happen. What’s really good?”

“About last night, Emmanuel,” Dominique began. “I’m really sorry I went there. You didn’t have anything to do with it and I was wrong for talking to you like that.”
Dominque stood up and walked over to Manny. She bent her knees a little and clasped her hands together, “Do you forgive me?” She asked.

“We’re good.” Manny nodded. Brandon leaned over and gripped Dominique’s small waist. It was his favorite part on her body. Well, that he’d been given permission to touch. He pulled her back over to him and she smiled and sat in between his legs.

“Why were ya’ll even tripping in the first place tho?” Manny asked.

Dominique pursed her lips and looked back at Brandon. “Oh, you didn’t even tell your boy about that ignorant comment you made?” she asked.

Embarrassment was seeming to be quite contagious tonight. Now it had spread all over Brandon’s face.

“So, what’s up. You gon’ let me fuck or nah,” Dominique did her best Brandon impression.

“Oh shit, B!” Manny yelled. “I thought you had more class than that?”

“I do, nigga,” Brandon fired back. He looked at the yellow curves sitting in between his legs and shook his head. “Like I told Dominique, bro, I ain’t never lost my head around no girl like that….never met a girl like her. I’ve never been so out of my element, I didn’t how to be… before I knew it I was saying some stupid shit!” Brandon turned to Dominique. “It’s your fault! Your beauty had me tripping,”

She blushed and giggled. With Dominique squeezed tight in Brandon’s arms, they rocked side to side like some old couple.

These niggas! Manny was happy for them, but he wanted his happy love cloud back too.

“Look whose back,” A voice called out from somewhere.

Chance and his pack of laughing hyenas were back. Only they weren’t laughing. Chance couldn’t hide the disgust on his face if he’d tried.

Manny checked himself to make sure he wasn’t in for Deja vu. He felt good about the fresh Kobe’s on his feet but he knew Chance could buy his outfit a hundred times without even blinking at the receipt.

Chance couldn’t care less about Manny’s attire. He wanted to know who the hood ass negro was that Dominique was so openly fond of.

“What’s up, Dominique?” Chance asked as if he deserved an answer.
She rolled her eyes. Then found the lowest, least excited octave in her vocal range to greet him with.

Brandon could sense the hate. Chance didn’t care.

Dominique excused herself and went to the bathroom.

When she was out of earshot, Chance walked closer to where Manny and Brandon were.

“Why every time you come out here, we can always find you chilling with the bitches?” Chance fired.

“You mean chilling with your bitch,” Manny fired back. Brandon was starting to understand the problem. He was every bit of game.

“Fuck her,” Chance said trying hard to not catch that embarrassment bug that was going around.

“I plan to,” Brandon chimed in.

“Who is this cat?” Chance asked no one in particular, pointing his hand at Brandon. Chance looked back at the pack and they snickered and scowled.

“Emmanuel, you brought a friend. You want to play another game of ball?” Chance asked.

“These corny ass fuck boys,” Brandon said to the same no one in particular. He pointed at Chance and his crew. He stood up from the bench to let them know he would be more then obliged to introduce himself. “I know you ain’t asking us to play ya’ll in hoop.”

“You better ask your man, Emmanuel about us, boy” Chance said. Dominique came walking back up to the pavilion. Her face read, “Damn. They’re still here?”

Brandon grabbed her by her juicy waist and she molded to fit his grip. The hyenas looked to their leader for direction. Chance winced. They winced too.

“Me and Manny are about to go commit homicide on the court. Wanna come watch?”

“Sure,” Dominique said cheesing at the thought of someone murdering Chance.

“Good, cause I’m shooting for kisses,” Brandon winked at Dominique then at Chance. She giggled and slapped his arm, which was still wrapped tightly around her juiciness. The pack looked worried. Chance was mad.

“Bitches,” he said under his breath and stormed down to the court.

Manny and Brandon joined Chance and his boys on the court.

“Alright, I got Corey and Jeff,” Chance yelled out. Corey and the dunking six-foot-three fellow from the last game, walked over to Chance.

“You can have all those whack ass niggas. Me and Manny about to ice ya’ll.” Brandon said. He finished the braggadocios comment with a slap on Manny’s back.

“Let’s do this,” Brandon said to Manny.

Again, they played a game to 10 points, ones and twos.

“We won last game so we got the ball first,” Chance shouted.

“Check up,” Chance bounced the ball to Manny. Manny passed it back.

Chance dribbled and ran down the court. He passed the ball to Jeff who caught the ball and went in for his famous windmill dunk. Chances team pumped their fists and gave fives.

They checked back up. This time it was Brandon and Jeff. Jeff had the ball. He passed it to

Corey, but Manny was quick with the steal. Manny dribbled and walked slowly. Brandon called for the ball.

“I got you, I got you!” he clapped. Manny passed the rock off to Brandon who took it way out to where his new flame was sitting and let it fly. Nothing but net. Dominique jumped from her seat, clapping and cheering. Brandon kissed her swiftly and ran back for his ball.

Brandon repeated this same move two more times, until Chance, Corey and Jeff were playing defense so tough on Brandon they had forgotten all about Manny. Brandon passed the ball to the side of him and Manny grabbed it. Manny took a quick jump shop and swished one.

It was Brandon and Chance. They checked up again.

“Ya’ll niggas sure ya’ll don’t want to play to twenty?” Brandon laughed while dribbling the ball in front of Chance. “We could do this all day.”

“You can’t go to the hole,” Chance challenged. “All that shooting, but you can’t go to the hole.”

“Who can’t?” Brandon asked. He walked to the middle of the court.

“Come over here so I can put your ass on skates,” Brandon fired.

Brandon juked to the right, Chance jumped to the right. Brandon juked to the left, Chance jumped to the left. Brandon crossed the ball over to his right and then put the ball behind his back, Chance’s ankles gave out and he slid to the ground on his butt.

Manny yelled out, “Yeeaahh, boy! You got your shit broke!”

Two younger teens who were sitting on the sideline waited to play. One of them yelled out, “He need some milk!” Dominique laughed loudly with the young boys.

Brandon sliced in to the lane and flipped a high arching finger roll up over Jeff’s out stretched arm. The ball dropped through the bottom of the net. Manny and Brandon dapped each other up.

“What about my kiss,” Dominique shouted out.

“Oh, you know I’m coming for it. I put the works on Oh Boy, so I’m going to need a good one.”

Dominique gave Brandon a sloppy wet one and he pretended to fall to the ground like Chance had. She cracked up and pushed him back out to the court. However, Chance was done playing games. He pulled his shirt off and threw it to the side of the court.

“Dominique, you’re a fucking a slut?”

Dominique looked stunned, “How Chance?”

“You were just going out with me,” He yelled. Sweat dripping. His eyes bulging.

“We went to prom together. That’s it!” She screamed. “I had a horrible time by the way,” she added for good measure.

“Call her another name,” Brandon dared Chance. Chance looked around to see if his boys had his back. The pack looked exhausted. Not from playing but from following behind someone who had just been demoralized. Not one of them stepped up. Manny walked over to join his boy.

“It’s whatever?” Manny said letting Brandon and Chance both know.

Chance looked at Brandon who had not once broken his glowering stare. Then he looked at Manny who wore a smirk that said “try me.” Dominique had on her usual face of disgust.

“She ain’t worth it. None of ya’ll are,” Chance said throwing his arms up. He grabbed his shirt and walked off the court in the opposite direction. Alone.

Chapter 16 The Jameson’s

Mrs. Lemon’s nails repetitively tapping on her desk were making the hairs on Manny’s neck stand up. Finally, she quited her hand and acknowledged his presence with a smile. A ray of sunlight through the window bounced off her gold tooth making it glimmer. Manny squinted. Everything felt wrong this morning. He felt annoyed and easily distracted. He knew he should have been over the moon, with that ass beating he gave Chance and his rat pack the other day, but he couldn’t get over not having his girl back. He had finally gotten up the courage to call her last night. She didn’t answer. He tried an hour later. No response. Not even so much as a fucking text message. He left it alone after that because, by that point, he was mad and that’s not how he wanted to come at her. So he went to bed on the wrong side of the bed and woke up there.

“Good morning, Mr. Wright. I have some great news for you this morning,” Mrs. Lemon said.

Sure you do, Manny thought sarcastically. He smiled at her, but no dimples appeared.

“I was able to get Dr. Jameson to free his schedule up this morning to allow you to do a home visit. The doctor is one of our more propertied residents. He owns homes here in Westerlynne, as well as in other states, and countries. He is very well-traveled. I feel he would be the perfect candidate to show you what is all attainable for a bright, aspiring, young black man such as yourself, Emmanuel,” Mrs. Lemon said.

Manny smiled, this time the dimples were here for it.

“Thank you,” he said.

God, please let Khia be there, he thought.

“It is casual home visit but you should probably still be well-dressed. The Jameson’s are a very distinguished family. However, I do not think you will find that a problem. Lately, I have found you to be in full feather, quite dapper, if I do say so myself. Have you been using the change from your daily stipend?” she paused and awaited his answer. Manny was stuck. His last swallow stuck hard in his throat.

“Um…” he started to say, but Mrs. Lemon’s cackle of a laugh stopped him dead in his murmur.

“It’s perfectly fine, Emmanuel and rather resourceful, may I add. That’s what I like to see. Previous interns refused to spend their change. They would save it, stash it, or whatever. I am glad to see you have found a way to use it so that it helps you within your internship. Very good,” She said clapping her hands together. She was in a delightful mood.

Manny breathed.

“Alright, well, if you don’t have any questions then your driver will be here in an hour.”

Mrs. Lemon delightful mood was spreading. Manny left her office feeling, at least, better. At most, hopeful.

When he returned to his suite there was a package propped against the door. Manny looked around but saw no one. He picked up the brown box and carefully carried it into room 314.

*****

Manny was coming to realize that Westerlynne was a mix of all sorts of homes and black people. To get into the community, there was a monetary benchmark but once in, there was not a ceiling in sight. Thus, the houses started at amazing, then went on to outlandish, and retired at now-that-just-don’t-make-no-fucking-sense. The Jameson family was laid up in the ladder of these homes.

The home sat behind its own gate inside the gated community. The cursive iron monogram on the gate made the home look aristocratic it also told Manny he was at the right house. Someone must have been looking out for him because the gate opened without hesitance. Ritz drove on. Dr. Jameson came out the front doors before Manny could even leave the car. Manny stood out of the car, then turned and looked at his driver. Ritz nodded at Manny and completed the circle out of the driveway.

“Good afternoon, Son,” Dr. Jameson held out his hand. Manny shook it and followed the man into the house leaving his shoes at the door.

“It’s nice to see a young brother, like yourself, take control over your future like you’re doing, Emmanuel. Not many of us are willing to sacrifice to have the finer things life has to offer. Everybody, nowadays, wants something for nothing. That’s not how it works and I can tell you understand that,” Dr. Jameson said. He was rambling on while leading the way into his office.

“Aileen sent me a copy of your essay, son. I see why you were chosen.”

“Aileen?” Manny questioned.

“I’m sorry. Mrs. Lemon,” Dr. Jameson clarified.

“Ah,” Manny said.

The doctor opened the double glass doors. Where the room lacked in size, it made up for, in character. The rich American Walnut paneled walls gleamed from the natural light brought in from a huge window, the only window in the room, and out of it a rustic garden of trees stood for viewing. An oak desk set in the corner. On it sat a gold lamp with a white pleated shade and an open cigar box. Behind the desk, on a wall, hung Dr. Jameson’s many degrees and accolades. On the wall opposite, was a built-in fireplace, outlined in dark gray marble. It offered an array of books at each side. Above the wood mantle was a large framed photo of The Dr. and his wife. The beauty Manny had seen at the welcome party but this time, without her beast. In the picture, they both presented well-practiced smiles. Manny wondered what was behind the doctor’s, he already seen behind Yasmine’s.

“She’s a dime piece, huh?” The doctor teased Manny with his elbow and laughed.

“Go on, I won’t be mad at you for saying it.” Again, an elbow poked at Manny’s side. Not knowing what to say, Manny let out a sheepish laugh.

“An angel she is,” Dr. Jameson said, looking at the photo. His hands sat at his waste, his lungs filled up with pride.
This guy is fucking clueless, Manny thought!

“Is she a doctor also?” he asked. Anything to avoid saying what was on his mind.

“Noooo, Yasmine’s a homemaker,” The doc answered. His chest still pumped to the sky.

You mean homewrecker.

“Ahhh. Okay.” Manny hoped his fake wonderment sounded sincere.

“Emmanuel, let me show you around. Introduce you to my family. Then, afterwords, we will come back in here for the interview.

Manny swallowed hard as he followed the doctor up a spiraling set of stairs.

Please let her be here, he thought.

Khia was in her room with the door open. She couldn’t have staged it better if she tried. She wore a gold leotard that fit like a second skin. Her silky black hair was pulled up in a high bun, big curls framed her neck. Standing on a yoga mat, she rocked from side to side, with her hands on her hips, slow and sensual.

“Khia!” Dr. Jameson yelled. Angry eyes glared at Khia in her new gold skin, then at Manny, and then back at her. She continued her dance. Dr. Jameson stormed in the room and pulled the pink gummy earphones from her ears.

“Dad?” she squealed. Dr. Jameson pointed towards the door.

“We have a guest,” he said.

With a fake smile and sassy eyes, Khia waved at Manny. In that attire, he would take it however she threw it at him. He waved back and produced his best set of puppy dog eyes. She stuffed her ear buds back in her ears.

Dr. Jameson walked out. The door slammed closed from the inside.

Down the hall of the second floor was another door. This one was closed. Dr. Jameson knocked and then opened the door without waiting for an answer. Yasmine’s beast laid across a bed, texting on his I-phone, eating salted cashews from a can.

“What’s up,” He said to his father while looking curiously at Manny. He flipped his phone, face down, onto the bed.

“T.J., I want to introduce you to this year’s intern, Emmanuel Wright. Now here’s a young brother that’s going somewhere. He has ambition. Goals,” Dr. Jameson bragged. Manny was beginning to think it may have been what he did best. T.J. chewed slowly, looking Manny over curiously. He stood up from the bed and walked to the doorway where Manny stood. His top was bare, only wearing a white pair of sweat pants. His chest was chiseled and made him look older than he was. The tribal necklace, that had danced its own jig while he pounded away at his stepmother during the welcome party, still around his neck.

They were almost the same height. Manny stood just a smidgeon taller. TJ’s was more brawn. He wiped his hand on his pants to remove any salt and then offered it to Manny. Manny accepted.

“Nice to meet you Emmanuel,” TJ said. If Khia hadn’t have told Manny of their Ethiopian heritage, TJ’s slight accent would have gone unnoticed to him.

“Same to you, T.J.,” Manny said respectfully.

“I saw you at the party, you looked lost,” T.J. chuckled.

Shit! He seen me. Manny thought feeling awkward.

“Yea, I saw you trying to spit game at my sister. You looked lost. I might be able to teach you some things about the ladies,” T.J. said.

Bruh, Manny thought. He exhaled.

“I’m sure you could,” Manny replied.

Dr. Jameson was looking wildly at Manny, “You were spitting what at Khia?”

“This guy,” TJ said shaking his head at his father. “He wasn’t spitting anything at her.”

“You kids change your slang like Yasmine changes her nose,” Dr. Jameson was relieved. He poked his elbow into Manny’s side “I thought I was going to have to box your damn head off, spitting on my baby.” Dr. Jameson laughed.

I did just slob her down the other night tho, thought Manny.

“Come on now, Pops. You know I wouldn’t let nothing happen to my sister,” T.J. sneered looking directly into Manny’s eyes. Manny understood code.

“I’m a gentleman. No need to worry,” Manny offered peace.

“We will see,” T.J. replied.

A buzzing at Dr. Jameson’s pocket stopped Manny’s cup of awkward moments from bubbling over. The doctor pulled out his phone and answered.

“Jameson here…No, not scheduled…Well, look at my calendar and tell me if I have tomorrow free, please,” Dr. Jameson looked at Manny with apologizing eyes and held up his finger to tell him to hold on. He walked back downstairs. As soon as the glass doors to his office shut, Manny’s eyes met T.J.’s.

“Nice shoes,” T.J. pointed down at Manny’s Jordan 11’s. The shoes Manny had waited weeks for. The shoes he almost cried tears of joy for when they were delivered to his room this morning. That he thought may be too much for the events on today’s agenda but couldn’t not wear once he opened the shoe box and seen the shiny black patent leather against the white mesh fabric. He tried to hide them under a pair of pants but they would not go unnoticed to those who knew better.

“For a broke boy from the west side, you sure have good taste,” T.J. added. Manny knew that there was more insult than compliment in the young man’s words.

“They were a gift,” Manny lied. He didn’t know why he did.

“Damn, Boy! You must have some good friends and high places, because those shoes are hard to come by this long after they’ve dropped.” T.J. sucked cashew remnants from his teeth and then continued on with his compliments. “Those babies are bad, tho.”

“Thanks,” Manny responded. T.J. seemed to be waiting on more explanation. Manny was finished. He turned around and left T.J. at the doorway. A few steps down the hall and he heard T.J. call his name. Manny turned around.

“Be careful accepting gifts. Ain’t shit free. Not even from friends and definitely not out in these parts.” T.J. went back into his room and the door closed behind him. Manny wasn’t sure if T.J. was offering advice or dishing out threats.

Manny walked back towards Khia’s room. Soft music was coming from the other side of the door. He tried the handle but the door was locked. He heard feet walking, then the music quieted. He tapped gently on the door.

“Khia, open the door,” he whispered. The music started back up. His own cell phone buzzed in his pocket.

Get the fuck away from my door, the message read.

Manny walked downstairs to find Dr. Jameson. As he neared the office he heard talking. More like begging coming from the slightly opened glass doors. Manny walked closer, leaned up against the adjacent wall like a ninja and peeked in.

“Sheer perfection,” Dr. Jameson said while Yasmine slowly twirled around in front of him in the black two-piece lace lingerie.

“What you think, baby” she asked, grinning sexily?

Dr. Jameson grabbed her and pressed himself against her.

“What does it feel like I think?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Yasmine whispered flirtatiously “You like it.”

“I love it,” Jameson said as he stepped back and admired the amazing job he had done on her body.

Everything sat exactly as it should. Perky tits, not in the least bit uneven, led down to washboard abs and an unnaturally small waist. Behind her, a taught round ass, proportionate to her small muscular thighs and toned legs. Not a flaw. She was his masterpiece, a real-life Barbie doll.

Yasmine stepped back and looked in to Jameson’s face. She knew by the lustful look in his eyes it was the perfect time to ask him for what had been on her mind all week. She had his undivided eye gazing, jaw dropping, and mouthwatering attention. Unbeknownst to her, she had Manny’s, as well.

“Baby?” She said softly moving back in closer to him and rubbing her mouth against his ear.

“Hhmm?” Jameson moaned in response to both her question and her teasing. Yasmine was now biting softly on the lobe of his ear.

“Remember how we were talking about sending Khia to her mother’s for the rest of the year?”

“Yeah, baby. I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” Jameson said praying she wouldn’t stop the nibbling.

Yasmine was like a professional brat. It was obvious she always got what she asked for. She wasn’t too proud to beg either.

“Oh, baby,” she said pouting, “You know that girl doesn’t really care for me and now that she’s a grown woman the friction between us is worse. It’s really getting to be hard on me.” She started massaging his back and neck.

“You ladies are going to have to learn to get along. You two are my favorite women and I hate it that you can’t be civil,” Dr. Jameson cried trying to be stronger than the urge in his pants.

“I know but it’s not like it used to be, Terrence. I was your number one and only one. You’d come in from work and fuck me in every room of the house,” Yasmine pretended to be orgasmic by just taking the trip down memory lane and let out an “Mmmm,” while touching herself. Dr. Jameson watched, wide-eyed as her hands traveled over the black lace covering her perfect breasts, down her smooth caramel colored stomach and further down into her panties.

“Jesus Christ,” Jameson cried grabbing himself. Yasmine knew he was falling into her trap.

“T.J. would still be here? It’s not like we’d have the house to ourselves,” Dr. Jameson said now sounding worried that he’d never get to have Yasmine in every room like he used to. Yasmine pulled her wet fingers out of her panties and fed them to the doctor.

“Yes but T.J. works. He’s not a problem.” Yasmine convinced the Dr.

Nah, he’s the answer, a peeping Manny thought.

“Khia’s always here. I really think it would do her some good to be with her mother at this crucial point in her life.” Yasmine said sounding sincere. Her fingers poisoning the doctors mind with every swallow.

“I mean she doesn’t have to stay forever, baby. We have our issues but I couldn’t be away from her for too long, myself.” That was lie. Truthfully, Yasmine wished Khia would move back in with her mother but there was no pussy good enough to make Jameson part with that child support check. Yasmine would have to work with what she had.
“You know I have issues sharing you Terrence and I miss having you all to myself.” At the end of her sentence, on cue, as if she was an actress in some porno, Yasmine had completely laid herself back on the love-seat in front of the lit fireplace and started moving her hand up and down inside the lacy thong.

Dr. Jameson could hardly hear her words through the sounds her fingers were making as they were smacking all the spots he wanted to be hitting.

“Damn, it’s like that?” He said moving closer to his wife. “You’ve been missing Big Daddy, huh?”

He was now done playing games. He needed to pull that lingerie off immediately. Jameson walked towards where Yasmine was laying on the love-seat. Her eyes were closed but she knew he was exactly where she wanted him. She sat up towards him and smiled but she didn’t stop moving her fingers in and out and making the wet sounds that were now completely consuming Jameson’s infected mind. He could no longer think clearly. Could no longer separate lust from reality. It seemed pertinent to fuck Yasmine at this very moment. It was flat out necessary and every bit of significant. Yasmine unbuckled the belt on her husband’s pants and freed the monster that had been relentlessly trying to get out. She could smell the warm manly scent coming from his briefs and it made her mouth salivate. Even though, it started out as just a put-on to get what she wanted, she was now feeling a little hot herself. Hell, why not kill two birds with one stone. Yasmine sucked her man until he could no longer hold back, and right before he exploded, she stopped. She stood up and used both her hands to pull the soaking wet thong down her legs.

She then looked Jameson dead in the eyes and said, “Send the girl to her mamma’s, Terrence.”

He nodded hurriedly to assure her he would. She grinned then turned around and let him kill the other bird from behind.

Manny quietly walked away from the door. He wasn’t usually into voyeurism but he could use a cold shower.

Manny looked around for a bathroom. He walked through the kitchen and peered into a room off to the side of it. It was a huge master bedroom. The TV was on. Some housewives reality show. The bedding was dismantled yet luxurious.

Why didn’t they just come in here and lock the door, Manny thought.

As if he’d forgotten all about where it had gotten the cat, Manny let his curiosity walk him further into the room. There was a huge walk in closet across from the bed. Rows of suits hung neatly. Purses and high heels were all over. An open doorway lead to bathroom with his and her vanities. Although Manny decided against going in there it did remind him of his actual destination. He turned around and started out of the room.

“Bing!”

Manny jumped at the high pitched sound. Like he wasn’t raised any better, he went on snooping, looking for the source of the noise. On the bed, laid a glossy pink cell phone. He pushed a button and the screen lit up. It wasn’t locked. The notifications screen popped up. Manny used his finger to glide to the next screen. A slew of messages popped up:

Her: I want more

Black Congo: We’re never alone

Her:I can change that

Black Congo: How

Her: I have my ways 😉

Feet from upstairs made a sound over Manny’s head. He rushed to click the same button he had before to put the phone back in sleep mode. He threw the phone back onto the bed.

He slid himself out of the room and walked into a living room. Cream furniture was on display. It looked like it had never been used. A couple of medical journals sat on the coffee table. Across the living room, Manny could see another hallway and a door.

That has got to be a bathroom.

Sure enough, it was. Manny locked the door behind him. He splashed cold water on his face and stared at himself into the golden framed mirror. His dreadlocks were pulled back into a bun. He sucked the water from his lips and took a deep breath. He stared at his reflection for answers, who looked back at him just as puzzled. Manny opened the door and flicked off the light, simultaneously. Khia stood staring back at him. Her eyes sad and angry. She still wore her messy bun on top of her head but now she had changed into an over-sized Ohio State sweatshirt and a red pair of Nike Dri-fit basketball shorts. Her small feet were covered with thick gray socks. Her father would have been proud.

“What did you want,” she asked Manny. Attitude running all through her tone.

“I wanted to apologize,” Manny began. “For the other night,” he reached for her hand.

Khia shook her head. “You hurt my feelings, Manny,” she said, drawing her hands up to her chest and crossing them.

“I’m so sorry, Khia. I promise I won’t ever come at you like that again,” Manny pleaded and reminded himself of begging ass Yasmine. He straightened his form.

“You know Brandon and Dominique made up? They’ve already been on another date,” Manny updated Khia with the good news.

“Yes, I know,” Khia answered. “and exactly what’s that supposed to mean for us? If they’re good, we’re good? If they’re arguing then we’re beefing, too?” she asked. Her lips made a straight line. Her hands were now holding on to her hips.

“That’s not what I meant, Khia” Manny said.

“Well, what did you mean, Manny? Because that’s sure how it seems,” Khia asked.

“I missed you,” he said.

Khia closed her eyes and shook her head. Manny grabbed for her hand and this time she didn’t stop him. Her eyes were begging him again. The feelings he had just washed off in the bathroom were coming back with a vengeance. Manny pulled her into him and hugged her. He looked down on her bun and spoke easier into it since it wasn’t glaring back at him with angry eyes.

“I’m sorry, Khia. I was just too caught up in my feelings. I thought ya’ll were clowning us for not being like ya’ll. I thought you and your girl, were looking down on us, and well, shit, it had me feeling fucked up,” Manny spilled out.

Khia did the same, she spoke softly into his chest, “I wouldn’t do that to you, Manny. I just wasn’t going to sit back and let Brandon disrespect my girl, but me and you, I thought we were good.”

“We are good, always,” Manny said.

Khia looked up at him and smiled. He bent down and pecked her lips. She wanted more and so did he but the risk was too much. Between her father and brother, Manny didn’t see him living to see tomorrow if he was caught with Khia in their living room. Khia must have been on the same page.

“Let’s go somewhere,” Khia said. “Wait here,” Khia took off, headed back up to her room. When she came back down she had put on a large pair of hoop earrings, swapped the sweatshirt out for a tank top, covered it with a long sleeved flannel and traded the basketball shorts in for denim cutoffs.

“Come on,” She said to Manny as she grabbed a set of keys hanging in the kitchen.

Chapter 17 Love’s Song

Khia pushed a button on the steering wheel in her fluorescent pearl Lexus IS-150 and the gate opened. The car purred as she pushed on the gas and sped away from her house. Manny wondered how long would it be before Dr. Jameson realized he was gone, and then until he realized his daughter was too.

“Where are we going?” Manny asked. It was just hitting the middle of the afternoon. The day was still young.

“I want to go to your place,” Khia said.

“My aunt’s house? Why are you always trying to visit the hood?” Manny asked. Laughing but serious.

“No. I want to go to your room…at the hotel.” Khia kept her eyes on the road.
Manny licked his lips and bit down hard on his bottom one, forcing the creases in his jaw line to show up.

“Okay,” Manny said, not sure what all he was signing up for. Khia looked at Manny and grinned.

“Okay,” she said.

Khia pulled into the hotels parking garage instead of parking out front. They got out and took the elevator up to Manny’s floor, skipping the front desk entirely. The suite looked small and plain compared to the house they had just left.

“This is nice,” Khia said. “I’ve never been in any of the rooms here, I’ve only been to the spa.”

She gave herself a quick tour of Manny’s home away from home.

“What you got to eat. I’m hungry,” Khia asked on her way into the kitchen.

“I dunno. There’s some cookies and fruit and stuff in there,” Manny said from the chair in the living room. She opened his refrigerator door.

“This is all you have?” Khia asked.

“We can order room service,” Manny said.

“Oh yeah, let’s do that,” Khia plopped down on top of Manny’s lap. She stretched her chocolate legs across the arm of the chair and let her flip flops dangle off her feet and fall to the floor.

Mmmm, Manny wasn’t sure if he had moaned out loud or only in his mind.

Manny adjusted himself in the chair. Khia grabbed the hotel phone on the end table and dialed “0.”

“Room Service,” she said into the receiver. She winked at Manny as she waited for someone to come to the phone. Manny stared at her. He wondered if Raele had answered the phone.

“I’ll take the surf n’ turf…yes, please… twelve ounce, medium rare, thank you…ginger ale is fine and,” she stopped.

Khia mouthed to Manny if he wanted anything else before she hung up.

“You,” he mouthed back. Khia blushed.

“That’ll be all,” Khia said to the room service attendant and put the phone back on the table. When she turned back around Manny was gazing into her face. He pulled at the bun on top of her head and it fell into a ponytail. Khia pulled out her ponytail holder and let her shiny black strands fall to her back. Manny tenderly pulled her face to his. He kissed her lips once. Then came back for more, this time opening his mouth to taste her tongue. She gave it to him, over and over. In perfect harmony, they sang a sensuous song, Manny the smooth tenor, Khia the sweet soprano. With his eyes closed, Manny’s hands sought out the wonders of Khia’s body. He found Khia’s breast and gently squeezed. He sucked her bottom lip, and thought of what he’d love to do with his handful.

“Unhhh,” Khia’s new song, dragged out thick and it told Manny that he was getting it right. He pulled up her tank top and could see her nipples through her sports bra. He squeezed again.

“Shit Manny,” Khia trembled through quick short breaths.

Shit Khia.

Manny sucked in air through his teeth. He could hear the air conditioner running and yet sweat was beading at his hairline.

His hands traveled underneath her bra and felt her. Naked and real. The timing of their song slowed. Manny grew a little. Khia’s breaths were coming from somewhere deeper and so she squeezed her thighs together to try and stop it at the source. Trying to still kiss Manny but finding it more and more difficult to do while focusing on the Nile between her legs. Manny let her focus on her river and used his mouth to continue his exploration. He sucked on his handful of nakedness and what was left of Khia’s constraint spilled out. He grew taller.

“Oh, my God,” She cried. She tilted her head back and let Manny use his lips to travel from her breast to her neck and in reverse back to her lips, which now were trembling. Manny eased her trembling mouth with his steady one. They sang in harmony again.
A knock at the door interrupted their song. Or at least, put it on pause.

“Room service,” A woman’s voice called out. Khia was still drunk from the music they had just made. Her breast still bare and wet, making her nipples shine like small chocolate candies. There was no way she could get the door. Manny lifted her up off his lap and stood up she sat back down in the chair while he went to answer the door.He was trying to think of something, anything, lame to calm the rigidness in his pants.

A, B, C, D, E, F, G… Manny sung in his head. The song had no effect, whatsoever.

Manny cracked the door and took the covered meal from the lady. She handed him a ginger ale from off her cart then flung back her long blonde hair.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Wright,” a young woman, in her early twenties smiled seductively at Manny. She reminded him of someone. He couldn’t place her but he also didn’t care to. The lady was eyeing the bulge in his pants and licked her lips.

Nope. Not my type.

“Hi,” He avoided any more eye contact and retrieved ten dollars from his pocket. He handed her the money and closed the door.

Khia had stepped away to the bathroom. Quietly, she crept back into the room with her clothes back in order.

Manny sat back in the chair.

“I am so hungry,” Khia said. She walked up to the counter in the kitchen and grabbed two sets of silverware from the drawer and then two glasses from out of the cabinet. Then she headed back to the small dining table, where the food was and sat down.
Manny looked at her. His eyes smiling, his dimples deep. He opened his legs wide and set back deeper into the chair.

“What you scared of,” He asked Khia, who was taking the dome off her plate.

“Boy, bye. I’m not afraid of anything,” She lied. Her delicate eyes didn’t.

“So, why you way over there,” Manny teased.

“I told you, I’m hungry,” Khia said softly, then giggled. “Manny, leave me alone.”

“You sure you want me to do that?” He asked. His eyebrow warning her to say what she meant.

Khia grinned big and sighed, “No, I’m not sure. Anyway, do you want some of this food? I ordered enough for both of us.”

Manny snickered

She trying to change the subject, he thought.

He got up and walked over to the table where Khia sat. The food in her mouth went down hard. Her eyelashes fluttered. Manny sat in the chair across from her and scooted

it closer. He took a small bite of the lobster, something he never would have ordered himself. He liked it.

“Dip it in the lemon butter sauce,” Khia suggested.

“Damn, that’s bomb,” Manny said licking his lips and chomping on the fish.

“I know right,” Khia laughed. Manny laughed too.

Why have I never had this? Manny thought. Oh, yea…we couldn’t afford it. He remembered.

He took another bite dipped in the sauce.

“No, but really? You good?” Manny asked still chewing. His eyes serious.

Khia looked at her new friend.

“Yes, Manny. I’m good.” She took a sip of her ginger ale, which she had poured into the glasses.

“I just don’t know what we are doing. You know?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “I mean I can tell you like me and I like you too, but for real, we just met and well, to be honest,” she stopped. Khia looked up and rolled her eyes. She had become slightly annoyed.

“What’s wrong?” Manny asked. He looked in her eyes and hoped for a clue.

“I’m a virgin,” Khia stated.

“Oh,” Manny was stuck for a second.

Does she think I’m like Don Juan Pimp Juice or something? Shit, I’ve only ever been with one girl.

He chose not to say what was on his mind for fear of seeming inexperienced.

Khia stammered for words to fill the silence, “I’m down for… you know. I just want it to be the at the right time and to be sure,” Like their song, she paused.

“I’m the right one,” Manny finished.

“Yeah, that’s all I’m trying to say.” Khia said softly, her face in her plate.

“No. Khia I’m telling you.” With his hand he took her chin and lifted her eyes to his. “I’m the right one,” He nodded his head up and down trying to reassure her.

Khia stared at him for a moment then she asked, as unsure as her eyes looked, “How do you know?”

“I just know.” He answered as confident as his heart felt.

“We’re not even official, yet,” she said, all her sass rushing back in. Her lips were tooted and waiting for his response.

“You got another nigga?” He asked her. Knowing he better know the answer.

“No, stupid,” Khia said. She playfully slapped his face.

“Alright then. Your mine,” Manny said matter-of-factly.

“Just like that? Huh,” Khia played hard but inside all her chocolate was melting.

“I mean… Is that okay with you?” He was very sincere.

Khia nodded.

“And we don’t have to rush to do anything. Alright?” His fingertips brushed over her brow and slid her hair behind her ear.

She nodded again. On the inside, she was a puddle.

They ate their dinner and rambled about all the things fresh new couples ramble about. He talked about his childhood. She talked about hers. Both thinking the others was more interesting than their own. They switched to the love-seat and talked some more. Sitting closer than close, they talked until the color of the sky told them it was going to be a new day soon.

“You want me to get you home. I can pick you back up to get your car in the morning,”

I don’t want her to go.

Khia shook her head. “I want to stay here. With you.”

“Okay,” Manny said.

Manny went into his bedroom, Khia followed behind him. The strap from the duffel bag was peeking from under the bed. He used his foot to swiftly kick it back out of sight on his way to the dresser. He opened a drawer and pulled out a T-shirt and basketball shorts for Khia to sleep in. She took the clothes under her arm and went to the bathroom attached to the bedroom.

Manny fluffed the pillows on the bed. Still feeling the feathery wings of the butterflies all about his insides, he used the remote to turn on the television, flipping through the channels trying to find something cool and light. Sports, the news, comedy. Something that would lighten the mood a little. Let some of the steam out of the room. Help him to keep his word and keep his hands to himself. Behind him he could hear the water from the shower beating on the walls. The warm smell led in by the steam was sweet and tempting. He didn’t want to watch TV anymore. He hit the power button and placed the remote back on the shelf.

Manny tiptoed in the bathroom and watched his lady dripping wet behind the clouded glass. He watched until there wasn’t anything soft left on his body. He watched until his own clothes were pressed hard under his two feet. Until he was behind her dripping wet, as well. Wet from the shower. Wet from the watching. He watched her until he forgot his promise. To wait. Khia couldn’t care less. She wanted to push play just as bad he did. The energy was too strong. Even the Ylang Ylang and Vanilla in the water pouring down from the spout of the shower seemed to be encouraging them to give love a go tonight. Khia turned around and faced Manny. Someone somewhere must’ve pushed play. They continued their song that they had started earlier. With Khia lifted in the air, Manny strummed each one of her passions like strings on a guitar, trying to set them into motion. Hitting her every chord. Slow and steady, he rode the rhythm of her African bongos. Never missed a beat. On key, in perfect unison, they made music. They made love.

 

Copyright © 2017 by AJ Crowder

5 thoughts on “Preview Novel-Westerlynne: Welcome Home

  1. Aja,this is really good. I love the urban touch. A lot of black children would be able to relate to this. I didnt finish it all because my eyes are getting heavy. But I will be back to finish it. I like how it has sad,funny and interesting parts. I like oh call. Sad that June burned in the fire

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    • Thank you so very much!!! I am in the process of revising this now. This is my first novel. Everyday I add a chapter on here for feedback, suggestions and/or comments. Please keep following…so much more to come!

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