Better, I think.

 

Prologue

September 2017

For those that watched every day, a slim African American male with a thin mustache, rocking a red afro, sat watching his kid prepare for the upcoming little league football season.  He’d been here since Monday, parked in his chair, the kind you see an all the sporting events where parents set perched watching their kids play fill-in-the-blank-sport.

He was really a she, a cool calculating woman with an agenda—the infant brother of star player number five. Too bad there was only room for one. Had it been up to her, she’d taken the infant and the two-year old baby girl, that for all practical purposes was on her own. She would have to forget how she wandered off from the mother, and all the things she run into so far, playing in the ditch that ran beside the football field, or almost running into the street that one time. It broke her heart watching, still rules were rules and beyond her control.

Three days and it would be over. The infant babe would be gone, tucked up comfortably in a dark blue dodge minivan, with all the requisite paraphernalia, stickers and such to attest to the fan-ship of the team and no one would be the wiser. They wouldn’t know where to look, where to chase, beyond searching for a man, a little African American man with a mustache who rocked a red afro.

 

Chapter One

September, 2018, Sunday, week 1

Sunday evening, done with dinner with one of her an old friend from high school and en route to say hello to another one. She given thought to calling first, and she would have, `cept all she had was an address given to her by Mavis, four months ago. She didn’t ask how Mavis knew where to find him, just accepted it and sent him an invitation to her college graduation.

She was perfectly okay receiving her diploma in the mail, but that of course was not acceptable to Mavis. “Five plus years, Sydney King and you are going to march across that stage and I’m going to be there to watch you,” she’d said. There was no way she could say no to that and truth be told, she was glad she’d hadn’t. What a rush walking across that stage had been, and a sense of pride at finishing something she’d dreamed of for so long. She was done, the recipient of two degrees. Art and engineering. Yea her!

Graham didn’t show, not that she’d thought he would. Really he’d done more than enough, way more than she could ever repay and the reason she was here today. To personally thank him for his support. It was the least she could do.

She pulled into the drive of his home, a new house, expensive and modern, some architect’s concoction of a stone, wood, and the roof looked to be made of copper. It seemed smaller than the one he’d grown up in, she thought, disappointed. Talk about coveting a house. She so did, coveted him and the home he’d lived in most of her life. So many memories, of being tutored in the kitchen by him, the kid sister of his boy’s girlfriend. So many of her fantasies were with her married to him. She could laugh at that now, and cringe at her younger self sneaking into bed with him that one time in her need to make him hers. A colossal mistake of epic proportions and all behind her now, she thought . . . she hoped. . . to test.

She picked up the gift she’d purchased for him and made her way up the side walk leading to his home, careful not to trip over feet as she maneuvered around the large slabs of stone that were placed on top of each other to form a walkway. She hoped he was home.

She’d dressed well today. Unlike her child hood’s love of jeans and t-shirts, the adult Sydney preferred dresses that showcased her figure and with her hair, free and full, falling softly around on her head, bouncing with the force of her steps, she could make quite the impression. Had made quite the impression on a bunch of young men in college. Of her ability to attract the male gaze she was sure of. She rang the doorbell.

“Surprise,” She said, when it opened. Dang she thought, at seeming him. It had been eight years.  Was life always going to be good for him? Relaxed in athletic shorts and a faded Rice University’s t-shirt, he was the same handsome dude from her youth. Dark thick hair, and brown eyed, tallness. Good thing she dropped her crush, or she’d have a problem on her hands as G had changed too. Of course, it was only in a good way. His muscles had thickened, filling out the slim boyhood body her young girl had grown up admiring.

“Sydney King,” He said, his smile wide as he looked her over.

“In the flesh.” She said, smiling. “I usually don’t show up to people’ homes unannounced, but I didn’t have a telephone number for you. Mavis gave me your address for the graduation invitation which is how I knew you lived here. Nice neighborhood by the way.”

“Thanks. No worries. Come in,” he said, opening the door wider.

“Sure.” She said, her gaze darting between him and the interior of his home as she entered. Dark wood flooring, walls covered in a pretty stone color and sky lights to highlight it all and her view was limited to the foyer, but yeah it was nice in here. Gorgeous and male was both the man and his inside living space.

He closed the door behind her, gave her the once over from head toe, which for some reason he didn’t try to hide.

“So, I bet you’re wondering why I’m here.” She asked, a little disconcerted by what from all appearance was him checking her out and was that desire she thought in his gaze.

“To say hello?” he said.

“Yes,” she said, chuckling. “That and I wanted to thank you.” she said. She took a deep breath and charged into her prepared speech as she handed him her gift. “This as a small token of my appreciation for all you done for me. Starting with your high school tutorship, encouraging me to finish high school and college and if that wasn’t enough for funding my education. I couldn’t have done it without you.  You were right, it was what I needed to do.” Done with the speech, she leaned in and placed a kiss on his cheek.

“You’re welcome. I knew your dreams remember,” he said, and she could tell he meant it. That he was proud of her.

“I do,” she said, smiling. “Which was why again, I wanted to thank you personally for helping me to reach them.”

“You’re welcome again and Congratulations for finishing what you started.” He said, smiling, shaking his head, before he tore into her gift, letting the wrapping fall to the floor. He smiled as he stared at a picture of her, dressed in her cap and gown, one hand outstretched toward the dean, accepting her diploma. “Thank you.” He added.

“You welcome,” she said, watching him smile at her picture, pleased with the look of pleasure on his face as he did so. He really wanted the best for her, which she’d known, but wow at having him in her corner, always, she thought.

“It’s perfect.” He said. He opened his arm, and pulled her in for a hug.

“Your first kid though college, huh.” She said, into his neck, arms around his waist, and she could feel the old familiar pull that she always felt around him.

“Something like that,” he said, chuckling, releasing her.

“Well, without your financial support it would not have been possible.”

“It would have. You’d done what you needed to do. You always have, waiting in the hall to ask me to tutor you. Riding the bus to my home to be tutored, ignoring the naysayers like your aunt, Crystal.”

“The number one naysayer.” She said, her smile rueful.

“You always find a way. You always have.”

“Maybe. Anyway, thanks.” She said, bending over to pick up the wrapping paper from the floor. It needed picking up, and she needed a place to hide her pleasured reaction to his words.

“So, you’re home for good?” He asked, watching her bent form as she made short work of picking up the wrapping paper. She looked perfect in her dress, bold pink in color, trimmed in white, simple and a compliment to the smooth brown of her skin and the figure it contained. It hugged the curves of plump sized breast, just enough hips, and the right amount of ass that had caught up with her legs. No more braids, instead it was hair thick and natural, forming a halo around her head and wow. Someone had really grown up, he thought.

“Who knows.” She said, standing upright again, meeting his gaze. “For now, I have a job. I’ll be working for OCAAT, the assistant to Mavis.” She said, chin up and bracing for his reaction of displeasure. Not that it would change anything. Her life decisions were her own from now on.

“OCAAT huh,” He said, his expression she couldn’t read.

“Yes.” She said, all challenge against the disapproval she expected from him. “They do important work. You know this. It’s the same from when we volunteered, except OCAAT is not this remarkable organization that does so much for our kids.”

“Yep.” He said, half hearing her, wrestling with all the ways in which she changed, physically. His mind was trapped in how good she looked. “Sydney all grown up.” He added.

“What?” She said, meeting his gaze, surprised at the lack of disapproval in them, instead was interest? What? No way, and not likely.

“What?” He asked.

“Are you listening to me?”

“Of course. You are going to work for OCAAT. I understand. It’s a good choice.”

“Okay,” she said, giving him some side eye. I was all prepared for ‘What the hell Syd,” she said, in her best imitation of a male voice. “I expected all kinds of responses to my job choice, but not that one.”

“It’s your life and OCAAT is a great organization. It’s changing the world one child at a time.”

“Yes, it is.” She said, pleased and still surprised again at the lack of anything remotely like the disappointment.

“Any word from your sister?” He asked.

“Ah. . . no.” she said, surprised again. She rarely thought of her sister, or she tried not to think of Shelby King. Some days it was harder than others.

“How’s Crystal and Nico? Are they still living in Austin?”

“Nope. They moved back to Hillsborough. I kept in touch, saw them during spring breaks and holidays. Nico’s the same Nico,” she said, smiling.

“I bet.” He said, smiling too. The doorbell rang, interrupting whatever he was about to say.

“Expecting someone?” She asked.

“Yep.” He said with a grin or grimace, she couldn’t tell which. “Hey,” he said, to a woman, an Aster look alike if ever there was one, Sydney thought. This woman had the same look as Caroline, his girlfriend in college when she’d gone up to see him that one time. Dark haired, tall, and super thin, Aster, his girlfriend from high school was the from which all the others were based.

“Heather, this is a Sydney, a good friend of mine from high school.” He said, moving aside so Heather could enter.

“Hi. Nice to meet you,” Heather said, swinging her hair out of her face as she moved inside. She smiled, studying Sydney for signs of encroachment.

“Hi,” she said, moving her gaze quickly back to G. “I’m out. I didn’t plan to stay any longer than it took to drop that off.” She said, pointing to the picture in his hand. “Thank you again,” she said.

“You’re welcome again. See you around.” He said, watching as she moved past Heather and through to the outside. She smiled one last time before she turned away.

“Hey,” he said, planting a kiss squarely on Heather’s lips, and watching Syd walk to her car.

“Sydney is?” Heather asked.

“A friend from high school that I used to tutor. She finished college this year. She stopped by to drop this off,” he said, lifting up the picture he still head in his hand. He closed the door, and placed it on the floor to lean against the wall.

“Helping the under privilege?”

“No, not at all.” He said, slightly irritated by her words. “We attended the same high school.”  It had never been that, he thought.

“I didn’t mean to offend you.” She said, watching him.

“I’m not offended,” he said, smiling, and yeah he was. It didn’t matter as he and Heather weren’t that couple.

“What high school?”

“The Hills.”

“That’s a good school I hear, in a good neighborhood too. A great place to raise kids.”

“It was. It is,” he said, smiling at the memory of his old student, friend, now a grown woman. He’d kept himself out of her life intentionally, to grow up and figure out her life for herself and she must have silently agreed, as she didn’t return to Austin much. Off to this city or that, with friends, working at OCAAT, taking summer classes somewhere had kept her away too.

None of which he’d known were it not for Mavis, who had, without out any prompting kept him abreast of the major and minor events in Sydney’s life and yes, he’d taken pleasure in seeing her forward progress, too. It had been eight years since he’d seen her last , crying in his arms at his apartment in Houston. A young woman on the verge of adulthood. That memory was a far cry from the Sydney he encountered today, filled out, confident, and finally home, to find her nephew. The unsaid reason and the true reason she was signing on to OCAAT. Of course, it was. She grown up for sure, but he’d bet in this way, focused on her task, a goal, she was the same Sydney as she always been.

“Hey, where’d you go?” Heather said, her expression cautious as she gazed back at him.

“What. Nowhere. I’m here, with you.”

“Doesn’t feel like it.” She said.

“My apologies then,” he said, pulling her close as he pushed his thoughts of Sydney to the back of his mind, to contemplate later, tonight it was a here and now, and Heather.

#

See, that wasn’t so bad, Sydney said, in her car now, backing out of G’s drive. She had moved on. Not all the way moved on, but enough.  Yes, the good news was that she could see him. With or without Heather, the pangs of discomfort were minimal.

Of course, she felt the stirrings of her old crush come up depths of her soul, where she sent it. Standing in G’s foyer and yeah she could feel the attraction. It was to be expected. They had been huge, her feelings for G, so yeah, it made sense that little of those old feelings lingered. First loves were tough to get over and G had most definitely been hers, one sided for sure, but hers nonetheless.

She had a goal, one goal and it was to find her nephew. Nothing came before it. Plus, G didn’t do missions. One semester of supporting Brian in his quest of what is my father and d up too had been enough. He checked out, so yeah, she knew. The only person she could depend on in, was herself and she was fine with that.

She was one hundred percent here to find Baby B. It was the reason she’d signed on to work with Mavis at OCAAT. Baby B had to be with them, living somewhere in this town.  Where else could he be? It was the last place she’d seen him or his mother. It was the place where those with the means and will to abduct their grandchild lived. Mavis, Bishop, Darius and the most important one of all was Deb the grandmother lived here. Where else would he be but here, and who else would have taken him but on of them. Shelby had been right to think that.

Graham did look good though, she’d give him that, shaking her head at the image of him standing in the middle of his foyer, looking good enough to devour on the spot.  She leaned all about devouring things from college, so yeah he was tempting. She, however had other priorities, much more important than him. Plus, she didn’t have to see him anymore.   He would have his life with Heather on this side of town, and she would live hers on the other.

#

Grants Groceries, on the corner of Whitesall and Marion street, formerly known as Mr. Scott’s grocery was the current employer of and home to Shelby King. Downstairs she worked to support herself, and above it, in a one bedroom apartment, she lived.

Directly across the street from the grocery store was the original Friendship Church, remodeled into an OCAAT school ten years ago. Next to the church was the old church parsonage that also for the past ten years was home to Darius Miller.

Mr. Miller, aka D to his friends and co-workers, was the director of the Leader Bound Organization for the famous Bishop Walker—pastor extraordinaire. D Miller was also possibly a kidnapper of kids, or maybe just the kidnapper of her kid. At any rate, she lived and worked across the street so she could watched, followed, and basically stalked the man.

Six foot two inches of defined bald-headed, go-tee wearing, muscular caramel colored African American male as Mr. Miller. Handsome, if you liked the Alpha male type. The jury was still out on whether or not she did. It depended on the complexity, integrity of the dude and what he did with all that Alpha. There were a lot more important things that went into the composition of a man than a take charge attitude and an outward show of strength. especially if she had to play the damsel in distress role, so he could feel powerful, which in this lifetime, she was done playing.

It was nine in the evening, and usually he was home for the day. It was Sunday, which meant Leader bound activities and church. Twenty-one days of watching had him and she pretty much had his schedule down. He was an all work and no play, to church and no play, running in the evening to stay in shape boring guy.  A more by the book, regimented dude, she’d yet to meet.

She had eyes on him now, standing behind the curtained window of her apartment. Dressed in his customary suit and tie, with his everywhere he went back pack slung over one shoulder, and a suitcase in his other hand, he was going somewhere that required an overnight stay. She hoped that was the case.

He was out locking the front door of his home, before moving down the front porch steps to the sidewalk that led to another sidewalk, and across a small patch of grass to where his black monster truck was parked.

Where was he off to? How long would he be gone? Both good questions for which she had no answers. She’d yet to speak to him, unsure how to approach him. Anger or pretending interest in the man.   He was behind the wheel of his car, and pulling away leaving her wondering. Was now the time to slip inside his home, maybe even as early tonight. If there was any hope of finding her kid, she needed inside his home. If there was any hope for her, having a life that was normal, she needed her kid. Couldn’t move on until she did, and that thought of that, of a life time spent searching and never finding her baby, just about brought her to her knees, drowning in despair.

The same despair after Brian’s death that had left her reeling. It and depression had placed her baby at risk by leaving him home alone. Someone had taken her up on the risk and had stolen him. A thing she wasn’t sure she could ever forgive herself for.

Finding him was the goal, the light that saved her so far, brought her back to life. Finding him was the goal that’d driven her the last three years to get in shape, work, and save money to return here.   All signs pointed here, back to the beginning, to him, the hands of Darius Miller, working on behalf of the Walkers.

#

Darius Miller knew he was being watched. Actually, she’d been following him for the last three weeks, working at the neighborhood grocery store and living in the apartment above it. Bishop had made him aware of her existence here, and how he came to that know that information he’d yet to learn.

‘Shelby King is in town, so be careful is all he’d said. Why? He wondered but didn’t ask and he was always careful. A life spent looking over his shoulder had taught him to be careful.

The high school girlfriend of Bishop’s younger boy didn’t seem all that scary to him. He remembered her. A beautiful young girl, looking for a ride upward in life with Brian, the potential pro-baller running back. He remembered a pair of wasted kids that he’d played Uber driver to.

A life tragically cut short. Two brothers, Brandon killed the year before Brian. A waste, the kid had been good, NFL good.  He dropped those thoughts that led to nowhere good. The Walker’s for as much as they pretended, had never fully recovered from the loss of their boys. One son was hard, but two and it was wonder they were still sane. Had they been able to find the killer, maybe they would have helped. Closure he knew most people needed to move on. Instead they were left with two unsolved murders of two black boys and who cared about that. He knew too well the truth of that statement, it wasn’t his biased talking. It had twenty years of first-hand experience in taking them.

His life had also taught him patience. Most things revealed themselves in time. So, until he learned otherwise, he was placing Shelby with her horrible tracking skills in the back of his brain, where the other harmless things lived. His enemy or not an enemy, he didn’t have an answer to that question. All he knew was the for now, he was giving her space.

He glanced in the direction of her window again. He could see her, especially when illuminated by the light ,which home girl forgot to turn off. He shook his head at the sleuthing that was borderline elementary level stuff. The curtain moved, another sign she was standing behind them. It was all he could do to keep from waving or blowing her a kiss, whenever he saw her, so easy to spot. Whether it was behind the window of hers, or staring out the window of the store he could always find her. Tonight, it made him to smile.

 

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