Proofreading is the last hurdle and then it’s up for sale. In the meantime here’s chapter One and Two.
For those that watched every day, a slim African American male with a thin mustache sat watching his kid prepare for the upcoming little league football season. He’d been there since Monday, parked in his camp chair, the kind found on the sidelines of fill-in-the-blank sport practices.
He was really a she, a cool calculating woman with an agenda—the infant brother of star player number five. Three days from now it would be over. The infant babe would be gone, tucked up comfortably in a dark blue Dodge minivan with no one the wiser.
Her one regret was leaving the infant’s older sister behind. Baby girl, for all practical purposes, was on her own, fending for herself, growing herself up through the hard knocks of dodging cars ‘cause she’d mistaken the street for the playground. Two years old and what did she know about navigating parks and streets and ditches alone. It broke her heart watching baby girl’s life unfolding in this manner.
Sometimes there were just no good options. Not everyone could be saved. She knew this to be true. Take the good and move on. The infant and his future was an example of the good she could take. Plus, rules were rules, and beyond her control. It didn’t stop her from longing for a future where all kids were safe and loved. Until then, it would be one child at a time.
September, 2018, Sunday, week one
Sunday evening, done with dinner with an old high school friend, found Sydney King en route to see another one. She’d 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; had 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 hadn’t. What a rush walking across that stage had been, and the 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!
He didn’t show, not that she’d thought he would. Really, he’d done more than enough, way more than she could ever repay—which was the reason she was here today. To personally thank him for his support. It was the least she could do.
She pulled into the driveway of his home. It was a new house, expensive and modern, some architect’s concoction of a stone and 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; had 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.
She picked up the gift she’d purchased for him and made her way up the sidewalk, careful not to trip over her 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 childhood self’s love of jeans and t-shirts, the adult Sydney preferred dresses that showcased her figure and with her hair, free and full. With it 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. She was sure of her ability to attract the male gaze.
She rang the doorbell. “Graham Garrison,” she said when it opened. Dang, she thought, at seeing him. It had been eight years. Was life always going to be good for him? Relaxed in athletic shorts and a faded Rice University’ t-shirt, he was the same handsome dude from her youth. Dark thick hair and brown-eyed tallness. Good thing she had 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.
“Surprise,” she said, smiling. “Mavis gave me your address for the graduation invitation. 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 coral colored paint, and skylights to highlight it all. 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 from him checking her out. And was that desire she thought she saw in his gaze?
“To say hello?” he said.
“Yes,” she said, chuckling. “That, and I wanted to thank you.” 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’ve 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.”
“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’re 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 arms and pulled her in for a hug.
“Your first kid through college, huh,” she said into his neck, arms around his waist. She could feel the old familiar pull that she’d always felt around him before.
“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, starting with 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 pleased 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 and trimmed in white—simple and a compliment to the smooth brown of her skin and her figure. It hugged the curves of her plump breasts, just enough hips, and the right amount of ass that had caught up with her legs. No more braids; instead her hair was thick and natural, forming a halo around her head. 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 had 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 that 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.
“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 next.
“Expecting someone?” she asked.
“Yep,” he said with either a grin or grimace, she couldn’t tell which, as he opened the door. “Hey,” he said to a woman. She had the same look as Aster, his girlfriend in high school’. Dark haired, tall, and super thin, this woman had the same aesthetic as Aster and all of Graham’s other girlfriends’ had.
“Heather, this is a Sydney, a good friend of mine from high school,” he said.
“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,” Sydney 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”.”
“You’re welcome again. See you around,” he said, watching as she moved past Heather and outside. She smiled one last time before she turned away.
“Hey,” he said, planting a kiss squarely on Heather’s lips, 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 closed the door and placed it on the floor to lean against the wall.
“Helping the underprivileged?”
“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. But yeah, he was. It didn’t matter, as he and Heather weren’t that couple.
“What high school?”
“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. She must have silently agreed, as she ’hasn’t returned to Austin much. Heading off to this city or that with friends, working at OCAAT, and taking summer classes somewhere had kept her away.
None of which he would have’ known were it not for Mavis, who had, without out any prompting, kept him informed of the major and minor events in Sydney’s life. He’d taken pleasure in seeing her forward progress, too. It had been eight years since he’d last seen her in person, 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. 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 here and now, with Heather.
See, that wasn’t so bad, Sydney said to herself, 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’d sent it. Standing in G’s foyer, she could feel the attraction. It was to be expected. Her feelings for G had been huge, so yeah, it made sense that a 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 Darius-up-to had been enough for him. The only person she could depend on was herself, and she was fine with that.
She was one hundred percent there 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—Mavis, Bishop, Darius, and the most important one of all, Deb the grandmother—lived there. 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’d learned all about devouring things from college, so yeah, he was tempting. She had other priorities, however, much more important plans. 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 out hers on the other.
September, 2018, Sunday, week one
Grant’s Groceries—formerly known as Mr. Scott’s Groceries’, a two-story building on the corner of Whitesall and Marion street—was the current employer and home to Shelby King. Downstairs, she worked as the store’s manager, and in the one-bedroom apartment above it, she lived. Directly across the street from the store was the original Friendship Church, remodeled into an OCAAT school ten years ago. Next to it sat the old church parsonage, where for the past ten years Darius Miller had lived.
Mr. Darius Miller, a.k.a. D to his friends, was the current director of the ’Leader Bound Organization for the famous Bishop Walker. She was here to learn as much as she could about him, to basically stalk him as he was possibly a kidnapper of kids, or maybe just the kidnapper of her kid.
Twenty-one days into this, and she pretty much had his schedule down. The dude worked seven days of the week in one form or another, and in twelve-hour shifts, too. Monday through Friday were his ’regular Leader Bound work week. Weekends were for LB activities and charitable events, another form or work in her opinion. Sundays were for church first, and more LB activities afterward. Dude was an all-work-and-no-play, to-church-and no-play, running-in-the-evening-to-stay-in-shape-and-no-play type of guy.
Mr. Miller was six foot two inches of African-American muscular male handsomeness, with a defined bald head and a goatee, with skin the color of dark chocolate. An alpha male, if you went for that type. The jury was still out on whether or not she did. It depended on the complexity, the 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 in order for him to feel powerful. She was done playing that role in this lifetime for anyone.
He was exiting the front door of his home, dressed in his customary suit and tie, with his backpack slung over one shoulder and a suitcase in his one hand. The suitcase was new, so he must be headed somewhere that required an overnight stay, she mused, watching him from behind the curtained window of her apartment. Where was he off to? How long would he be gone? She wondered. Both were good questions for which she had no answers. She’d yet to speak to him, unsure how to approach him. She had yet to decide between either anger or feigning interest in the handsome man.
He climbed into his truck and pulled away from the curb. Stalking him was not her problem for a while. It was on to a different type of stalking—a trip inside his home. She’d been wanting to do that for a while now. If there was any hope of finding her kid, she needed inside his home. If there was any hope for having a life that was normal, she needed her kid found. Couldn’t move on until she did, and that thought of that, of a lifetime 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 to search. All signs pointed here, back to the beginning, to him being taken by Darius Miller, working on behalf of the Walkers. So yeah, she was going in. When was the question. Should she tonight? She could probably count on it being empty. Was she ready? Then maybe not tonight. It was a little sudden this and she needed more mental preparation. So maybe not tonight, but soon.
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. Shelby King. He remembered her. Even with the loss of her hair, she was the same attractive that she’d always been to him. The high school girlfriend of Bishop’s younger boy. A beautiful young girl, looking for a ride upward in life with Brian, the potential pro-baller running back. A pair of wasted kids that he’d played Uber driver to at the end of a Friday or Saturday night. Yes, he knew who she was. Why she was following him was the question he needed answering.
The two Walker boys were lives cut tragically short. Brandon had been killed the year before Brian. It was a waste of two fine young men, and a heartbreaking loss for the Walkers who, in his opinion, had never fully recovered from the loss. One son’s death was hard enough on a parent, he imagined, but two. . . It was a wonder they were still sane, still standing. He knew most people needed closure 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 and it wasn’t his bias talking either. He had twenty years of firsthand experience in abducting them to know the value of their lives. He had twenty years of half-hearted searches by the police. He learned long ago, who was of value to this society and who was not.
His life had taught him so many things. One of them was patience. Most things revealed themselves in time, he knew. So, until he learned otherwise, he was moving Shelby and her horrible tracking skills to the back of his brain, where the other harmless things lived. His enemy or not—he didn’t have an answer to that question. All he knew was that 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 that home girl forgot to turn off sometimes. He shook his head at the sleuthing that was borderline elementary-level stuff. The curtain moved; another sign she was standing behind it. 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 through hers or through the window of the store, he knew she was watching him. Sometimes it irritated him, other times it was a nuisance. Tonight, it made him smile.
Monday, week one
Ill-tempered customers in need of caffeine made the Monday morning rush hour at Grant’s Groceries tricky for Shelby. Figuring out how to maneuver both angry and harried people in and out of the store without causing an incident required an overabundance of patience and empathy that she didn’t always feel. It required getting over herself, pushing her feelings aside to do what needed doing. Handling what needed handling. Being a grown up in charge of herself. It came a lot easier to her now than it used to.
She was in the middle of demonstrating the finer points of customer care to Cedric, the most recent hire to the store, when her friend and number-one, often angry and harried customer, Tam rushed into the store.
Tam was a whirl of fast talk and erratic moving hands. most days. Electric Eyes was a private nickname Shelby had for her friend, for the way they danced and lit up her face, brought on by an overabundance of coffee, Newport Menthols, and having lived a difficult life. She didn’t know the specifics of Tam’s life, but her own experiences had taught her that life could be fucked up. It was another reason she cut her friend and her other ill-tempered customers slack.
Tall, skinny as a toothpick, with about five inches of red hair shooting off her head, was Tam. A side of odd was her personality, Shelby thought most days, but who was she to throw shade, with her own bald head and penchant for black clothing. Hell, we all are oddities in one way or the other, Shelby thought, moving toward her friend.
“Girl, am I glad to see you,” Tam said.
“Car troubles, the story of my life,” she said, hands flittering up and down with her words. “I think it’s my battery. I was hoping you had cables.”
“I do. I’ve lived that life too. Where’s your car?” Shelby asked.
“Across the street,” Tam said.
“Let me grab my car keys from the office, and I’ll meet you out front.”
“Thanks,” Tam said.
“No worries,” Shelby said, watching her friend leave the store. “You good here?” she asked, turning to Cedric.
“Yes,” he said.
“Cool. I’m going to go play mechanic,” Shelby said, scanning the store for customers. A few milled about; nothing Cedric couldn’t handle.
“I’m good. You go ahead,” Cedric said.
“Thanks,” she said. Plus, it would only take a minute to give the battery a boost, she thought, heading to the office to retrieve her keys. A couple of minutes later and Shelby was headed to the parking lot behind the building.
Two minutes later and she was driving the short distance to the other side of the street, where Tam stood in front of her car, fiddling with something under the hood. How many times had ’Shelby been in that position, staring down into an engine that wouldn’t work? Forever, it had seemed at the time, but was really only a six-month stretch of saving up for a new battery.
“You’re a life saver,” Tam said.
“No worries. I’ve been here too many times to count. These cables were a lifeline for me for a while. They rode shotgun, I needed them so much.”
“I knocked on the dude’s door first.,” Tam said, pointing to D’s house. “No one answered.”
“Oh yeah?” Shelby said, glancing over to D’s house quickly, and back to placing the red and black cables to their corresponding colored plugs on the battery. “I think he’s out of town. Left yesterday.”
“It must be vacation time. He takes a vacation twice a year, usually for two weeks at a time. That’s what I heard, anyway.”
“Oh yeah,” Shelby said, her interest peaking at that little bit of info as she carried one end of the cables to her car, curious as how Tam would know something so specific about D. “Try starting your car,” she said, back behind the wheel of hers, her foot pressing the gas pedal, listening for the sound of Tam’s. “Yeah!” she said, hearing the ignition turn over. She was out of her car again, giving Tam the thumbs up, before removing the cables from both cars.
“You should take them with you,” Shelby said, standing beside Tam’s door with the cables in her hand.
“I would love it. I would for sure worry less knowing I have them with me. I was on my way out, business in San Antonio.”
“No, sure. I’m good. I haven’t needed them since my new battery. I’ll put them in your back seat,” Shelby asked, opening the door to Tam’s back seat, crowded with bags and clothes and other stuff Shelby couldn’t identify but left her wondering about. If she’d hadn’t seen ’Tam’s home, she’d think she was living in her car.
“I’ve got a sales division meeting I can’t miss. Simpson is the name of the company. You heard of them?”
“Nope.,” Shelby said.
“Nothing serious, just paper goods. Boring, right?”
“It pays the bills. And I should talk. The grocery store is not at all exciting”
“It pays the bills,” Tam said.
“It does indeed.”
“Thanks again,” Tam said.
“You’re very welcome. We single women have to stick together. So, you think dude’s out of town for two weeks?” Shelby asked, staring at D’s house.
“He works hard and vacations hard, is what I’ve heard. My friend used to crush on him seriously. It didn’t work out for her,” Tam said.
“She live around here?”
“Not any longer. They hung out for a while and then he wasn’t interested anymore. She found it too awkward to stick around, you know?” she said.
“I do,” Shelby said, glancing at the house again. “Well, safe travels.”
“You free Friday evening? I can feed you, my way of saying thanks.”
“I work Friday’s, but what about Wednesday? I like you feeding me. You can cook,” Shelby said.
“I’ll check my schedule but I think Wednesday’s good. Thanks again for helping me with my car,” Tam said.
“No worries,” Shelby said, smiling before moving to the curb as she watched Tam drive off. Her thoughts returned immediately to Darius Miller. Out possibly for two weeks and the timing could not be more perfect for a trip inside his home finally. Tonight would be the night.
“Sydney King,” Susan said, watching her exit the elevator. “As one employee to another, let me say welcome to OCAAT.” She smiled behind her desk and glasses, a headset on her head, earphone in her ear as she manned the desk for most of the founders that worked here. She’d been here for as long as Sydney had known Mavis. “Give me a hug, girl,” she said. Sydney obliged the woman who had filled in the mother role when Mavis wasn’t around. It takes a village and all, Sydney thought, surrendering to the welcome arms of another woman that wished her well.
“Mavis is in her office. You know the way. I haven’t seen her this excited in a long time,” Susan said, smiling.
“Thanks,” Sydney said, moving down the hallway that led to Mavis’s office. The interior of the building was circular, a perfect match to its exterior, recently built to match the powerhouse that was OCAAT. The whole building was shaped like a wheel, with Susan in the middle, and spokes for the each of the female founders. Each had a hallway unto themselves, leading to their offices and the offices of their assistants. Mavis had never had an assistant as far as Sydney knew. It had been another surprise when Mavis offered her the job.
She knew the way to Mavis’s office, had been here a thousand time during and after high school. Mavis had ramped up her mom role after Shelby’s disappearance. Calling, checking in with her, making sure she didn’t fall off her path. Sydney’s body lived with Crystal, but her direction came from Mavis. She’d survived on account of Mavis. Being here, searching for the truth of her nephew, was one of the hardest things she’d done in her life so far. There was no way she could not be here.
“Hey baby,” Mavis said, smiling, all proud mama to Sydney; admiring what was in her mind her daughter standing in the doorway, her first day on the job. Each founder’s office was large enough to accommodate a conference room, seating area, and their personal desk space.
Mavis was seated at her conference table with one of those accounting books Sydney always saw her with, and her laptop directly in front of her. She was the same ageless African American Queen Sydney had come to admire. The ones that had survived things and times that were much more difficult. Dogs and water and separate but equal was way harder than any name-calling that passed for personal affront these days.
“You made it!” Mavis said, on her feet, clapping her hands together. “Oh, how happy you’ve made me.”
“Me too,” Sydney said, moving towards her for a hug, the most natural thing she did when she greeted Mavis. She wondered if she should stop, since Mavis was now her employer.
“Last time I’m going to ask—any regrets or changes of heart? I know how much you wanted to be an engineer, and we are far away from that.”
“No. I’m good.”
“Excellent. I won’t bring it up again. Are you ready to jump in?”
“I am,” Sydney said, smiling.
“Let’s go check out your office, then.”
“Of course,” Sydney said, standing along with Mavis. “Have you ever had an assistant?” she asked.
“Nope, you’re to be my first.” Mavis laughed at Sydney’s expression. “I’ve used Susan when I need something, but up until now, it’s been me, only me.”
“It wasn’t too much?”
“Sometimes, maybe, but it was also necessary as you’ll soon see. I don’t trust just anyone. And here we are, your office. What do you think?” Mavis asked, after unlocking and opening the door to a smaller version of her new boss’s offices. Desk to the right of the door, chairs behind and in front of it. A rug carved out the small seating area of sofa and two chairs in the middle of the room, and finally to the left, a small round conference table and chairs.
“I love it,” Sydney said, scanning the room. “It’s lovely,” she added.
“Good, I’m glad you’re pleased with it. You’re foregoing all that engineering salary . . . and I want you to be happy here.”
“I will be. Thanks.”
“So, your duties will include some work as my assistant; not answering phones or anything that tedious. I’ve been answering my phones—or not—k and I will continue to do so. Susan keeps my schedule, as she does for the other women, which I would like for you to manage. Either she or I will show you the ins and out of the system, as soon as you receive your passcodes. Hopefully you’ll have them by the end of the day, or first thing in the morning.
“We are in full 2019 budget preparation mode. Which means for you, me, and Susan, data collection from all ten schools. That will be what takes up most of your duties for the next two months, collecting and compiling for the big board meeting the first of November. I’m going to give you as much of it as you can stand. It’s a big project, but I will be here to help.”
“Thank you,” Sydney said.
“You’re welcome, and if that’s not enough, I’ve loaned you out to the Project Boarding House team. It’s one of the OCAAT’s newest programs. “We’re building “a relaxed boarding school, if you will, to serve the population of children that for one reason or another, need to spend the evening or night at school. Emergencies that pop up, and there is nowhere to leave the kid, or for parents with multiple jobs, at the parent’s permission, of course.”
“In all of the locations?”
“Yes. Once a year, following the schedule used to create the OCAAT school. We would like to break ground, or begin remodeling on an existing property, within two years. From there it on to Locations One, Two, and Three, and other areas before we cross state lines for the remaining schools. It’s a lot, I know, but there are members of the team who will help you. Cara Carpenter is in charge of the Project Boarding House team. I believe your first meeting is scheduled for Thursday. I’ll forward along the email with the details.”
“I’m out once a month, usually the third week in each month. I like to check in to the other schools, so you’ll need to cover for me during that time. This month, unfortunately, I’ll be out twice. Not all week, just Wednesday through Friday, this week and next. You sure this is the job you want?” Mavis said.
“If you think I’m capable, sure, whatever you think or need me to do.”
“You’re more than capable. I just have to warn you, it’s a tough workload.”
“I’ can handle whatever,” Sydney said.
“I think so too. I’m glad you’ve here. Take the morning to get settled in. There are supplies down the hall, and if that’s not enough, tell Susan. She’ll help you order whatever you need. This afternoon, you be at the front desk with her. She’s going show you the system.”
“Okay. Thanks, Mavis.”
“Of course. And tonight? At my house? You haven’t forgotten, have you?”
“No. I’ll be there.”
“A proper welcoming is all it is. Casual, maybe twenty or so people, board members and good friends of OCAAT.”
“Totally not necessary, but I’ll be there. And thanks again Mavis, for this opportunity. I’ll do my best to live up to all the trust you’ve placed in me,” Sydney said, and that was one hundred percent her conscience talking at being here, after all Mavis had done for her.
“You will. Of that I have no doubt,” Mavis said, pulling her into a hug.
Sydney stood in the doorway, watching Mavis leave, before taking a tour of her office. It was really a nice space, larger than she expected for sure. She took a seat at her desk and blew out a breath. She was a fox in the henhouse, and Mavis had no clue. Please let me find nothing here,” she said to herself.
D straightened his tie and breathed in, deep and long. It was a tool among many he employed to settle his nerves. It was a much better device than pacing the floor, which was his other go-to when he was uneasy. He was that and more this morning. It was hard not to be. He was on the cusp of unveiling his first big idea to a contingent of battled tested, successful business men who knew wheat from chaff. He would soon be presenting to them the first program he’d developed, from concept to its final proposal all on his own.
His ask was huge in money and in commitment. To fund a multi-state legion, an army of attorneys, with the sole task of providing legal assistance to African American children whereever there was a need. A shot across the bow of the prison to pipeline system that was sucking up disproportionately kids of color in this country.
Kids getting into trouble was nothing new, especially teenagers with more energy than good sense. From now until eternity, kids of all colors would run afoul of the law and would need assistance extracting themselves from it, if they were lucky. If they weren’t it was prison. It wasn’t just kids of color with problems that required legal assistance. Non-colored kids from families with means found themselves in trouble too. They had their connections, contacts, skin color, and money to purchase all kinds of legal services that prevented them from seeing the inside of jail, or prevented a high school drug possessions charge from turning into a life sentence.
He wanted the same for his colored kids and that required money. Money could cover a whole host of problems, like bail and hiring first-class attorneys to defend themselves. A contingent of lawyers pooling resources to provide the same type of help for kids of color, was ’the idea he was presenting to Dr. James Henderson and Mason Wilder—both of them founders of OCAAT—along with ten other like-minded and financially situated African American men.
Not bad for a seventeen-year-old drug dealer, he thought. He stood in a room about the size of his house, where couches rested against old dark wood walls mixed in with large expanses of windows, and sat on dark wood floors. It was beautiful. A table of food and drink sat in the middle of the room. He hadn’t gone near it. He was too nervous to put anything in his stomach. Food and drink were for afterward, for celebrating.
He walked over the window to admire the view of the city. Situated beside the river, this was expensive real estate—something else he’d learned from Bishop, his mentor, his role model or man hood. He was the man that had taught him the value of things.
The lone doorway into the room opened, and the pretty African American woman, who’d delivered him earlier, stood in the middle of it. “They’re ready for you,” she said.
“Am I ready for them, is the question,” he said, smiling back at her.
“Of course,” she offered, smiling. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, reading her interest. It was nice to be on the receiving of it. It wouldn’t go anywhere. He had too much to do, and a pretty stalker following him that he spent way too much time thinking about.
She opened the door. D cleared his throat and entered.
Tea, coffee, sugar, water; check. Her famous chicken salad sandwiches, with a few of her pimento cheese sandwiches thrown in; check. Mason loved her pimento cheese sandwiches. A fruit salad, a vegetable tray, and her famous lemon, carrot, and chocolate cakes rounded out the food offerings for the evening. An intimate, old-fashioned layout to introduce the recent graduate, her new baby, and her new assistant Sydney King to the OCAAT family.
Food done, check. Her home was clean, check; courtesy of her weekly cleaning crew. She was dressed, professional casual in blouse and slacks, and heels of course, and that was check number three, the final one.
She poured herself a cup of tea and sat on the sofa to wait for her guests to arrive. She loved this home. It was the home where she and her sister Deb had grown up, with parents who loved them without conditions. It was the source of her desire to help others, the reason she started OCAAT. Children, first and foremost, had a right to be loved, treasured, protected, and supported.
She moved her gaze to the picture on the wall, a mainstay of this house, her life. Taken when they were young, it depicted her mother with an arm around her two daughters. She stared lovingly back at her mom, while her sister stared into the camera, uninterested in the love. For Deb, love hadn’t been enough and for the life of her, Mavis couldn’t understand why. As much love as her mother had given to them both, it never seemed to be of interest to her sister. Some people were born with a hole inside, was the best explanation she could provide for her sister’s inability to receive or show love to those closest to her.
For Mavis though, it was all outward demonstrations of love, as she poured onto Sydney. Before Sydney, that love had been channeled into her work, her nephews and a few of their friends. Eighteen years of OCAAT and she had created the biggest demonstration of her love of kids. All moving according to plan, except for one wrinkle. In the grand scheme of things, one wrinkle was pretty good, though she thought differently. In order to live on the right side, one had to live on the right side, and karma was a bitch and could destroy all she’d worked hard to build. She needed to correct it, put things to rights. Tonight was the start of tha pursuit.
The doorbell rang, interrupting her thoughts. She smiled, thinking it was Sydney there early to help. It was her sister instead, looking worried, anxious. It was the normal for Deb since the death of her sons.
“I know you think this is for the best. But it’s not. It’s mistake number two. Allowing that boy to join the board was the first. I don’t know what you hope to accomplish. I not having it,” Deb said, a rush of words escaping from her mouth. “You mark my words Mavis, this will not turn out the way you think it will. You can’t make what was once crooked straight. It’s too late.”
“What are you talking about? Sydney?”
“That child is the closest I’ve gotten to a child of my own. She’s a lovely young woman who has joined us because she wants to help. She’s committed to the OCAAT organization.”
“She wants something, and it has nothing to do with the work OCAAT does.”
“Well, tell me, since you know her so well. What is her reason for joining our organization?”
“You just mark my words. That’s all. You’ll regret this.”
“I doubt that,” Mavis said.
“You will. When that child destroys all you worked for in her need for vengeance, you’ll see.”
“What are you talking about? Vengeance? Why would she need vengeance?” Mavis said, staring intently at her sister. “
“You know why. They blame me.”
“Who blames you? Blame you for what? The loss of Shelby King’s child?”
“Yes. They came to my house, screaming on my front porch. Shelby King was not the person my son deserved, screaming like a crazy person, that I took her baby.”
“Did you take her child?”
“You ask me that?” Deb said, hand on her heart as if in pain. “Of course I didn’t take her child, and I’m hurt that you’d think I was capable of such a thing. There’s not a day goes by that my heart doesn’t bleed for my lost grandbaby. How could you . . . think I would do such a thing.”
Mavis stood watching her sister, admiring the actress. “There is nothing to worry about then, is there. If you don’t have Brian Jr., then her working for me won’t be a problem.”
“You’re making a mistake, allowing her so close to you. You’ll regret this. You just mark my words,” Deb said. Mavis knew the pursed lips of her sister when she her mind was set.
“Again, if you have nothing to hide, it doesn’t matter,” Mavis said, moving toward the front door. “Where are you going?”
“Away from a sister who has never been in my corner. That has always thought the worse of me,” Deb said, opening the door. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back to meet your precious Sydney,” she said, slamming the door behind her.
Mavis sighed. She had given up on them long ago.
“Take this out to the table,” Mavis said, handing Sydney a platter of sandwiches. Sydney had arrived early to help and get first dibs on the food.
“Yummy,” she said, checking out the platter of sandwiches she held in her hand, equally partial to both Mavis’s chicken salad sandwich and her pimiento spread. It was a toss-up as to which one was the best. She swiped the pimiento square to start, stuffing it into her mouth just as the doorbell rang.
“Get that for me, will you baby,” Mavis said, sticking her head out of the kitchen door. Sydney nodded, chewing quickly, done by the time she opened front door. It was good thing, or her food might have fallen out of her mouth. It had opened in surprise at Graham Garrison standing in front of her, handsome in a suit and tie, the last person she expected to see. He was holding Heather’s hand, clad in a pretty yellow dress, and another person she didn’t think she’d see again. What the hell, she thought, closing her mouth. “What are you doing here?” she said, voicing the first thought that popped into her head.
He chuckled. “We’re here to meet you. Mavis invited the board members over to meet the promising assistant she’d hired.”
“You’re a board member?”
“Don’t sound so shocked. Yes, I am,” he said, moving his gaze to his date. “You remember Heather,” he said.
“I’m sorry. Of course, hi Heather. Forgive me my lack of manners. It was a surprise, is all. I didn’t expect him to be here,” she said, back to meeting G’s gaze. “And on the board, no less,” she said, finding her fake smile, irritated that he had kept something so important to himself.
“Yep. I’m here. You think you might let us in.”
“Of course, I’m sorry,” she said.
“Hey Graham,” Mavis said, now standing behind Sydney. “Thank you for coming, and who is this lovely young woman with you?”
Sydney stepped to the side, rolling her eyes, before turning to see G wrapped up in Mavis’s arms. She’d no idea they’d gotten so chummy. She stayed put by the door, not wanting to talk to him anymore, at least not with Heather around. She didn’t have to, as lucky her, there were more people approaching. It was a chicken-hearted move for sure, but whatever, she thought, extending her hand in greeting to the next group standing in front of her.
Heather stood beside Graham, watching him try to pretend he was uninterested in his old student, or whatever the name one gives to girls one tutors that had returned home. Her boyfriend was interested alright, in a way that had nothing to do with tutoring, unless it was in-the-sheets kind of tutoring. She knew Graham enough to know when that light came on in his eyes. It had been turned on Sunday evening, and it was on display again tonight.
“You didn’t tell me she would be here,” she said
“I didn’t?” Graham said. He had not, couldn’t come up with a reason to mention it, so he’d kept quiet. He agreed to attend an event with Heather couple weeks ago, before Mavis asked him here. No way would he turned down a request from Mavis to meet her new assistant. So he’d figured out a way to do both. He’d picked Heather up earlier, and they would leave from here.”
“I didn’t know you were a board member either.”
“It’s not something I publicize.”
“Why not? It’s something to be proud of. You’re a member of the community of giving back, helping the minorities? You should be proud.”
“I am, and that’s not why I do it,” he said, irritated but not going to get into it with her.
“You want something to drink or eat? Mavis makes the best sandwiches. I remember them from when I was a kid.”
“A drink would be nice.”
“I’ll be back in a second,” he said.
Heather watched him walk away from her, realizing how little she knew him. He was interested in his old student, that she could see. She wasn’t stupid. She recognized game even if she wasn’t sure Sydney wanted to compete. It could be only Graham that was interested, but either way, it was a problem for her.