Thursday, October 29, 2009



Fritz and Chloe drove Trina into Luciaville, ten miles away. Jett met them there. Trina had changed into a stunning empire skimmer and her diamond dangle settled over her graceful cleavage. Chloe looked elegant in her white linen two-piece and bold turquoise earrings that were just the right touch.
“Wine, anyone?” Fritz asked for the waiter’s benefit.
“Don’t mind if I do.” Chloe smiled.
“Sure,” Trina said. “We can toast Trish’s safe return.”
Jett declined.
“Then, it’s three glasses of port, my dear man,” Fritz said, very pleased that their foursome had been stashed away in a secluded corner of the neat, little family-owned cafĂ©. He sent the friendly waiter away with a smile.
“You were quite the hero today, Jett.” Chloe beamed. “Wasn’t he, Trina?”
Trina’s eyes misted. “More than I can ever repay.”
“I only did what was needed,” Jett said. “It was a team effort, right Fritz?”
“Quite, Ole Man. Quite.”
“But you’re my hero.” Trina touched Jett’s arm and his heart dropped like a roller coaster.
“It was nothing,” Jett mumbled, withdrawing his arm from her mind-numbing touch. Seeing the light in her eyes again was its own reward.
Trina tilted her chin to stave off the tears. “I don’t think I could’ve stood it another moment--”
“Now, now,” Fritz said warmly. “All’s well that ends well, and we’re here to celebrate, right?”
“Right.” The three of them raised their glasses. “To Jett!”
“Blasted cell phone.” Fritz left the table to take the call.
“Hope our steaks are cooked to perfection,” Chloe said. “In all this excitement, I’ve worked up quite an appetite.”
“Sorry, Honey-Bun.” Fritz hugged Chloe when he returned. “We can’t stay after all.”
“Why? Our steaks are nearly ready.”
“I know, but it’s our little Elizabeth.”
“What’s wrong?”
“She can’t sleep. Her counselors have tried to calm her--”
“Too much excitement for one little seven year old, I’m afraid.” Chloe’s face sagged.
Fritz helped Chloe with her red shawl. “We’ll have to go. Jett, will you see Trina home?”
“Sure thing.” Jett shrugged.
Trina waved. “Kiss little Elizabeth for us.”
“Good night.”
“They’re such a sweet couple,” Trina said.
“And genuine, too,” Jett added.
“Sometimes I wish--”
“Wish what, Trina?”
“Come on, Trina. I thought we were friends.”
She lowered her eyes. “I wish me and Onyx could communicate like that. You know . . . with that kind of oneness.
“I understand.”
“But he’s always so busy--”
“What does your husband do?”
“Developer.” She rolled her eyes. “Builds houses, apartments, high rises. You name it.”
“Sounds like he makes a good living for you and your children. Trust me; I know. I’ve got an architectural firm of my own in Detroit.”
“You’re right. He does, but I wish he would spend more time--” She removed the bacon from her filet mignon. “Can’t have everything, I guess.”
“Guess not.” Jett pondered his well-done rib eye. He bowed his head to pray, but Trina didn’t join him.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to bore you.”
Jett met her gaze. “You’re anything but boring, Trina Laws.”
“What does your wife do?”
“Politician. She’s running for Mayor of Bloomfield Hills, as we speak.”
“Wow! That must be exciting. Do you think she’ll win?”
“Or die trying.” He tried to hide his smirk.
“Why, Jett Thorne?” Trina glinted. “Are you jealous?”
“Then what?” She fluttered her lashes. “I told you my wish, now it’s your turn.”
Jett took a bite of his rib eye. He wasn’t accustomed to complaining aloud. “My desire--” His words floated. “Is that Georgeanne would give her family as much time as her career.”
“Sounds like we share the same wish.” Trina set her fork aside. “Have you told her?”
“Sure. Lots of times.”
“Has she always been so ambitious?”
“Always. I met her when I was a star running back and she was a cheerleader. She wasn’t satisfied until she made captain, freshman year.”
“Was it love at first sight?”
Jett carved at his steak deliberately. “Guess you could say that. I looked into those green eyes of hers and I saw my future.”
“I know the feeling.” Trina sparkled. “I think I fell in love with Onyx the first day I saw him when he transferred to my high school. Sometimes it seems like he’s just been going along for the ride ever since.”
“I doubt that. A pretty woman like you--” Jett swallowed hard. “He probably didn’t want you to know how helplessly in love he was for fear you’d take advantage.”
“Advantage? Ha! You don’t know Onyx.”
“No. But I do know men.” He smiled cockily.
Trina leaned into him. “So tell me. Why do successful black men always seem to marry . . . other women?”
Jett pulled back. “I don’t know why they do it, Trina, but I didn’t marry Georgeanne for her race. I married her because I loved her.”
“But why--”
“I’m a black man, Trina. It doesn’t get any easier for me, no matter who I marry.”
“I guess that’s fair.” She pinched at her wheat roll. “So when did you marry Georgeanne, right after college?”
“I married her after her junior year.” His knife and fork went silent in his hands. “I don’t think she’s ever forgiven me for that. She had to transfer to Michigan State with me to get my masters. She graduated there, but she wanted U of M behind her name. She reminds me, to this day, it has hindered her political career.”
“And, Mary, was she born right after you married?”
“Yup. Nine months to the day. She’s my love child.” Jett winked.
“That probably put a lot of pressure on your marriage, what with you in grad school and your wife trying to get her degree.”
“You could say that. But I helped--”
“Then what happened?”
“I don’t think Mary Ellen and Georgeanne ever really bonded. There seems to be so much animosity between them.”
“It’s probably just that mother-daughter thing. Me and Trish--”
“It’s different with Georgeanne.” Jett crossed his knife and fork over his half-eaten rib eye and sat back. “Sometimes . . . it borders on hatred.”
“Hatred?” Trina set her roll in place.
“You should hear the things Georgeanne says to Mary Ellen when she thinks I’m not around.”
“Do you say anything?”
“I don’t intervene. I don’t want to solidify Georgeanne’s position, but I keep my eye on it. Sometimes . . . it’s scary--”
“Being alone--” Trina broke. “Can be scary, too.”
Jett’s hand flashed to her face before the tear could fall, but he handed her a napkin instead. “Don’t cry, Trina.” The hurt in her eyes was tearing him to pieces. “It’ll be all right.”
“I wish I could believe that.” She sniffed.
“Does he hit you?” Jett whispered.
“No. Not so that the bruises show.” Her forehead pinched. “He’s never home enough to hit me. I get cell phone calls, e-mails, and instant messages. It’s like we share the same cyberspace, but not the same life.”
“Seems like things got more impersonal after 9-11, Trina. It’s like we’re afraid to touch each other for fear it could all be taken away--” Jett snapped his fingers. “Like that.” He stopped. “Why’re you looking at me like that?”
“My name sounds so safe in your mouth, Jett.” Trina’s cocoa eyes gleamed like moonbeams. She wanted Jett to kiss her. She hadn’t felt this way about another man since she met Onyx in the 10th grade. Oh, Onyx! What’s happening to us?
“You are safe with me, Trina.” Jett spread his big hands apart to play it off, but the fire in his voice betrayed the depth of his feelings.
Trina touched his arm and his temperature skyrocketed. He shoved back his chair. “Ready?”
“Sure.” She grabbed her sweater. “Let’s go.”
They rode in comfortable silence from the restaurant to Crystal Sea. Jett parked his car, and they strolled toward the dorm together.
Trina pointed to the stars in the heavens. “We never get to see this in the big city.” She beamed. “Ever see anything so beautiful?”
“No.” Jett was caught up by the twinkle in her eyes. “Never.”
“By the way,” Trina said as they approached the front entrance, “I found your baseball rule book in Manna Hall. Stop by my room and I’ll give it to you.” She opened the door with her key and flicked on the table lamp beside the door.
It was late. Jett entered cautiously and left the door slightly ajar. No one was in the hallway, but he wanted to keep Trina’s reputation in tact.
Her skirt slid up one shapely thigh as she reached across her bed to the nightstand. That was enough for Jett to keep his distance at the door. She retrieved his book and sat on the side of the bed holding it.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had someone to talk to, Jett.” She hugged his book.
The room was on fire.
“Me, too.”
“Won’t you stay and hold me . . . just for tonight.” Trina’s voice hollowed into a whisper. “I haven’t been held in such a long time.”
Jett kept his place at the door, but his heart was wrapped up in her pleading coco eyes. “Trina, I don’t think I could . . . just hold you.”
“But why?”
His blood was pounding through his veins. A cold sweat ran down one arm. “I . . . it just wouldn’t be right.”
“No one will know--”
“I’d know. You’d know.” He turned and clutched the doorknob. He couldn’t bear her pleading eyes a minute longer. “God would know.”
“God?” She bristled. “I’m not religious.”
“I’m not religious, either.” Jett struggled to breath. “But Jesus is my friend, and I can’t disappoint my friend,” he said as much to himself as to her.
“Then just forget it!” Trina snapped. “I can’t argue with you and your God.”
Jett jerked on the knob. “I’ll go--”
“No-o. Stop. Don’t go,” she purred. “I’m just afraid of losing you--losing what we have.
“I understand.” The knob was hard in his hand. “Goodnight.”
“But if you leave now . . . we’ll never have this chance again. Tomorrow, it’s The Games and fireworks; and Sunday, we leave,” she said breathlessly. “I thought you cared.”
He gripped the knob to anchor himself on his side of the room; his voice husky with desire. “You know I care, Trina.”
The fire in his words melted her heart like jelly. Until now she’d only heard of people in love being weightless, but every step she took toward Jett felt like she was floating on air.
She came so close, Jett could hear her breathe and smell her perfume. He held onto the knob, but his body ached for her. He could feel her in his arms, taste her ripe kisses on his lips, feel her heartbeat pounding wildly against his chest. His feet begged for the few inches to close the gap between them, but his heart knew even the slightest touch would set their worlds on fire.
Jett’s mouth was parched, but somehow he found the words. “We can’t do this, Trina.” He rumbled. “We’re married.”
She threw up her hands. “How can we be married if they don’t care?”
“We can only keep our promise,” he whispered, “and pray they keep theirs.”
“But Jett, I don’t want to lose you; lose what we have this very moment.” Her mind was whirling, clutching at straws. “When’s your birthday?”
“My birthday?” He puzzled. “September 21st. Why?”
“Mine is April 2nd.” Her eyes danced as her plan took shape.
“What if I send you something on your birthday?”
“Trina, we can’t--”
“Just so you’ll know I’m all right.” Her voice was urgent. “You do want to know I’m all right, don’t you?”
“Of course--”
“And you send me something on mine, and then I’ll know you’re okay. Our addresses are on the parent’s roster. Deal?”
“No return address. Nothing. Just an empty envelope.” Her eyes entreated. “I’ll know it’s from you, and you’ll know it’s from me. And no matter what happens, we’ll never forget this night and how true love really feels. Okay?”
Jett pressed open the door when she came closer; her body only a breath away. “Okay,” he said.
Their eyes locked and a lump caught in his throat. “Trina, you’re a beautiful lady, inside and out.” His words rolled like deep waters. “I want only the best for you.” He exhaled. “God bless you.”
Jett closed the door behind him. He hugged it on his side. Trina hugged it on hers.



Once outside Miss Charity’s house, Chaney guided Lottie to his black truck. “Wife.” He nuzzled her ear, and the bass in his voice made her stomach do flip-flops. “It’s time I made you mine.”
He pinned her body against the passenger door, and she surrendered to his hardness. He drew her throbbing lips into his and kissed her until her knees went weak. This time, she wrapped her arms around his strong back and held on tight.
Chaney opened the door and helped her navigate the high step in her little black dress. Her thighs quivered under his masterful hands as he explored every inch.
When they turned onto Highway 82, Lottie laid her head on his shoulder. “The bed and breakfast is in the other direction,” she said dreamily.
“Relax, Baby.” He patted her hand and moved it to his thigh. “I’ve got this.”
“Okay, Chaney.” She nuzzled closer. “You always make me feel so safe.”
“Before this night is over,” his voice rolled like early thunder, “I’m going to make you feel like Mrs. Chaney Masters, too.”
“Chan-ey!” She punched his thigh playfully. He stroked her hand and smiled under the shadow of darkness.
“So you’re bringing me to your house?” Lottie said when they parked in his front yard.
“My house is your house.” Chaney circled her waist and helped her down from the truck. He swung her into his arms like a light load and carried her across the threshold. Lottie was giggling all the way.
A warm fire was burning in the hearth in their bedroom. The bedside lamp cast soft shadows onto the ceiling. Rose petals flowed from the center of their king-sized sleigh bed onto the off-white carpet. The aroma was intoxicating.
Lottie’s eyes widened, the light of the fireplace was mirrored in their mahogany glow. “Chaney. It’s beautiful. Yellow roses. You remembered.” She smiled lavishly. “You are so sweet.”
“No, you’re the sweet one.” He kissed her until she was dizzy. He pulled off her shoes and touched her bare feet down on the soft, new carpet.
“This is our marriage bed, Lottie. I fixed up the room especially for you.”
“With all that’s been going on, you thought of me?”
“There is only you.” He led her into the adjoining bath and ran a hot tub of scented bubbles. “Soak yourself until you turn into a prune, Baby.” His thick lips curled into a rich smile. He closed the door.
As she lay in the tub with her eyes half-closed, Chaney slipped back into the room.
“Yeah, Baby. Feeling better?”
“Um-hmm. Feels good.”
“Brought you some hot tea.” He sat a cup of her favorite passionflower next to the tub.
She slid up to say thanks, and the bubbles trickled down her cleavage like a curtain opening.
“No,” he said, his voice thick with desire. “Don’t rush. I’m right outside.”
When she finished, Lottie wrapped herself in a thirsty towel that stopped at the top of her thighs and eased into the bedroom. Under the glow of the fireplace, her shapely calves glistened down to her freshly polished toes. Chaney was leaning back on the smooth pecan headboard, his eyes following her every move.
“I’m a little embarrassed,” she said uneasily.
“Why?” Chaney whispered, adoring the scent of her.
“I forgot to buy a nightie--”
“You won’t need one.” Chaney stood and rubbed the spot where he’d been lying. “Hop in. It’s nice and warm. I’ll get my shower.”
He was wearing boxer briefs and nothing else. The fire caught the gleam of his hard, hairless chest. The muscles in his bronze six-pack pulsed as his body moved.
Chaney turned off the bathroom light. His towel was wrapped around his waist, and the bedside lamp silhouetted his broad shoulders. He pulled back the covers and joined Lottie in their bed. She fumbled to turn off the lamp.
“No.” Chaney covered her hand with his. “Leave it.” The bass in his voice rumbled like deep waters. “I want to see you. I want you to see me.” He lifted the covers and gently slid her towel to the floor. His towel joined hers at their bedside.
Lottie watched as her husband surveyed every inch of her. He stroked her skin under his hot, firm touch until it felt like liquid chocolate. All of her senses came alive. Chaney was putting music to the Song of Solomon.
He perfected every spot of her with a fiery kiss, and then cooled it with his wet tongue. Down, down, down, he went, all the way to her pretty toes. He sucked each one, individually. And when he reached the tenth, Lottie moaned a hymn of desire, and he retraced his steps--slowly. This time, with each kiss, he pulled her into him, into her.
Lottie’s back arched. Her toes curled. She let out a mindless gurgle and flung open the gates of her love garden. Chaney entered, and they melted into one; their bodies in total agreement.
The blaze of passion ushered them heavenward--higher and higher, past the bed, beyond the ceiling. They were caught up in the realm of love reserved only for the fully committed. They transcended time and space in the supreme rapture of oneness--one flesh, one faith, one Spirit. They were unconscious to the things of earth until their explosion shook the room. Lottie screamed in ecstasy.
Chaney kissed his sweat from her brow and tumbled onto his back. “I told you, Mrs. Masters.” He pulled her body into his and cuddled her nakedness. “No bread and breakfast for us.”
“I see, Mr. Masters,” Lottie said in a voice as mellow as the hearth. She turned her face into the pillow and backed into his waiting arms. “Chaney.”
“Yes, Baby.” He stroked her back. His touch, which had been firm and demanding just moments before, was now as soothing as a favorite blanket on a cold night.
She studied her words carefully. “All these years . . . what Jarrett Poteet did to me . . . I felt ashamed . . . felt sex was dirty. But not now.”
Chaney turned her face to his and kissed away the tear forming on her eyelid. “Lottie, that was hate. This is love.”
“Oh, yes.” She stroked the rippling muscles on his bare chest. “Chaney.”
“Yes, Lottie.” He loved the sound of her voice.
“I’m glad we waited.”
“Waiting.” Chaney brushed a curl from her face and drank in her eyes like mellow wine. “Waiting is love, too, Baby.” He tweaked her nose playfully. “But you almost made a brother wait too long.”
She lowered his thick lips to hers. “We don’t have to wait any longer.” She kissed him thoroughly. “Love me, Chaney. Love me, again and again.”



When Lottie arrived home from her meeting with Pastor Jericho, her mother was waiting for her on their newly repaired front porch. The sweet smell of honeysuckle commanded the evening breeze, overpowering the stench of manure from Mr. Joe-Joe's cow pasture next door.
“This kudzu gonna take over this state if they ain't careful.” Miss Charity gazed in the direction of the vine-smothered trees across the road. “Hmph. They say it's to prevent soil erosion, but that's what they get for importing something from Japan to solve a problem in America.”
“If you say so, Mamma.”
“You mighty busy these days, Miss Lottie.” Her rocker blades hammered the porch. “You leave at sun up and drag yourself back here at sundown. You’re bout to make me dizzy. I'll have you know, this here ain't no Do-Drop-Inn. This is a home where civilized people stop and chat with one another from time to time.” She huffed. “Anyhow, yo dinner's on the stove getting cold.”
“I'm sorry, Mamma. There's just so much to do. I didn't mean to slight you. It's good being back here with you and sleeping in my old bed--”
“Shush, Chile.” Miss Charity waved her hand. “No need to go on and on. But why are you rushing around so much, if I'm not being too nosy to ask?”
Lottie leaned against the banister to avoid her x-ray vision. “It's just that when me and Raymond were in so much trouble--”
“It occurred to you, you had a home to come home to.” Miss Charity rocked smoothly.
"And when I got here, deep down inside I knew. This is why I was spared, Mamma--to take a stand right here and to make a difference.”
“That's all well and good, Daughter. But whatever good thing you do, you’ve got to do it in God’s power, not your own strength.”
“But it takes hard work to do what me and Charley have in mind.”
“And just what might that be?”
Lottie flopped into the chair next to her mother and folded her arms resolutely. “Charley wants me to run for his senate seat when his term is up in a couple of years.”
“What? And why he want you to do a thing like that?”
“He says his family owes me, and this district needs me because it's mostly made up of our people.”
“Our people?”
“I know, Mamma, it's a tacky way to put it, but the fact remains the same.”
“It don't feel like we outnumber white folk.”
“No. It doesn't because the minority out-powers the majority in everything that counts, except one.”
“Which is?”
“Voting strength. If we could get every eligible black voter to the polls, we could put anybody in and take anybody out of office we wanted. But we don't, not right now, because too few of us are registered, and fewer than that actually vote, even in Presidential elections.”
“How you know all that?”
“I've spent a lot of time in the library and over at the voter registrar's office. These are the facts, Mamma, as sad as they may be, which means I've got my work cut out for me.”
“There’s a reason for it, too, Daughter. Things around here always stay the same, and the folk ain’t interested.”
“But I've got to motivate our community to support me in the next election; or else all of Charley's efforts to soften the heart of the Unified Party to the prospect of a black female senator will go up in smoke.”
“And that may be a good thing.”
“But Charley and I want to see this district put back on the map. Jobs. Economic growth. Hope! Don’t you see?”
“Who's your opposition? From the Dixie Party, I mean?”
“Most likely, one of the Bodines. Matthew, I'm told.”
“Matthew Bodine? Old man Jasper's son? You don't want to go up against that crowd, Lottie. They can get plenty nasty at the drop of a hat, much less if you get in the way of something they really want. Jasper Bodine's been grooming that boy of his for the Senate since he was knee-high to a pup. He wants him to win as much as anything to spite them Poteets.”
“I'm not afraid of the Bodines--”
“Well, you oughta be! If you think them was some bad men what chased y'all out of New York, I'll guarantee you they wasn't shot-from-toy compared to that rascal, Jasper Bodine. He's worse than a wounded rattler when he can't get his way. I hear tell a white man came up missing over in Ezelle County when he went up against Jasper in a land deal. Jasper got the land, free and clear. And they ain't never found that other man, alive nor dead.”
“But I can't give up now. Win or lose, I've got to try.”
“I hear you, Daughter, and what you saying is all well and good. But lest you forget, if you takes this on, you gonna need God on your side much more than your hard work.” She slowed her rocker and heaved a heavy sigh. “That painter fellow you hired came by today, Lottie. He asked me what color I wanted the house. I told him, sparkling white with jaybird blue shutters, just like yo daddy used to like it, if that's all right with you. After all, it is yo money.”
“I hoped you'd pick that, Mamma. We can paint the new fence white, too.” Lottie glowed. “It'll be real pretty. Like old times.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009



Lottie pulled the drapes to block out the skyline her office shared with the other penthouses in downtown Manhattan. Usually she liked the view--it was a far cry from her humble beginnings--but not tonight. Tonight, she just wanted to hear from Raymond.
Earlier in the day he had left her a hastily scribbled note, “Urgent! Don’t leave here until we discuss the Sinclair file!” But that was hours ago. Now it was nearly midnight. This is not like Raymond. He never writes notes. He eats and sleeps E-mail. And where is he? He’s a calendar slave. No way he’d miss an appointment. I don’t get it, and I’m not leaving this spot until I do.
As she waited, Lottie floated fluidly between the past and the present. Here she was a country girl from the South having the privilege to do what she had always wanted, and in New York City, too. She smiled contentedly as the thought fluttered by, but the telephone rang and startled her back to reality. It reminded her of Raymond and the tension rose in her neck again. Deftly, she scrambled for the phone in the dark.
"Hello!" she nearly shouted, attempting to beat the answering machine. “Beck and Associate."
"Hi, yourself. Catch you napping?"
"Raymond? No! Where are you?”
"Little testy, are we? Having to stay a little later than usual?"
"No. No. I just didn't know where you were; that's all. Where are you?"
"That's not important right now, Lottie. I need your help. Just listen!" he said, stifling her budding questions with the sharp edge in his voice. "Look in the file room and pull all the 'CL' files. Then get out of there. Get out of there as fast as you can. And Lottie. . . watch your back, Sweets."
"Wha--" she questioned, simultaneously with the click on the other end. She glared at the phone as though it had betrayed her. Bewildered, she shook her head to summon her wits. She flicked on the overhead lights and checked her watch--11:58 p.m. Raymond, you’re scaring me. I’m outta here--and fast.
Lottie’s movements were swift and methodical. Her efficient nature seemed to surface under pressure. She located the soft brown leather briefcase she adored. It had been her first purchase after landing this job. Since the job made her feel like a big city executive, she wanted to look the part, too. She knew her files intimately. She stuffed them into her briefcase and quickly shut the drawer. She locked the cabinet along with all the others, wheeled out of the file room, and locked the door behind her.
She quickly scanned the office and caught a glimpse of something she hadn't noticed before--a piece of white paper poking from under the sofa near the glass-topped coffee table. She spun across the room and collected what was a business card. Hmm. . . Clayburn & Clayburn Investments? That sneaky Raymond. Doing business with the competition behind my back. Wonder what else he’s holding out on? This is all too bizarre!
Stuffing the card into her tailored jacket, Lottie resumed her speedy exit. She grabbed her leather coat from the brass rack and tightened the belt around her waist to ward off the icy chill stealing into her bones. The rich mink collar felt good against the knot growing in her neck.
As she finished her preparations for departure, Lottie’s eyes swept the room, almost as though she’d never see it again. It wore a signature quality of elegance, assuring clients that their needs would be catered to and their interests well served. Two desks of sturdy whitewashed pine, one large and one small on opposite ends of the room, expressed the dichotomy that existed there. Lottie and Raymond--Raymond and Lottie--one with broad-based public appeal, the other more suited to the details, but like opposite ends of a weighted scale, both indispensable to the equilibrium of this highly successful investment firm.
Prompted to meet her deadline, she hurriedly switched on the soft glow of the brass lamp on her desk and flicked off the overhead lights, a nightly ritual signaling her departure. At the door, she whispered a silent prayer and edged cautiously into the hallway. It occurred to her that prayer had once been very important in her life; although, she hadn't seen the inside of a church since she arrived in the city over ten years before. And oddly enough, at that improbable moment, a childhood memory flashed across her mind. It was of her mother, Miss Charity, praying for her family at their old kitchen table.
Lottie shrugged off the vivid image that threatened to throw her off schedule. She closed the office door firmly behind her and listened for the click of the lock. She scurried to the elevator, which responded promptly to her signal, jumped inside its mirrored walls and jabbed the P2 and Close Door buttons. Relief flooded her when the gleaming doors closed and she was left to plunge into the bowels of the skyscraper to her car.
As she descended, Lottie opened the side flap of her briefcase to check for the small blade knife she kept hidden there. She touched the sheath in which it nested and patted the pocket approvingly. Carrying a knife was a precaution she had adopted as a teen. The terrors of urban school life are widely touted, but it had been her experience that attending high school in rural Alabama was even tougher. Her knife had been her equalizer.
The elevator doors opened on P2 in the underground garage. Lottie checked her watch--12:08 a.m. She strode toward her custom Lexus, the color of old money; her gait steady and deliberate. She kept her eyes moving--back, front, side to side, her senses on full alert.
Drawing closer, she double clicked the remote clutched in her clammy left hand and engaged the engine. As it idled, she picked up the pace of her cat-like surveillance. She inspected underneath the car before popping the locks. In a single motion, she hopped in, pitched her briefcase to one side, and snapped the locks shut. Gunning the engine, she squealed out of the garage, laying a trail of tire rubber behind her.
Above ground, Lottie's head was spinning dizzily and her brain felt like mush. She cracked her window and inhaled deeply. The night air cooled her sweaty brow and felt liberating to her nostrils. She was grateful to be on her way home. Raymond's warning was still ringing in her ears. "Watch your back, Sweets,” he said. ‘Sweets,’ indeed? He only calls me that when he’s frustrated or short-tempered and trying to camouflage it. Her face surrendered to an involuntary smile when she recalled the first occasion he tagged her with the label.
The first time Lottie laid eyes on Raymond was when he graced Max's Diner where she worked part-time as a waitress. She didn't know his name, but he bore the clean-cut, well-dressed marks of a successful executive in his budding thirties. Given his distinguished-looking six-foot-plus frame and athletic build, she marveled that he hadn't picked one of the more trendy eateries, which boasted of bottled spring water and organic sprouts, to do lunch. Instead, he traded the aroma of filet mignon for the odor of chicken fried steak. She assumed he either was humoring himself by patronizing the only retro diner in Manhattan's financial district, or he was ensuring his anonymity by mingling with folk who were far more impressed by a steaming plate of meatloaf than his net worth.
After her first sighting, Lottie noticed he came into the diner several times a week, around the ebb of the noon rush, and mounted a stool at the far end of the chrome-plated counter. He kept to himself and spoke to no one, save Max the owner, who he signaled for his usual fried chicken-caesar salad. He hovered over handwritten charts and graphs until his coffee grew stale; oftentimes crumpling in frustration the ideas he scribbled on napkins and scraps of paper.
His hieroglyphics were hardly intelligible to the untrained eye, but as Lottie passed back and forth to the kitchen, she recognized he was struggling to develop investment profiles. With her God-given talent for the computer, she could picture splashy color graphics for his disjointed data in much the same way as a gifted musician visualizes fine lyrics for a catchy tune. Her summers at the community college back home had paid off.
Lottie’s hometown was a sleepy, little agricultural community in rural Alabama, tucked away where the state’s southeastern crease borders Florida and Georgia, and where license plates proudly sport the Heart of Dixie. Union City was a town where King Cotton had once ruled and where the privileged offspring of that heyday had struggled ever since to define their existence without it. Words like mansion, plantation, and ante-bellum were loosely strung together to conjure up images of money and respectability, when in fact only a few of the remaining founding families possessed it.
Lottie's love for computers dated back to her high school days. From the very first time she touched a keyboard, she was a natural. She had a ravenous appetite to learn more and worked odd jobs after school her sophomore year to purchase her own computer. She poured over books and manuals to learn on her own and spent her summers at the local community college pursuing her passion.
She attended Lurleen B. Wallace Community College, one of the many named for the former governor of the State of Alabama during her brief tenure. She became governor in 1966 when her husband, George C., was no longer eligible to seek office after his first term. “Shucks," some townsfolk would say, "Lurleen only started them schools just to prove George wasn’t no monster when he stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama and faced down Federally-mandated desegregation in 1963."
But despite the twenty-year interval since the Wallace era, a remnant of the die-heart separate-but-equal faction remained in tact in Union City, tying up the social and political fabric and stripping away the economic vitality of the community. By 1986, the summer before Lottie’s senior year in high school, it was to the point that skilled, high-paying jobs for young people her age were all but non-existent.
It was also the summer Lottie’s daddy was killed in a freak sawmill accident. Her older sister, Rose, had been so devastated by their father's tragic death she found it impossible to remain in the family home. With their mother's consent, Rose moved away right after the funeral and found a job four hours away in Macon, Georgia, leaving Lottie to fend alone.
“But Mamma!” Lottie had objected strenuously. “It’s my senior year. I can’t leave Lincoln and transfer ‘cross-town to Jim Folsom High just ‘cause you work at the Poteet Mansion. I’ll have to leave all my friends. I’d miss my senior trip! Rose got to go on her senior trip. But you and daddy always did love her best—“
“Gal, don’t speak ill of yo’ daddy. He dead.”
“But why can’t I just come home alone--“
“You’ll do no such thing, Lottie Mae,” Miss Charity bellowed. “You’ll do what I say. You’ll come to the mansion every day after school. And that’s that.”
"But I’m nearly eighteen--“
"That’s that!”
During those incredibly lonely days without her daddy or Rose around, the computer became Lottie's escape hatch from the sadness that threatened to overtake her. Its cold companionship and her fervent prayers were her only solace. She couldn't unload her burdens on her mother; she was tending to her own grief. So that summer while other girls her age were dating, in hopes of finding a husband to care for them after graduation, Lottie hid away in her room for hours, melding with her computer and perfecting her skills.
"Don't you like computers, sir?" Lottie inquired of the man on the first occasion Max had signaled her to serve his fried chicken-caesar salad.
"What's it to you, Sweets," he said, obviously having a particularly difficult time collecting his data.
"My name is Lottie."
"Hmph." He fumbled with his notes.
"Lottie Garrett."
Raymond looked up from his work and glared at her. "And what do you want of me, Ms. Lottie Garrett?" he said in such a way as to emphasize that besides being at least ten years his junior, she was neither his social nor intellectual equal. Motioning to the mass of scraps on the counter, he said, "As you can see, I am quite busy." He lowered his crown of jet-black hair and returned to work. "Quite."
"Have it your way!" Having been in the city only a few months, Lottie was easily put-off by what she termed, legends in their own minds--people with high-minded ways, puffed-up egos, and little regard for the feelings of others. That’s what I get for trying to help him. Her hands twitched with anger, and she jammed them into her apron pockets. Wait ‘til I see Mr. Big-Shot again, I’ll show him a thing or two.