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Authors: Nikki Woods

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She leaned against the door with an amused grin that she quickly checked before clearing her throat. “I'm gon' be leaving in a few minutes. Next month's supplies have been ordered, the work request has been submitted, and I've confirmed two of your three appointments for the next couple of days. I'll take care of the third on Monday. Anything else you need me to handle?”

I patted my perspiring face with a Kleenex and tried to smooth my unruly curls back into some kind of order. “Can you set up a conference call with Keela O'Neal and Essence Heathrow? ” I asked.

She nodded and started to leave before turning back. “Way to go, girl.” She gave me the thumbs up, briefly relaxing her guard of professionalism.

“Thanks, Jonetta. Have a good weekend.” I smiled before turning back to the computer screen. I called Scooby's manager to congratulate him on the good news while deleting unwanted e-mail correspondence with a swoop of my finger. No one answered, but that didn't surprise me.
Scooby and his entourage were probably already somewhere celebrating—pants sagging, diamonds blinging, and a joint in every hand. I left a quick message.

Jonetta knocked on the door again. “Ms. O'Neal and Ms. Heathrow are holding on line five. And this just came in for you.” She laid a neatly organized stack of papers on my desk. The cover sheet read: “Deal's done. Congrats.”

I thumbed through the finalized copy of the contract that made Scooby the newest member of MMG. “Thank you, Jesus!” I said, breathing a sigh of relief. Jonetta coughed softly waiting patiently for the clear to go.

I waved her out the door before punching the red flashing line.

Essence's sarcasm cut through the phone line. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”

“Don't start with me, Essence,” I replied and Keela giggled in the background. “I just got some good news—no, fabulous news—and the first people I wanted to share it with are my two best friends in the whole wide world. Can you guys meet at my place in about thirty minutes? I think we're in need of a champagne toast.”

“You aren't going to tell us what this is about?” Keela asked.

“Of course. In thirty minutes.”

She exhaled loudly before grudgingly agreeing. “You know I hate to wait.”

“Make it forty-five and I'll see you there,” Essence added.

The next call was to my boyfriend, but his secretary sneered, “Randy's in a meeting and can't be disturbed.”

Likely story, but I left my name anyway.

Shutting down my computer and tidying up my desk took less than five minutes; another two, and my black mink coat was buttoned tight, my Louis Vuitton briefcase was clutched tightly in my hand. I dashed out the door headfirst into the fierce Chicago wind, not so fondly nicknamed, “Da Hawk.”

* * *

I settled in for the twenty-minute drive from my office to my home in Kenwoods's historic district. My house was just a stone's throw away from the luxurious mansions—including that of Louis Farrakhan—which marked this south-side community.

The skin of the city shed as the high-rises diminished to tiny specks in the rearview mirror. Traffic was light for this time of day; and as I negotiated my car into my parking space, I realized that I hadn't cussed anyone out.

The sun was setting to the west of the neatly landscaped courtyard. Dotted with just the right mixture of large oak trees and small flowery bushes, it was designed to evoke feelings of peace and serenity.

Irregular footprint patterns were stamped in the snow, left over from a child's snowball fight. Christmas decorations were up in full force. But the holiday spirit hadn't touched me yet. I hadn't started shopping and Christmas was just a week away.

A neighbor from two doors down waved a gloved hand as I strolled up the walk. “Hey, girl!”

“Hey, Henry! What's up?”

Proline Hair Sheen and Drakkar cologne tickled my nose as he enfolded me in a hug. “ Child, please, it was a horrendously busy day at the shop, do you hear me? Busy, busy, busy! My feet are positively screaming. All I wanna do is soak these dogs in some Epsom salt, maybe make my baby rub them for me. Anything to make them feel better.” The wind whistled between us and Henry shrugged deeper into his high-collared wool coat, his neatly groomed goatee now barely visible.

“Sounds like a good deal.”

“Yeah, having a live-in lover has its good points at times. Though those may be few and far between,” he chuckled, his body jiggling with laughter. “Hey, did you hear about that body they found in Robbins?”

“Nah, I haven't had a chance to check out the news today.”

“They're finding bodies all over Chicago. The paper said five, but I think there may be more. They say it's some kind of a drug conspiracy. You don't want to fool with them drug boys nowadays. Cheat them out of money and see what happens. You'll end up worse than dead.”

“It's a damn shame. And so close to the holidays. People don't care anymore.” I sniffed as another wind whipped through the courtyard.

Pulling the paper from his bag, he showed me the front page. “Here, read it for yourself.” He stuck the folded up newspaper under my arm. “Oh, and they're trying to have one last association meeting before the New Year. Something about new storm doors. I guess they'll be sending out a memo.”

“Figures. They always want to have these meetings, but then nothing gets done.”

“You know some people just like to hear themselves talk.” Henry's eyes narrowed, then his mouth widened into a grin. “Your hair is off the chain.”

I touched my wool hat rimmed with fur. “How can you . . .”

Henry burst into laughter before I could finish. “Oh, you're just saying that because you did it.” I smiled, amused.

He snapped his fingers then blew me a kiss. “I know that's why it looks so good.” His laughter trailed behind me long after his door closed.

The sun's orange glow cast elegant shadows across the marble-tiled floor of my townhouse's foyer. It was almost beautiful enough to make you forget that it was the middle of winter in Chicago and cold enough to freeze the blood in your veins.

Cocoa, my chocolate Labrador Retriever, bounded down the stairs and practically pinned me against the wall.

I pulled the door back open. “All right, down girl! Go on.” Barking anxiously, Cocoa dashed outside and took care of business before scampering back to warmth. I dropped my keys on the hook by the closet and hung my coat before sitting on the bottom step of the staircase. I ducked and dodged Cocoa's wet kisses while trying to slide off my pumps and slip my feet into fuzzy houseshoes before trotting upstairs with her on my heels.

According to the silver plated clock hanging on my kitchen wall, Keela would be ringing my doorbell in less than ten minutes. I stuck a bottle of Dom Perignon in the freezer to chill, then called a local pizza joint and placed an order for delivery. Checking the Caller ID came next—
Randy had yet to respond to my messages. As I changed into my pink jogging suit, I decided that I was not going to call him again. Two can play that game.

The front gate slammed. Trotting downstairs, I flung the door open just as Keela was about to ring the doorbell.

“Get in here!” I yelled, startling her.

She pulled me into a tight bear hug. “Hey, sweetie! I know it's only been a day, but I missed ya'!”

“Girl, puhleeze, let me inside. It's freezing out here!” I laughed, wiggling out of her embrace then yanked her into the house. She tugged off her red cashmere hat and shook her hair out, each ringlet falling in perfect alignment, framing her round dimpled face. Cocoa danced around our legs.

“Hi, Cocoa.” Keela said, patting her on the head. “Essence is right behind me. I saw her pulling into the parking lot.”

“Wow! She's early.” The snow was now falling in earnest, picturesque oversized flakes fighting each other to reach the ground first.

Essence opened an umbrella before climbing out of the white BMW 745i Sedan that her parents bought her for her thirtieth birthday. She laughed when she spotted us standing in the doorway. “Don't start talking smack!” She teetered on stiletto heels, stepping carefully around ice patches.

“Don't fall! I ain't got homeowner's insurance.”

Her high-pitched laughter followed me as I went upstairs to check on the champagne. The front gate squeaked and slammed again.

“That's the pizza. Take care of it, will you, Essence? I'll pay you back later.” I leaned over the banister, drying a glass with a paper towel. I couldn't quite hear Essence's response but I did decipher a few expletives mingled with the flirty banter she exchanged with the deliveryman. The aroma of spicy pepperoni wafted slowly through the house, my mouth watering before Essence and Keela even made it up to the second floor.

“Will you get your dog?” Essence yelled as she crossed the room and pecked me on the cheek. “If he scratches a hole in these stockings, you're buying me a new pair.” She placed the greasy pizza box on the kitchen countertop, opened it, and fanned her hand grandly in invitation.

A snap of my fingers sent Cocoa scurrying to what I had dubbed her “basement apartment.”

I flipped the switch to the black accented gas fireplace and flames sparked in mixtures of blue, red, and yellow. They painted a pretty picture on my matted cream walls and then stretched in ominous shadows across the ceiling.

“Paper towels, Keela,” I yelled. The grease was already starting to seep from the box onto the countertop's newly polished surface.

“Ooooh, Lordy! It's been one . . .” Essence declared as she propped her narrow behind on the armrest of my earth brown leather sectional.

“Bad day?” Keela asked, heading back to the kitchen, returning with a box of orange juice and a handful of paper towels.

“Another day with my nose to the grindstone.” She sighed before sliding down into couch.

I threw my head back and laughed. “Essence, you manage a day spa. It can't be too grueling with the smell of sea salts and that motivational music playing all day.”

“Look, I deal with broke-down women looking for a miracle. Trust me, it's high-pressure. You know black women will snap if they don't walk out of the salon looking like they belong on the pages of a beauty magazine and that is not reality for ninety-eight percent of them.” She paused in the middle of her tirade. “What's the orange juice for?”

“I'm going to drink it instead of champagne.” Keela smiled with wide-eyed innocence as Essence rolled her eyes.

“Can't you suck it up and drink just this once?”

“You know I don't like champagne.” She read the label on the bottle, “even if it is Dom Perignon.”

I shook my head. “You're such the kindergarten teacher.” Her current job as a substitute teacher was the latest in a long string of jobs, including pastry chef and buyer for an adult bookstore.

Essence stood up, poised to pop the cork to the bottle. “Are you ready to do this?” I nodded and she poured the two of us a glass.

“Let's toast to dreams coming true.” I raised my glass and clinked it with theirs; first one, then the other.

“I'll toast to that,” Keela murmured before taking a sip of juice.

“Hmmmm. Nice and dry.” Essence downed her entire glass, then poured herself another one. While refilling mine, she raised one eyebrow, crinkled her smooth forehead, and a half smile danced across her delicate face. The shadowy light from the flames only accentuated her beauty; from her luminescent skin to the deep almond eyes set under the flawlessly arched eyebrows and bowed lips. “Well?”

“Ladies,” I paused to add even more drama to the moment. “You are looking at an entertainment executive who within a year of creating a position and a department with a major, albeit-outdated record label, has signed her first major recording artist.”

“No, you didn't, Kingston!” Keela shouted, hitting me in the arm.

“Of course, I did.” I crossed my arms in front of me and pursed my lips.

“You got Scooby!” Essence screamed.

“I got Scooby!” I reached into my briefcase, pulled out the signed contract and waved it in front of them. I watched their expressions as the magnitude of my accomplishment sunk in. What happened to me, happened to them—good and bad. Their excitement was genuine. I threw the entire contract up in the air and danced as the sheets of paper fell around us.

We drank more champagne and orange juice, toasting to everything from fat paychecks to good sex. We never got to the pizza. Keela and Essence scooped up a slice on the way out.

“Your mother would be so proud,” Essence said at the door, pulling us into a group hug before leaving.

I smiled sadly and leaned against the closed door. Yes, my mom would be proud. I only wished she had lived so I could see that pride for her little girl shining in her eyes.

The salty taste of bittersweet tears mixed with champagne, then with the contract in hand, I fell across my bed and slipped into a restless sleep.

Chapter 2

I couldn
'
t breathe. No matter how hard I tried, I just could not lure air into my tightly squeezed lungs. My chest was compressed as if two tons of bricks sat on it, weighing it down. And it was so dark - a thick, dark, murky black mass that threatened to swallow me.

The jagged rocks snuggled on the river bottom pierced the pads of my toes as I shifted from one foot to the other, trying to balance my weight. The images spinning before my eyes were too fast and furious for me to distinguish. But they felt familiar. Ahh! the scenes were from my childhood. How old was I? Five, maybe? No, six. Funny, you always hear that when it's your time to go, your whole life flashes before you; but I always thought it would be like viewing a movie on one of those old film reels: sitting in a plush seat watching places and people magnified on a big screen, popping alternate handfuls of popcorn and licorice candy, waiting for the happy ending. But this was not the end, and it certainly wasn
'
t a love story. I was trapped in a horror movie that was careening out of control.

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