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A vulnerable kid. A brutal enemy. An addled ally.

Chapter One

 

“Move, Rook!”

 

Ambiguous orders never compelled me, even when issued from my boss’s beautiful lips. Did Sabrina Ross want me to scoot over on the park bench to give her room to sit next to me? Or did she want me to pick up the damn checker piece, make the double jump, and give this kid the lesson of his short life?

 

I decided she wanted me to bounce this kid. So, I zapped him good, taking his two forwardmost pieces in a deadly swoop that pushed him back on his haunches. I didn’t try to wipe the smile from my face, even as I passed a hand over my brow to smear the sweat dripping there.

 

“Hey, no fair! She told you that move. No fair, Rook!”

 

I conceded nothing to this punk’s indignation. “You think I didn’t have it all figured out? Strategy, my man, strategy.”

 

Brina sat down beside me, leaning her bare brown shoulder against my arm. We knew the dangers of sitting in a city playground at dusk in summer. But we did it anyway. We wanted to escape the clammy corners of our office and the cloying dampness of the neighborhood’s cafés. Neither of our apartments had overhead fans to take the sweat off our necks, and the movie theater was an expensive relief we reserved for weekends.

 

So, we took our drinks and fled to the little park two blocks from her building. There, under dust-draped trees, we joined our neighbors lounging in the favored uniform of city summers: t-shirt and jeans. Old men wore white undershirts with drooping armholes that exposed their wrinkled flanks; middle-schoolers flaunted logos or superheroes; alluring girls tucked jewel-colored tank tops into skimpy shorts. Brina’s cut-off jeans reached almost to her knees, but she still gave the teen queens a run for their money in her flimsy tangerine blouse. I stuck with my usual denims, popping the buttons on my work shirt an extra few notches to catch the evening breezes. I was a grown man – I wore my black jeans long. No socks and black sneakers were as cool – and as chill – as I could get this night.

 

We’d managed to capture an empty bench at a corner of the bustling park. In front of our seat was a concrete pedestal with black squares etched on it, a permanent gameboard installed by the city to offer solace or innocent recreation for Harlem’s sweaty hordes. My sometimes checkers partner Zaire Martin had spotted me as I settled and scampered over for a quick match. He was thirteen going on thirty, still wearing baggy nylon shorts and a t-shirt whose ripped hem was either fashionable or desperate. I didn’t ask which. Despite his childish outfits, Zaire’s high cheekbones framed the tight expression and wary glances of a seasoned veteran of these streets. During our summer of weekly checker sessions, we kept the talk focused on the game. No parents, no school, no business, just checkers. But the boy’s eagerness to engage with me revealed a lot about the empty center of his life. Maybe something was missing from mine too.

 

“Why you take orders from a woman, anyway?” Zaire was still ticked off about losing the match, so he let his mini-machismo fly.

 

I kept my tone even as I set the pieces for another round. “This isn’t a woman. This is my boss, Sabrina. You know, Z. I told you about her.”

 

The boy tipped his head to the right, taking a long look at Brina. The slow scan moved from her bushy hair to her naked toes. If he’d been older, I would have taken offense at the frank appreciation in that stare, but Zaire made the gesture comical instead of challenging. “Yeah, Rook, you told me about her. But you didn’t say she was a lady like this. I was picturing some chick a whole lot older and a whole lot less fly.” The kid was undaunted by Brina’s presence and determined to get to the bottom of this thicket of adult relationships. The shine over his nut-brown skin matched the gleam in his eyes.

 

I shrugged and pressed a finger to my lips. “I can’t reveal all my secrets up front, Z. You know how it works.”

 

I’d met Brina and her father Norment Ross at the detective agency a little over two years ago. Before that, my pock-marked career had included a stint in the army, plenty of dead-end jobs, and a sorry divorce that ended an even sadder marriage. A down-on-his-luck scrub, I was supposed to meet a femme fatale and wind up in the shallow end of a deep pool. Instead, I met Sabrina Ross, a femme vitale if ever there was one. Norment invited me to join his little security firm, where I provided the muscle and enough ignorance to lubricate our investigations. Norment brought the soul and the neighborhood contacts. Brina contributed brains, beauty, and a bushel of common sense. I was just damn lucky common sense didn’t stop her from inviting me to join her personal life.

 

Brina cut into our man talk before it went off the rails, pinning the kid with an expert glower. “Is this the Zaire you recommended for that job at the computer repair shop? You said he was smart. But I don’t know, I’m not feeling it.”

 

She winked to let Zaire see she was joshing him, her smile expanding to show off brilliant teeth that forced a sharp intake of breath from the boy. He was sprung. In world record time.

 

“He’s just pulling your leg, right, Z?” I stared at the boy, hiding a wink behind another pull from the bottle. Guiding this kid strained my childcare skills. If I’d owned any parenting muscles, they’d have frayed weeks ago.

 

“Yeah, I’m just messing. Like Rook say.”

 

Brina lowered her voice to a formal whisper and squared her shoulders to look straight at Zaire. “Mr. Arnold needs somebody reliable to help him stock equipment and clean up the store every night. You think you could be the right man for the job? 

 

Zaire knew he’d fallen into an interview here on the park bench, and he rose to the occasion. “Yeah, I’m interested in that computer job. I can handle it. I like messing with computers, electronics, stuff like that. I’d do good work in Mr. Arnold’s shop.”

 

Before he could expand on his resumé, a whistle darted across the park, causing Zaire to jerk his head in its direction. A thin teenager waved, then beckoned with a rapid gesture suggesting urgency.

 

Zaire reached for his backpack and stood from the table. “That’s my boy, Whip. Gotta go. I’ll check you later, Rook. Nice to meet you, Miss Sabrina.” Zaire trotted through the gathering gloom toward his friend. A slap on the shoulder then a high five completed their exchange of greetings.

 

“He’s a nice kid, Rook. I can see why you like him. Tough, smart, funny. Reminds me of you.” She looked at the teens in conversation across the dusty grass enclosure. Lowering her chin, she murmured, “I want to tell you something.”

 

“Sure. Shoot”

 

“Not here. Later.” Brina wriggled as if a sudden chill had tickled her shoulders. Then a smile dashed across her mouth. “Let’s make that computer job happen for Zaire.”

 

“From your lips to Old Man Arnold’s ears.” I demonstrated my agreement by planting a peck on Brina’s cheek. She swiveled her head to answer with a better kiss. But we never got that far.

 

Four gunshots zipped across the innocent playground, pinging like chimes against the metal legs of the swing set.

 

Shouts and children’s cries ripped through the sultry twilight enclosing the park. Two more bullets screamed by our ears. Bodies thumped to the grass as the acrid stink of rubber scraping asphalt floated along the ground. I jerked Brina from our bench and threw myself on top as her cheek hit the sidewalk.

 

My weight on her, I raised my torso to look around. After the first shriek, a naked burst of energy thrust the crowd of teens and adults in all directions.

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