Money is one way to justify doing unreasonable things. Call it smug principle, but leaving my receptionist position of six years at Freelancers, Inc. seemed to be the best decision I ever made. I had been underpaid and underappreciated and saw no job promotion in sight. I cut my hours in half, opened my own graphic arts business, then when things became profitable, quit altogether. I had to admit it was worth it. I set my own hours, took coffee breaks whenever I wanted, and got to watch Knots Landing on TNT every day. Unforeseable were the little slumps in the economy where people were a little less charitable with their coins and Hechts started calling everyday for their monthly payments. A young businessman such as myself often ran into these little snags. So, occasionally, while struggling to make ends meet, I had to take "odd jobs."
I let the father of a kid I used to babysit bribe me into tracking down his missing son. Sure, I figured it was a job for the cops. But, Mr. Rigby wanted his son, Rafael safely coerced home and his activities kept as quiet as possible. Of course, I thought it was all very odd. But, once he told me where his son hung out, I kind of understood. The Outlet, in Northeast Washington, DC, was hardly a place for a minor.
I dressed appropriately, making sure I had on a good pair of running boots. I bribed my faithful sidekick, Harrison Caldwell into being my chauffeur. He waited patiently, fiddling with the knobs of the portable radio he kept on the back seat of his own little rolling death trap, "The Bucket". We were on again/off again boyfriends, currently off again, but still the best of buddies. After leaving Mr. Rigby's two story home on the upper end of Connecticut Avenue near Jenifer Street, I patted the folded $150 check in the breast pocket of my shirt made out to me. Rene C. Clayton.
I went around the other side of the car, appropriately ignoring the dings, dents, and rusts spots. It wasn't called The Bucket for nothing. I yanked open the door and it screeched loudly. I fell onto the duck-taped vinyl seat whose springs barely cushioned the impact.
"So, what'd he tell you?" Harrison turned expectantly, adjusting the glasses on his nose. "What's going on with Little Rafael?"
"If he wanted me to know, he'd have told me." I looked down my nose at him.
"You didn't ask?" He smirked doubtfully. "Then, where are we supposed to go?"
"The Outlet?" Harrison smiled wickedly, firing up the engine. It rattled into life like a lug wrench in a metal can. "Homeboy is hanging out at The Outlet? Isn't he a bit young for that place?"
"Don't go there," I warned, tapping the dashboard for him to get a move on. "Between you and I, we already know what's going on."
Harrison started to persist, but I reminded him that he was just the "paid driver" who also had a job to do. His eyes widened in mock surprise and his mouth came open melodramatically. Undaunted, I rolled my eyes.
"Oh, stop," I told him, hardly able to suppress my smile. I pointed to the road and instructed him to drive. He tilted his head and held out his hand. I gave him twenty bucks for his time and his trouble. There was a time before we broke-up where I didn't have to stoop to bribery to get him to do something for me.
Oh, how things change when there's no sex involved.
I used to do a lot of free babysitting. Rafael's mother, a high school friend of my sister Rita's, was working two jobs and hardly ever home. Rafael and I used to sit around watching Bugs Bunny, eating Jiffy-Pop pop corn and drinking Kool Aid. He was a sweet little kid in spite of the "behavioral problems" he was supposedly having. When his mother met and married Antonio Rigby, things got better. Then unexpectantly, she died in a car crash a few years later. Rafael became Mr. Rigby's "responsibility".
The Outlet was a gay bar over near Catholic University in Northeast, DC. It wasn't such a bad place at all. It had a predominately black male crowd. Being black and male and very much into other black males, this was very much to my liking. If Mr. Rigby knew what kind of club his son was hanging out in, he'd probably leave him alone. But then, I thought about it, maybe that's why the two of them were having problems now.
A boy of sixteen -- or was he actually fifteen? -- didn't need to discover the club scene too quickly. Rafi should have been around kids his own age sitting in groups, discovering his sexual-self, laughing, talking, giggling, exploring the many different facets of his being. Not fending off predatory older males, booze, smoke and drugs.
The Outlet was located in a tiny shopping center around the corner from the Brookland Metro Station and the District Cablevision building. Harrison found a spot only a couple blocks away. He secured the car and we scurried along. The pounding house music teased us from the front steps where a couple of men were awaiting admission. Their eyes scanned over us reproachfully. I paid for Harrison, then relented to the usual body search. After passing with flying colors, black ink, which probably wouldn't come off for another twenty four hours, was stamped on my wrist. Branded, I stepped into the club. It only took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the combination of darkness and flashing lights. Everybody checked us out trying to figure out if we were new meat or bar regulars.
I scanned over the crowd. It was packed as always. And hot as hell. I instantly began sweating.
The music seized Harrison almost instantly. He jiggled off onto the dance floor without permission. He melded right on in and began shaking what he had to offer. I rolled my eyes and squeezed pass several people to join him. I raised a finger and gave him a stern look. One and only one dance. He nodded in acceptance, but I doubted if it he'd truly follow my instructions without another bribe.
The dance floor was jumping with steaming bodies. Everyone barely had a square foot in which to twist and gyrate. Not surprisingly at all, someone always managed to snag a runway of floor to vogue, primp, or perform fan kicks, tail spins, or clog-stomping. Those who chose not to dance, cruised safely from the floor's edge or some spot along the wall. At times, the lights went out and all I could see were silhouetted figures, dancing and gyrating, against the pulsing glow of lights, spraying mist and booming bass. When the lights came on again, I felt a surge of exhilaration pushing me toward euphoric levels of excitement. I pounded with the music, stomping the floor with each beat. Five songs later, my jerked, twisted, and pounded muscles knotted. My stomping relaxed to a dizzying trot. The music had fallen into a break-down, a relaxed bridge between songs. Harrison's head was thrown back, while his arms dangled at his side, and his body twitched as if he were plugged into an electrical outlet. Glancing around the floor, I hoped to spot Rafael. I saw him at the bar.
Which is where I figured a minor would be.
I pulled Harrison toward me and whispered in his ear. He nodded, then allowed the music to seize him once more. He fell into a full twirl. I walked toward the bar. It was indeed Rafael. He was dressed in overalls and a t-shirt with black sandals. His complexion was fairly light and washed out in the glow of an overhead blue light. A drink was turned up to his head, it's bottom, up. He'd hardly changed except for the pubescent body weight. He was still a cute kid.
When I approached, he seemed very surprised to see me. I reached for a napkin on the bar beside him and patted my face dry.
"Rene?" Rafael said instantly, putting the glass on the table. "What're you doing here?"
"Tryin' to enjoy the music."
"Might have a better chance on the dance floor."
"Just came from there."
"Can I get a hug from my old babysitter?"
"Of course." I smiled, distracted with this reunion. A swarm of memories actually washed over me.
"You can do better than that." Rafael embraced me deeply again, coming an inch or two over my even six feet. He seemed to hold on longer than necessary. The smell the alcohol on his breath was noticeable.
"Better than what?" I leaned in closer so he could hear me over the music.
"I heard better lines than that on a night of old white queens?" Rafael smiled. "At least they tell me how cute I am."
I just smiled. Then, froze. I couldn't believe it, but he was giving me -- The Look. It went from my smoke filled hair to my sweaty cleavage and down the legs of my jeans to my boots and up again. He was checking me out!
"Oh, puh-leeze." I said, genuinely flattered. "I used to babysit you. Change your diaper and everything else."
"You can still do that," he said, trying to be seductive. For somebody his age, it came off more like a looming prison sentence.
"How old are you now?" I felt I'd better ask before he got anybody else in trouble.
"Old enough to drive," he said, removing a photo ID of himself on his license. He held it in front of me for the briefest of seconds. According to it, he was thirty two.
"Police ever catch you with that you're getting in trouble," I told him.
"Look's real enough so's I can drive." He smirked, then returned it to his back pocket. "Plus ---" He gave me the once over. "I'm old enough to know better. What about you? How old are you now?"
"Old enough to know better." At twenty-seven, they'd probably put me under the jail.
He momentarily smiled to himself. Slowly, it began to fade.
"My father sent you, didn't he?" He stopped me with a raised hand. "He probably kept apologizing over and over." Before I could say anything, he stopped me again. "Or, he probably says that he'll understand if I never want to talk to him again."
"Hey, I don't know anything about all that," I admitted. "I just want to make sure you're okay."
"Sure," he doubted. "Just like some other people around here."
"They buying you drinks?" I glanced at the discarded glass on the counter.
"You tryin' to be my daddy, too?"
"No," I replied sternly. "Just your babysitter."
"I'd bet you'd like to be my babysitter." His head swivelled in read-formation.
It took a moment to swallow that one. "Yeah, and I'd turn you over my knee and give you what you really deserve." I think I snarled.
"Yeah, don't you all." The severe look he gave me was washed away by the flashing lights. He turned, tapped a nearby man on the arm. The man, perhaps thirty some years older, same light complexion with a red bob of processed hair, turned in attention. Rafael nodded at him and he turned to the bar to get the bartender's attention. When he returned with a drink that had a pretty little umbrella in it, I stepped in between them.
"This boy is under age and if you don't want this place closed down, I suggest you do something more productive with that." I stood tall and nodded at the drink.
The man seriously outweighed my hundred and forty pound frame, but I was ready to take him if I had to. I knew how to aim for balls even if I had to stick my foot up underneath his skirt.
Rafael looked at me incredulously, stopping the man before he could make a move. "Who the hell do you think you are?"
"Your babysitter, that's who. And, watch your mouth."
He turned from me, reaching for the drink. The man with the processed bob looked uncertain. I intercepted it. Rafael looked shocked for a moment, then knocked it from my hand. When I tried to catch it, he gave me a push. The force of his unexpected shove sent me sprawling backwards. The floor came up hard beneath me and all I could see were legs. People looked down in amazement. A couple people shook their heads in disgust. A woman threw back her head and I didn't have to hear her laughter to know that she was cackling like a crow. Rafael dashed through the crowd and I could see people looking and pointing at me. I rolled my eyes, then got to my feet. I avoided as many glances as possible, then huffed in irritation. Mr. Rigby's little stupid check didn't call for manhandling. I was going to have to set a few ground rules with Rafael after I wrung his bony neck.
I followed him through the club. Of course he was headed for the back exit. He glanced back and I could see that he was afraid. I gave chase. Why? Humiliation. Stupid pride? I don't know.
Rafael's head bounced in front of me. He dashed past a few angry, jostled patrons. As he bounded out of the club's back door and into the alley, I saw two hands snatch him from view. As I got within distance, I saw Harrison yanking him around, trying to keep hold.
Good boy. God knows I know I trained him well.
Suddenly, I saw another hand, this one with neat, red press-on finger nails, reach above Harrison and the struggling boy. Rafael was thrown to the side. He landed solidly on the ground. A large black leather purse landed heavily on Harrison's head, clobbering him.
Without warning, Harrison crumpled to the ground. His assaulter, a very large woman, stepped into the foreground of the alley, yanking Rafael to his feet. She pushed him into the back of a white van. Mud had been purposely splattered across the license plate. The woman was large beyond reason. She was a couple inches taller than Rafael and dressed in a sequenced black gown which stopped below her crotch. Her muscular thighs were covered by window pane stockings and she wore black spiked pumps. Black extensions swung around her broad shoulders and she wore a beret. Her face was covered by shadows and by time I got through the open door, the van was tearing down the alley. Rafael's face was pressed against the glass.
I rushed to Harrison. He straddled onto all fours. I threw my arms around his shoulders and he began shaking his head. It took a moment before he realized it was me.
"Helluva plan," he muttered.
Mr. Rigby was not pleased. The next day, we were sitting outside of the Kawfee Shop on the lower half of Connecticut Avenue in Dupont Circle. The overhead umbrella did little to shade us from the noon sun which demanded to be seen and felt. The inside of the coffee shop was packed and those inside enjoyed the air conditioning while Mr. Rigby and I suffered the full effects of nature. I crossed my bare legs, my sandaled feet dangling. I pushed my sun glasses up onto the bridge of my nose and sipped from an Iced Mocha. I was trying my darndest not to get too upset with Rafael's father. But it was evident that the man was used to getting his way.
"I've stopped payment on the check," he told me.
"You've what?" I exclaimed.
"You were supposed to find him," he glowered. The even creases in his brow did little to soften the accusation in his voice.
"I did find him."
"And, you ran him off."
"I did not run him off," I said carefully. "He apparently did not want to come home. The first thing he did was panic and run off. He was yanked into a van and next thing I knew, he disappeared."
"Yanked into a van?" He sat forward. "What are you saying?"
"I don't know what I'm saying because I don't know what's going on. Things weren't as simple as you made them seem."
Mr. Rigby stared begrudgingly at the drink in front of him. He made little rings on the table from the cup's moisture. He looked up with tolerant eyes. "You know, about his little ... uh, preference?"
"Orientation," I said with very little tolerance.
"Well, y'know ..."
"No. I don't know," I cut him off.
"I was, I guess, a little miffed in the beginning," he admitted, his eyes unable to meet mine. "I may have said a few things I shouldn't have. But, it was more about the places he hung out. Those friends of his. All those drag queens."
"Trans-persons?" I hopefully corrected him.
"Whatever ..." He bore a hole into the center of the table with his eyes. "I think he got mixed up in some trouble with them. He was getting calls at the house he wouldn't take. He started staying out all night. Never telling me where he was going. He brought clothes and took clothes. He never stayed around and it was like he was on the run." Those words fell heavily. "Look, I came to you because I know you know the community."
"I'm not your tour guide," I objected.
"Regardless, you'd know better than I would some of the places he'd possibly go."
"It may be more than a simple matter of him going somewhere," I regretted saying after Mr. Rigby stared expectantly, the creases in his brow, now becoming worry. "I don't know how willingly he went into that van."
"I don't want the police involved," he said. "Whatever has him on the run may get him into trouble. And, he's had enough of that in the last couple of years. That boy's more than I can handle."
"That's a lot of work." I sighed.
"I'll pay you whatever your time's worth," he pulled a check book out of his back pocket and started writing. "I'll continue payment on that other check and you can deposit this one two days from now."
Two days from now? Was he insuring I at least start searching? Working this way, I could easily be stiffed. But, what other choice did I have? Curiosity partly played a role in my concern as well. And, if he stopped payment on my check, then the only way to get it rolling again was to do what he wanted.
"I can't force him to
come home," I said as calmly as I possible, even though I was seething with
rage. "Remember that."
Hechts called me early that evening, reminding me, once again, as if they didn't remind me every day, that I still owed them money. They were patient, I guess, but I wondered how long it would take before they sent somebody out to smash my knee caps. Sometimes you never know with these department stores.
I got a photo of Rafael and pulled out my own buggy, Bertha, a 1982 black Mustang and started cruising the area. And, I wasn't too sure about the woman who'd hauled him into that van. Especially since she tore out of the alley with the headlights out. And, I couldn't even tell if she'd been behind the wheel or somebody else. I hadn't noticed any other people. Nor any noticeable decals. And, that mud on the license plates looked a little deliberate. Plus, Rafael might very well be in hiding.
I drove around Northwest checking out P Street Beach, Malcolm X Park, and the O Street Giant. Around 7th and K Street, I parked Bertha. She coughed and wheezed when I turned off the engine and white clouds plumed from beneath the hood. Bucket of bolts.
While she cooled, I walked to Mt. Vernon Square a couple of blocks away. Some black transpersons were known to frequent the Samuel Gompers Memorial Park at 11th & Massachusetts Avenue. Show-cased magnificently in its center was a statute of a man in a suit, seated amongst partially clad individuals. It was all probably symbolic of something important. Most of the Gurlz that hung out there looked like boys dressed up to look like girls.
I sat for maybe an hour just noticing cars with out of town tags before anyone appeared. The gurl who approached me, though curvaceous, was very much a boy underneath. Her jeans were tight beyond belief, her skin very dark, and her lengthy hair knotted into a long braid which hit her just above the buttocks. The brim of her sleeveless lime green blouse was tucked in her pants, emphasizing her breasts and biceps.
I cooed at her, "Wowwww, nice nails. Where you get 'em done?"
She introduced herself as Cocoa then hopped up onto the back of the bench and perched her feet beside me. She leaned forward, coquettishly laying her head on her arms which were extended across her knees.
"Shantella's Beauty Hut." She batted her eyes and I thought that she was not an attractive woman. "It's about 10th and U."
"Near the Lincoln?" I feigned supreme interest, gabbing about the individual designs. I told her I was a graphic artist and she insisted I draw a picture of her. I used a scrap of paper in my pocket and a pen I always carried with me. I sketched out a little replica of her, softening her edges and flattering her in every way possible. After buttering her up beyond belief, I asked her about Rafi's abductor, giving a colorful description of her and the van. Cocoa's reaction was minimal, but I wasn't convinced she didn't know anything.
"You a cop?" She turned skeptical, probably aware now that I wasn't trying to pick her up.
"Cop?" I echoed, unable to suppress the smile. "Naw. Not at all. She knows a friend of mine."
"Well, you ain't gonna get nothing but gurlz 'round here." She smiled broadly, unveiling her crooked two front teeth. Her head swivelled and she smacked her lips dramatically. "Big gurlz." She giggled, then opened her mouth and guffawed. She smacked at the air with a limp wrist, pleased with herself.
"I know." I laughed. "She was hanging out with him last night at the Outlet. And, I been trying to catch up with him for a long time now."
"What's he look like?"
I patted my pockets and creased my brow, making a big production of patting another pocket before producing Rafael's picture.
"You into little boys." Cocoa squinched up her face in disbelief.
I assured her I wasn't. "I used to babysit him when he was younger."
"And, you want your old job back." She threw back her head and laughed. "Honnnney, looks like jail bait to me. He might start takin' care of you." Her laughter subsided, then she became serious. "You sure you only want that little boy. It's a lot of gurlz around here might do more for you than some little boy." As if one cue, some of the gurlz appeared in the background. They stood whispering to one another, then sauntered over.
I floundered slightly, intimidated by her companions. "Well, um, I, um, just thought that, y'know, that maybe your friend--"
"I didn't say she was a friend," Cocoa said quickly.
"Well, um, y'know, I thought maybe you knew her." I glanced around nervously. "I was told she might hang out here."
"Somebody told you that?" She doubted, looking at me evenly. My eyes traced the thick line of mascara. Over done, I thought. But, I didn't want my ass kicked, so I didn't point it out.
I turned to find myself surrounded. Of the four approaching women, only one was shorter than me. These gargantuans surrounded me, moved in close and gave their most threatening looks. I tried to step outside of their circle, but wasn't allowed to do so. I told the ladies that I didn't want any trouble, but they weren't going for it. I made mental descriptions of each of them. From their lined eyes, mocha shades, leather skirts, tight jeans, any and everything. Just as I thought they were going to pound me, one of them provided an exit which I hastily took. As I scurried away, every body part still intact, they started laughing. Humiliation was becoming a habit I wasn't too fond of.
So, they wanted to play rough, huh?
I waited in my car later on that night hoping to catch Cocoa alone. When she appeared, I pulled Bertha to the curb and pretended to be a trick. Of course, she sauntered right up. Just as she realized it was me, she was yanked inside by my companions and we pulled off. I drove away at break neck speed until we got to an alley. I pulled in beside a building and killed the engine. Bertha gave an embarrassing chug and ground to a halt. My abductee sat between my lesbian sistuhs, Linda Crawford and Felicia Dukes. Felicia's girlfriend, Sheila Dunbar sat in the front passenger seat looking stern.
Cocoa wailed in exasperation. "You again? Baby, is this about that little boy? Jeepers H. Cookies, I swear! This is gettin' boring. You are really askin' for trouble." She glanced toward the rear view mirror to make sure every fibre on her nylon wig was still in place.
"I'm not asking for anything other than the boy's whereabouts!" I exclaimed. "I don't want any trouble and I really want to make sure he's okay. By the way he disappeared, I don't know if he was kidnaped or what."
"I don't knooooow the boy," she emphasized with a huff, pulling out a compact to adjust her makeup. "You should really go for somebody more your age."
Linda spoke up, "Look, sistuh. We just want to know if you know where this boy is. If you don't, then do you know some queen running 'round in panty hose with a white van?"
She smirked at Linda, but I could tell she was intimidated. Linda made sure she wore her serious dyke-outfit; a black sleeveless shirt which showed off her tattoo of a scorpion, jeans, and combat boots. Her hair was shaved to the scalp.
"You think you can get your goons to unhand me?" My captive asked testily. "Cocoa don't wanna be touched by no fish."
"Fish? Fish?" Felicia exclaimed, her head swiveling on her neck.
"Tuna, baby," Cocoa smiled sweetly, but it was laced with hatred.
"Okay, that's enough name callin,'" I said. "I need to know about this van and this boy and the person he took off with. You think you can get on the horn with your little friends and find out if anybody knows anything?" I gave her my description of Rafi's abductor again. She cracked on her gum, acting as if she didn't have a care in the world. I guess she was either a tough cookie or she considered me and my friends no real threat.
"What's in it for me?" Cocoa asked.
The car silenced. Felicia, Sheila and Linda all turned to me.
"Gadzooks," I muttered, lifting from the seat to find my wallet. Rigby owed me coins. Major coins. This was beginning to get a little expensive.
I withdrew the only bill
I had, a twenty. Cocoa's eyes lit up. I handed it to her and she grabbed it in
her intricately painted nails. I gripped the twenty on one end while she tugged
from the other. It ripped with a snap, neatly down the center. Cocoa gasped a
little too dramatically, letting it play out like a hiss until she cradled the
half bill against her male bosom.
When I got home, there was a call waiting for me on my answering service. Having something somebody wants is a good way to get them to return your calls. Cocoa had information about the van. She wanted me to meet her around Gallery Place. And, in a miffed, clipped tone, she also told me to bring the other half of the twenty.
I pulled Bertha out of her all too short hiatus. I hit the gas station at 15th and U, then streaked across town. The Gallery Place metro station opened into D.C.'s Chinatown. The distinguishing trait of Chinatown was the decorative arch which crossed H Street at 7th. The entire area was only a few blocks long. If you blinked, you'd miss it.
While idling at a stop light, I scanned for Cocoa. I passed an abandoned department store and noticed male prostitutes sauntering back and forth or perched on the steps of the Portrait Gallery's entrance.
I circled the block three times. Men in the area took note of my car, bending over to catch glimpses of me as their potential john. On the opposite side by the MLK, the activity was much more obvious by the strip of dirty book stores. Cocoa stood between two men. Both were goodlooking in appearance and wore shorts and boots. Undeniably so, many of the young, unemployed, homeless black men of this city were scattered in parks and shelters for various reasons. The forlorn lost look in their eyes never revealed the true nature of their prostitution. Survival or pleasure? A quick rendezvous to cover up a life of closeted homosexuality? These men didn't look like they had wives, girlfriends, or boyfriends waiting at home. Only their customers who pulled up in Lexuses, BMWs and Landrovers did.
Imagining Rafi here became inevitable.
When Cocoa caught sight of my car, she came forward. She was dressed in a pair of baggy jeans, boots, and Polo shirt. She was a drag queen giving drag tonight. When the two men sauntered up behind her, giving me: The Look, I rolled down my window just a crack.
"Where we goan'?" She asked.
"Nowhere," I told her. "We can talk here." I didn't trust Cocoa any further than I could throw her. She may want to retaliate for the stunt I pulled earlier in the evening.
After realizing my interest was in Cocoa and not them, her companions gave me dissatisfied looks. One man blew me a kiss and the other tugged on his crotch. In any event, they both walked away shaking their heads glancing back occasionally.
"What you got for me?" I asked after she got into the car. She really looked like a little boy.
"It sounded just like Doreatha startin' trouble again, child" Cocoa said certainly. "Always into shit. Y'know? Always having to get her big ass outta jail. Like people got money to just throw away. I'm sick a'huh. Y'know? Always tryin' to borrow my shit, too."
I waited for her to finish her tirade.
"Look, I don't care." Her neck swivelled and her lips smacked between each word. "I'll tell you she's got a van. She got this playboy daddy up on Capitol Hill. Treat her real good and shit." Then, as a side, she added, "Yeah, I'm jealous. Y'know? Why she gotta have it so good?" She seemed to exhaust herself before continuing. "So good she can go on a trip somewhere. A friend-o-mine saw her buy a train ticket."
"A train ticket?" I asked carefully. "To where?"
"I don't know where." She focused the totality of her attention to her nails. Reluctantly, she continued. "Day after tomorrow. Around ten, I think."
to be all. Regrettably, I gave her the other half of the twenty dollar bill. I
let her out of the car and out of my life. Hopefully forever.
The next morning, I worked uninterrupted on a freelance project. Disgust reminded me that I'd taken this job at a discount because it promised to get me other jobs. It was because of projects like this I had to accept jobs from people like Mr. Rigby. Suffer now, I figured, but reek the benefits later.
Harrison met me at my apartment. From there, we drove over to Shantella's Beauty Hut on 10th and U Street near the Lincoln Theater. We parked on 11th Street, then made a sweep of the shop before returning to the car to watch from across the street. After forty minutes of watching women enter and exit, Harrison started to get antsy. He plucked my earring until I had to smack his hands.
"How long is this going to go on?" He wailed, stomping like a baby. The car bounced because of his tantrum.
"This is what surveillance is about," I said patiently. "Go down to Ben's Chili Bowl and get something to eat. Bring me back some chili cheese fries."
"Hey, that's an idea." He perked up, rubbing his tummy. I forked over a few bills and told him to bring me back my change.
Twenty minutes later, I watched him cross the street. He was lined for a moment in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. In his hands, Ben's familiar grease spots spotted the bag. He really appeared like an angel out of the heavens with much needed food at that moment. Suddenly, I realized that the vehicle which had just passed him was a white van!
What were the chances?
I motioned Harrison quickly to the car, but his attention was captured by the bags in his hand. He'd shoved several fries into his mouth. I ducked in my seat, hoping neither one of us would be spotted. As he got within distance, he bent to hand me the food. I yanked him through the window's opening. He landed on my lap with a yelp, kicking and clawing for leverage. I shoved him in the direction of the passenger seat and told him to be quiet. I motioned toward the van which pulled to the curb in front of Shantella's. Doreatha the gargantuan abductor disembarked. I'd recognize those braids anywhere. She pulled into a No Parking zone in front of the shop. She was making a delivery. The two boxes in her arms were taken to the front of the shop. She was met by a woman I recognized from my earlier scope of the shop. They greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek. She returned to the van, got in and started up the engine.
I started the car, did a U turn in the middle of the block, and returned to the mouth of 11th Street. The white van was a block or so away at the entrance of the Shaw-U Street Metro entrance caught at the light. I pulled into traffic and followed at a safe distance.
Tailing is not as easy as it seems. A couple times I had to dash through lights and still remain three car lengths behind. Harrison actually did a good job of helping me keep track. The van moved along U Street, turned right onto Georgia Avenue and headed toward the O Street Market area. When we cruised toward Mt. Vernon Square, I wasn't too surprised. From a distance, we watched the driver of the van look out at the gurlz standing on the corner. There was only three of them. They rallied around the driver's side window. The braided driver got out and stood among them. She passed around cigarettes and they all chatted loudly for the next twenty minutes.
Doreatha eventually hopped in her van and headed elsewhere. We ended up in Capitol Hill on Pennsylvania Avenue. She parked outside a set of row houses.
"This is where Mr. Rigby works," I said aloud.
"What's she doing here?"
Funny, I'd been wondering the same thing. From the sign outside the front door, it proclaimed Mr. Rigby's status as a dentist. There had to be some kind of connection here. Doreatha didn't move for another hour and fifteen minutes. By then, there was movement inside. A woman, her hair pulled into a french braid with a skirt, silk blouse, panty hose and tennis shoes came out. She seemed to be leaving for the day. She locked the door behind her. Doreatha didn't move until the woman was down the block and out of sight. Then, she headed back onto Pennsylvania Avenue and across the bridge leading into Anacostia. She took the highway which threw us clear across town and into deeper Southeast.
"How long is this going to go on?" Harrison whined.
"I don't know," I snapped. "We'll go wherever she goes."
"This old death trap gonna make it?" He smirked. I gave him the finger, then surreptitiously eyed the heat gauge. It wasn't quite in the red, but it wouldn't take long before it reached it.
We followed her for another fifteen minutes. Bertha hissed and popped at lights, rattled and clanked whenever in motion. Too much more of this and it would be pointless being undercover. The noise alone would reveal us. Just as I'd given up on our journey ever ending, we ended up outside a wig shop. I parked a block away and waited. She parked the van and clomped into the shop. My eyes remained on her and before I knew it, I was getting out of the car. I ignored Harrison as he called behind me. I paused for a slow moving Pacer before crossing the street. From my standing point, I watched her. I entered the shop just as she moved to the counter with her purchases. It was a blond wig wrapped in a plastic rapper. The woman behind the counter stuck it into a brown paper bag and rung up her purchase. Rafi's abductor waited patiently, then headed for the door. As she passed, I bent, pretending to scrounge through a bin of magnets. I gave her a clear shot of my fanny, not wanting to take the chance of her recognizing me from the dark alley behind The Outlet.
She made one more stop, this time at a Safeway. Harrison tailed her inside while I waited in a slot only a couple spaces from her van. While they were inside, I took the opportunity to peer through the van's windows. The inside was nothing like I expected. A couple of boxes with Shantella's Beauty Hut were illustrated on the sides in the same familiar lettering which decorated the establishment. Hmmm.
Before I could ponder it any further, Harrison came rushing from the store. I met him at the car.
"She's on her way out," he said breathlessly. "She almost caught me a couple of times."
I glared at him, but he raised a confident hand.
"What'd she get?"
"Just some basic stuff," he answered, glancing anxiously over his shoulder. "Bread, peanut butter, jelly, sugar, Kool Aid ..."
We returned to the car and pulled into traffic directly behind her. When the opportunity presented itself, I put a couple cars between us. It wasn't long before we pulled onto another side street. Parking was sparse, but the van found one of the few remaining spaces. I pulled onto the next street and parked around the corner. Harrison and I got out in just enough time to see Doreatha mounting the porch steps of a row house. With familiarity, Doreatha knocked on the door and it was answered by some unseen person. We watched as she entered and the door closed behind her.
"Now, what, Nancy Drew?" Harrison asked smartly. "Knock on the door?"
I folded my arms and patted my left side expectantly. I murmured a "Hmmmm" which Harrison heard and didn't take too lightly. Instead of answering, I walked toward the house.
"What are you doing?" He glared suspiciously.
"It can't hurt."
"Can't hurt what?" Harrison exclaimed. "Her? Are you serious?"
"What could happen?" He grabbed me by the arm.
"She could squash us again." He released me once I patted him reassuringly on the cheek with an open palm.
"She squashed you, not me," I corrected him. "Besides, all I want to do is peek in the window."
"Peek in the window? Peek in the window?" He exclaimed, then caught himself and lowered his voice. "Are you crazy? What makes you think you can just get away with peeking in somebody's window?"
"Don't be such a sissy," I chided, mounting the steps. All that could happen is that she'd recognize us and I'd ask her about Rafi. She could either lie or panic. If she panicked, then she'd probably have to move Rafi quickly. And, if she did, we would be waiting around the corner to tail her further.
As I rose a hand to knock on the door, there was movement on the other side. Harrison dragged me to the side of the covered porch swing. The door swung open and out came Doreatha. Empty handed. She clattered loudly down the porch stairs. The door closed behind her without assistance, which probably meant there was somebody on the other side watching her leave. In record time, she got into the van and pulled off. We leaped off the porch and raced down the sidewalk. Halfway down the block, I glanced over my shoulder to notice someone, for the first time, standing in the doorway. I could only see that the person was extremely tall, their silhouette lost beneath the fall of darkness.
I didn't know about Harrison, but I was winded by time we got to the car. I needed to do more than just re-new my gym membership. When I slid behind the wheel, I realized it was pointless trying to pursue Doreatha. She was long gone.
With a sneaking
suspicion, Harrison and I returned to the house. When I knocked on the door, no
one answered. It was pointless trying to continue a surveillance. At a stand still,
When I got home, there were several messages from Mr. Rigby. His office had been ransacked and Rafi's dental records were missing. Then, he'd gotten a call from a man with a very deep voice saying that Rafi had been kidnaped. And, that five thousand dollars was needed for his return. And, that if he went to the police, then his little boy would be made into a little girl and the difference would be mailed to him.
I was angry that things had escalated into a kidnaping. All the while I wondered if Rafi was a prisoner in the house over in Southeast. There was no way I could possibly get somebody to answer the door. Especially at this time of night. I had a horrible sinking feeling that this thing wasn't going to turn out good at all.
"So, what's this about money?" I asked. "It's not much of a ransom."
"It is for me."
This was really getting complicated. I suggested he go to the police since they were better equipped at handling things like this.
"I can't do that," he wailed. "They warned me something bad would happen. And, whatever Rafi's done, I don't want the police to get wind of it."
That old story.
"You've got help me!" I heard him shifting in the background. "I need you to deliver the money."
"Me?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"By his description, he asked specifically for you."
"What?" My Spider-sense was tingling. "Me?" Had Doreatha noticed me tailing her all evening? Or was she remembering me from the Outlet? Or was it Rafi?
"I don't know about this ..." I admitted. "You want me to put myself at risk?"
"I deposited cash into your account tonight," he said. "Everything's cleared. When you come here tomorrow, I'll show you the deposit slip."
I was about to ask him how he'd gotten my account information, but then decided that making a deposit was an easy thing. And, if all I had to do was fork over some cash, then how hard could it be? I'd hate to say that I did it all for the money. But, I wanted Rafi to be okay, even though I was beginning to suspect otherwise. This whole deal stank. With the canceled check scam in mind, Rigby couldn't be trusted. Especially about Doreatha and the house in Southeast.
I had to get to the bottom of this before anything else happened.
I called Harrison to let him know what was going on. I'd check out a couple of things and see him in the morning. I was exhausted from driving all over town tonight, but got my body into a cool shower. I put on a fresh outfit, something I didn't mind getting too much smoke in and headed for the Outlet.
The funny thing about the bars is that there's a rotation of party nights. Every club had a familiar crowd that went from club to club, bar to bar. Sunday through Saturday and back again. Small World. Which also explained the incestuous little pool our lives often became when we started inter-dating. After awhile, it just got like that.
Most of my evening was spent nursing a cranberry juice. So far, three people cruised me thinking I was cruising them, when all I was doing was looking for Doreatha. If she was leaving town, she'd probably want to say goodbye to her friends.
I ran into someone from my high school who had married immediately after graduation. I'm sure his wife had no idea he was in a gay bar. I hoped he had a laundry room in his car to get rid of the smoke in his clothes and some mouth wash for his liquor breath. We exchanged numbers. He gave me his pager digits. I gave him the number to the National Zoo. He could figure it out in the morning. When he walked away, I noticed a familiar man with an orange bob. I walked by him, flashed a smooth smile, then stood beside him. He stood invitingly.
"We've met, haven't we?" I asked, extending my hand to shake it. "I'm Rene."
"If we had, baby, I'm sure I'da remembered." He introduced himself as Chestnut, then sat down his drink and grasped my hand with both of his. I had to pull away in order to get it back. Without it, I'd have difficulty driving home.
"So, where's that boy I saw you with the other night?" I asked, my voice cool.
He seemed confused. Or drunk.
"You know, the little fellow from the other night who got the drop on me with the drink ..." I let him absorb that, hoping he hadn't been too toasted to remember.
"I knew you looked familiar." Chestnut stared absently at his fingernails. "You're the babysitter." Even though he gave you a bit of androgyny, he was very much a fem trapped in a butch body. There was just no way around it.
"Paying closer attention than I thought."
"I don't miss much." He looked me over from head to toe with a probing eye.
"So, you didn't miss me at your house tonight either," I said. "Did you?"
He was quiet so long I had to ask him if he was still with me. Then, I added, "I know about Doreatha and Shantella's Beauty Hut."
What did I know about them? Nothing.
"How do you know about that?" He asked suspiciously. "She'd never tell you how she got it."
I thought quickly. So, it was Doreatha's shop. "Well, it wasn't hard to figure out. I just don't understand how she and Rafi know each other."
"From the Hut," Chestnut said as if it were obvious. He swiggled the ice in his glass, then downed the remainder
"No crime in that." I shrugged indifferently.
"Who said there was a crime involved?" He asked a little too quickly.
"With a fake license he's sure to find trouble," I baited.
"With Doreatha around?" His face crinkled in confusion. "I don't think so. She gave him a job to keep him out of trouble."
Which would explain why she had supplies in her truck. Aside from the fake license, maybe it was all clean. But, with him supposedly being missing and all, somebody had to do his job for him. Which I assumed was making deliveries.
"Why didn't he just go to his daddy?"
I asked and Chestnut caught wind of my bluff. He gave me such a look of hatred
that I thought he'd leap on top of me with those thighs of thunder and squeeze
the life from me. Instead, he turned and walked away.
Around noon the next day, the liquor on Mr. Rigby's breath made the hair on my chin stiffen. Maintaining adequate distance between us, I received instructions and took the travel bag padded with ransom money. With it over one shoulder, I walked through Union Station to make "the drop." I had ten minutes to kill. So, I made a sweep of the lower level food court where all the young people hung out.
Whoever I was supposed to meet was probably already here watching me.
Suddenly, Doreatha caught me from behind. She overwhelmed me by a good five inches and a hundred some odd pounds. I didn't want to meet her under any circumstances that didn't involve a couple hundred people.
"Give me the bag," she demanded, extending a hand.
"Nearby." She grabbed hold of it, but I held on. She looked kind of surprised. Hopefully we wouldn't get into a tugging match. The odds were hardly in my favor.
"That wasn't part of the deal."
"My deal is with Rigby. Not you. Just be a good little grunt and hand over the bag."
"The cops are nearby," I tried.
"No, they're not," she said certainly. "Rigby knows better. He has too much to lose."
"You think he'd hand over all this money without taking precautions?" I said, then it all hit me. Doreatha gave the bag a tug. "You wouldn't hurt Rafi. I already know what's going on."
This seemed to shake her for a moment.
"Oh?" Her grip relaxed. "You wanna tell me about it, baby?"
"I know this kidnaping is a fake," I admitted. "I know Rafi's in good hands. I know you two are in cahoots."
"Cahoots?" She laughed. "Cahoots? What the hell kind'a word is that?" She didn't wait for me to respond. "You may be cute, but like most pretty boys, you don't know shit."
She gave the bag a good yank and the handle tore. All she had was a useless strap. Guess if she wanted to, she could strangle me with it and just take the bag.
"If you know so much, you wouldn't care about money that's not yours."
"Were you blackmailing him?" I accused. "Having sex with him?"
AYou're so smart, you figure it out."
AMr. Rigby's your sugar daddy, isn't he? How else could you have gotten Shantella's Beauty Hut?"
"What difference does it make? It's mine now."
"It makes a lot of difference if you were extorting money from Rafi's stepfather and calling it "ransom". You probably found out through Rigby that we'd be at the Outlet that night looking for his son. You probably came to stop us --- which you did. Then, when you found out that I thought he'd been kidnaped and that Rigby let me believe it --- you went right along with it and turned it into a supposed kidnaping!
"Rafi never found trouble. And, he wasn't in the trouble his father claimed he was in --- he just told me that lie. You watched over Rafi like a hawk. Which is why he had that job delivering supplies with a fake drivers license for Shantella's Beauty Hut. But, you probably didn't know he was using it to get into clubs at night and get free drinks."
Her look confirmed this particular betrayal, but she shrugged it off.
Then, it suddenly hit me.
"Rigby never figured out that you were involved," I said confidently. "If he had, then the money would have just passed between the two of you. He still thinks Rafi is behind it all which is why he didn't question the so-called kidnappers request that I handle the money. You put this 'kidnaping' together and then let Rafi know that this was his opportunity to disappear. You knew he'd never reconcile with his stepfather, because for some reason he wouldn't go back home. And for some reason, Mr. Rigby knew he wasn't coming home. But still, he went along with this entire thing. Why?"
"Rafi found out awhile ago about us and confronted his father," she said carefully. "That ... bastard beat his ass. Then, tried that shit with me." She shook her head in disbelief. "But, after I got finished with him, my gurlz got him. They even trashed his office. He never tried anything again. By then, Rafi wanted nothing more to do with him. And, Rigby didn't know what to do about it. He had to reconcile things some kind of way. Even if it was with money. So, he figured, just like you, that Rafi faked his own kidnaping. That's why he just gave you the money. He knows that Rafi will just disappear. With the money, he'll be able to take care of himself. And, Rigby'll be able to relieve himself of a little guilt."
"That's why he didn't want the police involved." I added, then something else hit me. "So, is Rafi getting some of the money or did you get him out of town this morning in the wig you bought last night?"
"Don't you worry about it."
"I don't have to." I pressed the bag against my chest. "My buddy -- the one you clobbered -- saw you and Rafi saying goodbye to each other at the station this morning."
Doreatha whipped forward so quickly and caught me by the shirt collar that I yelped. She lifted me until I was on my toes. Quite a few people turned to look. For the moment I was more concerned about my safety than my integrity.
"And, what of it?" She growled.
"He doesn't even know about this, does he?" I gasped. "You supposedly care so much about him, faking his kidnaping and all, yet -- he doesn't even know that you swindled his stepfather!"
She suddenly became aware of people watching her.
"You did it all for yourself," I said through clenched teeth.
She released my collar and I stumbled backwards. Catching my balance, I looked her square in the eyes. Her face went through a series of emotions. Pain, anger, sadness and hatred?
"How old you gotta be to get beat up by your daddy?" She was smug. "Look at you. You probably got a nice, understanding daddy. Probably loves you to death. Middle class bliss."
I didn't react to her accusation. My relationship with my father was not what she expected and hardly her business. It was hard to hide my discomfort.
"I know what it's like," she continued. "I took care of that boy after he couldn't stomach living in that house with that man anymore. I gave him a job. I looked after him. I put him somewhere safe. He didn't want to go back. So, I earned this money."
"Yeah, and all you had to do was screw the old man who abused you both."
Her hatred was chillingly real. So, I admit to being afraid. Instead of swinging, she surprised me by folding her arms patiently.
"But, what the heck?" I huffed. "You certainly worked hard enough to get it."
One handed, I tossed
her the bag so quickly that she caught it clumsily against her breasts. A satisfied
smirk appeared. Then, I let her, like Cocoa, Chestnut and Rafi, disappear from
my life, once again, hopefully, forever.
I returned Mr. Rigby's "ransom" money. He could wonder, as I continued to neglect returning his calls, why he still had a bag full of money and a missing son.
Doreatha could figure out what to do with a bunch of padded envelopes in a travel bag with no strap.
Neither deserved a clear conscience. And neither would get it.
See? It didn't all have to be about money.
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