My opponent entered the racquetball court dressed for our workout, but from the look on his face, not excited about it.
"Mr. White." I nodded to him cordially.
"Ms. Red." He responded with a furrowed brow.
I reached into my pocket and flipped my “electronic privacy” switch a few times, watching through the Plexiglas walls as a row of televisions wink-wink-winked and stuck on static.
"That's a little obvious, isn't it?" He said, bouncing a ball against the floor.
"Not at all." I said and served a ball of my own against the wall. "I chose this place because the phone company is doing scheduled maintenance half a block from here. By now a handful of people have remembered seeing the truck and have mentioned it to someone working out next to them. By the time they’re able to make a call, the televisions will be back on."
"Ok, Homework Girl." He said, sticking the extra ball in his pocket and nodding at me to serve.
"It's how I keep breathing."
We played a point without talking before he said, "But why racquetball?"
"It's good practice." I said, pulling a stray hair out of my face and forcing it under a clip. "With transparent walls we can see trouble coming, and I can practice tracking multiple targets while lobbing high velocity objects at you." I served.
"Plus, I enjoy the sound. Ka thud inside this box, it's like being inside a drum or a heartbeat." I served again. "Hear it?"
"Sure.” He said, obviously to humor me. “So do you have what you need?"
I nodded. "I have a couple of local contacts. I’m going in on foot. Hoodie and sweats for a quick change and fire escapes and sewer access locations in a five block radius in case I need an alternate exit. I know the sanitation schedule, and where the cabbies and cops go for donuts and coffee."
We paused between points and he asked quietly, "The package?"
"Got it. Plus a decoy. I need whatever you can give me on the local talent. Hitters?"
He smirked at the word and served. "My guy Nicky says there’s nothing special. Modest talent with the opposing players. One guy’s a little longer in the tooth. Lots of guns in the neighborhood, but that's to be expected. I guess the Old Lady has her own. You don't survive in deep cover that long without knowing the neighborhood."
I nodded. "I'm not worried about her. I'm looking for wildcards. No retired special forces this time?"
He stopped short with a squeak of shoes against floor and let the point go. "That only happened once, and it wasn't my fault."
"It only has to happen once." I retorted. We'd had this argument before.
"And you survived it." He picked up the ball.
"Yeah, barely. Thanks to superior planning, hyper vigilance and the skin of my teeth."
"Well, there you go. Don't brush." He said, and served again.
"Roger that." I said, slamming the ball for emphasis and winning the point.
“You good for weapons?” He asked, bending over to catch his breath.
“You’ve been out of the field too long.” I poked his shoulder with my finger. “I’ve got a pistol and a backup, and I always keep a holdout where polite people never want to search.”
He coughed and stood, looking at me as if he wanted to say something.
“Dream on, big guy.” I said. “You’re going to have to take my word for it.”
He was staring. I threw the ball at him.
He ducked. “Ok.” He said, shaking his head.
“Ok.” I nodded. “At 23:30, I head to Grandma’s house, deliver the package and get out clean.” I flipped the switch in my pocket, watched the row of televisions wink back on and served the last point.
* * *
I think I just fell in love wit a porn star
Turn the camera on she a born star—
“Turn that shit down, man.”
“It ain’t shit.”
“You got a point there. It ain’t shit.”
“Man.” Tee poked the button on the stereo until Kanye was four steps softer and looked out the window. Looked the same as it looked before. Streetlight washin’ dirty on six kids on a stoop, up too late, playin’ some kinda game with whatever cards kids were stealin’ each other’s lunch money for these days. Baby extortionists on every corner, he hadda go down and sort some shit out with some third-grade punk puttin’ slick-ass moves—he thought—on Tee’s own Larissa. Boy was he some surprised when he found out who Larissa’s daddy was, prob’ly still pissin’ himself. Amazin’ what a little social call could do, how much capital he’d finally racked up in the ‘hood, wearin’ black and blue, sporting a nice-lookin’ holster. Not that he accident’ly-on-purpose let it show. Much.
“Dreamy-dreamer. Use those big eyes.” Marcus was pointing, gesturing with his hand below the dashboard, breaking into Tee’s image of his sweet-faced woman and Larissa in his arms, walkin’ out on a Sunday afternoon, walkin’ through the ‘hood like he owned it, like nothin’ bad could ever happen there. Like he was somebody, and somebody had his back.
Tee saw the dark-haired girl just as she passed under the streetlight. The dirty yellow turned her hoodie orange and picked out ST. LOUIS across her back, movin’ down the sidewalk like she had some kinda right to be here. Some kinda attitude she had. Wasn’t lookin’ around. Actin’ like she had nothin’ to be afraid of. Wait’ll she find out she wrong ‘bout that one. She had a plastic bag in her left hand. A nice fat plastic bag.
Tee breathed it out without moving his lips, “She showed."
Marcus was looking at his phone, moving his thumbs like he was texting, we ain’t watchin’ you, we just sittin’ cool in this vehicle enjoyin’ the evenin’, sure we growed up here. “Nice to know Nicky wasn’t pullin’ about that one.”
“’S take it slow.”
“Yeah, good thing you said that, ‘cause I’m new at this.” Marcus was still looking at his phone, but Tee felt the blood rise in his face, all the way into his ears. He knew Marcus couldn’t see it, knew Marcus knew it was there. They been doin’ this together for a year and he still felt like Marcus’ little brother. Like he was never gonna get to be the driver or the man who give the report when they get back.
Marcus let the girl get a block ahead, then fired the engine, pulled the car out of the alley. The man drove smooth, Tee had to admit, pausing at the intersection a little longer than necessary to let her get ahead, not so long they’d look lost. Tee bobbed his head like he was down with the radio music, mouthin’ along, Posted on the porch just chillin’, but it was Macklemore and Tee had to fake it. Whatever. Cover was cover. The sweatshirt Marcus had dug up for him itched. He wouldn’t put it past Marcus to give him somethin’ lifted off some busted-ass punk, prob’ly lice, maybe crabs in there. His pants felt like they was gonna fall down any minute, even sittin’ down. Whatever. Whatever it took.
The girl turned up an alley, middle of the next block. Marcus eased by slow and parked a few places past it. They each touched their holster softly, Marcus caressing his right ribcage, Tee his left. “We a mirror,” he’d joked on the first day, but Marcus weren’t no joker.
At the edge of the building they put their backs against the wall. Tee drew, and Marcus flashed the Maglite around the corner while Tee stepped around and looked. He lowered his arms. The alley was empty. Brickwalled and empty. Brickwalled and dead-ended and empty. Marcus stepped beside him, still holding the flashlight.
“She fuckin’ fly outta here?” Tee slid through his lips.
Marcus flashed a smile, his white teeth huge in the reflection from the light, and pointed the Maglite at the dumpster. They walked softly up the middle of the alley, no point huggin’ the walls when there ain’t nowhere to hide anyhow. Tee stepped to the far flank of the big green box. Marcus to the near side, both of them on the draw. Marcus raised an eyebrow—one fuckin’ eyebrow! How did that fucker do it?—and Tee tried to raise one back, but his forehead got confused and he could feel his eyelids doin’ something funny so he just nodded, sharp and quick.
Marcus flipped the lid open and as he yelled “Police!” the other lid flipped open on its own and suddenly they was two girls there—girl in the red hoodie and a woman, a grey-haired, ain’t-got-no-right-to-be-hidin’-in-no-du
* * *
I sat on the park bench with my ice cream cone and flipped the switch in my pocket as Mr. White approached. A few feet away, Mrs. Stay-at-home poked feverously at her cell phone in despair of not recording every moment of Little Johnny being cute on the swing.
“You like that thing entirely too much.” Mr. White said, as he pulled out a newspaper and checked the stock reports.
“I like to indulge my inner control freak.” I said, licking a drip before it could get away.
“You’re here.” He said. “I suppose all went well?”
“Mostly.” I nodded. “Package delivered, but we had company. Grandma may need to find a new house. I didn’t think I needed to check her work, so her visitor is still breathing. Mine, however, is resting peacefully.”
He nodded. “Did you meet her visitor?” I knew he was asking if the guy could identify me.
“Briefly.” I said. “I’ll give it a few days, then I’ll go back and say goodbye properly.” I stood up. “Let me know if you hear anything.”
He nodded and kept his seat.
I threw my empty cone into the trash and started jogging down the path. When I got a few yards away, I flicked the switch in my pocket. Stay cute, Little Johnny...
* * *
Jessie opened the door with red eyes in her pale sweet face, the girl—eight? Nine?—with creamy-coffee skin and a halo of blonde-black-girl curls hiding behind her leg and peering around.
“It’s Uncle Marcus,” Jessie said. “Larissa, you come out here and be a big girl.”
Marcus shifted on his crutches. His leg still fuckin’ wailed, as Tee would say. Would’ve said. He looked at Jessie, and she shook her head, so he didn’t say anything yet. Tee’s badge burned in his pocket. Later, there would be a bag marked Detective-Investigator Theodore Watkins, but some things had to be done by hand.
Jessie bent to pick up Larissa, bending her head so her hair washed over her face. “Never marry a policeman, baby girl. You never gonna find one good as your daddy was.”