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Peaches and the Gambler 8


  She handed him a twenty dollar bill.

  “But I said thirty,” he complained.

  “And you would’ve gotten thirty before lying about your address. You better hope I don’t contact your parent’s,” she threatened. It worked, he suddenly looked very friendly. So friendly, in fact, that he shoved her twenty dollars back in her palm.

  “On second thought, I don’t need this. Gotta run.”

  And just like that, he was gone, vanishing behind the same apartment building he had appeared behind moments before.

  Bemused, Peaches watched him disappear, wondering just why it was the boy was suddenly so anxious to depart, leaving the money he had worked so hard to hustle, behind.

  See. Easy. She didn’t know what the cops were doing, or what her friends were talking about, but this investigation thing wasn’t as hard as everyone thought it would be.

  She had already found out that two mysterious men had gone to visit Lenny a few days before he was found dead; Lenny and Cynthia sometimes fought like cats and dogs; he sometimes went to a strip club by the name of Satin Doll’s, and there was a kid who was a witness to these two men’s identity. Now she just needed to find out who those two men were.

  Chapter 12

  On the other side of town, Nina was also asking herself unanswerable questions. Questions like: ‘Why isn’t Monte calling me?’ and ‘Why does it seem like he’s avoiding me in the halls?’ and ‘Is he seeing somebody else?’ and ‘Is that idiot Amber flirting with him?’

  It was all very confusing.

  “Why do you think he hasn’t called me, girl?”

  It was late afternoon. The school day had ended forty-five minutes ago and Nina was in step practice. At the moment she and thirteen other girls were performing a very complicated step pattern. The inquiry made Leslie misstep and in turn made the entire crew lose count. It wasn’t a good look.

  “Ni-Ni!” Leslie huffed, getting back in place and glaring at her irritably. “He’s just a dude. He hasn’t called because he’s a piece of crap and I told you that already. Everybody told you that.”

  Gloria Meager, greedily listening in from the row just behind them, chimed in her two cents worth.

  “I know I told her that,” she crowed, gleefully. The small gaps between her teeth exposed as she smirked.

  “Didn’t nobody ask you!” Nina snarled.

  “Ladies, pay attention!”

  Their coach, a junior at NCCU and a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, sauntered around the small group of girls, her wide hips and muscular arms waving about as she circled. Sharp, narrowed eyes surveyed the now shuffling girls. Many of them were drilling belligerent holes in Nina’s back. They all knew more talking meant brutal sets of push-up’s, sit-up’s and several laps around the track.

  They fell silent and quietly continued their routine. It went perfectly.

  Nina would call Monte tonight. It was obviously all just one big misunderstanding.

  **

  The weather took a foreboding turn after Peaches picked up Nina and Sly. The sky had darkened and the sun was sinking fast behind ominous clouds. The smell of rain scented the air with moisture, the air laying hot and thick against her skin.

  She pulled into a parking space that was quite a bit further from the stairs leading to her apartment than she wished, spotting a familiar car.

  Vernon.

  Hadn’t she clearly told him they would talk? She was peeved to note that he had parked in a prime spot directly in front of her apartment building.

  “Isn’t that Vernon, mummy?” Sly asked as they got out of the car.

  “Yes,” she replied, brusquely.

  “Why is he here?” Nina demanded.

  Before she could answer, Vernon was out of his car, the heart melting smile that had captured her when they had first met, blazing in all its glory, dentist perfect teeth on the ready.

  Peaches felt that damning weakness spreading through her bones.

  Vernon, well over the six foot mark, with sculpted shoulders, bronze skin and an immaculate fade, opened his arms, enveloping her stiff body in an embrace.

  “Baby, I--,” he began.

  “Why are you here?” Nina rudely interrupted, arms crossed.

  “Nina, mind your business.” Peaches growled. “You all go inside.”

  The two girls walked at an impossibly slow pace, ears cocked towards whatever snatches of conversation they could glean from the furiously whispered words being exchanged over their shoulders.

  Once they had walked up the staircase leading to their apartment, Nina fumbled for her keys, her mind preoccupied with what she would say to Monte. She was unprepared for the ambush to come.

  “So--,” Sly said, once they had walked inside. “Mummy told me to wash the dishes tonight.” She gave Nina an expectant look.

  Nina, aggravated on a number of counts, was not in the mood for her sisters juvenile blackmailing antics and bucked against this latest attempt.

  “Sly, you can forget it!”

  “Ok.”

  Flinging her backpack to the floor and giving Nina a significant little smile, she opened the door, yelling: “Mummy! I have something important to tell you!”

  Wrestling her back inside, Nina held her hand across her younger sister’s mouth, wondering if the devil had misplaced one of his children.

  “Fine, fine fine!”

  Releasing Sly with a little shove, she stomped to her bedroom, slamming the door and wondering why the price of love was so high.

  Peaches, hearing Sly call her name, moved to the bottom of the stairs leading to the landing above.

  “What you want, Sly?” There was no reply.

  She shrugged, continuing to listen impassively to Vernon’s umpteenth plea for understanding.

  They were leaning on a dealer loaner. A brand new Infiniti JX. He was one of the Infiniti dealerships top salesmen and had the esteemed privilege of driving whatever car he pleased wherever he pleased.

  Peaches ideal evening included a bubble bath, fantasies about Stick and uninterrupted thoughts of where next to go with her ‘formal’ investigation. It certainly hadn’t included Vernon and his bullshit.

  “Look, Vernon,” she said, cutting him off with the wave of a hand. “I’ve been telling you this for weeks. I need time. I just don’t know what to believe and honestly, I’ve got other things on my mind right now.”

  “Other things like what?” Vernon asked, baffled.

  “I’m looking into something for a friend right now,” she answered, vaguely.

  “Something like what?”

  “It’s sorta complicated,” she dodged.

  “I’m all ears.”

  She paused. She really didn’t want to discuss this with him. She knew his reaction wouldn’t be one of support or even understanding. In other words, just like Lynn. But hell…what did she care anymore?

  One of the small, city run buses that carried seniors citizens to their doctors office and out to run small errands, pulled up just behind the Infiniti with the loud squeal of air brakes. Her neighbor Mrs. Kendall disembarked.

  Red curls were tightly arranged on her head. Her eyes were calculating. She gathered the two grocery bags she was carrying to thin, wiry hips, mincing up to Peaches and Vernon with a bright smile.

  “Oh. Hello Vernon. Peaches,” she flickered her eyes in her direction. “How you all doing?”

  “Good. You still haven’t bought a car yet. Oughta let me take care of you.” Vernon put on his best sales smile and Peaches saw Mrs. Kendall’s eyes go all mushy. They hardened once she flicked them at Peaches.

  “Not yet. But you know I’ll keep you in mind. Just got my permit two weeks ago. Two more weeks and I’m going to give you a call.” She fluttered her sparse eyelashes at Vernon. Was she flirting?

  Ever the businessman, Vernon plucked a card from a brushed metal card holder sporting his initials and with a flourish, wrote a secondary number on the back before handing it to Mrs. Kendall.

>  “Now that number is my personal cell line for my special customers,” he oiled. “Be sure to call that one. It’ll go right to my hip.”

  It was an old sales trick and it worked every time.

  “Oh, thank you, Vernon. You’re such a wonderful, wonderful, young man.” She stood smiling up at Vernon for a second longer than was appropriate. “Was just telling Peaches she has to be the most popular girl I know.”

  “You were?” Peaches asked, with exaggerated confusion. “I don’t remember hearing that.”

  “Peaches got to have the best-looking men in all of Durham pounding down her door,” she continued as though unaware Peaches had said anything. “Saw one the other day like to give me a fit! Not as handsome as you, of course, but like he could be a relation.” She gave a gay laugh.

  Hateful old, biddy!

  “Anyway,” she said, walking to the stairwell. “I’ll call you.” After tossing Peaches a self-satisfied smirk, she disappeared, thin hips swinging, bags rustling, up the stairs.

  Vernon gave her a long-faced, hang dog sort of look. “You seeing other people?”

  “No, I’m not. Mrs. Kendall needs to mind her own business.”

  “So who was the guy?”

  “You lost that privilege, Vernon,” she said, impatiently. “Anyway, in answer to the question you asked earlier,” she said in a rush. “I’m looking into a friend’s murder.”

  Having been momentarily diverted from their earlier conversation by Mrs. Kendall’s salacious gossip, his ears heard what she said but his brain didn’t pick up the signal for several long moments. Then, despite his growing aggravation about this other mystery man, he started laughing.

  “You’re looking into a friend’s murder?” he asked, laughter dying off as he took note of her stiff jaw and narrowed eyes. “Who was murdered? Stick?”

  “Don’t look so hopeful, Vernon,” Peaches said, drily. “Stick is alive and well. It was a friend from back home.”

  “But—but you don’t know anything about investigating a murder, Peaches,” Vernon said.

  “I can figure it out, Vernon. You know I’m good at that,” Peaches said, witheringly.

  He had the grace to shift uncomfortably. “So who was it then?”

  “You don’t know him.”

  “I might.”

  “This is starting to feel like déjà vu,” she muttered. “Look—it was in the papers. The guy’s name was Lenny.”

  He was shaking his head. “You know I don’t read the papers.”

  “Or look at the news. Yeah, I know. You only like to watch things that make you feel happy. The other stuff screws with your sales mojo,” she said, scathingly. “I need to get upstairs and cook. Sooo…” She allowed the words to hang in the air. She shifted one foot, then the other, towards the stairwell.

  “So you’re actually going to do this?”

  “Yes.”

  “Are you even getting paid?” He didn’t budge. The hint she had dropped about him leaving falling on deaf ears.

  “No.” Peaches hoped using monosyllabic responses might make Vernon go away. But being a salesman had given him a thick skin against recalcitrant people. Thus, he pressed on.

  “Have you stopped to think about this? Your friend was murdered, Peaches. This isn’t a game.”

  “I’m doing this to help his mom out. She needs closure and she feels like the police aren’t doing enough. She asked me to help and I said yes.”

  “So you’re putting your life on the line for free?” he asked in disbelief.

  As the third person to say this in a day, his words chilled her back to reality.

  “I understand all of that, Vernon. Thank you,” she said, putting on a brave face. “Unlike you, I don’t mind putting my neck on the line to help my fellow man. Not everything is about money.”

  Course neck on the line didn’t exactly translate to getting killed to find someone’s murderer. But of course it wouldn’t go that far, would it?

  “Look, Peaches. Just get a temp job and forget about this craziness,” Vernon implored, grabbing her hand and staring earnestly into her eyes.

  For one brief moment she was tempted to take his advice. After all, the truth of what he was saying was difficult to ignore.

  But when he followed up these words with: You’re probably doing all this to fill up your long days. You’re just bored.”

  The stubborn streak always simmering just beneath the surface, exploded into life, Vernon’s I-know-what’s-best-for-you attitude more than she could bear.

  “You sound just like Lynn,” Peaches accused, jerking her hand away and backing up a few steps. “And I’ll say the same thing to you that I said to her: mind your own damn business!”

  With those words, she turned on her heel and flounced upstairs. She would solve this crime and prove to all the naysayer’s that she could do anything she set her mind to.

  **

  After bitterly finishing chores which included but weren’t limited to: washing dishes, sweeping and vacuuming floors and cleaning the bathroom, Nina hesitantly dialed Monte’s number, palms moist with nerves.

  She was fast-tracked straight to voice mail.

  Slowly putting the phone down on the night stand, she battled the tears threatening to overflow.

  A loud clap of thunder rumbled, and shortly thereafter rain made its heavily foreshadowed appearance. Fat raindrops sluiced down the windowpane overlooking the parking lot, mirroring Nina’s own dark mood.

  If she hadn’t known then she knew now: she had been played.

  Chapter 13

  Since Peaches was a child she had always been goal oriented and organized. Most of the jobs she had held surrounded this strength: administrative assistant, office manager, database manager, administrative manager. She used those skills to organize her thoughts.

  In keeping with this trait, the next morning found her sitting in her rapidly shrinking Mickey Mouse robe with pen and notebook, jotting down what she currently knew about Lenny’s murder.

  She already knew a few of his habits. He liked to drink and go to strip bars. She also had a piece of paper that could possibly lead to more information. A piece of paper that at the moment meant nothing to her.

  And now she also knew two men had visited with him before he was killed. Why were they there? And more importantly, who were they? What other habits did Lenny have that could have gotten him killed? What was he doing the night before his death? Was he at the strip club, hanging with friends or out drinking himself silly?

  There were too many questions unanswered. She needed to talk to the detective investigating Lenny’s case and would, unfortunately, still need to talk to Cynthia.

  Her stomach grumbled. She got up in search of food, but found nothing but those blasted cabbages, bottled water, a drop of milk, other assorted odds and ends, and…a single Dove ice cream bar?

  Hell, it had dairy and dark chocolate was known to contain antioxidants so it would boost her immune response.

  Sounded like breakfast to her.

  **

  After quickly polishing off the ice cream bar, Peaches figured she would start at the police department and radiate out from there. Might as well see if she could discover any pertinent information from them before she hit the streets.

  She hopped in her car. After last nights rain, the cool humid air and clear blue skies promised a beautiful day ahead. Deciding to take the scenic route, she rolled down the windows, enjoying the freshness of the air.

  Cutting down Fayetteville Street, she passed Southpoint Mall, the areas newest mega-mall, then meandered past Hillside High, a school well known for its stellar theatrical productions, and finally tootled past the Historically Black University of North Carolina Central University, the institution where Booker T. Washington learned to pull himself up by his bootstraps.

  The entire area was on the rise after years of inactivity. Though there were still many pockets of crumbling and decrepit houses, signs of gentrification were snaking thei
r way into poor communities.

  Case in point, an attractive blonde with an expensive jogger stroller and fashionable sports apparel, blithely jogged past what not too many years before had been a notoriously violent project community. Now it was being renamed The Tobacco District and rechristened as a swanky, up and coming urban district.

  She parked behind the austere white building housing the Durham Police Department. Its dark windows glinted secretively in the early morning sunshine. Preparing to walk inside, she wondered, not for the first time, just what it was she thought she was doing.

  Her phone rang. It was her father.

  “What’s this I hear about you lookin’ into the murder of Penny’s son?” her father asked without preamble.

  Peaches sighed. “Just what have you heard?”

  She sat down on a hard, wooden bench just outside the double doors leading into the inner sanctum of the police department.

  “I was talkin’ to Penny this morning while I was out on the porch enjoyin’ the fresh air--,”

  “Viviana and the girl’s driving you crazy, daddy?” she asked, archly.

  Her father was never up before nine. He claimed getting up too early was disturbing to a grown man’s sensibilities.

  “Well, no, I wouldn’t say that…” he hedged.

  “Uh-huh. It’s ok to say they are, you know.”

  “This conversation ain’t about me, it’s about you,” he retorted, changing the subject.

  Peaches heard the loud whine of Paris complaining they were out of soap. Her father’s uncustomary surly response told Peaches all she needed to know about his state of mind.

  She suppressed a grin. She had tried to tell her father to make them stay in a hotel. The whole bunch of them was high maintenance and a headache to boot. He was soft-hearted and never learned.

  “Daddy, I told Ms. Penny I would try to help find Lenny’s murderer. I’m not sure if the police are putting in a whole lot of work on his case. You know they don’t care about a poor black man getting killed.”

  A large group of police officers passed as she loudly proclaimed this last, perhaps, unfair comment. Her remark bounced around, echoing off the walls in a crystal clear echo. Every last one of them gave her a dirty look. Peaches guiltily turned, trying to sink down as far as she could on the bench.

  Surprising her with his next comment he said: “I’m proud of you Peaches. That was real nice of you to offer. Stupid as hell, but nice. Maybe you should come on down and get some target practice.”