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Love After All
By Celeste Norfleet
BETCopyright © 2007 Celeste Norfleet
All right reserved.
Over the next four months, Samantha Lee's life was com-plicated, to say the least. Being conned and betrayed by an ex-boyfriend, avoiding being questioned by the police and hiding out from street thugs had kept her busy, still waiting for word from Oz. In the meantime, she'd been searching for the one person who could return her life to her. She had a score to settle. At the moment, her life was on an even keel. But then again, it was her time; it was after twelve o'clock midnight when everything seemed familiar.
After midnight was the golden hour.
Her father always told her that there were two types of people, predators and decent folk. And that folk coming out after midnight were only looking for one thing--trouble. And more than likely that's what they'd find. He lived by this one truth. And living by this code separated him from the predators. He never purposely targeted an innocent, although the greedy and morally challenged were another story.
Thinking about her father brought back conflicting emotions. Deep inside, she knew that she still loved him, but she also hated what he did with his life. His world had torn her family apart, iced her mother's heart and made her lose faith.
While she was growing up he was her hero. Then he left and the comfortable feeling of family disappeared. Now she merely accepted that he was both hero and villain. Samantha smiled at the stray thought. After midnight was his time, and now itwas hers. She now understood what he meant. Her senses were heightened and her instincts were at their sharpest. She ruled the night with complete confidence and control. It was the light of day that often confused matters for her.
"So, how long have you been doing this?"
She looked up into the rearview mirror, then back at the street in front of her. The slightly accented voice startled her momentarily. "Doing what?" she responded guiltily, having been caught slightly off guard. Driving on automatic, she'd let her thoughts wander off and she'd nearly forgotten that she wasn't alone.
"This, driving a cab, how long have you been doing this?" he repeated in a classic Bostonian accent that seemed to give his voice a level of eloquence and charm.
"Not long," Samantha said without eye contact, hoping her short answer would end the prompted chitchat, as it usually did for those who insisted on dragging her into conversation.
"Remarkable, quite remarkable indeed," he said, nodding his apparent approval, then continuing, "You see, I'm a student of the philosophical nature of human behavior. I like to know what makes people do what they do, the will behind the deed so to speak. And I find you, or rather your stated occupation, intriguing--a young woman, quite attractive at that, driving, and all alone at night, remarkable and indeed impressive," she didn't answer. He continued, "I imagine that you would meet all kinds of interesting people, particularly at night."
"At times," she muttered obligingly.
"But then again, it would of course be the solitude that you enjoy most."
"Of course," she moaned inwardly at his persistence.
"How about that?" he said, then paused to chuckle at seem-ingly nothing in particular. His husky voice cracked with age and then steadied as he repeated, "How about that?"
They drove in silence for a few more blocks until he spoke again. "Are you an aspiring actress or model or writer or something like that?" She glanced up at him and then back at the street as he said. "I only ask because you just don't seem to be the type to do this for a living. So I assume that you're only doing it to raise extra money or as a side job until some-thing better comes along."
"I drive," she answered simply, sticking to her two-word answers.
"Bravo, good for you, well done, and you drive quite well, I might add. You are to be commended."
He sounded too joyous to be believed. She didn't respond. Moments later, Samantha pulled to a smooth stop at the traffic light beneath a bright overhead streetlamp and picked up the small notebook on the seat beside her. She plucked the pencil from the side holder and jotted down a note to herself. Stray memories, thoughts and ideas often came to her like that. From out of nowhere, an idea would come and she'd write it down for another time. But she found lately she had a dwindling amount of time. And as the hours advanced she could only watch and wait.
The light turned green.
She glanced up momentarily into the rearview mirror at the shadowed face of the man behind her. He looked away quickly. He'd been staring at her again. He'd been staring at her since he got in. She steadied her eyes on his face, studying the angles as he now kept council with his own reflection in the darkened side window.
Assessing her exposure, she sensed no immediate threat. Returning her gaze to the front, she pulled off.
Misting now, it had rained earlier so tiny droplets of water remained on the windshield, sparkling like diamonds each time they passed beneath a light. She waited until the next streetlamp approached. Looking back again, she took in his features to assess his standing in the food chain. He didn't look predatory, but he was certainly not too respectable to be out after midnight.
She had picked him up at the bus station. He'd caught her eye immediately. Tall, medium build, he stood with a silver-tipped cane at his side. At first he seemed to be looking for someone. She watched as he waited, discounting the cabs in front of her as they piled up and took fares. As soon as it was her turn he stepped up and got into her cab.
He was a plain man with plain features, a moderate nose with full lips reminiscent of his distant African roots; he had a dimpled chin, a cleft, and wore a dark suit that gave him a dis-tinguished air of dignity like that of a funeral director on call.
He was broad and most likely had been a handsome man in his time. He had a generous sprinkle of salt to his pepper hair and carried himself with an air of possibility. A businessman perhaps, but legitimacy was always up for grabs. After all, it was well after midnight and as Daddy always said, trouble.
Samantha nodded to herself absently, knowingly. "Take a right at the next traffic light," he said. Samantha looked up in the rearview mirror again and con-nected with his dark eyes. "Excuse me?" "Take a right at the next traffic light," he repeated, knowing that he'd obviously interrupted her thoughts again.
She did, easing gently to the corner, looking for oncoming traffic, then turned the corner and slowly accelerated down the one-way street.
"Make a left here and get into the right lane," he said. She did as instructed. "Now pull over right there," she pointed to a darkened office building. "Yes, this is good, right here."
Samantha looked out after her windshield wiper made a quick pass. The murky darkness left a haze of uneasiness as she stopped the cab and shifted to park, leaving the engine running.
"What's the damage?" he asked, leaning forward. Samantha reached over and released the meter. "Forty-one dollars even." She picked up her log, looked outside again and jotted down the nearest intersection. She grabbed her dispatch scanner and reported in. Something she rarely did but for some reason felt compelled to do now.
"Thank you," the man said as he opened the cab's rear door. He shifted his cane and handed her a one-hundred-dollar bill over the front seat.
Samantha took the money, examining it on instinct. She'd learned the feel of counterfeit paper before she could write her name. The feel was right; the bill was legit. "Do you have anything smaller?" she asked.
"No," he said as he exited. "Keep the change."
A five-dollar tip would have sufficed, a twenty-dollar tip was curious. But a fifty-nine-dollar tip was troublesome. Her gut instinct nudged her cynicism. "Thanks," she said slowly, cautiously. "Do you need a receipt?" she asked just as the door closed soundly.
Slightly hunched over, his cane supporting his weight, he walked with steady even strides. She sat for a while in the darkness and watched as he eventually disappeared across the street, away from the building she'd stopped in front of.
"Hey, you there?" The crackling static broke her focused concentration and ended her line of vision when she reached down and picked up the small wired radio.
"Yes, I'm here," she said in her smooth, deeply feminine voice. She glanced over at the building again. No lights came on--he seemed to have been swallowed by the night. "What do you have for me?" she asked.
"You okay? You never check in after a pickup and drop-off," the dispatcher said through heavy static.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she said, dismissing him but realizing he was right. She never followed the proper procedures. It was mandatory that all night drivers check in as soon as they reached their fare's final destination. She seldom did.
"You sure? You've got your auntie Em a little nervous over here." A new voice chimed into the conversation as her aunt Emily picked up.
"I'm fine," she reiterated. "What do you have for me?"
"I have you off duty. Your shift's over, so click your heels twice, it's time to come on home now, Dorothy."
"On my way, Auntie Em."
Samantha released the side button and tossed the radio on the seat beside her. Samantha's being the only woman on night shift made the dispatcher nervous. Plus, she'd been nearly robbed twice and both times had managed to not only retrieve her cash bag but also drop the perpetrators off at the police precinct across the street from the small cab company.
Each time, the office staff had panicked. But out of twenty-seven cabs on the night shift, she was the only woman and had a perfect record of zero assaults and zero cash loss. But the men she worked with still found it necessary to go out of their way to be almost condescendingly protective.
She shifted gears and pulled away from the curb, then turned off her on-duty light and headed back to the garage.
She let the washers wipe the windshield one last time before turning them off, then rolled down the window and let the fresh sweet clean air into the stuffy cab. She inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with moisture. The smell was exhil-arating. Born at midnight, the night held her in perfect safety.
After a quick stop at an all-night diner uptown, she took the expressway back to the garage, a major taboo without a passenger. But she didn't care. If she'd been stopped she'd have done what she always did. Talk her way out of it.
Twenty minutes later she pulled into the cab company depot and rounded the employee lot, seeing that her car was still where she'd parked it. She looked up at the sign as she drove into the garage. Osborn's Cab and Limo Service was painted on a huge white billboard and floodlights made it visible from a mile away.
Clemet Osborn, no longer alive, had owned the small auto garage and was the kind of man everyone came to for a ride. So he made it official and opened the cab company. In the days of the Old West, Clemet Osborn's Cab and Limo Service would have been considered a hole in the wall, a place where anyone, especially of questionable references, could go and rest before moving on. And that's exactly what Samantha was doing now.
She parked her vehicle in the service garage, following standard procedure. She grabbed her cash bag, log, small backpack, brown paper bag, then put on her father's old lucky leather jacket, which she was never without. The night was over as far as she was concerned.
"Well, now, if it isn't Miss Lee returning from the big bad world," Darnell said, looking her up and down when she got out of the car, as if she were the last sip of water in the Sahara Desert. Her formfitting jeans and oversize sweatshirt made him smile and his mouth salivate. He itched to see what was underneath the bulk she insisted on wearing all the time.
Darnell Griggs, a fellow cabdriver, suffered from a Napo-leon complex and was just barely tall enough to reach the steering wheel. He asked her out routinely, and just as routinely she turned him down. Brash and rude, he was a pathetic excuse for a human being, who happened to be married with three kids, living in his mother-in-law's house because he was too lazy to take responsibility and support his family on his own.
He was African-American, the color of bleached paste, who had married a Tootsie Roll-complexioned sister and thought from then on that every woman of paper-bag com-plexion or darker was fair game. He was so wrong.
Samantha didn't turn around, knowing exactly who it was; she ignored him. He continued as usual. "You look particu-larly fine this evening. Why don't you let me take you out."
She didn't respond, knowing better. With no makeup, her hair pinned beneath a cap and cheap large Afro wig and her dowdy posture, she knew she was a mess. But it suited her purpose well. Rough and ragged, she avoided attention and did her best to suppress the slightest hint of attractiveness. But apparently Darnell didn't care.
Excerpted from Love After All by Celeste Norfleet Copyright © 2007 by Celeste Norfleet. Excerpted by permission.
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