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Quinn poked his head around the partially open bathroom door, shouting over the steam and rush of water. "I'll check ya later, 'round midnight."
Lacy parted the opaque shower curtain, shouting over the surge of water. "Not again, Quinten. You just got in. I thought you were staying for dinner. Maxine's coming over. When are you going to eat?"
Quinn chuckled deep in his throat. "Chill, sis. I'll grab a little somethin'."
She snatched the curtain shut. "Yeah, but what?" she grumbled, her question full of cynicism. She worried about her twin brother, more than she'd ever let on. The reality was, all they had was each other. And living in the heart of Harlem, New York, with its available drugs, rampant gang wars and random shootings, reiterated their oneness all the more. She also knew that no amount of haranguing would keep her brother off the street. The lure, the mystery, the danger and excitement, were his mistresses. He couldn't seem to get enough and kept going back for more. She knew Quinn had so much more to offer than just protection for local "businessmen." If they could just get out of the neighborhood, he stood a chance of surviving. They stood a chance.
"Later! Tell Maxie I'll catch her another time," he called, shutting the door behind him.
Lacy threw up a silent prayer for her brother's safe return, a proven ritual of her deep spirituality. They had to get out of this neighborhood, she vowed again. Quinn had no desire to move, and she'd promised herself she'd never leave him behind. But maybe when he saw the duplex apartment she'd found on the border of Greenwich Village he'd change his mind. The landlady was willing to hold the apartment for two more weeks. That's all the time she needed to get the rest of the money. "Two more weeks." She sighed, shutting off the water. "Just two more weeks."
Quinn sauntered down the semi-darkened avenue, assuming the rhythmic gait of the hood, his shoulder-length dreadlocks swinging to the hip-hop beat of his stride. He'd opted to walk this balmy spring night in lieu of driving his black BMW 750i. He needed to see and feel the pulse of the street, from the boom boxes that blared the outrage of inner-city life to the sweet-funky smell of greasy fried chicken, shrimp lo mein and chopped barbecue that wafted from the every-other-corner fast-food joints, Caribbean roti shops and Hispanic bodegas.
By rote he gave the barest rise of his chin in a show of cool acknowledgment to the rows of regulars who sat, posed, slumped, leaned, stood and harmonized along the stretch of Malcolm X Boulevard. He checked his watch. Twenty minutes.
As he continued toward his destination he wondered if his mother was holed up in one of the numerous tenements with yet another dude. His teeth clenched reflexively at the vision. He hadn't laid eyes on his mother in more than ten years. She'd walked out on him and Lacy when they were only sixteen. "Ya'll grown now," she'd said. "And can take care of yo'selves. It's my time now." She'd turned, walked out of the door and they hadn't seen or heard from her since.
Even now, after all those years, Quinn still felt that bottomless emptiness in the pit of his stomach that burned like old garbage in the cans that kept the homeless warm. He felt some irrational guilt, that his mother's abandonment was somehow his fault. He'd tried to fill the void with everything from hurt to anger. He tried to fill his need with the warmth and brotherhood of the street. But the emptiness persisted. Lacy, on the other hand, had turned to the familial nurturing of the church, and the healing force of the Lord.
Stopping in front of BJ.'s, the local bar, grill and everything in between, Quinn pushed open the scratched, blacked-out Plexi-glas door and stepped into the smoke-filled room.
"Whatsup, brotherman?" greeted Turk, the bartender. "Whatcha tastin'?"
"My usual. Jack on the rocks." Quinn slid onto the well-worn wooden stool and perused his surroundings. The place was packed as usual for a Friday night. Women in all their finery lounged in various vogue positions to catch the eyes of available men on the prowl, their perfumed bodies cutting through the stench of stale cigars, cigarettes and body heat.
"Here ya go."
"Thanks, brotherman." Quinn absently raised his glass to his lips and took a quick swallow of the smooth amber liquid, its fire warming him. "Boys in the back?"
Quinn nodded, slapped a five dollar bill on the bar and headed toward the gray steel door.
"Luck to ya, brother," Turk called, wiping up the ring that Quinn's glass had left behind.
The small back room was even stuffier than the front. Smoke billowed like cumulus clouds, hanging over the tight, dark room like a canopy. One lone seventy-five watt bulb hung above the round, green, felt-covered table, casting grotesque shadows against the cracked and peeling lemon yellow walls. Sweat, perfume, Old Spice, cheap liquor and moldy carpet odor all blended together into one unique aroma. It was all an acquired taste, the boys in the back always joked.
Smalls, the bouncer, who was about the size of a Sumo wrestler and obviously nicknamed as a joke, expertly patted Quinn down, then gave his customary caveman grunt and hooked thumb over his shoulder, indicating that it was all right for Quinn to enter.
Several pairs of eyes momentarily locked on his approach, then quickly returned to the aces, queens and kings that beckoned them, daring them to make a move. Quinn spotted Sylvie, the hostess of sorts, and signaled her with a crook of his finger.
Sheathed in a tight-fitting red rayon dress, Sylvie strutted across the hardwood floor, leaving little to the imagination in her wake. Her heels clicked in perfect syncopation.
"Quinn," she cooed, looking up at his smooth, chiseled face, her full, red-painted mouth pouting seductively, as if waiting to be kissed. "What can I get ya, sugah?"
Quinn's dark eyes were shadowed by long lashes as his lids slid partially downward. The right corner of his artist-drawn mouth curled. "Remy set for the pick up? Time is money," he added, giving her the benefit of his dimpled smile.
"Follow me, lover. They're just about ready."
Quinn slung his hands into the pocket of his Versace jogging pants, his Nike-sneakered feet moving soundlessly behind Sylvie's undulating form. She knocked twice on the brown wooden door, turned the knob and entered.
Remy, Charles and a face he didn't recognize were seated around a long table, counting and stacking Washingtons, Hamil-tons and Franklins into neat rows of dead presidents.
"Be witchu in a sec," Remy acknowledged, briefly looking up from his task. He tilted his head in the direction of the young boy. "Dis here is T.C. He gonna run wit you tonight. I want you to school 'em on da route and da ropes."
Quinn's eyes narrowed to slits. "I ain't no damned nursemaid," he grumbled, his ire directed at T.C, who seemed to shrink under the scornful gaze. "Send him with one of the other runners. I ain't got time for no baby-sittin'."
Remy's ink black face hardened as if suddenly tossed into quick-drying cement. "He goes wit you. You knows da street and the connections better than anyone. And, more important, 'they' knows you. Brothers see T.C. rolling wit you, they'll give him his props. Understood?"
"Yeah, yeah," Quinn reluctantly conceded. "But he better pay attention." He threw T.C. a withering glance, then leaned his muscled frame nonchalantly against the doorjamb. His gaze slanted back in T.C.'s direction. The kid looked to be no more than seventeen. Quinn sighed inwardlyjust about the same age he was when he started to build a rep for himself with Remy as his tutor.
Over the years Quinn had been elevated from errand boy to principal courier, responsible for the money transport between five of Remy's clubs. His cut was substantial for the safeguarding of the nightly takes. That took trust and nerves of steel. Trustthat he wouldn't run off with the goodsand nerves of steel when situations got dicey, as they did on many occasions.
As much as observers believed that Quinn had ice water for blood, he was anything but cold. Unfortunately, in his world there was no room for the soft of heart. So he played the role: hard, untouchable, unattainable, dangerous. The one person with whom he could truly be himself was his sister, Lacy.
Lacy didn't laugh when she read one of his rhymes, or when he played tunes off the top of his head on the antique secondhand piano. She'd just sit there all dreamy-eyed and listen with a pretty smile on her face. Lacy believed in him, believed that he could go places. "Do something worthwhile with your God-given talents," she always preached. Sometimes she made him almost believe in himself, too.
His mouth twitched as he fought back a smile. Lacy, the dreamer, the idealist. What could he possibly do with a twelfth-grade education? He frowned, marring his smooth mahogany brow. Through the years the two personas who made up Quinn Parker had merged, one nearly indistinguishable from the other. Sometimes even he didn't know where one began and the other ended.
A thud near his feet pulled him back. He looked down to see two black duffel bags, packed to near bursting.
"Take my ride. It's out back," Remy said. He tossed Quinn the set of spare keys, then came from behind the table. He walked up to Quinn, clapping him roughly on the shoulder. He leaned close to his ear. "And take it easy on da kid. That was you once, remember?" Remy moved back, his gold front tooth sparkling against his skin of midnight.
"You never stop remindin' me."
Remy laughed loud and hard. "Dat's to keep you humble."
"Yeah, right. Come on, man," he called to T.C. over Remy's short salt-and-pepper head.
Quinn eyed T.C. up and down as they made their way to Remy's Lexus 400. His Tommy Hilfiger jeans were barely held up on poke-you-in-the-eyes hip bones, proudly displaying the red, white and blue waistband of his Fruit of the Looms. His Air Jordans flopped on his feet, for lack of tied shoestrings. Quinn slowly shook his head.
"Yo, man, when you gonna get you some clothes that fit?"
T.C. checked out his outfit. "What? All the brothers dress like this. These pants cost"
"Yo, check this. All the brothers don't dress like that. Only the ones who don't know no better. Where'd that style come from?" he challenged.
T.C. shrugged and tried to look defiant, cutting his eyes up and down the length of Quinn's hard-packed body. He chewed his gum a little faster.
"From those fools who go busted and tossed in the joint. That's where. They can't wear no belts, so their pants are always saggin'. Can't wear laces in their kicks, so they're always gapped open. That's who you wanna represent? Not with me, my brother. Do what you want on your own time. When we rollin', pull up your pants and tie your shoes. The joint is one place I don't wanna go. And I don't wanna be reminded of the possibilities every time I look at you."
"Yo, man, don't nobody tell me what to do."
"Yeah. Well, guess what? I just did. Now get in the car, or find yourself somethin' else to do tonight. Didn't ask for no company, anyway." Quinn opened the door, slammed it behind him and started the engine.
T.C. stood there debating what to do and Quinn slowly eased the car away while he was thinking. T.C. ran alongside the car, struggling to hold up his pants while knocking on the window.
"Yo, man, hold up! Whatchu doin'?"
Quinn pulled the car to a stop and lowered the window. "Make up your mind yet?"
T.C. looked around, shuffled his feet for a minute, and then pulled up his pants.
Quinn unlocked the passenger door.
By the time Quinn returned to his apartment on 135th Street, it was nearly 3:00 a.m. He hoped that Lacy was asleep, because if she wasn't he was sure she'd stick her head out of her apartment door as soon as she heard his key turn in his lock. Lacy thought it was ridiculous that they should live in two different apartments, but as much as Quinn adored his sister, he needed his privacy. At least with this arrangement he had the best of both worlds: his privacy when he needed it, and the comfort and nurturing of his sister just a few steps away.
The door creaked on its hinges as he slowly pushed it open. The sound unconsciously caused his heart to beat a bit faster, and he had to stifle a chuckle. Like a kid sneaking in after curfew, he imagined that at any second the lights would come blazing on and irate parents would descend upon him: "Where you been, boy? Can't you tell time? Get to your room and don't come out."
No lights came on. There were no parents waiting. There never had been. He flipped on the light switch and closed the door. Tonight, though, he would have welcomed having someone there. He would have even settled for one of Lacy's lectures about the vagrancy of his life. He needed to feel cared about, especially tonight, and he couldn't seem to shake the feelings of melancholia. Working the spots and talking with T.C, he'd seen himself as he was years ago, eager, hungry and willing to please, to be accepted, to be one of the boys. Sure, he'd paid his dues over the ensuing years. He'd earned a reputation, a degree of respect from his peers. He had a decent crib, fancy ride, designer clothes and enough women's phone numbers to last him two lifetimes. And it all added up to zip. Outside Harlem, outside the security of the hood, he was nothing and nobody. This was his world. What else could he ever hope to be: the writer and musician that Lacy always talked about? Not in this world. Not in this reality.
Pulling off his jacket, he tossed it on the kitchen chair, then noticed the sheet of pink paper on the table with the familiar scrawl.
I know you didn't eat anything worth the time it took to fix it. Dinner is in your oven. Don't let me find it there in the morning. Max was here. She asked about you, though Lord only knows why. Get some rest.
Jesus loves ya and so do I.
Quinn smiled and folded the piece of paper. The light was on.
It was about noon Saturday when Quinn bounded down the stairs of the apartment building and smacked into Maxine Sherman, who was coming through the door.