Carly stepped out of the car feeling ever last inch of herself. The driver had pulled up to a nice, if somewhat understated townhome at the center of East Atlanta Village. That was the part of town frequented by artsie types and co-op dwellers. Her Grandad always called East Atlanta folks the village people. Carly hadn’t pictured Monica to be the bohemian type, but it was a welcome surprise. Initially, she felt the sort of nerves that come along with any first date as she walked up the steps and prepared to knock on the door. However, she only managed three steps before the door to the car behind her opened up and her mother’s hired security stomped out, followed swiftly by a camera man who was obnoxiously snapping photos every time Carly moved. Carly, in an effort to block them out, focused on the pattern of mockingbirds flying over water in Monica’s stained-glass door. She raised her hand to knock, but stopped when the door seemingly opened on its own.
From the open slit, Carly could see Monica, her thick mop of curly hair peeked out from a cracked door.
“How’d you know I…” Carly started.
“What kind of cop would I be if I didn’t have home security?” Monica answered with a laugh. She was wearing a red spaghetti-strap tank and dark blue jeans. Her hair, free of the bun she’d worn while on duty, bounced freely about her shoulders. She grabbed a cropped leather jacket from her coat rack and stepped onto the stoop with Carly. “So, Miss Lancaster, where are you taking me?”
The easy way that Monica said her name, smooth like chamomile tea, put a smile on Carly’s face. “Well, a little birdie told me you like live music” Carly started. “So, I’ve arranged a concert in the park.”
They started to walk toward the car together “Oh, you arranged it did you?” Monica teased as she hopped into the backseat with Carly.
The car ride started off quietly. Monica made polite conversation, asked Carly what she’d been up to since the fundraiser, she even made a point to compliment Carly’s dress. But no matter what she did Carly just kept her answers short. It was nothing Carly was doing intentionally, she just couldn’t take her mind off that night at the fundraiser, more specifically what Monica had said at the fundraiser.
“I want us to have fun tonight” she finally spoke up. “But first, I have to ask you something, and I need an honest answer.”
Monica took a deep breath in “Okay, shoot.”
“You said I was a crap assignment, and then all of a sudden you changed your mind” Carly explained. “What changed?”
Monica turned to look Carly directly in the eye. “You didn’t deserve that. That wasn’t about you.” Monica reached out to hold Carly’s hand as a show of sincerity. “Having your dad as your boss is kinda a recipe for a toxic relationship.” Monica left it there. She wasn’t the type to dump her family history on people she didn’t know very well. Still, she could tell Carly wanted to know more. She figured she’d be getting follow up questions at some point. But, at least for now, at least this night, Monica thought, they could just be two women having fun together.
As soon as they got to the park Monica could tell Manuel Rivera was playing. She knew as soon as she heard his trumpet that her dad had blabbed to somebody about her favorite jazz musician. Between that, the camera guy, and the clearly planted park patrons who looked every bit like lawyers from Stephanie Lancaster’s firm, Monica just wasn’t feeling it. But she tried, for Carly’s sake, to focus on the horn and relax into the music.
After a while, it started to work. It didn’t hurt that Carly had no shame in trying to twostep to every song that played. As the night wore on the air shifted to something crisp enough to bite, but not too cold to leave. They sat reposed on a blanket someone had offered to them, or more accurately, directed them toward. They casually sipped on red wine, the bottle for which Carly made a point of snapping and tweeting. Monica was sure someone in Carly’s orbit had promised a plug. She reminded herself to be understanding.
The air cut into Carly’s exposed skin. Monica took notice of the tiny raised hairs on her arms. “Are you cold?” Monica asked, though the answer seemed obvious.
But Carly could barely hear over the music. She leaned in closer to Monica. Close enough that her earlobe grazed the brim of Monica’s lips. “What” Carly asked with her voice elevated over the music.
The camera flashed in front of them and Monica instinctively pulled away. “Nothing, never mind.”
Stephanie was busy researching business owner obligations under the HITECH act. The firm had just landed the City University Hospital account and she’d been immediately thrown into a class action concerning an information breach. But it was all tech-speak to her and staring at it for so long was starting to give her a headache. The headache only amplified when someone started pounding on her door while ringing the doorbell repeatedly. Assuming it was a solicitor, Stephanie sent Constance, their housekeeper, to send them away. But, unfortunately, that did not work.
As soon as he saw the door opening, Smokey took his chance to barge his way in. “A brotha ain’t stupid Stephanie” Teddy shouted as he marched deliberately into Stephanie’s office. It was as if someone had already given him the home layout.
Stephanie recognized the voice right away. It was Smokey, the two-bit thug she’d hired to make a scene at the meet and greet. Though, she could never bring herself to refer to a grown man by such an infantile nickname as Smokey. She’d convinced him to let her use his birth name, Teddy. But a proper name was not a magic wand, Teddy was not interested in civility, and Stephanie had not paid him to be a gentleman.
Teddy waited for While Stephanie closed out her laptop and walked closer to him. “You got me throwing paint at little girls. Meanwhile, I got proof yo’ husband put hands on my baby cousin Rodrick.” Teddy pulled out his phone. “What y’all ain’t know is my boy sent me the video of your husband stompin’ that ass”
Stephanie was taking her time inching ever closer toward Teddy. She did not at all care about invading his space cushion. “First of all,” Stephanie made a point of slamming her heel into the ground on her final step. “It’s Mrs. Lancaster to you. We, Teddy, will never be on a first name basis.”
Stephanie navigated around Teddy as if he were vermin that might infect her if they were to, even accidentally, touch. “Now, what is it you want? More money?”
Teddy placed a hand on his chin as if he were in deep reflective thought. A beat passed, then he settled on an answer. “Bet!” Smokey declared with a nod of his head. “Run me my money Steph…” he recoiled like a wounded animal at the sight of Stephanie’s raised eyebrow. “Mrs. Lancaster.”
“Fine, someone from my team will reach out to you shortly”
“Naw, I need that bird in my hand” Smokey insisted. “I ain’t got time for what’s chirpin’ in your bushes.”
Stephanie thought to protest but saw that Teddy had raised his shirt up enough to expose a pistol in his waistband. “Well, aren’t you the clever wordsmith” Stephanie mocked. Stepping over to her desk, she retrieved the hideaway key to her wall safe from the underside of her desk drawer. After her security guard instructed Smokey to turn around, she entered her pin into the safe, turned the key in the lock and opened it. From inside the safe, she retrieved two thick stacks of fifty-dollar bills. Once the safe was closed again, Teddy was instructed to turn around again.
Stephanie slapped the money down into Teddy’s open palm. “I suggest you spend it wisely” she instructed. “This, will not happen again.”
Smokey got up feeling especially victorious. He’d thought maybe he could shake Stephanie for a few hundred. He was looking at ten large at least now, by his estimate. If Rodrick hadn’t of disowned him, Teddy thought the two of them could figured out a way to rip the Lancaster’s off years ago.
As soon as she was sure Teddy was out of earshot, Stephanie took out her cell and dialed her husband. “Evan, sweetie, we have a problem.”
Feeling that things weren’t exactly going well, Carly determined that she could fix it, decided to try and mix things up. “Let’s play a game” “she tried. “Truth or dare.”
Monica laughed instinctively. She hadn’t played truth or dare since she graduated the academy. But, she figured, it would be a good way to get out of her own head. “Okay, I’ll bite. Truth.” She took a sip of her wine and waited for Carly to come up with a question.
Carly thought seriously about what to ask. She didn’t want to waste an opportunity to learn more about Monica. “Why’d you decide to be a police officer?”
That was a long story, one Monica struggled to condense into one or two sentences. She took a generous sip of wine before answering. “well, I had a fantasy about one-upping my dad. Did it just to prove I could do it better than him I guess.” Carly watched as Monica finished off her wine and pored herself another glass. Their heads tilted back and arms lazily commingled. The sun was setting and in the rainbow tinted haze, they looked like two bodies of water converging together.
Monica had never admitted why she joined the force to anyone before. Not even to her mom. She’d always just said it was because she loved her community. She wasn’t sure why she felt so comfortable telling Carly the truth. But, she brushed it off. It was her turn and she wasn’t about to let Carly get off easy. She’d noticed a tattoo on Carly’s back shoulder blade. If she wasn’t so perceptive, Monica wouldn’t have even noticed. It was a white ink design, so Monica was sure no one in Carly’s family even knew. “I dare you to show me the rest of your tattoo.”
Carly had been busy vibing to the music when Monica asked to see her tattoo. The only other person who ever noticed it was Lori, and that was inevitable. Lori had a very thorough knowledge of Carly’s anatomy. A blessing that could be attributed to the nature of their now defunct relationship. “I didn’t get to pick” Carly protested.
“My game my rules” Monica countered with another sip of wine.
“Your game?” Carly teased. But she eventually relented and lowered her sleeve to let Monica get a good look at the tiny raised etching on her back-left shoulder. It was almost too tiny to read, but Monica could just make out the words as she traced them with her finger “Tracie, on vive toujours.” Admittedly, Monica was a little tipsy, which simply meant that she was not so careful with her words. “Who is Tracie? And why does she live forever?”
“Tracie’s my aunt” Carly explained. “She died, she overdosed on pills.” The wind blew hard and distracted Carly from explaining any further. Despite her best efforts she shivered at the cold air. This time though, Monica didn’t bother asking. She simply removed her jacket and placed it over Carly’s shoulders. “Feel better” Monica asked as Carly wrapped the jacket snuggly around her.
“Yeah, thanks.” She answered before leaning over and kissing Monica on the cheek. As quick as she’d done it, she just as quickly pulled away. Her face blush with embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed.” Even though it was just a peck on the cheek, Carly would have felt terrible if Monica was straight. They hadn’t explicitly talked about it. For all Carly knew, Monica was just a good-natured ally trying to save Carly the embarrassment of a no-show charity date. “I just, it was a reflex.”
Monica grabbed Carly by the shoulders as a way of reassuring her. “Relax, it was just a peck on the cheek” Monica’s hands slipped down to just above Carly’s elbows. She kissed Carly on the mouth softly, accepting the invitation when Carly’s lips slowly parted. “Just so we’re clear” she winked as she pulled away. “But I don’t like playing with other people’s toys.”
Carly couldn’t hide from the fact that the kiss was good. More importantly, she was glad to have the ego boost that Monica being in to her provided. But she didn’t want to overanalyze it. She went back to the game. “Truth. What is up with you and your dad?”
This was the question Monica had been dreading. But she knew it deserved an answer. Carly had seen far too much of their disfunction not to ask about it. “Well, here it goes” she said with a smile and another sip of wine. “Twenty-five years ago my dad had an affair with his beat partner, my mom.”
Carly could tell Monica was uneasy about continuing. She reached out to rub circles into the other woman’s back as a means of comfort.
Monica sighed in relief. It felt good to say it out loud to someone. Her mom had always made her feel like it was some shameful secret. “So, I’m Danny O’Rourke’s secret black daughter” she joked. “Well, not secret anymore, but it’s kinda hard to get over not being in your dad’s Christmas photos or getting a card on your birthday.”
The camera flashed in front of them. This time though, Carly was the one to get irritated. “I’m kinda over this, you want to get out of here?”
When Monica agreed, Carly devised a plan to ditch the security guard and camera guy by convincing them Monica wanted to go home early. In reality, Monica took a ride share to a pool bar she’d visited a couple times, and Carly met up with her after making sure all the cameras and press team had left.
At the sight of Carly walking into the bar Monica stood up so quickly from the stool she’d been sitting on that it nearly toppled over. She’d worried Carly wouldn’t show. The excitement of not being ditched got the better of her, and she could have kicked herself for not maintaining her cool. But, she tried to play it off by quickly grabbing a pool table.
Monica made quick work of procuring a stick and racking the balls. “Do you play?” she asked.
“No, but I’m pretty good at math" Carly reasoned. “This is just geometry with a little physics thrown in”
At that, Monica had to laugh. “Alright then” she dismissed as she lined up to take her shot. She was so focused on getting the shot right, she hardly noticed Carly sneaking up behind her.
As Monica threw the pool stick back, Carly grabbed her by the waist and leaned into her ear to whisper “So, you’re in to me?”
Monica was so startled by the contact that she missed the angle of her shot and the cue ball jumped across the table. “Like I said, physics and geometry” Carly laughed.
“Okay, you got me” Monica admitted. However, she couldn’t let the ambiguous comfort of their banter linger. The shadow of her parent’s relationship was ever-present in her mind, and Monica had always promised herself never to relive their mistakes. “Look, this is fun. But uh, I hope it works out with you and Lori, really” She needed to be clear, had to be. She was fine with having a harmless night out. But she was not about to get into the mud of whatever was happening between Lori and Carly.
So, with Monica’s line in the sand made plain, they played on until the bar closed. Sometimes they broke to talk, if they weren’t too busy giving each other shit and trying to outdo each other’s shots. When the lights came on and the music went off, the audio from the television was suddenly playing with loud precision. Someone had turned it to the local news. The newscaster’s voice called Carly’s attention.
“Local petty criminal found dead in an ally behind Atlanta’s City University Hospital” Nothing being said was out of the ordinary for a large city like Atlanta. But, Carly took notice of the name of the hospital. She remembered her mom celebrating landing that account for the family practice. Her attention turned to the news story's accompanying photo. She must have stared for too long because Monica took notice too.
“Isn’t that…” Carly began
“Yep” Monica finished before Carly could complete the thought. They both stood silent staring blankly at Teddy’s picture. They didn’t know him as Teddy, or Smokey, or Rodrick’s cousin. They just both knew he had thrown paint at Carly the week before. And, they both knew, deep down, something did not feel right.