Books

Abuse of Discretion

Chapter 1

        Graylin 

“What’s the matter, Mrs. Singletary? Why do I have to go to the principal’s office?”

I’m walking side-by-side down the hallway with my second-period teacher. Students are huddled together staring and pointing at us like we’re zoo animals. When a teacher at Marcus Preparatory Academy escorts you to the principal’s office, it’s a big deal. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I’m a good student. I never get in trouble.

Mrs. Singletary won’t answer my questions or even look at me. I hope she knows she’s only making me more nervous.

“Mrs. Singletary, please tell me what’s wrong?”

“Just follow me. You’ll find out in a minute.”

I’m about to ask her another question when it hits me. Something happened to my mama!

My mama has been on and off drugs for as long as I can remember. I haven’t seen her in months and I don’t even know where she lives. No one does. I act like it doesn’t bother me, but it does. I’ve prayed to God a million times to get her off drugs. Even though my granny says God answers prayers, He hasn’t answered mine, so I stopped asking.

I jump in front of my teacher, forcing her to stop. “Was there a death in my family, Mrs. Singletary? Did something happen to my mama?”

“No, there wasn’t a death.”

She swerves around me and keeps going. I have to take giant steps to keep up with her.

Once we’re inside the main office, Mrs. Singletary points at a wooden chair outside Principal Keller’s office. “Have a seat and don’t move.”

She goes into the principal’s office and closes the door. My head begins to throb like somebody’s banging on it from the inside. I close my eyes and try to calm down. I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s probably just—Oh snap! The picture!

I slide down in the chair and pull my iPhone from my right pocket. My hands are trembling so bad I have to concentrate to keep from dropping it. I open the photos app and delete the last picture on my camera roll. If anyone saw that picture, I’d be screwed.

Loud voices seep through the closed door. I lean forward, straining to hear. It almost sounds like Mrs. Singletary and Principal Keller are arguing.

“It’s only an allegation. We don’t even know if it’s true.”

“I don’t care. We have to follow protocol.”

“Can’t you at least check his phone first?”

“I’m not putting myself in the middle of this mess. I've already made the call.”

The call? I can’t believe Principal Keller called my dad without even giving me a chance to defend myself. How’d she even find out about the picture?  

The door swings open and I almost jump out of my skin. The principal crooks her finger at me. “Come in here, son.”

Trudging into her office, I sit down on a red cloth chair that’s way more comfortable than the hard one outside. My heart is beating so fast it feels like it might jump out of my chest.

The only time I’ve ever been in Principal Keller’s office was the day my dad enrolled me in school. Mrs. Singletary is standing in front of the principal’s desk with her arms folded. I hope she’s going to stay here with me, but a second later, she walks out and closes the door.

Principal Keller sits on the edge of her desk, looking down at me. “Graylin, do you have any inappropriate pictures on your cell phone?” 

“Huh?” I try to keep a straight face. “No, ma’am.”

“It’s been brought to my attention that you have an inappropriate picture—a naked picture—of Kennedy Carlyle on your phone. Is that true?”

“No…uh…No, ma’am.” Thank God I deleted it!

“This is a very serious matter, young man. So, I need you to tell me the truth.”

“No, ma’am.” I shake my head so hard my cheeks vibrate. “I don’t have anything like that on my phone.”

“I pray to God you’re telling me the truth.”

I don’t want to ask this next question, but I have to know. “Um, so you called my dad?”

“Yes, I did. He’s on his way down here now.”

I hug myself and start rocking back and forth. Even though I deleted the picture, my dad is still going to kill me for having to leave work in the middle of the day.

“I also made another call.”

At first I’m confused. Then I realize Mrs. Keller must’ve called my granny too. At least she’ll keep my dad from going ballistic.

“So you called my granny?”

“No.” The principal’s cheeks puff up like she’s about to blow something away. “I called the police.”

Chapter 2

Dre

“We haven’t heard much from you this afternoon, Dre. How’ve you been making out?”

I instantly straighten up from my slouched position on the therapist’s too-soft couch. This clueless chick has no idea how much I hate being here. Her suffocating, windowless office with its mint green walls, inspirational sayings and shiny cement floor make me feel like a caged animal. Almost like it felt when I’d been caged up for real.

“I’m making it.” I squeeze my niece’s hand. My sister Donna is sitting on the opposite side of Brianna, looking as worried about me as she is about her daughter.

Having to participate in this kumbaya session with this over-articulate sister who keeps pressing me to bare my soul—something I ain’t gonna do—is almost painful.

If I’d met her in a club, she definitely would’ve piqued my interest. Cute face, nice tits, and thick around the hips, just the way I like my women. But as I stare across the room, that’s not what I see. She might as well be one of those annoying, yellow happy faces because that’s how she comes off.  

The therapist folds her arms and rests them on her enormous boobs. “Oh, c’mon, Dre. You can surely dig a little deeper than that.”

If this chick tells me to dig deep one more time, I swear I’m gonna kick her ugly-ass purple coffee table across the room. She seems to believe that constantly picking at my scabs will cause my pain to seep out and float away like the excrement that it is. Everyone in this room knows that’s bull. Nothing—not even time—can heal this hurt.

My lips curve into a tight smile. “As long as Bree’s good, then I’m good.”

This is only our third family counseling session, but it feels like the thirtieth. Whenever the urge to bolt hits me—like now—I tell myself that after everything Brianna’s been through, spending an hour a week listening to this psychobabble is the least I can do.

“But we want to know if you’re good,” the therapist presses. “Brianna wasn’t the only victim. This was a traumatic experience for you too.”

I inhale as the silver plaque on the wall above her head catches my eye. Life is lived forward but understood backwards. Yeah, tell me about it.

“As I’ve said before, I’m dealing with it.”

 “Actually, he’s not dealing with it at all,” my sister volunteers. “The Shepherd’s in prison, but Dre wants him dead. To be honest, I’m more worried about my brother than my daughter.”

My baby sis is such a drama queen. Except this time, she’s right on the money.

As much as I’ve tried, I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that children like my thirteen-year-old niece—babies really—are being sold on the street like dime bags of weed. Before Brianna’s kidnapping over a year ago, I knew nothing about the world of child sex trafficking. Now I could teach a college course on the subject. My niece was literally snatched off the street as part of a Facebook scam run by a thug called The Shepherd.

It pisses me off that the dude only got a measly twelve years. He’s even in a low-security federal prison. From everything I’ve heard, that’s basically summer camp.

The therapist is waiting for me to say something. Unlike most people, she’s quite comfortable with silence. To get her off my back, I pretend to open up.

“Most of the time I’m fine.” I fake a long sigh and lower my head, but my voice starts to quiver all on its own. “Then I think about what Brianna went through and I get pissed off.”

Brianna pats my hand. “I’m okay, Uncle Dre. And you’re gonna be okay too.”

A warm sensation sweeps across my face and my heart. This little girl has such a hold on me. I lean down and kiss the top of her head.

The therapist gives Brianna an encouraging smile. “I’m proud of your progress, Brianna. How’s everything between you and your mother?”

“Um, pretty good.” Brianna gives her mother a quick sideways glance. “But she still won’t let me have another cell phone or an Instagram account. She won’t even let me sleep over at my friend Kendra’s house.”

“I’m with your mother on the cell phone tip,” I say, turning to my sister. “But you could back up off her a little bit. Why don’t we give Instagram a try and see how it goes? All the kids do is post a bunch of pictures on it. I trust her not to do anything crazy. Right, Bree?”

“Right,” Brianna says eagerly.

“Yeah, okay, I guess,” Donna says, full of reluctance. “But I’m getting one of those programs so I can monitor everybody you’re talking to and everything you post.”

Brianna gives her mother a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, Mommy!”

“But I’m still not ready for a sleepover,” Donna insists. “Whenever Brianna’s out of my sight, I still get nervous about somebody kidnapping her again. I can barely handle her being back in school.”

“Let’s try this,” the therapist suggests. “How about having Brianna spend the night at her grandmother’s house first? Then we’ll go from there.”

Donna grimaces.

“You do trust your mother to take care of her, right?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Brianna’s face lights up. “And when you and Angela get married,” she says, nudging me with her elbow, “I can have a sleepover at your house too. Don’t you think it’s about time you bought Angela an engagement ring?”

Outwardly, I chuckle, but on the inside, dread slithers through my veins like a warm shot of heroin. My girl Angela is the best thing about my life these days. But the timing of us finally getting together couldn’t be worse.

Neither Angela nor my family knows about the call I received from my cousin this morning. From behind prison walls, The Shepherd put the word out on the street that he’s gunning for me.

This poses a problem on multiple fronts. I promised Angela that my life of crime was behind me. And, at the time, I meant it. But The Shepherd’s threat changes things. Angela’s a lawyer who walks the straight-and-narrow. If she knew what was going on, she’d want me to report it to the police. That ain’t my style. I’m gonna handle my situation my way.

My top priority for the moment is keeping myself and everyone around me safe. Unfortunately, Angela and I recently decided to move in together. She texted me this morning about checking out a rental house in Leimert Park. I have to find a way to slow her roll, at least until this situation is resolved. If we shack up now, she could end up as collateral damage.

Brianna’s voice punctures my thoughts. “And when you propose to her, you better get down on one knee.”

“You’re a little smarty pants. You know that?”

“Yep. And I’m also smart enough to know that you’re going to be okay. Just like me.”

Brianna presses her right cheek against my chest and hugs me tight.

My niece’s words are soothingly prophetic. I will indeed be okay. As soon as I find a way to kill The Shepherd.

Chapter 3

        Graylin

The police!

 My mouth is as dry as sand. “I don’t have a naked picture of anybody on my phone, Mrs. Keller. I swear, I don’t. Why’d you call the police on me?”

“I had no choice.”

My right knee won’t stop bouncing up and down. "Who said I had a naked picture?"

"I can't disclose that information.”

There’s a knock on the door. When two police officers step into the room, I almost pee on myself. They introduce themselves to the principal but ignore me.

One of the cops is short and Asian with biceps that look like two boulders. He turns around and mean mugs me. “Is this the student?”

Principal Keller nods and hands him a piece of paper. He reads it, then turns back to me.

“I’m Officer Chin and this is Officer Fenton,” the Asian cop says, referring to a tall white man with slicked-back hair who’s staring down at me too. “We need to talk to you.”

Officer Chin opens the side door leading into the principal’s private conference room and tells me to go inside. I’m so nervous it feels like I’m walking on toothpicks.

The white cop sits in the chair next to me and turns sideways. He’s sitting so close to me that his knee keeps brushing against my thigh. I want to ask him to move back, but I don’t. Officer Chin sits on the other side of the long table, glaring at me like I shot somebody.

“So, Graylin, do you know why you’re here?” Officer Chin asks.

“Nope,” I mumble. Then I hear my grandmother’s voice. She’s old school and is always telling me to be respectful to adults. “I mean, no, sir.”

I don’t like looking at the Asian cop. If they try a good-cop, bad-cop act on me, he’s probably going to play the bad cop.

“First, I need to tell you that you’re in some major trouble,” the mean one says.         

I’ve already decided that’s what I’m going to call Officer Chin—Mean Cop—because that’s what he is.

I don’t say anything since he hasn’t asked me a question.

“How old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

“Your principal got a report that you have a naked picture of one of your classmates on your phone.”

“But I don’t.” Not anymore.

“Do you know Kennedy Carlyle?”

“Yes.”

“Is she your girlfriend?"

I screw up my face. “No.” Kennedy is way too stuck-up to be anybody's girlfriend.

"Well, how do you know her?"

"She's in my English and algebra classes."

I don’t want to talk to them because I know they aren’t on my side. I watch a lot of TV crime shows with my granny. The cops always act like they want to help you, but they’d rather shoot a black kid than help him. That’s why we need Black Lives Matter. They just need to read me my rights and—Oh snap! I suddenly remember what my dad told me to do if the police ever stopped me.

I sit up straight and try to look brave. “My dad told me not to talk to the police without his permission.”

Mean Cop rolls his eyes. “Is that right? Does your daddy know you have a naked picture of one of your classmates on your phone?”

But I don’t. I want to smile, but I know that will get me in even more trouble.

Mean Cop grips the edge of the table and leans forward. “If I were you, I’d want to defend myself. So, if you want us to hear your side of the story, you better start talking.”

 I don’t know what to do. I want to defend myself, but my dad gave me strict instructions. If a cop stops you, don’t say a damn word.

Officer Fenton bumps my thigh with his knee again which makes me flinch. “Look, Graylin, we need you to be honest with us. If you do, we can cut you some slack.”

Even though I wish he wouldn’t sit so close to me, at least he talks nice to me. Still, I keep quiet.

“According to the report we received,” Mean Cop continues, “you’ve been going all over the school showing people a naked picture of your classmate.”

Before I can stop myself, I blurt out, “No, I didn’t! Somebody's lying on me!”

Of course, I’d planned to show the picture to my best friend Crayvon, but you can’t go to jail for something you were only thinking about doing.

 “If you have the picture on your phone,” Officer Fenton says, “just be truthful about it and we’ll see what we can do to keep you out of trouble.”

They must think I’m stupid. I do what my dad told me to do and keep my mouth shut.

Mean Cop pounds the table with his fist, making me jump two inches out of my chair. “Where’s your phone?”

I still don’t answer. Everybody has the right to remain silent, even kids.

“I said where’s your phone?” Mean Cop repeats.

I hide my hands underneath the table, so he can’t see them shaking.

Officer Fenton pats me on the shoulder. "C'mon, Graylin, you seem like a good kid. I bet you make good grades, don't you?"

I nod and start to tell them I got honors certificates in math and science last year, but I figure they still won’t let me go. “My dad”—I start to stutter—“my dad told me not to talk to the police without his permission.”

“Why don’t you help us out here?” Officer Fenton says. "We really need to see your phone. We'll take a quick look and if there’s no picture, we’ll send you back to class.”

 A squeaky voice comes out of my mouth. “It’s…it’s in my backpack.”

As soon as the words are out, I want to kick myself. Now I’ve just lied to the police. Again.

“And where’s your backpack?”

“In my locker.”

“Why don’t we go with you to your locker, so you can get it?” Officer Fenton says.

“My dad told me not to talk to the police without his permission,” I say for the third time.

Officer Fenton frowns. “This is a very serious matter, son.”

Mean Cop thumps his fingers on the table. "Why don’t you just—”

The voice of Young Thug singing RiRi fills the room.

Ah-ah-ah work

Do the work baby do the work

Tonight baby do the work baby do the work.

When I hear my ringtone, my stomach lurches up into my throat. I’m about to throw up the oatmeal I had for breakfast.        

Mean Cop scrunches up his face like a WWF wrestler. “Did your daddy also teach you to lie to the police? Give me the damn phone!”

I shakily pull it from my pocket and set it on the table.         

Officer Fenton picks it up, taps the screen, then looks over at me. “What’s the password?”

I stare down at the table.

“I said what’s the password?” Now he’s turning mean too.

“LeBron forty-three.”

“For your sake, young man, I hope you’re telling us the truth.”

I keep my eyes on the table. A bead of sweat falls from my forehead into my eye, but I don’t wipe it away.

“Why’re you sweating?" Mean Cop says. "You afraid we’re going to find that naked picture?”

After a couple of minutes, Officer Fenton looks at Mean Cop and shakes his head. “Nothing in his photos or texts. I only see a few recent emails. Nothing there either.” He sets it back on the table.

Mean Cop grunts. “Let me look.” He stretches one of his short arms across the table and grabs my phone.

He taps the screen a few times, then starts smiling. “Well, well, well, what do we have here? Looks like you forgot to check his deleted pictures, partner.”

Mean Cop holds up my phone and shows me the picture I thought was gone forever. A warm trickle of pee runs down my left leg.

“You’re quite the little liar, aren’t you?” Mean Cop yells at me. “Where’re the rest of the pictures?”

“There aren’t any more,” I stutter. “That was the only one I had.”

“Did you take it?”

"No."

"You lied about your phone being in your locker, you lied about having this picture, and you’re still lying now!"

“My…my dad”—I can’t get my words out—“my dad told me not to talk to the police without his permission.”

“When your daddy told you that, he didn’t realize you’d be in this kind of trouble. If you didn’t take this picture, how’d it get on your phone?”

“Somebody sent it to me.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know.”

My throat hurts and it feels like somebody’s pressing down on my chest. If the table wasn’t in the way, I’d hug my knees to my chest.

Mean Cop pulls out his handcuffs and dangles them from his finger. “Stop lying and tell us the truth,” he barks. “If you don’t, you’re going to jail.”

Chapter 4

        The Shepherd

If you have to do time, Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution outside Dallas—or The Low as we call it—isn’t a bad place to spend a few years.

I’m in the yard, sitting at a picnic table, gazing down at my chess board, contemplating my next move. The sun is shining and the birds are chirping. The only thing spoiling this day is the heat. The Texas humidity is thick enough to butter a roll.

Marty Geller, a pudgy, ex-hedge fund manager, sits across from me. Everybody calls him Wallstreet. Few guys go by their real names at The Low. A full name is too much information to give up to just anybody. I only know Wallstreet’s full name because he’s my cellie.

The opportunity to rub shoulders with the criminal elite is what I like most about The Low. We have our fair share of low-level drug dealers and con men, but there’s also a guy on my floor who’s a Harvard grad convicted of embezzlement and a couple of doctors who wrote too many illegal prescriptions. When this is all behind us, Wallstreet and I have already made plans to do a deal or two.

Once I make my move, Wallstreet shoots me a grin. “You sure that’s the move you wanna make, Rodney?”

I chuckle. Real names are a no-no around here. Everybody calls me Cali because that’s where I’m from. Saying my real name is part of Wallstreet’s tactic to unnerve me, but I’m not easily rattled.

I move my queen to the opposite side of the board and wait.

On the street, I had a solid rep as a strategist. I ran my operation like a business—and not just any business—but like a Fortune 500 corporation with checks and balances. I’m not like most guys who pursue criminal activities. I rarely lose my cool, I respect the concept of patience and I understand that all money isn’t good money. I’m also a college graduate.

Wallstreet places a finger on his rook, waits a few seconds while he triple-checks himself, then zips it horizontally across the board.

I taunt him with a smile. “Are you sure that’s the move you wanna make?”

“You can’t bluff me,” he says. The uncertainty in his eyes undercuts his response.

I pretend to study the board, then make a move that I put in place three turns ago. “Check...” I like stringing out the words “…mate.”

“What?” Wallstreet leans in for a closer look, then chuckles with brotherly admiration. “Okay, you got me. You got me good. This time.”

He starts setting up the board again, but I stand up. “I need to take a stretch.”

I begin a leisurely walk across the compound. This place looks more like a private college campus than a prison. Manicured grass, leafy trees, paved walkways. Brick buildings that could pass for college dorms. Cells with actual doors, not bars. But it’s the freedom to roam the place—within limits—that I appreciate the most.

My given name is Rodney Merriweather, but I’m known as The Shepherd on the street. The feds convicted me of sex trafficking—the politically correct term for pimping nowadays. The guys I associate with at The Low know that trafficking is the reason I’m here. But that’s all they know and I prefer to keep it that way. Criminals have a strange code of ethics. A man can stab his own mother in the heart and get a pass. But some dudes think pimping little girls is akin to being a chomo—the prison nickname for child molesters. Even though my conviction for trafficking requires me to register as a sex offender once I get out of here, I’m not a chomo. I’m a businessman who was smart enough to capitalize on a product that happened to be in high demand.

Because I had no prior criminal record and no history of violence, my point total—the way the feds determine whether a convict will end up in a low, medium or maximum-security prison—qualified me for The Low.

I spot my target. Correctional Officer Sims is walking out of unit 5. As I get closer, he gives me an almost imperceptible nod as he walks past.

That’s the signal I’ve been waiting for. I pick up my pace and head inside the building. I walk to the end of the hallway and open the door of the Education Department, where I work as a copy clerk. All inmates at The Low are required to work at least four hours a day. The minimum wage in federal prison is $5.25 a month. If you have a high school diploma, a job like mine, where I spend my days making copies for the Bureau of Prisons, pays a whopping $100 a month. If you can swing a gig with Unicor, the company that makes clothes for the entire prison system, you can make upwards of two or three hundred dollars a month.

Old School is waiting for me. He’s a sixty-plus serial burglar from Decatur, Georgia, with nobody who cares enough to put any money on his books. So he hustles anyway he can.

Without words, he moves to the doorway and acts like he’s talking to me. What he’s really doing is serving as my lookout. If he sees the police—that’s what we call the correctional officers behind their backs—he’ll give me a signal.

I dash over to the third file cabinet on the north wall and retrieve the iPhone Sims left for me in a folder.

It was harder than I expected to find a correctional officer to buy off. But after bonding with Wallstreet, he introduced me to C.O. Sims. Like any working man, Sims has bills to pay and mouths to feed. I have needs too, like decent food, Michael Kors underwear and regular access to a cell phone. It was well worth the two grand. I had one of my guys wire the money to a special bank account Sims set up in his brother’s name.

I dial Willie’s number.

 “How’s the new project working out?” I never offer a greeting. Willie knows my time is limited.

 “I found a new guy who can get to work on it right away. Everything’s in motion.”

Willie’s been running my trafficking operation since my arrest. Prior to my hiatus, he handled security at my now-defunct strip club, City Stars. I promoted him to my second-in-command out of necessity, not because he has the requisite skills for the job.

“You doing much advertising?”

“Yeah. I practically announced it from a bullhorn.”

That makes me smile. I can see Dre Thomas now. Cowering someplace wondering when my guys are coming for him, never anticipating my bait-and-switch move. Before we get to him, we’re actually snatching his niece Brianna for a second time.

The man brought all of this on himself. He should’ve been grateful to get the kid back and moved on. Instead, he had the balls to testify against me in court. And for that, he’s going to pay.

“Sounds like you have everything under control. How long before the project is operational?”

“A few days at the most.”

“And the new guy is somebody you trust, correct?”

“For sure.”

“How’s the other business working out?”

“Like butter, baby.” I can almost see the smile on Willie’s thick lips.

He’s referring to my Birmingham operation. After the feds shut me down, I shipped the few girls I had left down south.

Once we snatch Brianna, she’ll be headed there too.

Chapter 5

Dre

Two of the people I trust most in the world are kicking it at my crib right now.

Mossy is sitting on my couch, while I’m slouching in an easy chair across from him. My cousin Apache is standing with his back pressed against the door. Every few minutes or so, he lifts the edge of the curtain covering the picture window and peers outside.

"I'm telling you, man, it's all over the street,” Apache says. “It ain't no bluff. The Shepherd put the word out. He wants you dead."

A long, braided ponytail runs past his shoulder blades. He earned his nickname because of his Native American features: bronzy skin, shiny, coal-black hair, and a bold, fearless demeanor that defies his small stature.  

"I'm hearing all of this," Mossy says, his face drenched in disapproval, "but I ain't hearing no solutions.”

My buddy is a large, chunky dude who sports a smooth, bald head like me. Mossy is a careful guy. He prefers to analyze all the pros and cons of a situation before making a move. “So what’s the plan?" he asks.

Apache grins eagerly. “The plan is to kill his ass. That’s the only way to shut him down for good.”

Mossy smacks his lips. “Man, how you gonna take out a dude in federal prison?” He glances my way for confirmation that my cousin’s statement is crazy.

When my eyes meet his and Mossy realizes I’m on board, he retreats.

“C’mon, man, I’m all the way down with having your back. But I ain’t trying to go down for no murder.” He hooks a thumb toward Apache. “And certainly not with this cowboy.”

“Ain’t nobody going down for nothing,” Apache says. “I know how to handle my business. If you wanna punk out, the door is right over there.”

“Dude, you’re full of—”

“Hold up!” I shout. “This ain’t helping. We’re just talking. Considering our options.”

This whole scene feels like deja vu. We convened here after Brianna went missing. We were successful then and we’ll be successful this time too.

I understand Mossy’s reluctance about working with Apache. So if he bails on us, I won’t hold it against him. My cousin can be a bit of a renegade. He’s likely to ignore any agreed-upon plan and go off on his own tangent. But Apache does have his strong points. He knows the streets of L.A. and has both direct and indirect ties to the criminals who run them. More importantly, he’s the most loyal, fearless dude I know. When somebody he cares about needs help, Apache transforms into a flame-retardant super hero, willing to run naked into a blazing building.

“We should've taken him out when we had the chance," Apache complains. "I could’ve caught his ass walking into that courthouse and busted a cap right in the middle of his forehead."

"That would've been a real smart move,” Mossy says.

I rub the back of my neck and slowly twist my head from side to side. In stressful situations, tension always settles deep in my neck.

"Whatever we do,” I say, “we have to be smart about it.”

Apache nods his agreement, then takes another surreptitious peek out of the window.

“Why you keep looking outta that window?” Mossy grumbles.

“For The Shepherd’s dudes. We don’t know when they gonna strike.”

That reality sends another spasm through my already-tight neck muscles.  

“You know he's still running little girls from prison, right?" Apache says.

My head jerks up. "You serious?"

“As a heart attack. Shep’s got a whole new trafficking operation down south in Birmingham. He also owns a bar over on Central called Craps. The dude who used to own it was going bankrupt. Shep bought him out and lets him work there. The dude’s name is on the paperwork, but it’s really all Shep. Ain’t that a mother?"

“Where's Gus?" Mossy asks.

Gus is more like Mossy, a rational, out-of-the-box thinker. But if somebody pushes his button, Gus can be even more volatile than Apache.

“Graylin got into some trouble at school," I say. "Hopefully, Gus’ll be here any minute."

Mossy nods. “As much as he's paying to send Graylin to that private school. I hope he ain't down there screwing up."

“Naw,” I say. “That boy’s college material for sure. I wish some of his smarts would rub off on Little Dre.”

"So back to the problem at hand." Apache’s focus is solely on The Shepherd. “The first thing we need to do is go on the offensive.”

Mossy’s about to say something when my phone rings. I grab it from the table and start moving toward my bedroom. “It’s Angela. Give me a minute.”

Before I can say hello, Angela’s excitement gushes through the phone. “Did you get my text? When can you come look at the house? It’s a three-bedroom on Edgehill. It’s so cute."

I suck in a deep breath.

“Dre? Are you there?”

“Yeah, babe.”

“The real estate agent has two other people interested in it. So we have to act fast.”

My fingers tighten around the phone. “Can’t do it today.”

“Okay, what about tomorrow morning?”

I count off five long beats. “We’ll see.”

We’ll see? What does that mean?”

I love black women. They can transition from syrupy sweetness to outright indignation at the flip of a switch.

“I have a lot going on at the moment.”

 “Look, Dre, you’re the one who brought up moving in together in the first place. If you’ve changed your mind, you need to tell me now. I don’t want to waste any more time looking for a place if—”

“Hey, young lady, hold your horses,” I say with a chuckle. “I haven’t changed my mind. I just have a few things I need to handle first.”

“What few things?”

“Nothing I have time to explain right now. Can we talk later?”

I let the silence linger. Angela’s a classic Type A. Impatient, proactive, always in control. She hates being in the dark about anything.

“Dre, if it’s about money and you don’t have your half of the deposit, I can—”

“It’s not about money, babe.” My tone hardens. “Give me some time to handle my business. Okay?”

Strong women dig strong men. Whenever I toughen up, she goes soft. But only temporarily.

“Okay,” she says hesitantly.

I rush her off the phone and head back into the living room.

"Like I was saying," Apache starts up again, “first thing we need to do is show him you ain’t running scared. Let’s step to his bar and let his peeps know that Shep's the one who needs to be watching his back cuz Dre got people in the joint who can make things happen."

"But he don’t," Mossy points out.

Apache puffs out his chest. “I got connections to all kinda dudes who can get the job done."

Mossy moves to the edge of the couch. "Hold up. Whatever we do, we need to be smart about it. The more people involved, the more potential for problems.”

"You’re underestimating me, my brutha," Apache declares with a crooked smile. "Need I remind you that I'm the only one in this room who ain't never seen the interior of the county jail, much less a prison? There's a reason for that."

I smile to myself. Mossy has no comeback.

"I like the idea of showing up at Shep's bar," I say. "Let's do it tomorrow night."

Chapter 6

Gus

 I’ve been sitting in a hard-ass chair outside the principal’s office for almost 15 minutes now, getting more and more irritated. I don’t know why, but something doesn’t feel right.

What the hell did Graylin do?

I tried calling him, but got no answer. He must have his phone on mute since they aren’t allowed to use it in class.

The door to the principal’s office opens and Mrs. Keller shows me inside.

“What’s going on? Where’s Graylin?”

“Why don’t you have a seat, Mr. Alexander?”

I sit down, but I’m still on edge. “I need to know what’s going on with my son. Where is he?”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but we received an anonymous report that Graylin had an inappropriate picture on his cell phone.”

“What kind of inappropriate picture?”

“A photograph of a female classmate.” Mrs. Keller swallows. “Naked.”

I'm momentarily taken aback. My son’s no angel, but this isn't something I would’ve expected from him. But then again, in this day and age with everything kids are exposed to and all this technology mess, who knows what they’re up to. I start to breathe a little easier. A naked picture of a girl isn’t the end of the world.

“Okay. I’ll handle it. Who took the picture?”         

“We don’t know.”

        “Well, what did Graylin say about it?”

        “He denied having it.”

        “Did you see the picture?”

        “No.”

        “Then how do you know he has one?”

        “As I said, we received an anonymous report.”

        “Did you check his phone?”

        “No.”

        I'm not one of those parents who thinks my kid is an angel, but this sounds like something blown way out of proportion.

        “So what you’re telling me is that you don’t even know if the allegation is true.” And that’s all it is as far as I'm concerned. An allegation and nothing more.

“You have to understand that when we receive a report like this, there’s a certain protocol we have to follow.”

        I exhale. This is a bunch of crap. I can't believe I had to drive all the way down here for this bull.

        “I’ll talk to him. Where is he?”

        “He’s being interviewed by the police.”

        “Police?” I shoot to my feet so fast the chair topples backward, banging into the wall. “Like hell he is! The police can’t talk to my son without my permission. Take me to him. Now!”

        I hear yelling coming from the door to my right. Before the principal can stop me, I burst through it.

“What the fuck!” My son is in handcuffs, a white cop gripping him by the forearm.

        “Dad! Dad! Please help me!” Graylin cries. “Dad, please don’t let them arrest me!”

        I charge up to the cop holding Graylin. “What are you doing to my son?”

        “Sir, you need to calm down,” yells an Asian cop. He extends his right palm toward me while his other hand grazes the butt of his gun. “Please back up, sir!”

        I defiantly stay put. “I asked you what you’re doing to my son. You can’t interrogate him without my permission.”

“I told you to step back!” the Asian cop yells, twice as loud as before.

When I still don’t move, he snatches his Beretta from its holster and points it at me. “I said back up! Now!”

“Oh my God!” the principal cries. “Please, Mr. Alexander. Please step back!”

        “Dad, Dad, please go back!” Graylin’s sobbing hysterically now. “They’re going to shoot you. I’m okay! Please, Dad, go back! Please!”

        The only reason I take two small steps backward is because the cop’s hand is so unsteady I fear he might actually shoot me. But I’m way madder than he is nervous.

        The cop lowers his gun but doesn’t return it to the holster.

        Heat stings my face. “What are you doing to my son?”

        “Sir, you need to lower your voice,” says the cop restraining Graylin.

        “You can’t talk to him without my permission.”

        “We don’t need your permission,” the white cop says.

“Please, Dad!” Graylin cries. “It’s okay! I’ll be okay. Please, Dad! I don’t want them to shoot you! Please do what they say!”

The Asian cop looks past me at the principal. “We found the picture.”

        Principal Keller gasps and cups her mouth.

I’m so pissed off my vision is blurry. But it’s my son’s terror-stricken face, not the Beretta still in that cop’s hand that forces me to regain control of my senses. I take a few more steps back, lower my voice, but amplify my outrage.

        “Why is my son in handcuffs?”

        The Asian cop eyes me with contempt. “Because he’s under arrest.”

        “For what?”

“Possession of child pornography.”

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Abuse of Discretion