At just after one Friday morning, Katrina Kate Mercer wove through the crowd jammed into Skipper’s Lounge, an intimate nightclub in the playground of Kingston Park, Ohio. Drake’s latest track throbbed and echoed all around her, and she swayed to the music. In her early thirties and beautiful, she slapped away a palm that pawed her pair of D-cups.
“Watch it,” she warned to a leering, vertically challenged man. She took in the air. It stank of marijuana, tobacco and sweat. Her roving, mahogany eyes took in the paint-peeling walls, holding up the drug and drink hazed partiers who looked as if they would drug and drink throughout Saturday morning. Kate trailed a hulking man who had a tattoo of a pair of sensual red lips on the right side of his neck.
“Is CC still here, Eight-Ball,” Kate inquired, just loud enough to be heard.
The man with the red-lip tattoo jerked his head to the left and said, “Yeah, she’s here. She’s with some loser, and she’s in rare form. But she asked for you. Otherwise, I would’ve called your other girl.” The other girl was their friend, Wendy.
Kate’s eyes swept the direction in which Eight Ball jerked his head, and they rested on her bovine friend. “Booze or weed,” she asked.
“Booze. It’s the reason I called you. I thought she was back on the wagon. She’s not making sense, and she’s making an ass out of herself.”
Kate examined her friend and shook her head because CC was a mess. She tossed her tangle of long blond hair back and chuckled while listening to something her companion whispered in her ear.
Kate turned to Eight-Ball. “Can you help me get her to my car?”
Eight-Ball’s cobalt eyes raked over Kate’s body then rested on her breasts. “Can I help you get her into the car? Yeah, I’ll help. For a price. By the way, I’ve noticed…you’re filling out nicely.”
While Eight-Ball undressed her with X-ray eyes, Kate blushed and buttoned her suit jacket. “Stop looking at me like that. I’m serious.”
He leered at her breasts again. “So am I. I like chocolate. You know?”
Go screw yourself, she thought before shaking her head and saying, “I’m spoken for.”
Eight-Ball smirked and said, “That’s not the way I hear it. Your friend CC dished about you and your girl, Wendy.”
Kate bit her lip. CC was in need of some Pepto Bismol because she had a bad case of diarrhea of the mouth whenever she gets drunk. Kate held up her iPhone and read her last text message. Mom is missing. That was from Jennifer Johnson, the eldest of CC’s twins. Cecilia Schmidt Johnson, of German descent, was a forty-two-year-old mother of two. She’d recently taken up with a loser named Ralph, an unemployed construction worker. Three days ago CC ran off with the loser.
In about two days, Cecilia Schmidt Johnson will return to being Cecilia Schmidt.
The change in status was the reason her twin daughters were worried. It was why Kate was risking her health in a smoke-filled nightclub, trying to track her friend down and ease the twins’ angst.
Two years ago, CC’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Donald, had caught her having an affair. He walked out on her, taking custody of their then fourteen-year-old twins. Her husband, a wealthy physician, did not want his family humiliated by his wife’s affair, especially since CC had slept with a prominent member of their social circle. Now Kate had to calm the fears of her friend’s daughters by tracking down her friend.
“Please find her,” Jennifer Johnson had begged when she and Kate had met up two hours ago.
And Kate had done just that, tracking CC to Skipper’s Lounge via cruising every bar in downtown Cincinnati and neighboring Kingston Park. Luckily Eight-Ball had used CC’s iPhone to contact Kate. He’d agreed to meet her at the establishment’s entrance, and now Eight-Ball was openly requesting a quid pro quo.
“Whadoyasay?” He smiled, displaying jagged yellow teeth. “How ‘bout we hook up tomorrow?”
Not a chance, Kate wanted to say. Instead, she stated, “I’ll collect her myself.” She moved past him toward the entrance to the dance floor. She stepped onto the packed floor, joining the sweaty writhing bodies now gyrating to the tune of Drake’s latest track. As she whirled, she noticed CC gaping, and Kate beckoned her over.
CC whispered something in her companion’s ear, disentangled herself then swayed and waddled over to the dance floor. “What’re you doin’ here?” CC slurred.
“I need to talk to you,” Kate yelled over the music. “I’m havin’ a hard time coping with my man.”
“What’s Carrington into now? Red heads? Brunettes? Another African-American?” She ran her tongue over even top teeth. “Or perhaps he’s finally into his wife again?”
That stung, and Kate stopped dancing, for her beau, Carrington Grant, was still very married and still very involved with Kate. They had met at her office exactly a year ago, after he’d come in to purchase some insurance.
A few well-placed compliments from him and two dinners later, they shared their first kiss. And after one long weekend getaway to Paris, they shared their first bed. Now, one condo later, Kate was wondering how she would broach the subject of marriage. She intended to do so the next day at their ritual Saturday night dinner.
Kate sauntered off the dance floor with CC in tow. They took the table where CC’s companion sat. He scowled.
“Gotta help out, Sista Girl,” CC said to him.
Kate hated when CC got drunk because her mouth spewed all kinds of unflattering words. She turned her attention to the companion.
With gray stubble sprouting from his lips and chin, he leaned forward and slurred, “Whadda you want my woman into?” His left eye twitched, and he shoved stringy, dishwater blond hair off his forehead.
Kate sighed and turned to her friend. “Ready to go?”
CC shrugged, leaned in and pecked the man on the cheek. “See ya’, Ralphie.”
Ralph stood and blocked Kate. “Why don’t you mind yo’ own damn business?” He was up in her face, breathing heavily and reeking of liquor.
“I’m taking my friend home. Her kids are worried.” Kate sidestepped him, but Ralph remained up in her face.
“Hey, you could get hurt one of these days interfering with me and CC.”
Staring into his beady little eyes, Kate felt a chill travel down her spine. Even nearly drunk, this man was scary-looking, but Kate never let on her feelings. She smiled tightly and said, “Duly noted, Ralph.” She tugged CC. toward the exit.
They ended up at a Waffle House in Glendale, not far from CC’s apartment complex. The waitress was filling CC’s coffee mug when she announced, “The food’s comin’ right up.”
Kate took in the smell of bacon and eggs, and her stomach started churning. She placed a hand over her abdomen, sighed and started right in on CC. “Jennifer and Jackie are quite worried about you, so they called Wendy and me, and we’ve been looking for you ever since. You shouldn’t have put them through all that. It’s wrong and disrespectful.”
CC spread her arms. “Here I am. In da flesh. You found me. They’re a bunch of worry warts.” She took a sip of coffee and sat up straight when the door opened. She cackled as a willowy woman with porcelain skin and spiky auburn hair rolled her eyes and strutted over to the booth.
“Thanks for calling me, Kate. Is she sober?” Wendy Mason asked. Once a professional model, she fell in love for a time but never married the man of her dreams. The torrid affair resulted in an unplanned pregnancy, and it ended after Wendy’s lover took sole custody of their infant son.
She had adjusted well to the arrangement, except for the occasional forlorn glances at the photo she carried inside the silver locket around her neck.
“You guys, I sittin’ right here. Don’t talk like I’m not here, Wendy,” CC said. She scowled and sipped her coffee. CC screwed up her nose. “I not drunk anymore.”
“Sure you’re not, sweetie,” Wendy said, turning to Kate and mouthing what the fuck?
“She was with Ralph,” Kate said, watching the waitress set a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and wheat toast before them. Bleary-eyed CC just ogled the food, so Kate grabbed a fork and began shoveling eggs into CC’s mouth.
“Who’s Ralph?” Wendy asked.
Kate shrugged her shoulders. The scent of the breakfast wafted to Kate’s nostrils, overwhelming her, causing the bile to rise in her throat. She bolted from the table holding a hand over her mouth, burst inside the bathroom and vomited into the toilet.
As she stood over the sink, she gazed into the mirror at her puffy eyes and noticed her cheeks were filling out. Worst of all, her boobs were straining the fabric of her midnight-blue suit. Would Carrington still think her beautiful after she started really showing? She placed a hand over her fluttering belly. “Oh, baby. Why’re you doing this to me?” She splashed some water over her face and rinsed her mouth.
When a pale faced Kate returned to her friends, CC’s head was on the table. Wendy gaped. “What?” Kate snapped, not really meaning to do so.
Wendy ran her fingers through her short, spiked auburn hair and said matter-of-factly, “You’re pregnant.”
CC’s head popped up. “Wh-what? You? Oh no,” she groaned. “W-Wendeee, tell Kate why dat’s not a g-good idea.”
Burning with indignation, Kate slid into the booth, sitting beside CC. “What’re you talking about, CC?”
“Ahm talkin’ ‘bout Cary Grant. Not junior, but senior. The rich asshole you’re screwin’.”
Kate self-consciously scanned the restaurant and decided no one was paying attention. She leaned into CC and whispered, “Will you keep your voice down?”
CC giggled and asked, “Scared the missus is spyin’ on you?”
“If she is spyin’, one of my best friends is certainly supplying ammo. You’re sloppy drunk and need to sleep it off. Let’s get you home.”
CC shook her head and hiccupped. “N-not ‘til I tell you why havin’ Cary Grant’s baby is a bad idea. Ya’ see: he discards his women after he finishes with them. Doesn’t he, Wendy?” She peered at Wendy. “He’ll never leave Elizabeth.” CC tossed her head back and cackled. It was a stab right through the heart and not what Kate wanted to hear.
“Shut up, CC,” Wendy snapped.
“I don’t have to shut up. You know? I wrote about you both. My manuscript will sell millions. It’s about a rich asshole and his harem.”
Wendy rolled her eyes. “She needs more coffee.”
CC needed more than just coffee. She needed a butt kicking. Kate sighed. She’d had enough. Addressing Wendy, Kate asked, “Can you get her home? I’m beat.” After Wendy nodded, Kate exited Waffle House, started up her sleek silver BMW and screeched out of the parking lot. She was halfway down the block when she glimpsed a sedan pulling out of the Waffle House parking lot too. Good, Wendy had coaxed CC out of there.
Kate entered I75 and drove south. Fifteen minutes later she pulled into the garage at Roosevelt Place, a building of luxury condos in downtown Cincinnati. She’d bought the unit five days ago. It was a splendid two-bedroom with a spectacular view of the river and Paul Brown stadium.
Kate was both pleased and perturbed that the previous owner, a corporate attorney in his late thirties, had been forced to sell it at a bargain price after losing his job. Of course, she hadn’t told her lover, Carrington Grant, that she had been condo-shopping.
He would wonder where she got the money. Could she possibly tell Carrington that she’d sold half of the jewelry he’d given her and come up with half the price of the condo? She dared not sell the BMW he’d gifted her on her thirty-first birthday, even though Kate thought it too ostentatious.
She got out of her car and headed for the garage elevator. Footsteps echoed behind her, and she glanced over her shoulder. A black man with dreadlocks was closing in on her. She flashed back to the memory of a sedan following her from Waffle House’s parking lot, and a terrible foreboding overcame her.
That wasn’t Wendy and CC following her out of Waffle House. Fingers of fear gripped her as the unreasonable suspicion that someone else had followed her threatened to overwhelm her. With her heart hammering in her chest, Kate bolted inside the open elevator car and stabbed the button for the eighth floor. She could hear the rush of footsteps bearing down on her, causing her heart to almost erupt from her chest. Jabbing at the button, she screamed, “Come on!”
Finally, the elevator doors closed, and the car ascended. When it stopped on the third floor, Kate held her breath as a teen with ear buds sprouting from his ears boarded the elevator. He nodded, pressed the button for the tenth floor and slid to the back of the car.
After the doors closed again, the car climbed to the eighth floor and deposited a frightened Kate. She forced her cement-like legs out of the elevator and hurried to 805C as quickly as her leaden legs permitted her.
Inside her unit, she tossed her keys on the table in the lit foyer. At night, Kate used an automatic timer to ensure that soft light glowed in the foyer because Kate was very afraid of the dark. That fear stemmed from her father placing her inside a hamper and closing the lid. Or he’d place Kate on the floor of in a dark closet whenever her father felt Kate had stepped out of line as a five-year-old.
She moved to one of the living room’s floor-to-ceiling windows and took in the view. The river shimmered below, and Paul Brown Stadium was dark. Ribbons of vehicles crossed the Brent Spence Bridge. Then she thought about the chase. Fingers of fear kneaded Kate’s spine, and she shuddered. What if I’m not safe inside my new home? She shook her head and thought, Of course I’m safe. The only people with access to the garage are my fellow residents.