A Conversation Between Claudia and Scarlet
“Two grown men playing hopscotch. Never in my life had I thought to see the day.” Claudia sighed as she eased down into one of the two Adirondack chairs set on the Craftsman’s covered front verandah. The ice cubes in her tall glass of tea jangled a merry tune as she sat back. Glancing over at the Filipino occupying the chair next to her, she grinned widely. “’Course if someone told me fifteen years ago I’d be sitting next to a man prettier than most women I’d ever known I’d have called them a dirty liar.”
Lifting her glass in merry salute, Scarlet purred at her friend, “I thank you for the compliment. And it’s not as if they’re doing it alone. The girls seem to enjoy their company.”
The day’d turned ugly. A bit of sun chased off by a thunderstorm strong enough to rattle the dead from their graves. Instead of a backyard picnic, the afternoon became games of jump rope and hopscotch under the broad carport after Cole backed their cars out onto the driveway. The girls’ laughter was punctuated by Cole’s deep rumbling light curses as he toppled over, unable to keep his balance when he bent to retrieve his place marker.
“I’ve never seen that boy happier,” Claudia admitted softly. Nodding at the transvestite sitting next to her, she smiled. “Lots of that has to do with your boy, Jae. He’s good for Cole.”
“After being bad for each other for so very long,” Scarlet replied, matching Claudia’s grin. “Ah, my musang’s settled in with someone who loves him. So, I would say it’s good for them both.”
They were as different as two women could get—a large black woman with Southern roots with eight children, and a beautiful Filipino man kept as a lifelong mistress to a powerful Korean businessman. Still, they’d come together as friends, finding more than common ground between them, and Claudia was thankful Jae’d brought Scarlet with him when he tumbled into Cole’s life.
Although—she thought as she eyed the gorgeous man sitting next to her in black capris, fluffy pink sweater and a rhinestone headband holding back her long ebony hair, Scarlet could have been a little less beautiful.
“Stop comparing us.” Scarlett chuckled. “I can see your brain clicking away there. You’re gorgeous all on your own, Miss Claudia. And don’t you forget it.”
“Well at least eight times in my life,” she shot back. “Maybe more if you count the times I was taking practice runs at it.”
“And here’s to practice runs.” Scarlet lifted her glass again. “One of the best things about relationships.”
A brief playful argument broke out under the carport when Cole objected to Jae’s bending backwards to grab his marker before continuing on. The girls sided against their adopted uncle and Cole’s accusations of fierce betrayal were met with cascades of mocking giggles. The women on the porch smiled, each lost in their own thoughts as they watched the men they’d taken in and claimed as their own.
“Did I ever tell you about the first time I met that boy?” Claudia made herself comfortable against the thick pillows she’d placed on the chair’s hard seat and back. Scarlet shook her head in response, murmuring for her friend to continue. “Ah, see I’d retired from the school district and damned if I wasn’t squirrelly after a few months. I was not meant to sit at home and watch soaps. And there’s only so much volunteering at my church I can do before I start want to commit murder. Cackling women. I don’t have time in my life for that nonsense.”
“So you went looking for a job? Here?” Scarlet smiled. “I can’t even imagine what Cole thought when you came through the door.”
“I never asked him. Took one look at that boy and said, “God, thank you for leading me here because this one here, he needs me. Like a desert needs rain.” A wave of sadness lapped at Claudia’s contentment and she glanced back over to the carport where the man in question wore a smile broad enough to chase away the storm clouds above them. “He was… a ghost, Scarlet honey. Fine looking man. A bit too skinny ‘cause he’d been sick for a while and just gotten back up onto his feet. But something in side of him…well, everything inside of him was dead. There was nothing in those green eyes of his but sorrow and pain. Lord, I wanted to scrape that off of his soul so it could breathe again.”
“He seems to be breathing fine now,” Scarlet murmured, leaning forward to get a better look at the impromptu play yard. “His ass is fine too.”
“Shoulders,” Claudia corrected. “And legs. Boy’s got legs and shoulders for days. My Sissy’s got a teeny crush on him. Makes Mo nervous as hell until he remembers Cole’s got eyes for no one but Jae. What about you? First time you saw your boy?”
“Oh, that day.” Scarlet’s eyes glistened, softening with a long-ago pain. “He was…. Oh, so young. God, Claudia, he must have been fifteen. Maybe even younger. His cousin—”
“Dying was too good of a thing to happen to that man,” Claudia grumbled and Scarlet shot her a veiled look. “Just saying. Some people, they should live a long time. A long suffering time.”
“I was so angry,” Scarlet admitted. “At—Jae’s cousin. His aunt. Everyone really. Hyung—my Min Ho—talked me out of killing them all. He was all eyes and skinny. Too pretty. Much too pretty for a place where men suck dick to make a living. Oh, but he could dance. So I told the manager that Jae was only dancing. Nothing else. And if I caught him doing anything else—”
“You scare me with those crazy eyes of yours,” Claudia cut in. “Seriously, honey.”
“He knew I meant it.” She sniffed, stirring the straw in her iced tea. “I paid two of the bouncers to watch Jae because I knew that manager couldn’t be trusted. Five nights later, the man was picking his teeth up off the men’s bathroom floor, and someone else was running the floor. So then, only dancing for my Jae.”
“And the less we speak about his bitch mother—”
“Cole’s as well,” Scarlet chimed in. “Well, Barbara. That is one woman I would cheerfully push in front of a bus.”
“Good, because you know, I know how to drive one of those. We could totally take care them both.” She cocked her head, thinking. “Wasn’t there a cartoon like that? Or was it an old movie? Woman on the tracks all tied up and some man comes to save her?”
“I’d shoot him if he tried.” As she tucked her legs under her, Scarlet smoothed a piece of hair away from her face. “Those two have had enough shit hit them. It’s time for them to enjoy life. Enjoy each other.”
“Not going to happen as long as Cole’s chasing his ghosts.” Frowning slightly, Claudia listened to the bickering between Cole and Jae, nodding satisfactorily when Jae’s light-hearted teasing was met with laughter. “I worry about him. About them both. Okay, mostly about Cole, but Jae does some stupid ass things too. Boy thinks he’s invincible sometimes. Cole. Not Jae. Although if that boy keeps playing Batman off of some of those buildings he crawls up on, I’m going to put him right in the crazy column too.”
“Jae tells me Cole has a lead…on something Ben left behind.” Scarlet was nearly whispering now, as if speaking out loud would draw tragedy to their door. “I don’t want him to…Cole…I don’t want him to go digging that up. It scares me, Claudia. Look at how much pain and death this has already brought to them. Why can’t he leave things alone? Isn’t Jae enough for him?”
“Scarlet, honey, you know Cole would give his life for Jae—”
“Then why won’t he live for him instead?” Scarlet pressed. “Why does he keep knocking on Death’s door?”
“Because Rick deserves not to be forgotten,” Claudia held her hand up to stave off Scarlet’s protest. “You know Cole loves Jae with all his heart, but Rick was his lover too. He did love Rick. And despite him moving on with his life, Cole owes Rick—and himself—some understanding there.”
“And Ben,” her friend conceded in a soft whisper. “He loved Ben like a brother. As much as he loved anyone.”
“Ben cut deeper than bone and blood. That boy took a bit of Cole’s soul with him when he killed himself.” Claudia eased herself out of the chair. “He just wants to get that piece back. Now, how about you and I call an end to recess and get some food in those kids’ bellies. Because I don’t know about you, but that kal-bi you and Jae made is calling my name.”
Watch Dreamspinner Press for Down and Dirty, the next book in the Cole McGinnis Series.
Release Date: Jan 2, 2015
About Rhys Ford: Rhys admits to sharing the house with three cats of varying degrees of black fur and a ginger cairnterrorist. Rhys is also enslaved to the upkeep a 1979 Pontiac Firebird, a Toshiba laptop, and an overworked red coffee maker.
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