They say the love of money is the root of all evil, but for Ken Swift, it's the love of a woman.
Ken is twenty-one, hurting people for cash to try to pay his way through college, when he lays eyes on Jimi Lee, the woman who will change the course of his entire life. What's meant to be a one-night stand with the Harvard-bound beauty turns into an explosion of sexual chemistry that neither can quit. And when Jimi Lee becomes pregnant, their two very different worlds collide in ways they never could have anticipated.
Passion, infidelity, and raw emotion combine in Eric Jerome Dickey's poignant, erotic portrait of a relationship: the rise, the fall, and the scars—and desire—that never fade.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Hometown:Los Angeles, California
Date of Birth:July 7, 1961
Place of Birth:Memphis, Tennessee
Education:B.S., University of Memphis, 1983
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Eric Jerome Dickey
C H A P T E R 1
Los Angeles, 1996
That Friday night we’d been sent to Club Fetish by our employer, San Bernardino.
I was a bill collector, a small-time enforcer, and had to talk to a stubborn man about an overdue debt. He was ninety days late with the duckets.That was the night I met her.
I was driving; had the top down on my convertible Benz, warm air turning cool as we moved through desert county down unforgiving La Cienega Boulevard. La Cienega was Spanish for “the swamp” and rightfully so, since it was always inundated with traffic. My coworker and I had rolled north from the edges of Culver City to the overcrowded area up into Hollywood, had left the workingmen’s zip codes around ten p.m. and mixed in with the pretenders and tourists rocking BMWs, Lamborghinis, and Maseratis. A couple of DeLorean DMC-12s were on the road with the luxury and sports cars. A Ghanaian who called himself Jake Ellis was at my side. He was my wingman. We were well dressed, fashionable, as I moved us from Leimert Park to the plastic and pretentious side of Los Angeles, the mile-and-a-half stretch of Sunset between Hollywood and Beverly Hills known worldwide as the Sunset Strip. Bright lights, six lanes of snarling traffic. Hundreds of clubs and bars existed on a snaking street that stretched from the bustle of downtown LA’s Garment District and her skid row to the ocean-side mansions of the rich and more-famous-than-rich in Malibu. One end of Sunset was poverty and obscurity, and the opposite end was fame or fortune, or fame and fortune if enough people loved your acting, your directing, or the cocaine you sold. That twenty-two-mile boulevard was a metaphor. It was everyman’s journey. Not many made it from Crackland to Cocaineville. Men like me had started in the middle but still had spent all of their lives trying to make it from one end to the other. Women had done the same. I wasn’t even halfway. Most days felt like I was still at the starting gate. But I was young. I had time.
As we crawled past the Comedy Store, Jake Ellis asked, “Bruv, we set?”
Checking out droves of foreign women as the club hopped, I nodded. “We set, bro. We set.”
“Yeah. But I’m leaving it in the stash spot. Security’s gonna search us.”
Jake Ellis nodded. “Some fine women out tonight.”
“Always. From all over the world. Every woman in the world ends up here at some point.”
“Women in Ghana and Nigeria still look better.”
“I’ll bet they do.”
“How would you know?”
“You say it over and over.”
I cruised the section of West Hollywood bounded by Doheny Drive on the west and Crescent Heights Boulevard on the east, went down a mile and a half of that metaphor called the Sunset Strip, where celebrities went to overdose curbside, hollered at a few honeys from the car, took advantage of rocking a convertible, then turned back around, headed to our official destination. The Strip was in party mode. It was always in party mode.
When the sun set, the lights were brighter than Vegas and the sky was polluted with billboards pimping out the latest up-and-coming Hollywood movie. People sat in traffic, bumper to bumper, from sundown until two in the morning. Headlights for miles; brake lights for days. The mile-and-a-half commercial strip was packed with restaurants and clubs. Sunset Boulevard was drug central, Cocaine University, the Hollywood culture on steroids.
Jake Ellis asked, “Heard from that girl you broke up with?”
“I called Lupita a few times. Left a couple of messages. Left my pager number. Nothing.”
“She’s got a new dude and she’s not looking back this way.”
“So it goes.”
“Not many women can handle what we do.”
“Never should have told her.”
“I told you that from jump street.”
With Jake Ellis at my side, I stepped into the spotlight of a swank alcohol-and cocaine-filled club near the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, blended with a twenty-one-and-over crowd rocking it out to Biggie Smalls. Mostly white people. White people loved rap music the way people from Memphis loved Beale Street barbecue. Men grabbed their dicks if they loved hip-hop and women rubbed their tits if they loved Big Poppa.
Jake Ellis said, “Spot is hot.”
“Packed like a can of sardines every night and this motherfucker crying broke.”
“Boss man will be here tonight?”
“He’ll be here. He’s back from Cancún, and San Bernardino verified he’d be here.”
“How bad we have to hurt this one?”
“Bad enough for him to never miss another payment to San Bernardino.”
“Yeah, pretty bad. But not as bad as we did that guy down in San Diego.”
With Jake Ellis leading the way, we moved through the controlled madness. Everybody flocked to the most expensive clubs, paid a grip to park, then popped E and did more white lines than were on I-5 going north. I never understood this life. It was a spot where liberals and freaks went to prove how liberal and freaky they were by having a bathroom fling or a ten-minute parking-lot rendezvous with someone from another culture, and some performed as strangers watched the show. There was plenty of girl-on-girl action in the stalls. Hollywood men were in back seats of luxury cars giving other Hollywood men brain too. Or those same men, those male ingénues who were hungry for fame, stood on a powerful man’s designated side of a glory hole. Anything to get a movie deal. Or just to get laid.
Jake Ellis said, “Your people are wild.”
“Shit, these ain’t my people.”
“They’re Americans. You’re American.”
“I’m African American.”
“No such thing because there is no such country.”
“That joke is getting old, bro.”
“There is no country called African America on a map. All of you capitalists are Americans.”
AIDS had arrived and made people think that getting herpes wasn’t such a bad deal after all. Gays died and President Reagan turned a blind eye because he was too busy with his war on drugs, which was really an extension of Nixon’s war on hippies and black and brown people. Hypocritical religious leaders were on the air preaching and smiling and laughing that AIDS was the work of God, his way of ridding the world of homosexuals. That was until white men saw masculine men like Rock Hudson catch the virus, wither, and succumb. Then God left the equation. AIDS billboards stood high on every boulevard in West Hollywood and South Central, but the rich and famous and their hangers-on still partied like it was already 1999. Some places, anything goes. Club Fetish was one of those spots. It was a new club, and people loved new things. Our boss, San Bernardino, had fronted an ambitious foreign man part of the money to make the club happen; was owed in the five figures, and the agreed-upon payments hadn’t been made since the club opened three months ago. We’d been sent to deliver a message. Not to Cabbage Patch or chat.
But that didn’t mean we weren’t gonna party a bit and check out the talent.
Jake Ellis was a Ghanaian who could be a boxing contender. He had grown up in abject poverty and used his hands to fight himself out of what would be called his African ghetto. Both of us grew up in boxing gyms, only his had no walls and no roof and his atmosphere was the weather. When we traveled as a team, it was always about the money. It was always for money owed to San Bernardino. We were the last men you wanted to see step in a room looking for you. We had been busting heads and breaking limbs for San Bernardino for three years. That money was being used to put me through college at UCLA. I was a sophomore, in my second year. I had started a year late because of lack of money. I had found a job that paid in cash, and doing a little wrong was going to make my life a lot more right.
I hurt people, but they weren’t good people. They always had it coming. There were bad people out there, but I was arrogant enough to think I was the baddest of the bad. There were wicked people, but I could be more wicked if I needed to be. When a man was young and yet to be humbled, hurting people could seem like fun.
I was twenty-one, rocking a convertible, young, dumb, and full of come, and still a man not easily distracted.
But when I saw her standing in the crowd, when my eyes touched hers, that changed.
Long, thick, wavy hair. Brown skin, sweet like agave. Pretty enough for Tom Ford to hire her for his fall Gucci line. White short skirt, red high heels, the right amount of cleavage given up by her red blouse. She should’ve been on the cover of Vogue Paris. There were a lot of fine-ass trust-fund girls in this arena sponsored by Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana, Victoria’s Secret, and Louis Vuitton. But she was the one who had my attention. It was more than her looks. It was all about energy. I saw her when Jake Ellis and I crossed the dance floor, saw her tugging on her hungry miniskirt, slowed my stroll and watched her pull it down. Soon as she did, it again tried to rise over the curve of her butt. She tugged. It was a never-ending battle. An erotic battle. I prayed for the miniskirt to win. She caught me looking and I winked at her. She moved her hair from her face.
Then she smiled. All it took to start trouble was a smile. That was how Delilah got Sampson. The cutie with the booty was with a guy who rocked a suit, but she stood out in the crowd of American Express–carrying cokeheads. Cutie had some energy that tugged me her way. Her gravitational pull was a beast. That energy muted the music and made everyone else fade into the background. For a moment, it was just me and her. Adam and Eve. Only my Eve probably wore a headscarf to bed and her hair smelled like coconut oil. And maybe she liked patchouli and burned incense every now and then. The instant I saw her, I was snared, and it took my mind off the reason I was there.
I grabbed his shoulder, told Jake Ellis, “Hold up, bro.”
“What’s up, bruv?”
The cutie stood next to her date, a well-dressed bro who looked successful. He was holding her hand, but she wasn’t holding his hand in return. She looked at me, touched her hair. A man held her hand and with a boldness, she smiled at me. I knew what that smile meant. She wanted to initiate something but didn’t know how to get free.
I posted half a smile and told Jake Ellis, “Keep your eye on the target.”
“He’ll be here all night.”
I motioned toward the pretty brown skin. “What you think?”
“She’s what we call a tonga.”
“That’s a Twi expression—a dialect of my country’s Akan language.”
“Break it down.”
“It means she is a gorgeous, overwhelmingly appealing woman.”
“And women like her have the power to lead the strongest of men into hard situations.”
“I can handle her.”
“The guy with her is looking at you like he’s pissed that she’s staring at you.”
“I can whup his ass, then make him shine my shoes and wash my car.”
“Bruv, looks like pretty boy is ready to rip you a new one.”
“If a fight breaks out, don’t jump in it unless someone else helps pretty boy.”
Jake Ellis saw a hot momma on the other side of the club. A Janet Jackson type. She was checking him out and so were at least a half dozen other women. Jake Ellis went to the left and I went to the right.
Body checking people as I strolled, I swam upstream to that white skirt and stood in front of her.
I said, “Whassup?”
She responded, “Hi.”
I sized up the guy with her. He was built like a power forward, at least six foot six, weighed two hundred and some change, bigger than me, was a Gregory Abbott type, had the AI B. Sure! complexion that made panties drop, but I could knock the light skin off of that motherfucker. He looked at me, uneasy, and I put my eyes on that white skirt hiding the heaven standing next to him. He had her. I wanted her. It was the primitive part of a man aroused.
Her guy stopped sipping his drink, confused. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Yeah. There is a problem. A big problem. You’re with my girl.”
“You heard me.”
I told pretty boy that he was talking to my girlfriend and advised him to skedaddle while he could still skedaddle. He stared me down, saw this wasn’t a joke. Then the big man backed the fuck away. He was a big man, and I was a solid man. I got in his face, like boxers at the start of a fight. He knew better. He nodded good-bye to White Skirt, said something to her in a foreign language, then nervously vanished into the crowd.
She evaluated me, nodded twice, then said, “So, I’m your girlfriend?”
“Who was that loser?”
“He’s my boyfriend.”
“Was your boyfriend.”
“You’re pretty confident.”
“He’s a coward. Punk-ass boy like him can’t protect a pretty woman like you.”
“Punk-ass boy? Must you emasculate him without knowing his name?”
“I saved you from a night of misery.”
“I’m sorry. Had no idea I was a damsel in distress. Whoever you are.”
She was incredibly soft-spoken and elegant, her accent sensual, arousing. And at the same time, that miniskirt and cleavage let me know she was all cayenne and honey, maybe more fire than sweetness.
I introduced myself. “Ken Swift.”
She moved her hair from her face, shifted on her heels. “Jimi Lee.”
“You have a southern name and an accent that doesn’t match.”
She tsked. “I know all about you.”
“Your accent, the inflection, the diction, tells me you’re black American. Some college, if any at all. You haven’t matriculated from a university, not yet. Maybe you grew up middle-class, but definitely not upper-class, and you didn’t attend a private school. That edge, that boorishness you have, is public school.”
“Am I on point?”
“You’re throwing a lot of stereotypes my way.”
She said, “I know I’m right.”
I asked, “Where are you from?”
“That guy was talking to you in Ethiopian.”
“Amharic. Our language is Amharic.” She exhaled like she’d explained it many times before. “Ethiopian is a native or inhabitant of Ethiopia, or a person of Ethiopian descent, which we both are. Ethiopia is our fatherland.”
“Your voice is amazing.”
“Is it? How so?”
“The tone and texture. Your diction. You speak like soft music.”
“You like this song?”
“Could listen to it all night long.”
“That won’t be happening.”
“You never know.”
She grinned. “You have amazing brows and lashes. And those lips. You have nice lips.”
She smelled like Dior perfume. “You’re pretty hot and tempting yourself.”
“Okay. Let’s cut to the chase. You have kids?”
“That’s a strange question to ask at a club.”
“I watch Jerry Springer. It’s what black American men lie about the most, their flock of baby mommas.”
“Flock? A flock of baby mommas? Is that the proper grouping?”
“I just wanted to get that out of the way.”
“If you have kids, even one, and that also considers any you might have on the way, any child you are denying and know might be yours, if any woman is claiming you are the father of her child, pack your drama, then walk away, and let me catch up with my old punk-ass ex-boyfriend. That punk ass has a PhD, just so you know.”
“No. No baby mommas and no contenders. And most black American men don’t have one.”
“Oh, we know that is a lie. I watch your movies and talk shows.”
“You’re watching the wrong movies, and you sound too smart to watch those stupid talk shows.”
“Okay, all this talking has me parched. Mr. Single, buy me a drink.”
I grinned, guessed I had passed the interview. “What’s your poison?”
“Long Island Iced Tea. Since I have no money and you scared my date out of the club.”
“You’re snarky and bossy. Small and act like you’re twelve feet tall.”
“You’re arrogant and intrusive.”
“And I’m your new boyfriend.”
She laughed. “Make good use of yourself. A sister is feeling parched.”
“You’re sexy and flippant, but I don’t think one outweighs the other.”
“I’m the queen of sarcasm.”
“Oh, you’re bilingual.”
“I speak four languages, and sarcasm is the fifth, and I speak sarcasm both well and often. If you can’t handle it, if I am too sassy, now is a good time to walk away from this queen and leave her as you found her.”
That made me laugh. “I’ve been here once or twice. Never seen you here before.”
“First time here; never been to a club on the Sunset Strip, and I am here to dance and live life to the fullest.”
“Then let’s drink and dance and live life to the fullest.”