Thank you for visiting! Its a big week for us with ‘Meet Me At 10’ being released. We wanted to give you an opportunity to read some FOR FREE! If you enjoy it, you can click on the link at the end to order you kindle copy of paperback copy. (We would really appreciate a review on Amazon after, that would be amazing!) More details on the book, merchandise, signed copies can be found at my website here:
Happy reading! xx
About the Authors
Vicky Jones was born in Essex, England. She is an author and singer-songwriter, with numerous examples of her work on iTunes and YouTube. At 20 years old she entered the Royal Navy. After leaving the Navy realizing she was drifting through life with no sense of direction, she wrote a bucket list of 300 things to achieve which took her traveling, facing her fears and going for her dreams. At the time of printing, she is two-thirds of the way through her bucket list.
One item on her list was to write a song for a cause. Her anti-bullying track called “House of Cards” is now on iTunes to download whereby 100% of proceeds go to the charity Wipe Homophobia.
Writing a novel was on her bucket list, and through a chance writing competition at her local writing group, the idea for Meet Me at 10 was born. Vicky hopes she can change hearts and minds due to some of the gritty themes of the book. She will also be donating 20% of the profits to charity, split between Wipe Homophobia and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Vicky is an avid traveler, stemming from her days traveling the world in the Royal Navy, and has visited around 50 countries so far. She has also recently graduated from The Open University after studying part time for her degree in psychology and criminology—another bucket list tick! She is currently writing a book about her bucket list adventures alongside planning and writing more fiction books.
She now lives in Cheshire, splitting her time between there and visiting her family and friends back in Essex.
Claire Hackney is a former English Literature, Drama and Media Studies teacher who, after attending a local writing group with Vicky and writing several of her own short stories, has now decided to focus her career on full-time novel writing. She is an avid historian and has thoroughly enjoyed researching different aspects of the 1950s as part of the creative language re-write of this novel. Claire is very much looking forward getting started on the many future writing projects she has in the pipeline, including several ideas for children’s books.
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Twitter: @VickyJones7 @ClaireHac
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Join in on the discussion on our dedicated Meet Me at 10 page.
Book Cover: WooTKdesign firstname.lastname@example.org
Edited: Gary Smailes Bubblecow.com
Proofreading: Melanie Bell email@example.com
Justin Bridges firstname.lastname@example.org
This book has been a passion project, but we couldn’t have done it without all our friends and family supporting and believing in us every step of the way.
Special mention to Sharon Atkinson for being so supportive in the writing group.
To the amazing beta readers:
Julie Keylock Claire Deakin
Gloria McNeely Jessica Beauregard
Andrea Medd Tina Leigh McDonald
Vicky Prior Emma Mitchell
Nicola Bedlington Helen Louise Barker
Nyki Benson Stephanie Flowers
‘I read this book in 2 days … couldn’t put it down! I got completely caught up in the story. What I like about this book is that it tells the hard hitting truth of what life was like in that era for people that “didn’t fit the norm”. Although a love story, it’s not like one you would have ever read before. I thoroughly recommend it!’
‘This is a real page turner and it’s hard to believe it is a debut novel from Vicky Jones and Claire Hackney – what a great job! They have produced a book that makes you angry and sad but there is also a romance too. Towards the end it was really hard to put down, so much so that I was up until 1.00 a.m. this morning with my Kindle!
Hope these ladies will collaborate again and produce more great novels. If this book were made into a film, I for one would spend a lot of the time with a box of tissues!’
‘Absolutely beautiful. I was gripped within the first few chapters and as the story unfolds it takes you on a journey of emotions. A pure love story reminding the world to keep your eyes truly fixed on love. Thank you.’
‘This book was difficult to put down. On occasions it was heart stopping, and breath holding was frequent. I took it everywhere just in case there was an opportunity to read. I thoroughly recommend this book; it may open some eyes and hearts to the problems involved with prejudice.’
‘This debut novel from Vicky Jones and Claire Hackney is an absolute must read! You will hurt for characters you will grow to love, and you will detest the antagonists in ways you can’t even imagine. This story is made all the more haunting because it is so well researched and written, evoking a time in history where love was a dangerous entity, and hatred was more powerful and visible than it should ever be.
One of the best books I have read this year!’
Trudging along the seemingly endless straight road, Shona Jackson shivered as she felt the temperature in the air around her starting to fall. Jagged hills on both sides of the road loomed over her, their interweaving faces sliding down into plush greenery. The emerging crescent moon brought with it fears of being stranded in its wake, surrounded by darkness with her path ahead illuminated only by the occasional glare of speeding truck headlights. Hunger pangs groaning within her reminded Shona that she had little choice but to push onwards in search of civilization.
Running a dry tongue over her parched lips in a vain attempt to lubricate them, she wrapped her coat around her body to keep out the icy chill as the roar of a truck engine sounded in the short distance behind her. She stepped to the side of the road, safely out of the truck’s path. She held a hand to her eyes, preparing herself for the expected whoosh from its heavy tires and for the cloud of dust that would no doubt be kicked up by them to choke and blind her temporarily. But there was neither a whoosh nor a dust cloud.
The truck was slowing down.
Its headlights remained on as the truck creaked to a halt, the driver’s hulking silhouette darkly framed by the windshield.
Edging forward, Shona pulled her crumpled cap down to just above her eyebrows and tucked her short blonde hair safely behind her small ears. Nervously, she hooked her thumbs underneath her coat collar, folding it up around the soft skin of her neck and pinching it against her chin.
“Need a lift?” shouted a gravelly voice from the driver’s side.
“Um–” she replied in her deepest voice, looking from side to side as she assessed her predicament.
“Look, I ain’t got all night, son.”
Stifling a relieved grin at his assumption, Shona reached up for the door handle, climbed up the three steps into the cab and slammed the door. She sat on the passenger seat furthest away from the driver, his malodorous stink making this a necessity if nothing else.
“Where you headin’, boy?”
The driver was easier to see now under the cab’s overhead strip light. Shona discreetly grimaced as she noticed his pudgy white belly overhanging a pair of ripped jeans, the waistband of which had long since given up the fight. His straggly brown beard appeared to have yesterday’s food still clinging to it and dark, grubby sweat patches adorned the armpits of his grimy red t-shirt, completing his stomach-churningly feculent look.
“Just the next town, sir.” She lowered her chin as she spoke, hugging her battered old brown satchel close to her chest.
“Well, that ain’t no five-minute journey, boy. What the hell y’doin’ out here at this time?”
Shona cast a surreptitious glance at the driver’s watch. It was 10:55 p.m.
“My ride bailed.”
He peered over the bridge of his blotchy red nose at his passenger, an air of suspicion crossing his eyes. He grunted, then returned his attention to the pitch-dark road up ahead. Hoping he wouldn’t pry too much, Shona tucked her satchel underneath her weary head and leaned against the door, then pulled her cap down over her eyes. The fingers on her right hand traced along the doorframe until she found the handle as the motion of the truck began to rock her into a deep, well-needed sleep.
After what only felt like five minutes to Shona, the truck hit a massive pothole in the road. The driver’s subsequent swerve jolted her awake. She rubbed her tired, red eyes and squinted into the bright lights of the oncoming cars, shaking her head a few times to clear it after being snatched from her dream. It was then she looked up at the driver’s staring eyes and recoiled in horror when she realized her cap had fallen backward, revealing her heart-shaped face and high cheekbones. Her satchel pillow now lay in the footwell, having dropped from underneath her head after the sharp swerve. Her coat had slipped open, revealing her delicate neck through the open top buttons of her checked shirt, and the thin straps of her bra peeking beyond. Shona, realizing her cover had been blown, buttoned up her shirt as quick as she could and pointlessly straightened her cap.
“You’re a broad?”
The driver’s face contorted with confusion, his nicotine-stained fingers gripping the truck steering wheel as he fought to control the swerve.
“Please, sir, I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to trick you. I just wanted to get to the next town, and when you thought I was a guy, I guess I just went along with it.” She shrugged.
“What game you playin’? You tryin’ to make me look like an idiot?” he growled.
“I didn’t mean to. I understand if you don’t wanna take me any further.” Shona looked through the windshield into the darkness with no way of guessing where in the hell they were. She hunched her knees into her chest and curled up into a ball, shrinking into the darkest corner of the cab.
The driver sat with his eyes fixed on the road ahead, his gray teeth grinding as he shook his head with embarrassment at his earlier assumption. After a few minutes his indignation appeared to fade as he chewed on his bottom lip, seemingly deep in thought.
It wasn’t noise this time but silence that woke Shona again that night. Still dark out, the truck was now parked in the middle of nowhere, with no sign of civilization or any kind of landmark. She turned her head left in the hope of gleaning an explanation from the driver, but as she did so her eyes widened with revulsion, the dim light of the cab revealing a sight that turned her stomach.
“What the hell y’doin’?” Shona stared in horror.
The driver had fixed his black beady eyes on her, his body reclined into a more comfortable position. His pants were wide open, exposing his fat, hairy thighs. The cab window had misted up from his hot breath as he steadily rocked his hand backward and forward inside his stained underwear.
“There’s one way you could earn your ride,” he drawled.
Shona kept her eyes on the driver as she tried to plan her next move.
“I’m sorry. I don’t want that.” Holding her left hand up, she reached down to the footwell with the other, feeling around for the strap of her satchel.
“Come over here, help me out, darlin’. You’re a real pretty girl and I’ve had a long journey.” His eyes rolled back in his head as he pulled his semi-erect penis from his underwear.
Scrabbling along the surface of the door, Shona’s shaking fingers finally located the metal handle. At that same moment, the driver lunged towards her and dug his dirty nails into her neck, forcing her downwards onto him. Gagging from the stench of his body odor, she struggled with all her might to keep her face out of his lap as he squeezed her throat tightly. She spread her arms out wide, her right hand gripping the dashboard, her left clinging desperately onto the seat next to him as she fought to stop him entering her mouth.
“No!” she squealed.
As the driver’s arousal reached fever pitch, his grip began to increase in pressure around the back of her thin neck. With a frustrated grunt and a fistful of Shona’s messy blonde hair, he jolted her head fiercely, causing her sweaty hand to slip from the dashboard. Shona’s head fell forward, but instead of falling onto his penis, she found herself met with the top of his chubby thigh. Instinctively, she bit down on it so hard that within seconds the rancid taste of blood oozed into her mouth. Yelping in white-hot agony, the driver lashed out, punching her square on the right side of her jaw. Flying back into her seat, she slammed her head against the door window, cracking the thick glass. Through blurred vision, she watched the driver grimace as he tucked himself away, inspected his injured thigh, then wiped his bloody hands on his grubby jeans.
With the driver distracted, Shona grabbed her satchel and wrapped her fingers around the door handle. Her heart pounded as she took a final look across at the driver, who was now staring murderously at her as he tried to stem the blood flowing freely from his bitten thigh. His face twisted in pain as he buttoned up his jeans, then bent forward and reached into the glove box. Panicking, she pressed heavily against the door, relieved to hear its hinges groan as it opened behind her, sending bitingly cold air rushing into the stuffy cab. She stumbled down the steps, landing in a crumpled heap on the ground. With a tight hold on her satchel, Shona sprinted away as fast as her trembling legs could carry her.
Running in a zigzag formation, she ducked as the crack of a gunshot pierced the silent night air and whizzed inches past her ear. Then another. Then a third. She dropped to her knees behind a mound of fallen rocks to catch her breath, listening for any further shots. In the distance, she heard the truck’s engine restarting and then the whoosh of wheel-spinning tires as it skidded away, its headlight beams disappearing into the bitterly cold night.
A few hours and several miles later, Shona sighed with relief as the dawn finally began to break. Tentatively, she touched the back of her throbbing head with her fingers, groaning when she saw the dark red blood that had coated them.
Just as her exhaustion threatened to overwhelm her, she spotted a river in the distance. Knowing it had to lead into a town somewhere, she headed towards it. With the sun beginning to pour its light into the sky, landmarks that the darkness had hidden were now illuminated. She could see a shed-like building on the horizon and began to make her way over to it, treading cautiously over uneven rocks littering her path. Approaching the shack with caution, she reached out for the latch on the wooden door, hearing a welcome click as it bore no resistance. Over in the far corner, a small pile of hay looked as good a place as any to snuggle down and get some longed-for rest. She lay down, placed her satchel underneath her pounding head and instantly fell sound asleep.
“Who the hell are you?”
Shona jolted awake as the metal barrel of a shotgun cast its long shadow over her.
“What? Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I was dog-tired last night. I’ve been traveling and I found this place. I’ll move on, I’m sorry–” she sat upright and reached for her satchel.
“Don’t you move, not one inch. You plannin’ on stealing my animals?” He edged closer, the shadow of his gun now crossing the beam of sunlight that had been burning her dry eyes. An old man, with tousled white hair and weathered skin, stood glaring at her.
“No way, sir, I just needed to rest.”
She held her hands up in surrender for the second time in less than six hours.
“Get up.” He gestured with his gun, keeping his suspicious eyes fixed on the young blonde girl he’d found on his property. Shona rose, wobbling slightly from the ache still thundering around the back of her head. He lowered his gun a little and backed up until he was almost outside the shack. In the dawn light, his sharp gray eyes softened when he saw the girl he was pointing his shotgun at was injured.
“You been in a fight or something?” He furrowed his brow, noticing the angry bruise on her right cheek.
“Some jerk tried to attack me. I ran, and I been hiding out here to rest until I move on, sir.” Her bright blue eyes pleaded with him for mercy.
He lowered his rifle, his aggression towards her waning. “Well, you won’t get much rest out here. The cows are gon’ want that bale of hay you’re lyin’ on for their breakfast soon. Come back to the house. M’wife can make you some food for your journey. I’m Tom, Tom Bird, and you are?” He unloaded the cartridges from his shotgun, placed them in his top shirt pocket and slung the open gun over his forearm.
“Shona Jackson, sir.”
“Would you like some more sweet tea?”
Ruby Bird’s smile had straight away put Shona at ease after Tom returned to the house for his breakfast with a stray in tow. She put down the jug in front of her guest, readjusted the handmade shawl that was draped around her neck and smoothed back a lock of graying hair into the bun on top of her head as she busied herself in the kitchen, ensuring there was plenty of food on the table.
“Thank you, Mrs. Bird.”
“Please, call me Ruby,” she said, tapping Shona’s forearm.
“So, Shona…heck, that’s a strange name for these parts. How’d you end up with that one?” Tom chuckled as he buttered his toast.
“Well, sir, my momma had some real good friends when she was a girl, called Shane and Fiona. They came over from Ireland, y’see, to start a new life. So, I guess when I came along she just decided to honor them by namin’ me Shona. Heck, I guess y’could say I’m all mixed up!” She grinned back at Tom, who nodded his head and took a huge bite of his toast.
“So, what’s next for you, lil’ lady? What are your plans?”
“Not sure really, sir. Just keep on movin’ on until I figure somethin’ out.” Her voice tailed off. She had no idea where the hell she was.
“Tom, call me Tom. I’m not one for formalities,” he said.
Shona smiled. “OK, Tom. I don’t have any exact plans. It was just to find a job, somewhere to sleep. Live the simple life, y’know?” She leaned forward to take another bite of her toast, her elbows planted firmly on the table.
“Can you sew?” Ruby asked as she sipped her coffee.
“Pardon me, ma’am?” Shona spluttered.
“Can you mend clothes?” she elaborated.
“I’m sorry, no … but I can mend vehicles, any kind you put in front of me! I may be a girl, only twenny-four, but I know more about trucks than any man. I can ride too, tame any damn horse you give me, I swear I can.” Her keen eyes shone.
Looking at each other, Ruby and Tom chuckled at her enthusiasm, overlooking the fact that she was chewing her toast heartily with no regard for table manners.
“Where you from, Shona?” Ruby asked, clearing the breakfast plates off the red and white gingham tablecloth.
“Claybank, Louisiana, ma’am.”
“Never heard of it.” Tom took another bite of his toast.
“Nobody has.” Shona chuckled. “It’s a small town. I worked on a farm with my father until I was sixteen.”
“Why’d you leave?” Ruby asked, sitting back down to face her.
“Yeah, and how the hell did y’end up all the way out here in Alabama?” Tom added.
Shona’s smile faded. “See now, that’s a long story.”
Larry Bruce bellowed at the top of his voice in the direction of his secretary, who was working away at her desk.
“Yes, Mr. Bruce.” She raced over to his office and cowered in the doorway, peering at him over the top of her narrow-framed glasses.
“Linda, get the sheriff on the phone right now! Tell him to come straight over here to arrest these thieving dirty niggers,” he growled, eyeballing the three terrified men standing in front of him.
“Right away, Mr. Bruce,” she squeaked, adjusting her glasses to write down a quick note on her miniature notepad, then hopping back to her office.
Bruce’s mustache bristled with anger as he glared at the men in front of him. One had beads of sweat on his forehead which slithered down his nose, his eyes wild with panic.
“Sir … please, may I speak?” he begged.
“Shut your damn filthy mouth, you son’bitch,” Bruce spat. “Y’go crawling to Ellis for a job, knowing he’s the easy touch when it comes to you coloreds, then have the audacity to thieve wallets from the good, honest white folk here?”
Bruce erupted out of his chair and glared at the petrified man. “I hope they rip your ass apart in prison where you belong, all chained up!”
“Mr. Bruce, I swear to Almighty God, I don’t know about no wallets. Ain’t seen ’em, none of us have!” The sweating black man fell to his knees.
“Get your sorry ass up.” Bruce flicked his booted foot at him.
In desperation, the man dragged himself upright and stood next to the two others. The elder of the three looked towards Larry Bruce but dared not make eye contact. Instead, he focused on a large, elegantly framed photograph of a smiling young man on the wall above Bruce’s head.
“Mr. Bruce, sir, I promise on my own dead son’s grave. We ain’t taken those wallets. Search us, search our bags, search our lockers.”
Larry Bruce smirked.
Ten minutes later, Linda’s voice rang out again from just outside the door.
“Mr. Bruce, sir, the sheriff’s here.”
Sheriff Landon’s intimidating figure almost filled the doorway as he entered Bruce’s office, flanked by his scrawny-looking deputy.
“Y’know what to do, sheriff. I’ll leave this matter in your … capable hands.” Bruce winked at Landon who responded with a tip of his hat. He unclasped the small leather strap holding his revolver in its holster and motioned to his deputy to slap the iron handcuffs onto the black men, so weak with dread that they didn’t struggle as they were led off.
“Anything else, Mr. Bruce?” Linda asked, about to return to her desk.
“No, thank you. Close the door behind you,” Bruce replied, opening his desk drawer to retrieve his ever-present bottle of whiskey. Underneath the bottle, three black leather wallets he’d arranged that morning to be taken from the lockers of his workers nestled snugly underneath. Pouring himself a large measure, he slouched back in his chair and swigged it down in one deep gulp, smiling to himself in satisfaction at an excellent afternoon’s work. It was his mission to rid his business of colored workers.
His plan had been a success so far.
“This is Storm.”
Tom patted the neck of the feisty chestnut-colored mare stomping her hooves on the ground next to her stable as if she were about to be let loose in a race. He and Shona were standing in the back field behind the farmhouse, a stunning expanse stretching as far as the eye could see. Their shadows lengthened as the afternoon sun lowered in the clear sky.
“Storm?” her eyebrows raised.
“Yep, every time we let her out, she moves like a damn whirlwind. This beast really is untamable.” Tom held on tightly to the reins as Storm bucked at him, proving his point.
Shona laughed and patted the animal who threw her head to the side in response, almost taking Shona’s arm out its socket. She back-kicked the wall of her stable door several times, sending loud thuds echoing across the flat ground.
“Yeah, I can see that,” Shona grinned.
She scanned her eyes over the landscape that surrounded her. It headed down towards the Weaver, a fast-flowing river with gorgeous Cahaba lilies and wildflowers blooming on its banks. The Birds’ land was used for growing crops and grazing their farm animals, generating most of their stable but meager income. Tom smiled as he left her lost in her faraway thoughts.
When she returned to the farmhouse a while later, she sensed she’d interrupted Tom and Ruby talking in the kitchen. She turned on her heel to head back outside.
“Shona, wait!” Ruby gestured towards her. “Tom and I have just spoken, and we wanted to ask if you would like to stay here a night or two, just until you find yourself somewhere more permanent, I mean. We’ll have to clear some space in the barn across the way, but it’s warm.”
“Really?” Shona couldn’t contain her excitement long enough to even allow Ruby to complete her offer. “My God, yes, please! I’ll help with the animals for my keep. I don’t have no money yet, but–”
“That’s OK. Ruby and I would just appreciate any help you can give on the farm. We’re not getting any younger!” Tom glanced over at his wife, a cheeky smile sweeping over his kindly face.
“Speak for yourself, Bird!” Ruby jabbed a finger into his belly.
“I’d like that. I surely would. Thank y’all so much!” Shona beamed, leaping at Tom and Ruby and wrapping them both in a tight hug.
“Mr. Bruce, sir! What an honor to be chosen to work alongside a fine gentleman such as yourself, who I respect and, quite frankly, am in awe of.”
The dashingly handsome Kyle Chambers ran a hand over his perfectly coiffed jet black hair and flashed a well-rehearsed smile exposing his bright white teeth as he extended his muscular arm to shake Larry Bruce’s hand. He wore his best gray flannel suit, white button-down collar shirt and tapered, pleatless pants. Aiming to impress his new boss, Kyle’s outfit was completed by a striped tie and shiny black leather wing-tipped shoes. At thirty-four years old, he knew he was finally onto a good thing as he glanced eagerly around Bruce’s lavishly decorated office.
“I’m sure you’ll do well here, Kyle. I like the way y’think. Hell, you remind me of myself at your age,” Bruce replied, walking around the back of his desk.
“Thank you, sir.” Kyle felt the swell of confidence grow larger in his belly.
“Great. I’ll ask Linda to give you details of when you’ll start work. By then, my daughter Chloe will be home from college. She’s gon’ be my number two, but y’know, we’ll see how you do and who knows,” Bruce said, pouring a celebratory drink for the two of them. “I’ll be training her to help run this place once I retire, but I need a man to, y’know, take this company forward. I mean, who in the hell heard of a woman being in charge? Investors would run a mile. But she’s my only child to pass my half of this place on to after my son died five years ago. Just twenty-three years old he was.”
Bruce paused for a moment, remembering the tragic day he’d found his son lying dead in a pool of blood, his arm ripped clean off by the threshing machine a colored worker was trapped in. He’d never come to terms with the fact that the colored man had lived and his son hadn’t.
“I won’t let you down, sir!” Kyle assured him.
Ruby joined Tom and Shona in the sparsely furnished barn, her arms laden with cotton towels and thick flowery blankets to make the place feel more like home. A weary-looking single mattress lay on top of some wooden pallets, keeping it off the hay-strewn floor. It wasn’t much, but it was more than Shona had had in a long time.
Perfect, she thought.
“Shona, do you wear dresses at all?” Ruby asked, trying to be as tactful as she could.
“Dresses? No, ma’am, I don’t. I guess I dress like I do ‘cos I travel around so much. That way, guys don’t give me no trouble, y’know?” Her cheeks flushed bright red.
“I was only asking as I could fix you a few new things to wear if you like? I saw you only had a little bag, so–”
Ruby gestured towards the battered-looking satchel lying on the floor next to Shona’s new bed.
“Well, Shona, until Ruby here can make you some other kinda clothes, I’ll lend you some pants, shirts, overalls and stuff. Will that make you feel more comfortable?” Tom smiled, sensing her embarrassment.
“I’d really like that, thank you,” she replied.
Clearing space and tidying the area, they smiled at each other as they created a little haven for Shona and basked in the warm glow of the longed-for family feeling that was enveloping the three of them.
“Larry? What can I do for you?”
Jeffrey Ellis poured himself a glass of his finest red wine from a crystal decanter, relaxing in his chair in the palatial home he shared with his wife Marjory, who was resting upstairs after another bout of illness. Holding the phone to his ear, he sipped his wine, savoring its flavor.
“I’ve had to get rid of those damn coloreds you sent my way. They’ve been thievin’.” Bruce tried hard to sound disappointed.
“What?” Ellis lowered his glass. “I heard good things from the guy they came from. You sure?”
“Oh, yeah, I turned them over to the sheriff like the last ones. You can’t change ’em. They don’t appreciate what you’re tryin’ to do for them, Jeffrey,” Bruce continued in feigned dismay.
Ellis reclined back in his chair, deciding, as usual, to give Bruce the benefit of the heavy doubt.
“Fine. Got anything else for me?”
“You know about us taking on Kyle Chambers. I think he’ll do well. Other than that, the numbers are looking good. There is one thing; I’m looking to buy some replacement machinery. Damn tractors keep breaking down, so I’ll need to buy new parts. We can’t keep up with the orders if things ain’t working right!”
“Sure, go ahead. I dropped some cash off on my last visit. There should be plenty in the safe.”
“That’s great, Jeffrey. Oh, and say hi to Marj for me. I hope she’s feeling better soon.”
“OK, Larry, see you when I’m next in the office.”
Ellis put the phone down and drained the last of his wine. Bruce sat back in his chair, a satisfied smile creeping over his face.
“D’you know anywhere I could find work ’round these parts?” Shona asked, glancing up from the hearty breakfast Ruby had prepared the following morning.
“Tom?” Ruby aimed her spatula in his direction as she heated up the pan to fry more eggs.
“Daynes is a tough town, Shona. I mean, opinions have changed a little since the war ended, but it’s still pretty much unheard of having a woman working with trucks, even one as hardworking as you. I know your old place back in Mississippi let you, but that’s rare. There are some bone-idle people in this town, but they’d rather die than let a slip of a girl show ’em how to do their job properly! But we’re only a coupla years away from the ’60s so who knows, maybe things’ll change.”
“Want some more?” Ruby put the freshly fried eggs in the serving dish next to Shona’s plate as if to offer some crumb of comfort.
Tom put down his knife and fork and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Well now, see, there’s this one place over the other side of town, coupla miles from here. I mean, I ain’t worked there or nothin’, but I’ve heard from people. They got trucks, tractors, you name it coming and going. It’s a cotton plantation with a workshop on the side doing repairs and stuff. All depends if you get the chance to speak to the nice guy.”
“Nice guy?” Shona said.
“Yeah, his name’s Jeffrey Ellis. He co-owns the business but lets that no-good Larry Bruce run it day-to-day. It’s Ellis you need to find. Don’t bother speaking to Bruce. The things I’ve heard about that man would make your hair curl! He runs the whole of Daynes through fear alone. Me and Ruby try to stay away from town as much as we can nowadays, away from that son’bitch’s influence. Ruby used to be the town’s nurse until about five years ago, but then Bruce made the place feel so damn dangerous for her to be out at night on call. Nah, it’s Ellis you want. I hear that even coloreds get a job after speaking to him–”
“Ellis tries to give ’em a chance first, y’know?” Ruby chipped in, trying to sound optimistic.
Shona leaned forward, drinking in every word. Her keen blue eyes widened at the prospect of getting a job that would help her to stay longer with Tom and Ruby and allow her to save some money to figure out her next move. After a few moments of contemplation, she raised her eyes to Tom and Ruby.
“Where can I find this Jeffrey Ellis?”
“Hayward, what the hell’s in your glass? You’re talkin’ like you’re drunk already.”
Henry Conway stubbed out his ever-present cigar in the ash tray next to him later that evening as he laughed at another ridiculous idea coming from James Hayward, a man notorious for his harebrained schemes to make even more money for himself. The two men frequented the Copperpot Inn weekly to meet with Jeffrey Ellis and discuss their numerous investment deals. It was a high-end establishment, known for its select clientele and innate respect for privacy. Hayward and Conway were Ellis’s business acquaintances, but he’d over the years tried to distance himself from their vacuous double-your-money scams and instead build a business he could be proud of.
“Can I help you … Miss?” The immaculately presented woman at the front of the house pursed her lips as she eyed the visitor up and down. Shona flicked her floppy blonde bangs out of her eyes and stood up straight, pulling at her clothes to try and make herself look more presentable. She was grateful that Ruby had expertly altered one of Tom’s shirts for her.
“Hello ma’am, I’d like to talk to Mr. Ellis, please.” She flashed a bright smile.
“Does he know you?” The woman raised a perfectly-shaped eyebrow in disgust.
Shona took in a calming breath. “I just need a minute of his time, ma’am.”
“This is an exclusive members’ bar that is men-only. Mr. Ellis is our most valued customer and we won’t see him being disturbed by the likes of … you.”
“Ma’am, I just need to talk to him.”
“I will have you removed if you do not leave!”
This last interaction stopped the group of men mid-conversation. One of them, Brian Carson, went over to see what the problem was.
“Hey Gracie, you OK? She causin’ you trouble?” He nodded his head towards Shona.
“Sir, I just need to speak to Mr. Ellis.”
“What could the likes of you possibly want with Mr. Ellis?” Carson replied, curling his lip.
Ellis’s name being spoken made his ears prick up. “What’s going on over there?”
“Nothing, sir, it’s all under control.” He turned his head away from Shona, who, at that moment, saw her opportunity.
In one fluid motion, she ducked and headed straight for Ellis. Carson awkwardly rotated his body, reaching out to grab a fistful of Shona’s shirt as she passed, but she wriggled free before he could wrap his arm around her. In two seconds, she was at Ellis’s table, a swirling mixture of eagerness, nerves and adrenaline pulsating through her body. Carson raced after her, red-faced with frustration for not containing the menace that Shona had become.
“Sir, Mr. Ellis–” Shona gasped. As she opened her mouth to continue, Carson wrestled her into a headlock.
“Get off me!” she shrieked.
“Let her go. She’s a woman, for Christ’s sake.” Ellis stood up sharply.
He snarled as he shoved Shona loose, almost knocking her into the empty glasses on the table.
“Thank you,” she panted, rubbing her reddened neck. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, sir. I just heard that you’re a real nice guy and you’ve given people chances to work–” she looked intently at him.
“All this and you’re looking for a job?” Ellis sat back down, his inquisitive eyes fixed on her.
“Yessir. I am.” Shona set her jaw.
“The thing is–” Ellis rolled his hand, prompting her for her name.
“The thing is, Shona, I already have a wonderful secretary. I just don’t have a job for you,” he shrugged.
“No, sir, you don’t understand, I can work on your trucks! I can repair any vehicle you put in front of me! I can work in the fields picking the cotton like I used to do with my father. I’ll be the hardest worker you’ve ever had.” She punched her fist into her other hand, ignoring the derisory sniggers around her.
“Trucks? I must be drunk hearing this trash.” Hayward took another swig of his spirit.
“I’m serious, sir. I wouldn’t let you down,” she continued.
The tables’ gaze switched from Shona to Ellis. After a lengthy pause, he finally spoke.
“I give chances to people who won’t waste ’em, young lady. I can show ’em through the door, but then it’s up to them. If they steal, they’re out. They don’t show up for work one day, they’re out. If they’re late, they’re out. They refuse any kind of work given to ’em, Mr. Bruce has my blessing to toss them out. It’s tough in there.”
“I can handle it, sir,” Shona assured him. “I’ve worked with men before. They’ll see how hard I work. I just need the chance…please?”
Ellis’s fingers were interlocked, his elbows planted on the table, the tips of his two index fingers resting against his pursed lip. He admired the courage of this young girl, who had fought her way to stand in front of him. “Shona, I’m gon’ give you a chance. It’s up to you from here. I’ll arrange for somebody to let Mr. Bruce know. You can start Monday morning. Report at the front desk at 6:30, OK? Don’t you be late!”
Her face erupted into a huge grin. “Mr. Ellis, I swear I won’t let you down, sir … I promise! Thank you!” She tried to contain her excitement but it was impossible. Turning to leave, she grinned even wider as she passed the astonished front of house assistant at the door.
“You do realize, Jeffrey, you’ve just fed that lil’ girl to a pack of damn wolves. God help her!” Hayward whispered to Ellis who silently watched Shona exit the Copperpot.
“Get that nigger!”
That same evening, the elder of the three huntsmen led through the open fields of Daynes, three miles from the Ellis and Bruce site. They were closing in on their target, but he was too fast. He needed to be. He was dead if they caught him.
Stopping for a moment, he looked frantically from side to side. Panting and sweating profusely, he placed his hands on his knees as panic raged through his exhausted body. The three men had split up and strategically blocked off his exit, closing in around him and pushing him closer to the edge of the rushing Weaver. In the distance, the escaping man could hear the unmistakable sound of ferocious barking.
“Let him go, boy!”
Turning around, he watched in horror as a bloodthirsty canine headed straight for him, baring its razor-sharp teeth. On the last dregs of adrenaline, the man raced towards the end of the field straight ahead, his lungs perilously close to giving up on him.
“Stop him before he gets to the river, boys!”
With fatigue finally overpowering him, he fell to the ground, causing a cloud of dust to billow up from his crashing boots and give away his position. The men shined their flashlight in his direction, dustcloud particles catching in the beams. Dragging himself up, the target hopped forward a few more steps. Mercifully, he saw he’d reached the riverbank.
He was almost safe.
Suddenly, a searing pain flooded through the back of his right thigh. In agony, he looked behind him, his wide eyes meeting those of a massive Alsatian hound hell-bent on stripping the flesh clean from his leg. Its ferocious teeth glinted in the half-light, its mouth frothing as it locked its jaws on the man’s bleeding thigh.
With no choice, he tore his leg out of the jaws of the beast, screaming as he did so. He jumped off the bank three feet down into the river heading to God knows where, but it had to be better than here. Keeping his head underwater for as long as he could, he fought against the strong current, trying to avoid getting knocked out by the rocks as it swept him downstream.
Giving up their pursuit, the three men and barking hound melted away into the evening. The target of their sport waited until it was completely silent before emerging from the cool waters of the Weaver, immediately feeling the intense sting rushing through his mangled leg as he continued on through the brush to find a safe place to sleep.
He was one of the lucky ones.
“S’cuse me, I start work here today?”
Shona spoke loudly in the direction of the office behind the front desk that Monday morning. Through the half-open door she heard muffled voices, the occasional laugh and bad language, but she didn’t care.
“Well, look what we got here,” one of the voices eventually emerged. The man it belonged to leered at Shona, a sly grin breaking out over his unshaven face as he chewed a mouthful of tobacco.
“Mr. Ellis told me to report here and that somebody would show me around so I can get straight to work on the trucks,” Shona said brightly.
“Did he now? Good ol’ Mr. Ellis, he’s really lost his mind this time! Boys, get out here, you gotta see this.”
Two other guys appeared and stared open-mouthed at the slim, blonde-haired, pretty young woman. She wore baggy blue mechanic’s overalls, which on anyone else would look grungy, but Shona’s perfect figure wore them well. One of the men had no shame in ogling her, his greasy black hair flopping over his seedy eyes as he mentally undressed her.
“What can we do for you, sweetheart?”
“I’m here to work on the trucks? If you show me where I need to go, I’ll start straight away,” Shona replied, trying hard to mask her disgust.
“Well, I’ll be damned. I thought you were our new cleaning lady! Hey Paul, you gotta see this!” All three laughed loudly.
“Mr. Ellis said I could,” Shona said, straightening her back.
“Oh, did he now? You and Mr. Ellis good friends, then?” The first man leaned over the counter.
“I just came to work. I don’t want no trouble.” She raised her voice, bored with being a figure of fun now.
“What’s goin’ on out there? Who are you?” Paul, the workforce deputy, pushed open the door of the office behind the counter.
“I’m Shona Jackson, sir. Mr. Ellis told me to report here at 6:30 and I’d be working on the vehicles or in the fields?”
Deputy Paul’s cold eyes narrowed as he rested his hand on his hip.
“Yeah, I heard about you. I don’t know what game you’re playing, lil’ lady. This ain’t no place for a broad. But Ellis is the boss and orders are orders. Come with me,” he sighed.
“This is where you’ll get changed.”
Deputy Paul opened a small room containing brooms, buckets and old equipment. It was dark and damp with broken cupboards and shelves that were chipped and falling down. Later, he ended the tour just outside a messy tool room. “Wait in here.” He pointed to a cluttered bench and, as Shona stepped inside, he disappeared.
Alone, she looked up at the clock on the wall. It was already 7:25 a.m. Where was everybody?
Almost gagging from the musty odors in the room, she opened the metal back door leading to the fields behind the site to let the fresh air in. Bored, Shona began to tidy, almost jumping out of her skin when a loud buzzer sounded at 10 o’clock. She stopped cleaning down the benches when she heard the sound of upbeat voices passing by outside the tool room door, which could only mean one thing in a place like this – break time!
Thinking that this would be the best time to find someone who knew what was going on, Shona yanked the handle of the rickety metal door back towards her to secure the room. As she did so, a strange noise outside caught her attention. It came from behind a large mound of used tires beside the doorway.
“Hello?” She paused as she glimpsed the worn-out boots of someone who seemed desperate to remain out of sight.
“You OK?” Shona asked. The feet quickly disappeared from view. She raised her eyebrows, then edged closer. It was then that she saw the pitiful shape of a man cowering.
He didn’t get up, but just sat with his head bowed. He was reluctant to make eye contact, his dark brown face wet with fresh tears.
“Who are you?” Shona asked, wearing her sternest face. She was mindful not to get too close.
“Cuban–” He sniffed. “My name is Cuban, ma’am. I just wanted to get some water from this faucet. I don’t want no trouble.”
He shifted positions on the gravel, wincing as he exposed the dark red blood pool underneath his right thigh.
“You’re bleedin’,” she noticed, her eyes softening.
“I got chased. I managed to outrun ’em but then I got bit by the goddamn dirty dog they set on me. I’m lucky, I got away. Lord only knows how but I did.” He coughed and winced again.
“Who’s out there?” a scratchy old voice called out from inside the tool room. Both Shona and Cuban froze.
“It’s just me–” Shona shouted back, her eyes still fixed on the colored man below her.
The half-open metal back door to the tool room groaned on its rusty hinges as an elderly man stepped outside. His wispy white hair peeked out from underneath his tatty gray cap, and his eyebrows raised in surprise at Shona.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Shona. I start work here today.”
Open mouthed, he looked down at her clothes.
“Workin’ here? Doin’ what?”
“I can repair trucks,” Shona replied brightly.
He paused, staring at her. “Who’s this?” His eyes diverted as he motioned his leathery hand downwards.
“I’m Cuban, sir.”
He struggled to his feet, limping on his injured leg. As he stood up, Shona realized how tall this man was, well over six feet even with his back arched in discomfort. His hands had obviously not shirked hard work in the past. Thick, calloused fingers rested on his blood-drenched pant leg, his open-necked work shirt revealing a necklace with a small crucifix on it. She could sense the sadness within him but she was not ready yet to trust this stranger.
“I’m Elbie. You, young lady, must have really sweet-talked Mr. Ellis to get in here.” He smiled at Shona, then turned to Cuban with a much graver look on his weathered face.
“See you bleedin’ quite badly there. I can help fix you up but that’ll be the least of your problems. Thugs ’round these parts huntin’ black folks like you for sport. You should keep movin’ on,” Elbie warned.
Cuban shifted his weight, looking uncomfortable from the throbbing pain in his thigh.
“I know what it’s like ’round here, sir, don’t need no lecture. I seen this town for what it is. No one need tell me what I got to lose!”
Elbie and Shona listened in silence, Cuban’s words piercing the heart of their uncertainty.
“Let’s have a look at that leg, get you patched up. Shona, take his arm.”
Together, they half-dragged Cuban inside the tool room and sat him on a stool.
“Hand me that box over there, will you,” Elbie pointed to the shelf in the corner of the room. Shona returned with the first aid box, still not wanting to engage too much with the colored man. She’d always been told by her father they were never to be trusted, but Shona never knew which of his drunken tales to believe. She was on her guard, though, just in case he was right on this one.
Elbie finished cleaning and dressing Cuban’s wounded leg, using up half of the first aid box’s supplies to stem the bleeding. He knew the man needed stitches but judging by how quickly Cuban pulled his pants up and thanked Elbie for his trouble, he knew he wasn’t willing to go to the hospital.
“Alright, now that we got that dealt with, I’d like to know who the hell’s been moving things around in this tool room, huh?” Elbie frowned.
Shona held her breath.
“Well, I guess that was me, sir.” She ran her hand through her hair, sweeping it out of her eyes. “You see, they left me here to wait for my orders and I don’t like to be idle. I was just tryin’ to clean the place up a bit–” Shona was rambling now.
“Whoa there–” Elbie held his hands up. “I was just gon’ say thanks, it looks good! Folks normally treat this room like a dump. Just one thing, though, I don’t want you goin’ in the workshop back there, ‘cos that’s my space, got it?” the old man warned as he hooked his thumb over his shoulder.
Minutes later, the conversation paused as the three of them turned their heads to the doorway where Deputy Paul appeared.
“You got visitors, Jackson!” He flashed his dirty gray teeth in mock pleasure, tipping his head towards the voices behind him.
It was Larry Bruce and Jeffrey Ellis.
“Ah, there she is! Just wanted to see how my new girl was doing on her first day.” Ellis approached Shona, followed closely by Bruce. Shona turned her head to smile her response but, as she did so, a colored face was revealed behind her.
“What the fuck is that?” Bruce snapped.
Before she realized what she was doing, Shona intervened.
“He just wanted to speak to Mr. Ellis about a job, sir.”
Cuban held his breath but Shona continued, mesmerizing him with her bravery.
“Instead of sitting ’round doin’ nothing, sir, I watched him clean the whole tool room! Look, see–” Shona held her arms out wide. She had no idea why she was speaking up for him, but she couldn’t unsee the look of dread that was etched on Cuban’s face when Bruce had spotted him.
“Shona, you not been put to work yet?” Ellis frowned.
“No, sir, I was told to wait here.”
Ellis switched his attention to Deputy Paul.
“We can get her cleanin’, scrubbin’–” Deputy Paul shrugged.
“Trucks,” Ellis interrupted. “I want her on trucks. Let’s see what she can do.”
Bruce glared at Ellis.
“That one just come in?” Ellis pointed out of the tool room window at a white truck being winched off a low-loader, then dropped to the ground outside. Outwardly, it looked reasonably sound but the fact that it hadn’t driven itself there didn’t bode well for it. Three mechanics surrounded the stricken vehicle, scratching their heads. One stubbed out his cigarette, took out his wrench and motioned to the other two to pop the hood.
Deputy Paul nodded. “Yessir.”
“See if you can get it goin’,” Ellis smiled at Shona.
“Jeffrey, you lost your mind?” Bruce said in a low voice.
The group walked outside towards the truck. The mechanics attending it looked perplexed as to why the truck was resisting all their best efforts to spark it into life. The engine’s problem seemed a bit of an enigma, but this didn’t faze Shona. She approached Deputy Paul and gestured for the keys, his stare burning a hole in her head as he dropped them into her hand. Bruce smirked as they waited for her embarrassment to commence. Ellis exhaled, hoping she wouldn’t disappoint him.
“This vehicle’s expensive, y’understand?” Deputy Paul snarled.
Ellis folded his arms as Shona got to work. She stuck her head under the hood and tinkered about. Clanks and clonks sounded from the engine bay as she investigated the manifolds, sprockets and gaskets. Little grunts and groans emitted from her as she tightened her wrench around the bolts and metal tubes.
Five long minutes passed.
Shona was done. She climbed up into the driver’s seat and slid the key into the ignition as everyone in the group held their breath. The engine coughed for a few seconds and then spluttered into life, black smoke billowing from the exhaust. Before long, the truck was purring like a kitten.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Ellis blew out his cheeks.
Closing his eyes, Bruce shook his head.
“So what? Pull a few wires, flick a few switches? That’s the easiest damn job you coulda given her!” He was furious.
His attention, however, soon moved away from her and, like a searchlight in the darkness, landed on Cuban who was smiling at Shona’s success. He’d enjoyed the few brief moments of blending in with the crowd, but it couldn’t last. Cuban met Bruce’s fiery eyes, panic fizzing in the pit of his stomach.
“Let’s get this nigger off our land!” Bruce snarled. “Paul, grab his arms–”
“Wait!” Shona jumped out of the truck and in front of Cuban. He didn’t stand a chance out there judging by the state he’d arrived in.
“Get out the way!” Deputy Paul growled.
“Mr. Ellis, please give Cuban a chance. Look at the difference he’s made to the tool room already, and that’s without being paid!” she begged.
“Paul, wait,” Ellis waved his hands for Deputy Paul to cease manhandling Cuban. “Elbie, the tool room is normally your domain, right?”
“This man here, y’think he’s done a good job?” Ellis continued.
“Sir, that room–” Elbie paused. “I ain’t seen it no better in a long time, do say so m’self. You could eat your dinner off that floor!” He caught Shona and Cuban’s relieved faces in the corner of his eye.
Deputy Paul and Bruce put their hands on their hips. Ellis approached Cuban and spoke in a low voice.
“You got one chance. You mess it up, I ain’t gon’ help you. I’ll leave Shona to explain my rules. If you break ’em, I’m behind Larry all the way. Understand?”
Tears glistening in the corner of his eyes, Cuban managed to croak out his thanks.
“Come on, gentlemen.” Ellis turned to walk around the side of the building and back to his office. Shona noticed him limping slightly.
Waiting until Ellis was out of earshot, Deputy Paul strode over to Shona, Cuban and Elbie.
“Mr. Bruce told me to let you know that if you pull another stunt like that you won’t be able to work, y’hear?” he growled. He stepped closer to Shona and traced down the side of her smooth face with his dirty fingernail. She stood motionless, regarding him with an icy stare. Not receiving the satisfaction of a rise out of her, he cackled as he left them and ran to catch up with Ellis and Bruce.
“So, what now?” Cuban asked.
“Don’t know about you two,” said Shona, “but I need to wash that dirty bastard’s stink outta my face!”
Shona walked over to the faucet outside the mechanics’ shed. Feelings rushed around her body like a kaleidoscope as she splashed the cool water on her face. Humiliating one of your bosses isn’t the most ideal way to start a new job, she thought. Turning to look over at her two new friends, she saw them toeing the dust and attempting to make small talk. She smiled as she walked back over to them, her hands in her pockets.
“You’re quite the brave lil’ lady,” Elbie said.
“Yeah, thank you. You didn’t have to do that,” Cuban added.
“You’re welcome. It looks like we need each other ’round here?” Shona said as they made their way back to the tool room.
“You’re damn right. This place, it’s awful. Didn’t used to be.” Elbie’s eyes saddened.
“What changed?” Shona asked.
“Larry Bruce, that’s what! This place was run by Mr. Ellis for twenty years and he did a damn fine job of it too. But he needed to spend more time with his sick wife, so he got Bruce the Brute on board to take care of the day-to-day running around five years ago and then–” Elbie fiddled with his cap. “It got real dark ’round here.”
“What d’you mean?” Cuban asked.
“People just came and went. If you disagreed with the bosses, well, your days were numbered. Good people with consciences left or were made to leave.” Elbie’s face dropped.
“Well, we got each other, right?” Shona affirmed.
“I could tell you some stories, alright. I write everything down in my diary. I started writing it when my wife passed. I made a promise I would talk to her every day.” Elbie licked his lips as his emotions began to engulf him. “I write about everything that goes on here but my damn hands tremble with age now, so I have to keep it short.”
The same loud buzzer from earlier sounded again.
“What’s that?” Cuban asked.
“We’ve been summoned.” Elbie’s face blanched.
The three of them were the last to reach the canteen, where all staff briefings were routinely held. In the far right corner was a wrought iron spiral staircase leading up to the management offices on the balcony above. As soon as the trio walked in, there was an ominous silence when the crowd of workers caught sight of Cuban. As looks of disgust were thrown in his direction, whispers, jeers and growls from the hostile crowd began to ring out.
“Another fuckin’ nigger.”
“Lock up your stuff, boys.”
Men spat at Cuban’s feet but it wasn’t the first time that had happened to him. Shona was stunned by the savagery of the crowd, which seconds later turned on her.
“What the fuck have we got here, boys?”
“I’ll bet you five bucks she’s screwin’ somebody within the week.”
From above, a man’s voice bellowed, followed by a whistle and then a hammering on the iron bars of the balcony.
“Alright, everybody, hush now!” Deputy Paul hit the balcony bars with his wooden stick, his face maroon with the exertion of trying to silence the mob. “We have a couple of new additions we’d like to present to you and I’m sure they’ll get your usual warm welcome. I’ll hand it over to Mr. Bruce.”
Bruce’s intimidating stare held the attention of the crowd. He appeared at the edge of the balcony in his expensive three-piece suit, showing the glint of a gold watch that would take these workers a year to save up for. His bass tones growled as he addressed the workforce.
“It’s no secret I’m always looking to advance the company, but Mr. Ellis and I won’t be around forever.” Bruce glanced towards Ellis.
“I plan to be,” Ellis lightened the mood.
“It’s a good time to invest,” Bruce continued. “The market’s expanding, which is exciting for all of us. We’re doing more business further afield so we need some fresh young blood to keep up with it. I’ve sat down with a few guys and I’ve picked one. Somebody who’s from great stock, has good energy and thinks the way I do.”
“That ain’t no good thing, let me tell you,” Elbie whispered.
“I’d like to welcome…Kyle Chambers.”
Bruce gestured towards Kyle, who swaggered forward in a made to measure gray flannel suit. His highly polished Oxford shoes echoed on the metal platform of the balcony as he made his entrance to the crowd’s applause. He muttered something to Bruce and then beamed his winning smile down at the canteen floor, giving a wave to indicate that he was ready to speak.
“It’s an honor to be given a chance to lead such a fine-looking workforce. I’m sure we can do great things together.”
After five long minutes of grins and smug mutual backslapping from Bruce and Kyle, the sound of shuffling feet and bored grunts began floating around the assembled workforce. Sensing they’d dragged on for too long, Bruce quickly concluded.
“I got one more thing to announce–” Bruce pointed at the crowd below him. “My daughter Chloe is finally home where she belongs. She’s been studying business at college these last five years, so she can help run things when I’m gone.” He went back into the management office, then returned holding his daughter’s hand.
“Everybody, meet Chloe.”
The applause was initially polite, but when all eyes focused on her properly, a few low whistles and murmurs of admiration followed.
Chloe Bruce shone a beaming smile at the crowd, her chocolate-brown eyes radiating warmth as she acknowledged some of the more well-mannered comments with a dainty wave. She wore a bright red fitted jacket, a red and white polka-dot blouse and a smart black pencil skirt, showing off her perfectly toned legs and significantly distracting the men standing below. She cleared her throat as her father raised his hands to hush the crowd for her.
“Well, I didn’t expect that. Thank you, I’ll keep it brief. I just want to learn the business, help the company grow, and I especially can’t wait to come around and meet every single one of you.”
The workforce below cheered more rapturously this time as Chloe stared down at them. She flicked her light brown mid-length hair out of her eyes as she continued to melt the crowd with her effortless charm.
But not everybody in the crowd was cheering.
“Shona, you in here?”
Elbie called out to her as he returned to the tool room with Cuban. Walking quickly over to the back door to investigate why it was wide open, he found her outside hunched over, trying desperately to control the wave of retching that had consumed her. Embarrassed, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve and walked back into the tool room, brushing past Elbie and taking a seat on one of the stools.
“Why’d you take off like that?” he asked.
“I just needed to get out of there. I didn’t feel so good. This was where I was told to wait,” Shona mumbled as she wrapped her arms around herself. Elbie looked at her, his eyes full of concern.
“It’s gon’ be tough here,” Cuban sighed, wincing as a fresh stab of pain rippled through his thigh.
“We just gotta keep our heads down, work hard for our money and get the hell out of here as soon as goddamn possible,” Shona said into space, her mind somewhere else entirely.
Deputy Paul swaggered into the tool room ten minutes later, a sly grin draping itself over his greasy face. He strode over to Shona who was gradually recovering, helped by a small tot of the brandy that Elbie kept in his drawer for emergencies.
“Let’s get one thing crystal clear, lady. You ain’t gon’ work on no trucks, y’hear? I don’t give a fuck what magic you pulled from your ass out there, you ain’t touching ’em from now on, get it?” He pressed his face inches from Shona’s. “You’ll clean the trucks when the ones for repair are ready to go, you scrub the canteen, the floors and anything else I wipe my feet on. That’s what you do. As for you, nigger, you’ll get changed in a different place to us. I don’t want your dirty fucking diseases or you being ’round my things thievin’ ’em, you hear me? You’ll take a shit in a hole if you have to but you stay the fuck away from us.” Deputy Paul finished his brief by pointing in Cuban’s face, then stormed off.
Cuban took a seat at a work bench, unsurprised by Deputy Paul’s hostility.
“This is bullshit! Why we gettin’ treated this way? I got a job fair and square. I fixed the damn truck in front of their eyes,” Shona ranted.
“This is the work of Bruce the Brute, I’m telling you,” Elbie reflected quietly.
That afternoon, as the three of them had completed their list of jobs, they sat down to take a well-earned five-minute break. Just as they did so, their peace was interrupted.
All three heads swung to face the door. It was Deputy Paul again and he wasn’t alone. The kitchen staff he’d brought with him looked menacing in their chef whites and blue work pants, laden with large pots and deep bowls. The deputy hung back by the doorway as his cronies stomped into the tool room.
“You said to us the tool room was so shiny, so clean–” he taunted. “A man could even eat his dinner off that floor! So–”
Elbie’s face hardened. He knew what was coming next.
“Let ’em have it, boys!”
On Deputy Paul’s command, they tipped what seemed like gallons of sludgy brown liquid, mashed up food and waste all over the spotless floor, splashing it all over Elbie, Cuban and Shona. The kitchen staff marched out on orders, leaving Deputy Paul unscathed and grinning in the doorway.
“You should know better than to side with a colored. That’s almost worse than being one. Get this mess cleaned up. Now!” He barked and then sauntered out. Elbie straightened his cap and stared at the dirty floor.
“This was a bad idea, you helpin’ me,” Cuban said shaking his head
“Don’t you say that!” Shona said as anger raged inside her at Deputy Paul’s cruel actions. She went to get a mop and some rags to start cleaning up.
“I shoulda retired years ago. Biggest mistake o’my life. I hope you two don’t end up like me, where the only safe place you can speak your thoughts is in a damn diary.” He shook his head, still staring at the floor as he clenched his fists.
Shona looked around, quietly assessing the mess. Food waste was everywhere. It’d splashed on the walls, all over the tools and had even found its way inside the workbench drawers. Her attention was momentarily drawn back to Elbie who seemed to be deep in thought. He leaned heavily on the workbench, his watery red eyes staring at her.
“I think we just rattled the cage of a goddamn monster,” Elbie warned.
Shona walked the two miles home that evening after work thinking over the events of the day–Deputy Paul’s cruel stunt, Cuban’s situation, Elbie’s diary and Bruce’s speech to the workers.
So many conflicting thoughts tumbled over themselves in her mind, but right now she was walking back to a place of pure happiness and looking forward to the simplicity of sitting around the table with two genuinely kind-hearted people whose only agenda was to make sure she had enough wholesome food in her belly. Her route home took her along the long driveway of the Ellis and Bruce site, up to the crossroads, past the town gas station on the corner, then across the road and into town. As she passed the gas station, two oily-looking men whistled at her, then pointed down suggestively to their private parts.
“In your dreams, jerks,” Shona muttered in repulsion, injecting a faster pace into her stride.
The town of Daynes was only five minutes’ walk from the gas station. On either side of the main road were the typical small-town shops—a grocery store, a butcher’s, a drugstore, the town’s Methodist church and a few small eateries. She noticed one building in particular, a small, ornate-looking fabric shop with the assistant outside closing down the hatches for the day. He was exceptionally well dressed, his gray hair combed meticulously into a perfect side part, his small round glasses delicately perched on the end of his nose. He wore an elegant navy plaid suit jacket with a yellow tie and neatly pressed pants. Shona looked down at her own dirty, stained overalls and sighed with envy at this man’s obviously less messy day.
The light was fading as Tom and Ruby’s house came into view half a mile further on. It wasn’t huge, but it was their home. The sight of it filled her with warmth, not least as it was Ruby’s mouthwatering roast chicken, biscuits and gravy for dinner. Shona could almost taste the cornbread as she walked with a spring in her step up to the front door.
“Hi, only me,” she called out as she bounded into the kitchen.
“Hey, Shona, how was your first day?” Ruby’s soft voice immediately made her feel at home.
“It was … different,” she replied with a lopsided grin.
Tom walked into the kitchen minutes later and kissed his wife on the cheek.
“You two must be famished,” Ruby said as she placed a steaming roast chicken on the table and invited them to sit down. Shona didn’t need to be asked twice and jumped into her seat. Warm biscuits and a jug of thick gravy joined the chicken in front of her, but when Ruby motioned to her to wash her hands before she was allowed to tuck in, Shona’s face dropped. Within seconds her hands were the cleanest they had ever been and she was back at the table clutching her knife and fork.
Tom and Ruby chuckled at Shona’s lack of social etiquette as she shoveled food into her mouth, not letting the novel idea of swallowing slow her down.
Happiness engulfed the three of them as they talked and laughed over dinner and long into the evening as the Alabama sun sank slowly below the horizon.
With a jolt, Shona woke, then froze. The familiar dread of those footsteps coming down the stairs and entering the poorly lit, cold basement where she had been forced to sleep was overwhelming. Her heart thumped.
They seemed to take forever, as if prolonging the torture. There were no windows and no exits apart from the door that was about to be opened. The doorknob groaned. Shona instinctively curled into a ball.
A shard of light stabbed through the darkness as the door creaked open. Shona squinted. Launching at her, the men took advantage of her temporary blindness. They were rough as always.
“Noooooo … Get off me, please–”
“Shona … SHONA! Wake up!” Tom’s shadow loomed over her, his strong hands gripping her trembling shoulders. Shona blinked open her tear-filled eyes and sat bolt upright.
“What? … I was just dreamin’,” she mumbled, her head pounding.
“Dreamin’? Sounded like a goddamn nightmare,” he replied, his own eyes laced with concern.
“I … I’m sorry!”
Tom reached out to try and comfort her. Without meaning to, she shrank away from him and pulled the blanket up around her shoulders. She lay back down, her gaze not shifting from the thin halo of moonlight that ran around the edges of the barn door.
He sighed as he sat down on the edge of her bed. Silently, he watched over her for the next hour until Shona, slowly but surely, felt safe enough to fall back to sleep.
“Larry, you seen this?”
Kyle Chambers held out the tabloid to Bruce who was gazing out of his window early on Monday morning, a week later.
“Seen what?” Bruce turned, half listening.
“Damn nigger college burned down,” said Kyle. “For the best, I say. I mean, you can’t teach’ ’em nothin’ so what’s the point in trying?”
Bruce took the newspaper and started reading the story.
“Trouble is–” he began, leaning back into his expensive chair. “They’re gettin’ everywhere! You got do-gooders representin’ ’em. You wait until people start getting their damn money stolen, their sons murdered and their daughters raped. Then come back and tell me it’s good to give ’em a voice.”
“Why does Ellis do what he does, then?” Kyle asked, leaning back in his own chair.
“Long story, goin’ way back. He’s a damn fool.” Bruce clicked his silver lighter and held his cigar to the flame. “Thing is, Kyle, that new nigger, Cuban or whatever the fuck his name is, is getting way too comfortable here. He and that broad have been here a week now and still no sign of them quittin’ yet. I can’t afford for him to think he’s the same as us. My daughter’s here now. Is she safe? I don’t like it, but whatever I get Paul to give to both of ’em, they just keep comin’ back for more!”
“What you want me to do, Larry?” Kyle leaned forward.
“Just make life a little more unwelcoming. If they both leave of their own accord, it’s nice and tidy.”
The canteen was its usual hive of activity at the 10 o’clock break time that Monday—mostly abusive comments hurled at anyone who was deemed weak. Cuban entered the melee and, as usual, it was the same greeting.
“You know where you need to be, nigger.”
Cuban knew his place: the back of the queue. Even when he reached the front, men would play tricks on him after they’d eaten and keep going up for seconds. On a few occasions the buzzer sounded before Cuban could get any food at all.
“Could I have some of that, please?” Cuban asked as he finally reached the counter. He thought better than to make eye contact with head chef Lou who chewed slowly, looking Cuban up and down and screwing his face up.
“Gimme your plate.” Lou forced his rough face into a fake smile.
Cuban handed Lou his plate, then turned around to see Shona eating on her own at the end of a long bench, with six men at the other end making no attempt to talk to her. While his head was turned, Lou poured dark slop onto his plate from a height so it splashed everywhere, including over Cuban. He looked back to see Lou grinning at him.
“Here’s some bread. You need to keep your strength up.”
Lou gripped a slice of bread in each of his grubby hands and rubbed them up and down his chef jacket, smudging the grayish, pitted bread into congealed meat juices, tea and sweat stains. Smirking, he spat on one slice, then squashed it into the other to make a sandwich which he dropped on top of Cuban’s plate of slop.
“Lemme help you there! Coffee?” Deputy Paul appeared over Cuban’s shoulder and tipped his half-empty mug over his bread-topped plate, making it an even soggier mess. He lifted the tray off the counter, then dropped it.
The clatter ensured all eyes were on the situation now.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Cuban, how clumsy am I?” Deputy Paul mashed up the food with his boots, then grabbed a large serving spoon and scooped up the rancid gloop onto another plate. “Thing is, I’m told that when you clean floors you can eat your dinner off ’em. So, eat!” Deputy Paul picked up a dirty spoon from someone else’s leftovers and dipped it in Cuban’s lunch. “Come on, boy. You must be hungry!” he snarled.
The canteen ground to a halt. Workers began shouting their encouragements to Cuban, who stared in disgust at the spoon hovering in front of him.
“Come on, Cuban, you can’t go back to work on an empty stomach! Lou here assures me that this food is full of highly nutritious goodness!” He smirked at Lou who sniggered back.
Thoughts raced through Cuban’s brain. He needed this job. The money would go towards his ticket to New York, a place he’d dreamed of going to all his life. They were more tolerant there. His dream was to play in the jazz clubs and make a life for himself. But that didn’t come cheap. It had to work this time. It wouldn’t have to be long, just until he could afford his ticket.
Cuban knew he had no choice. He took his first bite.
“More. More. More. More.” The chanting resonated louder. Snarling men banged their knives and forks on the table, enjoying every second of Cuban’s humiliation. His retching made it even more fun to watch.
Shona couldn’t bear it any longer. She pushed her way through the crowd as bits of food were thrown at Cuban who didn’t dare retaliate.
“Get outta my way … MOVE!” Shona yelled, but another female voice eclipsed her own and instantly hushed the baying mob.
“Stop! What on earth’s going on here?” Eyes shifted up from Cuban’s plight to the balcony. Shona looked too, her gaze passing up over the smart black heels, business skirt and scarlet red jacket.
Shona stared in silence. Gripping the handrail, Chloe Bruce descended the steps leading onto the canteen floor, looking disgusted.
“You say anything, nigger, and you won’t be able to take a shit for a month, y’hear?” Deputy Paul whispered to Cuban before disappearing in the opposite direction to where Chloe was approaching from. The hustle and bustle resumed as the crowd nonchalantly returned to their food and conversations. Trying hard to control his shaking hands, Cuban bent down to clean up the mess.
“You OK, Cuban?” Elbie appeared holding a mop.
“I’m fine,” he lied.
“What the fuck? This is some messed up shit,” Shona snarled as she watched the workers finish their food. She put her hand down on Cuban’s shoulder. He shrugged it off in frustration.
“You can have some of my food if you like?” she offered, kneeling to help clean the mess up with some paper towels.
“Are you OK?” A voice sounded behind them. Elbie, Shona and Cuban looked up.
“Yessum,” Cuban replied.
“What happened here? I heard a lot of noise,” Chloe asked, concern lacing her soft voice. Cuban and Elbie stood but Shona continued to scrub the floor.
“Just guys being guys, ma’am,” Cuban replied half smiling. Elbie looked down at the now-shiny floor and shook his head in disgust.
“All done. I’m goin’ back to work,” Shona jumped up and left.
“Who was that?” Chloe asked, staring at the back of the departing worker.
“Who, that? That’s Shona,” Elbie replied as he watched her stride away.
“You heard about me letting that nigger know where he stands earlier?”
Deputy Paul hovered over Kyle who was busy writing at his desk. He paused to look up and flashed a lopsided grin at Cuban’s tormentor.
“I did. Chloe came in saying she thought the guys were being mean. I pretended to care.”
Deputy Paul snorted. “Not sure what it’ll take to show him he ain’t welcome, boss. The men are goin’ nuts that he’s still here thinking he can hide under Ellis’s fuckin’ protection wing!”
Kyle fiddled with his silver cartridge pen. “Leave it with me, Paul. Get him to work even later tonight.”
“You got it, boss!” Deputy Paul replied, a glint of menace in his cold eyes.
“I thought you were a little rude towards Miss Chloe before, Shona,” Elbie said as he emptied out his bucket of dirty, soapy water onto the dry dust of the garage forecourt. Shona was cleaning the outside of one of the trucks.
“I don’t trust any of ’em, Elbie. All the same, all assholes,” she replied, scrubbing hard enough to rip the paint from the hood.
“Not Miss Chloe, she’s genuine enough. Didn’t you notice how she was with Cuban? Real nice!” Elbie reasoned.
“So?” Shona threw her sponge into her soapy water and rested her hand on the hood. “Deserves a medal, does she? She’s probably a spy, finding out about us. Like I said, I don’t trust any of ’em.”
Shona’s tirade was interrupted as Cuban trudged by.
“You OK?” she asked, standing up straight.
“Deputy Paul told me I have to work late. He wants everywhere spotless.” Cuban looked deflated. Shona’s heart went out to him, but at the moment it was all about survival.
For both of them.
It was nine thirty, three hours after Cuban should have gone home, and he was exhausted. A small group of men were in Deputy Paul’s office drinking, smoking and playing cards, judging from the muffled conversation and joviality emanating from inside. He put the mop away in the cleaning cupboard after leaving the canteen spotless and ready for inspection.
“What an amazing job you’ve done,” Deputy Paul said sarcastically as he walked around the canteen admiring the shiny pots and pans.
“Thank you, sir,” Cuban replied.
“Well now, I think you should run along home and get some rest.” Deputy Paul looked Cuban dead in his eyes.
“Thanks. I will.” Cuban grabbed his satchel and left.
Three men from Deputy Paul’s office emerged just as Cuban closed the door to the canteen on his way out. Poised, they awaited their instructions.
“Get to work, boys!” he drawled as the men began to trash the perfectly cleaned kitchen.
“GET ME THAT FUCKING NIGGER!”
Chef Lou hurled to the floor what remained intact of the canteen’s crockery. He’d arrived at work on Tuesday morning to find his precious kitchen turned over: dishes smashed, food splashed everywhere and cooking pots strewn indiscriminately all over the counters.
“Wait, Lou, calm down. Think! You go and beat him in front of everybody and you’ll have Ellis on your back saying you’re being unkind to one of his protected little birds. You gotta be smarter.”
Deputy Paul held Lou back.
“I’m gon’ take a shit and make him eat it. He’s wrecked my kitchen, Paul. I swear I wanna kill him.”
Lou spat as he spoke.
“He’ll pay, Lou. I’ll see to it,” Deputy Paul assured.
“You know, I can’t wait to see the West Coast. To feel free, go to the beach. That’s what I’m saving for, you?” Shona asked Elbie as they were painstakingly cleaning old oil and grease from inside the rivets of engine parts.
“Me? I wanna see my daughter and granddaughter in Tennessee before I get too old to travel. I retire in a few months so as soon as I get my pension I’m gon’ go visit them! It’s been three years now.”
“Wow, you write them?” Shona asked.
“Yeah, but you know how life is. My daughter’s busy so she doesn’t write that much. I just feel bad I can’t be there for her but she moved away and started a family. I couldn’t leave the house I lived in with my wife all those years. It’s where I feel closest to her. Couldn’t stand living in a busy town where my girl lives either. I’m an old country boy at heart,” Elbie smiled, tipping his cap.
“How about you?” Shona gestured to Cuban as he walked in and sat down next to them.
“I jus’ wan’ make it to New York to see some of my friends who’ve made it there already,” he sighed.
“Cuban, you’re wanted. Now.” Deputy Paul’s flat, emotionless voice bounced off the concrete walls as he strolled into the tool room.
Cuban put down his cleaning cloth and took in a calming breath. He followed Deputy Paul through the corridor, with Shona and Elbie walking behind.
The entire workforce was present, staring at him as he entered the canteen. Not a single plate, cup or any item of cutlery was present on the tables.
It was deathly silent.
Cuban was led over to the serving hatch. Chef Lou was already standing there, his face blotchy with anger.
“What’s goin’ on?” Cuban asked, his dry mouth barely able to frame the words.
“You did this!” Lou pointed at the mess.
Cuban frowned. “Me?”
“You’re fucking lyin’! I don’t believe a single word that comes out of that dirty black mouth of yours.” Lou clenched his teeth.
“Deputy Paul asked me to clean the kitchen so I did. He checked it and said I done a good job, then I went home. That’s the truth.”
“You blamin’ me, boy?” Deputy Paul stepped forward.
“Just sayin’ what happened is all.”
“But that’s not what happened, is it?” Deputy Paul raised his eyebrows at Cuban.”You were the last to leave! Wasn’t like this when I saw it,” he lied.
“There were guys. I don’t know how many. I heard ’em in your office,” Cuban protested.
“Nigger, please tell me you’re not accusing my guys of committing this atrocious act?”
Deputy Paul stepped towards Cuban.
“I didn’t do it.”
“So, you’re happy to accuse others, are you?”
A new voice joined in from the far left. Larry Bruce had descended the metal staircase from his office, bodies parting to let him through.
“Am I right in thinking there was an incident in here yesterday?” he continued.
“Yessir,” Cuban replied.
“Am I also right in thinking that maybe Chef Lou took things a little far?” Bruce almost appeared sympathetic as Cuban nodded again.
“So, Cuban, you’d be justifiably angry at what happened to you in here yesterday, wouldn’t you?”
Tears began to well up in Cuban’s eyes as he realized the trap that Bruce was setting for him.
“The best form of revenge is to hit somebody where it hurts, right?” Bruce nodded, looking at the faces in the crowd. “You were working late last night and everybody had gone home, is that correct?”
“Yessir.” Cuban looked at his feet.
“And now Lou finds it in this state?”
“Yessir.” He knew he was defeated.
“How’s that look to you?” Bruce squared up to Cuban.
“Like I did it.” Cuban wiped his dripping nose on the back of his hand.
“Like? Like you did it?”
Cuban closed his eyes.
“He wouldn’t have done this. He’s been set up,” Shona shouted, fighting her way through the crowd who then flipped their attention to her.
“Stay outta this,” Deputy Paul barked at her.
“This ain’t fair. Can nobody see? Why’d he make it so obvious if it was revenge?” Shona yelled.
“You’ll sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up if you still wanna keep your job! I wonder what Mr. Ellis would say about you talkin’ back to the boss?” Bruce screwed his face up.
Elbie shuffled next to Shona, resting a cautious hand on her shoulder.
“Now,” said Bruce, “you’ll apologize to all these men. They couldn’t have any food this morning. Then you’ll grovel to Lou to ask for forgiveness, y’hear me? And then you’ll clean up the mess. Because if you don’t, that’s refusing work and Ellis will back me when I fire your ass. D’you understand me, boy?”
“Well, now’s a good time,” Bruce snarled.
Cuban scanned the angry faces in the crowd.
“Get on with it.” Deputy Paul shoved Cuban.
“I’m–” He swallowed his tears back. “I’m real sorry for you goin’ without food–”
“And what you did,” Bruce interrupted.
Shona shook her head in disgust.
“And what I did.”
The baying crowd shouted their rejections of his apology, their unforgiving mood not helped by their empty stomachs.
“Now apologize to Lou,” Bruce taunted.
Cuban turned towards Lou, who came from behind the counter to face him.
“Say it. Fucking say it,” Lou snapped.
“Kneel down. Fucking beg!” Lou interrupted.
Deputy Paul and Bruce glanced at each other and smirked.
Cuban dropped to his knees in front of the head chef. He cast his mind forward to the day he made it to New York and pictured himself standing in a jazz bar holding a Manhattan and tapping his foot to the beat. He’d imagined that scene every time. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he straightened his back and looked up at Lou.
“I beg for your forgiveness.” Cuban felt the wetness on his face double as Lou spat in it.
“Fuck you!” Lou raged as he stormed out.
“Anything for me?” Chloe asked Bonnie on the front desk as she returned from her meeting in town.
“Seems quiet?” she said, looking around her.
“They’re all in the canteen, Miss Chloe.”
Curious, she headed over there, confused when she saw Cuban on his knees and objects being thrown at him. Alarmed that nobody seemed to be doing anything about it, she made a beeline for her father.
“Daddy, what’s going’ on?”
“You’re back early,” Bruce replied, surprised to see her.
“We made good progress. What’s going on? Why’s Cuban on his knees? Is he OK?”
“Honey, it’s nothing. Just guys being guys.”
Chloe headed towards Cuban who was being picked up off the floor by the blonde girl she’d seen rush away after her introduction to the workforce. Catching sight of her approaching, Shona quickly brushed Cuban down and dragged him out of the horror towards the relative safety of the tool room before Chloe could make it over to them through the dense crowd.
“We all set?”
Kyle appeared on the balcony that Tuesday afternoon flanked by three smartly dressed men. He’d arranged a meeting with local investors to discuss his future vision for the company. The group sidled into the meeting room, taking their seats around the boardroom table. Kyle remained standing, puffing out his chest, ready to give his performance.
“Gentlemen, thank you for joining us,” he began. “Jeffrey couldn’t make it today, probably in the Copperpot–” Kyle’s sly questioning of Ellis’s integrity drew a sharp intake of breath from around the table. “But I’m sure we’ll manage.” He paused, drinking in the attention he was getting from these wealthy men.
“Now, I haven’t been here long but Larry’s allowed me to hit the ground running with ideas and to let me focus my attention on driving the company forward.”
The investors nodded at each other in agreement. Kyle ran a hand through his jet black hair, smoothing it down at the back as he continued his pitch. “We have a good name – a great name – but that’s because we’re forward thinkers. The market’s changing and companies are investing. We need to invest!” He leaned over and tapped his index finger on the table to emphasize his point. “Larry’s spoken to Jeffrey, who’s signed off the capital to buy more trucks and equipment which I believe will put us ahead of a market that’s becoming crowded. We need to remain the best so this is the time to keep investing into Ellis and Bruce, not hold back!” His speech ended with the investors clapping their approval.
Bruce smiled. His protégé was doing very nicely indeed.
“I wonder what crap they talking ’bout up there.” Elbie looked upwards to the balcony.
“They need somebody around here to speak the truth to those investors,” Shona huffed, scrubbing down one of the walls in the canteen.
Cuban remained in the melancholic state he’d been in all morning.
“Hey Cuban, are you any good at building benches? Think I’m gon’ make some and maybe sell ’em in town for some extra dough, what d’you think?” Shona said, trying to lighten the mood.
He nodded impassively.
“Shona, you got wood for ’em? Sometimes on weekends I get a little cash for picking up bits from farms. I either use it or sell it cheap, depends on what it is. Got some good pieces at home that would suit a bench, if y’want?” Elbie offered.
“That’d be great, Elbie, thank you. I’ll cut you in on the money too. Then we can all get outta here!”
Cuban, for the first time that day, showed the faintest glimmer of a smile.
An eerie silence enveloped Daynes that Tuesday at nightfall, a bird flapping its wings frantically the only sound. Around 10:30, a weary-looking black man emerged from the front door of the elementary school after finally finishing his cleaning shift there. An equally exhausted-looking black woman followed him out. Pulling shut the thick wooden front door, he fiddled with the lock to secure it up for the night. Wiping his brow as he struggled, he cursed the uncooperative key.
“You want me to help with that?” the woman asked lightly.
“No, I can do it, damn thing!” he cursed again as he fought in vain to pull the door and turn the key simultaneously. He sighed. “Alright!” The man stepped aside.
“Let me work my magic.” Blowing on her fingertips, she gave the man a knowing smile as she got to work. Seconds later, the key turned effortlessly and the lock slid home with an unhindered clunk.
“You done it?” he leaned over her and pushed on the tightly-closed door. “Well–” He blew his cheeks out in admiration. “That’s the Lord’s truth why I married you.”
“Of course it is,” she joked back. “You knew you were on to a good thing, Mister! Now let’s go home, I’m beat.” The wife kissed her husband on the nose. They both turned around to head for their car when headlights blasted onto them.
A dark green Ford pickup truck was parked in front of them, blocking their path. Slowly, the driver’s side door creaked open and a shadowy figure emerged. He placed his heavy boots onto the tarmac below with a clump, then crunched a cigarette into the ground beneath them. He looked older than the second man who moments later stepped out of the passenger side. They both stood in silence, staring at the black couple. The man and his wife squinted into the blinding light and held their hands to their faces trying to see who the men were, but they were impossible to identify with the glow of the headlights forming a haze around their imposing figures. As one man passed the front of the truck to whisper something to the second man, his body crossed and bent the front left beam, redirecting it onto a third man who was now visible in the back seat. He looked noticeably smaller than the other two and not particularly keen to step out of the vehicle. The fourth silhouette that the black man saw through the refracted light was the one that struck terror in his heart – two pointed ears and clouds of hot breath rising from its muzzle in excitement.
“Baby, what’s happening?” The woman gripped her husband’s hand as he squeezed it back.
“Just stay behind me,” he said under his breath. “We don’t want any trouble,” he called out to the shadows by the truck.
Gripping her husband with both hands, the woman froze with fear as the muffled noise of barking rang out.
“Please don’t hurt us–” The black man started to tremble. “OK, baby, listen,” he whispered sideways to his wife. “I want you to run to Mr. Robinson’s place. He always leaves the yard gate unlocked. Wait for me there. I’ll be right behind you, OK? Baby, you ready?”
“I don’t wanna leave you, I can’t–” his wife sobbed.
Their voices stirred the men on either side of the truck, who then muttered their own instructions to each other.
“You can. I’m right behind you. I’ll stall ’em. Ready? One, two, three. GO!” He threw her hand out of his own and shoved her away from him.
She ran down the steps but one of the men gave chase and caught her easily. Her husband leaped down the steps, grabbed his wife’s aggressor and unlocked the young man’s arms from around her. In a fit of blind rage, the black man punched him in the head, knocking him to the brink of unconsciousness. His wife sprinted into the night wailing. The truck driver raced over the instant he saw his partner in crime crash to the floor. Turning his head back to the truck, he shouted his instruction to the person in the back holding the leash.
“Let him go, boy!”
Excited paws scrabbled out of the truck as the beast ran off down the street in pursuit of the fleeing woman.
The driver strode over to the shell-shocked target of their night’s sport and pummelled him to the ground.
The sound of screaming and barking echoed along the street and far off into the darkness beyond. The gate to Mr. Robinson’s yard clattered open under the weight of the woman falling through it. She slammed it shut as the Alsatian’s bared teeth snapped at her. Sinking to the ground, she sobbed through strangled breaths in the relative safety of Robinson’s yard.
“Jeffrey, there you are.”
Kyle, drink in hand, made his way over that Tuesday evening to Ellis’s table at the Copperpot Inn. Ellis loved the finer things in life—he’d certainly worked hard enough to achieve them—but mostly he came here for the privacy that his VIP booth gave him. Tonight, however, it was strictly business.
“Yes, here I am,” Ellis said with an unusual hint of sarcasm. Kyle hadn’t been with the company long enough to know that this was the table Ellis had reserved for nearly ten years. He sat with three others, including two of the investors who were present in Kyle’s presentation.
“Thank you for inviting me, sir. Is Larry not here?” Kyle seemed a little disarmed without his mentor.
“No. I thought it would be good to meet you on your own.” Ellis smiled as he sipped his single malt.
“I see.” Kyle ran his fingers over his tie-knot.
“I was wondering, young Kyle, when exactly did you tell me about the meeting you were having today with my friends here?” He motioned his arm to the men at his table. “I’ve been reliably informed by these fine gentlemen it was implied that I was drinking in here instead. That the case?” Ellis asked rhetorically, his eyes drilling holes through Kyle’s face.
“You know something? I must have forgotten to let you know about the meeting,” Kyle floundered. “What with being new and all it must have slipped my mind. I’d assumed Larry would anyway.” He loosened his tie away from his sweating neck.
“So, it was Larry’s fault?” Ellis pressed.
“Well, he is the boss … as well as you of course, sir.”
One of the investors coughed as Kyle’s confidence waned palpably.
“You know, the next smart thing to do would be to apologize for embarrassing me in front of my friends. I’ve always attended every meeting unless otherwise stated and on this occasion my wife was unwell,” Ellis chided.
Kyle sipped his drink. “Of course, sir. It won’t happen again.”
Ellis smiled his reply.
“So how is everything going?”
Kyle took another sip.
“Everything’s fine. At the meeting I said–”
“I know what was said, Kyle,” Ellis interrupted, gesturing to his investors next to him. “What about the staff? Are they happy?”
“Of course, sir–”
“How are my two new recruits?”
“They’re doing just fine, sir.” Sweat beads began to form on Kyle’s upper lip.
“Shona workin’ on the trucks like I ordered?”
“I believe so,” Kyle lied again.
“Good,” Ellis nodded slowly, eyeballing him.
It seemed a natural moment for the conversation to pause and for people to sip their drinks. One of the investors got up to use the bathroom, and the other two walked over to the bar hollering as they recognized somebody.
“Sir, do you think it’s good for morale to have a colored man and a woman working at the site? Daynes is booming at the moment and there are more deserving people who wanna work here. Some have even moved house to get a job in this town. You know what I’m talking about?” Kyle leaned forward.
“No,” Ellis responded flatly.
“They’re making the workers go crazy. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, sir!”
Ellis sipped his single malt. He paused, then looked Kyle dead in the eye.
“Tell me, have they ever stolen anything?”
“No,” Kyle replied, leaning back in his seat.
“Have they ever shown up late?”
“Not yet! But I reckon–”
“Have they ever refused work?” Ellis interjected, still yet to blink.
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Then we’re done on this subject.” Ellis sat back.
Kyle sighed and finished his drink.
“Good evening, Mr. Ellis,” he smiled and shook Ellis’s hand, seething as he got up and left.
Shona found Cuban sitting on the floor by the small fire he’d made just outside the back door of the tool room. She’d been finishing up for the evening that Wednesday, putting the tools away and wiping down the benches when she saw the door ajar. Cuban seemed distant, tapping a melody on the side of an old tire a few yards away from his makeshift bed.
“Hey,” Shona said. He stopped humming. “No, don’t stop on my account. That was beautiful.”
“You OK? Didn’t get a chance to see you much today.”
“They just playin’ their games again tryin’ to get me to take the bait but I ain’t gonna bite. I need the money too much.”
Shona shifted an old crate out of the way and sat on the floor next to him.
“There are some real jerks here. But it won’t be long and we’ll be out of it, right?” she said, trying to reassure him.
“Maybe.” Cuban drummed his fingers on the tire again, slower this time.
“What’s up?” Shona asked softly.
“Even if I do manage to set foot outside o’here, they’re waiting. The Klan.” He spat out the last word as if it were snake venom. “The safest place for me is here, in this goddamn place!”
“I’m sorry. Wish there was more I could do.”
Shona pondered that thought. Maybe there was something she could do for him. He was nothing like what she’d been brought up to believe. Not a thieving, raping, murdering nigger like her father had ingrained in her mind. She had to try to help him. He couldn’t stay here like this. He had nothing: a wooden bed, dirty satchel pillow and a tiny fire. It had to be small though, to avoid attracting attention to the fact he’d been staying there the last few nights.
“Hey, I got an idea. Why don’t you come back to where I’m staying at the moment,” she began, her words tumbling out before she had given herself the chance to register the magnitude of what she’d be asking of Tom and Ruby.
“You kiddin’? Ain’t nobody gon’ want a colored staying under their roof!” Cuban said.
“Well, technically, I’m not under their roof – I sleep in the barn outside. I’m sure we could make space? Come home with me tonight and we can at least ask. If they say no then you lost nothin’, right?” Shona made a watertight case.
“OK, but we gotta wait until dark. I don’t wan’ be seen out there.” Cuban pointed towards the field which backed onto the tool room.
“Deal. We’ll stay here another hour or so. By my reckonin’ it’ll be just fine by then.” Shona held her hands in front of Cuban’s fire. They smiled at each other as they shared the peace and quiet of the evening.
As night fell, Cuban stared into the flames, transfixed.
“You alright?” Shona asked.
“I heard today that three coloreds gon’ missin’ from town. The guys in the canteen were talking about it, calling it population control. One of them’s my friend.” Cuban choked back his emotions.
“My God!” Shona exhaled.
“He’s a good man too. He does cleanin’ at a school in town. Did a few shifts for him when he had to take one of his kids to some hospital appointments. One night, I ‘member tellin’ him I felt like I was being watched when I locked up, but he said nothin’ would happen ‘cause too many people were around. Think his wife took over my job when I left.”
“She missin’ too?”
“No, they only mentioned a guy who works at the school, so that’d be my friend. That’s all I know. Somehow I don’t think the sheriff will be looking for three coloreds on his watch, do you? I can promise ya, it won’t end with good news.”
“Jesus,” Shona whispered.
“Yep, I really need his help right now.”
They both sat quietly in front of the pathetic fire. It wasn’t big enough to keep a dormouse warm at night, but it was arguably better than Cuban being caught sleeping there.
“Mornin’, young Shona.”
Elbie, on his hands and knees, looked up to greet her as she walked into his little workshop at the back of the tool room, early for work as usual that bright Thursday morning. It was Elbie’s little haven – a place he could be alone with his thoughts and keep his private things. His best tools were lovingly stored on purpose-built shelves. He seemed to have everything in this cupboard, from tacks to billhooks, all neatly labeled – his meticulous organization a testament to how long he had worked there.
“Good morning, Elbie. What you up to?” Shona asked.
“Sssshh … this is where I keep my secret stash,” he replied.
Shona smiled and got down on her hands and knees too. “Where you keep what?”
“My stash! Liquor, some cash … and my diary. Those up in the offices would turn this place upside down if they had any idea!”
Elbie traced his fingers along one of the floorboards near the wall, finding the one that was loose. He wiggled it upwards with his penknife until its lip was exposed enough to lift. Underneath was a box and sure enough there was his brown, leather-bound diary, a hip flask and a few crumpled dollar bills.
“This is my escape box. That’s what I call it in my head.”
Elbie pulled out his diary and began flicking through it. Shona watched him with sadness in her eyes. He was an outsider here too. The fact that the only place he felt he could keep his things completely secret was in a little box underneath some floorboards spoke volumes.
“How often d’you write in it?”
“Most days. Just a line or two. Trust me, there’s always something to write about with what goes on around here. Writing in this thing makes me feel close to my wife, like she can hear my thoughts. And if I listen close enough, I can hear her talking back to me,” Elbie drifted off, gazing into space as he spoke.
“Yeah? What does she say?”
“To get the goddamn hell out of here as soon as I can.” He pointed at Shona.
They both chuckled.
“I would say that’s great advice!” said Shona.
“Here, this is a picture of her.” Elbie took out a small black and white photograph from the inside cover of his diary and placed it in her hand.
“She’s gorgeous, Elbie.”
“She was a stunner. Too good for me.”
“Elbie, don’t you think it would be safer to keep this diary at home? People here’d go crazy if they found it!”
“It’s my damn memory. I have to write things down straight away!” He spoke with the first tinge of bitterness Shona had witnessed since meeting the old man. “I can’t remember a damn thing by the time I get home. It’d just be a blank page.” Elbie choked back tears.
Shona put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, which he patted as he cleared his throat.
“Hey, if you ever need a drink, you know where it is now,” Elbie said as he shook the hip flask, the liquor inside sloshing.
“Here you are,” Cuban said, finding Elbie and Shona in the tool room just before their 10 o’clock break. He’d seemed brighter in the last few days since he’d been staying at Tom and Ruby’s, bedding down in the opposite corner of the barn to where Shona slept. They were reluctant at first but Shona had convinced them that it was only short term. They agreed on the condition that nobody in town knew he was staying there, as the Birds didn’t want any trouble brought to their door. He had to take a different route home from work every night to ensure he wasn’t followed.
“Hey,” Shona smiled.
“Boss man’s givin’ out the wages. We need to go.” He cocked his head to the door for them to follow him.
The workers were gathered in the usual place underneath the balcony in the canteen. Each worker’s name was called out for them to collect their envelopes from Deputy Paul.
“Elbie!” Deputy Paul hollered. Elbie took his envelope from him, emptying the contents into his hand.
“Jackson!” Shona collected her envelope.
“Nigger!” Head down, Cuban made his way over.
“There you go, everybody back to work,” Deputy Paul ordered.
“I haven’t been paid right, you?” Shona kept checking. She looked at Cuban who seemed equally dismayed.
“No, I’ve come up short too.” He didn’t sound surprised.
“Me too, those thievin’ son’bitches,” Elbie screwed his envelope up.
“I’ll go see Deputy Paul. I’m not having this!” Shona marched over to try and catch him before he headed back up the winding steps to the management offices.
“Excuse me? EXCUSE ME! Deputy Paul!”
“What?” he snapped his head back.
“We haven’t been paid right. We’re all coming up short!”
“That’s what they’re payin’ you.”
“But I got people relying on me to help them!” Shona’s face radiated fury.
“Not my problem.” Deputy Paul turned his back and continued up the steps.
“You know this ain’t fair. We’ve done nothin’ wrong. We work damn hard, goddammit!” Shona yelled in vain at the back of Deputy Paul’s sweaty shirt.
“Well, go see the boss! I’ll let Mr. Bruce know you’d like to complain … or leave.”
She stood glaring at him as he reached the top, hearing the clump of his footsteps walk around the balcony and into an office. She knew it was futile trying to reason with him. She made her way back to the tool room, punching one of the cleaning cupboard doors on her way past.
That afternoon, Shona was ordered to clean the kitchen until she could see her reflection in every pot and pan.
“Jackson! Get your ass over here.”
Shona folded her cleaning cloth, put it on the side and made her way towards the booming voice. She found Deputy Paul at the bottom of the balcony steps, his cold eyes fixed on her. He led her up the steps, stopping right outside Larry Bruce’s office. Turning to face her, he flashed a sly smile as he knocked on the door.
“Yeah,” a voice bellowed from the other side.
The deputy entered and shut the door behind him. He was gone for about thirty seconds then reappeared.
“In you go,” he smirked.
“Mr. Bruce, sir?” She spoke as confidently as she could muster as she entered his office.
“Get in here, Jackson!” Bruce was sitting down. On his desk there were photographs of him taken with the most influential people in town. He looked up from the papers strewn out in front of him and shot a look of disgust at her.
“You wanna work here, don’t you?” He raised an eyebrow as he spoke.
“Then why the fuck you talkin’ back to your superior?”
“I just asked about our wages, sir. They’re not the same as everyone else’s.” Shona lowered her eyes from his angry red face.
“That’s because you’re not the same. Do you hear me? All three of you rejects. You’re lucky you all still have a job.”
He rose out of his chair and stood directly in front of Shona, close enough for her to smell the liquor on his breath.
It was a familiar smell to her.
His mustached mouth curled as he circled her. Shona froze, feeling his breath on her neck as he lingered behind her.
“The thing that’s been playin’ on my mind since you had the audacity to walk into my company was why? Why would a pretty girl like you wanna work here? Now, I got my suspicions. She either wants to drive the men wild and get some business for herself in the evening or something ain’t quite right with her!” He looked her up and down, wrinkling his nose as his eyes drifted over her shapeless, baggy overalls and heavy work boots. “Tell me, Jackson, why did you choose here?” Menace dripped from each word he uttered.
“I needed a job.”
Shona stared at the wall behind Bruce’s desk.
“Hmm,” he whispered in her ear. “The guys tell me they think you’re cute but they can’t work you out.” Shona felt her blood run cold. “Hell, maybe you could be some use to the men here after all. Work some tension out of ’em.”
He began tracing his forefinger down Shona’s back, her body flinching with repulsion as he did so.
“Now, get the fuck out of my office.” Bruce growled.
“You’re too slow, old man!”
That sweltering Thursday morning, Elbie’s first job was to move some heavy, steel tire rims out of the path of a tractor waiting to reverse into the fields. As he passed him, Kyle callously pushed Elbie into the pile he’d made. The old man squealed in pain as a sharp edge of steel ripped a hole in his work pants. A halo of dark red blood seeped through the ragged tear.
“You OK?” Cuban ran over and slid his strong arm underneath Elbie’s shoulder. He smiled his gratitude and glanced at the half dozen men around him who could have stepped in to help him up.
“Come on, friend, let’s get you patched up,” Cuban said as he smiled back.
Cuban managed to get a bowl of lukewarm soup and some bread from the serving counter at lunch time, then made his way, through the usual taunts and insults, to the table at the back of the canteen where Shona was eating alone.
“Hey, how you doin’?” she asked.
“I’m certainly finding out about that Mr. Chambers. Telling me how I belonged in the kitchen scrubbing floors. Yeah, me and him don’t see eye-to-eye.”
Shona slurped soup hungrily off her spoon. Just at that moment, Elbie also sat down with his equally sparsely laden tray.
“He seems like another damn idiot if you ask me. Corrupt as the rest of ’em. Although Miss Chloe’s not,” Elbie added.
“Keep your guard up with her, though. She still sits in the management office, remember?” Shona snapped back coldly.
“What’s going on over there?” Cuban’s attention was diverted to a couple of tables away. Randy, one of the mechanics, was surrounded by three hulking brutes who were throwing his hat around. Very quickly it became a circus of whoops and cheers, with Randy being the main attraction.
“Come on, big boy, come get it!” The tallest man tempted Randy, who huffed and puffed as he tried to force his huge bulk into a half-jump, his belly wobbling every time he rose and fell. His sweaty, red face was contorted into a pathetic scowl as he squealed his displeasure, which only served to egg his tormentors on more.
“Greg, it ain’t funny no more!” Randy pleaded.
“I got his keys!” another member of the pack cheered.
“They’re unbelievable,” Shona said. “Even the damn bosses ain’t doin’ nothing!”
Elbie looked up to the balcony where Kyle and Deputy Paul were watching.
“So, d’you want the hat that Mrs. Randy got you or your keys that are kinda important for your job? Come on, fat boy, choose!” Greg reveled in his power. He tossed the hat and keys between his fellow tormentors. “Randy, just see it as me helping you lose a few pounds!”
By now, a three-person-deep circle had formed around Randy, waving their arms in the air and jeering.
“I’ve had enough of this.” Shona jumped up.
“What’s she doin’?” Cuban exclaimed.
Barging her way into the center of the crowd, Shona grabbed Randy’s hat out of one man’s hand.
“Give him the keys, Greg! Or you gon’ hit a woman?” She fronted up to him, a defiant look on her beautiful face.
The crowd hushed, their eyes fixed on Shona.
“I’m gon’ hold out my hand and you gon’ place the keys down! Y’all had your fun now,” Shona said. The tension in the room was palpable.
“Who are you, his mother?” Greg laughed in her face.
“No. Keys.” Shona held out her palm.
All eyes were now on Greg.
Hearing the commotion downstairs, Chloe emerged out of her office and looked over the balcony. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Nothing, just the guys lettin’ off some steam,” Kyle replied.
Back on the ground floor, Greg pressed his nose into Shona, his sweat dripping down onto her cheekbone.
“You need to be careful who you make a friend in here and who you choose to make an enemy, darlin’,” he sneered in her ear.
“Keys.” Shona stared at him, her blue eyes calm.
Shocked, he looked up to the balcony for advice. Following his eyeline, Shona spotted Chloe standing next to Kyle who nodded his decision.
Greg huffed and slapped the keys down hard into Shona’s palm.
“Come on, everybody, show’s over,” Deputy Paul barked, his eyes fixed on Shona as she handed a grateful Randy back his possessions, then returned to the table to finish her lunch.
The following morning, Randy called out to Shona as he made his way over to her outside the mechanics’ yard.
“Yeah?” Shona stood up straight, holding her broom.
“I just wanted to say thanks for standing up to those guys in the canteen yesterday. You didn’t have to.”
Shona felt sorry for him. He was short and round with thinning messy hair, eroded away from constantly wearing his tatty cap. He always seemed to have on the same dirty overalls day after day, the same shoulder strap always hanging loose.
“No problem. That happen a lot?” Shona squinted in the sunlight.
“Yeah, but who do you complain to, right?” he shrugged.
“How long’s it been going on for?”
“Since Mr. Bruce took over. But he told me that nobody else in Daynes would give me a job and that I was lucky that Mr. Ellis did so I should be grateful.”
The 10 o’clock buzzer sounded.
“You coming in?” she asked him.
“Nah. M’wife made me sandwiches. I like the quiet out here in the fields anyway. Best twenny minutes of the day for me!” Randy half-smiled.
“OK, well, I’ll see you in a while.”
Shona made her way to the canteen, got her food and sat down in her usual seat, scoffing down her breakfast. Ten minutes before the return-to-work buzzer was due to sound, an exhausted-looking Cuban walked into the canteen and headed up to collect his food. He held out his plate and braced himself for the typically inaccurate aim Chef Lou had when serving him. This time, Lou went one better, holding his ladle to the far left of Cuban’s plate and slopping his portion onto the canteen floor.
“That’s y’lot, move along.”
“Could I just have some bread?” Cuban asked calmly.
“When you gon’ realize you ain’t welcome ’round here?”
“Can I just have some bread. Please,” Cuban repeated. He was starving.
“When you’ve cleared up that mess.” Lou looked over his counter at the brown greasy sludge on the floor.
Picking up some paper towels, Cuban got down on his hands and knees.
“Where he belongs. Go on, nigger, scrub!” Lou mocked. Workers in the canteen started to join in.
Bits of bread flew over at him, hitting Cuban as he tried to duck. When he was finished cleaning, he stood up and faced Lou.
“Can I have my bread now, please, Chef?” Cuban fixed his blazing eyes on the wall behind Lou, trying to contain his fury.
“Of course.” Picking up a small bread roll, Lou took a huge bite, leaving remnants of his saliva on it, then gave it to Cuban. “Now, what do you say?”
“Thank you,” Cuban replied through gritted teeth.
Cuban joined Elbie and Shona at the table. Seeing that all he had was a tiny half-eaten bread roll, Elbie pushed his plate towards him, offering him the last of his eggs and refusing to take no for an answer.
“I’m gon’ put all this in my diary, y’hear? They’ll pay for it one day, I goddamn swear it!” Elbie was furious.
“Diary? With all due respect, sir, what’s that gon’ do?” Cuban was raging inside. He knew it was wrong to take it out on Elbie but he couldn’t control his feelings of humiliation.
“When I get out of here, I’m gon’ give it to somebody and maybe they can help when they see what’s really going on here. I won’t have anything to lose then,” Elbie said as he tried to calm his friend down.
Cuban ate the few spoonfuls of food that Elbie had offered him. They sat there in silence for the remaining few minutes of break.
That Friday afternoon, Shona approached Elbie who was sweeping up outside the mechanics’ garage. She bent down to pick up a dustpan and held it on the ground for him.
“Elbie, I got a question.” She looked up at him as the last of the debris was collected safely in the pan.
“Why is Mr. Ellis so OK with colored folk?”
“Because he owes ’em,” he replied simply.
“You see, Ellis’s father ran a successful transport company about an hour from here. It was in the middle of nowhere. He built it up from what his father had started and little Jeffrey used to play around the yard most days after school getting into mischief. Ellis senior used to employ coloreds and pay ’em next to nothing to do all the dirty jobs other workers refused to do. He couldn’t stand ’em.”
“Go on–” Shona prompted.
The old man paused, leaning on his broom.
“One day, little Jeffrey, only about nine or ten years old, goes off into the fields behind his father’s plantation and slips down a ten foot hole. It was blazing hot and he twisted his ankle on the way down so he couldn’t climb out. He would’ve been cooked alive right there under that sun if he’d have stayed out much longer.”
“Then what happened?”
“He called for help but his father couldn’t hear him.” Shona’s eyes widened. “A little while later, two heads appeared looking down at him. It was the black fellas who worked for Ellis senior. They were on their way home and heard his cries for help. Now, these men were being underpaid, beaten, starved and humiliated by Jeffrey’s father–”
“So what did they do?”
“They could’ve got the ultimate revenge on Ellis senior. Jeffrey was his heir, his world. They could’ve left him in that hole, walked away and nobody would’ve known.”
“And? Come on Elbie, what happened?” Shona said impatiently.
“They did exactly that. They walked away,” Elbie said matter-of-factly.
Shona was dumbstruck. That was not the line she’d expected him to say.
“Wait, what? They walked away?”
“They walked away. But they came back a few minutes later with two of their buddies and a rope from the yard, hollering to Ellis senior to follow them. When he arrived, he saw those ‘evil’ black men pull his scared, dehydrated son to safety!” Elbie smiled.
“Yep, from that day on, Ellis senior never treated ’em bad again, even gave ’em more money. Jeffrey hung out with their children and everything. He owes his life to those black fellas.”
“Wow. How come y’know all this, Elbie?” Shona smiled.
“I worked for Ellis senior many years ago and I never forgot seeing little Jeffrey being brought back that day, cuts all down his legs from the fall. That’s why he’s got that limp. When Ellis senior passed on, Jeffrey always promised me a job no matter what. I seen him grow from boy to man and I’m proud of him,” Elbie concluded.
“You got a lot of stories goin’ on in there, ain’t ya!” Shona pointed at Elbie’s head – he smiled and nodded.
“Come on, I’ll show you a picture of Ellis senior and all of us at the old site. The black fellas who saved Jeffrey are in it too.”
They wandered back over to the tool room, deep in conversation, and leaned their brooms up against the wall as they went inside.
Elbie’s horrified face froze. His eyes slowly panned across the scene, the wrinkles on his face more pronounced as he frowned in bewilderment. The place had been completely trashed, broken stools and benches lying all around the once immaculate room. Tools had been snapped, then thrown around indiscriminately.
Shona sighed and set about picking up the remnants of broken tools and papers off the floor. Nuts and bolts were littered everywhere.
A terrifying thought pierced Elbie’s mind, causing the color to drain from the old man’s face as he ran towards his little workshop. Shona followed closely behind, hearing a strangled cry of relief as he realized the plank in the wooden floorboard had not been disturbed.
“GODDAMN this place!” Elbie clenched his fists.
Shona shut the door leading out to the corridor to give them their privacy and began sweeping up the broken glass on the floor inside. Looking up, it was now Shona’s turn to be surprised.
“What the hell–”
They stared open mouthed at the two words gouged into the wooden door.
Meanwhile, Kyle stalked around his office like a caged lion, running a frustrated hand over his neatly combed hair and loosening his tie. His desk was clutter free with just the bare minimum of office supplies any self-respecting executive should have – including the obligatory bottle of whiskey and glass in the desk drawer. The quiet calm of his surroundings belied his mood, however, as he paced around the desk on the phone to his mother in Pittsburgh.
“What are you talkin’ ’bout?” He stopped dead.
“They came back, this time demanding money. What the hell you got yourself into down there, Kyle?” his mother shrilled over the phone.
“It’s nothin’. I’ll deal with it.” He pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Nothing? Your father paid them off … this time. Said you owe money to other people too, that right?”
“’Course not. They’re just foolin’ around tryin’ to frighten you.”
“Well, it worked! We don’t want this anymore, Kyle. Time and time again we bail you out when you owe no-good thugs money for God knows what! Your father is livid.”
“Yeah? It’s not like you can’t afford it, Mother,” Kyle snapped back. There was a long pause. “Look, Mom, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that, I–”
“Son … I’ve always, always defended you, even though it’s caused nothing but upset between me and your father. You’ve had the best upbringing, the nicest house and you went to the best school. But this has gone too far.”
“Uh huh. So, you’re happy to let your only child get beat up? What kinda mother’s that?”
“The kind of mother who paid those other thugs off last year in secret so your father wouldn’t find out,” she fired back.
“Yeah, I bet you have a lot of secrets from each other, huh?”
“Why you saying this?” Kyle’s mother sounded tearful.
“You should be helping your son. Why’s that gotta be a secret?”
“Because you’ve got yourself involved with the wrong people, Kyle. Drugs, gambling? You’re thirty-four years old, for God’s sake. You’ve had more than enough money out of us.”
Kyle sat down and took a swig of whiskey straight from the near-empty bottle.
“Didn’t realize there was a limit to my mother’s affections.” He rolled the whiskey over the front of his teeth, sucking the air through them.
“That’s not fair, Kyle.”
“The truth ain’t, is it, Mother?”
“That him?” Kyle heard a deep voice in the background.
“Kyle?” His father barked.
“I’m gon’ give it to you straight now; I’ve paid ’em. But they said you owe more. You’re on your own. Don’t you dare speak to your mother like that and, in case you’re wondering, you ain’t getting a goddamn PENNY of inheritance after the money you’ve blown. You’re a disgrace, the dirty deals you’ve done to some good folk back here! You’re no son o’mine.”
The line went dead.
Kyle was left with the dull burr of the dial tone as he drained the last dregs of his bottle and swept his arm along the smartly organized desk, sending his letter tray and notepad flying.
“What the hell is it this time? We have more goddamn meetings than Eisenhower!” Elbie scoffed under his breath to Shona and Cuban.
Everybody made their way to the usual place in the canteen late that Friday afternoon, pleasantly surprised to see Jeffrey Ellis emerge up top, giving everybody a warm smile.
“Wish he was around here more,” Shona leaned in to whisper to Cuban.
“Good mornin’, everybody. I know y’all busy so I don’t want to take up too much of your time,” Ellis began, leaning over the balcony.
“Take as much time as you want, m’friend!” Elbie said in a low voice.
“I want to take this opportunity to introduce to you one of the new managers here at Ellis and Bruce.”
Shona looked to the right of Ellis as Larry Bruce and Kyle walked out and stood together, not looking happy.
“I’ve been impressed with his professionalism, integrity and hard work. Please join me in congratulatin’ Mr. Ron Black.” Ellis swept his right arm outwards.
A tall, balding man emerged onto the balcony. He looked to be in his late thirties and was as smartly dressed as Ellis in his three-piece suit. Ron Black was an island at the company, a safe pair of hands who never caused a fuss and never joined in with the harsh treatment. He just did his job.
Ellis concluded his introduction and instigated a round of hearty applause. Bruce and Kyle slow clapped, the outpouring of affection for Ron grating on them.
During the applause, Ellis leaned in towards Ron, knowing his voice would be drowned out. “Ron, I want you to be my eyes and ears here. Tell me everything that goes on.”
Ron nodded and smiled back at the cheering crowd.
The meeting was called to a close and the workers began mingling below the balcony, none of them in any rush to get back to work. Elbie pointed across the crowded room.
“There she is, sweet little thing.”
Chloe Bruce had made her way down the steps from the management balcony to wander amongst the workers when Cuban and Shona both glanced over.
“She spoke to me when I was out in the field the other day. She seemed to really listen,” Cuban added.
Spotting the three of them across the distance, Chloe began making her way over.
“I’m goin’ back to work,” Shona said quietly as she passed behind Elbie and headed towards the door leading outside.
“Shona, wait!” Cuban darted away just as Chloe neared Elbie, her face breaking out into the purest, most natural smile he’d seen in a long time.
Elbie had always been fond of the young Miss Bruce and, in the short time she’d been home, noticed that she’d matured into the total opposite of her brutish father. She was honest, kind and very considerate of the workers she’d soon inherit. She always made time to check they were happy and helped where she could with their problems, even if it was just to listen. Elbie was protective of her when the less well-mannered workers dared to make any unsavory comments about her perfectly proportioned body. He always made sure those pigs were reminded just who was going to be paying their wages in a few years’ time. That usually did the trick. Elbie relied on his wits rather than his less-than-intimidating physical strength to get his points across. He greeted her as she approached him, her eyes dimming slightly as she looked over his shoulder.
Cuban raced after Shona, who moved as if she was trying to outrun a lion.
“Wait, you OK?”
“I’ll see y’later,” she replied bluntly.
Cuban stared down the corridor at Shona’s back as she turned the corner. Shaking his head, he headed back to his changing space to gear up for his next rancid job of the day, wondering what was eating away at his friend.
Nearing the door, a noise coming from inside stopped him in his tracks. He was shocked when he looked in to see Kyle decimating what little private space he had. Splinters of wood from his shelf and cupboard were everywhere, his metal locker completely caved in and its lockless door hanging by its broken hinges. What little clothing Cuban had was ripped to shreds, axle grease smeared all over his satchel.
Kyle approached with a smirk, knowing Cuban was powerless.
“Locker check, nigger.”
“Anybody else been checked?” He forced the words through his clenched mouth, knowing the answer.
Kyle whistled to Deputy Paul who sauntered over.
“Don’t like our rules?”
“You know what you can do? Fucking leave!” Kyle pummelled the last two words verbally into Cuban’s face, droplets of spit landing in his eyes.
“I suggest he comes with me, what d’you say, boss?” Deputy Paul’s face was emotionless as he stared straight at Cuban, tapping his short wooden staff into the palm of his opposite hand.
“Excellent idea, Paul!” Kyle smirked as Cuban was strong-armed out of the changing space and down the corridor.
Chloe Bruce had felt the dull ache of her restless spirit constantly since the day she’d returned to Daynes. Her studies in the city had finished and, with her older brother gone, she was needed at home to do as all good Southern daughters should. Her only escape from the monotony of her new corporate role was to saddle up that Saturday morning and put on a baggy cotton shirt, comfy slacks and riding boots. It was the only time her cluttered, swirling mind felt still and when she felt the soft breeze through her untied hair, her inner wildness was released.
Resisting the urge yet again to jump the fence of the paddocks that surrounded the family estate, she returned to the house to find her father in the living room slouched on the sofa, slugging whiskey and watching the same old game show he’d watched for years. He was still just as bad as ever at guessing the answers, his frustration growing with every glass of liquor that he sloshed down his throat.
“GODDAMN it. I knew it was that! I swear this damn show’s rigged!” He drained his glass and immediately poured himself another.
“I’m going down to my den to do some painting,” Chloe said with a sigh, deciding not to linger while her father berated the contestants as he gulped his shot down and jangled the ice cubes in his glass at the television in condemnation of their incorrect answers.
“OK, Princess, but I wish you wouldn’t waste your time doing that stuff. There’s no money to be made there. The business is where you will make your money, sweetheart,” he replied, his eyes not diverting from the screen.
“I enjoy it, Daddy. I think I’m pretty good at it.”
She didn’t get a reply.
“Yes! I knew that one,” he screeched at the television, only being snapped back to reality by the shrill of the telephone.
“Yeah?” He listened for a moment, then looked at Chloe. “Honey, it’s a private call.”
“Sure.” She sidled out of the room.
Bruce waited until he was certain Chloe was out of earshot.
“Yeah…Right…OK, I’ll just tell Ellis one of the machines packed up and I took the money from the safe to fix it. You leave it with me. I’m on my way. Get the cards ready.” He slammed the phone down.
Eleanor Bruce knew exactly what she was looking for that same Saturday afternoon. There was only one shop in town that was chic enough for her expensive tastes. As Larry’s wife she wanted for nothing, the townsfolk revering her like a celebrity. She was the Bette Davis of Daynes, in her late forties and always immaculately dressed and coiffed. Her brown hair, with not even the merest hint of gray in it, was pinned up high in a bun on her head, combed and smoothed meticulously. Her stylish pale blue two-piece suit was this season’s latest design, to go with her Chanel handbag and pumps. Mrs. Bruce was responsible for making or breaking local fashion establishments—a nod or recommendation from her would virtually guarantee a rush on a particular garment. Her business was a sought-after prize. As she made her way down the main sidewalk through town, window blinds twitched and shop assistants crossed their fingers that within minutes their door bells would tinkle.
Stella’s Boutique was Eleanor’s destination. Nowhere else would suffice today.
“Well, hello there, Mrs. Bruce. How are you on this fine day?” Stella greeted her with the usual over-the-top grace while subtly trying to organize her staff with a flurry of hand gestures behind a browsing Eleanor Bruce’s back.
“Hi sweetie,” Eleanor chirped over her shoulder.
“Now, what can I do for you, ma’am? What fancy dinner you goin’ to this time?” Stella asked. Charlie, her assistant, looked over as he straightened out some clothes hanging on the rails with precise attention to detail.
“It’s not for me, actually; it’s for my daughter, Chloe.”
“Well now, I heard she was back in town. Home where she belongs with you and Mr. Bruce, ain’t that right, Charlie?” Stella shot a look towards her assistant who looked around sharply, broken out of his concentration. He nodded his agreement even though he hadn’t heard the question.
“So, what’s the occasion?” Stella continued, unashamedly prying.
“She has a date with Kyle Chambers.” Eleanor announced the name of Chloe’s date deliberately loudly, knowing the impact that statement was going to make with the town gossip. “Stella-the-teller” couldn’t keep her mouth shut. It would be all around Daynes by the end of the day, and Alabama by the end of the week, no doubt.
But that was the idea.
“Kyle Chambers? Now, she is one lucky woman! But hey now, so is he. She’s the catch of Daynes, hell, of all Alabama. They’re a match made in heaven,” Stella gushed. “And I’m sure if you can’t find anythin’ off the rack, then Charlie here could work his magic and make somethin’ real special – he’s got some lovely silk and velvet in the back!” Stella stared at Charlie, who nodded again, fiddling with the tape measure draped around his neck.
“It has to be something gorgeous. I want him to be completely hypnotized by her!” Eleanor clasped her hands together.
“Oh, he will be. How long has Miss Chloe been courting him?”
“Well, it’s kinda like a blind date, you know?” Eleanor screwed up her face into a snorting laugh.
“So, Miss Chloe doesn’t know ’bout it?” Stella asked, raising an eyebrow.
“She will, and when she does she’ll be over the moon, just like we will be when they are the next power couple of Alabama. Who knows? A wedding may soon follow.”
“You got this all figured out, ain’t ‘cha?” Stella wagged a finger.
“I’m not gon’ let this one get away. I’ll make Chloe see what a smart move it’ll be to date him. Now, Stella darlin’, show me those stunning dresses.”
As the blood-red sun dipped below the horizon, the Bruces sat in their opulent dining room on Sunday evening, ready to dig into the delicious-looking food their housekeeper was laying on the table. Antonia had worked for the Bruces as long as Chloe could remember. Now in her fifties, she was more like a friend to her–and made the best pot roast she’d ever tasted. This evening, though, Antonia noticed her absentmindedly pushing a piece of beef around her plate. As she refilled Chloe’s glass with water, she put a gentle hand on her shoulder, her kindly features soft and warm as usual but with a tinge of concern for the girl she had loved all these years as if she were her own.
“Larry, your dinner’s goin’ cold. Put that newspaper down!” Eleanor chided for the third time.
“You seen this bullshit? Segregation in schools being banned. What’s this damn world coming to?”
Bruce slammed the newspaper down and sat back in his dining chair in a huff, snatching his reading glasses from his face and pinching the bridge of his nose.
“El, I’m glad we paid for our princess to go to the best schools without bein’ around those kind. My God, if she had to share a class with a damn colored…”
Chloe picked at her food.
“You’re right, dear. Now eat!” Eleanor instructed.
She put on her napkin and started her meal as Bruce picked up his knife and fork.
“D’you realize how good you had it, Chloe?”
Bruce wiped his mouth on his napkin as he felt his mustache moisten with spit and gravy. Chloe took a large intake of breath, releasing it quietly.
“You just don’t know what diseases they carry. I mean, I heard you could die by just being next to them,” Eleanor added, shivering.
“I met quite a few colored people when I went traveling on my time off from college and I’m still alive,” Chloe said, her eyes not leave her plate.
Bruce stopped chewing. He and Eleanor stared at their daughter, the ticking from the antique gold carriage clock on the marble stone mantelpiece the only sound audible in the room for the next five seconds. Finally, Bruce swallowed the food he’d held in his mouth.
“I don’t want you makin’ friends with ’em. D’you hear me? They rape, they steal and they lie. They’ll try and suck you in to liking them, then boom. Before y’know it, the whole town will be crawling with them like locusts. No, that ain’t happenin’, not while I still have air in my lungs,” Bruce raged, flecks of food flying through his mustache and landing on the tablecloth.
“Have you actually spoken to Cuban?” Chloe put her knife and fork down gently onto her china plate.
Antonia bit her bottom lip to stifle a smile at Chloe’s bravery. She really had grown up–and it was a breath of fresh air in this house of hostility. Antonia had never truly understood why two people as rich and successful as Larry and Eleanor Bruce could still be so bitter with the world around them.
Bruce looked up from his plate in surprise. “I don’t care what he has to say, other than Mr. Bruce, I’m leavin’.”
Chloe raised her eyebrows, meeting Antonia’s equally tired-looking expression.
“Now, honey, he’s probably crawlin’ with God knows what. You stay away. I don’t want you bringing anything into this beautiful house. Don’t you go getting attached and feelin’ sorry for ’em–that’s how they trick you,” Eleanor warned. “Anyway, sweetheart, on another more important subject, what d’you think of Kyle?” She changed the subject of the conversation effortlessly.
“Kyle?” Chloe looked at her mother in surprise.
“Yes,” Eleanor said with a nod.
“Well, he’s alright. I don’t really talk to him much. He seems up his own backside most of the time. He’s not very nice to some of the workers. Why?”
“We were just wonderin’. He’s made quite an impression on the ladies who are eager to become Mrs. Chambers.” A smile was creeping across Eleanor’s normally icy exterior.
“Well, I would say…” Chloe paused to sip her water. “They’re welcome to him!”
It wasn’t the answer her parents were hoping for.
“Give the guy a chance,” Bruce said.
Chloe remained silent. She made her peace with the uneaten food on her plate and rose out of her chair, itching to get to the sanctuary of her bedroom. When she was out of earshot, Bruce looked across to his wife.
“What we gon’ do? You’re gon’ have to work harder on her, El.”
“Don’t worry. You leave it to me.”
The Copperpot Inn was the unlikely destination of the Ellis and Bruce workforce that following Friday evening. Jeffrey Ellis had hired the bar out in celebration of Ron Black’s promotion and all of his employees, most of whom had never seen the inside of this normally exclusive venue, had been invited. After witnessing the abuse Cuban had suffered and the hostilities she’d experienced so far, Shona hadn’t particularly been looking forward to the event.
“Hey Shona, you want another drink?”
Randy waddled over and sat at a small table next to her.
“No thanks,” Shona replied, staring at the door every time it opened.
“Your buddy couldn’t make it tonight. He got…busy.” Deputy Paul swaggered over to the table, flashing Shona a grisly gray-toothed grin.
“Who? Cuban?” Ellis overheard Deputy Paul. “That man deserves to be here like everybody else!”
Larry Bruce rolled his eyes as he walked up behind Deputy Paul.
“Next time, Mr. Ellis,” Deputy Paul replied, then glared at Shona as he and Bruce headed to the free bar.
“I’m just gon’ get another beer, Shona, you sure you don’t want one?” Randy lifted his large bulk from behind the round bar table.
Shona hated the stench of smoke which contributed to the stale, thick air in the Copperpot. She was uncomfortable but figured she would stay long enough to be respectful towards Ron, Ellis and a few of the other guys she got on alright with. As the evening wore on, it became clear to her that there was an obvious divide in the workforce. It was playing out right in front of her tonight, the two corners of the bar gradually filling up with men choosing their side.
Randy returned to Shona’s table and put his beer down, not registering that Deputy Paul had followed stealthily behind him.
“I wanted to say somethin’, Shona–” Randy began. As he did so, Deputy Paul kicked the chair from underneath him just as he went to sit down, sending Randy crashing to the ground with the table landing on top of him. Riotous laughter broke out as they cheered the commotion and chanted for the fat man to get to his feet.
Shona sprang into action and struggled to help the prone Randy up.
“You alright?” she asked, brushing fragments of the broken bottle from his beer-soaked shirt.
“I’m fine,” he replied, trying to pull himself together amid the chanting workers.
Bruce and Kyle could hardly contain themselves as they congratulated Deputy Paul on the evening’s entertainment.
Just then, a cheer erupted from the corner nearest the door.
“Now there’s a sight for my sore eyes,” Shona heard somebody in the bar say as a pretty young woman glided in.
She was wearing a cornflower blue cocktail dress, the fine sequins shimmering in the bright lights of the bar. Her silky brown hair was parted on one side and held in place with a diamond-encrusted butterfly clip. Sighs of admiration rippled across the workers, with one small corner trying to stifle their wolf whistles.
Chloe Bruce had arrived.
“Here’s my princess.” Opening his arms wide, Larry Bruce embraced his daughter, giving Kyle a wink behind her back.
“You alright?” Shona whispered to Randy, who was sitting quietly and looking over at the crowd of men now fawning over Chloe Bruce.
“Yeah. It’s just boys being boys. It’s fine,” he said, looking at the ground.
A few minutes of awkward silence passed between them until Shona decided to cut her losses and make a move. Cuban hadn’t arrived anyway and no one else really wanted to talk to her. She walked around the table to say goodbye to Ron and to congratulate him again, shaking Ellis’s hand as she passed him.
“What do you think of her, Ron?” Ellis asked, just as Shona was out of earshot.
“She’s great. Works harder than most of the guys. Gets a tough time, though. I mean, I can’t be everywhere.”
“Hmm–” Ellis replied as he watched his star recruit stride towards the exit.
Across the room, another group had also clocked Shona’s movements.
“There she goes,” Kyle said to the little crowd that had gravitated over to him and Bruce. Chloe’s head snapped around towards the exit, just as the door swung shut behind Shona. The others sniggered.
Chloe, meanwhile, was curious to meet this Shona—the girl who had got all the men talking, the managers’ opinion divided and who she had only, to date, seen the blurry outline of as she was hastily leaving a room.
It was gone midnight, long after Shona had returned home from the Copperpot, when she heard a creak of the barn door and the fresh air of the night sweep over her blankets. A dark figure moved tentatively in the shard of dust-speckled light between the doorway and the corner of the barn. It was Cuban finally returning home, his whimpers replacing the silence. He sat on his little pallet bed and took off his boots with a strangled cry.
“Hey. What happened?” Shona asked.
Hearing him shivering, she crept towards his hunched figure. Edging closer, she looked down to where his boots had landed, a pool of dirty ditchwater staining the wooden barn floor. Something else was mixed in, making the water rusty in color. She reached her hand down and put two fingers in it.
Blood. Lots of it.
“Cuban…what the hell happened to you?”
“I’m fine. I fell,” he replied limply.
“You’re bleeding, for God’s sake!”
He rocked backward and forward on his bed, his arms wrapped around his stomach.
Shona went back across to her bunk, pulled her boots on in the half-light and headed to the little cupboard Tom kept a first aid box in. Pulling out a wad of bandages and a little bottle of iodine, she switched the light on to see how badly hurt Cuban was, but couldn’t have prepared herself for the horror that greeted her when she saw him.
Dripping with blood, Cuban’s leg looked as if he had caught it in a bear-trap. Cuts and scratches covered his shin bone, his right eye was swollen and he had a wide gash spanning the bridge of his nose. He looked broken.
“Christ. How exactly did you fall to make your face and leg look like that?”
“I don’t know…I don’t know!” he replied, rocking back and forth on his bunk.
“You’re lyin’, Cuban!” She sniffed and wiped her hand across her face.
“Someone chased me. I tried to take a different route home like Tom and Ruby asked me to do, but they musta followed me. They threw some kinda blanket over my head and knocked me down. I fell, then a damn dog got hold of m’leg. I don’t wan’ talk ’bout it no more. Please. I just wan’ go sleep, OK?”
Shona silently patched him up, then switched off the light. She went back over to her bed, feeling tormented by the thought of the ordeal her friend had been through that evening.
Despite the fact that she was one of his only friends, Cuban still hadn’t told Shona the full story of what happened that night. The following Monday night after work, they were sitting chatting in the barn, sorting out the pieces of wood that Elbie had thought perfect for Shona to make her benches out of.
“You done much readin’, Shona?”
“Nah, not really. You?” She picked up two pieces of wood and held them together, sizing them up as armrests.
“Well, I couldn’t read until a nice white guy I worked for a few years back taught me, then I couldn’t stop. I liked Marjorie Morningstar by Herman somebody. You heard o’it?”
“Nope!” She laughed, not expecting to talk literature while hammering two-by-fours together.
“It’s about this woman who wants to change her life. Wish I could do that, just click m’fingers and be in that bar in New York playin’ that smooth jazz. I can almost hear it now.”
A smile crept across Cuban’s face as he drummed a beat on a piece of wood with his fingers.
“Yeah? That sounds like a good place.”
“You know, Miss Chloe was behind me in the queue today–”
“And?” Shona concentrated on her wood pile.
“I went to let her go in front of me and–”
She stopped what she was doing and faced Cuban. “What?”
His face dropped, unsure at why his light-hearted story had created storm clouds on Shona’s pretty face. Her eyes, which had glistened with softness for him a moment ago when he talked about his dream, were now cold and hollow.
“And she let me go ahead of her, insisted on it.”
“You shoulda seen the look on Lou’s face! She ain’t so bad, Shona. I don’t think she’s like the others.”
“Don’t trust her. She didn’t stop what happened to you, did she?” Shona’s voice was harsh. Picking up three small pieces of wood, she analyzed them for flaws, then threw away the one piece that didn’t make the grade. The other two pieces, one in each hand, were further scrutinized by their holder.
“Shona, she don’t know! If she did, I think she’d try and stop it.”
“Do you? You really think she’d come to your rescue?” She slammed the wood down on the stone floor, sending echoes rippling through the barn.
“Shona, what is your problem with Miss Chloe?”
“She’s one of them. She won’t ever help the likes of us. I’m goin’ to bed.”
“Christ! What happened here?”
Shona scanned Cuban’s possessions as they littered the floor early Tuesday morning.
“Locker check. Not that anybody else ever has one.”
“Look, sorry about last night. I’m just not as hopeful as you are that things around here can change! Ain’t nobody gon’ come save us.” Her tone was blunt. “I think we gotta just get on with it and get out of here as soon as possible!”
Cuban tidied the last of his possessions up with Shona’s help and rehung his spare pair of pants and an undershirt before attempting to bend the metal locker door back flat so it would close.
“Thanks for your help, Shona.” He shook his head and put his hands on his waist. “Jeez man, that Chambers! You’d think going on a date with the boss’s daughter would put him in a better mood!”
“What you talkin’ bout?” Shona stopped what she was doing.
“He’s got a date with Miss Chloe. Don’t know what she sees in him.”
“She likes him?”
“God only knows why and if she does, well…there’s no hope.”
Her face hardened. “She is like them,” she whispered to herself.
Shona’s strange mood swings were still playing on Cuban’s mind. Tasked with clearing up some smashed glass in the kitchen, he gripped the bag with the shards in it too tightly, recoiling in agony as a white-hot sting ripped through his hand.
“Argh!” He stamped his foot in pain.
“You OK?” Ron Black heard the shriek.
“Yessir. It’s nothin’.” Cuban tried to hide the blood dripping through his fist and pooling onto the kitchen floor.
“I’ll get something for that,” Ron replied, inspecting Cuban’s wound as he stared in disbelief that his boss would want to help him.
Ron Black burst into the meeting room trying to minimize his flustered appearance by smiling broadly and straightening his tie. Not a good start to my first management meeting, he thought as his eyes scanned the room, searching for his seat around the table. The only warm eyes were those of Jeffrey Ellis, who understood that the first meetings were always the worst.
“I’m sorry, sir! Cuban cut his hand real bad so I had to get a bandage and then I got caught up with guys who wanted to see me about some shifts and, well, you know–”
Ellis waved a hand to reassure him and invited him to sit down in the seat next to him.
“Should have let the son’bitch bleed to death,” Deputy Paul said under his breath to Larry Bruce, who smiled in agreement.
“Right, me up first, isn’t it? Is Chloe joining us?” Ron rustled his papers as he sorted them into neat piles and took a deep breath.
“She’s in town on business,” Bruce replied.
“It’s OK, Ron, take your time,” Ellis encouraged.
“Thank you, sir. Phew…Um…Well, I’ve had some ideas about the future of the company.”
Ellis flashed a warm smile at his newly promoted manager.
Returning to his office after the meeting, Ron felt elated. It’d gone better than he’d imagined it would, especially considering how late he’d arrived.
Insisting the workers go home half an hour early, as they had worked so hard that week, was a decision that had irritated Kyle, who was still struggling to play second fiddle to Ellis’s new star player.
“So…” Kyle leaned against the doorframe, his arms folded. “You’re the do-gooder?”
“Pardon me?” Ron looked up from his desk.
“You know, Mr. Popular.” Kyle sauntered into the office.
“Don’t know what you’re talkin’ ’bout.”
“Wanting to win over the guys?”
“Wanting to impress the boss?”
“This all a problem to you, Chambers?” Ron sat up straight, broadening his shoulders.
Kyle smiled. “Me? No.”
He picked up a small die-cast model of a Spitfire off the neatly arranged desk. Holding the plane by its wings, Kyle began to spin it, prompting Ron to lick his lips in the hope that he wasn’t thinking of breaking it.
The little model plane had been a gift on his twenty-first birthday from his father, just before he and ten other brave American pilots left to fly with the RAF Fighter Command in July 1940, rejecting the neutrality laws and risking imprisonment for doing so. Ron hadn’t seen his father again after that. He’d been lost somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, but Ron had always kept a little piece of him on his desk to remind him of the bravest man he’d ever known and the importance of having honor in the workplace. He’d also received his father’s Battle of Britain clasp attached to the Campaign Star that was awarded posthumously, but the sentimental value of that little Spitfire plane was far more important. It was the last thing his father had given him. He motioned with his eyes to put his prized possession down. Kyle did so, then leaned across his desk.
“Thing is, I’m just headin’ home to get ready for a date with the boss’s daughter. You know, your boss? I’m making a good impression here and my future relies on that fact. I just cannot allow anything, or anyone, to get in the way of that.”
He stood up straight and backed out the door with his familiar swagger, leaving Ron to try and work out what the hell had just happened.
It felt like Kyle had just threatened him.
“What are these bags doing here?”
Chloe returned home on Tuesday evening and nearly tripped over three large sacks of books that had been left in the hallway. Antonia looked up from the windows she was cleaning and scuttled over.
“Your father asked me to pack ’em up. He’s making way for new furniture in the lounge,” she explained, removing one of Chloe’s kitten heels from a bag handle loop.
“Oh, so they’re going be thrown in the trash?” she asked, reaching down into one of the bags and sifting through the books.
“That’s what he said.”
Antonia walked into the kitchen as Chloe picked up a few of the books, then took them to her den down the basement steps. As she returned to her bedroom up the main stairs, her mother stood waiting by the door, a broad smile draped across her face.
“You need to get ready, Chloe darling. I bought this for you.” Eleanor Bruce directed her daughter’s attention to the midnight blue, off-the-shoulder evening dress she was holding.
“That’s stunning, Mother. Are we going out to dinner?”
“You have a date,” Eleanor smiled.
“A date? Who with?” Chloe was a little perplexed that, even though she was twenty-five years old, she was still having dates arranged for her by her mother.
“It’s a surprise. The ladies in town are so jealous of you.” Eleanor stroked the soft velvet of the evening gown.
“So everybody knows, apart from me?” Chloe put her hand on her hip.
“Quick. Go get ready.” Eleanor scooted Chloe to the bathroom.
Chloe found it impossible to feel excited while getting ready, especially as she had plans for a simple night in her den finishing a sketch she’d started. She hated these types of occasions, where her parents would invite some boring executive over for the chateaubriand, champagne and show of wealth.
“You look beautiful, Princess.” It was just before 7 o’clock when Larry Bruce, pouring his usual pre-dinner glass of whiskey, caught a glimpse of his daughter as she sidled into the living room.
“Thank you, Daddy. Who is the date?”
“You’ll find out. He’ll be here soon!” Bruce tapped her on the nose.
Ten minutes later, Chloe was still poking at her tightly-pinned hair in front of the mirror in her bedroom when she heard the doorbell ring.
“Chloe, come down, honey,” Eleanor called up to her daughter from the bottom of the stairs.
“Here goes,” she muttered to herself.
Gripping the banister for support as she swept down the stairs, Chloe saw her mother beaming, her hands clasped against her chest. Her father raised his topped-up glass to her and nodded his head towards their guest–and Chloe’s date for the evening. A tall, dark-haired man stood with his back to her, offered his jacket to Antonia. As she went to hang it up in the closet, she passed Chloe and squeezed her forearm lightly like she always did when she sensed her young mistress was nervous. Chloe’s eyes followed Antonia, then drifted back towards her parents as their guest for the evening turned around.
Chloe’s smile faded. It didn’t go unnoticed.
“Honey, say hello.” Eleanor raised her eyebrows.
“Hello,” Chloe said evenly.
“You look stunning.” He flashed his Hollywood smile as he kissed her hand. Chloe faked a smile as a reply, drawing her hand away. They walked over to the dinner table where Kyle held out her seat.
“Thank you,” she said coolly.
“So, Kyle, how’s things?” Bruce poured him a large glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Well, Larry, things are going great.” He took a slug of his red wine and smacked his lips. “You know, with your leadership n’all, I really feel I know where we’re heading. I’m gon’ ask for more investment and hire some real men if you catch my drift, sir. Not the Jeffrey Ellis kind, with all due respect. I mean, Ellis is great but his choice in personnel, well–”
Kyle and Bruce both chuckled, the latter wiping his mustache on a napkin.
Antonia served them their food, smiling at Chloe to check she was alright. She managed a pained smile back, listening to Kyle and her father talk with such disrespect about the workforce who were making them so much money every day.
“So your parents Kyle, tell me about them,” Eleanor chipped in.
“Well, I’m very close to my parents, ma’am. My father did well for himself and built up a nice fortune in the steel business back home in Pittsburgh; he’s one of the most influential people there,” Kyle bragged, chomping on a piece of beef fillet. Bruce’s ears pricked up as he rambled on about his father’s fortune.
“You’ve hardly touched your food, sweetheart,” Eleanor said, noticing Chloe’s near-full plate.
Antonia observed but said nothing as she busied herself fetching drinks.
“I’m not hungry, Mother. It’s not the food, it’s delicious,” Chloe added quickly, hoping she had caught her words before they had offended Antonia, but she smiled to reassure her it was OK.
“I did a sketch today,” Chloe said, changing the subject. The table fell silent. Eleanor Bruce’s potato-loaded fork hovered in front of her half-open mouth.
“Um…OK?” Kyle nodded, confused as to the relevance of her statement.
“It was of the little church in town,” Chloe smiled, her face softening towards him for the first time that evening.
“Chloe does little sketches,” Bruce announced through chewed food.
“Father, it’s my passion.” She stared indignantly at him.
“Honey, listen, I just don’t think you should waste your time. There’s no money in that field, ain’t that right, Kyle?”
Kyle nodded as he mopped up his Bearnaise sauce with a hunk of bread.
“No, money is made in business. Being smart, using your head. Not drawing. You agree with me, don’t you, Kyle?” Bruce stared intently at him.
Chloe felt like she was imploding. Her only contribution to the table all evening had been shot down.
“I need some air,” she huffed, dropping her knife and fork.
“Sweetheart, you can’t go out like this.” Eleanor sprang up out of her seat to chase after her daughter but the front door had already slammed shut.
Chloe’s flame-red Chevrolet Deluxe roared to life as she turned the key in the ignition and sped off down the long driveway to the main road. Normally she would cruise along the Alabama roads enjoying the scenery, but right now her blood was fizzing through her veins. Reaching the open road, she stamped her foot down on the gas pedal, the hard, gray asphalt giving way to the open yellowy-green plains of surrounding farmland. The evening sun hugged the horizon as if inviting Chloe to keep driving forward. She turned onto a road parallel to the Weaver, the water twinkling as it caught the orange haze of the fading sun.
A flicker of movement in the distance to her left immediately caught her attention. It was somebody riding a horse on a road parallel to the one she was racing along. They must have been going fast as Chloe floored the gas pedal, struggling to keep up with their pace. The galloping horse kicked up plumes of dust in its wake, looking as if it was doing everything in its mighty power to fling its rider off at any moment. The accomplished-looking rider hung on, though, equally determined–they both seemed in perfect sync with each other.
Keeping one eye on the road, glancing across to the left every few seconds, Chloe squinted to see who was riding so fast, then accelerated so she was level with the horse as if they were both racing for an imaginary finish line. Up ahead, the roads were due to merge so Chloe, adrenaline-fueled intrigue pumping through her, sped up to get there first. As expected, the rider also made a gradual turn but didn’t appear to make any attempt to slow down.
With the distance between the racing horse and speeding car shortening rapidly, Chloe realized what was about to happen and came crashing to her senses. She thumped her right foot down and, with an ear-piercing screech of brakes, skidded the car along the ground. The next few seconds were a blur as she clamped her eyes shut, waiting for the impending thud of the horse crushing her shiny red hood.
But there was no impact.
The quick-witted rider pulled up just in time. Through closed eyes, she heard the sickening sound of the horse shrieking, the clump of hooves and the crash of the rider being bucked off and dropped like a sack of potatoes.
Opening her eyes, she waited a few excruciating seconds for the dust to settle, then slowly got out of her car. The rider was sitting awkwardly on the ground, shaking away a concussion. She clasped a hand to her mouth in horror when she realized the identity of the rider she had almost killed.
It was Shona.
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