Thomas Bolden checked over his shoulder. The two men were still a half block behind. They’d kept the same distance since he’d noticed them soon after coming out of the hotel. He wasn’t sure why they bothered him. Both were tall and clean-cut, about his age. They were respectably dressed in dark slacks and overcoats. At a glance, they appeared unthreatening. They could be bankers headed home after a late night at the office. College buddies hurrying to the Princeton Club for a last round before closing. More likely, they were two of the approximately three hundred guests who had suffered through the dinner given in his honor.
And yet . . . they disturbed him.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” said Bolden. “What were you saying?”
“Where are you going to put it?” Jennifer Dance asked. “You know . . . in your apartment?”
“Put it?” Bolden glanced at the large sterling-silver plate cradled in Jenny’s arms. “You mean I’m supposed to keep it on display?”
The plate looked like the one awarded to the women’s singles champion at Wimbledon. This one, however, was engraved with the words “Thomas F. Bolden. Harlem Boys Club Man of the Year.” He’d won plaques, medals, scrolls, and trophies, but never a plate. He wondered what joker at the club had thought it up. Curling an arm over Jenny’s shoulders, he drew her close and said, “No, no, no. This beautifully crafted hunk of lead is going straight into the closet.”
“You should be proud of it,” Jenny protested.
“I am proud of it, but it’s still going in the closet.”
“It doesn’t have to be the first thing you see when you walk in. We’ll put it someplace discreet. Maybe on the side table in the hall leading from your bedroom to the bathroom. You worked hard for this. You deserve to feel good about yourself.”
Bolden looked at Jenny and grinned. “I feel fine about myself,” he said. “I just don’t want to be reminded how great I am every time I go take a leak. It’s so . . . I don’t know . . . so New York.”
“ ‘It ain’t bragging if you can do it,’ ” Jenny said. “Those are your words.”
“I was talking about dunking a basketball. Now, that’s an accomplishment for a thirty-two-year-old white male who fudges about being six feet tall. Next time get a picture of that, and I’ll put it on the table leading to the bathroom. Framed even.”
Nearing midnight on a Tuesday in mid-January, the narrow streets of the city’s financial district were deserted. The night sky hung low, gray clouds scudding between the skyscrapers like fast-moving ships. The temperature hovered at forty degrees, unseasonably warm for this time of year. There was talk of a major storm system hitting the Eastern seaboard, but the meteorologists looked to have it wrong this time.
The annual gala benefiting the Harlem Boys Club had ended thirty minutes earlier. It had been a ritzy affair: white tablecloths, champagne cocktails, a four-course meal with fresh seafood instead of chicken. Bolden had been too nervous about giving his speech to enjoy the event. Besides, it wasn’t his style. Too much backslapping. Too many hands to shake. All that forced laughter. His cheeks felt like a punching bag from all the busses he’d gotten.
All in all, the event raised an even three hundred thousand dollars. His cheeks could take a little roughing up for that kind of change.
A drop of rain hit his nose. Bolden looked up, waiting for the next, but nothing followed. He pulled Jenny closer and nuzzled her neck. From the corner of his eye, he saw that the two men were still there, maybe a little farther back, walking side by side, talking animatedly. It wasn’t the first time lately that he’d had the sensation of being followed. There’d been a night last week when he’d felt certain someone had been trailing him near his apartment on Sutton Place. And just today at lunch, he’d been aware of a presence hovering nearby. A nagging feeling that someone was eyeing him. On neither occasion, however, had he been able to put a face to his fears.
And now there were these two.
He glanced at Jenny and caught her staring at him. “What?”
“That’s my Tommy,” she said with her all-knowing smile. “You’re so afraid of letting it go.”
“Letting what go?”
“The past. The whole ‘Tommy B. from the wrong side of the tracks’ thing. You still walk as if you’re on the mean streets of the Windy City. Like a mobster on the lam or something, afraid someone’s going to recognize you.”
“I do not,” he said, then forced himself to push his shoulders back and stand a little straighter. “Anyway, that’s who I am. It’s where I come from.”
“And this is where you are now. This is your world, too. Look at yourself. You’re a director at the snobbiest investment bank on Wall Street. You have dinner all the time with politicians and big shots. All those people didn’t show up tonight for me . . . they came for you. What you’ve achieved is pretty damned impressive, mister.”
Bolden dug his hands deep into his pockets. “Not bad for a gutter rat.”
She tugged at his sleeve. “I’m serious, Thomas.”
“I guess you must be if you’re calling me Thomas.”
They walked a few steps, and she said, “Come on, Tommy. I’m not saying it’s time to join the Four Hundred. I’m just saying it’s time to let the past go. This is your world now.”
Bolden shook his head. “Naw, I’m just passing through.”
Jenny raised her eyes, exasperated. “You’ve been passing through for seven years. That’s long enough for someone from Swaziland to become an American citizen. Don’t you think it’s enough to make you a New Yorker? Besides, it’s not such a bad place. Why don’t you stay awhile?”
Bolden stopped. Taking both of Jenny’s hands in his, he turned to face her. “I love it here, too. But you know me . . . I like to keep my distance. I just don’t want to get too close to them. All the guys at work. The stuffed shirts. You gotta keep your distance, or else they suck you in. Like body snatchers.”
Jenny put her head back and laughed. “They’re your friends.”
“Associates, yes. Colleagues, maybe. But friends? I don’t recall getting too many invitations to dine at my friends’ homes. Though that may very well change after the looks I caught a couple of those sleazebags giving you tonight.”
“Really?” Jenny smiled disarmingly.
She was tall and blond, with an athlete’s toned body, and the best skyhook since Kareem. Her face was open and honest, given to determined stares and crooked smiles. She taught seventh, eighth, and ninth grade at a special ed school in the Village. She liked to say that it was just like the school in Little House on the Prairie, all the kids in one classroom, except that her kids were what the system labeled high-risk teens. High-risk teens were the bad eggs: the boys and girls who’d been expelled from their ordinary schools and were doing time with Jenny until they could be reformed, remolded, and reassigned to a public school that would take them. They were quite a bunch. Drug dealers, thieves, hustlers, and hookers, and not one over the age of fifteen. She wasn’t a teacher, so much as a lion tamer.
“By the way,” she said nonchalantly. “Dinner’s been over awhile and you still have your tie on.”
“Do I?” Bolden’s hand shot to his neck. “It’s begun. The body snatchers have me. Pretty soon, I’ll be wearing pink shirts and white loafers and putting on tight black bicycle shorts when I hit the gym. I’ll start listening to opera and o-pining about wine. I may even join a country club.”
“They’re not so bad. Our kids would love it.”
“Kids!” Bolden stared at her, aghast. “You’re one of them, too! I’m done for.”
They walked in silence for a while. Jenny tilted her head on his shoulder and laced her fingers through his. Bolden caught their reflection in a window. He was hardly a match for her. His neck was too thick, his jaw too wide, and his dark hair receding quickly at the temples. What remained was thick and peppered with gray and cut close to the scalp. Thirty-two was definitely not young in his business. His face was stern, with steadfast brown eyes, and a directness of gaze that some men found intimidating. His lips were thin, rigid. His chin split by a hatchet. He looked like a man on equal terms with uncertainty. A reliable man. A man to have at your side in the lurch. He was surprised how natural the tux looked on him. Scarier was the fact that he almost felt natural wearing it. Immediately, he yanked off his bow tie and stuffed it in his pocket.
A New Yorker, he said to himself. Mr. Big Shot with a silver plate on the way to the pisser.
No. That wasn’t him.
He was just Tom Bolden, a kid from the Midwest with neither birthright nor pedigree, and no illusions. His mother had left when he was six. He never knew his father. He grew up as a ward of the state of Illinois, a survivor of too many foster families to count, a graduate of Illinois’ most notorious reform school, and at seventeen, a felon. The conviction was sealed under court order. Even Jenny didn’t know about it.
Arm in arm, they continued up Wall Street. Past number 23 Wall, the old headquarters of J. P. Morgan when they were the world’s most powerful bankers. Not ten feet away, an anarchist’s bomb had gone off in 1920, killing three dozen employees and bystanders, and upending a Model T. The chinks in the wall from the shrapnel had never been repaired and were still visible. Across the street stood the New York Stock Exchange, a huge American flag draped across the Corinthian columns, nothing less than a temple to capitalism. To their right, a steep flight of stairs led to Federal Hall, the seat of government when the nation’s capital had been situated in New York City.
“You know what today is?” he asked.
“Tuesday the eighteenth?”
“Yes, it’s Tuesday the eighteenth. And . . . ? You mean you don’t remember?”
“Oh, my God,” gasped Jenny. “I’m so sorry. It’s just that with the dinner and finding a dress and everything else . . .”
Just then, Bolden dropped her hand and vaulted up a few stairs. “Follow me,” he said.
“What are you doing?”
“Come on. Up here. Sit down.” Turning, he indicated to Jenny to take a seat.
“It’s cold.” She eyed him curiously, then climbed the stairs and sat. He grinned, loving this part. The before. The wind blew stronger, tousling her hair around her face. She had wonderful hair, thick, naturally curly, as many colors as a field of summer wheat. He remembered seeing her for the first time. It was on the basketball court at the Y. She pulled off a between-the-legs dribble followed by a twenty-foot jumper that hit nothing but net. She’d been wearing red athletic shorts, a baggy tank top, and Air Jordans. He looked at her now, wrapped in a black overcoat, collar turned up, her makeup just so, and felt his breath catch. Miss Jennifer Dance cleaned up nice.
“What’s the world coming to when the man’s got to remember the big dates?” Delving into an inside pocket, he pulled out a slim rectangular box wrapped in royal maroon paper and handed it to her. It took him a second or two to find his voice. “Three years. You’ve made them the best of my life.”
Jenny looked between him and the box. Slowly, she unwrapped it. She hadn’t even cracked the thing, and she was already getting teary. Bolden blinked rapidly and looked away. “Go on,” he said.
Jenny held her breath and opened the box. “Tommy, this is . . .” She held up the Cartier wristwatch, her expression stranded between awe and disbelief.
“I know. It’s vulgar. It’s gauche. It’s—”
Excerpted from The Patriots Club by Christopher Reich. Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Reich. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.