Miss Jada Don't Play That
At last! Serena thought, taking one last look in the mirror. They have recognized how good I am at what I do!
She was known for her patience, her ability to wait her turn, but the last thing she needed was one more boring modeling assignment. Finally, they had handed her something she could really sink her teeth into. It was about time. Six feet tall before stepping into her five-inch, stiletto-heel boots and startlingly slender, Serena had a strange, otherworldly beauty that she emphasized by pulling her long, dark hair away from her face, emphasizing her high, sharp cheekbones, her almond-shaped eyes, and the bright red slash of her mouth, always painted crimson.
Modeling had been a perfect cover for her and the others, who looked enough like Serena to be her sisters. They had been given unlimited access to any men they fancied, which was great, but lately they had become so well known that it was hard to move around without drawing a crowd of pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders, which was never a good thing. She had been assured that once they successfully completed their Atlanta assignment, the modeling cover would be honorably retired from service.
Serena was glad to hear it and she had every intention of successfully completing her mission. There was no room for distractions. When her superiors told her that she was going to Atlanta for a few weeks, they repeated the usual warnings about all things male, but there was no need to worry. Serena had waited too long for an assignment like this. Romance was the last thing on her agenda.
It wasn't that Serena didn't believe in love. She just hadn't been raised to seek it, need it, or trust it. The stories that the women in her family passed along from one generation to the next all warned of the destructive power of making bad choices in matters of the heart. They stressed the dangers of opening her door, or her legs, to a man to whom their ideas of love and honor were no more than musings in a foreign-sounding tongue.
That's what she'd been taught by those much wiser than she was. And who was she to question them? It was that wisdom that had helped their little group survive when so many others like them had disappeared. Besides, she was not a politician or a philosopher or a social scientist. She was simply an agent with a nonnegotiable contract to enforce that had been willingly and freely signed by all parties, including those young fools from Morehouse who had been living like kings all over Atlanta for the last four years. Now it was time for them to hold up their end of the bargain. They had been instructed to show up on campus this morning to finalize the details of their agreement. She and her team would be there, shooting an Essence magazine cover spread, but that's exactly what it was: a cover. Their real assignment had nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with survival.
Serena wondered if the boys would try to weasel out of it. She assumed that they would, but that was neither here nor there. They would be no match for the team she was bringing with her. Scylla was the best possible second-in-command and had trained the girls relentlessly until Serena was confident they could perform efficiently no matter what challenges they might have to face. One way or another, the five guys whose names were on her list had a trip to a very private island in their future.
Showtime, Serena thought, giving her hair one more pat and opening the door to the living room of the suite at the Four Seasons hotel that she would be sharing with Scylla for the next seven days. Already dressed head to toe in black, as was Serena, Scylla was standing in the center of the room, staring at the giant flat-screen TV.
"Time to go?" Scylla said, without taking her eyes off the screen where a dancing couple was swooping and gliding around the floor, baring their blindingly white teeth at each other and faking as much sexual energy as they could, under the circumstances.
"We've got a few minutes," Serena said, glancing at her watch and heading for the small wet bar in the corner where there were several bottles of Bloody Mary mix and a fifth of Absolut. "I'm going to drop you off and then stop by and pay my respects to Blue Hamilton. Have you had your cocktail?"
It was a rhetorical question, so she didn't wait for an answer, as she reached for two glasses and dropped in ice cubes from the polished silver bucket nearby. She opened the vodka and poured a splash in each glass. She was sick of tomato juice, but the vodka made it a little more tolerable. Her hands moved quickly and efficiently, as if she could perform these bartending chores in her sleep.
On the screen, an embarrassed actor, way past his sexual prime, was trying to catch his breath after executing a laughable attempt at a mambo.
"What are you watching?"
"Dancing with the Stars."
"At seven thirty in the morning?"
Scylla waggled the remote in Serena's direction. "On demand," she said. "In case you missed it."
Serena stirred their drinks delicately with a plastic swizzle stick, carried both glasses across the room, and set one down in front of Scylla, who took a small sip.
"We should be on there," Scylla said, nodding at the screen.
"Dancing with the Stars?" Serena shook her head. "No thanks."
"Don't knock it. Maybe they would let us all compete together. Sort of in a group."
"No, probably not. Just you."
"You think they'd let me pick my own partner?"
"I don't see how they could stop you." Serena sat down and crossed her long legs and took a swallow of her drink. "Who did you have in mind? Brad Pitt?"
"Yeah, right," Scylla said sarcastically. "Like Angelina is going to let his pussy-whipped ass come out and dance with us."
"She gave us an island instead of her man," Serena said, as a liquid shrug rippled her slender shoulders like a breeze. "What are you gonna do?"
"How about Will Smith?" Scylla said, but Serena just raised an eyebrow.
"You know Miss Jada don't play that."
Scylla turned toward Serena with an expression that was almost hopeful. "She's not with us, is she?"
Serena shook her head and took another swallow of her Bloody Mary. "No way. What made you think that?"
"Well, you know she's got that punk band, Wicked Wisdom. Black leather. Scientology."
"She's not a Scientologist."
"Too bad," Scylla said, shaking her head a little. "That would make it easier to ask her if we can use her husband to jump-start things."
"It's the Mormons who are into polygamy."
"I know, but the Scientologists have that frozen sperm thing, right? What we're asking isn't any weirder than that."
Serena looked at her friend. "This feels so familiar, doesn't it? Like old times?"
"Don't get sentimental on me," Scylla said, reaching over to pat Serena's hand briskly like a mother telling a toddler to buck up on the first day of nursery school. "We've got a job to do, remember?"
Serena saw no reason to respond to that. She was in charge of this mission. Forgetting about the job was not an option. They watched a not very interesting quick step from a lackluster couple who seemed tired of the show and of each other.
"Do you think it's our fault?" Scylla said, taking another swallow of her drink. "About the men."
"What do you mean?"
"You know, all of them dying out like that at one time."
The judges were suggesting that the couple needed more practice. They agreed and promised to come back stronger next week, but everybody knew their steps were already numbered.
"I think it was the vibrators," Serena said, draining her glass and standing up. It was time to go.
Scylla frowned slightly, drained her glass, too, and clicked off the television. "What about the virbrators?"
"Once we got them perfected, it was a lot harder to get the girls to spend any time and energy on a real, live man. They just weren't as reliable." Serena went over to the closet and reached for her black trench coat. "Remember when they started issuing them as soon as we hit puberty?"
"Do I?" Scylla grabbed her big black shoulder bag and zipped up her black leather jacket. "On my thirteenth birthday, my mom gave me a box of Tampax and a pink vibrator as big as a baby's arm." She made a low, hissing sound like a snake sunning on a rock, and shook her head, remembering.
"What'd you do with it?"
"I followed the instructions on the back of the box," Scylla said, reaching for the door. "And the rest is herstory."
"See, that's exactly what I'm talking about." Serena followed her out into the hallway.
The maid, slowly pushing her housekeeping cart down the long, empty hallway, seemed startled by the tall, alarmingly thin women striding in her direction, and she dropped her eyes and let them pass.
"We can pleasure ourselves, feed ourselves, lead ourselves," Serena said, punching the elevator Down button with a jab of her red-tipped finger. "All they had left to do was impregnate us and keep out of the way."
"Is that such a bad life?" Scylla said.
Serena turned back to her friend and arched her perfectly shaped eyebrows. "Would it be enough for you?"
"Of course not," Scylla said calmly. "But we're women. Men are different, remember?"
Mingling with Humans
If there was one thing Blue Hamilton hated, it was a goddamn vampire, but there was no mistaking this one. He pulled into his usual space in front of the West End News and watched her. The girl was very tall and very thin and even sort of sexy in that weird, high-fashion kind of way. She was wearing tight black leather pants that hugged her almost boyish hips, a cropped, black leather bomber jacket, and a black turtleneck sweater. Her black suede boots ended at her thighs and seemed to be molded in such a way that they had no proper heel at all, requiring her to balance delicately on the balls of her feet, leaning slightly forward as she made her way down Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard like she belonged there. Which she most certainly did not.
When she stopped for the light at the corner across from the MARTA train station and tossed back her long dark hair, the incense and T-shirt vendors, who were never at a loss for words, just stood unblinking until she was too far away to hear them, not a single one able to gather his wits about him and offer the usual spiel. Somehow, they seemed to know she was out of their league and they let her glide by without so much as a, "Good mornin', sistah! You're lookin' lovely today, mah queen!"
Blue sighed as she turned out of sight. Everywhere he looked these days, he was confronted with glamorous images of ghostly vamps mingling with humans in New York and certain neighborhoods in L.A., like there was nothing strange about it at all. Vamps is what he called them and vamps is what they were. Lean, mean, sexy girls, pale as the belly of a bigmouth bass. Slim hipped and staring with what would have been soulful eyes, except these lithe creatures had no souls. That was the whole point. They were the undead and now they were roaming around Atlanta like it was suddenly a suburb of Beverly Hills.
It was only a matter of time before one of them strolled into the West End News, looking for a cappuccino. The problem was, nobody suspected that their sudden ubiquity was anything more than the latest craze of a death-obsessed culture. Nobody thought they were real. Nobody except Blue. He knew that these girls-and the real ones were all girls-were here for a reason. But what was it?
Sometimes Blue missed the old days when the gangstas and the crackheads were as deep as it got. He had known how to deal with them, and West End had become an oasis of peace and civility even as things continued to spiral out of control all over the country and all over the world. The West End News carried papers from everywhere, but Blue hardly spent the time it took to read the front pages anymore. The stories were all the same. War, disease, famine, rape, genocide, and territorial disputes over water and oil and drugs and whatever else somebody thought they needed bad enough to take somebody's life for it.
Blue was different. The people he had eliminated from West End over the years had been guilty of such heinous crimes that no one could argue that justice had not been served. Prostituting children. Torturing women. Raping mothers in front of their sons. When the guys responsible for those crimes disappeared from the scene, nobody was sorry. Even their mothers were relieved as they closed their eyes and clasped their hands and said a little prayer for the souls of their babies gone bad. But these vampires were a whole other thing. Slinking around in their tight black clothes and their bright red lips, they had no one to pray for them, which probably suited them just fine. How do you pray for something that has no soul?
Blue stepped out of the car and looked around at his neighborhood on its way to work. Everybody worked in West End. If you couldn't find a job, Blue found one for you. Of course if you wanted to spend your time hustling dope, pimping women, or watching porno in your grandmomma's basement, you had every right to do that. You just couldn't do it in West End.
"Hey, Mr. Blue!" a woman called as she headed over to the twenty-four-hour beauty salon. "Why you gotta be so sharp this early in the morning?"
Blue smiled and touched his fingertips lightly to the front of his perfectly blocked Homburg. He was aware that it gave him an immediate visual advantage to appear on the streets of West End dressed in the manner made famous by Michael Corleone in The Godfather: black silk suit, blindingly white shirt, black cashmere coat, black hat, and highly polished shoes. It was a uniform that conferred the authority of a mythical movie gangster who was a role model even to small-time thugs whose crimes were no more organized than anything else they did.
The place was already full when Blue walked in. The West End News was a popular coffee shop and well-stocked newsstand, and Blue's base of operations, maintained from a suite of rooms in the back where no one ventured without an invitation and an escort. Behind the counter, Henry Graham, his right-hand man, and Phoebe Sanderson, who'd been working there part-time since high school, were making cups of perfect cappuccino and teasing the regulars who stopped in for their daily fix of caffeine and gossip. When he looked up and saw Blue, Henry nodded imperceptibly and Phoebe followed his eyes to the door.
Excerpted from Just Wanna Testify by Pearl Cleage. Copyright © 2011 by Pearl Cleage. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, 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.