Authors: Angela Henry
A kendra Clayton Novel
I would like to thank:
God, for giving me strength.
All of the readers, reviewers, Web sites, book clubs, booksellers and libraries that have embraced Kendra.
My editor, Glenda Howard, for her awesome editing skills.
My agent, Richard Curtis, for taking care of the details.
My family, for their support.
nez Rollins lifted her heavy mass of braids with one hand and fanned her sweaty neck with the other. She spied a piece of hair she’d missed on the floor and aimed her broom underneath the stretch of counter. Soon she’d have her own shop and she’d pay someone else to do this mess, she thought. The cleaners her boss, Bruce Robins, employed to clean the shop only came every other night. When she had her own shop she wouldn’t be working this late at night, either. People would have to make their appointments around her schedule and not the other way around. Bruce and the other stylists were nice enough but she’d been working in someone else’s shop since she graduated from cosmetology school. It was high time she had her own place.
She’d sat down with a calculator during her lunch break and figured she only needed a few hundred dollars more to put a down payment on that little building over on Sinclair Street that used to be a candy store. She’d have had the money by now if that bitch Renita Franklin hadn’t been stealing her supplies. She had to shell out extra money reordering supplies that she knew damn well Renita had taken and hidden in her station. So what if Renita had written her name on the stuff? Inez wasn’t stupid; she knew that stuff belonged to her. It was a good thing Bruce had fired Renita’s ass before there was an even bigger problem.
Her ex-boyfriend, Vaughn Castle, had offered more than once to give Inez the money she needed for her shop. But she didn’t want to take a dime from him, especially since she’d recently found out where the money really came from. It made her sick just thinking about it. How could she have been so stupid about him? And the way she’d found out still hurt like hell.
Her father had also offered, but she’d told him to go to hell and to take that skank he was married to with him. She wasn’t going to salve his guilty conscience by taking his money.
The only person she could ever count on was her mother, and she was dead and gone now. Inez didn’t need anyone’s help to get where she was going, never had and never would.
She daydreamed and planned some more as she bagged up the trash and dragged it to the back door. She opened the door and was startled by the person standing still as a statue in the dark alley.
“You scared me! I thought I told you I had nothing to say to you. What are you doing out here in the dark?” she asked, stepping outside and looking around.
When she saw the gun she had her answer and minutes later, when it fired, she barely had time to blink, let alone think how quickly one’s plans and one’s life could change…or end.
always thought that I was the type of woman who wouldn’t let a little gray hair bother her. I’m usually the first one to notice when a celebrity’s face looks a little younger and tighter than before. I’m usually the first one to smirk and roll my eyes when a person won’t admit how old they are. So you’d have thought I’d be unfazed upon seeing
first gray hair — wrong. Instead, I sprinted to the phone with a quickness that would have made Flo Jo proud and made an appointment for some color. Bruce Robins, my hairdresser — or stylist, as he likes to be called — convinced me that highlights would be much better. Well, whatever it takes. Funny how things change when it’s you and not someone else.
But when I arrived at the shop that Saturday morning, there were police cars and an ambulance blocking my entrance to the parking lot. I parked down the street and walked back to join the small knot of people that had formed across the street.
“I think somebody’s dead,” said an older woman, who I remembered seeing in the shop from time to time, though I didn’t know her name.
“Who is it?” asked another woman I’d never seen before. No one seemed to know anything more than the fact that someone had died at the shop, aka B & S Hair Design and Nail Sculpture.
It wasn’t until later that morning when I’d gone over to Estelle’s, my uncle’s restaurant where I hostess part-time, that I got the lowdown from Gwen Robins, my uncle’s girlfriend for the past eight years. Gwen is a statuesque five ten and she wears wigs to suit her many moods. She’s also the aunt of Bruce Robins, owner of B & S Hair Design and Nail Sculpture. Today she was wearing a short blond number that made her look like a female impersonator, though I wasn’t about to risk my life by telling her this. Besides, she looked like she already had the weight of the world on her shoulders.
“You heard about Inez Rollins, didn’t you?”
I shook my head, not fathoming that Inez was connected in any way to the death at the shop.
“She’s dead. Somebody shot her last night.”
I almost fell over. “I was at the shop this morning to get a haircut. I knew someone had died but I had no idea it was murder. What happened?”
“All I know is she was the last one at the shop last night. She was closing up and somebody shot her as she was taking out the trash.” Gwen shook her head sadly. I understood just how she felt; it was such a horrible shame.
“Was it a robbery?”
“Girl, who knows? Bruce found her about seven-thirty this morning when he went to open up. I’ve never seen him so upset. He really liked Inez.”
A lot of men had really liked Inez. Besides being beautiful, she’d been a nice person. If she’d been a bitch it would have been easy not to be envious of her effortless charm and model looks. I guess I had no reason to be envious now. Inez had worked at the shop for about six months. She specialized in braids: intricate, unique designs that almost made me give up my short no-nonsense do and start sporting some. But it had been economy and not fashion that had led me to my current style. Braids are beautiful but they can cost an arm and a leg, especially when you had someone as talented as Inez doing them.
“She was shot in the face, poor baby. I just don’t know how anyone could do such a thing,” Gwen said. “I talked to Bruce about ten minutes ago. He said he’s closing the shop ’til Tuesday. He had to notify Inez’s father.”
I only hoped that it had been quick and she hadn’t known what hit her. I’d been on the opposite end of a gun myself quite recently and didn’t have to imagine how scared she would have been. I was just now beginning to sleep through the night.
I sat down at a table near the hostess station and Gwen brought me a cup of coffee. I put four heaping tablespoons of sugar in it and a good measure of cream. Gwen laughed.
“There you go again, ruining a perfectly good cup of coffee. By the time you get done loading it down with sugar and cream, it ain’t coffee no more.”
“Hush, I’m not like you. You drink it strong enough to put hair on your chest.” I took a sip and then added more sugar, ignoring Gwen’s frowning face. “Poor Bruce. I bet finding Inez this morning really freaked him out. Did he find her inside the shop?”
“No, he said he found her outside by the back door. The back door was still open when he got there this morning. He went in through the front door. He was in the shop for almost twenty minutes before he went in back and saw the back door wide open. He thought they’d been robbed. He saw Inez lying on the ground when he went to shut the door. Said she was just lying there like a rag doll somebody threw on the ground. Blood was all over the brick wall.” Gwen shook her head like the mental image of Inez’s body was too much for her to bear.
“So nothing was stolen, then?”
“Girl, don’t get me to lyin’. All I know is Bruce said he didn’t notice anything was wrong until he saw that the back door was open. So, to me that means nothing was stolen, but who knows?”
“If it wasn’t a robbery then it must have been personal. Who in the world would want to kill Inez? She was a sweetheart.”
“Yeah, she seemed nice enough. But who knows what she had goin’ on in her life? I didn’t know her like I know most of the other stylists. She kinda kept to herself. But I do know a lot of folks who smile and act like they don’t have a care in the world and they have the most god-awful messes goin’ on in their private lives.”
The bell above the door tinkled and we both turned to see Joy Owens, one of the other hostesses, walk into the restaurant. She looked at us, rolled her eyes, and headed back to the locker room to change into work clothes for her shift.
“And then there’s Joy,” I whispered, watching her retreating back, “who acts like smiling is hazardous to her health no matter what’s going on in her private life.” We both laughed.
I had dinner that evening with my best friend, Lynette Martin-Gaines. She and her fiancé, Greg Hull, had finally set a wedding date. I had gone to help Lynette pick out a wedding dress and Lynette told me she’d take me out to dinner afterwards to cheer me up. Carl Brumfield, the man in my life for the past four months, was in Cleveland on a family emergency: His brother-in-law had suffered a massive stroke and he had gone to be with his sister, Monica. He’d asked me to go with him but I couldn’t get away from work. Besides, I knew his parents would be there and Carl’s mother, Martha, and I hadn’t exactly hit it off. She thought I was unambitious. I’d overheard her talking about me during a cookout at their house one Saturday not long ago.
“Is she planning on being a waitress all her life?” I heard her ask Carl.
“Ma, you know she isn’t a waitress. She’s an English teacher with a GED program. She hostesses part-time at her uncle’s restaurant. Remember? We ate there last month.”
“Waitress, hostess, what difference does it make? Anybody who has a degree should have a full-time job. She must not be looking very hard. Maybe she should go back to school and get her master’s degree.” I heard her say something else but was too disgusted to stick around and hear what it was.
Just because Martha Brumfield had overachiever fever and was working on her Ph.D. at age sixty while working full-time and volunteering for Planned Parenthood and the Salvation Army, didn’t mean that was for everybody. I loved my work at the literacy center and nothing else I’d done thus far had given me so much satisfaction. I also loved working at Estelle’s. And the fact that I’d mysteriously started receiving graduate school catalogs from every college within a fifty-mile radius of Willow hadn’t exactly endeared the woman to me, either. I’d just have to grin and bear it, though. Carl’s mother came along with the package, and I cared for him much more than I disliked his mother.
And I missed him much more than I thought I would, although I didn’t want him to know just how much. I’d been trying to do all the right things and strike the right balance of togetherness and space in my relationship with Carl. Most of my past relationships had had the shelf life of a milk carton left sitting out on a countertop. I usually hung on to them long past the expiration date, pretending I didn’t notice the smell when it went bad. I wanted things to be different with Carl. I was planning on welcoming him back from Cleveland in a major way that involved skimpy lingerie, whipped cream, and a hot bubble bath for two, not necessarily in that order.
The Red Dragon, my favorite restaurant in town after Estelle’s, was crowded as usual. I was grateful when we were finally led to our table after a thirty-minute wait. Lynette had dragged me around to every bridal shop in town. Believe it or not, Willow had five. They outnumbered our grocery stores by two. All five did a booming business. Lynette had managed to be drawn to every expensive and figure-hugging dress that she saw. She’d been saving for the dress for a long time, so money was no object. However, as much as I love my best friend, I just didn’t have the heart to tell her that she didn’t quite have the figure for the type of dress she was so hell-bent on owning.
After three hours of watching her try on dresses that made her look like she’d swallowed a tire, my good humor was running out and I thought my face would crack from so much phony smiling. But the last straw came when she showed me the maid of honor dress she’d picked out for me. I laughed when I saw it ’cause I figured it had to be a joke. Then I saw the look on her face and realized it was for real. The dress was a sequined, Smurf-blue nightmare that made me look like I’d shit a large bow. It also scratched me at the neckline. I almost cursed when I saw how much it cost. Lynette informed me in a tone that was
funky that it was going to be her day and when it was
turn she’d gladly wear whatever I chose.
Welcome to wedding hell
, I told myself. I thought it was an urban legend, something I’d heard about for years but never thought I’d experience. My best friend had lost her damn mind and her good taste. I’d always suspected that as soon as women became engaged and started planning their weddings, they plotted to make every other woman in the bridal party look like a clown. Now, I had proof. And just how I was supposed to sit comfortably during the wedding reception with a big bow on my ass was anyone’s guess. Boy, I couldn’t wait until it was my turn to get married for no other reason than being able to pick out something poofy, promlike, and hideous for Lynette to wear. Visions of yards and yards of neon pink tulle and bugle beads danced through my head on the way to dinner.
The tension between us was thick as we sat in the restaurant. After we sipped our mai tais for a while we mellowed out and started acting like friends again. Lynette broke the ice first.
“It’s such a shame about Inez. She was so beautiful. I still can’t believe it.” Lynette had had her braids done by Inez. Inez had been very talented, indeed. Lynette’s hair looked great.
“I hope they catch whoever did it and put them
the jail.” We both drank to that and then focused on our food. I took a bite of my cashew chicken and sighed in contentment.
“Did you know her father was Morris Rollins?” Lynette asked.
“You’re kidding, right? Reverend Morris Rollins? You mean the one that has that big church, Holy Cross?”
Morris Rollins was the ultimate prosperity preacher with designer clothes, luxury cars, an expensive mansion, and rumors of enough illegitimate children to start his own small country.
“Yeah, that Morris Rollins. Didn’t a lot of people from St. Luke’s leave and start going to his church?”
“Mama said the Ivorys left for a while but came back,” I said.
“I bet your grandmother wished they’d stayed.”
Actually, Mama had been quite upset. Though she didn’t pretend to have any fondness for Donna Ivory, she hated to see Donna and her husband Delbert being taken advantage of by Reverend Rollins. It seemed the Ivorys had forked over quite a bit of their retirement money to Reverend Rollins, all in the name of the Lord, of course. Mama had been happy when they’d returned to St. Luke’s a little poorer but wiser.
“Abby and Dave went to a couple of services over at Holy Cross,” Lynette went on. “They weren’t too impressed. Of course, Abby isn’t about to come up off any money, especially not ’cause any flashy preacher tells her to.” Dave was Lynette’s brother and a follower of anything that sounded remotely fulfilling. At age thirty-five he was still searching for himself. Surely his wife, Abby, hoped he’d find himself soon. She’d already had to endure his stints as a Muslim, an Amway salesman, and a vegan. I was surprised Reverend Rollins hadn’t dazzled him.
“I think Dave would have gone back but Abby put her foot down,” Lynette said as though she’d read my mind. “They just don’t have the money to bankroll Reverend Rollins and put another fancy car in his garage.”
“I was running the channels the other night and saw him on one of those local cable access channels. Does he have a talk show?”
“Yep. It’s called something like
Light the Way
The Light of the Way
. It’s kinda low budget. Looks like it’s taped in the church basement or something. Reverend Rollins is the host and they talk about religious issues. And of course, at the end there’s the usual plug for donations for Holy Cross Ministries. I’ve only watched it once.”
“Doesn’t sound like I’m missing anything.” Lynette and I both laughed.
“What about Inez’s mother?’ I asked.
“Oh, she died a few years ago. He’s got another wife now, some little young thing Inez’s age. I don’t think Inez and her father were close.”
“How do you know so much about her?”
“Sitting in that chair for hours on end getting my hair braided. It works both ways, you know. I spilled my guts, but she spilled hers, too. She was saving to get her own shop. Told me she was just a few hundred dollars shy of a down payment.”
We ate in silence for a few moments. Neither of us needed to comment on how incredibly sad it was that Inez had saved all that money in vain.