Sean Jones paced outside The Boss’s door. He was in trouble and he knew it. He paused in front of the plate glass windows that comprised the left wall of the reception area and stared at his reflection. He might have the look of a successful 3Sixes executive with his tailored suit and designer shoes, but the summons from The Boss told a different story.
Sean had joined 3Sixes a couple of years ago, worked his way up the ranks from rookie tempter to his present position as closer. Once a soul was deemed a strong candidate for 3Sixes, it was Sean’s job to close the deal and reel him in. His normal caseload was about a thousand souls, more than any of his peers. Sean took great pride in his work and his eighty percent close rate indicated he was good at it, though this summons from The Boss did make him wonder.
Sean cast a quick glance at the receptionist, who had done nothing more than acknowledge his presence with a slight incline of her head. Evidently, pacing executives were nothing new to her. He didn’t know if that made him feel better or worse. He began pacing again.
“Jones!” a loud voice bellowed. “Get in here, now!”
Feeling like a chastised little boy, Sean cast a baleful glance at the receptionist. He was grateful this time for her indifference. She didn’t even look up.
“Pull yourself together,” he muttered to himself as he turned the knob on The Boss’s office door.
“Are you an idiot, Jones?” The Boss began before Sean could even close the door fully. “How did you lose one of our best men? All you had to do was keep him busy doing our work and you couldn’t even do that.” The Boss paused in his tirade and let his eyes travel from the top of Sean’s balding head down to his Gucci shoes. “Tell me why I shouldn’t demote you on the spot? There’s a seat in Third Hades with your name on it.”
The mention of Third Hades sent shivers of fear up Sean’s spine. That’s where The Boss sent employees who were no longer useful to him. He moved closer to The Boss’s desk. “Give me another chance. I know I can win him back.”
The Boss raised a brow. “Jones, you lost the man while he was in prison. You let him become a Christian, instead of influencing some of his prison mates to kill him the way I told you to do.” He slammed his fist down on the desk. “You had the perfect opportunity to have him killed and then he would have been ours for all eternity.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“That’s the understatement of the millennium,” The Boss said with a sigh. “So you think you can win Preacher back, huh? How do you plan on accomplishing that great feat when you couldn’t even do the small task I gave you?”
Sean fought back his fear. Preacher wasn’t the first soul under his watch to have almost escaped and then been snatched back. He could handle this situation. “You know those jailhouse conversions rarely last,” he said, forcing a confidence into his voice he didn’t really feel. “We can win Preacher back.”
The Boss flopped down in his chair and then peered up at Sean. “You really are an idiot, aren’t you? You still can’t tell the difference between a true conversion and a fake one. What were you doing in those training classes—sleeping?”
Sean shook his head furiously. The Boss was deliberately misinterpreting what he said. “No sir,” he said. “I paid close attention.”
The Boss leaned forward. “You could have fooled me. What did you learn? Your handling of the Preacher situation makes me doubt you learned anything.”
Sean searched his memory for some tidbit from his early training. “I accept full responsibility for losing Preacher,” he finally said, remembering his trainer’s advice for dealing with The Boss. “I thought we had him lock, stock, and barrel. Given the experience his sister had at the hands of the holy rollers, I didn’t think he would be converted. I thought he liked the lifestyle we provided him too much.”
“I don’t pay you to think about what they like,” The Boss said. “I pay you to plant thoughts and lies in their minds about what they should like. You fell asleep on the job, Jones. You thought you had him and you stopped being diligent. You stopped planting our thoughts and allowed the thoughts of our enemy to take hold. That’s a rookie mistake. You have to remember that the game isn’t over until they’re dead. We can’t count them fully on our side until they take their last breath. You got too confident and we lost him.”
“But I can win him back,” Sean proclaimed. “I know I can.” He resisted the temptation to list other occasions like this when he’d won souls back. His trainer had advised against bragging.
“And how are you going to do that?”
Sean considered the question and searched his brain for the answer he thought The Boss wanted. “I’m going to do what I learned to do in training class,” he said. “I’m going to find out what he values most and then use that against him.”
The Boss eyed him. “Any fool can parrot back what he’s heard in a training class. How are you going to implement what you were taught?”
Sean was feeling better now that he’d gotten into the rhythm of the game The Boss was playing. “I’m going to watch and listen. Preacher will tell me what I need to know and then I’ll use it against him.”
The Boss nodded. “Good. Good. Don’t go around guessing what any of them want. Watch them; listen to them; and they’ll tell you without even meaning to.” He eyed Sean closely. “How are you going to use what you learn against him?”
“Preacher’s been talking a lot about family these days, so I’ll start with them. I already have the ear of a couple and I’m steadily planting negative thoughts and lies in their minds. I’m sure I can use Preacher’s feelings for them to draw him back to us.”
The Boss nodded. “That’s a good beginning, but don’t forget that you need to stir up some negativity among this new church family of his, too. Sometimes we forget how easy it is to get to some of those folks. We may not be able to win them over, but we can plant enough negative thoughts and lies with them to create havoc in Preacher’s life.”
Sean bobbed his head in agreement. “Yes, sir. I haven’t forgotten. Most of those church people don’t read their Bibles so they can’t tell our voice from our enemy’s voice. Then you have some of them feeling so guilty for stuff they’ve done in the past that they’re confused about everything. Both of those groups are usually good candidates for me. I drop a thought here and a lie there and off they go to stir up trouble. It’s funny to watch them sometimes.”
The Boss laughed, a strong belly laugh. “Like sheep for the slaughter, Jones. Sheep for the slaughter.”
Sean began to feel encouraged. He’d get his second chance. That was all he wanted. He’d show The Boss what he could do and keep himself out of Third Hades.
“You sure you’re ready for this job?” The Boss asked, his piercing eyes searching Sean’s.
Sean swallowed hard and then he nodded. “I won’t fail you again.”
The Boss leaned back in his chair. “See that you don’t. And to make this interesting, I want you to get Preacher back and I want a couple others along with him.” He gave a guttural laugh. “Collateral damage, Jones. That’s what I want. Lots of collateral damage.”
“Yes, sir.” What else could he say?
The Boss steepled his fingers across his nose and gave Sean an icy glare. “And I want frequent reports. I want to know what you’re doing at all times. Third Hades will be waiting for you if you fail again.”
Three months later
Loretta Winters propped her hands on her hips and stared down at the woman sitting under the dryer at Tanya’s Curl and Weave in Atlanta’s Buckhead suburb. She tapped on the dryer head. “I can’t believe you’re sitting here getting your hair done when you’re supposed to be down at the prison picking up Preacher,” she said when Tanya peered up at her.
Tanya Miles looked from her recently manicured nails to Loretta’s angry face. “It’s not like he’s going anywhere,” she said, adding in a grin she knew would make Loretta even angrier.
“Look, Tanya,” Loretta said between clenched teeth. “Don’t get smart with me. You must have forgotten who’s footing the bill for this shop and the one across town as well as these beauty treatments you’re always getting. You’re not exactly the second coming of Madam C.J. Walker. Your name might be on the door, but the last time I looked my name was on the checks deposited into your bank account each month, so you’d better get a grip.”
Tanya smirked. “You’re too uptight, Loretta. Have you thought about a massage?” She rolled her shoulders forward. “I had one this morning, get them every week, in fact. So I can guarantee you’ll feel better if you get one.”
“I’m not playing with you, Tanya,” Loretta said. “We have a deal and you’d better uphold your end of it or—”
“I know, I know, or you’re going to cut off my funds.” Tanya stood and rubbed her hands down the tight-fitting sheath that covered her slim body and accentuated every inch of her five-foot-ten-inch frame. Looking down at the much shorter and less curvaceous Loretta, she experienced a feeling of superiority. “You know,” Tanya said, “something tells me that I don’t need to depend on you for money. I’m sure some man out there, some rich man, that is, would consider it an honor to spend his money on me.”
Loretta grinned. “He might want to spend it on you and those greenish-brown eyes you’re so proud of, but I’m not too sure how he’d feel about those two rugrats of yours. They’re my nephews and I love them but not many men want a woman with kids – not when there are so many other women without the strings. Face it, Tanya, you need me as much, if not more, than I need you. And what I need for you to do is get your behind down to that prison and pick up Preacher.”
“I’m going already,” Tanya said, tossing her long dark brown mane of White-girl hair over her shoulder. “You know how Preacher likes his women to look.” She cast a catty grin at Loretta. Though she’d never admit it aloud, Loretta had it going on in her own Mary J. Blige kind of way.
Loretta so wanted to wipe that smug grin off Tanya’s face and she would one day, just not today. No, today, she needed Tanya. Since Preacher had been sent off to prison and found religion, he’d changed on her. He wasn’t interested in her or the business they shared. All he could talk about was the family God had given him and how he wanted to make that family right. Loretta thought he was crazy to think he could have a family with Tanya, but there was no telling Preacher anything these days.
Before he found religion, he’d seen Tanya for what she was—a high-maintenance wannabe looking for a man, any man, to take care of her. She knew Preacher had never wanted kids, certainly not with Tanya, but Tanya’s pregnancy, which should have ended her relationship with Preacher – and there were many women who could attest to that fact – had instead served to bind him to her forever. Loretta would never have thought Preacher was the settling-down type, yet that’s exactly what he said he was now. Loretta thought he was going through a period of temporary insanity.
Preacher had always been religious, carrying Big Momma’s Bible around and everything, but now he’d gone too far. All she needed to do was get him away from those Bible-thumpers and life would return to normal. She wanted the brother she knew back, not some Jesus-spouting imitation.
Though she hated to admit it, she needed him. Not as a business partner though. No, she’d kept their narcotics distribution business perking right along while he was away, even expanded on it in ways that surprised her and should have made him proud, but all he’d given her was some lame line about how that part of his life was over. She couldn’t accept that, she wouldn’t. She loved Preacher and she needed him. From the day she’d entered foster care, she’d learned that needing others was a bad thing so she’d trained herself to need only herself. That had worked until she’d been reunited with her brother years later. She’d learned that everybody needs somebody--deserves somebody-- they can trust. For her, that somebody was Preacher. The blood bond they shared was eternal. It was deeper than the bond he’d shared with any woman, including Tanya. It was only rivaled by the bond he shared with his boys, a bond she didn’t resent or find threatening. No, she wanted Preacher to have his boys. They were his family, hers too. She understood their bond and its value, and Preacher used to understand it. Now she just needed him to remember it. And for that she needed Tanya.
“If you don’t leave within the next couple of hours, he’s going to have to stay in there an extra day. You’d better not let that happen.”
“I hear you, Loretta. I hear you.”
“You’d better. And you’d better have that apartment over your garage fixed up for him, too.”
Tanya rolled her eyes. “Your contractors finished the work yesterday, as I’m sure you’re well aware. The furniture was delivered this morning so everything’s ready for your dear Preacher.”
“You’re living with the man, Tanya. He’s the father of your two children. Don’t you have any feelings, any compassion, for him?”
Tanya pouted like a little girl. “I didn’t bargain for this, Loretta. Preacher was supposed to give me the good life. Instead I get a jailbird husband-to-be and two kids that I didn’t even want. I’m too young for this.”
“You’re not that young,” Loretta said under her breath.
“And how’s Preacher going to support us? He’s said he’s not going back into the drug business, so how’s he supposed to support a family?” She tossed her hair back again. “I’m not the type of woman who lives hand-to-mouth. Been there, done that, won’t do it again. Not even for your precious Preacher.”
Loretta almost felt sorry for the selfish twit. Loretta was more familiar with poverty than Tanya was so she knew the fear of being hungry that could drive a person to do things most people would never do. “You take care of Preacher and I’ll take care of the money.”
Tanya stared at Loretta for a long moment.
“What?” Loretta asked.
“Why do you even care, Loretta?” she asked. “Preacher has made it clear that he wants nothing more to do with the drugs, or you as long as you’re in the business, so why are you doing all this for him?”
Preacher had explained his decisions to Loretta, but she wasn’t about to share those details with Tanya. The woman was so self-absorbed she would never understand the brother-sister bond she and Preacher shared. “I ask the questions, Tanya. What’s between me and Preacher is none of your concern. You do what I tell you and you’ll be okay. You don’t and you’ll pay.”
“So now we’re back to threats, huh?”
“Not threats, promises. And I always keep my promises. Now get off your behind and get down to that prison. And make sure you take those two kids with you. You know Preacher’s gonna want to see them.”
Tanya stomped her foot like a little girl about to embark on a major tantrum. “Aww, Loretta, I’m not taking those kids down there. I can’t put up with their yakking for two whole hours. You can’t expect me to do that.”
Loretta folded her arms across her chest. “If nothing else gets Preacher off that God kick he’s on, you will.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Please, girl. How can anyone think a loving God would be so cruel as to make you a mother? The Man can’t exist and you’re the only proof Preacher needs. Let him hang around you for awhile and he’ll be back to his old self in no time. Now enough talking. It’s time for you to get up and hit the road. You’re done here.”