The sway of Keisha Anderson's hips stirred the still summer air as she climbed the subway steps and began the walk up Broad Street.
She'd spent the last few Wednesday evenings the same way--rushing from her summer job to church in an effort to maintain the illusion that was her life.
But tonight she didn't want to rush. As she passed the poster-laden remains of the Uptown Theater, she slowed down and allowed herself to drink in the sights and sounds of North Philly.
She listened as an ambulance screamed past, and watched as a young mother dragged a toddler by the arm. She heard a basketball smacking against the sidewalk while a passing car blasted Jay-Z.
The song's infectious rhythm took Keisha to a place she'd come to know intimately since reuniting with her childhood love,Jamal. It was a place that allowed her to straddle the line between her own world, with its hard-and-fast rules, and a world where the do's and don'ts were as fluid as the sound of his name.
Jamal. She mouthed it silently, turned it over in her mind, and tasted it on her tongue. It was smooth and buttery sweet, like the secret kisses he'd pressed against her lips.
But at the same time, Jamal's name was bitter. It was a reminder that she'd had to look to him for the love she'd always longed to receive from her parents. Love she'd watched them give to their parishioners instead of her.
Keisha shook her head. She didn't want to think of the years of service that had caused her family a misery she wanted no part of. She only wanted to think of the streets that provided sweet escape from it, the streets whose forbidden pleasures she longed to taste.
As she approached the drug dealers who were posted on the corner of Broad and Dauphin, her soft lips curled in a mischievous smile. She fixed her smoldering gaze on them and invited their lustful stares.
They happily complied. Their eyes roamed everything from her honey-brown eyes to her gently rounded hips as a rare summer breeze caused her white cotton sundress to cling to her ample curves.
Seconds later, the catcalls began in earnest. But rather than enjoying the attention, Keisha grew angry at their raw, disrespectful words, and whipped around to face the tallest one.
"What did you say?" she snarled with a hand on her hip.
Surprised, he coughed, and his white T-shirt, already too large, seemed to swallow him whole.
"I just wanted to holla at you for a minute," he said, trying not to buckle under the weight of Keisha's stony stare.
"I'm standing right here," she said, tossing her hair and looking him up and down with an arched eyebrow. "Holla."
He looked around at his boys, who urged him on with solemn nods and knowing grins. Tugging at his low-slung pants, he ambled over to Keisha.
He tried to take her arm to move her away from the crowd, but Keisha wouldn't budge. She wanted all of them to hear the exchange.
Pulling the curved bill of his baseball cap down over his eyes, the boy looked down into Keisha's ginger-colored face, with its soft lines and flawless beauty, and tried to act composed.
"What's your name, baby?" he said with a crooked smile.
She rolled her eyes. "A minute ago, my name was bitch."
"Naw, I ain't--"
"When I walked by," she said, cutting him off, "you said, 'Look at this bitch.' You didn't care what my name was then, so why do you care now?"
"Hold up, baby, I wasn't--"
She raised a single finger. "Next time you want to talk to me," she said, "you call me by my name. It's Keisha."
There was shocked silence as she stepped forward and put a hand in his face.
"And if you can't remember that," she said, her voice low and threatening, "maybe I'll send somebody by to remind you."
Before he could respond, she turned on her heel and crossed Dauphin Street, her sundress billowing behind her as she passed a gray stone church whose walls climbed silently into the evening sky.
As she rounded the corner of Fifteenth Street and headed for the playground, she could hear the sound of the drug dealers laughing at their humiliated friend.
She almost joined in. But her smile quickly disappeared as the atmosphere around her began to change.
Fifteenth Street was filled with closed auto repair shops and cold yellow streetlights. Abandoned houses lined one side of the block. Barren, packed earth and cracked sidewalks lined the other.
Seeing it all made the night feel colder than it had been just minutes before. And that coldness, more than anything, frightened Keisha.
Walking through the gates of the playground, she saw soiled diapers and used condoms. Trash cans filled to overflowing. Broken overhead lights. And dank air whispering through the darkened doorway near the playground's locked office.
Keisha felt her chest tighten as she made her way toward the steps between the building and the swings. There were no more sounds to tempt her. No more voices to anger her. Only an ominous silence that seemed to grow deeper with every passing second.
She climbed the first step and caught sight of the alleylike street on the other side of the playground. Just beyond it, there was a rocky dirt path that wound between tree-sized weeds to York Street.
The path was the last thing she saw.
Someone grabbed her from behind, slapping a hand over her mouth and pressing himself against her as he dragged her backward.
Keisha bit down hard, and her teeth tore through his skin, causing warm blood to flow into her mouth.
The man grunted, released her, and swung his fist. Keisha saw a flash of light, and her eyes filled with tears as the pain of the blow shot through her body.
He grabbed her again, and she reached back to claw at hisface. He ducked and continued pulling her backward. She tried to twist her body to face her attacker. Then another man emerged from the shadows and swept her feet out from under her.
"No!" she shrieked, catching a glimpse of the second man's scarred face.
They covered her mouth again, dragging her into the shadowy doorway and pulling her cotton dress over her head. The one with the scar pried her legs apart. The other placed a knife against her throat. Her stomach turned as the stench of urine mingled with the odors of garbage and sweat.
"Give it up or I'ma kill you," said the one with the knife, kneeling next to her and undoing his pants.
"Stop!" she shouted while trying to kick her legs free.
There was a muffled sound behind them. The one with the knife turned to see where it came from. But it was already too late for him to respond.
The first punch was delivered with such force that the scar-faced man at Keisha's feet tumbled into the other one, who dropped his knife and tried to stand. Before he could do so, a boot landed against his temple. Seconds later, both men went down in a barrage of flailing fists.
Keisha wanted to run, but she couldn't get out of the doorway. Neither could her attackers. They were hit again and again, as fists and feet flew at them faster than they could fend off the blows.
Keisha crawled backward as grunts and the thudding sound of hard punches filled the closed-in space. Flecks of blood dotted her white dress. One of her attackers reached back for the knife he had dropped.
Her rescuer stepped on his hand and the man screamed. After that, the struggle ended. And the violence that had filled the doorway was replaced by a deep, resonant voice.
"Both o' y'all get outta here," her hero said slowly. "And I bet' not ever see y'all around here again."
As her attackers ran away, Keisha looked up at the silhouette of the man who'd saved her. He was bathed in the pale moonlight that shone on him from behind.
His broad shoulders extended almost the length of the doorway, while his torso tapered down to a small waist. His muscled arms extended to his thighs, where his clenched fists rested. His chest heaved up and down as steam poured off his dangling dreadlocks.
After she'd filled her eyes with the familiar shape of him, Keisha pursed her lips and tried to be brave. But the façade was short-lived. Tears burst from her eyes as she stood up and rushed into his arms.
"Jamal," she said through tortured sobs. "Thank God you were here."
"You all right?" he muttered as he cradled her like a baby.
She nodded and held him tighter. "Who were they?"
"I don't know," he said, looking around to make sure they were gone. "I never saw'em before."
Keisha's sobs subsided as he held her in his arms.
"I want you to go home," he said calmly.
Keisha loosened her grip and backed away from him. "Not by myself," she said nervously. "You have to come with me."
He took her face in both hands and stared into her eyes. "I can't."
"Yes, you can," she said, searching his eyes in the dim light. "I've already decided to tell my parents all about us."
The gentleness left his voice. "You can't do that, Keisha. Not yet."
Her eyes filled with confusion. "But why?"
He didn't want to lie to her. But he couldn't tell her the truth.
"I need you to trust me," he said, wiping an errant tear from her cheek. "Go home. Tell them what happened, but don't mention me. I'll come see you tonight, and I'll explain everything. I promise. Okay, Keisha?"
She wanted to refuse him, to make him bend to her will. But she was too shaken to do anything but agree.
"Yes, Jamal," she whispered.
"Good. I'll call you on your cell in an hour."
He kissed her lips tenderly. Then he nudged her out of the shadows and pointed her toward the church.
She almost turned around and ran to him. But she knew, now more than ever, that there was something forbidden about the man she loved.
Still, she couldn't help wondering, as she ran from the playground, if Jamal was what she'd been hearing about all her life.
She wondered if he was a savior.
"The doors of the church are now open," said the Reverend John Anderson, his black robes dangling from his outstretched arms as he stood in front of the altar.
With a face the color of black coffee and smooth skin stretched taught over high cheekbones, he was an imposing figure. His parishioners were drawn to that, even more than to his fiery preaching, because they lived in a world where strength often overshadowed faith.
"If anyone here doesn't know Christ as their personal savior," Reverend Anderson continued, "come down the aisle right now, and ..."
His words trailed off as the doors in the back of the sanctuary swung open. The street light streaming in from the stainedglass windows seemed to dim, and the parishioners' faces dropped as they turned and watched the trembling figure lurching down the aisle in a ripped and bloody dress.
"Oh my God," said one of the church mothers, nodding her head in prayer and pulling her sweater tight around her shoulders.
Whispering voices filled the sanctuary. But most of them weren't praying. Somehow they knew that prayer might not be enough to change what they saw in the center aisle of their beloved sanctuary.
The girl they watched approaching the front of the church--the one whose smiling face they'd seen from the time she was a baby--was not the same. Something had changed. Her innocence was gone.
"Daddy," Keisha said, her voice going from that of a young woman to that of a little girl. "They tried to hurt me."
She ran into his arms and wept in front of the altar. And though no one left their seat, the entire congregation embraced her along with her father.
Tears filled Reverend Anderson's eyes. Then he motioned to a deacon.
"Give the benediction," he said, gently moving his daughter toward the door behind the pulpit. "Bible study's over."
Keisha's mother, Sarah Anderson, got up from the front pew, following them through the door and into the pastor's office. But she didn't cry.
Reverend Anderson slammed the office door, glanced at his wife, then wheeled to face his daughter.
"Are you all right?" he said, throwing off his robe and shoes as he angrily reached into his closet for a pair of boots.
Keisha sat down. "I'm a little scared, but I think I'll be okay."
"What happened?" Sarah asked, sitting down next to her.
"I cut through the playground on Fifteenth Street. Somebody grabbed me, and ..."
Keisha's thoughts were lost somewhere between the terror of the attack and remembrances of Jamal. It wasn't that she couldn't speak. She just didn't know what to say.
Her father grabbed her shoulders and looked into her eyes.
"And what?" he said.
"They tried to rape me."
"There were two of them. I don't know who they were. But one of them had a scar on his face."
"You didn't see anything else?" her father said, reaching into the back of his closet.
"It was dark," she said, allowing her pent-up tears to flow. "They grabbed me from behind."
Reverend Anderson emerged from the back of the closet holding a bat. His eyes were red and swollen, and his tear-streaked face was filled with rage.
"Sarah, I want you to take Keisha home," he said quickly.
"John, don't be foolish," Sarah snapped. "She doesn't even know who it was."
"She might not know who it was," he said as he moved toward the door. "But I know who to start with."
"You need to start with the Lord," Sarah called after him.
"When I find the man I'm looking for," the reverend said, pulling a pair of leather gloves onto his massive hands, "he'll need the Lord a whole lot more than I do."
Thick cigar smoke wafted through the back room at Frank Nichols's bar, floating toward vents in the ceiling and disappearing as if it were never there.
Though the bar had always been the only profitable business on Fifteenth and Dauphin, it was nothing spectacular up front, where the regular patrons drank. But the back room, with its ventilation system and entertainment center, was where Frank ran his real business--drug dealing.
The back room, where murders had been planned and takeovers mapped out, was where Frank felt most comfortable. And so, whenever he was here, the mood was festive. Tonight was no different.
Frank and his lieutenants ate fried shrimp and coleslaw as scantily clad barmaids shuttled back and forth with glass upon glass of Jack Daniel's.
Frank sat facing the door, his high yellow skin and honey-colored eyes shining in the dim light. He was a small man, no more than five-eight. But beneath his pretty-boy looks and conservative suits, there was strong, wiry muscle, and the heart of a lion. At fifty-five, after nearly forty years in the game, his mind was sharper than ever.
His lieutenants were lined up around a flat-screen television, watching a rebroadcast of a heavyweight bout in which a too-prim Englishman beat a brash former champion from Brooklyn.
Frank had brought his men together this way at least once a month for the past four decades. He liked to study them away from the corners where they plied their trade. He wanted to see their habits, observe their desires, and note their weaknesses.
If voluptuous barmaids in thongs could distract them from the business at hand, their weakness was flesh, and they could betray him for a whore.
If they were eager to refill their glasses after more than two or three shots, their weakness was strong drink, and alcohol could loosen their tongues.
If they hoarded the food for themselves, they were gluttons, and their greed would eventually spill over into business.
Over the years, his formula for evaluating his men had proved valuable. So had keeping his ear to the street.
Frank pointed the remote control at the television screen and turned off the fight. When he did, everyone turned to him. Because at these gatherings, where security was minimal and business was almost never discussed, such an action meant something was wrong. The room went silent as they waited to hear what it was.
Frank sipped from his glass and lowered his eyes.
"Colorado Street was short a thousand dollars this month," he said, staring at the man who ran the crack trade on the tiny block off Dauphin Street. "You replaced it outta your pocket, Raheem. But that don't solve the problem. I wanna know why it was missin' in the first place."
Raheem was six-five, thirty years old, and built like a linebacker. But Frank's stare was enough to cause him to tremble. He sipped at his drink to calm his nerves before he spoke.
"Young boy told me he wanted a job," Raheem said nervously. "I knew the family was strugglin', so I gave him a package. He decided he wanted to trick with the money. Took this young girl up New York on a shoppin' spree. When I heard about it, I went up there and found him."
Raheem took another swig of his drink.
"He won't be workin' for us no more," he said firmly. "I told his mama, 'When they find him, I'll pay for the funeral.'"
Frank looked around the room, studying the faces of his lieutenants, until his gaze was once again fixed on Raheem.
"So why somebody tell me you took the money?"
"'Cause they lyin'," Raheem said evenly.
Frank stared at him for a moment longer. The tension in the air was palpable.
"I know they lyin'," Frank answered. "But it's still your fault. You never give a package to somebody that's hungry. You give it to somebody who already know how to hustle. And if they mess it up, you don't do 'em soon as you hear about it. You wait."
As Frank spoke, there was a rumbling outside the door. The single guard who was posted there yelled at someone to stop. There was the sickening sound of wood against flesh, and a body tumbling to the floor. It sounded like it could've been the police, so no one fired. They simply placed their hands on their weapons and waited.
Seconds later, the door burst open and a man wielding a bat stepped through. The men in the room leveled their weapons, but Frank raised his hand before the bullets could fly.
Reverend Anderson stopped when he saw the guns pointed in his direction. He lowered the bat, stood in the middle of the floor, looked around him, and observed the faces of the men who ran the neighborhood crack corners.
None of them bore the scar he was looking for. But that didn't mean they were blameless.
"I came for the man who tried to rape my baby," he said, his right hand tightly gripping the handle of the bat as his eyes bulged with rage.
Frank Nichols leaned back in his chair and smiled.
"See, that's what I was just talkin' about," he said coolly. "You don't go out right after somethin' happens and try to settle it. You give yourself time to think about what you gon' do. Otherwise you end up bringin' a bat to a gunfight."
"There won't be no gunfight, 'cause y'all ain't trying to go to prison," Anderson said, mocking them. "They make you checkyour guns at the door of the prison. Guys like you can't survive without them."
"Is that right, Pastor?" Frank said smoothly.
"Yeah, that's right," Reverend Anderson said. "And so is this: if anything else happens to Keisha on these streets, Frank, I'm blaming you. And when I come, I'm coming correct."
Nichols grinned knowingly. "Seems like every time somethin' happens to your family, you blame me," he said.
Reverend Anderson dropped the bat and lunged at Nichols, but two of his lieutenants grabbed the pastor and dragged him back before he could swing.
Nichols took a sip of his drink and sat back. "John, I don't know what happened with your daughter, but I'll try to find out. And if I hear anything, I'll handle it."
Reverend Anderson wrenched free from the men who were holding him. "I don't need you to handle mine, Frank. I can handle my own."
Frank stood up and walked toward the pastor. When they were just inches from one another, he stopped and looked up at the taller man.
"We used to be like brothers, John," he said solemnly. "What happened?"
"You know what happened," said the pastor, looking around the room before settling his hate-filled gaze on Frank. "This happened. But I'ma shut this down, too. I promise you that."
"Well, I hope we can settle our differences before one of us dies," Frank said with a deadly calm. "'Cause you never know. That might be sooner than later."
"You're right, Frank," Anderson said, echoing the underlying threat. "It just might be."
As Frank ambled back to his seat and the pastor turned toleave, Frank's men put their weapons away in the belief that the altercation was over.
Only three people knew that it wasn't: Frank Nichols, John Anderson, and the young man with dreadlocks standing silently in the corner, watching as his father played God.