The Truth of Things

1 “WHERE I COME FROM, COPS AREN’T SUPERHEROES.”

Photojournalist and wedding photographer Ava Greene has been unlucky in love, and even though she calls herself a hopeless romantic, she is more than a little bitter about it. The only attention she seems to get is from the men she has absolutely no interest in and she has become unintentionally celibate in her effort to avoid “trash ass dudes” and has officially given up on the idea “the one” when Officer Friendly rolls up on her block.

“NOT ALL COPS…”

Arrogant and just shy of being a cornball with his bad-dad jokes, she knows that this stocky cop might just be the one to make her second-guess every thought she ever had about cops.

Ava tries to make it clear to Levi that she doesn’t need saving, that she doesn’t need to be worshiped, but he is convinced that is exactly she needs. But when Ava finds herself on the wrong side of the law, will he be the hero she needs or toe the “thin blue line?”

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Chapter One

The earliest and most vivid memory I had of my mother, Lorraine Greene, was both awesome and terrifying.

I was six years old.

Lorraine had just finished her shift at Cooper University Hospital where she worked 12-hour shifts as an emergency room nurse. I usually hung out at the nurse’s station until my mother finished up, and after a quick dinner in the hospital cafeteria, we would head home.

It was cold out that night.

Snow and rock salt crunched under our shoes as we made our way from the bus stop to our apartment. My mother was tired, but she held my hand tightly; moving us along at a quick clip, glancing behind us every few steps or so, and peering down every alley we passed. But somehow they still managed to get the drop on us.

Looking back, I knew that they were just boys, but to my six-year-old mind, they had seemed as big and menacing as grown men. They’d blocked the sidewalk, maneuvering in front of my mother every time she tried to get by them.

“Really, fellas? You gonna do this with my baby right here?” she had pleaded.

What this was, I wasn’t sure, but I remembered the boy’s sneer when he said, “Shit…ain’t my motherfucking kid.”

Lorraine had pushed me behind her, guarding me with her body. “Well, you done fucked with the right one.”

Then I’d heard the flick of her opening the knife she always carried in her left pocket. Within moments she’d had the tallest of the two pinned against the wall, the blade at his neck.

“Mommy!” I’d shrieked, confused by what was happening.

“Don’t be scared, baby,” Lorraine had said, her voice so calm that I settled instantly. Then she looked at me, and the ferocity I saw in her eyes made me feel safe.

“Mommy’s got this,” she had said with a reassuring smile.

My mother was slight but strong. I’d seen her lift things that seemed impossible for someone her size to lift. She used that strength every day in the ER to lift and maneuver the bodies of the sick and wounded. That night, she used that strength to hold that boy in place as he fought against her.

It’s hard to say what happened next. All I knew was that a quick flick of her wrist had sent blood pouring over the boy’s coat.

“You crazy!” he screeched, grabbing his neck.

“That wound is superficial, but come at me and my baby again, and I’ll make sure you need more than a few stitches,” she’d growled, pointing the bloodied blade at him for emphasis.

“Come on, man,” the other boy had said while dragging his wild-eyed friend away from us.

My mother had grabbed my hand and watched the two boys run away—back in the direction we’d come from. It wasn’t until they were completely out of sight that she dropped down to her knees and hugged me, adrenaline racing through her body, making her quake.

From that night on we had varied our route home.

I thought of Lorraine now as I neared Lin’s Chinese Food half a block up from my apartment. Corner boys loitered around the doors. I debated taking a four block detour to get to my place even though it was literally a block and a half from where I stood.

“Fuck that, I’m tired,” I muttered out loud, then dug my knife out bag.

Lengthening my stride, I gripped the handle of my knife in the right hand and flipped the guard on the mace on my keychain in my left.

All of this could have been avoided. Yves and Elijah had invited me to stay the night at his place. I could be there now, safely tucked in his son’s Star Wars sheets and pretending like I didn’t hear him and Yves fucking. But I was tired and halfway drunk, and I’d met my tolerance for playing the third wheel around the time they started necking every time I had my head turned. I wanted the comfort of my lumpy bed and maybe a couple of rounds with B.O.B that’d send me floating into la-la-land on a healthy dose of oxytocin. But to get that lumpy bed and that session with my battery operated boyfriend, I had to pass by these boys.

I lived on the northside of Camden near Rutgers University, but a few blocks from the reach of gentrification. That didn’t bother me, though. I was born and raised here. I’ve walked these streets most of my life, but hyper-vigilance created a specific sort of fatigue that I’d only seen in other inhabitants of neighborhoods like mine. That fatigue was called I-wish-a-muthafucka-would. It was exactly this fatigue that made me dismiss the thought of doubling back and walking nearly four blocks out of my way to avoid these corner boys when my apartment was within sight.

Head down and hands fisted around my weapons, I barreled down the sidewalk, hoping they were distracted enough for me to sneak by them.

Weed smoke hung in a cloud around them, and they gripped paper bagged bottles in their hands as they spoke in loud, exaggerated voices about hip-hop or basketball—I couldn’t tell which. From my peripheral vision, I saw their focus shift toward me as I passed.

“Ayyyyeee, shorty,” came the first cat call.

I ignored it, hoping they would accept the rejection and just move on. Just need to make it past the corner.

“Aye, didn’t you hear me talking to you?”

A hand on my waist—far too low on my waist—attempted to halt my progress. I sidestepped, pushing him away.

“Aye, don’t be like that.”

He grabbed at my ass. Suddenly the cut off shorts that had been appropriate for the blazing summer humidity seemed like the worst wardrobe choice ever.

“Just let me go, a’ight?” It was damn near a plea. I hated to hear that sound in my voice. “It’s late, and I’m tired.”

“Nah, not until you talk to me.”

He wheeled me around, and I looked him in the eyes. I knew this guy. The corner had several regulars. Some of them were good guys in bad situations, but I haven’t seen this one in a while. Our last encounter was similar—full of barely checked sexual aggression. Maybe he’d been locked up, I don’t know, but here he was forcing himself on me. Again.

He bullied me into the alcove of Lin’s and pressed himself against me. “Mm. You feel good. When you gonna give me that number, girl?”

I gave him a hard shove. “Keep your fucking hands off of me,” I warned, then tried again to make it for my apartment. But before I could even step around him, he grabbed me by my elbow and yanked me back into the corner.

“I told you what you need to do. Gimme that number.”

“I ain’t giving you shit.” I pulled out the can of mace and aimed it right between his eyes.

“Whoa!” he backed up with his hands up. “You gone mace me?”

“Are you gonna make me mace you?”

The boy had the damn nerve to grin. “You got some gangsta in you. I like that.”

I saw the door bumped against my back and swung open. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two more guys step out onto the sidewalk.

“Shit,” I cursed under my breath, assuming that more of his buddies were going to either aid in his street harassment or stand idly by while he groped me.

“Aye, the fuck goin’ on out here?” a familiar voice said.

Oh, thank God. “Emil!” I said a little too enthusiastically, reaching for him like he was my white knight…or Puerto Rican knight. Whatever.

Emiliano was a good kid. Despite his chosen profession, he was decent and almost sweet. I bought weed from him sometimes. Not once in the five years that I’ve been living here had he catcalled or grabbed me. I realize that was setting the bar pretty low, but unfortunately, him being polite and gentlemanly was remarkable.

“Do you know this guy?” I asked.

“Unfortunately,” Emil grumbled looking the dude up and down. “The fuck is your problem, yo?”

“This your broad or somethin’?”

“No, but that doesn’t give you license to disrespect her.”

“If it ain’t ya broad, I don’t see why you give a fuck.”

“Cause Ava is good people.” Emiliano sneered at the other dude. “Out here harassing women and shit. You don’t need to be bringing this sort of negativity to my corner, Khalid.”

“Your corner?” The boy Khalid walked right up to Emil and squared up. “You think that just because I’ve been gone for a minute that you can claim this as yours?”

“I ain’t gotta claim shit. I know it’s mine and every body around here knows it, too.”

“You really tryin’ to take it there, son? Over some bitch?”

Seeing that the situation was about to escalate to a place that it didn’t need to go, I stepped between the two young men and looked Emil right in the eye. “Don’t do this. It’s not that serious.”

“Nah, Ava. He shouldn’t be puttin’ his hands on you.”

“It’s over. I’m fine. Let it go.”

“Yeah, that’s right. Listen to ya bitch before you get handled,” Khalid threatened, punctuating his words by jabbing his index finger into Emil’s forehead.

My pulse kicked into hyper drive as I watched Emil’s brow furrow. “Emil—” But there was nothing I could say after that. Nothing I could do. Emil shoved me to the side and was on him.

Pinned between the door of the restaurant and their brawling bodies, I had no room to get away. Despite my pleas, none of the other dudes made a move to stop them.

Khalid may have instigated the fight, but Emil was getting the best of him. He refused to take the beating lying down, though. Khalid took each blow full on the chin until his mouth and nose were bloodied which only seemed to infuriate Emil. I pressed my back into the corner and silently prayed that it would end at fists and not escalate to gunfire.

Just when it seemed like Emil might actually beat Khalid into a coma, sirens blared, and blue lights whirled as a black and white came to a skidding stop, damn near jumping the curb.

The other boys scattered, running in opposite directions so that when the female cop jumped out with her gun drawn, she didn’t even bother to pursue them. That left Emil and Khalid who had just barely let off each other when the female cop bellowed, “Get on the ground!”

I wish I could say that I was relieved to see her, but to me, it felt like another gang had rolled up. One that was just as unpredictable as the boys with their bellies on the sidewalk.

“Are you hard of hearing?” the female cop asked stepping into me with her gun aimed at my chest. “That means you, too, little sweetie!”

“What?” I asked, raising my hands reflexively. “I was just—”

“Get your ass down before I put a hole in your chest!”

My knees and bowels both damn near liquified and the ground rose up to meet me. Tears triggered by fear and anger burned my eyes and swelled my throat.

“Aye, man. She ain’t do nothin’. You can let her go—”

“Is this your little girlfriend? That’s sweet, but nobody gives a fuck. Hands on your head!” she shouted, punctuating her order with a kick to Emil’s ribs.

“Nah, I’m just sayin’ you ain’t gotta detain her. She ain’t done nothin’.”

“Officer,” I began, my voice trembling. “I was just going home when—”

The female cop grabbed a fistful of my braids and yanked my head back to an unnatural angle that was so painful it stole my breath.

“Shut. The fuck. Up,” she growled in my ear, before shoving my face back into the concrete hard enough to make me see stars.

Oh, fuck.

Was this really happening?

My pulse thumped in my ears as I realized how much danger we were in. This female cop was here alone with us, and she had her gun drawn. Anything could set her off. Anything could make her fear for her life and justify putting a bullet in one of us.

I real panic gripped me, and I broke into a cold sweat as she tore my bag of photography gear from my arm and rifled through it. While she was doing that, another black and white pulled up, and male officer hopped out. “What’s good, Stevenson?”

I was halfway glad to see him. Glad because I didn’t know what she would’ve done had she been alone with us any longer.

“Rolled up on these two fighting,” Stevenson said. “She was just standing around and watching. You wanna deal with those two?”

“I got you.”

The female officer continued to search my bag. Her boots bracketed my ribs, steel toes threatening to dig in while she sifted through it’s the contents.

“Expensive camera equipment in here. Are you trying to sell it for drugs?”

“No. I’m a photographer for The Philadelphian. My press pass is in the front pocket next to my wallet.”

She let the bag drop to the ground, and I cringed at the sound of my gear rattling around.

“Ava Marie Greene,” she read from my license. She shuffled through the contents of my wallet then looked at my press pass. Then she went through my jacket pockets. “Just a small knife and a can of bear mace,” she said to the other cop with a note of disappointment. “Stay down,” she ordered, then dropped my emptied wallet on the ground next to my bag, scattering my cards and cash across the pavement with the toe of her boot before she moved on to search Emil.

He turned his head to face me. “You okay?” he mouthed.

I nodded.

“I’m sorry—”

“Ahhhh….what’s this?” the female cop crowed, pulling a fat nug of weed out of Emil’s front pocket.

He closed his eyes and cursed under his breath, regret softening his body.

“I do believe that’s enough to put you in handcuffs, young boi,” Stevenson crowed, affecting a street accent. She wrenched his arms behind his back making him wince as she slapped the cuffs on his wrists.

The fact that she was taking so much pleasure in this made my stomach turn.

“This one’s got a gun,” the male cop barked suddenly.

“I got you, Raymond,” Stevenson said. She immediately unholstered her gun to cover her colleague while he cuffed Khalid. The male cop, she called him Raymond, pulled the weapon out of Khalid’s waistband, dropped the clip, and ejected the extra round before placing it on the hood of his cruiser.

“All right. Get ‘em up,” he said.

They pulled the two boys to their feet and sat them on the curb.

“Shit, I didn’t cuff her,” Stevenson said, heading toward me again.

“Nah, I got her. Call for another car.” He came and stood next to me. “You can get up, miss.”

Shaking, I pushed myself up onto my knees and sat back on my heels to dust the grit off of my clothes. Gingerly, I touched my cheek where the lady cop had smashed my face into the cement. It felt raw, but she hadn’t broken the skin.

“You all right?” he asked, bending down to offer me a hand.

I knocked his hand away. “I’m fine.” With trembling hands, I gathered up the emptied contents of my wallet, grabbed my bag, and stood up. “Can I go?”

“As soon as you tell me what happened here,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I was…I was just walking home when that guy Khalid grabbed me and manhandled me.” My voice wavered as I began to realize everything that had transpired. I could’ve died tonight. My stomach clenched like it was going to empty all the bad whiskey and beer I drank earlier onto the sidewalk. I closed my eyes and took three deep breaths. You’re okay. You’re okay…

Unexpectedly, the weight of the cops hand dropped on my shoulder. “Are you okay?” he asked, his voice gentle and far too close to me.

“I’m okay,” I said, but even I could hear the robotic sound in my voice.

“You sure?” He squeezed my shoulder gently.

I jerked away from him and stepped back a couple of feet. “Yeah…I’m fine. Uh…where was I?”

“You were just walking home,” he said.

“Right. And that guy, Khalid manhandled me. Emiliano came out of the store to stop him, and they got into a fight.”

“And how do you know these men?”

“They’re always out here. I know Emil. We speak now and again. I’m not so friendly with Khalid.”

“Hm,” he said with a nod. “And what were you doing out here tonight? Were you about to buy that weed in the light skinned one’s pocket?”

My temper flared hot. I’d bought weed off of Emil before, but we’d always been discreet. It would’ve never led to something like this. I raised my head and looked Officer Raymond in the eye. “No,” I growled.

“What were you doing out here alone at this time of night, then?”

“Like I said, I was walking home.” I pointed in the direction of my apartment building in the middle of the block.

“You live near here?”

“Yes, that building in the middle of the block.” My ID was still in my hand. I handed over to him. He plucked it from my fingers, took out his flashlight, and verified that I was indeed a block and a half from my house.

“Okay.” He handed the ID back to me. Behind him another black and white pulled up, lights flashing. “Those other dudes…the ones who ran away when Stevenson rolled up on you. Are they regulars on this corner, too?”

I smirked. “You would know better than me.” I shoved my hands in my pockets—my empty pockets. “What about my knife and my mace? Am I gonna get those back?”

Raymond narrowed his eyes at me then turned toward his partner. “Stevenson!”

“Yeah!”

“The mace and the knife you took off of this young lady.”

Officer Stevenson’s face screwed up so ugly that I thought it would crack and fall off in pieces. “Are you serious, Raymond?”

“I’m kicking her loose. Neither are illegal, so she’s entitled to have her property back.”

Stevenson sighed loud then made her way over to where the two of us stood. I held out my hand. She glared at me as she slapped the mace and knife into my open palm. I glared back, memorizing her face before I looked down at her badge number. She looked like she could be a Latina or maybe mixed. Not that it mattered. All cops were one color. Blue.

“Thank you,” I chirped, pasting on my most insincere smile.

Stevenson sneered and walked away.

Raymond coughed out a laugh.

“Are we done?” I asked.

“Uh, yeah. Are you okay to get home alone?”

I rolled my eyes. “Are you kidding me?” Without another word I turned and walked toward apartment and my warm, deliciously, lumpy bed. My body was operating on pure adrenaline right now. I had to get home before I passed out.

I’d made it to the corner before I realized that I wasn’t alone. Officer Raymond was following me.

I turned around to face him. “I thought you said I could go?”

“I did. I’m just ensuring that you get home safely.”

“That’s not necessary.”

“I know. But after the way my colleague handled you, it’s the least I can do.”

“Real convenient. It would’ve been more believable if you had stepped in when she was smashing my face into he pavement.”

“She smashed your face into the pavement?” he asked.

“Yeah…right before you rolled up.”

“Believe me, if I’d seen her do that I would’ve stopped her.”

“What about when she was handling my camera gear so carelessly? She might’ve broken something—”

“I was handling the other suspects. One of whom had a gun and prior arrests. I would’ve stopped her if she went too far.”

…But she did go too far. I narrowed my eyes at him. “Once again, I can get myself home. This isn’t necessary.”

“I heard you the first time.”

“Soooo…you’re just going to walk me home against my will?”

He raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

“Of course.” I wheeled around and started for my apartment again. “Whatever.”

I marched home, trying to exude confidence with each stride, knowing that this cop could do anything he wanted once we arrived at my door and hoping that wasn’t what was on his mind.

My apartment wasn’t great. It was a second-floor walk-up in an eight-unit building, but the rent was cheap, and it was a space of my own.

I pushed into the outer door of my building and climbed the stairs. Officer Raymond’s footfalls were a few steps behind mine. He stopped on the third step from the top when I arrived at my door. Thumbs hooked into his belt, he waited patiently for me to unlock the door.

“Well, kind, sir. Thank you for escorting me to my front door after a lovely evening of street and police harassment. I leave you in the grace and the favor of the Lord,” I said then I gave him a curtsied bow.

He laughed and came up those last three steps, but his face went serious when he looked at me. “I apologize for my partner’s behavior. She can be a little…”

What? An apology? That’s the last thing I expected. “Fucked up? Crazy—”

“Overzealous,” he finished.

“Thank you for your apology, Officer…” I feigned as if I didn’t remember his name.

“Raymond. Levi Raymond. And it was my pleasure, Miss…”

I tipped my head at him. He knew my damn name. This fucker was trying to play me at my own game. ”Don’t you have some crime to fight? Someone to serve and protect?”

He grinned and did an awe shucks sort of shoulder shrug that was almost endearing.

“Look, did you hem up those guys so you could walk me home and sexually harass me, too?”

“No, no, that wasn’t my intention—”

“Exactly what are your intentions, Officer…”

“Raymond,” he repeated. “Levi Raymond.”

“Right. Thanks for reminding me, Officer Raymond. Can I get your badge number as well?”

He held up his hands and backed down the steps. “I apologize, miss. You have a good night.” He glanced at his watch before he turned to head back down the stairs. “Or should I say, good morning. Make sure you lock up tight,” he called over one of those shoulders as he stepped through the door. Before stepping out onto the stoop into the night, he gave me a subtle wink that pissed me off even more.

I got my ass inside and slammed the damn door closed. I leaned against it and shook my head. My thoughts were racing, latching onto nothing and folding over on each other. My nerves were still on edge after dealing with that female cop and being followed home by him. What were his intentions?

I went into my kitchen and dug out my rolling papers and crumbled up the nug that I’d left on my counter when I walked out this morning. Thank god Officer Levi Raymond hadn’t come in here, or I might be in the back of a squad car, too.

Lighter in hand, I filled my lungs, once and then twice, before I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I knew it was Yves checking up on me. I left more than an hour ago and should’ve already sent her a text or called to let her know that I was home.

“I’m home,” I said, by way of hello. “Sorry, I—” I stopped short, almost telling her about the corner boys, the fight, and being momentarily detained by the cops. But Yves didn’t need to know all of that. “A really cute cop walked me to my door,” I said instead, surprising myself.

So I’d noticed that he was cute. Big deal. I often took in details like his smooth dark skin, long feathery eyelashes that gave his dark brown eyes a squinty, smiling affect. He was shorter than me but broad and burly in that way that I liked. Besides, at five foot nine, six foot in heels, I rarely ever found a man who met me eye to eye.

Not that any of that mattered.

“Hmm…a cop, huh? Don’t think either of us has ever had one of those—what?” Elijah’s deep voice interrupted Yves. “Oh, Eli wants me to tell you that he had a great time tonight and that we have to do this more often.”

I smiled. “Same.”

Elijah and I had met before, but it was under less than ideal circumstances. This was the first time that we’d hung out, and I immediately discovered all the reasons why my best friend was so in love with him.

“And he wants to me to say…what was that again, babe?”

I heard more mumbling in the background.

“No,” Yves said firmly, speaking to Elijah now. “If you want her to know that, you tell her.” She passed the phone to him while muttering something about him being a filthy opportunist in Spanish.

“Hey, gorgeous. I’m glad you made it home safe.”

“I did. Thank you for your concern.”

“Of course, any friend of Yves is a friend of mine. Hey, and I also wanted you to know that you have the loveliest pair of long, brown legs I’ve seen in a long time and to warn you that the next time you flirt with us like that, you might get what you’re asking for.”

“Uh…is that a threat?”

“It’s a promise.” Elijah’s voice dropped into that funny octave that made me feel like my whole body had been spelled into wanting what he suggested.

Now that I was sober, all that weird flirting that the three of us had done in the bar just felt weird. Before meeting him tonight, I’d been halfway jealous of this deeply sexual and loving relationship Yves talked about having with her Elijah. Now I was all the way jealous and wishing I had someone like that to soothe my nerves right now.

“Goodnight, you guys,” I said, suddenly feeling the impending adrenaline crash and the tears that might come with it.

“G’night—oh shit, Yvie is about to suck my dick. Gotta go.” He hung up abruptly.

I coughed up a surprised laugh then sent a text to Yves’s phone that she probably wouldn’t see until morning—pics, or it didn’t happen—then set the phone down on my desktop. Yeah, those two were made for each other.

Exhaustion finally swamped me. This night was way too eventful and not all of it the good kind. I set my bag aside, kicked off my shoes and climbed into my lumpy ass bed then I drifted straight off to sleep.